At Mount Angel Abbey, spiritual reflection and secular attractions coexist harmoniously

The Mount Angel Abbey rests on top of a hill offering a panoramic view of the verdant mid-Willamette Valley with its pastures, berry fields and hop yards framed by the not-too-distant Cascade Mountains. People visit the abbey’s Benedictine monks in search of reflection, tranquility and a deeper connection with the divine.

There are other attractions as well. People of all faiths ascend the 485-foot hill by the thousands every year for a wide range of reasons, said Theresa Myers, the abbey’s director of communications. “The abbey is a very eclectic place,” she said.

The Abbey Library, for instance, draws clerics and scholars to study ancient texts and find enlightenment from some of the greatest minds in human history.

Its rare book collection contains volumes representing nearly every year since Johannes Gutenberg built his first printing press in the mid-15th century — including the complete works of Calvin and Hobbes.

Not theologian John Calvin and philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

They have their place in the library, to be sure, but so do 6-year-old Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. Visitors to the rare book display in April saw a collection of the characters’ adventures from the 1985 to 1995 newspaper comic strip by Bill Watterson.

Library director Brian Morin said inclusion of the cartoons illuminates an essential truth about the abbey. It is not a medieval monastery, shut off from the outside world with robed monks wandering the grounds as they whisper prayers in Latin.

Yes, the monks are robbed. However, they produce beer. They operate a gift shop. They provide retreat space. They host a summer Bach Festival. They offer a museum of both the historic and bizarre. (Ever see an eight-legged calf?) None of these worldly activities is inconsistent with a religious community that also operates a seminary, Morin said.

“The joys and sorrows of the world are also the joys and sorrows of the church,” he said, paraphrasing one of the pronouncements that emerged from the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican of the early 1960s.

The brewery

The monks allow the world to drown some of those sorrows — or at least take them out for a joyful swim — in a glass or two of the abbey’s own beer.

Beers poured in the abbey’s tap room feature dark ales such as Black Habit and Dark Night and lighter ales such as Haustus and St. Benedict. The beer is sold exclusively at the abbey through the tap room and gift shop.

“There are so many breweries now, and there are so many fads,” said Father Martin Grassel, the lead brewer of the Benedictine Brewery. “For us, what makes us unique is that we aren’t trying to be different. We do mostly Belgian-inspired beers. You don’t find too many breweries that specialize in that. As monks, we’re part of a long tradition. The monastic tradition of brewing goes back to the fourth or fifth centuries.”

Mount Angel’s monks began brewing in 2013. The beer was produced under contract with other breweries until a new building to house the operation was completed in 2018.

“We know that when the abbey was established in the 1880s, the founding brothers had a brewery on the property,” Grassel said. “Over the course of time, from decade to decade, monks have been known to do their own home brewing on the hilltop.”

Grassel was one of them. “I started home brewing in 2010,” he said. “That wasn’t something I planned to do. Someone offered me some brewing equipment. I turned it down, but the silly idea stuck in my head, so I later asked if the equipment was still available.”

Around 2010, the monks decided to start a new business to help support the abbey. “Brewing was the thing we were most interested in,” said Grassel.

Grassel, who studied to be an engineer, said he particularly enjoyed the learning curve. “I like the process,” he said. “I like making things. Brewing is a multi-stage process, and every process has its defined point and things you need to do right.”

The monks developed their own unique beer recipes. “We don’t have super-hoppy beers,” Grassel said. “We’re more interested in producing the more traditional style of beers.”

The beer is marketed with the slogan “Taste and Believe.”

It speaks to the uniqueness of the brewery, Grassel said. “We are actually monks brewing beers,” he said. “There isn’t another brewery in Oregon that can say that.” There are only a few other monastic breweries in the United States, I have added.

The library

Monastic tradition represents the heart of the library, Morin said.

“Our founding monks already had a desire to read, and that obviously focused on sacred scripture,” he said. “Our primary community is monastic, but there are also the seminarians, who also include lay students obtaining their master’s degrees in theology.”

The 52-year-old library has become one of the other attractions that draw visitors up the hill. It was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and its windows provide a commanding view of the mid-Willamette Valley.

Many visitors come for a glimpse of the rare books. Books from a temperature-controlled vault rotate in and out of an exhibit room where they are sealed behind glass. Morin said he’s uncertain how Calvin and Hobbes found their way there. Nevertheless, he said, he appreciates their presence.

“It’s one of the many pieces of Americana that the abbey library is interested in,” he said. “It’s a cultural touch point.”

Much of the rare book collection, however, consists of illustrated manuscripts painstakingly transcribed and illustrated ink stroke by ink stroke by medieval clerks.

The manuscripts spend most of the time in the vault with temperatures carefully, one might say religiously, kept between 68 and 70 degrees, with humidity at 45% to 50%. While almost all the books have some mold on them, Morin insist they are sturdy. “These books have lasted thousands of years without specific temperature controls,” he said.

The rare book collection started in the aftermath of tragedy. A previous library and its 15,000 books were destroyed in a fire in 1926 that gutted the entire abbey. “Coming on the eve of the Depression, this was a devastating blow,” Morin said.

However, Father Martin Pollard and Father Luke Eberle purchased the remaining books of an antiquarian bookstore in Aachen, Germany, for $750 in 1932. “This was the beginning of the Mount Angel Abbey Library as we have it today and of our now impressive antiquarian book collection,” said Morin.

The collection now boasts more than 5,000 items, he said. Most of the medieval manuscripts are books of hours—Christian devotional books used to pray at certain hours.

While the books of hours are historically significant, many scholarly visitors may be more interested in Immanuel Kant’s 1781 “Critique of Pure Reason” or Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1886 “Beyond Good and Evil.” Then again, Nietzsche (with his famously irreligious views of him) might seem as curious a presence in a monastic library as a cartoon tiger.

Not really, Morin said.

“Many diverse viewpoints contrast with the dogmatic proclamations of the church,” he said. “We have those volumes so we’re better able to understand arguments against the church. There is also a huge collection of philosophy books. Faith and reason always go together.”

The Bach Festival

The monks of Mount Angel are also known for their three-day Abbey Bach Festival. Every July, visitors pay about $60 per night (ticket packages vary) for an evening that starts with a service and music in the church and continues on the grounds, where the monks provide blankets and picnic baskets.

After guests enjoy wine and food, they proceed to the seminary for an evening of chamber music. This year’s festival is Wednesday to Friday, July 27 to 29.

Some people might care to spend the night at the abbey’s St. Benedict Guesthouse & Retreat Center on the south slope of the hill. Newly renovated rooms offer views of the church and bell tower to the north and farmland to the southwest. Expanded conference rooms, meeting rooms and terraces provide space for individuals, retreat groups, and day groups.

The museum

When something bizarre happened among area livestock, farmers had a tradition of passing along the curiosity to the monks at Mount Angel. The Abbey Museum evolved from such donations, including an eight-legged calf, a two-headed cow and one really ginormous hairball from a pig.

Exhibits also include taxidermy, antique microscopes, typewriters, artwork and artifacts of almost every description.

“Benedictine monasteries are rooted in a place,” said Father Nathan Zodrow, the museum’s curator. “Over time, one result of that rootedness is that monks have come to be considered preservers of things that are important. … They may be items of value, but often they are simply items of local interest.”

Groups of elementary school students have taken field trips to the museum for decades. “Children are often most fascinated by the exhibits of natural history,” Zodrow said. “There are fairly extensive exhibits of the animals of the Pacific Northwest, as well as collections of seashells, insects, and birds.

Zodrow said the museum, like the library’s rare book room and perhaps the abbey as a whole, represents the importance of preserving tradition and the mystic chords of communal memory. “A whole combination of things in the museum provides a sort of snapshot into specific periods of time,” he said.

Mount Angel Abbey

Abbey: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays

tap room: 2 to 7 pm Wednesday-Thursday, 1 to 8 pm Friday-Saturday, noon-6 pm Sunday.

Library: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

Museum: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.

Address: 1 Abbey Drive, St Benedict

Information: 503-845-3303; mountangelabbey.org

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