Holy, Holy, Holistic

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The good sisters of Arenberg, a Dominican convent in Koblenz in western Germany, aren’t getting much peace and quiet these days. Workmen clamber over the scaffolding that covers the convent’s 19th century brick buildings, while earth-moving equipment attacks the frozen ground. But the noisy work serves a worthy goal — offering the benefits of the contemplative life to an audience of paying customers. The Arenberg convent’s once somber guesthouse and sanatorium are being transformed into a bright and airy “wellness and meditation center.” Why? It was a matter of financial life and death, explains Sister Maris Stella, the prioress. The sisters could no longer afford to live off the subsidies they receive from their order, so the 65 Dominican nuns (whose average age is about 70) resolved to turn the convent into a profitable, self-supporting enterprise. “We had to decide whether we wished to live or die,” Sister Maris Stella says. “We wished to live.”

The Arenberg sisters’ predicament is shared by religious communities throughout Germany. Between 1970 and 2001, the number of nuns in Germany has declined from about 70,000 to 30,000. As fewer faithful take holy orders, the average age of nuns and monks is increasing, meaning that fewer and fewer clergy are able to perform work in the hospitals, sanatoriums and other institutions owned by their orders. Higher-paid nonreligious personnel have to be employed to do their jobs. To cope with these new economic realities, an increasing number of Germany’s 3,300 Catholic monasteries are opening businesses — and finding willing customers. “More and more people, especially from high-pressure professions, feel the need to escape from hectic everyday life,” says market researcher Joachim Scholz from the German National Tourist Board in Frankfurt-Main. The Arenberg sisters hope that people from all faiths will flock to their center. The visitors will find a peaceful, shady herb garden and candle-lit chapel overlooking the rolling, wooded hills of the Eifel region, beckoning them to sit, relax and think. At a 70% occupancy rate, they could bring the order €2 million a year.

Some monasteries simply allow guests to take part in daily prayers, while others offer meditation and bible classes, physical exercise courses and spiritual counseling. “The cloisters have realized that they have a product they can market: a meaningful way of life,” says Arnulf Salmen, press spokesman for the Association of Superiors of German Orders, an umbrella organization for German monasteries.

The people who come to Frankfurt’s I-Punkt, an information center run by the Catholic Church, are in search of a meaningful way of life — at least for a long weekend. At I-Punkt, clients “wish to have some quiet and peaceful time to find themselves,” says Sister Dolores, a Franciscan nun who works at the shop. Several hundred people book a cloister stay each year, she says, but demand has increased so much that some monasteries have begged to be taken off the agency’s list.

Monastic entrepreneurs are using the Internet to reach customers. The busy Benedictine monks at the Ettal monastery in Upper Bavaria are not only selling their famous beer and herb liqueur online, they are even planning to install a couple of webcams so customers can see the splendid Baroque basilica. “We live on tourism,” says Brother Georg, the website’s administrator. “That’s why we want to show people the beauty of the monastery.”

The five brothers at the St. Franziskus monastery in Dietfurt, Bavaria, offer a variety of Zen, qigong [a form of Chinese exercise and meditation], and tai chi classes as well as Christian contemplation. Father Nathanael, St. Franziskus’ guardian, thinks Eastern wisdom and Christianity go well together. “Zen is a form of meditation that can lead to other levels of consciousness,” he says. “We supply the spiritual basis.”

Critics argue that making a business out of spirituality demeans the faith. But the clergy say there is much more than their own financial welfare at stake. The mission of the Dominican nuns, for example, is “the salvation of the world.” If saving the world means a convent needs a pub, phytotherapy sessions and a jacuzzi, then Arenberg’s Sister Maris Stella says so be it. “We tried to find out what people need today and then offer them new forms of spiritual guidance and assistance to find it,” she says. God does work in mysterious ways.