From seventh to 12th grade, I attended a monastery school in the St. Louis suburbs founded by English Benedictines. The institution, while imperfect like any other, constitutes nonetheless a rather wonderful admixture of tradition and modernity. Successfully reconciling these opposing tendencies strikes me as rather miraculous, particularly in these fractured times. I wish more of us could find the patience to learn how.
The monks live according to the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict, teaching Latin and Greek to boys born in the digital age. While Benedict (c. A.D. 480–550) wrote the Rule as a guide for autonomous groups of religious in sixth-century Italy, even for today’s secular societies it encourages habits of worth—above all humility, but also moderation, hard work, a love of learning, the responsibility of the individual to the group, a spirit of hospitality, a just distribution of necessities, and care for the sick, the young, and the elderly.
My own appreciation of the Rule is practically genetic: My grandfather helped found the monastery and school; my father was in the first graduating class and in his old age became an oblate, a sort of monastic affiliate. But one need not be a monk or an alumnus of the school to get it. A walk around the grounds will convey the idea in architectural terms. The spirit of the place reflects the ways of the community.
On the rolling wooded property, formerly a country estate, the original turn-of-the-century Georgian brick house and wood-frame outbuildings continue in active use, interspersed with modest midcentury modern blocks by St. Louis–based HOK. The poured-concrete church, the sole instance of willful manmade display on the 150 acres, was designed by Gyo Obata, FAIA, with Pier Luigi Nervi according to a centralized plan as old as Constantine the Great; during mass, its improbably thin parabolic vaults reverberate with liturgical plainsong dating to the 12th century.
These architectonic and social values returned to me this summer, in the south of France, where I visited Sénanque Abbey. Founded in 1148 by Cistercian monks who opposed the worldliness of such celebrated medieval abbeys as Cluny and Fleury and were determined instead to observe the Rule by the strictest possible interpretation, the abbey is sited in a deep Provençal valley amid fields of lavender. It’s gorgeous.
As in St. Louis, the design of the Sénanque Abbey complex makes a formal and structural virtue of Benedict’s simple injunctions, but according to the Romanesque architectural conventions of the time and region: individual stones laid straight, one upon the other; thick walls and vaults that retain nighttime cool under the Mediterranean sun; a single heated room, or calefactory, where the monks gathered in winter to copy old manuscripts. (Today the monks harvest and sell the lavender to make their living.)
Modern existence, at home and at work, affords far too few opportunities to exercise the qualities that Benedict proselytized. Despite, or perhaps because of this, his teachings remain supremely relevant. Take or leave the explicit references to God. The Rule could easily serve as the basis for an ethical, sustainable, and resilient practice of contemporary architecture, one that harnesses individual creative will to the common good, makes much of limited resources, and builds to endure. Humility can be a powerful design tool.