As you might expect, the feast of Saint Benedict is a particularly important day at Saint John’s Abbey. On July 11th we celebrate the memory of a man whose Rule for Monks has shaped the lives of so many since he penned it in the early 6th century. Since then monks and nuns have lived by its wisdom, and we continue to commit ourselves to the three vows that mark us apart from other religious men and women in the Catholic tradition.
Ours are not the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which came on the scene centuries later with groups like the Franciscans and Dominicans. Ours include “Obedience”, which is made to the abbot as our father in Christ. ”Conversion to a monastic manner of life” sounds a bit fuzzy; but it includes the simplicity, the balance of work and prayer, and the life in community that together shape our lives at Saint John’s. And “Stability” remains unique in the world of Catholic religious orders. Through it we commit ourselves to seeking God in a particular place and within a particular community. It means that we root ourselves, so that over time we can measure our lives within familiar milestones, rather than roaming rootless across the face of the earth.
Through the last century and a half most of the monks at Saint John’s have professed these vows on July 11th, and so the day has added consequence for all of us. This is the day when we celebrate jubilees of twenty-five, fifty and sixty years of vows. Not surprisingly, for these monks it can be a deeply moving experience. As for the rest of us who look on, it is an awesome reminder of both change and continuity. Standing before us we see a significant chunk in the spectrum of our history. That was especially true on the day when Fr. Angelo observed his jubilee a few years ago. He was the last monk alive to have met and known the last of the founding monks. He was our only living connection to 1856, and the lives of these two monks encompassed the entire history of Saint John’s. The realization stunned us all.
It’s an especially touching moment to witness the renewal of vows for those who had professed sixty years earlier. For one thing, they tend to be a bit more fragile than they were when they were clothed as hale and hearty novices in their early twenties. It’s also poignant because they embody two of my favorite passages from the New Testament: ”I have fought the good fight,” from the pen of Saint Paul, seems especially appropriate. Saint Peter’s “Lord, where would we go?” is equally to the point. But the question is seldom posed that day. By then there’s no need to go anywhere, because after sixty years they have become the heart and soul of the community. And at 80+ years of age, all thoughts of leaving the community have long since vanished — at least we hope! Instead of anxiety, joy and contentment show on their faces.
For those who celebrate fifty years, there is a not-always-welcome gift: a cane. It’s supposed to remind them both of the wisdom they have accumulated through the years, and of the need to rely on help for a body enfeebled by the years. The trouble is, these days many who celebrate fifty years in the community still enjoy robust health. They are not ready for the slow decline that the cane symbolizes. So through the years not a few have raised their new canes in the air, both as an act of triumph and perhaps also as an act of defiance. They’re still here, and they’re not done, they seem to be saying.
But July 11th is not just a trip down memory lane. It’s also a celebration of our present and future. Those professed for twenty-five years are just now coming into their stride, and there is much to anticipate in them. They have served the community for a good stretch already, but the best is yet to come — we hope!
This year we are especially blessed to have three young monks making their solemn profession — their final vows. After a year as novices and three years as junior monks in formation, they have been accepted into the community as full members. In that capacity they have the same rights and duties as the most senior monks in the community. Most particularly, they will now sit as members of the monastic chapter, and there they will vote alongside the rest of us on all issues of significance. But beyond that, they will further prepare themselves for positions of responsibility within the community.
It’s the profession of new members that rounds out the entire experience of July 11th for the monks of Saint John’s. As much as we may rightly celebrate the monks who have done so much over the last 157 years, there’s still lots to come. The newly professed, then, are signs of hope for us all. And they are a bit of reality therapy for us as well. They serve as a living reminder of what is necessary for life in community. If you want continuity, you must be ready for change. And that is exactly what these three new senior monks bring into our midst. It will be a happy day for us all.
I’ve always been amazed at how detached Saint Benedict seemed to be when he wrote his Rule. He gives every indication that he was writing for the benefit of a few people, living in the neighborhood, who were trying to live the monastic life as best they could. In his wildest dreams he likely never imagined that people further than a hundred miles away from Monte Cassino would ever read his Rule. Nor would he have imagined that his ideas would have spread throughout the length and breadth of Europe. But to influence people living 1,400 years later, in central Minnesota? Who would have thought it possible?
+On July 11th Brothers Michael-Leonard, Nick and Lew will profess solemn vows as monks of Saint John’s Abbey. All three are Minnesota natives, and all are alumni of Saint John’s University. After college each served for a year in the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, with Brother Michael at Newark Abbey in New Jersey, and Brothers Nick and Lew at a Benedictine abbey in Tanzania. Currently they are students in the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University, studying in preparation for ordination to the priesthood.
+On July 8th Brother Nick Moe was clothed as a novice. He also is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and following college he earned a graduate degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University. More recently he has worked in the Sustainability Office at Saint John’s University and served as faculty resident in a student residence hall.
+Today’s is the 100th post of “A Monk’s Chronicle.” When I began this nearly two years ago, I had no idea of the work it would involve, nor did I imagine what wonderful therapy it would become. For those who have been regular readers, your guess that I’ve written posts from all over the place would be correct. Today’s post, in fact, originates in Arizona, where the horrendous temperatures provide good incentive to stay inside and keep my nose to the grindstone.
I do my best writing at 5:00 am, when there are few distractions. My biggest challenge has been the uploading of pictures, which as yet I cannot figure out how to do from an iPad. And so to my colleague Sara Mruz I owe a great debt of gratitude. On too many occasions there would be no pictures had it not been for her help, in answer to my desperate pleas.
Finally, thanks to all of you who have sent comments and encouragement during the last two years. I am grateful!
+The pictures in today’s post come from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his monastic journey.