Landscape as Poetic and Sacred Architecture

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.

                                                            Dakota a Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

More recently, German architect Gottfried Semper wrote the book The Four Elements of Architecture (1851) and about that time, the U.S. and Canadian Homestead Acts were passed. Thousands of people, including my ancestors, came to start new lives and prove their land claim. Unknown to those homesteaders, Semper’s four building techniques (the hearth, walling, roofing, and terracing) were essential to more than rudimentary shelter. The principles also applied to establishing communities, building houses of worship, and implanting a culture of respect for a place that was sometimes bountiful and unforgiving.

Long before President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition through this region (1804), fur-traders and indigenous peoples built structures that sustained life. Each preserved sacred sites and held a deep reverence for this area. The natural evolution beyond survival mode brought building designs that reflected vernacular traditions and the practical realities dealt by the harsh extremes of bitter winters and blistering summers.

Now these descendants of homesteaders– like me, whether we live in small towns, big cities, or maybe still live on “the home place,” continue that fierce love of the land and the dome of sky overhead. It has inspired writers and poets like Willa Cather, Tom McGrath, Ted Kooster, Larry Woiwode, and Kathleen Norris. Here, I’m frequently reminded the curvature of the earth is all that stands between me and infinity.

Section Line Communion

The Abbey’s sanctuary
transforms before me. A gravel
road carpets the center aisle.

of sacred relics cloud
around my ankles.

the bread of life ripens
in the pews to my right and left.

form choir stalls lined with monks
praying silently in the shadows.

in pearled vestments
circle their vaulted blessing.

The Profit Mountains
piled on the prairie
offer an altar in the sunrise.

Acknowledgement: This article originally appeared in Faith & Form, Vol. 49 No. 3, 2016 ( and is reprinted here with permission.

Why Monasteries?

© Published: Assumption Abbey Newsletter, Vol. 38 Issue #2, April 2010
by Bonnie Staiger

We are a culture addicted to both the business and the busy-ness of the day-to-day. In our contemporary and cyber world, we often make rapid-fire choices by hitting the delete button. We start our cars from inside the house and we press pause on the remote control to accommodate life’s interruptions. It’s a shallow world of planned obsolescence and our fickle fingers on the dashboard of life.

Add this to the equation: half of the entire world’s knowledge becomes obsolete every 2 years. We live in danger of losing our sense of history as our attention deficit becomes systematic to our culture and our families become scattered.

Mega-churches are springing up with parking lots the size of wheat fields. Many are the home of, what can be called, the religion du jour. The congregation’s name on the marquee can change as quickly as the last month’s headlines.

While the world is hungry for heroes and true role-models, hopefully, in all this chaos, there are people who search for relevance to understand our place on the planet and want to find a connectedness to the ages. For those willing to stop and listen* to the still, small voice the answer is always here for us.

We don’t have to look very far to find places where this connection is modeled for us—where centuries of history are combined with contemporary life and are field-tested every day: the monasteries. Thomas Merton wrote in his journal after visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani, the community that would become his home, “I had wondered what was holding this country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. It is this monastery.”

Are monasteries more relevant than ever? Could it be that they are the ones who have kept the ship on course while we have lost our bearings? Contrast the monks in sync with the rhythm of the centuries, the seasons, and the hours. Their silent movement to the choir stalls to pray the Divine Office speaks to the deepest part of the human soul.

From prayers to paradox, today’s monasteries are also far from any stereotype or sweeping generalities. They are busy places and Assumption Abbey is no different. Like the secular world it is teeming with activity: jobs and responsibilities and deadlines. Some confreres work at home while others work off-campus in nearby towns. Some are assigned posts requiring them to be gone for long periods of time or commute many North Dakota miles. Like most businesses today the Abbey’s work is done by fewer people than needed to easily manage the job.

There are also the basics of managing a busy monastic household of a “very big family” and, of course, their many friends. Their guest facilities host countless groups and workshops throughout the year. Their services and liturgy welcome everyone to pause and join them. As a result, there are groceries to buy, meals to prepare, gardens to tend, planting and harvest, oil changes, appointments to keep and…(pause)…candles to light.

Speaking of guests, one aspect of life at Assumption Abbey is the Benedictine hallmark commitment to hospitality. This obligation has been elevated from the Rule which states “Let all be received as Christ.” The simple act of welcoming strangers is to be in community/communion with the human family.

Not only do they welcome guests at the Abbey, they also welcome new members to their community and they ask us to join them in prayer for new members to share their hospitable and spiritual journey. Once again, the monks demonstrate giving and receiving and a generosity of spirit that we can spend a life-time learning.

But it is “Pray and Work,”** the peace and silence, the rhythm of the Hours that is an ever-present reminder of the need for balance in our lives: the reminder to “press pause,” to reflect, and listen.

*RB Prologue 1: Listen with the ear of your heart.

**RB Chapter 48