When Brother Steven and Brother Peter moved from Detroit to the northernmost tip of upper Michigan to establish a Benedictine monastery, they saw beyond the five dilapidated buildings of a former summer resort. They envisioned a thriving monastery set into 2,000 acres of wilderness land and a majestic abbey built from red Jacobsville sandstone on a hillside, overlooking the Lake Superior beaches of the singularly beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula.
Five years after their arrival, the Society of St. John at Jacobs Falls is still a miniature community of only two monks. But the brothers' vision for the future is as strong as ever.
The daily struggle for survival and the slow growth of their idea has not discouraged them. They never expected their dream would become reality in their lifetime. ``In three hundred years, maybe!'' they say.
For many, their first contact with the monks is through the ``Jampot,'' a roadside store and outlet for the wild berry jams, breads, and cakes the brothers produce as a source of revenue.
Benedictines traditionally support themselves through agricultural work, and the berry business is a local adaptation to the conditions in this northern region. There is such an abundance of wild berries in the Keweenaw that the 1,000 cases of jam the monks plan to make in the summer will use only 5 percent of the plenty.
Customers come from afar to take home a jar of poorrock jam, named so after the prevalence of poorrock in the Keweenaw, the rock left over after copper has been extracted.
Abandoned mining sites, witness of the turn-of-the-century copper boom in this area, are a favorite growing place for berries, say the monks, and a reminder of the transitoriness of the works of man.
``While the land still bears the marks of the ravages of man, nature dominates it more and more. And we try to live our lives close to nature,'' says Brother Peter.
The Jampot provides not only funds for the monastery, but also allows for contact with the outside world. They have been able to pay off their land contract, insulate their living quarters, and put in a well and other improvements. They are now finishing a cloistered community building, in which they will be able to house more monks, a prerequisite for taking on candidates and seeking fellow monastic pioneers.
Still, there is no end to their needs. Next, they would like better freezer and cooking facilities and a new kitchen building to increase their production.
Though survival and expansion are a concern, the monks' first priority is prayer. Prayer provides the framework of community life and is offered five times daily in summer and seven times daily in winter. The Brothers pray after rising at 3:30 or 4:30 a.m., before retiring late at night, at sunrise, midday, and sunset.
``Liturgical prayer begins and ends the day, and marks its natural turning points. Thus each day is kept holy throughout its course,'' says Brother Peter.
The monks also derive spiritual rewards from their work and the environment the monastery is placed in. Though they now employ pickers, initially they picked their own berries.
``The picking took us into the wild, away from the works of man, and kept us close to the limitless beauties of God's creation,'' they say. The beauty of the beach they see from their entry porch is a source of joy as well.
The outpost location of the Keweenaw monastery site follows the tradition of early monasteries, which often sought out remote areas. ``The monk withdraws from the press of human activity and society, that he might rest with the Lord,'' the brothers comment.
While the area is bustling with summer tourists, there is only one other winter resident on the bay, and the icy beach is empty. The deep winter whiteness seems ``the perfect place for the silent life of monks.''
Maybe the most unique feature of the Society of St. John is its apostulate, for this monastery has chosen the arts as its special mission and wants to promote a greater understanding of their communicative power.
When they lived in Detroit, Brother Steven was a music conductor, and Brother Peter was a writer. After they came to the gradual acceptance that they were called to the monastic life style, they began looking for a monastery in which they could continue their search for artistic expression.
But no such monastery seemed to exist. Were they called to found such a place? They thought of the run-down little resort - for sale up north - proposed their idea to the Bishop of Marquette, and found support.
Why would a monastery make the promotion of the arts its mission? Like God, man is a creator, says Brother Peter. ``In his creativity, perhaps more than anything else, man is truly an image of God.''
Creativity is not limited to the pursuits of the ``fine arts,'' the monks comment. The creation of anything - be it a religious object, a melody, or a meal - can be an artistic act through which the artist praises God.
In their monastery, the brothers hope to work for the development of the arts, especially liturgical and sacred art forms, and to devote their own artistic talents to the glorification of God. One expression of this intent is the vestments the brothers have been making during the winter season.
Eventually, they hope to write a theology of aesthetics, to sponsor workshops, seminars, and retreats for artists, clergy, and the general laity, and to provide outreach programs to parishes and schools.
The monks also envision the growth of a local crafts and cottage industry. As a first visible step toward these far-reaching goals, artists have come for private retreats. Some of their works are displayed at the Jampot and in the oratory.
While their vision for the future guides them, for the time being the two brothers concentrate on living their daily lives simply and quietly. They rise before dawn for prayers, fill jam jars, and bake bread; rejoice in the beauty of nature around them; and receive guests who take an interest in their efforts.
They know their life is an anachronism in a time that promotes self-indulgence.