I am non-essential
Last Tuesday evening I received official word that I am “non-essential.” This did not come from the Abbot, nor from the president of Saint John’s University. The edict came, instead, from some nameless face in Life Safety Services, and it reminded me of where the true power resides.
The proclamation warned of a major snowstorm, and almost ten inches of heavy wet snow did materialize. Were I a more sensitive soul, however, I would have taken the news of my own worthlessness very personally. But, to my surprise, I was not devastated. For one thing, I was in very good company, because the entire faculty was deemed non-essential. Imagine how long college presidents would last if they ever proclaimed the faculty to be irrelevant to the enterprise? But in this case most of the faculty reacted like sheep in a lush green meadow. There was nary a bleat of protest, within earshot anyway.
The edict also implied that an elite cabal of staff had long ago been clued in as to their essentiality. As for the rest of us, if you merely thought you were essential, then you weren’t. This had to hurt a few of my colleagues. Were years of professional training merely self-indulgent preening? Were we little better than obstacles in the way? I can only hope that the platoons of grief counsellers were considered essential, because some of us needed them that night.
As for the students, news of a snow-day and dangerous roads are like the green flag at the Daytona Speedway. They were off to their cars in a flash, even if they were not sure of their destinations. Classes were out, and so were they. As far as I know students are the only consumers in America who pay for something and then are delighted when they get neither the product nor a refund. If I were running a business, these are the guys I would want for my customers.
In his Rule Saint Benedict is very cautious about monks and work. He certainly discourages overwork, and he’s keen that everyone does his fair share. But his major concern has to do with pride. When a monk begins to think that the community simply could not go on without his incredible talents, then it’s time for some adjustment. He doesn’t want any one monk to live under the illusion that he is indispensible, because no one ever is. With an attitude like that, you can guess where Benedict might weigh in on hefty CEO salaries.
An approach like this clashes with ideas on efficiency, and Benedict is aware of this. But his teaching on food-preparation illustrates the trade-off he is willing to make. All should take their turns in the kitchen; and even if a monk has training at the Culinary Institute of America, it’s important that he step back into the rotation. Here Benedict sacrifices one good — consistently great food — for a better good: mutual dependence. I for one can appreciate why he does this; but I’m thankful that modern monks have discreetly agreed to treat this precept as “recommendation” rather than “legislation.”
But there is something even more important that Benedict stresses, and this has to do with the intrinsic worth of each and every human being. God created the world. God saw the world. And God saw that the world was good. This is the foundation of the Jewish and Christian worldview. It means that every person is a creation of God, and each is a temple of God’s Spirit. As such, each has intrinsic value over and above any job they can do well or poorly. That is the baseline for our treatment of others, and it is the thread that weaves through a healthy community.
Given that, I’m willing to admit that there are moments when emergency workers are essential, while I appear not to be. But at the end of the day, everyone needs to recognize the value of everyone else in a community. Clearly, for big chunks of the day, I may be non-essential, but my moment of fame eventually comes. In the meantime, I will give the emergency people their due, because they are teachers too. After all, both they and Jesus Christ are on the same page. Both remind us that we are worth saving.The Abbey forests
The woods have always been an identifying feature of life at Saint John’s. When the monks arrived in the 1850’s they began to harvest the trees for construction, for furniture and for fuel, but they also began a program of careful management that continues even today.
On August 2nd, 2011, a major storm roared through central Minnesota, felling a very significant number of trees. This winter the forest managers have been clearing trails and harvesting the damaged trees, and the results have yielded some pretty impressive stacks of logs.
For people like me, who tend to see the forest rather than the trees, this has been a teachable moment. For one thing, we’ve become aware that if we did absolutely nothing and left our woods alone, they would evolve from the current red-oak mix to a maple and basswood mix. The red oak is great for the Abbey carpenter shop, while the maple supplies us syrup, and the basswood pollen is beloved by the bees. So there are benefits at every turn.
Last summer’s storm was not the first major one for the woods. Even though it toppled roughly 2% of the mature trees, it probably pales in comparison to the storm of 1896. That one yielded huge amounts of timber, and it led to the first recorded reforestation project in Minnesota history.
Will we ever run out of wood? The managers estimate that our forest could sustain an annual harvest of 300,000 board feet, which sounds like an awful lot to me. Last summer’s storm took out about 150,000 board feet; and in recent years we’ve harvested less than 50,000 per year. So we’re in no immediate danger.
Where does all that wood go? The scraps go to fireplaces and the pottery kiln. But the high-quality wood goes to the Abbey carpentry shop, to be transformed into furniture for the monastery, the University and the Prep School. But this year there was simply too much of it, and three semi-loads of quality red oak have sailed off to lumber mills in Japan. There it will become veneer for fine furniture.
One of my favorite books, Monasticon Gallicanum, is loaded with wonderful prints of French monasteries. I spent a delightful morning last week harvesting pictures of some of my favorite places, and in coming weeks I will pepper my posts with images from this text. In a few cases the monasteries survived the French revolution intact. But in most cases significant portions of these massive complexes were recycled into local homes, chateaus and walls.