Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen mops up beer someone spilled during a young adults night at the Benedictine Brewery just down the hill from Mount Angel Abbey. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen mops up beer someone spilled during a young adults night at the Benedictine Brewery just down the hill from Mount Angel Abbey. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
ST. BENEDICT — During gray-orange twilight, several dozen 20-somethings stroll quietly to the doors of the church at Mount Angel Abbey. Bells begin pealing, echoing over towns and farms.

Then, in the warm vestibule, Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen explains the Liturgy of the Hours to the young people, who are about to join in for vespers. “It took me months just to understand the books,” Brother Louis says gently, advance comfort in case the guests find the pages and ribbons confusing.

It’s one of the abbey’s monthly young adult retreats that include prayer with the monks and silent adoration before the Eucharist. After adoration, one young man stands in the back of the church, speaking earnestly to a monk about emotions and stress.

A free meal follows in the abbot’s special dining room, with youthful Benedictines pouring coffee, bringing dessert and clearing dishes in the millennia-old tradition of monastic hospitality. Then comes a talk on a matter of faith, followed by discussion.

The evenings end at the nearby Benedictine Brewery Taproom for drinks and more conversation. The target age for the retreats is 18 to 35; those younger than 21 can get a nice mug of root beer. On this night, someone spills an ale and Brother Louis grabs a mop, making everyone laugh as he swabs the deck in his black flowing habit.

“We want them to have an experience of monastic spirituality, monastic wisdom,” says 25-year-old Brother Charles Gonzalez, who helps lead the sessions. “We want them to meet their peers, to come and learn and grow in their faith. And then we want them to go down the hill to their homes to make use of that wisdom in their lives.”

The goal is not really to meet monks, Brother Charles explains, but to encounter Jesus as he is present at the monastery.

Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen, a trained physician who teaches a seminary course on faith and science, knows that many young adults are hungry for deep spirituality that encounters the real world. In his case, monastic life fulfilled the longing. He thinks monastic experience should be shared widely.

“Catholic heritage and cultural treasures are stored in places like monasteries and are living traditions, borne of ancient roots but are ever young and fresh,” says Brother Louis. “Unfortunately, a lot of Catholics are unaware of these treasures.” He cites liturgy, sacraments, the teachings of the Church Fathers, monastic customs and contemplative prayer.

“It is our desire to share this living wealth with young people of this world who are dissatisfied with what the world has to offer and seek that which can fill the infinite desires of our restless hearts,” he explains. The monks want young people, no matter where they are in their journey, to call Mount Angel Abbey their spiritual home.

“We can receive so much from the monks,” says Colette Ohotnicky, a 23-year-old graduate student at Oregon State University who comes to the retreats. “It’s a gift they have — their formation and spirituality. Why not go take advantage of it?”

Ohotnicky, working on a master’s degree in environmental philosophy, likes the intellectual level of the talks. They go deep but are understandable, she says. “They not only feed our bodies, they feed our minds.”

David Lach, a 29-year-old from Corvallis who is about to leave for Spain as an English teacher, finds the retreats “edifying,” especially because of the chance to pray with the Benedictines, whose main calling is to pray.

Andrew Pearson, a 20-year-old English major at Willamette University in Salem, comes to learn about and experience prayer with the monastic experts. He takes any opportunity to go to Mount Angel.

“There is an unparalleled feeling of peace when I go there,” Pearson said. “The monks are constantly consecrating me. It’s a place where people act like God exists.”

On this evening, there are intellectuals around the monastic table, young scholars who take faith, philosophy, reason and science seriously. Other young adults are salt of the earth, with unabashed devotion. “I love God and I want God more in my life,” says Clarisa Botello, a 21-year-old member of St. Paul Church in Silverton. The illness of a baby in the family has her asking questions and seeking comfort.

One young woman delivers a little fervorino over dessert: “I think it’s beautiful that Jesus is our king, and how by our prayers, which are the most powerful thing ever, in turn we form this huge intimate bond with him.”

Anna Maria Cobb, 18, also attends a Bible study through her school with many Protestants. She likes the balance in her life between that and this very Catholic gathering.

During the conference, Brother Louis discusses the Catholic liturgical year and its roots in the Jewish calendar. He explains that the feast of Christ the King was established in 1925 in the wake of scientific advances, the horror of war and the rise of nationalism in Europe and atheism in Mexico. Pope Pius XI wanted to proclaim that Jesus was head of all peoples and nations of the world. In 1969, after a decade of space exploration, Pope Paul VI updated the name of the feast to “Christ, King of the Universe.”

Brother Louis makes a point about the feast day. “We live in a very secular age, not only Europe but America is becoming secular as well,” he says. “To be Catholic is to be countercultural in a sense, even though we have the fulfillment of culture in the Catholic faith tradition.”