It certainly has not looked at all like spring at Saint John’s these past few days, but one sure sign of spring was there anyway. In the course of the week some forty seniors from Saint John’s University came calling at a conference room in the Abbey. Their interviews were anything but the usual ones for jobs in industry or internships in the not-for-profit world. Instead they were there to explore the Benedictine Volunteer Corps (BVC) and the chance to devote one year of their time and talent at some Benedictine house around the world.
Now in its eleventh year, the BVC has enabled dozens and dozens of our recent alumni to live for a year at Benedictine communities in such disparate spots as India, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Italy and Spain. They’ve worked at Saint Benedict’s Prep in inner-city Newark, NJ; at Saint James (Benedictine) Parish in Chicago; and at Tabgha Priory on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In each case their contributions have been valued and their experiences unique. I suspect too that each participant would readily agree that it has been a real stretch to adjust to worlds very different from what they knew at Saint John’s.
What makes the BVC unlike any conventional gap year program is the grounding that participants have in a local Benedictine community. First of all, the volunteers live in a monastic community, or at least in housing adjacent to the monastery. Second, volunteers must be engaged in the work of that local monastic community. And third, volunteers must take part in the prayer life of the monastic community. The goal is not to prepare them to be monks; but it is intended to give them a chance to explore the spiritual dimension of their lives at that critical juncture between graduation from college and the onset of a professional career. Given that mix of experiences, this is a year that no doubt prompts a lot of reflection as they consider their future.
The program director, Brother Paul Richards, himself had the benefit of such an opportunity. Following his graduation from Saint John’s, Brother Paul served for a year at our priory in the Bahamas, where he also worked in their school. Whether that influenced his decision to become a monk matters less than the fact that it was a pivotal moment in his own growth. He decided that others could and should benefit from a similar program; and with the support of the community at Saint John’s he launched the BVC.
To begin with, there’s no particular personality that Brother Paul looks for in a prospective volunteer. Still, it helps to be a self-starter, and it’s paramount that one be open-minded when it comes to dealing with other cultures. Facility in a foreign language can help, but how one deals with a place like Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee takes special ingenuity. There the German monks speak German, not surprisingly. But the students in their camp speak Arabic and Hebrew. And pilgrims to the shrine speak everything. I can only imagine that the volunteers speak a little of each by the time it’s all over.
Before spreading to the ends of the earth at the end of August, the eighteen applicants who are accepted as volunteers gather for two weeks of orientation at Saint John’s. During that time they participate in the full horarium of the community, including prayer and meals, and they receive conferences on Benedictine life and the Rule of Saint Benedict. Alumni from previous years also contribute from their experience, in hopes that the new volunteers will know something of what to expect.
Things never go exactly according to plan, but that’s what makes the BVC such a rewarding year. After a year of service the volunteers gather again at Saint John’s for a group retreat, and I have to assume that each has great stories to tell. Happily, many BVC alumni continue to return for group reunions and personal days of reflection at the Abbey. And happier still, four volunteers have gone on to become monks at Saint John’s Abbey.
No amount of preparation can prepare the volunteers for worlds that are very different from our own, and that may be the best part of the program. Last year Brother Paul shared a letter from a volunteer who was working at Hanga Abbey in Tanzania. In his letter Joseph Gair wrote about the Mass on the feast of Saint Benedict, at which one of the young monks took his final vows. It’s worth quoting the entire passage, because it’s like no feast day I’ve ever attended.
“The Mass was epic — with traditional singing, percussion, little girls dancing and singing. My God, the singing! That was the first hour. Then a one-hour homily, thirty minutes of ceremony to recognize the monk making solemn vows, thirty minutes for the Eucharist. I thought we were done, but there was another hour of random speeches. It was all in Swahili, but there were some cognates. I think they were talking about the education system. I heard ‘sociology, business administration, information technology,’ who knows.
“After Mass everyone started playing traditional drums and dancing and singing and chanting. I couldn’t believe the energy….Finally they brought out the cake, accompanied by a ‘cakey song’ and ‘cakey dance,’ which was a bit depressing because the cake wasn’t nearly big enough to serve everyone there. Or was it? Watching the cake being served was like watching the seven loaves and fishes feed the masses. Each person got a slice the size of two fingers, so everyone got some; and there was about one fourth left over!”
Yikes! Could I sit through all that? Frankly, I don’t know if I’m personally prepared for a liturgy quite like that one. On the other hand, it serves to remind us of the variety of God’s people and the different ways in which they serve and praise God. God bless them all! And may God bless our volunteers. They have far more gumption than I!
[If you'd like to read more about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John's Abbey, visit their web site. It comes complete with lots of description and pictures.]
+On January 28th I presided at the Abbey Mass. It was the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, doctor of the Church. People are always surprised to learn that Thomas Aquinas began his religious life as a novice at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino. He did indeed, but he left to join the far-less-fashionable Dominicans. His parents were furious and tried to get him to return to Monte Cassino. He was as stubborn as he was brilliant, and he persisted as a Dominican. Of course he flourished in the Order of Preachers, and he grew into a great scholar and something of a mystic. I reminded my confreres in my opening comments that Saint Thomas was our gift as Benedictines to the Dominicans and to the Church. The text of the sermon, Who are my brothers and sisters?, can be found under Presentations.
+Some weeks ago Brother Robin, the editor of the abbey newsletter The Abbey Banner, asked me to write an article on our confrere Fr. Matthew Luft, who is pastor of Saint Boniface Parish in nearby Cold Spring, MN. I spent the morning of January 28th visiting with Fr. Matthew, gleaning nuggets of wisdom that I might use.
+On the evening of January 28th we hosted Fr. Michael Creagan, pastor of the Church of Saint Joseph in West Saint Paul. He was staying at the abbey guesthouse for a private retreat, and following the community Mass he joined me and two other monks for dinner in the abbey refectory. Fr. Michael is the head chaplain for the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Minnesota. That is only one item on his dizzying list of responsibilities.
+This has been an exceptionally cold winter in Minnesota, and I would be remiss were I not to admit that I’ve been away for some of it. Still, it’s not always a good thing to write home to say how nice it may be elsewhere. A few people never seem to understand that it is, after all, work.
In that spirit, I wrote to a few confreres that the weather was not exactly what I had expected during my recent trip to Arizona. In fact, I took my heavy coat along; but for all the good it did me, I may as well have left it at home. At least at home I would be comfortable wearing it. I was also careful to point out how cold it can be in the desert at night. And I actually did have one real live complaint: the pollen is very much alive and kicking in Arizona, and I spent two days dealing with that.
On the other hand, winter foliage in Arizona may not seem like much to the locals, but it is very different from its counterpart in Minneota. As a reminder of what living plants can look like in the winter, I share the pictures in today’s post. I did not take them in Minnesota.