I’ve always been grateful that Saint Benedict was not a rigid fundamentalist when it came to his Rule for Monks. While many other legislators made rigid demands on monks, Benedict seems much more easy-going. He most definitely was not one of those Italian laissez-faire sort of guys, because he never for a minute believed that it was okay for monks to do any and everything they pleased. In fact, he takes to task all those who’ve done their own thing and then called it holy. And make no mistake about whether he had standards. He most certainly did, but those standards were there to support the monk rather than crush the monk. In this he likely took his cue from Jesus, who had once pointed out that the Sabbath was made for people and not the other way around.
Benedict’s flexibility shows in lots of areas. If a community had a better way of organizing the Psalms for prayer, then by all means give it a shot. But don’t bother him with inane requests about whether it’s okay to recite Psalm 122 on Tuesday rather than Thursday. He also writes that the diet can be adapted to local conditions, and that includes things like work-load, season of the year, and availability of produce. He does put off limits the consumption of meat, but in general he has few other restrictions. For instance, nowhere does he write that Monday will be cauliflower day, while Brussels sprouts may be eaten only on Fridays in Advent. Despite Benedict’s flexibility, however, later generations of monks have had a hard time resisting the temptation to make lots of rules, even on things like food. For that reason I’ve always felt superior to the medieval English monks who forbade the eating of lard during Lent. Heck, I have to be at least ten times a better monk than they, because I never eat lard, ever.
The whole business of dealing with winter is yet another topic where I give Benedict a lot of credit. The fact of the matter is, we in Minnesota do not have an Italian climate, and I was reminded of this when I flew back from Knoxville last week. Actually, I knew this even before I went to Knoxville, but that’s beside the point.
In eastern Tennessee the leaves weren’t yet on the trees, but it felt like spring to me. When I got back to Minnesota, it was also clear to me that news of the arrival of spring on March 1st had failed to register. No one had done a thing to prepare, as a quick glance around the place made abundantly clear. When I stepped out of the airport it was still cold, and there was still snow all over the place. And there were huge piles of it.
I experienced the practical implications of this on the drive back to Sant John’s when I stopped at the Burger King in Maple Grove. Planning on a quick lunch, I headed to the drive-through; but it was anything but quick. In fact, the drive-through was a lot like the luge at the winter olympics. Six-foot walls of snow flanked the car, while tracks in the snow guided the car around the corner and up to the window.
I chuckled at it all until I grabbed the bag and tried to drive on. I was stuck, and my wheels could only spin. Unable to move, and with several cars behind me, I looked in helpless desperation to the young attendant standing at the window. Without batting an eye, he told me to wait — which was not necessary, since that was the problem. He rushed out into +8 degree weather without a coat, squeezed between my car and the one behind, gave me a solid push, and out of the rut lurched my car. Apparently he must have done this several times already that day. For him it was all in a day’s work, while I was impressed and more than a little grateful. Who knew that Burger King provided all those other services?
Anyway, the point I’d like to make is that in Minnesota we deal with winter in a matter of fact way that must astound much of the rest of the country. This is what allows us to smile wryly when Atlanta closes down after an eighth of an inch of snow. It also makes us stoic and resilient, as the citizens of Lake Wobegon will be the first to point out. We are tough, but ours is a humble and self-effacing toughness. You’ll have to ask us three times before we’ll let on how tough we really are.
I finally got home to Saint John’s, where there were several more inches of snow than when I had left. Since December 42 inches have fallen, which is twice the average. Frankly, the stuff is everywhere, and we’re running out of places to put it. Just the day before I had congratulated my audience in Tennessee for their ingenuity. I hadn’t seen snow anywhere in Tennessee, and I asked where in the world they stored all their snow. Clearly, we in Minnesota have much to learn from them.
Meanwhile, given that winter keeps showing up every year, I’m grateful for Saint Benedict’s lean commentary on winter in general and his flexibility on clothing in particular. Undoubtedly, monastic pioneers like Saints Augustine of Hippo and Basil never imagined a day when monks would be found in Germany or England or Canada. Thankfully, Saint Benedict never ruled out that possibility. So he was way ahead of the game when he foresaw that the business of winter might come up, and he didn’t want monks pestering him for a lot of detailed legislation on how to deal with it.
Writing in the early 500’s, Saint Benedict had this to say about winter and what to wear: “The clothing distributed to the brothers should vary according to local conditions and climate, because more is needed in cold regions and less in warmer. This is left to the abbot’s discretion.” He does go on to itemize a few articles of clothing and footwear, but he’s pretty much exhausted what he has to say about winter. Reading between the lines, Benedict seems clear that he doesn’t want people in Manitoba writing to ask if it’s okay to wear ear-muffs when it’s -20. In his reply he would likely point out that God gave people brains, and when it reaches -20 it’s a good idea to use them without having to consult him about it.
Meanwhile, winter goes on at Saint John’s and in Minnesota. Despite the fact that we are now three days into spring, spring has made absolutely zero impact on our lives. On the other hand, we are an optimistic lot. March is the snowiest month of the year. How exciting! That means that spring can’t be far behind. But in the meantime we need to figure out where to put all the new snow. For worse, and probably for better, Saint Benedict didn’t write a chapter on snow removal. He’d just tell us to figure it out for ourselves.
+On February 24th and 25th I made presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Carson Newman University in Jefferson City, TN. To put things into perspective, when I was growing up in Oklahoma City, Catholics there numbered 3% of the citizenry, Episcopalians 2% and Lutherans 1%. Such minority status fostered ecumenism long before it became fashionable elsewhere. Since Carson Newman uses the First Baptist Church for its chapel services, you can better appreciate what an awe-inspiring experience it was for me to stand in the pulpit of the First Baptist Church and address the student body. They don’t get many monks there, to say the least. And their hospitality was over the top.
+February 27th was a very busy day, and it began with a class on monastic history, which I gave in the novitiate. It’s been a while since I taught in the formation program for the young monks, and in coming weeks I am scheduled for seven classes. In this session I spoke about the monk and pope Gregory the Great, who commissioned Saint Augustine as a missionary to England in the late 6th century. The class took place in the morning, followed by several meetings. Then late in the afternoon I presided at the Abbey Mass, which I said in memory of my good friend from the Order of Malta, Mr. Dean Pace. You can reference my sermon, How Do I Use My Gifts?, under Presentations.
+Ukraine has been in the headlines of late, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to visit there two years ago. Even then the tensions were high, but the beauty of cities like Lviv and Kiev belied the political division and the rampant corruption that showed up in the smallest details. If you missed my post on this trip to Ukraine, you can visit the posting of 20 August MMXII: The Travails of Travel. The pictures in today’s post portray scenes from Kiev. The city wears its Russian heritage on its sleeves, both in the stunning Orthodox churches and in the drab Soviet era piles.