< SWITCH ME >
|Written by Kina Markova|
Weed. Red lights. Amsterdam. These are the first three words almost every young European associates to a trip to the Netherlands. Usually these words come along with a story of coffee shop hopping, space cake eating, throwing up on the street and losing consciousness in the Amsterdam trams. While weed and red lights are indisputably part of Dutch society despite the recent changes in legislation, they epitomise just a very small part of what the Netherlands has to offer. That's why this article is not dedicated to the madness of Amsterdam's touristic areas but to a place which represents the complete opposite of that: the Stoutenburg Castle and the Franciscan Ecological Project it houses. Stoutenburg is a "modern day monastery" where spirituality is not just a vague word excessively used in women's magazines but something real which emerges in the connection between human beings and environment.
I first visited Stoutenburg a few months ago to attend the introductory weekend of the "Improve the world" traineeship for realistic idealists. To be honest, I was not exactly thrilled by the idea of spending two nights sleeping in a monastery. I expected a dismal grey building with dimmed candlelight and uncomfortable wooden beds. The inhabitants of Stoutenburg I imagined to be ascetics, living in austerity and denouncing the earthly pleasures in pursuit of salvation. Obviously, I did not check Stoutenburg's website before visiting it so I left my imagination go wild and paint pictures of Umberto-Eco-style monasteries.
Located close to the city of Amersfoort, Stoutenburg Castle is rather difficult to reach with public transport (definitely not reachable by plane) so with the rest of the people joining the traineeship, we decided to take a taxi bus from Amersfoort Central Station. After a fifteen-minute drive, the bus driver threw us out in the middle of a thick forest, miles away from anything as modern as a telephone cabin. After the first few steps, The-Name-of-the-Rose-sceneries crumbled in my head when the first sneakers-wearing monk approached me with a loaded plate of organic ginger-chocolate cookies.
I spent the next two days engaged in rather intensive training sessions, however I never felt tired. Quite the opposite - I felt energised by the surrounding harmony and the delicious vegetarian food, prepared by Stoutenburg's inhabitants with vegetables grown in their own kitchen garden. When I left the monastery to go back to my usual hectic life of conference calls, emails and Excel sheets, I felt curious about the philosophy behind the Franciscan Ecological Project and the people who join it.
So, I contacted Marco Ganzeman to learn more about the life of a "modern day monk." Marco joined the convent in 1996 as a result of his quest for unity. He explains that prior to becoming part of the project, he felt that there was "the working Marco," "the sporty Marco," "the friends and family Marco"… At Stoutenburg Castle they all became one. But he didn't only find himself, but also a real community and the sense of belonging to it. At Stoutenburg, men, women and children are welcomed to live together, led by religious principles (both Christian and Asian) and following a monastic rhythm. This means that all habitants of the cloister have two prayer moments every day during the week. In the morning they usually go for a walk in the idyllic surroundings, accompanied by a song and a reading, selected by one of the members. In the evening the prayer takes place inside and also includes meditation.
These rituals embody how Marco understands 'religion'. For him, the essence of religion can be understood from the Latin word "religare" (to reconnect, to bind together). In this sense, religion is not limited to dogmas and abstract concepts such as heaven and hell but can be applied in daily life by reconnecting with God through nature. This translates to simple activities such as strolling through the woods or working in Stoutenburg's kitchen garden. Marco, for example, relishes the opportunity to experience vegetables not as something bought from the supermarket and imported from "who knows which country" but as something you have sowed with your own hands.
However, don't be tempted to think that life at Stoutenburg is only about weeding the herb bed and rediscovering the connection to the Creator while meditating in a hammock. It also involved a great deal of hard work and mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning, budgeting and all the administrative stuff every normal household requires. And that's exactly what the Castle is today to Marco; his home. During this time of the year, life is also about football. Marco and his fellow monks are fervent supporters of the Dutch football team and watch with great passion the Euro 2012 on the TV in their living room.
So if you feel like throwing out your Blackberry, setting your suit on fire and turning your backon corporate life after reading this article, wait for a second before you jump on the next train to Amersfoort. Unfortunately, Stoutenburg is not open for individual visits but if you want experience "monastery life" and learn more about it before making any life-changing decisions, you can sign up for a "Try-it-yourself-week" or go to one of the information days.
Teaser Photo: Franciscaans Milieuproject Stoutenburg