When I was trying to figure out where to go on this trip, some random search took me to the oddest item in a museum in Oregon. The item was a giant pig hairball (apparently pigs get hairballs) that resides in the museum of the Mt. Angel Abbey in, wait for it, Mt. Angel, Oregon. I have little interest in pigs or hairballs but I have always wanted to experience the divine hours. I checked and it turns our they do allow private retreats of any length so I made a reservation for the first night of the trip.
Naturally, I had to stop at a place or two on my way. There was that erratic rock I had been passing by every time I went to Portland. Turns out it is just a rock. It’s notability is the fact that it is out of place not that it’s a particularly unique rock. Some glacier dragged it all the way from Montana and dropped it in the Willamette Valley some long time ago. It’s a nice rock. I’m glad I saw it. And I’m really glad I got that view of Mt. Hood from the top of the hill it’s stranded on.
I’d always wondered what Amity looked like so I took the little road over that way. There’s not much to it but I did find a roadside fruit stand that made sandwiches and milkshakes. I heroically resisted the fresh-made mini-donuts that were scenting the air. There was a girl dressed Amish-style making the pies in the kitchen. I hadn’t really thought about how many of the farming communities in Oregon were founded by religious sects but once I noticed her I kept seeing other people, mostly women of course, who were noticeably dressed in a religious fashion.
Amity lead my to Hopewell and Wheatland where I got to take the little ferry across the Willamette. It’s really a little ferry. Further east near Gervais I found the amazing echinacea field stretching literally as far as the eye could see. SO MANY BEES! And then I dropped down to Mt. Angel, a little German farming community that, like Leavenworth in Washington, has made a thing of being German. The main street of town, all two blocks of it, is heavily signed in gothic script. They were busy repairing the moving figures at The Glockenspiel restaurant but you can watch a video of it performing on YouTube. The abbey is here because the German residents of the town imported them from Germany a little over a hundred years ago. There’s no place like home, you know.
It was already after three and I wanted a chance to get settled before vespers at 5:30 so I headed up the hill to the abbey. The road passes little houses that were shelters for carvings of the stations of the cross with the names painted in German on the top. Already in Catholic land. I checked in at the guest house and then went down to the garden reserved for guests. Many bird feeders and birds, two cats and a few spotted squirrels. I heard later there’s a skunk that hangs out there, too, but I didn’t meet him. At 5:20 the bells of what can only be described as a campanile started peeling, calling everyone to prayer. Not for the last time, I was reminded of Islamic practice, in this instance the call to prayer. I headed for the church in time to watch the monks process in to stand in the choir stalls. It’s a Benedictine monastery so they’re all completely dressed in black robes. There were about forty of them, many of them surprisingly young. Also, as with all the priests in America lately, they were very ethnically diverse. Lots of Vietnamese and Hispanics and one who appeared African. Most of the white guys were older but there were a few youngish ones. They chanted. We listened. They bowed. We bowed. They sang. We listened. This is not an inclusive event.
After prayer, the retreatants (retreaters?) gathered in the guest house dining room. They two guys who were there when I arrived introduced themselves as Father Steve and Father Tom. Father Tom is like 25 and white and from Indiana. I really didn’t think they made priests like that anymore. Dinner was surprisingly good, served buffet style. You bus your own plates afterwards in a spirit of Christian humility. I spent the next hour wandering around the immaculately manicured “mall,” a green expanse in the center of the various buildings. They’re mostly very Italianate which seems a little surprising in such a German community. The library is a very modern building but it was closed the whole time I was there so I didn’t get even a glimpse of their reportedly impressive collection of illuminated manuscripts. Many of the monks spent the pre-vespers time walking around the perimeter of the mall. Exercise is good for the soul? At 7:30 we had compline, a less formal service that ended with all the monks heading over to the Mary altar to sing a hymn. Congregants were not encouraged to sing along. Afterwards, I headed back to my cell, um, guest room, to process photos. Actually, it was pretty nice. Very clean with a comfortable bed. I’m pretty sure reviewers on Tripadvisor would call it dated. No television and no air conditioning but the wi-fi was good so I was happy.
I set my alarm for five so I could be dressed in time for vigils at 5:30. I’m pretty sure vigils should be in the middle of the night like around 3 am but I wasn’t going to complain. Again it felt like Islamic prayer where the first call comes at first light and the second at daybreak. There were only three of the guests at early prayer including myself. There was conspicuous yawning on all sides especially since it was the longest of all the services I attended. One of the poor Vietnamese guys had to read a long passage full of impossibly difficult Old Testament names. One truly felt for him. It was clearly torture. After a very long time we were released so I could try to get a picture of the sunrise above mist filled valleys. Sadly, didn’t happen but it was very pretty.
Back to prayer at 6:30 for matins which was shorter and much more cheerful. Seriously, the chanting of even the most upbeat texts was, for the most part, perfectly dirgelike. Also, even though there was an organist to try to keep them corralled, I found the wandering pitch really distracting. It really seems that a bunch of guys who sing for a living would learn to do it tunefully. Ah, well, easy for me to judge, right?
And now we come to the part that really got to me. Almost all the texts that I heard were the things that really turn me off about religion. They prayed about being protected from the demons of the night which just sounded like the basest superstition (not to mention that it reminded me of another group of black-clad men who man a wall and warn about winter coming). In the morning, they were thankful for having made it through the night. Seriously? The feeling that the people who came to visit the abbey were outsiders who really should not be noticed was inescapable. And then there’s that whole no women thing. I had hoped to come to the abbey and feel at least uplifted but honestly I was just irritated.
I left soon after breakfast instead of lingering for mass. One of the things the guests are asked to do is change their bed linens before they leave and say a prayer as they do so for the next inhabitant of the room. It was far and away the most spiritual thing I did during my visit and a good note to depart on.