Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

A Summer on The Hill

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Editor's note:Jinu Thomas reflects on his experience in the Benedictine Scholars Program, which offers college men a chance to live, study and participate in the life of Saint Meinrad's monastic community for eight weeks during the summer. Find out more at: www.saintmeinrad.org/bsp.

To write about the Benedictine Scholars Program in the length of a typical blog is like trying to fit an elephant in the typical dorm room. Though only two months in length, it was filled with experiences, some ordinary and others not quite.

One might find it ordinary that a bunch of college kids joined the monks for prayer, unless they knew that we sat in the choir stalls, which is an honor rarely conferred and almost never to students like us. One might find it ordinary to sit down and have a conversation about life with family and friends, but to do so with Benedictine monks is not quite so ordinary.

Before Arrival
When I first saw the flier for the Benedictine Scholars Program (BSP), I had just finished watching a BBC series called "Cadfael." "Cadfael," a fictional creation of Ellis Peters, is an English Benedictine monk in the Middle Ages operating as a watered-down version of the Sherlock Holmes of his times. Because of its monastic setting, the show from time to time would give us a peek into the monastic life of the Middle Ages. It got me interested enough to randomly Google "monasteries" and, to some extent, daydream about visiting one.

So the flier, to me, was like a jackpot. It gave me the opportunity to live in the monastery for free, with a stipend and also take a graduate course in theology. What more could I ask for? Or, frankly, did I know what I was asking for? Probably not. But a slight desire was there. Plus it was only a summer.

First Reactions
We were five in total (chosen for the program). An engineer, historian, ace-photographer, philosopher and theologian (all "aspiring to be's," of course). Except for one, we were on the grounds of Saint Meinrad for the first time.

It was like stepping into a forgotten age. Every now and then, for the first few weeks, we couldn't help getting excited about the stone walls, the dark corridors and the unusual serenity surrounding the Hill. For the three of us from Chicago, this town in southwest Indiana, which had the same name as the monastery, was basically no-man's land.

Our rooms, though not in the monastery itself, were in the same hallway. We were to join the monks in prayer (and sit in their choir stalls, a rare honor to be offered to five college students) and meals throughout the day. In the morning we had our assigned jobs for the weekdays and in the afternoon we were to have classes. We also were to join the monks for other recreation times and be free the rest of time.

Hogwart's is what a friend of mine called Saint Meinrad, and I can pretty much say all of us, though unsure of how the next eight weeks would be, were excited to be there. What attracted me the most was how we were received by the monastic community. We were five strangers, college kids, who were to interfere in their privacy for two months. Yet they were exceptionally warm and considerate to us, which did relax my nerves.

When you think of a program like BSP, I believe it is common to have reservations, especially since the program almost completely benefits the participants. But we were made aware from the beginning that the hope of the program was to help us encounter monastic life more profoundly.

First Weeks
Morning prayer at 5:30 a.m. was a challenge. Coming from college where you rarely see bed before midnight, waking up that early meant you were back in bed and sleeping like a log by 9 p.m. Yet the schedule itself was not hard (with plenty of free time for naps). All five of us were assigned jobs and mine, in particular, was to be the electrician's aide.

This meant I worked with Renus, who has been working for the Archabbey for over 50 years and who also happens to be the politest man I know to date. We changed filters and light bulbs on a daily basis. Sometimes he worked with the elevators and I just wore my tool belt and looked cool.

Being on a schedule meant you were really hungry when lunch or dinner time rolled by. The afternoon class was more like a distinguished lecture series given by different monks on various aspects of monastic life and communal life, including history, art and spirituality. Our excitement was still high to experience this new way of life.

To the college interns who were on campus for Saint Meinrad's "One Bread One Cup" program, we were the inside men with access to all cool monk things. We even made friends with some of them, who coined for us the term "wannabe monks." Being introduced as the Benedictine Scholars often raised a few eyebrows among other visitors in the monastery, especially since most of us had probably never seen the Rule of St. Benedict before.

The Places You Might Go
You would think that at a monastery you would pretty much be stuck doing nothing but pray all the time. If the "Mythbusters" were to take this as a challenge, I could save them time by pointing it out that it isn't true. "Come to the monastery and see the world" is what one monk told us.

We, too, had plenty of outings, including a visit to New Harmony, a detailed tour of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, a tour through one of the woods the Archabbey owned, a visit to Bardstown, KY, an outing to Jasper, IN, and, beyond that, the journey that we each took separately - the one into our own selves.

This was different for each of us and, if you choose to come, it will indeed be different for you as well. The pace of life, the witness of a community and consistent prayer meant that we were challenged to go deep into ourselves. I will confess that, of all things I have written above, this was the greatest blessing and the hardest encounter.

The silence on the Hill, which began as a retreat experience, became a nagging loneliness after the first few weeks. To me, the reality was that I had erased all possible distractions and all that was left was me. This was what the program referred to as the fruit of an extended visit. If the first few retreat-weeks were like the excitement of being in a gym for the first day, the next few weeks were the discipline of going to the gym regularly.

But the story isn't complete yet. The final summit was that, in being constantly challenged to see myself, I was being challenged to see God. I don't know how I can convey this better. I understood finally what the continuous conversion to holiness meant; it required first knowing yourself and knowing God. It was hard; it was always in progress but I understood that God needed to be in the center of it.

I can firmly say that something awakened inside me during my eight weeks - a desire to stay connected to God in the manner that I had experienced at Saint Meinrad, which has kept calling me back there even to this day. I cannot say all of us had a similar experience. Yet I know for certain that all of us at least had some answer to the choice of remaining as "wannabe monks" or taking the plunge and applying for the monastery. For me, it was the latter.

Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.


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