After visiting with new friends and old in Land O’Lakes Florida, I found myself craving silence and contemplation. Saint Leo Abbey in nearby St. Leo jumped off the screen in my Internet search for nearby churches. My Virginia parish is Saint Leo the Great. I couldn’t resist visiting the abbey named for the same saint, especially when I saw there was sung prayer and Mass at noon. That was a tremendous gift in itself, but I was further blessed to experience the hospitality of the monks.
I arrived early and visited the bookstore/gift shop where Brother James gave me a brief orientation to the Abbey. It was founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks from North Carolina. Saint Benedict founded his order in A.D. 589 and it spread all over the world. Many communities follow Saint Benedict’s Rule for life based on principles of poverty, obedience, chastity, prayer, silence, mortification, and detachment from the world. About fifteen monks live in community at Saint Leo today.
The monastery, a guest house, and the Abbey Church are adjacent to Saint Leo University, a four year college. Founded by the monks as a four year college prep school, then a college, Saint Leo University is now separate and run by a lay board. An enormous lion adorns the college entrance. Across the street is a quiet Grotto and contemplative walk among Florida foliage bordering a golf course.
At the beautiful Abbey Church, the brothers gather for prayer and worship four times per day. They chant the Psalms in alternating order, facing one another in choir stalls so that they may see Christ in one another. A detailed self-guided tour of the Church and its features may be found here. It took twelve years to build with attention to detail. The doors carved by Brother Paul are particularly interesting. A beautiful crucifix modeled after the image of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin adorns the wall above the altar. The stained glass windows are from the 1940’s and portray major founders or contributors to religious orders.
The guest house and hall are available for retreats, in the Benedictine tradition of hospitality. I experienced that hospitality directly when I went to the Church to pray before Mass. Just before noon, the brothers motioned for those there praying to join them in the choir stalls. When I did, Brother James sat next to me briefly and solemnly stated “It has been decided that you are to be invited to lunch with the monks.” Delighted, I thanked him and said yes. He instructed me to follow the guest master monk, Brother Apollo, to the dining area after Mass.
At lunch, a bell announced prayer before and after the meal. The monks gathered at tables across the room, while I sat with Brother James. I enjoyed conversation about our respective vocations and a delicious simple meal of fresh tuna, broccoli and rice. Hospitality is truly lived at St. Leo Abbey.
The monks are eager to give anyone interested a glimpse into their lives dedicated to prayer, study, and worship. They are waiting for you at St. Leo Abbey, 33601 State Road 52, Saint Leo, FL 33574, www.saintleoabbey.org, (352)588-8624, about one hour north of Tampa, FL.