New to the Valley
Spirit on the Job
Kicking it with the Monks at the Monastery of the Ascension
By Tony Evans
The word "monastery" can bring to mind visions of hooded figures toiling in scriptoriums over illuminated manuscripts or scurrying over cobblestones into cells lit only by candlelight. But what becomes of the Christian monastic tradition when it is carried into the 21st Century?
Located beside a dairy farm atop a broad hillside in Jerome, Idaho, the Monastery of the Ascension may not fit the stereotype of the medieval cloister, yet its inhabitants adhere to traditions established by an Italian monk, Saint Benedict, during the reign of Emperor Justinian in 540 A.D.
Resident monk-scholars at the priory offer classes throughout the summer, drawing from fifteen centuries of Catholic tradition. They also practice a long tradition of hospitality, maintaining a 32- bed retreat facility for those seeking a carefully cultivated atmosphere of prayer and meditation.
"All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ."
-Rule of St. Benedict.
The Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome supports ten full-time monks, one retired diocesan priest, and about fifty oblates, or non-resident adherents to the Rule of St. Benedict. Oblates visit every three months from the surrounding region for support and guidance in the Benedictine tradition. The spacious, modern facility is surrounded by swaying poplars and birdsong in summer. Walkways circle the compound, leading past courtyards and gazebos ideal for meditation and reflection. Beyond the hedges lie open fields which lead far down onto the Magic Valley.
According to Father Norbert, the Ascension priory receives many people of diverse backgrounds and faiths throughout the year. "We get Elderhostel visitors, education and health professionals, various church and social action groups, and writers," says Fr. Norbert. "For individual retreatants, it is best to come during the week. It is quieter at that time and there is more availability. Anyone is welcome of course, but we have to remind them that this is not a spa or resort. We like to keep an atmosphere of prayer and reflection."
Interactions with the monks of Jerome can be hit and miss, usually taking place in the cafeteria. Brother Sylvester has been a member of the Ascension priory since its inception in 1965. His abstract depictions of the 'stations of the cross' made of copper wire and wood screws, line the wall leading to the chapel where monks meet for liturgical prayer four times daily. Brother Jose is from the Basque region of Spain and spends time each week serving Hispanic families at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Twin Falls.
Brother Selby Coffman is a relative newcomer to the priory. As a licensed "music thanatologist," he plays carefully composed music on a harp for the sick and dying in order to ease the stress and anguish at the end of life. According Br. Selby, "Visitors are invited to join us in prayers, which take place four times a day and form the basis of our community."
Brother Selby is nearing the end of his five year "formation," or apprenticeship as a novice monk. His studies have deepened his understanding of the Catholic religion. "Monastic communities have oftentimes played a reformist role during periods of corruption and spiritual indifference in church history," he says. "For instance, during the period of spiritual renovation carried out by the Dominicans during the 12th Century."
Selby and the other monks study church history, theology and philosophy in the extensive library adjacent to the monk's quarters, which are separated by a cafeteria and bookstore from the guest rooms. Many titles appealing to lay visitors are available at the monastery bookstore and focus on subjects such as theology, morality and the lives of the Catholic saints. The recently published "Essential Monastic Wisdom" can be found here. It was written by Father Hugh Feiss, a religious scholar whose graduate work in philosophy and theology was completed at The Catholic University of America and Sant' Anselmo in Rome. He joined the Ascension Priory in 1996 after thirty years of teaching in the humanities, philosophy and theology at Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon. In addition to his work as coordinator of the oblate program, he will offer classes this summer on Medieval Murder Mysteries, Christian Women Mystics, and Church History from 1100-1300. Many other classes are offered through the Benedictine Distance Learning Program.
For individuals who feel called to the monastic living experience, the Ascension priory accepts any men out of high school and under the age of 55. This is an opportunity to live, pray, and work with monks from 2 to 12 weeks. In addition to learning-through-living within the community, the priory provides the opportunity to study, including courses on Scripture, Monastic History, and Spirituality. According to Father Norbert, "There are female Benedictine communities elsewhere in Idaho. There are many ways to live a Catholic life. Ours is just one."
For questions regarding the monastery of the Ascension, booking of retreats or information on the Benedictine Order go to idahomonks.org.
Tony Evans is a freelance writer and English tutor living in Hailey Idaho. He can be reached at Twoskies@hotmail.com. He also leads a series of writing workshops throughout the year.
The Ministry Center is the guest/retreat house for Monastery Of The Ascension. It is a modern, spacious facility completed in 1994. There are 16 rooms in two wings, each room with two twin beds and a complete bathroom. Each residential wing has a large, naturally lit lounge for reflection and reading. For larger retreats there is a large auditorium and spacious dining room that looks out to a shaded lawn and patio.
At Monastery Of The Ascension, our main ministry or outreach to the community is to offer Benedictine hospitality. The community offers periodic retreats for the general public or for special needs. We also respond to requests for special retreats. We are ecumenically minded and welcome other church denominations and groups who wish to use the Center for their retreats and workshops. The Center is a favorite for youth retreats for groups throughout Southern Idaho.
Individuals find the peace of the Monastery a very relaxing retreat from the stress of everyday life. We welcome individual requests for days of prayer and retreat. Guests are welcome to join us for our daily prayer and Eucharist and often eat with the monastic community. The monks are available for individual counseling and guidance. All scheduling of group and private retreats is done with the Guestmaster, firstname.lastname@example.org .
The suggested offerings for staying at the monastery are:
Single occupancy: $30.00 per night
Double occupancy: $25.00 per night
For groups there is an additional facility fee of $8.00 per day per person
(not to exceed $150.00).
*please call or write for reservations, email@example.com at (208) 324-2377.