A View from Weltenburg: Living in Community

Zach Miller-

This summer, with a Staley Grant offered through the Chaplain’s Office, I was able to split three weeks between two Catholic monasteries in southern Germany. I went to compare the Christian faith I have grown up with to the Christian faith I found in these established communities, and to meditate on the role these beliefs should play when caring for those who are approaching the end of their lives. I entered these communities alone, but in my discomfort I learned to lean on human commonalities that are bound by neither experience nor language.

Human connection is often associated with emotional well-being, but the effects of healthy community, or a lack of it, manifest themselves physically as well. Conversations about end-of-life care with monks living in the monasteries were unfocused and unproductive, but I did get to spend some time with a medical doctor at Abtei Oberschönenfeld, the first monastery I visited. She practices in Berlin, still sees entire families in their homes, and made it very clear that the health of older individuals is often interwoven with the health of their family. Elderly family members can live longer, happier lives when they actually live with young, healthy, loving relatives who allow them to have a role in the household and in family affairs. This is the kind of community that can give life, but is it only possible within families? Can it be built in a monastery? What about at Davidson?

Several days later, as I tried to make my way from Abtei Oberschönenfeld to Kloster Weltenburg, I wound up in the passenger seat of a stranger’s car. The young man asked me where I was traveling from, and, embarrassed that my German was even worse than usual after a lonely, stressful day, I told him I lived in North Carolina. I was so grateful for him and his mother. They had decided to spend their evening gardening one bus stop beyond where I had meant to get off, and without their help I don’t know how I could have made it six kilometers back to Kloster Weltenburg before sunset. Looking back, I am grateful I missed my stop. They had no reason to help me – a sweaty American with a clunky pack – but they didn’t even think about it. It was the most biblical display of brotherly love I witnessed on the entire trip. Two strangers were able to raise my spirits and let my body rest.

In these instances, the power hidden in community felt nearly within reach, but my experiences at the monasteries were quite challenging. In a broad sense, it was difficult to come into tightly bound and very structured communities as an individual traveling alone. Even “universal” truths are clouded during the struggle to work through language, practice new rules of etiquette, and connect with new people. But if I am allowed to take away one big idea from my summer, it is that community, the kind that improves the quality of our life experiences, is possible wherever we are willing to be vulnerable. People of God, travelers in a foreign land, family members who are growing old – we all long for community that can heal. As we start a new semester, I would do well to reflect on the quality of the communities that are meaningful to me. Do I consider these people family? Would I interrupt a quiet evening to drive them home?

Zach Miller ’20 is an undeclared student from Morehead City, North Carolina. Contact him at zamiller@davidson.edu