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Krakow’s Camaldolese Monastery

ImageDespite the density of visitors to Kraków since the budget airline boom, it’s still incredibly easy to derail yourself from the tourist trail. Overlooking the Wisła river from atop a nearby hill is the monolithic Camaldolese Monastery (Klasztor Kamedułów), or the Silver Mountain Hermitage.

One of Kraków’s best diversions is Las Wolski (Wolski Forest), a massive woodland of scenic hiking trails in Bielany, just six kilometers from the centre. A popular summer picnic destination, these woods shelter several attractions, of which the Kraków Zoo and Piłsudski Mound are certainly the most popular, however there is still plenty of untrampled enchantment to be found within. On the hilly southern side of the forest lies Srebrna Góra – or Silver Mountain – the ancient home of one of Kraków’s most mysterious, mist-shrouded, secluded and discreet destinations.

Overlooking the Wisła river from atop this perch is the monolithic Camaldolese Monastery (Klasztor Kamedułów), or the Silver Mountain Hermitage. A walled monastic complex of white limestone, the Camaldolites have lived here in peace and obscurity for centuries, their walled sanctuary viewed by many as something indistinctly beautiful in the distant landscape, while a mere twenty minutes away on foot through dense forest, children squeal at bare-ass baboons in the zoo. Most locals have never ventured to the monastery, despite the popularity of the surrounding area.

The monks, for their part, would prefer if you didn’t find them. Looking over the surrounding valleys with an equally indifferent eye, they certainly haven’t ventured out. This hermit haven is hardly a secret society; in fact, though secretive, yes, it’s rather society-less. The monks live in isolation from each other devoting their every thought to a Higher Power with little regard for anything else, let alone something so banal or bestial as human company. It’s this mysterious backdrop that makes a journey to the majestic monastery so intriguing.

First, a bit of history: The Hermitage on Silver Mountain came into creation in 1604 after the Camaldolese – part of the Benedictine family of monastic orders – arrived from Italy with the idea of starting the first Polish order in Kraków. Eyeing the undeveloped landscape of Bielany as an ideal hideaway for their hermitage, Father Mikołaj Wolski went about trying to obtain the land from its owner Sebastian Lubomirski. Lubomirski apparently didn’t feel particularly charitable toward the monks, but legend says that Wolski (whose name the surrounding forest bears today) shrewdly hosted a large feast for the local nobility, inviting Kraków’s bishop and other friends of the order with the hope of changing Lubomirski’s humour, who was in attendance. With his company well-fed and fuelled with fellowship-fostering spirits, Wolski took the opportunity to put forth the order’s desire to found a monastery in the area, describing their difficulty in finding an adequate place where they could live and worship in peace. Lubomirski, as expected, heard the impassioned request and offered up Bielańska Mountain. Having received the anticipated blessing Wolski immediately put the prearranged papers before Lubomirski and had him sign off on the spot. Out of gratitude, Wolski gifted the landowner the silver flatware used during the meal, and the area has been known as Silver Mountain since. Not long after there were a dozen Camaldolese orders established in Poland, though only one other has survived to this day in Masuria. By 1642, the Krakowian order had erected a great church and 20 hermitages within its walled complex. Wolski died twelve years before the church’s consecration, asking in his will that he be buried in his white monk’s habit beneath the uncompleted cathedral’s floor so that those who eventually entered could tread over his sinful corpse. The monks, known for their slight morbidity, graciously obliged. Damaged by fire and redressed in 1814, this vast architectural complex is one of the finest representations of late-Baroque style in Europe.

The simple, strict, secluded lives of the Camaldolese arouse a great amount of curiosity and speculation from those beyond the wall. Following the severe self-imposed principles ‘Ora et labora’ (‘Pray and work’) and ‘Memento Mori’ (‘Remember you must die’) the monks abstain from speaking unless absolutely necessary and only encounter each other during certain prayer times. Short exchanges are allowed three times a week, while contact with the world beyond the monastery is allowed only five separate days a year, however many monks choose to have no contact with the outside world at all. Radio (heaven forbid), television, blogging and even family visits are strictly verboten. Simple vegetarian meals are eaten in solitude in the lonesome hermitages which bear a striking resemblance to detention cells.

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The common myth that the monks sleep in coffins is entirely unfounded, however, slightly more unnerving is the truth that one of the only bits of decor in each monk’s hermitage is the skull of his predecessor. In contrast, while the strict rules of the Camaldolese have not slackened for centuries, their Benedictine brothers across the river at Tyniec can frequently be found having a friendly homebrew with visitors in the on-site shop where they peddle their array of monastic goods; the Tyniec order now even has a store on ulica Krakowska. ‘Memento Mori’ seems to have found a different interpretation across the Wisła, but to each his own.

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A typical day in the life of a Camaldolite begins at 3:45 when the church bell chimes, indicating it is time to get up despite the sun’s disagreement. At 4:00 it tolls again, calling the monks to prayer in the church’s choir. After collective prayer, the monks head to their hermitages to continue praying in solitude. 5:45 and the church bell chimes again for mass, during which some humming has been reported to occur, while outright singing or something as excitable as playing an organ would surely send the monks into spasms. Between 7:00 and 8:00 the monks eat breakfast and have some free time for additional prayer if they choose. Work begins promptly at 8:00 when the day’s labour is divided between them, and they set about the individual tasks with the same deep concentration they apply to prayer. At 11:45 the prayer bell rings, summoning the men for the reciting of Angelus, after which a meal and free time for recreational solitude lasts until the next prayer bell at 14:00. At 16:30 it’s the rosary until 17:00 supper, after which the monks go to their cells for spiritual reading before reporting back to church at 18:30. After which they go home to their hermitage, rounding up their daily number of hours spent in prayer to 9 before hitting the sack. If that sounds like your kind of vacation, you can evade the holy vows and spend spring break in a closed retreat at the monastery so long as you obey the strict monastic orders and don’t ask any questions (like when you can leave). Or become a full-fledged monk yourself by meeting the follow criteria: all prospective monks must be between the ages of 21 and 45 and deemed sound physically and mentally. You must be pure in your intention to become a religious hermit by vocation for the right reasons, not because you dig the uniform, are on the run from your ex-wife, or trading one white habit for another. Before you can begin your marriage to God, taking the oath to a life of perpetual poverty, chastity and unquestioning obedience, you’ll have to undergo a trial period which takes about six years. Should you succeed, you’ll become one of only 58 Camaldolese monks in the world, joining the nine here in Kraków. The Camaldolites aren’t allowed to preach their faith, a hang-up which probably goes along with the no speaking or venturing outside the monastery, and has resulted in a steady decline in their numbers. (Celibacy doesn’t boost the likelihood of anyone being born into the faith either, though they do believe in immaculate conception.) Consequently, this article may be the closest thing the Camaldolites have had to a recruitment campaign in centuries.


While the compound is founded on isolationism, it is possible to gain entrance to the monastery. Men are allowed daily between 8:00 and 11:00 and between 15:00 and 16:30; women, not so frequently. The Camaldolites admit ladies only 12 days a year. Although access to the grounds are limited, the main church and immediate surroundings are open at these times and well worth a look; men are allowed to creep around the underground crypt as well. The approach to the main gate of the complex is down a long, narrow walled corridor which, when entered, creates an immediate feeling of alienation, strangely compelling you towards its conclusion at the arched entryway. Upon arriving at the faded frescoes of the threshold, the prospect of ringing the bell to the monastery evokes excitement and slight unease. Right of the wooden double doors is a large iron ring on a chain, which when pulled with authority rings a bell on the other side of the door…. Don’t expect a speedy response. The nervous anticipation of the moment slowly dissipates over what can sometimes be a more than twenty minute wait, during which you are actually getting your first glimpse into life as a hermit. Those that pass the test of patience can next expect a mutually wary encounter with a large, bushy beard with eyes and a nose that ushers you through the gate and disappears like a cloud of vapour. Immediately before you stands the immense 50m high white limestone facade of the monastery church with its two towers. The white single-nave interior is lined by ornate Baroque chapels (eight of them) beneath a round vaulted ceiling. The impressive main altar features the ‘Assumption of Saint Mary’ by Michał Stachowicz, the artist behind the church’s finest paintings. Beneath the chancel is the monastic crypt where the dead are placed without coffins into small rounded recesses in the wall and sealed inside. Latin inscriptions state simply the monk’s name and tenure in the monastery. After 80 years, these vaults are opened and the remains removed to a proper burial place; all save the skull, which each dead monk’s successor keeps in his shelter as a constant, grim reminder of mortality. The monastic complex has 11 other prayer chapels, though none are accessible to the public. Nor is the garden behind the church where the 14 surviving 17th century hermitages stand, at least five of which are currently untenanted. Indeed, the entire complex would seem unoccupied if it were not so well-maintained, with the rare glimmer of a ghostly white robe from a corner of the eye being the only giveaway.

Women are only allowed to visit the monastery on twelve days of the year:

  1. Easter Sunday
  2. Easter Monday
  3. May 3 – Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Poland
  4. Pentecost Sunday
  5. Pentecost Monday
  6. Sunday after June 19
  7. 2nd Sunday of July
  8. 4th Sunday of July
  9. 1st Sunday of August
  10. August 15 – Assumption of Mary
  11. September 8 – Nativity of Mary
  12. December 25 – Christmas Day

Garrett Van Reed

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December 27, 2012 - Posted by | News | , ,

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