2. La Verna, Franciscan Center for Spiritual Development

Interview with Hans Sevenhoven,

the member of managing committee of 'La Verna'

M.V.: Can I ask you: who are you? Are you a priest? What are your duties in your community?

H.S.: I am Hans Sevenhoven, born in Gouda (cheese!) 13-07-1946. I became a Franciscan friar in 1964. When we met in Holland, I was still a Franciscan. In October 2001, I left the order. Of course, this process was already on its way, when we talked with each other. I am not a priest. Within the order, I had different duties; lastly, I was working at the Franciscan Study Centre in Utrecht, teaching students of theology, and doing research in the field of (theological) spirituality.

Within the community in Amsterdam my main duty was – and still is – my work on La Verna, Franciscan centre of spiritual development, 30 % of the week.

M.V.: I was surprised by your reply on the first question. You entered the order in 1964, when you were 18. And 38 years you were a Franciscan. But now you left the order. Can I ask you about the causes of this step?

H.S.: I can imagine your surprise... Of course there are many personal factors that brought me to this step. Still, there are no secrets around my decision. The Dutch province of the Franciscans directed me to do fulltime scientific work. Following this, I became unhappy. Then, the labour relation became disturbed.

M.V.: What does the word 'friar' mean?

H.S.: 'Friar' means (religious) brother. It is the name used in English for members of the orders of the 12th and 13th century. Franciscans and Friars Minor are one and the same thing.

M.V.: 'La Verna' - what's this? What does this word mean? Could you tell me about your organization?

H.S.: ‘La Verna’ is a mountain in Toscane, Italy. In Francis’s of Assisi’s later years, this mountain was a place for him to retire and pray, to treat things that refer to God. We think it is an appropriate name for our centre.

‘La Verna’ as organisation is founded five years ago (04-10-1997) by the Dutch province of the friars minor ( = Franciscans). There is a managing committee of four members; the chairman is a friar. The staff consists of two members, Rob Hoogenboom, one of the friars, for 50 % and myself. We are assisted by many volunteers, the other friars in the monastery among them. The people giving the courses are working free lance, course by course.

M.V.: In what year was founded your monastery?

H.S.: The monastery, in which ‘La Verna’ is accommodated, is founded in 1997. That is to say: it was built in 1960 for a congregation (=a religious institution) of friars working in education. They fulfilled jobs everywhere in Amsterdam. In 1997 the Franciscans bought this monastery. The friars were getting old… There is only one member of this congregation still living there, he is almost 70 years old.

The Franciscans were living nearby for about fifty years. This monastery is a better accommodation. There is an elevator – things like that.

The Franciscans were founded in 1209…

M.V.: What happened with the friars, which lived in the monastery until the Franciscans bought it?

H.S.: Most of the brothers (except one) that lived in the monastery where La Verna is established went to a house for elderly religious brothers of their congregation in Oudenbosch.

M.V.: How many people in your monastery?

H.S.: There are eleven Franciscans living in this monastery. Then there is this other friar.

M.V.: What about average age of members of your community?

H.S.: Two of the Franciscans living there are under 65 – the Dutch age of retirement; they are 55 and 56, respectively. The others are above that. The oldest one is 79.

I myself do not live there. I live in Leusden, a small town near Amersfoort (near Utrecht). When I stay in the community I participate in everything.

M.V.: Can I ask you about the types of activities in the monastery?

H.S.: Except for the two friars in their fifties, none of the friars has a job. They do something nevertheless.

Jan van den Eijnden is 56. He is vice-provincial of the Dutch province of the friars minor (vice head of the Dutch Franciscans) since one year and for five years to come. That is 40 %. For 60 % he works at the Franciscan Study Centre, as I did, until last year.

Rob Hoogenboom is 55. He coordinates 'La Verna' and is minister of theology students in Amsterdam, both 50 %.

The others assist in parishes in the neighbourhood, in activities of 'La Verna', activities for refugees, and so on, all for a minor part of their time (under 50 %).

Next to 'La Verna', I myself work for the Franciscan Movement in the Netherlands, for a year now.

M.V.: What about the duties of everyday in the monastery?

H.S.: Of course, the Franciscans living in Amsterdam have their everyday duties in the monastery. That includes prayer, shopping for drink and food, cleaning the house, hospitality - for all those people visiting La Verna, settling in the neighbourhood, and so on. They are well known in the district, as well among the people from Turkish and Moroccan origin as among the Dutch. No job means no professional work...

M.V.: Could you tell me about the courses in your monastery?

H.S.: We have courses which ask for an increasing commitment: from lectures, meditation courses, reading texts, drawing and painting, art and spirituality, dance and bodywork, music and spirituality, pilgrimages, and a course in integral living.

Taken together, we organize 40 courses twice a year.
We use many creative means to reach the level of spirituality of the participants.
We use many modern ways to deal with spirituality next to ancient ways.
We use eastern as well as western methods.
We use Christian and other ways and let those ways meet and provoke dialogue and integration.
And so on…

M.V.: How many people visit this courses? Many of them living near of the monastery, isn't it?

H.S.: The half year that is now coming to an end, we had approximately 450 participants. That is to say: some people attend different courses and lectures. So, there are maybe 250 – 300 different persons attending.

For the course in integral living people come from all over the country. Participation varies. This has to do with time and duration of the courses.

A course of one or more evenings gets participants from nearby. A course of days and/or weekends may get participants from all over our (small) country.

[Next season we will have an investigation in the participants, where they come from, and so on. This is done by an anthropologist of a university in Amsterdam. He has already done participating research in La Verna.]

M.V.: Your monastery is disposed in a new district of Amsterdam. In your opinion, the appearance of people is changing from appearance of modern houses distinct from what are disposed in the centre of Amsterdam, for example?

H.S.: We do not attract the followers of ‘spiritual fashion’. Still, we attract more people of above then under 40 years old, more women than men, more well educated people than people with only little education, more ‘white’ people than others, and so on.

There are mainly three groups in our district: people form Dutch origin, people from Turkish origin, and people from Moroccan origin. As far as possible – which is not very much – we try to promote a fruitful dialogue between these groups.

M.V.: What you can say about people coming on the courses? What do they want to learn?

H.S.: The people who come to our courses strive for things like:

- integration: becoming a more complete person;
- other – and maybe better or more far-reaching - things than just properties and possessions;
- finding their roots (back);
- a way to live.

M.V.: I was present at your lesson of prayer-meditation of St. Francisc. This prayer is mainly for the Franciscans?

H.S.: My lesson was not just meant for members of the Franciscan movement. Some of the participants of our courses are attracted to old, solid ways of meditating and living in a society, which is disparate. They do not want just to play the roles society asks for; they want to become a self. They want to (re)discover the art of living…

Francis may show them part of their way, or John of the Cross, or Etty Hillesum, and so on.

In fact, there come less members of the Franciscan movement to our courses than I expected before we started. Still, most of our volunteers are members of the Franciscan movement.

M.V.: Could you tell me about "meditation"? Is this the practice of East fathers-hesuchasts?

H.S.: ‘Meditation’ means something like considering or exercising. This question may get an answer of a book or of a few lines…

We start with ‘becoming aware of’, ‘becoming receptive of’, ‘development of attention’, ‘becoming silent’ and so on. The reason behind this is that in our culture people do not develop these attitudes, which are important in coming to yourself. Then, we teach the participants different ways to meditate – with texts, sounds, pictures, whatever. The reason behind this is that people are different and have different needs before they are able to discover their deepest longings and desires. Then, we promote the establishment of habits – meditation on certain recurring times, on the same place, and so on. In this way, meditation become an important knot in the embroidery of a day, a week, a month, your life. The methods we use stem from different traditions. Hesychasm is one of those traditions, which I suspect was dear to Francis. He may have discovered it in monks in the neighbourhood of Assisi, and later on in Camaldoli.

M.V.: What attention is given to young people in your centre? Or the activity of centre is directed on the people more age of maturity?

H.S.: Some years we organized special courses for younger people. The result was low. Part of the reason is our own age. We will restart this when we dispose of a fellow worker of a younger age.

M.V.: Thanks for this interesting talk…

H.S.: Peace and all good to you and the readers of this interview.

Marina V. Vorobjova
September 2001 - July 2002
Amsterdam, The Netherlands - St.-Petersburg, Russia

Photos - Marina V. Vorobjova.
Amsterdam, 2001.