Benedictine monasteries have generally had a great sense of place, largely because they root themselves in a spot and stay put for centuries. I say generally because that’s not always been so in every case. In the 7th century, for example, the monks of Lindisfarne settled on an island off the coast of England and thought they had the ideal spot, with long-term potential. That was true enough for a while, until the Vikings discovered how easy it was to raid the place. Eventually one of the monks posed the question that by then was on everyone’s mind: “What were we thinking?” Then prudence won out and they moved to a safer place, inland.
At Saint John’s we’ve been blessed with a scenic place, and thankfully our local Vikings have about all they can handle far away in Minneapolis. We’re further protected from them by heavy traffic and endless road repair, and so we’ve never had to consider moving. So it is that we’ve been here for 160 years, and by now several generations of monks have put their stamp on the place, and vice-versa.
“They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands.” So wrote Saint Benedict in the 6th century, and it holds true today just as it did then. That said, through the centuries much of their work has been more on the order of administrative, as monks then and now have involved themselves in house-keeping, the sacristy, the scriptorium and the like. They’ve also taught and done ministry. Worthy of note is that many of these occupations were individual rather than group activities, and for the most part they didn’t involve hard physical toil. Today that’s especially the case, as there’s just so little opportunity for that in the era of mechanization.
At Saint John’s in the 19th century monks made the bricks and helped in the construction of the massive quadrangle that still dominates our campus. Nearly a century later a few monks helped in the construction of the new abbey church. Still, such manual labor has been the exception rather than the rule in the course of 160 years.
However, we’ve not been idle, and every now and again there have been projects in which monastic hands have played a key role. Many of the old stone walls on campus were the fruit of monastic effort, for example. The forests show monastic management, as do the trails that crisscross them. So too do the footbridges that ford streams and inlets around the lake. And that brings me to the subject of our most recent enterprise: the replacement of several bridges that have definitely seen better days.
The main trail from the monastery to Stella Maris Chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan dates back to who-knows-when. Ages ago the monks put in place several bridges that made hiking both easy and a delight. But as everybody knows, even bridges have a life span, and so we’ve begun to replace them, one by one.
Last summer several monks and volunteers built a trail-head to mark the entrance to the network of paths through the woods. This year eight monks, in addition to many volunteers, have joined to construct the first in a series of bridges meant to replace structures in advanced states of decay. Though not yet finished, the unfolding beauty of this first bridge hints at the potential of the entire project.
This new bridge is built from local materials and, like its predecessor, it is meant to last. Trees harvested from our woods yielded the massive beams that should hold up for decades. They in turn have been crafted so that their tongue-and-groove connection fits them together like a giant set of Lincoln Logs. The results will be sturdy, and this first bridge will grace the woods and please the eye.
There’s something remarkable about people whose toil transforms them into a team. In an era of rugged individualism it’s nice to see a group work toward a common goal, knowing that there has to be one supervisor, not eight or nine. The result is the work of a community — not a committee in which subcommittees each get to design their own section.
Happily, I too contributed to this project. I was very careful to stand back and not get in the way. I was also wise by not offering any advice for improvement. St. Benedict would have been delighted by my self-awareness of what I can and cannot do. He would also be delighted by my appreciation of the talents that my brothers have. Because they have their talents, and I let them exercise them, it means that I don’t have to do everything myself — save that I need to thank them when they’re done.
The abbot is scheduled to bless this first new bridge in September, and next summer work will begin on a second span. Depending on funding and the energy of the monks, the project will continue, with one bridge per year. Such is the pace of monastic toil. All will get done, in its own good time. That’s how monks put their stamp upon a place, and vice-versa.
+The University school year is upon us, and one sign of the changing times was the day-long department workshop that I attended on August 15th. More obviously, we have seen the onset of the new school year in the arrival of many of our students, including members of the football team. This week I also saw touches of red on some of the leaves of the trees. Frightening.
+As today’s post narrates, work continues on the new bridge on the trail to Stella Maris Chapel. Fr. Lew has directed those efforts, and this week members of the football team lent their expertise by lifting into place the heavy beams.
+This week The Saint John’s Boys Choir began its new season with a choir camp on campus. Over the years their voices have added immeasurably to the beauty of our liturgy, and we look forward more of same this year.