Augustinia Centre ‘De Boskapel’ becomes ‘Stadsklooster Mariken’

Ekkehard Muth

More | Personal Experiences

Augustinia Centre ‘De Boskapel’ becomes ‘Stadsklooster Mariken’

Ekkehard Muth

More | Personal Experiences

How often have the monasteries been the salvation of the church? Whenever the church became too secularized, it was brought back to the essence of tradition by the monasteries. And when the church got stuck in its own traditionalism, the monasteries started renewal again. And how often were monasteries not also the salvation of society, as beacons of civilization, refuge for the sick, keepers of art and science, places of education, training and thus emancipation? Perhaps it is no coincidence that monasteries are so popular these days. The monasteries as place of tradition and innovation. Would that work again today?

The Boskapel in Nijmegen comes from the monastery tradition. As the chapel of the Augustinians, it was designated after the Second Vatican Council as one of the seven official places of experiment in the country to implement the Council’s innovations. This was perfect for the Augustinians, not only because they had produced a reformer before, but mainly because the spirituality of Augustine himself always calls for change and progress. ‘Keep going, keep making progress. Because as soon as you complacently say it is enough, you will perish ”(Sermon 169:18).

Keep on going

When the Augustinians in 2009 could no longer sustain the Boskapel, the Boskapel community took Augustine’s words to heart and continued independently in the Augustijns Centrum de Boskapel Foundation. A part-time pastor was appointed and substantial investments were made in the choir, church music and liturgy. In this way, the Boskapel could further expand its position as a ‘refuge’ for people who could no longer find their place in the established churches.

However, we were soon overtaken by the ever-accelerating progress of secularization. People just don’t look so much anymore at the churches, not even at churches that offer an alternative. At one point, we formulated the situation for us in this way: ‘In this day and age the question is no longer how the Boskapel can continue to exist, but the question is how meaning and spirituality can continue to exist in society at all. The future of the churches does not lie in further profiling but in collaboration. ‘

In the attempts to survive in our time of decline, you can see two lines in the churches: either the line of turning inward and returning to tradition, or the line of going out and renewal. So on the one hand the line of contraction, merger and withdrawal in, for example, Eucharistic centres. Or on the other hand the line of pioneering, looking outward and looking for new forms.

After a long process of brainstorming, searching and talking to each other, the Boskapel community decided at the end of 2019 to once again respond to Augustine’s ‘move ever further’. We have chosen the line of pioneering and outward orientation. From now on we will continue as Stadsklooster Mariken. A city monastery not as a walled-in claustrum, but a city monastery as an idea. The city monastery must be formed by church communities, educational centres, orders, social initiatives, thinkers and doers, seekers and seers, all of whom are connected to the City Monastery in whatever degree.

At the same time, we have also taken a close look at our tradition. The outward orientation is carried on the inside by the celebrations of the faith community. In this way we hope that tradition and innovation connect with each other. After all, the monasteries always did both: tradition and innovation. Will this monastic tradition be able to offer us a solution again in these times? – It’s going to be an exciting road.

City monastery in a wide landscape of spirituality

In the run-up to this step, the concept of ‘laura’ was brought to us at one point, the archetypal form of the monastery where the hermits lived separately, scattered in a wide area, in their cells and came together at set times to celebrate and to exchange goods and services. Mirella Klomp, assistant professor of practical theology at PThU, speaks in this context of ‘ecclesioscapes’, of landscapes where people share moments of spirituality in various places; think of: museums, concerts, The Passion, Matthew Passion, festivals, silent tours, lectures, exhibitions, meetings, etc. The Stadsklooster should not so much become a new institution, but a joint initiative to give a place to spirituality and meaning in every conceivable way. In 2016 the book by Petra Stassen and Ad van der Helm was published with the title ‘God has moved’. We must move with God.

We are in good company in doing so. Jeroen Jeroense has already propagated the ‘church as a monastery’ and after a bit of browsing on the internet you come across many similar companies. The PKN employs a specialist monastic church and even in orthodox Protestant circles they are working under the title ‘monastic different missionary’. Monastery glossies provide a glimpse into the wonderful world of the enclosure, and while enjoying a monastery beer, many look for the monk in themselves.

Deep breath

It was a long process. It took us six years from the first brainstorming session to the eventual establishment of the Mariken City Monastery. The idea was continuously developed further, we visited similar initiatives countless times, and we had many conversations, very many conversations. The ideas gradually became more concrete, at a certain point we chose a name ‘Stadsklooster Mariken’, because of Mariken van Nieumeghen’s daring to think and live outside the usual also ecclesiastical paths. After four years, we have brought all the ideas together in a memorandum ‘Stadsklooster Mariken – vision, identity, spirituality’.

The key points are:

The Mariken City Monastery builds a bridge between ecclesiastical and social spirituality and is thus a laboratory for a new way of being church.

Cross-pollination, Reinforcement, Quality improvement:

In the Stadsklooster ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical initiatives in the field of spirituality and sense of purpose work together. They learn from each other, strengthen each other, use each other’s expertise. This cross-fertilization provides innovative impulses for those involved, and leads to a quality improvement of the range of meaning available in Nijmegen and the surrounding area.

Church renewal and revitalization:

The broad cooperation and the dialogue with the social, non-ecclesiastical partners forces the church to translate its own spirituality over and over again. The Stadsklooster, for example, is a laboratory for church renewal.

Cohesion and quality of life:

In our neoliberal society, which is characterized by matter, efficiency and market forces, the Stadsklooster ensures that the transcending perspective, spirituality and meaning are given more space and attention in the public debate. The reflection on a transcending perspective and on shared values will contribute to cohesion and quality of life.

It has become a whole document, but if you read it carefully, you will discover that it does not so much record things, but that it mainly points out ways to go and explore. The Mariken City Monastery is not an organized trip, it is an expedition.

Travel companions

For this expedition we started looking for fellow travellers. The Stadsklooster should not become an institution, but a joint journey of ecclesiastical and social initiatives, a laura with cells of varying design. That is why, in the past six years, we have had, and still have, many conversations. Using our independence, we wanted to establish the City Monastery in freedom, but also in connection with what we call ‘the mother churches’. We presented the plans to the Nijmegen Council of Churches at an early stage, and we met with the Dean of Nijmegen. In a conversation with Mgr. Gerard de Korte, bishop of den Bosch, he gave us an adviser. We had a whole series of conversations with the PKN pioneer team. And we sat at the table with Mgr. Joris Vercammen, then archbishop of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands.

At the local level, on the other hand, we gradually ran into the reflex to turn inward in times of need, to hold on to our own individuality and to carry on as long as possible, even if this is accompanied by considerable substantive and financial concessions.

When the Ecumenical City Pastorate in Nijmegen wanted to talk about a possible merger, we asked them to become co-initiator of the Stadsklooster. We did not want to join the inward path of downsizing and merging, but we wanted to create something new together. We also worked together quite a bit on that road, until an unexpected internal issue arose at the ECP, the board therefore resigned and for the time being they no longer had the strength to help build the Stadsklooster.

For years we have been working with a parish that also has its roots in monastic spirituality. In the church building and the halls around it, there would be enough space for the Stadsklooster, and from the common roots it could possibly move from living in to living together. The first conversations were enthusiastic, the pastors team was completely satisfied. One of the pastors even handed us a postcard with the text: “Do you want to cohabitate with me?” – Until it became clear that the Stadsklooster mainly focuses on the outside, while the emphasis of the parish is nevertheless on community building and deepening the faith of its own community.

We talked to the Protestant Church in the Netherlands and the Protestant community of Nijmegen. Given the shrinkage situation there too, we wanted to consider together whether a jointly supported Stadsklooster might offer a perspective. At a certain point we were about to become a pioneering place, an ecumenical pioneering place that bridges the gap between the churches on the one hand, and between churches and society on the other. But here again the same reflex: instead of pioneering and exploring what being a church might look like, the plan was rejected because the PKN pioneer program clearly aims at the establishment of traditional congregations.

Meanwhile, the Protestant Church was planning to sell the Maranatha Church. A member of the Boskapel community, who does not want to be mentioned further, conceived the idea of buying the church from his own resources, renovating it and making it suitable so that Stadsklooster and the Protestant Congregation could live together (and perhaps grow towards each other). . A year followed with many conversations with the investor, many conversations with the Protestant Community of Nijmegen, guided tours of the building. Until major disagreement arose in the Protestant consistory about the very big steps. The entire sale was halted.

We are currently having talks with the Antonius Pilgrim House, an initiative from the Antonius van Padua location of the St. Stephen parish in Nijmegen. The Pilgrim House wants to be a place for pilgrims, but also for people on their way through life. In an old rectory, rooms should be installed for pilgrims and for people who need a temporary place. And there should be an inspiring program of reflection, lectures, walks, meals, etc. Pilgrim House and City Monastery could complement each other well. The talks are still ongoing, and we are curious where the joint journey will take us.

Two days

The contacts with secular, social initiatives were very different. On 5 and 6 October 2018 we organized a two-day event, which started with a symposium where twelve initiatives (7 of which are non-ecclesiastical and 3 of which have an ecclesiastical origin but are now independent) presented their work in the field of spirituality and meaning. In no particular order, these were Centrum voor Ontmoeting in Levensvragen, Vincent de Paul Center Nederland, Huis van Compassie, Ieder Talent Telt, SOL–identiteitsbegeleiding, Vol Vertrouwen Verder, Pelgrimshuis Antonius, Leerhuis Westerhelling, ZIN in Nijmegen, Pleisterplaats voor de Ziel, Centrum de Appel, OPEN Slowcafé. The chairman of the day was René Grotenhuis, chairman of the VKMO, association of Catholic social organizations and author of the book ‘Van Macht ontdaan’, in which he makes an appeal to see the crumbling of the institute as an opportunity for a completely different and new way of being church.

Without exception, all initiatives showed themselves open to far-reaching cooperation. However, the Stadsklooster idea turned out to be too late for two initiatives. They had been trying to survive on their own for too long. Together with the others, and there are more in Nijmegen, we will start building a ‘Samenwerkingsverband Spririscapes’. This will be the heart of the Stadsklooster. This is where cross-pollination must take place, here we mutually want to inspire each other, and ultimately we hope to increase the quality of life in our city through an improved and coordinated offer in the area of meaning.

On day two, independent religious communities, monastic initiatives, church renewal initiatives, orders and representatives of the mother churches came together. The day chair was Hendro Munsterman, theologian, journalist and Vatican watcher. Mirella Klomp introduced the day by pointing out the changing place of churches in the much broader landscape of spirituality, and the need to relate to this landscape. Leo Fijen (‘Klooster’ magazine) spoke about the longing for monastic spirituality. Thomas Quartier osb and Prior Provincial Paul de Wit OSA highlighted the broad landscape of spirituality from the point of view of the established monastic orders. On behalf of the mother churches spoke René de Reuver – PKN, Henk Jansen on behalf of Mgr. de Korte – RCC and Bernd Wallet – (then not yet archbishop of the) Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands. Embregt Wever (diocese of den Bosch) emphasized the vocation that emanates from a secularised society. Professor of ecumenism Peter Nissen spoke about a liquid church. Bart-Jan van Gaart explained how the Augustijns Verband seeks the connection between non-ecclesiastical and ecclesiastical initiatives that are inspired by Augustine. ‘Connecting specialist monastic church being’ Egbert van der Stouw gave an overview of innovative initiatives on a monastic basis. Hanna Rijken presented the pioneering place Evensong & Pub in Utrecht, initiated by PKN and OKKN.

With this extensive program of this two-day event, we placed the Mariken City Monastery in the context of a broad spiritual landscape of ecclesiastical and social spirituality.

Hear, but I cannot hear

With so much enthusiasm, say ‘from the outside’, we would not have expected that the actual resistance would come ‘from within’. Given the history of the Boskapel community – first as an experimental place for the innovations of the Second Vatican Council, then as a refuge for people who find it difficult to fit within the ecclesiastical rules, and finally as a community that decided in 2009 to continue the path of renewal as an independent church community. – with such a history and track record, we thought that innovation had become part of the Boskapel’s genes.

We had misjudged this. Our own community eventually also showed the familiar reflex of turning inward, keeping what you have, if necessary with drastic cuts in content and quality. – Frankly, this surprised us. In the past six years, every chapel meeting has discussed the necessary transition to a different way of being church. Not an issue of our church magazine that does not outline ideas about this change. But for many it remained a far cry from my bedside show. Afterwards, many people said that they did not think things would go that fast, that it is of course important to think about the future, but they saw it mainly as a matter for the board and the pastor.

Old burdens

This behaviour of turning inward and of ‘not wanting to’ was greatly reinforced by a skewed growth in the dynamics of the participants’ council. This participation body was once intended to allow the community to participate in a democratic manner in determining the common course. Over the years, however, a culture of an opposition body has emerged in the participants’ council. Instead of actively cooperating in the ups and downs of the community, people have increasingly ended up in a ‘controlling position afterwards’. Moreover, it appeared that a flaw in the articles of the association made it possible to end up in a stalemate in which the board no longer had any room for manoeuvre.

Even before this entire transition process, it was clear that this development and the flaw in the statutes might endanger the community. But never had the pressure been great enough to engage the problem. At the reunification of East and West Germany there was talk of ‘Altlasts’, say old burdens, debts, environmental charges, overdue maintenance, etc. It would have been better to clean up these Altlasts from the history of the Boskapel first, now they were a life-size obstacle.

Whenever the board appealed to the participants’ council that they were also responsible for the preservation and development of the community, it was stated that the board should present solutions and that they wanted to see whether the community wanted this. This skewed dynamics and the statutory flaw created a situation of mistrust that caused a great deal of damage to the community. As a result, development has practically stood still for two years (!).

Again, always move on

Despite all the opposition, we have continued to further develop the plans, to establish contacts and to work in the city-monastery-way. The hope was that if it became visible here and there what it would look like, the community might be able to join in more easily. The fact that many attempts at cooperation and cohabitation were killed in this period did not exactly help. All in all, this last period has cost a lot of crumb. People, but also the community of the Boskapel itself almost went down in the process.

Nevertheless, the process eventually started to move again. In the spring of 2019 it turned out that the terms of office had expired for half of the members of the participantscouncil. New people joined the council who were no longer interested in who was right or who was wrong, but who saw the urgency that this stalemate should no longer continue. In addition, more and more voices from the Boskapel community that urged the board and participants’ council to finally come to a solution. It was jointly agreed to see whether statutes could be drawn up that would both do justice to the city monastery ideas and in which the church community could retain its character. Because of the distrust that had arisen in the meantime, the statutes became the subject of tough negotiations down to the millimetre. But in the end it worked out.

With the result, we went back to the community. In a chapel meeting we gave text and explanation about the process and the results of these negotiations. We opened the chapel meeting with a ritual centred around a pilgrim’s staff to which a knapsack was attached. Due to all the struggles, the knapsack had become so heavy that we could not make any progress. Together we removed the heavy stones, the stones of mistrust, anger and disappointment. After an evening of many questions, listening and talking, we finally filled our knapsack with burning hearts, writing how each of us wanted to keep our hearts burning. Some just wrote their names to become the heart and soul of the Mariken City Monastery themselves. After the approval by the religious community, the chairmen of the participants’ council and the board signed the decision to amend the statutes and thus to make the transition from Boskapel to Stadsklooster Mariken.

Pilgrim's staff

Despite the difficult period at the end, it was an exciting process with a lot of inspiration in collaborative brainstorming, with conversations that broadened our horizons, with exploring our vocation in the broad landscape of spirituality. But after six years we are not there yet, no, now is only the beginning. The pilgrim’s staff with a knapsack full of good provisions leans in the doorway and can’t wait to set out with us. Augustine’s call to “keep going further” is louder than ever.

About the author

Ekkehard Muth