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Building history one stone at a time

NCR Staff
Novy Dvur, Czech Republic

Two hours outside Prague, a simple wooden cross marks the entrance to Novy Dvur, where amidst rolling countryside a French order of Trappist monks has launched an undertaking as ambitious as it is historic: a new monastery in the Czech Republic.

Last month 17 monks from the motherhouse of Our Lady of the Sacred Site at Sept-Fons, France, laid the foundation stone for Novy Dvur. In a cloud of incense, chanting psalms in French and Czech and surrounded by a crowd of journalists, corporate donors, builders, diplomats, Czech government officials, and friends and family, the white-robed monks marked the boundaries of the monastery before slowly filing down a long tree-lined lane to the spot where a crumbling 17th-century Baroque manor house stood encased in scaffolding and a veil of thin green mesh.

The manor house, thought to be the work of architect Kilian Dietzenhoffer, who designed St. Nicholas’ Church in Prague, a Baroque landmark in a city rich in Baroque churches, will be the nucleus for the new monastery. Two modern wings will adjoin the manor house with a third wing between them to complete the cloister. Designed by British minimalist architect John Pawson, a high-flying architect responsible for the Calvin Klein flagship store in Manhattan, the monastery will put a contemporary face on a thousand-year-old Cistercian tradition.

In some respects, the establishment of the Monastery of Our Lady of Novy Dvur is an international event, reflecting and depending on the talents, gifts and contributions of individuals and companies around the world. The monks have raised one-third of the approximately $4 million needed for Novy Dvur’s construction and are relying on donations to complete the project. But the new monastery at Novy Dvur is also a peculiarly Czech occasion. Coming after decades of official atheism, the new monastery, the first built since the collapse of communism, marks a milestone in Czech history. When the monastery opens in 2002, contemplative monks will once again be living, working and praying in the Czech lands, reviving a monastic tradition that came to an abrupt end in 1782 when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II closed most of the monasteries in the Austrian empire.

Bishop Frantisek Radkovský of Plzen was present at the ceremony June 5 to celebrate the beginning of the new monastery in his bishopric. “This diocese is one of the most secular not only in our country but in all of Europe,” said Radkovský, who observed that nonetheless the new monastery at Novy Dvur has aroused great interest, even on the part of the secular population and atheists. Radkovský called the new monastery an important step forward for Christian evangelization in his country. “Without the monks, this evangelization will not have a good foundation,” he said.

For the Czech monks on hand for the ceremony, and particularly for Father Martin, the establishment of Novy Dvur is the realization of an unlikely dream. Before he joined the monastery at Sept-Fons and adopted a new name, Fr. Martin was a Czech priest called Fr. Karel Satoria. In 1991 he’d left Czechoslovakia with several companions to travel through Europe looking for a Trappist monastery to join. Inspired by the writings of Thomas Merton, who had been translated clandestinely into Czech, Satoria knew he wanted to become a monk and sought a Trappist order that would provide him a serious foundation. After visiting more than a dozen monasteries in Italy, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and France, Satoria found what he was seeking in the 12th-century abbey of Sept-Fons located at Dompierre-sur-Besbre, France. “There was a need for a spiritual master,” he said. “One looked for this and felt it at Sept-Fons.”

On the face of it, Satoria’s conversion to monasticism would seem surprising. As a priest in Brno and then the vicar-general there, Satoria had lived not only an active life but a very public one. He had worked closely with the dissident sponsors of Charter 77, a petition that evolved into a protest movement against the communist government. As a priest, he had spoken out publicly against the communist regime and against those priests who had allied themselves with the regime in an association called Pacem in Terris. Every time the priests in Pacem in Terris issued a statement, Satoria had organized himself and other priests to counter it. His decision to become a priest was as much political as it was religious, for he saw the church as offering a place of freedom where one could speak one’s mind freely, without lying, and as serving as an organ of resistance to oppression.

Merton’s influence

When at the age of 30, Satoria read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, the book came as a revelation to him. “Up to that time, I had not known there were religious orders devoted only to prayer,” he said.

Even before he entered the Trappist monastery in France, Fr. Martin had envisioned returning to his native country and founding a monastery dedicated solely to prayer. It was at once his personal vocation and a response to the needs of the entire church in the Czech Republic, he explained. In his first meeting with the abbot of Sept-Fons, the Czech priest mentioned his goal. It seemed impossible. Indeed, Abbot Dom Patrick Olive made it a condition for Fr. Martin and the other Czechs who in time gravitated to Sept-Fons that they enter the order at Sept-Fons unconditionally, with no thought of returning to the Czech Republic or being anything but Sept-Fons monks. It was only when Fr. Martin and the three young Czechs who accompanied him in 1991 took their final solemn vows in 1998 that the idea came up again in the community. By that time, 150 Czechs and Slovaks had come to the monastery in the intervening years; 15 have remained to become monks.

Originally, when Fr. Martin approached him with the idea of entering the monastery at Sept-Fons, he knew little about Czech life or Czech history, Dom Patrick explained. The abbot suggested Fr. Martin and his companions enter a monastery in their own country, then learned that the contemplative orders had been abolished there in 1782 by Joseph II, a follower of Voltaire who wanted to place the church firmly under state control and saw little benefit in contemplative orders engaged in what the emperor considered useless praying. Some religious orders did return to the Czech lands following the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian empire after World War I. Then, in 1950, in a single night, the communist authorities shut down all the monasteries and arrested all the monks.

“What’s happening here 10 years after the fall of communism is a miracle,” said Brother Joseph, 30, a Czech who joined the monastery at Sept-Fons in 1977.

The monks at Sept-Fons are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly called Trappists after a reform instituted in the 17th century by Rancé à la Trappe. At Sept-Fons they live a life of prayer, solitude and labor and support themselves by making jams and food products using wheat germ. In the last 20 years, about 1,000 young men have come through the portals of Sept-Fons; about 50 of them have joined the order there. The 78-member community numbers monks from 12 nations. Brother Alexis, 33, an American who grew up in California and joined the monastery when he was 22, ascribes the attraction of Sept-Fons to both the people and the style and quality of monastic life that is led there. “It’s simultaneously serious, silent and prayerful and relaxed, which for a Californian is absolutely necessary,” he joked.

Brother Eli, 28, was one of the Czechs who accompanied Fr. Martin on his tour of Trappist monasteries in 1991. Like Fr. Martin, Br. Eli had read Thomas Merton after a remarkable conversion to Christianity.

“In my life is a kind of miracle,” Br. Eli said. “I am from an absolutely atheistic family. I wasn’t baptized. I didn’t go to church. Each time I saw a church, my grandmother ridiculed it. When I was 16, I entered a church. I left this church believing. I knew I not only had to become a Christian but a monk and priest, too.”

For Br. Eli, the presence of younger monks was among Sept-Fons’ draws. “When you see only an old monastery with old monks, you don’t want to enter,” Br. Eli said. “It’s natural, I think. The young want to live with young.”

Father Nicolas, the novice-master at Sept-Fons, believes it’s not by chance that the monastery has been able to attract young men. “We keep a great respect for the rule,” said Fr. Nicolas. Discussing the crisis within the church that followed Vatican II, Fr. Nicholas said, “Now we see that the monasteries that have evolved with the greatest liberalism have experienced disaster. But the others have fared better.”

A ‘historic challenge’

When in the late 1990s the abbey of Sept-Fons reached maximum capacity and the monks were unable to accommodate new candidates interested in joining the community, the community faced a choice of expanding outside the monastery walls or starting a new foundation. Given the growing number of Czechs among the monks and the absence of a contemplative monastery in the Czech Republic, the country seemed an obvious choice for a new foundation. “It was a historic challenge,” Dom Patrick said of the effort to bring contemplative monasticism to a country that had long been deprived of it.

The monastery at Novy Dvur will be the seventh community Sept-Fons has founded in its history. The French abbey started five foundations in the 19th century and one in the 20th century in New Caledonia. Approximately a dozen monks will leave Sept-Fons to start the new community at Novy Dvur, and Pawson is designing a monastery that can hold up to 40. Because the monks at Sept-Fons are cloistered and rarely if ever leave the monastery, the plans call not only for a dormitory, a refectory, a chapel and cloister but an entire infrastructure, with a hospital, laundry, guest house, cemetery, offices, workshops. For the architect, the commission was a dream come true.

“It’s the project of a lifetime. I think any architect would love a monastery,” Pawson told NCR in Novy Dvur.

Originally, the monks had considered buying one of the many old, abandoned monasteries in the Czech Republic, but most were too close to towns or villages to be appealing to the Trappists, while the projected costs for renovating and heating an abandoned monastery were prohibitive.

In early 1999, after a year of researching different locations in the Czech Republic, the monks found the site at Novy Dvur, a name that translates as “new court.” Located on 100 acres of rolling countryside, at an altitude of 700 meters, the site at Novy Dvur was both isolated and beautiful. Later that year, the first contact was made between the monks and John Pawson, who is accepting a normal architect’s fee for the design rather than the sky-high fees he usually charges.

Progress on establishing the monastery at Novy Dvor has been swifter than expected. Private industry and individuals in France and the Czech Republic have offered assistance. Construction companies in France and the Czech Republic have donated materials, as have companies in Poland and Belgium. A wide variety of agencies and companies have been solicited for their expertise and their largesse, and the monks are seeking other partnerships where, in exchange for materials and contributions, companies will receive a forum in which to display their work. The monks have posted a web site at www.cordialis.org/novydvur and are seeking contributions from around the world. With two-thirds of the necessary funds still not in but with construction nonetheless proceeding, Dom Patrick calls the new monastery “a simple act of pure faith.”

Novy Dvur lies in west Bohemia, in the diocese of Plzen. It’s an area with a turbulent history. The large German population in this region once known as the Sudetenland was Hitler’s pretext for annexing the area in 1938; the German minority was brutally expelled from Czechoslovakia following World War II.

“It’s important to bring something tranquil to the area and to pray, really pray,” said Fr. Martin.

For many in the 21st century, the need for a contemplative monastery where monks spend their lives in prayer may seem as questionable as it did to Emperor Joseph II in the 18th century.

“One of the most important things John Paul II says is that a man is really a man when he can have a relationship with God,” Dom Patrick said. “It’s necessary that some men spend all their lives on this relationship with God so that other men understand this. I don’t think there needs to be lots and lots of monks, but some.”

The e-mail address for Margot Patterson is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001