In the late 1870s, the office of the Arkansas State Land Commissioner and the railroad company were looking to increase the wealth of the largely undeveloped, western Arkansas. To increase wealth meant they needed to increase the population. The Arkansas River Valley was in a unique place at the time. The wounds and changes of the Civil War were still fresh to the east, and the newly established Indian reservations on the frontier of what is now Oklahoma caused anxiety for the western edge of the state. Judge Parker had just set down his gavel in Fort Smith and the 50-year-old state of Arkansas, and the country at large, were in a state of transition and expansion.
To do that, the Land Commissioner specifically sought out Germans. Their reputation for being efficient, productive and orderly made them, in the state’s eyes, ideal settlers. And in a plan worked out between the state and the railroad, land grants and loan options were established to make the land as appealing as possible. Now, they just needed a German group to spearhead the settlement. When the Mennonites declined the offer, the Catholic bishop in Little Rock got wind of the opportunity and contacted St. Meinrad, a Benedictine abbey in Indiana, with the idea of establishing a German Catholic settlement, and a monastery to attend to the spiritual needs of the settlers.
They did just that.
In December of 1877, St. Meinrad sent Father Isidor Hobi to scout the location and report back to the abbot. In a line that was later met with a degree of amusement and irritation, Father Isidor’s proclamation that Logan County was, “a paradise fallen from Heaven” sealed the decision to begin the process of establishing a monastery and starting the settlement.
On March 15th, 1878, three monks from St. Meinrad Abbey arrived at the land that would become Subiaco. They were Father Wolfgang Schlumpf, Brother Kaspar Hildesheim, and Brother Hilarin Benetz. Tired from the journey, they found a small log cabin and a dilapidated stable waiting for them. It wasn’t the paradise they expected, but it was a place to start building it.
What resulted over the next few decades was a steady movement toward self-sustainability of both the monastery and the surrounding community, a time punctuated with missteps, internal conflicts and changes of leadership. To add further hardship, the Arkansas climate was much more severe than they had been led to believe. Food and supplies were often in short supply, and more than once some of them wanted to abandon this ‘paradise’ and return home to Indiana. In other words, the whole thing was much harder than any of them had ever anticipated. To read their history is to discover that monks, like anyone else, are unmistakably human with all the baggage that entails.
Despite this, they remained tightly bonded as a community with a focus toward both the contemplative and physical jobs assigned to them. They worked and they prayed as is the practice of Benedictines. And over time, the monks, and the surrounding German Catholic settlers, built the Abbey at Subiaco and communities we see today.
The Order of Saint Benedict is unique among other religious orders in that they are a true monastic community. The process to become a monk requires years of discernment and education. It could be compared with an apprenticeship, with novices progressing through different stages until finally taking their solemn vows. What makes them true monastics is that their final vows are not to the church per se, but rather the monastery. Their vows are to the place they live. Benedictines will spend the rest of their living and serving their monastic community within that place. They will live their lives in mutual obedience to the abbot and the other monks. Their lives are pledged to their home.
From that time on, they give up everything else. Their job is the duties of the monastery and their family are the other monks. They have no responsibilities outside of the monastery. Nothing else to distract them. The commitment is for life and in exchange, the abbey takes on all the responsibility of providing what each monk needs to live and work. When their life is over, the cemetery behind the abbey will be their final resting place. They will be buried in a simple, wooden coffin and what few possessions they have, such as books or family photos, will be given away. The ideal monk, I am told, will own no more possessions than what would fill a simple cardboard box.
It’s easy to think this life would be tempting for someone running from something. But, it’s not about running from something. It’s about running to something.
The monastery sits on approximately 2,000 acres of farm, timberland and a watershed where the monks serve as caretakers, raising cattle and gardening in addition to providing water to the surrounding community. There is a vineyard where they grow grapes for their communion wine and like good Germans, a new brewery and tap room that is open to the public. There is also a bakery, a print shop, greenhouses, a wood shop and sawmill, all staffed by the monks.
From its humble beginning as a log cabin, Subiaco has transformed into a sprawling complex of native stone buildings and gardens. It’s something more reminiscent of a European castle from another time. In addition to the abbey, there is Subiaco Academy, a private college prep school for boys.
Despite all the activity, it’s quiet in this place. There is a different pace of life here. For the community, time is strictly regimented with days that follow a set routine, but that routine isn’t structured around efficiency and maximizing productivity. It’s built on a balance between work and prayer, that for Benedictines is central to their way of life.
The absence of distractions leaves room for the mind to focus. There is a distinct minimalism here that is worth noticing when the pressures of modern life are removed. For the monks, who no longer need to worry about where they will sleep, what they will eat or whom they shall spend their lives with, this void creates an intentional space for God.
A couple of weeks later I’m back at Subiaco walking the grounds with Father Reginald. It’s December and he isn’t dressed in the traditional black habit. Instead, he’s in work clothes more suited to farm life and mud. As we walk, I ask him what he did before coming to the abbey and how he’s changed since. I ask him about the balance of life as a monk and how the environment helped shape him into who he has become.
Father Reginald, like every other monk I asked, gave me a single answer.
“I really haven’t. I’m still the same person I always was.”
On one hand, I believe the sincerity of his answer. He sees the same man in the mirror that he saw when he was on the road as a salesman in his previous life. The others were the same. One monk was a real estate broker who had a taste for expensive cars. Another a business owner who ran a multimillion dollar company. Another was a lawyer, now living as a novice who had not yet taken his final vows. For all of the variations of their previous lives, there was something that called them to leave those worlds behind and toward this simple, monastic life.
It’s not just what they are now, but more what they are no longer.
To watch these men live life together is to watch men act like so many I’ve known. They like to joke with each other, pick on each other, laugh and swear and sit around drinking coffee together. Sometimes personalities clash. In that respect, these men are entirely normal. But, beneath that sits something else, a different way of viewing oneself that is fundamentally different from our modern world.
When I dug deeper, Father Reginald made an interesting statement. He said, “We farm but we aren’t farmers. We teach, but we aren’t teachers. We bake, but we aren’t bakers.”
Their identities remain separate from the things they do.
They are intentionally trying to be nothing. But nothing is actually something and ‘nothingness’ is a word and concept loaded with meaning.
In the book of Exodus, God gives specific instructions to the Israelites on the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. The ark would be used to carry the Ten Commandments given to Moses. But there was something else that is easy to overlook.
20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upwards, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking towards the cover. 21 Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites. Exodus 25: 20-22
God would not be in the box. Instead, the space in between the angels’ wings, hovering above the box is where God would be found. This ‘space in between,’ within this emptiness is where their power could be found.
In graphic design, there is a concept called ‘white space.’ Basically, it means not to crowd every square inch of design space with stuff. It leaves room for the eyes to focus on the most important element of the design. The irony is that creating designs beautiful in their simplicity, designs that express something much larger isn’t easy. But, the simplicity of a good design is what gives it its power. It’s not so much the ink as it is the space in between.