I don’t think that monks originally set out to save civilization. I realize they get credit for this in some circles, and a few still think that’s part of our mission statement as monks. All the same, if monks did make some contribution to the preservation of culture through the centuries, it was not a self-conscious decision. If anything, it was just the byproduct of showing up for work every day to do what had to be done.
Saint Anthony, who wandered off into the Egyptian desert in the 4th century to pursue life as a hermit, had no idea he was saving civilization. As much as anything he fled the complications of civilization and a church hierarchy that had begun to blend all too seamlessly into the ranks of the famous and powerful. Anthony would have none of that, and when he did finally abandon his hermitage, he returned to Alexandria to serve the poor and imprisoned. Who knows what belongings he toted back with him to the city; but there likely were few if any books.
Saint Benedict had an equally inauspicious start when it came to preserving civilization. As a student in Rome he found the cultural environment terribly unpleasant, and he fled to the wilderness outside of Rome. In his cave at Subiaco there was no need for a library, because like Anthony learning was not high on his list of daily activities, at least according to his biography.
Somewhere along the line Benedict had a change of attitude, and with one simple prescription in his Rule for Monks he set a course for his own community that has impacted monks in the west ever since. His was a literate community, as evidenced by the recitation of the Psalms and readings from the Bible. But he took it one step further with the command that during Lent each monk should read at least one book. That meant that every monk had to be literate, and it meant there had to be enough books and a variety of books to go around. Thus was born the library that every monastery worth its salt had to have.
Despite the Hollywood portrait of the vast library at the abbey of Melk in The Name of the Rose, monastic libraries tended to be quite small through much of the middle ages. In the year 1,000 scarcely any monastery had a collection approaching even a thousand manuscripts. Common to them as well was the location of these collections. For the most part they tended to be housed in the sacristy, where they sat alongside the tomes necessary for Mass and the liturgy of the hours.
For much of the middle ages manuscripts were rare and the monks venerated the most ornate of them as both sacred and material treasures. We get to enjoy them today on visits to the abbeys of Saint Gall in Switzerland and Melk in Austria, though most monastic treasures now reside in the national libraries of Europe. There these manuscripts still intrigue the imagination and sometimes even dazzle the eye.
This is the tradition from which American Benedictines descend. To no one’s surprise, when the first five monks steamed up the Mississippi to Minnesota in 1856, they brought with them five trunks filled with books from Germany. It wasn’t much of a collection, but in the minds of those five monks those books were as necessary as habits, a roof over their head and a wood fire in winter. Books were an essential part of life, even if they were not scholars.
That initial collection acted as a seed, and in the mid-1960s Saint John’s commissioned architect Marcel Breuer to design Alcuin Library, which now houses the descendants of the original five trunks. Today the collection has grown to the point at which the University library, in tandem with Clemens Library at the College of Saint Benedict, comprises the 11th largest liberal arts college library in the country. That’s a huge accomplishment, considering that those first monks and nuns came to Minnesota with so little.
Last week we broke ground on an addition to Alcuin Library at Saint John’s. Given the advent of the electronic book, a renovated and expanded library may seem counterintuitive and even wasteful. But of course it’s not if you’re interested in the future of civilization. God forbid that an electronic burst would obliterate all the e-books, but you never know. And you can never be too careful.
Beyond that, I was cheered by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. It noted both a slight decline in the sale of e-books and a revival of independent booksellers in the US. That just confirmed my own conclusion of several years ago. I remain convinced that paper books will never go the way of the dinosaur as long as people continue to read in the bath tub. They’d never dare take an electronic book into the water.
In the interests of full discloser, I am currently reading two e-books and two “real” books. My arms like the e-books when I travel, and my eyes like the paper when I read in the evening.
+On April 18th I said Mass and gave a presentation at the monthly gathering of the Order of Malta members in San Francisco.
+On April 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.
+Also on April 22nd I took part in the activities of Saint John’s Day, when we welcomed supporters of the University and Abbey to campus. That afternoon we broke ground for the expansion of Alcuin Library and the addition of a new wing, to be named the Brother Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons. As president of the University, Brother Dietrich appointed the first of many committees that planned this project — and that was nearly 25 years ago. No one can say that monks rush into things. The latter three photos include one that depicts the addition, while the others give a sense of the location next to Alcuin Library.
+The weather has reached the point of no return in regard to spring, as the enclosed pictures illustrate. This also has meant the end of the maple syrup season, and Brother Walter reported that they were able to make 382 gallons this spring.