In January of 2000, I visited the Saint Adelbert Abbey in Egmond, The Netherlands, for the third time. Previous visits were in January and February of 1998.
St. Adelbert was a monk who, in the 8th century, played a very important role in spreading the message of Christianity throughout the region. Upon his death in 741, he was buried in the dunes. The people from Egmond built a church over his grave.
The Abbey was founded as a convent in 922 by Count Dirk I, on a site a few kilometers from the site of the church, called Hallem, which later became known as Egmond-Binnen. St. Adelbert’s remains were taken from his grave and transferred to the newly built abbey.
On the spot where St. Adelbert’s grave had been, a well sprung, with water that is said to have healing powers. The site of the church and the well can still be visited, and is known as the Adelbertusakker.
In 950 the women in the Abbey were replaced by men by Dirk I’s son, Dirk II. The monks came from Ghent.
In 1573, the Abbey was burned to the ground to prevent Spanish occupation. For centuries it stood in ruins in the fields, but those ruins were largely removed as early as 1800. A full restoration of the Abbey was begun in 1929, and completed in 1954.
For a more thorough history of St. Adelbert and the Abbey, be sure to check their website.
Belonging to the Benedictine Order, it is one of the few abbeys where guests reside in the abbey itself, along with the monks. Benedictus said, “All guests who arrive must be received as Christ Himself, because He shall someday say, ‘I came as a guest and you received Me'”, and the monks at Saint Adelbert Abbey take this to heart. When you arrive, the ‘Guest Brother’ greets you, shows you around the abbey and then to your room, where he gives you keys for your room and the main doors: With the exception of a few private rooms for the monks, guests may come and go when and where they please.
Hall from guests’ quarters towards the church
I partook as fully in the monastic life as a ‘short-term’ guest can, rising at 5.15 in the morning to prepare for the first prayer services at 5.45 and 7.05, followed by a simple breakfast in silence; the Eucharist at 9.30; a midday prayer service at 12.30 followed by a warm lunch in silence; tea at 16.00; an evening prayer service at 17.00; a simple dinner at 18.00 in silence; and finally a closing prayer service at 20.30; lights out at 21.00. Between the services and meals, there was time for prayer, meditation, reading, walking or speaking with one of the brothers or another guest.
My stays in the monastery have been incredibly healing times. Far from being binding, the order, regularity and simplicity create space and freedom in one’s day, free of the clutter – both external and spiritual – that normally overwhelms us and drowns out the “still small voice”. The silence during the meals gave us a chance to meet each other on a different level, learning to be attent to others’ needs and communicate in other, less intrusive ways.
I’ve been asked on a few occasions, “How do you get what you want at the table, if you can’t speak?” I suppose it’s a sign of the times that we ask such questions. Knowing that others (also) can’t speak, one becomes more attent to what others need. When picking up a dish or putting it back, one first looks around to see if someone else is ‘in need’. While eating, one keeps an eye out for what others may soon be needing. So it’s not so much a question of seeing what one can get, but of seeing what one can give. An extraordinary lesson.
The monastic life is full of such lessons and insights. Lessons on patience, respect, listening, simplicity, commitment, thoughtfulness, and so on. Patience, for example, in not rushing the pauses in the singing of the psalms – everything has its time. Thoughtfulness, for example, in finishing promptly one’s dinner, so the brothers can maximise their short ‘recreation time’ between dinner and 19.00. Respect, by recognising the gift the brothers are giving by having you as their guest, and not treating the monastery as some kind of exclusive vacation hotel.
In my opinion, to fully benefit from the lessons in the time that one has at the monastery, it’s best to stay on the grounds. I don’t bring work with me, but rather a couple of books, and a pen and paper. It’s an invaluable opportunity that the brothers afford their guests, to come face to face with themselves and their faith, away from all the clutter and distraction of everyday life.
One of the younger monks once said, “I sometimes sit in the dark in the church, meditating, between services. If there’s another monk in the church, you can slightly sense his presence, even though you can’t see him. Perhaps a rustle or small movement. But you know you’re not alone. That’s how God’s presence feels, glorious! And He lets you know, “I am here”.
copyright © 2000 Scott Owen