Postcard from Mount Angel: Abbey no retreat from the fight
Seattle Times staff reporter
The monk moves quietly through the wooded common of the monastery on the hill, his swirling black robe giving him the appearance of floating above the ground like some kind of human hovercraft.
His name is Karl Nielson. Father Karl. He is 48, bald, spectacled, tall. His hooded robe is probably an X-Large. He is a Benedictine, which is the oldest monastic order in the Catholic Church, and he lives among 70 other Benedictine monks on a cloistered monastery on the edge of Oregon's Willamette Valley.
The official name is Mount Angel Abbey, a perched compound with views of five peaks — from Mount Baker in the far north to Mount Hood in the near east. We stopped here to see what effect the Sept. 11 attacks had on this community of black-robed men, or whether they floated, literally and spiritually, above the fray.
It turns out Father Karl and others at Mount Angel are more in the fight than most.
We catch up with him in his office, a spacious room whose centerpiece is a gleaming black grand piano that stands only a few feet from his desk. Classical music plays softly on a state-of-the-art stereo. Windows look out at trees in full autumn blaze. It is an elegant, lived-in office.
"We were watching a movie on television last night, and there was a panoramic shot of the World Trade Center," Father Karl says. He falls silent, not needing to finish the rest of the thought.
His speech is exacting, his voice a crisp baritone. His gaze is steady. Nothing about him wavers. He exudes a friendly solidity, like one of those graceful boulders on the Oregon coast.
He recalls feeling "an overwhelming helplessness" on the day of the attacks. There was weeping and anger throughout the abbey.
"We wanted to do something."
When he pulls back his hood, Father Karl reveals the face of an exceedingly regular guy. Put a John Deere cap on him and some overalls and he could look like one of the local cabbage farmers ambling into a tavern. Asked what he and the other monks do during their free time, he replies: "Oh, go gambling or drinking somewhere." He has a pretty good deadpan.
Lately, he has been busy preparing for the choir's final concert of the year, Bach's "Magnificat," on Dec. 9. After the performance, he'll turn in his X-Large monk's habit for an X-Large military uniform. Father Karl happens to be a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.
He has lost sleep thinking about what lies ahead. He has thought about the apparent contradiction in being a monk and a soldier. But, he says, the church has told its followers that this is a "justified war," and he finds reassurance in that.
He hopes to be a "conscience" among the ranks, a moderating influence for those "chomping at the bit to blast the enemy to bits." And he hopes to counsel those who may feel conflicted about the war or their role in it.
He might counsel people like James Thurman, a 24-year-old student in the abbey's seminary. About 160 men are studying to be priests here.
Thurman, an earnest, broad-shouldered young man from Vancouver, Wash., is a first-year seminarian who still gets a kick out of his priestly aspirations, referring to himself among friends as James "The Seminarian" Thurman, as if still a high-school wrestler.
He joined the military three years ago, in part, so the government would help pay for his schooling. He was on active duty for three years, spending 10 months — starting in September 1998 — in Bosnia as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Afterward, as part of his student-aid package, he joined the Washington Army National Guard, where he was assigned to a field artillery unit. But everything changed for him when he decided last year to become a priest.
Suddenly it seemed at odds to be a priest-in-training and a soldier with a howitzer. He could live with the dissonance as long as he never had to go into battle. Then, on Sept. 12, his unit was placed on "high alert status."
"It's very tough for me right now, because if we go, I know what we'll probably do is kill people," Thurman said. "War is ugly."
Thurman prays daily that he won't be called up. He prays about many other things, too, foremost among them, like a good Benedictine, is that he discern God's will on the matter and obey it. But prayer is also seen as a way to express one's needs to the Creator, and Thurman's druthers at the moment is that he would not have to do what soldiers in war do.
At least one other person in the abbey, chief archivist Suzanne McKenzie, has her military fatigues packed and ready to go.
The 48-year-old McKenzie is a surgical nurse with the Navy Corps. She was placed on alert the day after Thurman. She says as she "matures as a Christian," she, too, wrestles with following God and being part of "an organization whose sole purpose is to blow people apart."
McKenzie finds solace in the fact that her job is to put people back together.
McKenzie, Thurman and Father Karl see each other no fewer than three times a day, and often as many as six. That's how often the monks gather in the church each day to pray. Seminary students and staffers often join them.
"At daybreak I long for you, O God, my God.
How thirsty is my soul for you.
My body pines for you
more than ground that is parched and dry and waterless.
Let my lips proclaim you;
let me go on blessing you throughout my life."
This is something that hasn't changed about the Benedictine order since St. Benedict founded the first 12 monasteries in Italy 15 centuries ago. It's what Benedictine monks do: they work, they pray. One influences the other, and the reverse, so that prayer guides the work, and work becomes a physical extension of prayer. The idea is to conduct a life so that all of it becomes a single, continuous statement to God.
Since Sept. 11, the black-robed men at Mount Angel have been praying daily not only for the victims of the attacks, but for the perpetrators, too. They've been praying that the leaders of nations, especially the leaders of this nation, with so much power at their disposal, be blessed with wisdom in their decisions.
The monks spend three to four hours a day in communal prayer, and then conduct their own private prayers. Most of us couldn't endure the rigors of monastic life (try praying for four minutes, much less four hours), yet surveys show up to 80 percent of Americans believe in the power of prayer; and some believe that no good thing happens without somebody somewhere praying for it. If this is true, these monks could be seen as doing an immensely important service, albeit one that can't be measured or even proven.
Though they live on a mountain top, perched above the clamor of what most of us call the real world, the monks seem vitally connected to, if not directly distressed by, the needs of the day. They watch CNN and listen to NPR. They even have their own favorite talking heads. Father Karl still goes with Jim Lehrer on PBS.
At the end of the day, good and bad, they offer it all up.
Let my prayer arise, O Lord.
Like incense before you.
Like the evening sacrifice
be the raising of my hands.
Glory to the Father and the Son
and the Holy Spirit.
Now and Forever. Amen.
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan Berner can be reached at 206-464-8133 or at email@example.com.