Pilgrim monastery near the Meuse

Velp Monastery by Saskia Janssen

A pilgrim monastery in the Netherlands? “We already have the silence.” An interview with the man behind the 18th century monastery halfway along our route where many pilgrims have spent the night: Mark van der Linden of Avant Spirit. A pre-publication of the September issue of the Jacob’s Staff, the magazine of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela (link).
By Damien Messing. Photo above: Saskia Janssen.

The 18th century Emmaus monastery in Velp (N-Br.) was the oldest monastery of the slowly dying Capuchin order in the Netherlands. The Capuchins recently sold it to a property developer for a small price. He is considering a destination as a care hotel. For the time being, he grants Mark van der Linden of Avant Spirit the opportunity to realize something completely different: a pilgrim monastery.

Velp Monastery

If you take the long driveway to the Emmaus Monastery from the fields, you will immediately understand why it was chosen as one of the three quietest places in the Netherlands a few years ago. Here you slow down as a matter of course. Trees pass by your field of vision and on the horizon, hidden behind the greenery, a monumental monastery rises.

When I walk up the avenue for an interview with director Mark van der Linden, I remember how years ago the green door of the large, iron gate opened for me for the first time. A fellow student of Religious Studies had told me in 2009 that a handful of Capuchins had started an experimental living group with enthusiastic laymen. They wanted to preserve the monastery as a spiritual stopping place since the Capuchins were dying out. Was that community something for me?

In 2019, the group is defunct, just like most of the Capuchins who lived there at the time. I was a fellow resident for a year and a half and left with a wealth of insights, including: (1) a monumental monastery alone cannot connect people, (2) a cool old monastery costs a lot of money – every week ‘a man’ comes to do something. From the control of longhorn beetles in the old beams to the maintenance of the tall trees (falling branches!) or the lightning conductor, of which thieves stole the copper in the middle of the night.

On the way to the interview, I know what my most important questions are: how can a pilgrim monastery maintain such a large, expensive building? Where do you get all those pilgrims from? What connects the people who live and work there?

Walk of Wisdom, Capuchin Monastery Velp
Photo: Thomas Hontelez

Director on sandals

First of all: director Mark van der Linden lives and looks modest, Franciscan actually – in sandals, in shirtsleeves, without frills. Satisfied with little. His living comes from the art loan he runs in a nearby building (coincidentally a former monastery) and from his wife’s part-time job. From the income of the monastery “First the ladies of the household have to be paid, then the rent, then the energy bill. I think I’m the biggest creditor of the foundation.

Still, Mark is more than modest: he has a “firm belief” that his plan for the future will work in 2020 or 2021. This plan is based on three elements: (1) retreats and meditations on weekends, (2) days of silence and programs for people with burnout during the week and (3) individual overnight stays by pilgrims.

The pilgrims are already coming, possibly even almost 1,000 in 2019: pilgrims from the Walk of Wisdom around Nijmegen, pilgrims on their way to Santiago or participants in the Hindewalk, a multi-day pilgrimage with the monastery in Velp as its home base. Velp is also located on a new monastery path along religious Brabant heritage, which also includes the Franciscan monastery in Megen, within walking distance of Velp.

Mark: “Every pilgrim who sleeps here loves it and deepens the experience of being on the road.” I can imagine that: the 18th century refectory is already worth an overnight stay, as is “the cloud of prayers” in the corridors or the tranquil monastery garden with the intimate forest behind it, shielded from the world by a hedge of greenery and ditches.

All those pilgrims bring income with them and pilgrimage is a trend. This became clear when an article about the monastery path appeared in the Brabants Dagblad: within one day, 40 registrations poured in – while the path is not even officially opened.

Where do all these pilgrims come from? seems to have been answered. The pilgrims only need to know that they can go to the monastery. I advertise it with love.

Storytelling afternoon pilgrimage route Walk of Wisdom in the Emmaus monastery of Avant Spirit in Velp
Storytelling afternoon Walk of Wisdom in the Emmaus Monastery by Jan Alers

What connects people?

A beautiful monastery is not enough to connect people, I had learned that in the experimental living group. Tensions arose about the interpretation of the Liturgy of the Hours: how Christian should it be? Underneath that was the crucial question: what spirituality unites people if there is no common rule of life or tradition to fall back on?

Mark seems to have solved that issue in a simple way with Avant Spirit for Velp. The community is no longer the goal. That is growing a center for those seeking peace and quiet. Mark: “We want to put Velp on the map as a centre for silence, awareness and development. We already have the silence. Awareness often comes when you are quiet. From the awareness you see whether you are satisfied or want to change something, then you start to develop.” The Liturgy of the Hours consists mainly of silent meditation.

With 40 volunteers and two people who help out for room and board, Mark is busy recruiting retreats and meditations that suit Velp, preferably related to pilgrimage. He wants an educational program for schools and for people with burnout he makes contacts with insurers.

The approach is therefore much more business-like than the experimental living group with the Capuchins. The measure of success is down-to-earth: the concrete goal of being able to pay the bills. The energy bill alone costs €30,000 per year. Solar panels are not allowed because of their status as a monument.

Velp at Grave walk of wisdom
Photo: Thomas Hontelez

Can this work?

When I talk to people about the concept of “a pilgrim monastery in the Netherlands”, the question inevitably arises: is this going to work? Mark is faced with the formidable task of generating a substantial amount of income every year while maintaining the atmosphere of the building. Mark: “I want to preserve this monastery in the energy and atmosphere that is there now. There are forces in the outside world that will destroy this atmosphere. Healthcare parties are already sniffing around the building. How about the monastery as a hotel? Then the energy is immediately gone.”

The approach may be more businesslike, but the inspiration is good. A man who continues to work hard while there is hardly any money for his salary and thrives on pilgrims who pay €20 less than tourists who come in via booking.com, deserves a pilgrim’s blessing – although I don’t know who could give it to him.

Mark: “A tourist via booking.com immediately starts talking loudly and opens every door. But if a pilgrim comes here, you don’t have to say: you are in a monastery. Pilgrims respect the peace. They sense the atmosphere. Very striking.”

Dear pilgrims, put on your shoes and walk to Velp in Brabant to continue this wonderful initiative with your own trail!

Damien Brass
Dangerous Jacob’s staff

Pilgrims who book directly receive a €20 discount on presentation of a pilgrim’s passport (Jacobsgenootschap) or pilgrim’s lace (Walk of Wisdom). It is possible to join us for dinner in the evening. In the long term, Mark wants to realize a room with bunk beds for budget pilgrims.

Emmaus Monastery Velp (N-Br), Walk of Wisdom
Kloosterlaan Emmausklooster, by Jan Alers