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The Actor and the Monk

A theatrical student quietly changes roles.

Photo: Alex Stewart

STAGE LEFT: Schachenmayr, star of the 1995 campus production Real Critical Thinking, traded the footlights for monastic life in Austria.

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By Brian Eule

The face of the alarm clock shows 3:59 a.m. Hidden in darkness, nestled among trees, Heiligenkreuz monastery is perfectly still. But in one minute, that will all change. In one minute, the alarm clock will sound, Frater Alkuin Schachenmayr will climb out of bed and life will come into focus.

This is a time Schachenmayr has come to love. It’s a time when he reminds himself that he is human, makes mistakes and needs to start over each day. It’s a time when he can greet the day as it comes, meeting it with prayer.

He makes his way across the small room. The floors are wooden; the walls are white and bare with the exception of a hanging crucifix and a picture of the Virgin Mary. The Cistercian monastery, located about 20 miles southwest of Vienna, Austria, calls these rooms cells, but Schachenmayr explains this is in no way a reference to prison cells. In fact, he says his space is quite comfortable. At one end is a narrow bed, at the other a desk with a phone and computer. There are also four long bookshelves stacked with, among other things, a biography of Evelyn Waugh and bibles in three languages—English, German and Latin.

Every now and then, the 31-year-old monk reaches for the English version to relieve a “hankering for English,” he says. It’s the language he has spoken much of his life. Born in Boblingen, West Germany, Schachenmayr was raised in Lake Placid, N.Y., after his father was transferred there by IBM. Here at Heiligenkreuz (German for Holy Cross), life is very different—different from Swarthmore College, where he got his undergraduate degree, and different from Stanford, where he earned a PhD in 1997. He doesn’t go to coffeehouses much anymore, and he doesn’t stay out late. But he likes the rules of this place. He likes the order. And he likes the prayer, which he offers on behalf of the whole world. Prayer is set to begin in an hour, and so he gets dressed.

Two habits hang in the closet. A third is at the dry cleaner. Not much else is in there: some undergarments, some running shoes and shorts, and one clerical suit with that familiar white collar, because there are places, such as airplanes, where habits tend to get stuck and tangled. Schachenmayr puts on his undergarments and reaches for a white cassock. Over the cassock he drapes a black scapular—a full-length apron of sorts, covering the front and back but not the sides of the cassock. Finally, he ties a cingulum around his waist. It dangles by his left leg as he makes his way down the Baroque staircases, through the dark, Gothic halls and on to the church.

There, the monks line up in two rows of stalls, each man kneeling about a foot from the next, facing the parallel row. At 5 a.m., the abbot knocks on wood and there is a rustle of white fabric as the monks rise. Then they open their mouths.

“Domine, labia mea aperies et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam,” they chant in unison. Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.They pray like this for almost an hour and a half. After that, Holy Mass. The morning light slowly breaks through the stained-glass windows, and another day of devotion has begun.

There are other things that must be done, of course. The monks have lectures to attend in the seminary and gardening work to do, but prayer is the staple of their day. They will gather in this fashion at least five more times before going to bed.

On the other side of the world, in the Stanford drama department, sits a relic of a former life. It’s a videocassette tape of a one-man play, Real Critical Thinking, written and performed on campus in 1995. Ron Davies, the department’s administrative manager, pops it into a vcr. On stage, a thin man with short, dark hair and glasses rolls on the floor. He looks to be in his mid-20s. “I’m a homicidal maniac,” the actor yells. He curses, flails his arms, argues with projected images of himself. The actor was a doctoral student in drama. The actor was Schachenmayr.

“He was easily one of the most promising students we admitted in that period,” says Davies, PhD ’86. On stage, Schachenmayr wears a piece of paper on his chest, marked with the number 5. He rips it off and changes personas for the sixth time in the production. He’s still speaking awfully fast, but now he looks more like an academic, using his hands as a professor might. The new piece of paper on his chest says “me.”

Davies smiles. “That’s him. That’s Volker.”

Volker was the name given to him by his parents. At Heiligenkreuz, each monk gets a new first name. The old name, the old life, dies away as a person begins a life of complete devotion to God. Volker chose this life. The monastery named him Alkuin.

Schachenmayr doesn’t think the leap from drama to the monastery was particularly drastic. “All of drama is trying to understand the Cross,” he says. To him, that means understanding the depth of the human being, understanding suffering and the struggles with death and sin, love and pain. That’s what he strives for as a monk, as well.

What lured him to this particular monastery was the chance to continue scholarly work. A seminary for men from all of German-speaking Europe, Heiligenkreuz prepares monks for priesthood, so classes are a big part of life there. Schachenmayr has three years completed and another four to go before he can become a priest. He attends lectures on theology, church history and liturgy from 2 to 6 each afternoon. In addition, he teaches a weekly German composition class for others in the seminary.

There are sacrifices, of course. If there weren’t, he says, he would be cheating himself, because sacrifices are at the heart of monastic life. Although friends and family may visit, Schachenmayr says he misses the opportunity for frequent travel. The monks get just a couple of weeks off each year, since the monastery depends on all of them to keep things running. He doesn’t get much spending money, either. The equivalent of $100 a month is all he’s supposed to need. There are other deprivations, as well. Monks must not father families of their own. They are men of seclusion, he says, and leading a family life would conflict with that.

“It’s supposed to hurt a little, and of course it does,” he says of the lifestyle. At first, he had some difficulty adjusting to living in such close quarters with dozens of men he did not get to hand pick. But one of the monks’ obligations is to love each other. And although this requires tremendous effort, Schachenmayr says, it also can be a joy. The brothers are a family of sorts. They all work together, not for vanity or self-advancement, he says, but to “build up the kingdom of God.”

It seems strange to hear this talk of avoiding vanity and self-advancement from the man who ranted on the stage back at Stanford. That man, that actor, seemed to enjoy being in the spotlight and hearing himself pontificate. Then again, that was Volker. This is Alkuin.

At Heiligenkreuz, it’s 8 p.m. and the sun has set. Schachenmayr says compline—the night prayer—before walking down those dark hallways, climbing the staircases and crawling into bed.

Brian Eule,’01,is a freelance writer in Boston.

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