Mountaintop monks: The Oregonian provides a vivid look at a Benedictine abbey

Newspapers may be whittling down religion space and experts, but you can still catch examples of sensitive, long-form religion writing. One is the recent "Mount Angel Monks" feature in the Oregonian.

Smooth and fast-reading despite its 2,256 words, the piece provides an intimate look at the day in the life of Father Martin Grassel, the business manager of Mount Angel Abbey, about 40 miles South of Portland. Reporter Melissa Binder gives us glimpses of him at worship with some the other 55 monks there. We watch him pay bills and assemble a glass mosaic. We learn of his call to the Benedictine life and what his family thinks of it.

"Scatter gold coins throughout your story," I once heard at a writers' workshop, and Binder's story fairly jingles with them. The vivid, even poetic passages start right with the lede:

MOUNT ANGEL — Morning comes softly here.
There are no cars, no sirens, no trash trucks, no dogs. Only a hundred chattering birds and the swish of a monk’s tunic. The air and earth are blue, and Mount Angel Abbey feels isolated from the woes of the world.


Such is the life of a modern-day monk. It is gentle, yet rushed. Secluded, yet vulnerable.
Like his ancestors, Grassel rises before the sun, brews beer and eats in quiet harmony with his spiritual brethren. He also pays bills, answers e-mail, carries an iPhone and lives with the knowledge that even life on the hilltop is uncertain.
Grassel’s life, imagined, might seem too quaint to be relatable — or even authentic. But a monk is a man, and a monastery is earth, sacred or not.

Binder also teases out the human side of the otherwise organized monk: "Oakland Raiders paraphernalia and beer bottles give Grassel’s office a slight bachelor pad feel. There are at least two scratching posts and three bags of Temptations cat treats." The treats are for Cecilia, who trots with him to his office, then lounges in an upturned boxtop by his desk.

I also admired the equally peaceful, symmetrical story ending:

Night comes softly here.
Tunics swish as the monks retire silently to their rooms after the last prayer service, which ended at 8:30 p.m.
Grassel swings by the brewery on his way to bed. The fermenters are at 79 degrees. Perfect. He’ll taste the new batch tomorrow.
Tonight, like most nights, he’ll spend the evening on the porch with the cat, listening to nearby sheep bleating as he reads the news on the iPad. He’ll inevitably get to bed half an hour later than he ought to.

But the abbey doesn't stand isolated from the world. The Oregonian mentions Grassel's iPhone and digital watch. It has him signing checks for everything from root beer to a co-pay for another monk's cardiology appointment. "He thinks about money all day and has the brow wrinkles to prove it," the story says.

Binder tells of visitors who attend prayers and help as lay oblates. And it relates how a story of a "very disturbed person" who claimed to be Christ, broke off a door and was then arrested.

The story package includes 22 gorgeous photos, subtly textured and best seen full screen. It also has four crisp one- or two-minute videos, with the monks fielding common questions: "Do monks wish they could get married?", "Why do monks change their names?", "Do you ever get bored or lonely?", and "What's the purpose of monastic life?" They answer with good-natured humility.

But spirituality is the lightest content in the article, despite the fact that it's about a religious community. When it comes up, Binder treats it treated with respect, as when the Oregonian says Grassel starts each day with Mass, and that "the body of Christ his first nourishment of each day." The nature of that nourishment, though, isn't spelled out; nor does any other spirituality get a close look here.

Like when Grassel says, "When we submit to [God's] will, we become all that we're meant to be." Or when a fellow monk, Father John Paul Le, says: “We remind the world that there is a greater purpose in life, that there’s something beyond what we can see, there’s more to life than what we do or acquire." But like what?  After reading these 2,200 words, we get few hints of the true nature of the service at the Mount Angel Monastery.

And the monks don’t keep it secret. In one of the abbey's own videos, they spell out the Benedictine value of praising God and praying for people to be freed from lies and anguish. "Inside our praise," he says, "we're pleading for the world."

Perhaps my appreciation overflows because Oregon -- indeed, the Pacific Northweset -- is one of the least-churched regions in the United States. The Oregonian deserves credit for highlighting the gentle devotion of the Mount Angel monks. Even if it doesn't quite grasp the nature of that devotion, the newspaper gives us a literal mountaintop experience.

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