Sophomore Jack Duffy withdrew from classes a few weeks into the Fall 2017 semester.
When Duffy noticed insufficiencies in his faith and with the priorities of the Lutheran Church, he turned to a place where he could quietly rest and contemplate.
“I knew my relationship with Christ was not where it should’ve been — I mean, it never is — but I really needed a place where I could focus on fostering a direct connection with God, away from other distractions like school and friendships,” Duffy said.
So he spent the rest of his semester at Saint Augustine’s House, a Lutheran monastery in Oxford, Michigan, addressing his theological concerns, disconnecting from the chaos of modernity, and reorienting his life toward prayer, study, and a relationship with Jesus Christ.
While his time at the monastery served purposes separate from college, Duffy said his time there has improved life at Hillsdale, especially through dedication to prayer. His favorite prayer from Saint Augustine’s House is Compline, the evening prayer.
“It involves a confession to God, and if you’re with people, a confession to your brothers and sisters, an ancient hymn, a Gregorian chant, readings from Psalms and the New Testament, and it ends with the Lord’s prayer.”
After the Lord’s prayer, Compline concludes with Duffy’s favorite line, “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and peace at the last.”
At the monastery, the monks pray seven times a day because of the Psalms 119:164, which reads, “Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments.”
The Lutheran Monastery models its structure on the Benedictine monks. They begin their first prayer, the Office of Vigils at 5:10 a.m., then there’s Lauds at 6, Terce at 8:15, and the Eucharist at 8:30. In between prayers, the monks chat around meals and coffee.
Duffy said after morning mass, he and the monks would change from their black vestments into plain clothing and begin the day’s work. Then it’s back into vestments for more prayers: There’s Sext at 12 p.m., None at 2:30, Vespers at 6:00, and Compline at 8:30.
Duffy said the monastery’s dedication to prayer will stay with him, adding that not everyone can live a monastic life, but every Christian can have a dedicated prayer life.
On top of having seven prayers a day, Duffy studied Origen Adamantius’ “On Prayer.” Origen, a third century Christian scholar, wrote about the position, place, and attitude required for prayer — qualities that Duffy doesn’t think Christians consider enough.
“When you’re adoring and thanking God, you lift your hands to heaven and praise him,” Duffy said. “When you’re confessing and supplicating, you prostrate yourself, laying your head and hands on the floor.”
Conversations with Father John Cochran, the prior at Saint Augustine’s Monastery, taught him just as much, if not more, than his private study, he said.
“Father John asked me how I prayed: ‘Is it a conversation, Jack?’ ‘No, it isn’t really. I just kind of blather to God.’ He said silence is very important in prayer — listening. What I think he meant is silence of the soul, being silent and letting God speak, and it may not be a voice in your head. It may be what you’re reading in Scripture or what someone else is reading while you’re listening in mass.”
Saint Augustine’s House is the only Benedictine Lutheran monastery in the United States. There are two other Benedictine Lutheran monasteries in the world, one of which — the Ӧstanbäck Monastery in Sala, Sweden — is the sister community of Saint Augustine’s House. The other is the Priory of St. Wigbert in Werningshausen, Germany.
Duffy said there are so few because Lutherans don’t value monastic life as highly as Roman Catholics, for a few reasons. First, he said Lutherans do not believe asceticism is necessary because Luther was a monk who rejected his vows. Second, Duffy said Lutherans don’t prioritize the same virtues as Catholics.
“I don’t think the Lutheran Church, at least how I’ve experienced it, has a lot of need or respect for cultivating virtue, and at a monastery your entire life is discipline, and by being disciplined through prayer and meditation you learn virtue,” Duffy said. “It brings you closer to God, and that’s a more Catholic idea than a Lutheran idea.”
Cochran said the Lutheran belief that Luther freed people from monastic life is “partially true.”
“But there are also stories of entire monasteries converting to Lutheranism and continuing to do their work of God all the way into the 18th century,” Cochran said.
Cochran said young people visit often, some staying for a day or two and others staying for an entire semester to study and write. He said some come for spiritual connection, some for academic study, and others out of a curiosity about alternatives to modern life.
“There’s a high level of curiosity about the monastic way of life and the monastic take on the present culture. In a very materialistic culture, monasticism presents a very non-materialistic way of life,” Cochran said. “Schools fund their stay and they write about monastic life. They live, pray, and work with us. It’s a steady flow of young people through here.”
Saint Augustine’s House is an order following Benedictine Rule, which means monks adheres to the principles of monastic life set forth by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Catholic monk. So, the Lutheran monks have taken vows of chastity and obedience, they’ve committed themselves to silent reflection, and they’ve given up their possessions to the community, but they aren’t entirely ascetic — they love some of earth’s pleasures.
“The monks would take turns cooking for dinner and supper,” Duffy said. “They were very good cooks, like, excellent cooks.”
The Lutheran Monastery doesn’t draw influences from just the Catholic monastic orders. It also is a meeting place for Christian representing different sects.
Duffy said that Saint Augustine’s House invites pastors, preachers, fathers, and leaders from various churches to join in worship.
“We’d have Anglicans, evangelicals, Lutherans, orthodox, you name it — they were there.”
Cochran articulated three missions guiding the operation of Saint Augustine’s House, one of which shows the reason for the mixing of different Christian sects.
He said monks founded the monastery in 1958 “for ecumenical work among Lutherans in North America,” which he has made a priority.
“This becomes a neutral ground, a place where people can meet and have theological and social conversation with each other about issues which they agree and do not agree — without killing each other,” Cochran said. “We get along better now than we did in earlier centuries. But getting along and tolerating each other is not what’s in the mouth of the Lord in the New Testament. Christ prayed that we be one. Our relating and our growing isn’t ever complete until we are one.”
Cochran said their other two founding missions are to spread “the call that Jesus gives not to be owned by your possessions but to use them to do good to each other” and to create a community for marginalized people, specifically in collapsing urban environments.
Starting 2018 back in school, Duffy already sees that he’s winning the battle against a sin considered deadly in monasteries: acedia. He said it’s like the deadly sin of sloth, though it extends beyond mere apathy and laziness.
“It’s a disgust for activity and a sorrow over spiritual goodness,” he said. “Acedia is a very serious vice that is affecting modern culture in ways that we don’t even realize it. I was prone to this vice and still am. I consider it a grace from God that much of that has been helped. Certainly it’s only through prayer and constantly being in Scripture.”
He describes acedia as mindless activity, or the desire to do nothing rather than something. It’s like binge-watching a show on Netflix, not so that you can glean anything from the program, but simply so you can shut off your mind for 60 minutes, he said.
“When you translate that to your relationship with Christ, it’s very destructive,” Duffy said “You don’t want to put in the effort, so to speak, to foster the relationship through prayer, meditation, and devotion.”
Sophomore Spencer Bohlinger also came to Saint Augustine’s House for a weekend visit to see Duffy and experience monastic life.
“The amount of reverence they have in their faith was striking and inspiring,” Bohlinger said. “Even the short time I was there, I felt a lot closer and connected to God in those moments.”
Duffy, like Bohlinger, wants to return to the monastery’s comfort and seclusion whenever possible, and also to Father John, whose name is more than a title.
“He’s a mentor, almost like a father to me now,” Duffy said.