A partnership in pear trees

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A partnership in pear trees

NAMYANGJU - In a cloister overlooking a vast stretch of pear trees in this small town 15 kilometers northeast of Seoul, the nine Catholic Benedictine monks of St. Joseph's Abbey spend most of their days in silence, reading scripture and praying. On cold winter days they go out to their pear orchard for a couple of hours to lop off low-hanging branches and spread new soil on the ground. Though they do spend some time in the dining room checking e-mails from home or watching Television, the monks are more often in what they joke among themselves as "cells," talking to God.

"It gets quite unbearable if your faith starts to fall apart," Brother Joseph Paik, 40, says. He joined the abbey nine years ago after spending a few months at the Missionary of Love, a local group affiliated with Mother Theresa's order. Before that, he stayed briefly at a Trappist abbey, whose residents led stricter lives and were more faithful to the monastic traditions of the Benedictines. There, he only exchanged a few spoken words a day, often communicating through sign language when it was needed. Because of his spiritual leanings, Brother Joseph liked the Trappist monastery very much, but when it could no longer afford to support four monks, he had to leave.

Brother Paik stops at a wooden bench where he brushes away dry leaves for his visitor to sit. While fixing his gray woolen ski hat, he shyly acknowledges that he finds it hard to stay out in the cold too long because of his shaved head. "But this is awfully comfortable," he says. His pink hands, already swollen from the cold, rest gently under his scarfula, a long piece of cloth that hangs like an apron over his black robe - the same style worn by Benedictine monks for more than 500 years. The order has always been known as the "Black Monks."

Shaved heads are not a Benedictine tradition. After the order came to the peninsula, Korean monks began to worry that life at the monastery was becoming too Eurocentric. So they co-opted some Buddhist traditions, such as sitting on the floor instead of chairs during the daily Mass in the chapel, as well as the shorn hair. To accommodate the floor-sitters, the monks in Namyangju use a shorter altar that resembles a small coffee table.

On Christmas Eve, when the monastery welcomes many visitors from outside for its special, three-hour Mass, people more accustomed to pews often complain that their legs start to cramp up. But every year they come back to the chapel and file in hours before the service to secure good seats to enjoy the reverent atmosphere of the place. That humble ambiance also draws many guests to stay at a small retreat house near the chapel throughout the year.

The Namyangju abbey is an annex of the St. Benedictine Monastery in Ouegwan, North Gyeongsang province. The Ouegwan abbey was relocated during the Korean War from its original site in Deokwon, North Korea. The group of German and Korean monks settled near the Nakdong River in a temporary dwelling, planning to return to Deokwon as soon as the war ended. But the Communists demolished the Deokwon abbey, and with it the monks' hope of returning home.

Out in the front yard of the monastery, people can often be seen leaving the chapel with a carton of monk-made pear juice, which are chief means of support for St. Joseph's Abbey. The juice, which sells 13,000 won ($10) for a large carton, is made from the left over pears they picked over the harvest season. Later in the afternoon, when the chill has turned bitter, Brother Joseph kindly asks his guest to change seats on the wooden bench, so that he can block the wind with his back. He shivers as a gust shakes the bare branches of a tree above. "Forgive me if I stutter," he says.

Before devoting his life to religious pursuits, Brother Joseph was an electrical engineer. He reached a spiritual watershed just before he turned 30 when he felt inspired to restore the meaning of his life "from the beginning." "I realized then that I had lived a misdirected life," he says. Within a few months, he had taken his vows to lead a monk's life. Some people would call that fate, but he prefers the term "God's calling."

A typical day at the monastery for Brother Joseph starts and ends with a prayer. He wakes up at 4:30 in the morning, engages in quiet prayer until the morning Mass at 6, eats breakfast, heads out to the field for a couple of hours, says his rosary, eats dinner and ends the day with an evening prayer in the chapel at 8. Once in a while the noise of people shouting from a Christian revival house that neighbors the monastery rouses him in the middle of night, but otherwise he sleeps soundly through to the next morning. Brother Joseph says that keeping life simple and providing spiritual comfort to the world are the two most important objectives for Benedictine monks.

Back in the dining room, where priests often sip tea between hearing confessions, Father Pacomio Choi, 31, appears. One of two priests at the abbey, Father Pacomio entered the monastery as soon as he graduated from high school. His confession appointment was a no-show. Instead he fixes some instant coffee and sits down for a talk.

Father Choi says that the role of monks in this day and age is not dissimilar to the influence that "big hand" investors have in the stock markets. Small-timers are willing to take risks on uncertain stocks only when they see the big shots investing their money. Father Choi dares to confront that kind of uncertainty. He says he'll have no regrets even if all the things he was taught by the abbots and senior priests one day turn out to be false. His faith today, he says, is as strong now as ever.

"But even if things do turn out to be untrue, I think I'll be all right," he says.

To get to St. Joseph's Abbey, take subway line 1 to Seokgye station, then exit 3 to bus 45-2. Take the bus to the last stop, Bulamsan. The abbey is a five-minute walk. For more information, call 031-527-8115.

by Park Soo-mee

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