Monasteries like St. Benedict’s in Old Snowmass try to remain above the fray of the modern world, but sometimes global and other concerns are too great to stay outside the hallowed, 4,000-acre property, according to the order’s new abbot.
“We don’t deliberately keep the world out,” said Fr. Charles Albanese, who was blessed Aug. 10 by Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver as the third abbot in St. Benedict’s 63-year history. “We want to show the side that people may be missing – prayer, care for others, self reflection and hospitality.”
Yet during some changing times when challenges have been laid at St. Benedict’s front door, it may be this order that could use some nurturing.
In the past year St. Benedict’s has lost four men, including the beloved abbot since 1985, Fr. Joseph Boyle, who died last October. His passing came during the same week that Fr. Thomas Keating, a great thinker and St. Benedict’s first superior, ascended to heaven. The Aspen Chapel in mid-July celebrated Keating’s contemplative legacy with centering prayer during a grand service.
Also last October, another brother left the monastery suddenly, and just last spring, Brother Neil passed away, according to the abbot. Only 11 monks, ranging in age from 30 to the late 80s, remain on site at St. Benedict’s as part of this religious order, whereas in past years “we were able to maintain 15 or 16. We always had people coming or going,” Albanese said recently. In 1977, when he first joined there were eight monks and within the year, another four joined.
Today, “People leaving are not matching people who are coming. We’re very concerned how we’re going to manage the monastery and the community members. People are attracted to it but not the same way as previous years.”
There are still chores to do that haven’t declined with the departures. And stalwarts like Brother Raymond, a spry 81-year-old, perform ranch work including cutting and baling hay, regularly.
But the cookie operation that once provided orange almond cookies to City Market, which followed eggs as a monastery funding source, have almost been completely phased out. The kitchen equipment would need too large of an upgrade to meet today’s commercial standards, the abbot said.
In terms of the brotherhood, while there’s interest in the St. Benedict order based on hits to the website, inquiries are at a low point.
“We’re under difficult circumstances. We may have to make arrangements like we never had to before.” One monastery near Salt Lake City has closed, he said. In Missouri, a Vietnamese Cistercian Monastery was due to shutter. The Denver Archdiocese was not able to confirm how many monasteries remain in operation in Colorado.
“It’s a wonderful life. Whether it’s going to be even what it was 20 to 30 years ago … I don’t know what we’re going to do. The order is talking about what we’re going to do to sustain our life and keep it going,” Fr. Albanese said.
Praying for Mother Earth
Despite the waning numbers attached to St. Benedict’s order, attendance at the Sunday morning Mass, which starts 45 minutes later than daily Mass (7:30 a.m.) is robust. Last Sunday there were about 100 parishioners, the abbot estimated. They joined monks who had started their prayer around 4:30 p.m., during the transition from darkness into daylight.
Possibly more than ever, the world needs prayer. Of particular concern to this order is the environment. “I think it might be out of control as it is,” the abbot said.
St. Benedict’s generates solar energy through panels, up to 150 kilowatts an hour on a blue sky day like last Sunday. Despite their positive contribution, the amount of plastics infecting the world is a topic talked about by the monks, the abbot said.
Another trapping of modern life, social media, is frowned upon in the monastery.
Fr. Albanese allowed that he “reads the news on the internet” even if that sounds a little out-of-sync with what one might think of as the monastic lifestyle. Now 68, he originally came to the order after being inspired by ruins in England and Cistercian history
“Socially, life is changing so quickly. With the internet you can find out things instantly. With monastic life you can’t find out things instantly.” He used as an example, “We work the land, we have to be part of the land.”
Sharing that land with the guests at Mass, for vespers or stays at the retreat house, “gives people a chance to get in touch with themselves, I would call that a positive.”
Outside St. Benedict’s, Fr. Albanese opined that public discourse has a long way to go to improve.
“I just don’t think politics is going in the right direction… What happened to diplomacy, statesmanship. Compromise. That’s out the window. Now it’s, ‘I don’t like that I’m going to get rid of it.’ ”
That said, Father Charlie said he was encouraged by an article he recently read about a refugee whose life was changed by acquiring a bicycle. “It’s there on the internet. You hear people caring about one another.”
Nearly one year past St. Benedict’s awful autumn, the monastery under its newest abbot is still seeking equilibrium; Fr. Charlie clearly feels the weight of the assignment amid a weary world where it’s challenging enough to find time for contemplation.
“I miss Joseph,” the abbot said about his close friend and St. Benedict’s longtime leader. He shared that filling his late boss’ large frock was formidable and that, “It’s still not business as usual” at the monastery.