Mountain climbing Benedictine monks ‘seek things above’

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Mountain climbing Benedictine monks
Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB and Br. Cyril Drnjevic, OSB gather on the roof above the monastery reading room before the early morning office of vigils. Mount Hood stands in the background. (OSV News photo/courtesy Mount Angel Abbey)

(OSV News) — Mountain climbing — physical and spiritual — is both a passion and life’s work for two Benedictine monks of Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Oregon.

Brother Cyril Drnjevic and Brother Ambrose Stewart were each drawn to mountain climbing before finding the monastery. When they entered Mount Angel Abbey, perched high on a butte in the heart of the Willamette Valley, both possessed a desire to “seek things above” by living the Rule of St. Benedict. They retained a sense of adventure, incorporating it into their lives of prayer and work and cherishing the ability to climb on their vacations — much as did those first monks from Engelberg, Switzerland, who settled there in 1882.

Brother Cyril and Brother Ambrose told OSV News they had hoped to climb the nearby Mount Hood, which towers off in the distance just over 75 miles northeast of Mount Angel Abbey, at sunrise on Aug. 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. At an imposing 11,239 feet above sea level, the majestic — and potentially active — stratovolcano makes it the perfect challenge, and it’s practically in their own backyard.

The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration recalls the account, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, of Jesus ascending a high mountain with his apostles Peter, James and John. On the mountain — unnamed in Gospel accounts but believed in ancient Christian tradition to be Mount Tabor in Israel — Jesus becomes radiantly brilliant before them, and Elijah and Moses both appear, speaking with Jesus. Finally, a voice from a bright cloud identifies Jesus to the three apostles as “my beloved Son” and tells them: “listen to him.”

Despite the draw of physically ascending Mount Hood while contemplating the spiritual mystery of the Transfiguration, the mountain’s melting snow and ice and loose rocks make the terrain treacherous in late summer. Volatile weather conditions can create dangerous conditions, so the U.S. Forest Service at Mount Hood National Forest does not advise an August climb.

So, the monks and those who were planning to join them have to wait until next June to engage Mount Hood. Not to be deterred, the Benedictines have taken this change of plan as an invitation to further train for a climb in June of 2024.

“Mount Hood is the second most heavily hiked glaciated mountain in the world,” said Brother Cyril, 64, who will serve as lead for next summer’s climb. He caught the hiking bug in the Boy Scouts at age 12, made his first 50-mile hike at age 13, and climbed his first glaciated mountain at 14. “It’s a long process to train,” he said. “If you train really well your body becomes climatized.”

Climbing Mount Rainier

He prepared for a climb up Mount Rainier in Washington state 15 years ago by running with weights, and at higher elevations. An avid mountain climber for 50 years, he plans to prepare for the Mount Hood climb by training with a friend he’s hiked with for five decades. They’ll climb up to Eagle Cap in northeastern Oregon in the coming weeks.

Brother Ambrose, 32, says he was always interested in the outdoors. “In college is when I first encountered people who did outdoor sports intentionally,” he recalled. In 2010, he started hiking with friends. They would go on a climb, set up camp and hike back down the next day.

“After graduating from college, I had a job and hung out with some adventurous friends who liked to climb,” Brother Ambrose said. While at the diocesan seminary for the Archdiocese of Seattle he began hiking with fellow seminarians who formed a Frassati Society, named for Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young Italian who loved climbing.

After five years in seminary Brother Ambrose discerned that monasticism was his true calling, entering the abbey in June of 2021. To prepare for the Mount Hood climb next June, Brother Ambrose plans to remain active. “I’m a soccer player, so I will continue with that. I also play ultimate frisbee, and do a little weight training,” he said. Like Brother Cyril, he also plans to go on runs up and down the winding, tree-lined drive on abbey grounds to prepare for what they will encounter as they ascend Mount Hood.

St. Benedict and hills

Over 1,500 years ago, St. Benedict of Nursia established a tradition of founding his monasteries on hills and mountains, so climbing is a part of the Benedictine DNA, with spiritual climbing — rooted in Judeo-Christian history — an integral part of Benedictine spirituality. Wrote St. Benedict, “… we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life” (RB 7:5)

Both Brother Cyril and Brother Ambrose see God’s divine providence in the spiritual journey they are on as they live out their lives at Mount Angel Abbey. Abbot Jeremy Driscoll encourages the 48 members of the community to “seek things above,” quoting Col 3:1, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

Brother Cyril explains, “The more important climbing is the spiritual — so “Seek Things Above”, which is the abbot’s motto (and the community’s motto for this time), is not limited to the physical by any means.”

“Seeking things above is looking up and finding God, who is lifting us out of our challenges of life. We all climb spiritual mountains and anytime we try to transcend the challenges of this world we are climbing spiritual mountains,” he said.

For Brother Ambrose, “There’s always been this thing inside me, this desire to go further, to go higher and closer and closer to God, to overcome obstacles, challenge myself and grow in virtue and obtain the goal,” he said. “When I think of climbing a mountain, all that spiritual symbolism gets wrapped into the physical adventure I am undertaking. It feels like a more spiritual experience than just marveling over the beauty of nature.”

‘Verso l’alto’

He really relates mountain climbing to Blessed Pier Giorgio’ motto, “Verso l’alto”, meaning “toward the top.”

“That spiritual current really speaks to me,” Brother Ambrose said. “The spiritual journey is self-mastery and self-discipline in order to grow in virtue and grow towards God.”

“Whether you’re dealing with physical issues, personal relationships, etc., we can’t climb without help,” Brother Cyril said. “Prayer is a central climbing tool. The Lord is faithful and does guide us and helps us climb. The Eucharist is our strength, and that’s how we do any kind of spiritual mountain climbing.”

“Our lives will be transfigured when we understand that God’s path is always the one to follow,” he said. “It always leads up and it always leads to God.”

SueAnn Howell

SueAnn Howell writes for OSV News from North Carolina.