A look behind the abbey walls

A look behind the abbey walls -

Silence. And the smell of incense. These are the impressions you are left with after visiting Disentis Abbey. Life seems to proceed at a different pace here, as if the hectic world outside just bounces off the abbey walls. But then the school bell rings and the pupils of the secondary school gush into the corridors chattering – time does not stand still after all. A look behind the walls of the abbey with Abbot Vigeli Monn.

It has watched over Disentis for centuries now: the Benedictine abbey with its two-towered church in Baroque style. The abbey was founded in around 700 AD and, in terms of architecture, has not changed its appearance since the late seventeenth   century. Abbot Vigeli leads us through what seems to be a maze of buildings, staircases and corridors he calls home. At this time of day – just after eleven – it is very quiet in the impressive abbey church. But not for much longer because the abbey's corridors will soon be teeming with monks coming together to say their daily noon prayer.

Following a tight timetable

Hectic is an unknown quantity here and, yes, life does seem to proceed at a different pace – slower but nevertheless very precise: "The alarm clock rings at five because our first prayers of the day, vigil and lauds, are at half past. After breakfast, we have time to meditate before we celebrate mass at half past seven. Then everyone goes about his own duties from half past eight until half past eleven before we all meet up at quarter to twelve for noon prayers. After lunch we have a break before we start work again at half past one, finishing at five. At six we come together for sung vespers, and then we have our evening meal. We have a break until eight, when it is time for evening prayers, followed by the great silence: the monks retire, work, read or go to bed." Yes, Abbot Vigeli Monn and the 27 fathers and brothers in Disentis Abbey live life according to a timetable.

«The new monks are given their cowls overlooking the original walls – beautiful symbolism.»
Abbot Vigeli Monn

Where abbey and school meet

But nevertheless – or perhaps in fact because of that – hurrying seems an alien concept here. It is almost as if the abbey walls protect the world inside from the world outside, as if all the haste and restlessness are deadened by the thick walls. Abbot Vigeli is now sitting in the small Marienkirche church. The walls here are decorated with votive pictures, a form of giving thanks for being saved from a dire situation. Are the monks hiding from reality? Not at all! The guiding principle of the abbey is quite aptly: tradition and renewal. And when the school bell rings at lunchtime, the abbey corridors are filled with a babble of young voices – and the world "outside" mingles with the world "within". The Benedictine Abbey of Disentis has been running a school for centuries. It has been an advanced secondary school since 1880. Today, around 180 pupils at the school are preparing for their school leaving examination; around 45 of them are boarding pupils. An important symbiosis: "The boarding school is of great significance; after all, it has a role to play in the financing of the school as a whole," explains Abbot Vigeli. But the abbey and school are two separate worlds explains the abbot as he takes us further and further behind the old walls. Although: as modern and as cosmopolitan as the school is – the pupils can be members of any faith – the connection to the abbey is both visible and palpable. Seven of the 35 teachers are monks; Abbot Vigeli himself is one of them, teaching the students Latin and RE. And, if nothing else, the pupils attend the abbey services at the start and end of the school year as well as on special feast days.

The place of origin

The school noise has now subsided and Abbot Vigeli shows us a small underground prayer room, the Placi crypt, the abbey's place of power, where new monks are vested. Behind a pane of glass you can see the original abbey walls – the foundations dating back to 700 AD. "If you become a monk here in Disentis Abbey, this is where you receive your monk's cowl – looking onto the original walls of the abbey. That's a nice, and symbolic, touch," says Abbot Vigeli. Just a few more steps and we are back outside, standing in the courtyard of the abbey, featuring a well by Georg Malin. The artist from Liechtenstein was himself once a pupil at the Disentis Abbey school. Our route takes us back into the church and through the quiet abbey corridors; suddenly, we are in front of the abbey gates – back into the world outside. Down in the village, a red Rhaetian Railway train is pulling into the station. What is the connection between the abbey and RhB, we ask just before we leave. "Well, Rhaetian Railway brings the people and particularly our students to Disentis, to the abbey. We can even submit our preferences for the timetable so that it corresponds to our lesson times. But whether RhB actually takes them into consideration is no doubt a different matter," Abbot Vigeli laughs.