Archive for September 2nd, 2013

imageMonastic, or Un-monastic?

The weather was not overly kind to us during the last days of August in Minnesota. More precisely, it was awful, with heat and humidity that made life nearly unbearable for over a week.

In the monastery we tend to take this sort of thing stoically, even if we’re not entirely happy about it.  We know it won’t last forever; and besides, it serves a useful purpose.  It gets us in the mood for winter, and we start to pine for those frosty February days that we grew tired of at the time.  But this spell of heat was different.  And while I can’t speak for all of my confreres, it did sap the vitality of many of us.

Whatever else you may want to say about monks, we are a persistent lot.  We refuse to cave in easily, even in the face of cold hard logic.  That explains why most of us continued to wear habits in our un-air-conditioned church.  And as the celebrant for Sunday Mass at the apex of this heat wave, I got more than my share of payback for this stubbornness.  For well over an hour I stood in the sanctuary, dressed in habit, alb and chasuble, with a heat index approaching 100.

imageAt the end of Mass I staggered out of church and threw my habit and alb into the washer, and myself into a cold shower.  My plan was to appear crisp and polished as the celebrant for Vespers at 5 pm.  I duly reappeared in habit, alb and cope, but of course it was even hotter than before.  And the heavy incense that we use at Vespers made it even worse.  By the end of Vespers I had wilted, and my vestments reeked of this exotic perfume.  It was time for a repeat visit to the laundry and the shower.

It’s not that we monks never see these days coming, because we have two infallible guides that signal impending misery.  The first are the wooden handrails on the stairs.  When they are sticky to the touch, we know it’s going to be a bad day.  The second are our footfalls on the brick floor that leads into church.  Normally our steps are nearly silent.  But when they sound like a herd of squeaky mice, we know it’s too late to do much of anything, except to laugh at the joyful noise.

imageThe simple solution would be to air-condition everything and make a distant memory of those sorts of days altogether.  But that’s not the way it works in monasteries.  The same dynamic that gives a monastery continuity also deters abrupt change.  Like a steamship, we can’t turn on a dime.  But we will definitely get where we’re going.

Once upon a time there was no air-conditioning anywhere in our monastery.  With shady porches, big windows and high-ceilinged halls, our 19th-century buildings were designed to circulate air and make things livable, if not comfortable, in the summer.  The installation of fire doors, energy-efficient windows, false ceilings and the like began to choke the free flow of air.  In time, the 1880’s-era wing of the monastery evolved into a slow-bake oven that cooled only when the leaves began to fall.

For several years we mulled the question of what to do about rooms that would cool into the high 80’s at night.  For those of us who lived there, the solution was obvious.  For those who lived in the more breezy 1950’s wing of the monastery, air-conditioning was “un-monastic.”  And it remained “un-monastic” until we finally coaxed the abbot to spend one particularly sultry evening on our floor.  That immediately countered the appeal to “un-monastic”, and eventually the air was flowing.

imageOf course air-conditioning has not been the only item to earn the dreaded label “un-monastic”.  For years most monasteries around the world debated whether television was un-monastic.  Eventually the television producers decided the question for us.

Before television the debate centered on radio, so I’m told.  Was radio the devil’s own ploy to invade the cloister?  It too seemed suspiciously un-monastic, and literalists could appeal to Saint Benedict’s 6th-century Rule, which made no provision for monks either owning or listening to radios.  At Saint John’s we definitively settled that issue when we started a classical music station.  KSJR eventually grew to become Minnesota Public Radio.  So I suppose we could say that we turned the devil’s sow’s ear into a great cultural silk purse.  And we baptized it in the process.

But that hardly exhausts this history of the resort to “un-monastic” as the ultimate argument.  In the 19th century American monks across the country argued whether it was un-monastic to dress in work clothes rather than in habit when they did manual labor.  Experience  eventually provided the answer after several monks got their habits tangled in farm machinery.  With good reason a few began to argue that farm accidents were even more un-monastic than not wearing one’s habit in the barnyard.  Who could argue with that line of logic? And so they dispensed with habit-wearing during manual labor.  That, then, is how things once-deemed un-monastic eventually become monastic.

imageFor ages monks and nuns have relied on the “un-monastic” trump card to stall any and all change.  Granted, it is a very weak argument, but its usage is not unique to us.  All sorts of people employ it, or a variation of it.  So whenever someone stands up to propose something new, you can bet that someone else will counter with the local equivalent of “un-monastic.”  “We’ve never done that before” is a rejoinder you often hear.  And people expect that will end the debate.  But of course it seldom does.

Taken together, it’s all an appeal to the force of tradition.  I’m the first to admit that tradition carries a lot of weight, but I’m certainly not the only one.  Even my Lutheran pastor friends will privately admit that appeals to Scripture don’t always refute appeals to Tradition in their parishes.  Many a pastor has touched the third rail in proposing change, only to be vanquished by ardent church members armed with this fundamental truth:  “But Pastor, we’ve always done it this way.”  And of course they are right, even if “always” means the last year or two.

imageThere are good reasons to stand with continuity and stability, because they nurture individuals and families and communities.  But when they lead to lethargy, they can stifle and kill the spirit.

Conversely, change and development can be life-giving and renewing.  They can rescue individual monks and communities from the proverbial rut.  But arbitrary change that is not rooted in the fundamental tradition can be as disruptive as total resistance to anything that is deemed un-monastic.

All of this points to why God gave each of us brains.  Monastic life, Christian life, and all life for that matter, are works of art.  But the artistic process demands that we use our brains, particularly when we pray about things.  And when we’re done praying, God asks us to act.

imageAs for the current state of air-conditioning in our monastery, it’s a work in process.  We continue to pray about it.  Right now the old wing has it, and the new wing and the church do not.  Personally I’m now fully convinced that air-conditioning in the old wing is totally monastic.  In fact, it would be un-monastic not to have it.  Living in that wing for twenty years has convinced me of that.  And I will be totally objective and venture that an air-conditioned church would also be very monastic.  As for the new wing of the monastery, I will have to pray about that some more.  For now I think it would be un-monastic to have it there.  After all, we’ve never had it there, and Saint Benedict says nothing in the Rule about air-conditioning new wings of monasteries.  But I remain open-minded.  If someday I should have to move into the new wing, I reserve the right to change my mind on this.  And I’ll do it on a dime.


+During the past week I stayed home at Saint John’s.  But I savored the memories of time away this summer, including a visit to the former Carthusian monastery of Buxheim, in southern Germany.  It is most noted for its stunningly beautiful choir stalls, which are in extraordinary condition.  Remarkably, the complex remains largely intact, though only a few of the original hermits’ cells remain.  The pictures in today’s post all originate from Buxheim.

+Our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann has just completed a concert tour of Japan, during which he played at several halls both in Tokyo and elsewhere — including a recital at our priory in Fujimi.  This completed a sabbatical which took him to Berkeley and then to New York.  While in New York he participated in the production of one music video in which he played the piano with singer Fr. Austin Litke, OP, and violinist Leah Sedlacek, who works at the Catholic Center at NYU.  On his return to Saint John’s Fr. Bob will assume the title President Emeritus of the University, and he will resume teaching piano to a few very lucky students.

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