Administration of cultural monuments as the starting point for new relations

After the post-revolution restitution of property, renewed communities became the owners of buildings that they not only perceive as their natural home but which are also socially and legally recognised as national cultural monuments. Returning communities sought to repair the restituted properties, and benefited from various European and national grant programmes, which were conditional on continued public access to those locations and commitment to relevant ‘cultural production’. Consequently, the monastery gates reopened for an increasing number of both foreign and domestic tourists. Today, we could state that the Czech Republic is becoming more and more involved in the global trend of ‘monastic tourism’ (see Gilli and Palmisano 2016).

As communities began restoration of their properties, they were brought to the increasing notice of their neighbours. And this role, of being owners and administrators, is the one which creates a basis of their relationship. Our research partners appreciated the monks’ and nuns’ fulfilment of service as they noted their exemplary care of the buildings, and in particular, the speed and extent of restoration (Spalova and Jonveaux 2020).

With such renewed visibility, the communities regained their agency in shaping a societal perception of monasticism. And, as the communities often seek to move beyond their role as merely custodians, they use this agency to re-engage in dialogue.

In the following sections, we would like to offer two examples of such dialogues between the monastery and the world without. The first, represented by the Brevnov example, actively builds on the aforementioned cultural perception, even emphasising the popular imagination of monastic life. The second, represented by the Venio Community, uses the predominant perception and interest of people to somehow challenge the public image of monasteries, and perhaps even Catholicism, moving towards a new understanding of the spiritual monastic mission.

Břevnov: the monastery as a public space

  • 1 assume that when St Vojtech founded the monastery in 993, his intention was that the monastery should be the starting point of evangelisation to the surrounding countries. And 1 think we must continue that tradition; probably not to the surrounding states, but we now have a housing estate around us. And people come here who are not practitioners but who like the place.
  • (Archabbot of Brevnov Monastery, October 2016)

The archabbot of Brevnov Monastery sees the monastic mission of his monastery as the continuing mission of evangelisation. He works with its situation in the outside world, inviting the surrounding inhabitants to visit. Even the shape of the monastic area reflects this: people may easily pass through it, there is a brewery, a restaurant, a hotel and public monastic garden, in which many people spend time each day. Being the oldest male monastery in the Czech Republic, it is famous among tourists, but the majority of its daily visitors are local.

The community management of their properties and their public image actively builds on the societal understandings of monasteries as cultural monuments. They want to be relevant for ordinary people and the local community, and they do much to encourage it. Nearly all of the main monastic building is open to annual tours, including the monks’ cells. In the celebration hall, honorary citizenship is granted by the local municipality, which also co-produces cultural events in the church.

The Brevnov community, together with the local municipality and Brevnov Association of Entrepreneurs (Spolek brevnovskych iivnostniku), also organises an annual Brevnov fete, setting up an amusement park with over 30,000 visitors over a two-day period. It commemorates the day the church was reconsecrated following the Austro-Prussian wars and has succeeded the former religious tradition of pilgrimages to the church of St Margaret (Figure 6.4).

Annual St Margaret fete

Figure 6.4 Annual St Margaret fete.

Source: Photograph © Jaroslav Duffek.

Venio Community: administration of a cultural monument as a spiritual vocation

The former pilgrimage site which Venio Community inhabits is dense with meaning. It has long been known as a site of Catholic victory over the Protestants, the start of the long 'Dark Age’ of Habsburg re-Catholicisation, which is the dominant conception of this period. After the revolution, some reconceptualisations of this historical event took place, but the site remains a significant symbol of still controversial and unresolved historical arguments and identity narratives.

That’s the requirement of this place where we live. It’s different from Munich, where there’s nothing like this; there’s a villa somewhere in the garden district. So, we set ourselves this as our tasks. That's typical of the Benedictines, that when they arrive somewhere, they look at what the place requires. We are here in the baroque pilgrimage area, and it really has requirements that we try to meet. It’s an opportunity to communicate with the incomers, which is nice.

(Sister of Venio Community, October 2018)

The sisters understand the ‘cultural monument quality’ of their habitation similarly to the Brevnov community - as an opportunity to connect with people. The four sisters guide the tours themselves and are responsible for the tourist traffic of the monument, so when they speak about the requirements of the place, they see this as part of it. They are often witnesses and even participants in debates among visitors who exchange their views on church history and the present day over frescoes of naturalistic scenes featuring heroic Catholic warriors killing Protestant heretics. In response, they offer understanding and share their personal experiences of church and faith. And they understand perhaps more than others because they are in constant contact with people not only outside the monastery but also outside the church, thanks to their jobs. They are sensitive towards the symbolism of the place and the meanings it contains for people. Thus, reading it as another requirement of the place, they try to contribute to reconciliation. On that note, they offer not only tours and discussions but also regular ecumenical worship and vespers.

After some singing, people start coming out of the church. First, the bishop goes, then the pastor, sisters and then all present. They all walk in silence. I follow them, but I have no idea what follows. They all go towards the candles on the ground and surround them.

  • 1 notice that some of the people have gathered together in the cloister, facing the bishop, the pastor and the sisters. A microphone stands in front of them. It is a continuation of the Atonement. Right here, at the graves of fallen soldiers.
  • (Authors’ fieldnotes, November 2018)

Thus, the sisters are looking for specific means of fulfilling the administration of the national monument, not so much according to the common, exculturalised conception of monasticism (as centre of education, high culture, jovial monks ...), but much more in their spiritual and religious tradition. However, this tradition is not used rigidly and unvaryingly, but is instead being continuously adjusted and reinterpreted according to the sisters’ personal lives and is tested and discussed together with visitors to the complex and those whom the sisters meet ‘beyond the gates of the monastery’, as will be more evident from the following sections.

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