Benedictine ties run deep in our family. My husband attended a Benedictine boarding academy for high school. Then we met and fell in love as students at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
It comes as no surprise, then, that when I visit a Benedictine monastery, I often feel right at home. Missouri’s Conception Abbey and Seminary College proved no exception. Before I even entered the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception with my husband and children, we were blessed to encounter Benedictine Abbot Gregory Polan, who was out for a walk with another monk. We introduced ourselves and immediately began chatting about common professors, mentors and friends.
Compared to the basilica’s commanding exterior facade, I was surprised to find its interior initially rather stark. After all, the pillars from the floor up to a point well over my head were painted a solid, neutral shade, with little adornment. I learned later that the fledgling Swiss community’s first abbot specifically chose the Romanesque style in 1873 over the more popular and ornate Baroque style to create a simple yet dignified structure.
Only when my eyes rose to the ceiling did I begin to grasp the beauty displayed within these walls — or more precisely on them.
An array of painted angels grace the ceiling, painted in blues and mauves and studded with a multitude of gold stars. From above the altar, golden rays radiate from a stunning image of Mary as the Immaculate Conception — who we celebrate on Dec. 8 — depicted crushing a serpent beneath her feet, with a crown of 12 stars around her head (Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12:1-2).
According to the handy self-guided tour pamphlet that I found in the foyer, this layered dynamic was designed intentionally to symbolize not two, but three levels: the earth (including the pews and the altar); the perfection to which we strive (Mary and the saints); and the heavenly Kingdom (the angels and Jesus on his throne). I kept this in mind as I continued my tour.
Near the traditional monastic choir stalls, where the monks gather six times each day for community prayer, I noticed a group of young men discerning a priestly vocation. So as not to disturb them, we tiptoed up the aisle, taking in the beauty around us.
The 22 murals covering the upper sanctuary walls looked magnificent and provided much fodder for conversation with our children about the lives of Mary, St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica.
These "Beuronese Murals" (named after the German abbey where the style emerged) appear to be a Providential addition to the original church. When a tornado wreaked havoc on the brand-new abbey just two years after its dedication in 1891, the monks hand-painted these masterpieces during reconstruction. Some are the only remaining replicas in the world of paintings that were destroyed in European churches during World War II.
As I continued to explore the basilica’s sanctuary, I noticed a small adoration chapel off to the right. After pausing for a few minutes of prayer, I meandered back behind the main altar, finding several treasures there, too. In fact, these images became my personal favorites.
Directly below the brilliant painting of the Immaculate Conception mentioned earlier, I noticed an unpainted statue of the Blessed Mother dating back to the 14th century. I learned that the bird in her hand was likely a goldfinch. Legend holds that the creature received its patch of red feathers by plucking a bloody thorn from Christ’s head during his bitter passion.
Icons of Sts. Benedict and Joseph flanked Mary’s image on either side of the basilica’s apse. As I reflect back on these striking pieces, created by a cloistered Benedictine nun at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, I realize what makes all Benedictine monasteries so incredibly comforting: the vow of stability.
This fourth vow that Benedictines take — along with poverty, chastity and obedience — is evident everywhere. It echoes in the sound of chant during the regularly scheduled Liturgy of the Hours and radiates in the sight of the monks’ black hoods hanging mysteriously from their long black robes. As a mother of four young children, I find the rhythm of life practiced here — coined by St. Benedict as ora et labora (prayer and work) — so attractive.
I pray that my admiration for the monks’ rule may take shape in my own efforts to fight the dizzying pace of modern family life and to instead create a sense of interior and exterior peace in my own home, in Advent and always.
Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey
P.O. Box 501
37174 State Hwy. VV
Conception, MO 64433