As Abbot of Plankstetten Monastery, Beda Maria Sonnenberg is also a librarian, archivist, novice master and teacher of religion. We visited him south of Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz
Abbot Beda Maria Sonnenberg
Abbot Sonnenberg’s day begins at 4.40 a.m. and then follows a strict routine: at 5 a.m. common prayer, followed by meditation and Bible reading, then at 6.25 a.m. morning prayer, then the Eucharist.
The real work starts at 8 a.m. “Actually, it’s not a job, it’s a service,” says the man in his mid-fifties. “That comes with the gifts of mediating, balancing, moral suasion, negotiating, I try to keep our community together and keep it focused on the common goals.”
Vocation and profession
Sonnenberg – with a grey fringe of hair, distinctive glasses – is the Abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Plankstetten and one of 15 monks. The youngest is 24 years old, and the oldest is over 80. “Our mission in life is to live in Christian harmony together.
Our concern is for the people who come to us,” explains the religious educator and doctor of theology in his office overlooking the Main-Danube Canal. “As a child, I always wished to live and work along this waterway. God fulfilled this wish for me by me entering the monastery.”
Sonnenberg already knew at the age of 18 that he wanted to lead a “life within a contemplative-meditative framework” – that is how he describes his choice of profession. Two years later, he entered the Plankstetten monastery, inspired by the Augustinian monastery in his home town of Neunkirchen am Brand. He became Abbot in 2007. “I didn’t aspire to attaining this position at all, but was elected by the Convention,” he says modestly.
As Abbot, librarian, archivist, novice master and teacher, it never gets boring
A bicycle pilgrimage like no other
As head of the abbey – which was founded in 1129 – he is busy with talks and visitors, and he has to assess matters and develop ideas. As a chaplain, he conducts individual talks with those in attendance and holds spiritual conferences.
He is also a librarian, archivist and novice master, religious education teacher in two schools and speaker in the monastery’s own guest house. “I can’t complain about not having enough work,” says the multitasking expert.
Nevertheless, he does not miss the opportunity to go on tour with overnight guests at the abbey, for example, on walking retreats or bicycle pilgrimages, where the group visits a different place of pilgrimage every day and studies the saint who worked there. On Instagram, Sonnenberg even shares snapshots with his blue racing bike every now and then.
Workshops in the spirit of the times
Cycling is just one of over 120 workshops and seminars focusing on spirituality, health, lifestyle and creativity.
The topics are a colourful mix and inspired by the spirit of the times: they range from family constellations to spiritual improvisation theatre, incense with native plants and Gregorian chant, to building a “magic harp”.
The Benedictine rule of “Monks must always strive with zeal for silence” is one by which the monks guide their lives. And yet the monastery has opened itself completely to visitors.
“The church is always open to visitors, inviting them to enjoy silence and prayer,” says the Abbot. “It is particularly rewarding to take part in one of the guided tours on Sunday afternoons where visitors get to enjoy art treasures from the building’s 800-year history.”
Time out in the monastery
Guests can also visit the monastery bookshop, the monastery tavern and the mission bazaar, and they can stay overnight in the guest house. “Time out in the monastery” (“Auszeit im Kloster”) is the name of an offer where you can participate in the day-to-day life of the monks. “Time and again, we are asked whether women can also stay overnight in our monastery. Of course!” says Sonnenberg.
The theologian does not see the switch between traditional monastic life and the outside world as a balancing act: “Actually, it’s not that difficult. The important thing is to always approach life with as greater sense of openness as possible, and to be interested in people, their questions and concerns.”
Sustainable by tradition
The abbey’s farm shop sells many products from its own production in organic quality. “The Rule of St Benedict teaches us to meet the necessities of life from the monastery’s immediate vicinity, meaning that expensive imports should be avoided, for example,” explains Sonnenberg. That’s why, more than a century ago, they already had their own craft businesses, such as a butcher’s shop, bakery or distillery.
Butcher’s shop, bakery and distillery since over 100 years
“Sustainability has thus always been a central topic in our house,” says the Abbot. “This includes engaging with our region, producing food ourselves and networking with other producers who are close to the monastery.”
A few years ago, a separate monastery tavern was created in cooperation with the “Riedenburger Brauhaus” – the Bavarian state government honoured this commitment and rewarded the tavern by including it in the list of “100 Genussorte” (“100 places to indulge”).
The most recent example of sustainability is the new building of Haus Sankt Wunibald. It was built as a timber frame construction. From 2,000 bales of organic straw, produced by the monastery’s own lands. 300 spruces and pines were supplied by the monastery’ forest.
The environmentally-friendly insulation material, which is easy to dispose of without leaving any residue, not only removes CO2 from the atmosphere, but also ensures an excellent indoor climate. The largest straw-insulated house in southern Germany is currently three storeys high.
Monastery nights are short
Any given day at the monastery ends at 7 p.m. with the so-called “Compline”, the church night prayer. When there are no other appointments, Beda Maria Sonnenberg returns to one of his favourite places: “In my cell, there is a large armchair where I often sit and read in the evenings: Novels, non-fiction books or texts by the fathers of the church.” Not for too long, because the night is short – and the alarm clock will be sure to sound again at 4.40 a.m.
... by Beda Maria Sonnenberg
Cities in the Altmühl-Jura
Plankstetten Monastery and the town of Berching – with its medieval town centre within the completely preserved town wall – invite you to look around and enjoy. Other places also worth seeing in the “Altmühl-Jura” region include Beilngries, Greding, Dietfurt an der Altmühl, Breitenbrunn and Kinding with their town fortifications, churches, museums, castles and palaces.
Cycling and hiking trails
The Altmühl Cycle Path and the Altmühl Panorama Path are among the tourist highlights. Our “Benediktusweg” trail between Berching and Plankstetten combines hiking with reflection. The landscape along the Main-Danube Canal has a special aura at any time of year.
altmuehl-radweg.com (only in German)
Tributary valleys of the Altmühl
A real insider tip for example is the “Sulztal” with the cycle path along the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal. It leads all the way to Nuremberg. The neighbouring valley of “Breitenbrunner Laber” is secluded and quiet, a truly beautiful place to hike through.
Pilgrimage Church Eichlberg
There are a number of beautiful churches in the region, one of my favourites is the pilgrimage church situated on “Eichlberg”, which is a wonderful location for meditation thanks to its special décor.
pfarrei-eichlberg-neukirchen.de (only in German)