The Cistercian Monastery in Vyšší Brod

Vyšší Brod Monastery

The Vltava river winds its way through the picturesque foothills of the Šumava mountains. At its southernmost end, close to the Austrian border, lies the town of Vyšší Brod. As the name which means “higher ford” indicates, its history is inextricably linked with the river. The Cistercian order came to this part of the country from nearby Austria at the invitation of the local aristocratic family of Rožmberks.

Prior Justýn Berka,  Vít Pohanka,  photo: Vít Pohanka

The monastery of Vyšší Brod was founded in the 13th century. And even though it suffered greatly in history and was even deserted for prolonged periods of time, it always came back to life and is now home to ten Cistercian monks. Their leader – or Prior – is brother Justýn Berka. His own life story is an example of how strong the faith of this community is:

“I come from the town of Kadaň in Northern Bohemia, where I grew up. I became a monk here in Vyšší Brod, right after the fall of communism in 1990. Of course, that was after I had studied theology and philosophy in Heiligenkreuz near Vienna. That is our Cistercian center in Austria where I spent some time as a novice in our order. Now I am the Prior of our convent here in Vyšší Brod. I am not an Abbot yet because we have still less than 12 monks.”

Most of the buildings in the monastery have been restored,  photo: Vít Pohanka

The monastery of Vyšší Brod is one of the most visited places on the Vltava River which you can probably hear in the background. Even now, when travel is severely crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, you can still meet quite a few German and Czech speaking tourists. For Justýn Berka, however, this place is much more than just a popular tourist destination:

Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary,  photo: Vít Pohanka

“I would say that the genius loci of this monastery is in how it fits into the surrounding nature and landscape. I like to say that it is like a pearl washed out of the Vltava River. It was worked on and formed by human hands but at the same time, we can feel that it belongs to this place even though the monks could not be here for four decades. When I came here for the first time under communism, I felt the inner power of this place. I immediately knew that this was the place where I was destined to serve even though at that time nobody knew exactly what would happen that we would gain religious freedom again. Just look around how many amazing works of arts and library survived here. It is a true miracle.”

The small community of monks follow a daily routine that most other people would probably find incredibly hard:

Entrance to the Vyšší Brod Monastery,  photo: Vít Pohanka

“The life of a Cistercian order is based on three principles or pillars. The first is “Ora” in Latin or prayer. The second is “lekcia divina” or spiritual reading and contemplation. And the third is “labora” or work. We have been living like this for more than 1500 years so the system has been well-tried and established. So, we get up at 3:15 in the morning and go to church to pray and contemplate. The mass included, we stay there till about 8 am. “

“So, we say prayers and sing psalms for about 4 and a half, sometimes 5 hours. This has inspiration in King David’s Psalm 118, which says we should praise the Lord seven times a day. Then we start our work, study, or have singing rehearsals. We meet for more prayers and psalms singing at noon followed by lunch and then there is a siesta. That is very important since we are up since 3 am. In mid-afternoon, we meet for more prayers and work until 5. After that, we devote our time to spiritual reading until half-past seven, when there are final prayers and singing “Salve Regina” and we start “silencium”–that means very strict silence, no talking or singing for the night. And that is our schedule day by day, every day except Sunday when there are even more prayers since we do not work.”

Vyšší Brod frescoes,  photo: Vít Pohanka

No doubt the Cistercians in Vyšší Brod keep themselves busy. They are the last surviving male community of this order in the Czech Republic. There is one other even smaller female Cistercian community in Moravia. So, why bother, I wonder. Why not just join some other larger community, for example in the Heiligenkreuz Abbey in neighboring Austria, which is much more populous Cistercian center in this part of Europe. Justýn Berka explains:

Saint Peter fresco in Vyšší Brod,  photo: Vít Pohanka

“Members of all religious orders make three pledges: to live in cleanliness, poverty, and obedience. And we, Cistercians, have a fourth one: the pledge of “stabilitas loci”, I pledge that I will work at this particular place to the eternal glory and honor of the Lord with other members of our community and I will also die here. That is why I will serve to the Lord, my brothers here in Vyšší Brod and that is the meaning of it all.”