With vigour and trust in God, Abbess Laetitia and her fellow sisters have transformed the half-ruined monastery of Waldsassen into a jewel. Those who come there for a time-out feel as safe as they are inspired within the ancient walls. A story by Anja Keul, photos by Angelika Jakob
Stucco and vices in Waldsassen Monastery
The first impression? Overwhelming. Under the high vault of the monastery library, the ceiling paintings glow in vibrant colours. Magnificent stucco and polished carvings almost outshine the ancient books. Ten life-size wooden sculptures support the gallery on the left side of the library hall.
But something disturbs the consecrated atmosphere. Isn't that young man over there peering out from under his cap in a downright provocative manner? And the other man's laugh, isn't it rather a nasty grin? Sister Sophia smiles when she notices the confusion. "The figures represent the vices. So that the monks always saw what they had to be careful of in front of their eyes."
Monastery holidays: tranquillity instead of sensory overload
In a drastic way, the grimacing figures, created around 1724 by Karl Stilp from the nearby, now Czech town of Cheb, demonstrated to the monks what vanity, hypocrisy, mockery or boastfulness do to people.
Well, it's not much different today. Only a few more problem areas have been added, from self-optimisation stress to sensory overload. Why not reflect on this behind monastery walls? To reflect on one's own life, to come to peace? This is what the idea of a monastery holiday stands for.
"Accepting yourself is the prerequisite for being able to deal with other people," says Abbess Laetitia in her simple, small office. "The word of Jesus 'Love your neighbour as yourself' has quite a lot to it when you take a closer look. For in order to be able to love oneself, body, soul and spirit should be in balance," says the abbess, who is as hands-on as she is approachable.
Get away from it all with fasting and pilgrimage
Waldsassen Abbey offers many opportunities to get a little closer to this goal. For example, during the one-week monastery fasting according to the Buchinger method, which the abbess personally accompanies as a medically certified fasting guide with talks, mindfulness exercises and the invitation to feel the silence for once.
Those who like to be a little more active do so by going on a pilgrimage together on the Via Porta, a 300-kilometre-long ecumenical pilgrimage path between Waldsassen and Volkenroda in Thuringia. Or on one of the guided tours on the last Sunday of every month through the medicinal plant area of the nature experience garden, which the sisters of the convent introduce with a short musical-meditative impulse.
The Waldsassen Abbey Culture and Meeting Centre (kubz) offers numerous other courses on gardening, nature, monastic medicine, Kneipp and old crafts.
Waldsassen Abbey: An oasis of regeneration
Most guests, however, simply take a time-out from hectic everyday life without a big programme in Waldsassen. Everyone can come, regardless of whether they are male or female, religious or not. "Many see us as an oasis of regeneration and security," says the abbess.
"I'm convinced that people notice the spiritual atmosphere here, after all, people have been praying within these walls for more than 875 years."And they do so five times a day: four 20- to 40-minute hearings in the small monastery church and, of course, at the daily Holy Mass. This is usually celebrated in the magnificent baroque basilica, which is integrated into the ensemble of the abbey but belongs to the parish of Waldsassen.
All guests are invited to take part in this "constant ripple of the monastery", as Abbess Laetitia describes the daily routine of the sisters, which is structured by the times of prayer.
Cistercians: Business for the glory of God
As Cistercians, the nuns are subject to the strict Benedictine rules of obedience. Their focus on order and structure stands in stark contrast to our everyday hustle and bustle and is perhaps precisely why it is so appealing to people who have somehow lost themselves. At the same time, Waldsassen Abbey, founded in 1133 as a Cistercian monastery for men, exudes a spirit of action and optimism.
Only six sisters still live in the abbey
In the time since her election as abbess in 1995, Mother Laetitia has transformed the decaying monastery into a modern business enterprise. It creates jobs not only in the town but also in the wider area, although only six sisters still live in the abbey.
Three of them are very old, the other three, Abbess Laetitia, Sister Sophia and Sister Raphaela, manage a business with about 60 employees, which also includes a girls' secondary school in the convent building. They themselves have no personal possessions, not even an allowance, they work for the "glory of God".
Simply elegant guest rooms
The most impressive is probably the St. Joseph guesthouse, which offers warm hospitality and three-star comfort behind medieval walls. A sad ruin for many years, it was reopened in 2008 with a sensitive mixture of historical substance and modern elements.
The fact that one immediately feels so comfortable and at home in the simply elegant rooms named after saints is surely due to the Benedictine rule "Porta patet, cor magis" – "The monastery gate is open, our heart even more so." As a monastic economist, Sister Sophia runs the guesthouse with its cosy vaulted restaurant and adjoining monastery shop.
"Ora et labora" for a time
Walking over to the monastery garden, she tells us that she only entered the monastery in 2007 at the age of 33 after a solid professional life as a construction manager. "In February, I spent two weeks in the abbey and felt totally calm for the first time in my life on the one hand, and like I was walking on clouds on the other. In October I entered the order."
Waldsassen is open to women who are interested in this experience. In the "Monastery for a Time" programme, they can participate intensively in everyday life and work together. Abbess Laetitia would be happy to welcome new sisters coming from the midst of life. For that is also a part of the abbey, behind walls, but part of life.
More information about Waldsassen Abbey (only in German)
... in Eastern Bavarian monasteries
The "Meditationshaus St. Franziskus" of the Franciscan monastery in Dietfurt an der Altmühl focuses on Zen meditation, Qi Gong, Tai-Chi Chuan and Ikebana.
meditationshaus-dietfurt.de (only in German)
The especially ecologically oriented Benedictine abbey in the town of Berching offers a rich spectrum of spiritual seminars, but also many "green" topics.
kloster-plankstetten.de (only in German)
High above the Danube town of Vilshofen, the Benedictine abbey lies on both the European Pilgrimage Route "Via Nova" and the Danube Cycle Route. Guests are invited to participate in the spiritual everyday life of the monks.
schweiklberg.de (only in German)