Monastery Melds New Ideas, Ancient Theology : Benedictine Order Embraces Jung and Mystic Experiences

Associated Press Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: At a monastery in New Mexico, men and women practice an unusual brand of Catholicism that is a mixture of ancient liturgy and modern psychology, traditional monasticism and mystic experiences. They also disagree with the formal Roman Catholic positions on such issues as women in the church and celibacy.

Nestled in a bend of the Pecos River where mountain wilderness meets civilization lies an island of unconventional religious, psychological and social thought.

Here at the Pecos Benedictine Monastery, men and women pray, work and study together, following rules of monastic living laid down 1,500 years ago but adopting some of the modern theories of Carl Jung.

The result of the vision of Abbot David Geraets is a blend of ancient liturgy, psychology, dream analysis, Catholic charismatic revival and consumer-oriented hospitality. The brew also has taken the monks somewhat outside the formal Roman Catholic positions on such issues as women in the church, celibacy and the importance of mystical experiences.

"We're as interested in the body and diet and exercise as we are in the psyche, the development of knowledge and study and relationships on that level, as with the prayer life, the spiritual dimension, the God consciousness that transforms and animates a life," said Geraets, 52, the elected spiritual leader of the abbey.

"I don't think you can afford, in our day, a divorce between the religious, the psychological and the physical."

Started in 1980

The progressive Catholic monastery was conceived in the late 1960s when Roman Catholics began spreading the charismatic movement, which is based on the belief that the gifts the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the apostles--the charismata of praying and preaching in tongues, spiritual and physical healing and prophetic revelations in dreams and visions -- still are available to the faithful.

"Quite frankly, I was a little bit disillusioned with the institutional church, and even traditional monasticism," said Geraets, then a young monk at the Benet Lake Benedictine Monastery in Wisconsin.

In November, 1967, after a healing prayer, Geraets said he had a vision in which God transformed the country "as little fires breaking out . . . and coming together in one big bonfire."

"My life the past 20 years has been animated by that, spreading those fires and spreading that religious experience and the knowledge of Jesus as the only one who can save," he said.

The first fire is here, in the Sangre de Cristo--Blood of Christ--Mountains, at a former dude ranch that Trappists bought in 1947 and attempted to turn into a working, subsistence farm. They sold the monastery in 1955 to the Benedictines, who ran it as a retreat center until 1969, when Geraets arrived.

Pueblo-Style Buildings

The abbey is a group of pueblo-style stucco buildings, most bearing rooftop solar collectors, guarding the entrance to a 1,000-acre spread that includes a state-run fishing lake. About three dozen men and women work and pray as their religious ancestors did when Christianity was young--with a pace of daily life as regular as a heartbeat.

It is 6 a.m. when the day officially begins and the sound of 40 soft gongs reverberate from the 3 1/2-story bell tower that flanks the main house. The day ends in silence about 9 p.m., after night prayers.

The 20 women and 15 men on the ever-changing roster of brothers and sisters are a diverse group: a 72-year-old monk who has lived at Pecos 32 years, an ex-millionaire land developer from Texas, a former band leader, a one-time pipeline engineer, a pair of former environmental investigators, an ex-journalist, a disillusioned college student and a former schoolteacher.

Four times a day they gather in the chapel. They sit in two sections of stackable aluminum armchairs facing each other, forcing them to look at each other, contemplate their relationships and pray for the ability to resolve their conflicts.

Unlike the monks of the Middle Ages, the Pecos brothers and sisters dress in street clothes--casual slacks or skirts and shirts and blouses. Dangling from each neck is a silver, symmetrical cross with split, curved ends and a dove in the center, representing the Holy Spirit.

The monastic life here is governed by the 5th-Century Rule of St. Benedict. The members have vowed to live a stable life, to convert their lives to God and to obey their religious superiors.

"I think community is necessary for survival," said Geraets. "All this technology and all that stuff, it isn't building a better world. If you don't have a way that people can love and relate to one another, what good is it?"

Relationships are explored through the study of psychology as developed by Jung during the early 20th Century. Jung explored behavior based on personality prototypes and the spiritual side of the human psyche.

Jungian analysis means "you don't deny your sins," said Geraets. "You get it out in the open and work on it."

That is the purpose of many of the monastery's retreats, which range in length from weekends to a week. More than 2,000 people a year attend retreats and the waiting list is two years long. During the sessions, Catholics and Protestants typically study personality types, prayer, diet and exercise, mid-life crises and inner healing.

"The fact of the matter is, you sell retreats like anything else, to a satisfied customer," the abbot said. "If they don't like it, they ain't going to come back."

People on retreat are welcomed at a motel-style office and are directed down a narrow hallway to a large wing that can house up to 65 people.

During retreats, people read, write, take psychological tests, pray and meet with spiritual directors in small lecture groups or individually.

After morning prayer, exercise and a communal breakfast in the sunny, second-floor dining room of the main house, the brothers and sisters scatter to the many tasks needed to keep the monastery operating. Several men and women work for Dove Publications, a mail-order bookstore that distributes charismatic books, pamphlets, records, tapes and religious articles around the world.

Told to Make a Choice

One of the youngest monks at Pecos is Mark Norris, 26, who recently completed his perpetual vows and is preparing to enter the seminary. Seven years ago, Norris said, he hated religion and had set his sights on a career in politics.

Then, said Norris, "One day, the Lord just said to me, in a very loud voice inside, 'Look at yourself. What do you really want? Make a choice.' "

Theresa Gregoire, the newest member of the monastic community, left a 10-year career as a schoolteacher in a small Nebraska town last summer, after several retreats to Pecos.

"I had everything in the world, but something was missing," she said.

Sister Geralyn Spaulding, formerly an environmental investigator in Texas, has taken her triennial vows, a final three-year course of study leading to perpetual vows. She first came to Pecos on a retreat in 1977.

It was in a dream, she said, that Geraets told her to follow him. She arrived on New Year's Eve, 1981.

Sister Miriam Randall, a 12-year resident, said she came for a retreat to mark her 25th anniversary in the St. Joseph Order in Boston, and never left. She, too, had dreams.

In one, she was standing knee-deep in the Pecos River when a snake suddenly coiled itself around her until "we were nose-to-nose." The figure of the woman and the snake resembled a caduceus, the physicians' staff, which she believes represented the spiritual gift of healing.

"God is known through medicine," said Geraets, "as well as he's known through therapy and spiritual direction, and we're involved deeply in healing."

"We get a lot of people here very broken," he said. "Many of them have had nervous breakdowns, are physically sick with cancer, psychological problems, and it takes basically a religious experience to heal them. They've tried everything else."

Geraets said research shows about one-third of a person's illness is psychosomatic, or in the mind. But because physicians do not try to cure psychosomatic illnesses, the Holy Spirit is called in with prayer.

Prayerful Connection

"The miraculous sometimes breaks in, which I've got no explanation for," Geraets said.

Geraets said individuals occasionally do make a prayerful connection with God through speaking in tongues or simply praying.

"It's when God breaks through and you're disposed to it," he said.

"If you have people who are having visions and are hearing voices, you better have some discernment to know what is true and what is, say schizophrenic, and what is hallucination; some way to critique your religious experience. That's where depth psychology comes in."

Some opinion polls show that one in five U.S. Roman Catholics consider themselves charismatic, but many Catholic congregations resisted the charismatic movement. Geraets said the resistance is understandable.

"You can't control people when they get in it," he said. "How do you control a vision? Anybody who's a bishop or in authority is going to be a little wary."

The leadership of one branch of the Benedictine Order became very wary when Geraets first brought religious women to the Pecos monastery in 1970. The Swiss-American Congregation of Benedictines, to which the monastery belonged, required a 10-year experiment with the "double community" before a decision on its future would be made.

Near the end of the experiment, it appeared the double community would be denied.

Then Brother Daniel F. Stramara had a revealing dream, and his subsequent research turned up evidence of double monasteries going back to the 5th century in France, England and Sweden. In some monasteries, the abbess was superior to the abbot and could hear confessions, and women had full voting power in the election of the abbot and other monastic affairs.

Eventually, the Pecos monastery was adopted by the Olivetan Congregation of Benedictines, which approved the double community.

Commitment Questioned

Geraets said having a double monastery sometimes leads the monks to question their commitment to celibacy. In all, more than 20 couples in the religious order have been drawn by the pull of family and intimacy and left the monastery.

Geraets said he doesn't want to make too much of the issue, but studies depth psychology to stay in touch with the psychological possibilities in male-female relationships and to see if a member has a divine call to celibacy or marriage.

If a member of the monastery is drawn to the family life, "I want to find out about it when they're younger rather than later on in life. It's a maturing thing."

But Geraets also said monks should not have to be celibate.

"Celibacy was not imposed until the 12th century; it was optional for priests," he said. "My feeling would be that optional celibacy would be most appropriate, but at the same time I'm obedient even though I have different opinions."

For whatever personal reasons, Geraets said most of the brothers and sisters who come to the monastery will leave after two or three years.

"It's beneficial for their growth and beneficial for us," he said. "I consider that part of their journey."

Each day's journey of processing book orders, handling retreat reservations and maintaining the 1,000-acre abbey ends at 4 p.m., when the brothers and sisters convene in the chapel for a Mass and the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The spartan chapel includes a simple iron altar in front of a mosaic depicting Jesus Christ at the moment he was raised from the tomb by God.

The mosaic, "The Glorious Risen Christ," was created by Sister Lois Shaffer of the monastery. Christ is shown with a dark beard and hair, blood streaming from the wounds on his hands and his right breast, and metallic rays of light shooting from a halo.

Members return to the chapel at 7 p.m. for vespers, or evening praise.

Chanted in Unison

Passages from the Book of Psalms and other prayers are spoken or chanted in unison to the soft strumming of a 12-string guitar or the solemn chords of a small organ. In practiced rhythm, the stanzas are recited, first by those on the left side of the sanctuary, then by those on the right.

The last group prayer of the day is compline, or night prayers. At its conclusion, some of the brothers and sisters rise to leave. The chapel lights are dimmed, leaving one spotlight on the transfigured Christ. Several people stay in their seats, occasionally praying together in tongues or asking for God's intervention in a personal or global crisis.

Suddenly, on an unspoken cue, the chapel is filled with a chaotic mixture of voices -- deep whispers, guttural noises and high-toned melodies like an orchestra tuning its instruments. After a few moments, the tongues fall silent.

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