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Archive for April, 2017

IMG_5558Alcuin Library Revisited

For hundreds of years people have spoken of monks and books in the same breath.  This is largely due to Saint Benedict, who assumed that each monastery would have to begin a collection of manuscripts from the day of its foundation.  For one thing a monastery needed books for the liturgy, and this would include missals, lectionaries, antiphonals and the like.  Secondly, monasteries needed books for lectio divina — the sacred reading expected of every monk.  At the very least Saint Benedict wanted each monk to read one book during Lent, though most did a little better than that.  As a result, however, for centuries the prime spot for the storage of books was the sacristy, until finally some monastic collections grew to the point at which the non-liturgical books began to find a home in a purpose-built room called the library.

It was a long time before monastic collections grew to the size of the library described in Humberto Eco’s great novel, The Name of the Rose.  That library seemed massive, or at least it seemed so in the movie.  In fact few monasteries had such sizeable collections, and in the year 900 it was the rare monastery that had more than a hundred books.  By the end of the Middle Ages, however, it was a different story, and large monastic collections paved the way for a 17th-century scholar-monk named Jean Mabillon.  While his fellow French monk, Dom Perignon, stole the limelight for putting the bubbles in champagne, Mabillon cemented the popular image of the monk poring over manuscripts.

IMG_5404That was the legacy that the monks brought with them to central Minnesota in 1856. As they steamed up the Mississippi, they brought with them clothing and vestments and tools for the monastery, but books were equally necesssary.  Those few books became the nucleus of the vast collection that students and scholars at Saint John’s page through today.  Of course the library developed in directions that those first five monks could scarcely have imagined;  but they also would be stunned at the size of the collection today.  They would also be startled to behold the home of those books.

For decades the Abbey and University library resided in Wimmer Hall, named for the founding abbot of Saint John’s, Boniface Wimmer.  Then during the Christmas break of 1965-66 the books were transferred to the newly-constructed Alcuin Library.  Today no one seems entirely sure whether the building was named for Abbot Alcuin Deutsch of Saint John’s Abbey or Alcuin of York, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk who headed Emperor Charlemagne’s palace school in Aachen.  These days most patrons of Alcuin Library seem not to care, though many pause to consider the painting of Abbot Alcuin that greets visitors.  Still, I’m happy that the name Alcuin has stuck.  It’s a fine yet seldom-used name today.  And the name has been on the building for nearly fifty years.

IMG_5542That building seemed to serve student and faculty needs for decades, but at long last it has gone through a major transformation.  For nine months it’s been closed, and in January and February it finally reopened after a complete overhaul.  Marcel Breuer’s original design for Alcuin Library is intact but enhanced, and the two concrete trees that support the roof are much more prominent than before.  The removal of the wall that cordoned off the entrance has opened up a spectacular vista of the abbey church across the plaza.  Even better, it has visually sparked a conversation between faith and reason — something that architect Breuer would have appreciated.

This August Alcuin Library will be joined to a new structure — the Brother Dietrich Reinhardt Learning Commons.  Together they will provide five high-tech classrooms and a range of rooms to serve individual and group study.  Also included will be a new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible and direct access to The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  In sum, it’s a spectacular development, at least in my humble opinion.

And what about the books?  Do they still have a place?  Happily, the books that the monks brought up the Mississippi now reside in a new special collections department, which includes a dedicated reading room.  Meanwhile, the collections that the University has accumulated in the course of 160 years now rest on compact shelving, easily accessible to students.

IMG_5524And is there room for growth?  Happily too the electronic book has not nor will ever replace the hard-copy books, and the collections continue to expand.  Alumni and friends of Saint John’s feed that growth with the donation of their prized books, and Alcuin Library adds newly-published works to the shelves.  And then there are treasures that appear unexpectedly, like the eight hundred books donated recently by the special collections library at Brigham Young University.  Over the years that library had grown its own collections through the purchase of entire libraries.  Two years ago I spoke at that library’s annual friends’ meeting, and at the end of the day the director approached me with an offer I could not refuse.  Among the collections were several items of Catholic interest that did not quite match the interests at BYU.  Would Saint John’s be interested in eight hundred books, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries?  I did not want to appear to be too eager, but I’m afraid I may bave been.  Through the kindness of Brigham Young University those books now share shelves in the special collections department at Saint John’s with the seed collection that arrived in 1856.

No doubt the story of Alcuin Library and its great collection is scarcely over.  There’s more to come, and it’s quite likely that ours today is the largest collection in the history of the Benedictine tradition.  Would Saint Benedict be proud?  Perhaps.  But at the very least he would be pleased by the thought that the monks of Saint John’s are still reading.

IMG_5544Notes

+On April 18th I spoke to the monastic chapter on the First Generation College Student program at Saint John’s University..

+On April 21st I attended the annual Saint John’s Day gathering, held at the headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.  Fr. Colman Barry, president of Saint John’s University, started an FM radio station at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and since then it has morphed into MPR.  No doubt it remains one of the most original and influential initiatives of the University.  On the occasion of MPR’s 50th anniversary Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on MPR the Fr. Colman Barry Award for distinguished contributions to religion and society.

+On April 22nd our Brother Lucian departed for Germany, where he will study German, in preparation for doctoral studies which he will begin at the University of Notre Dame this fall.

+Brother Walter reports that the maple sap harvest netted 272 gallons of syrup this spring.

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IMG_0027_2Easter Notes

To all of the readers of this blog I extend Easter greetings and my fervent hope that these days continue to be a time of reflection and personal renewal.  Happy Easter to you all, and thank you for your continued interest in this poor monk’s Chronicle!

Notes

+On April 12th I spoke at the monthly luncheon of the Administrative Assembly at Saint John’s University.  Perhaps the best way to describe this group is to say that it includes all those administrative colleagues who are not members of the faculty, and it was the first time I’ve ever spoken to this group.  I gave an update on First Generation College Students at Saint John’s, and more particularly described the Immokalee Scholarship Program.

+Holy Week services at the Abbey were over-the-top wonderful.  From Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil the music was particularly inspiring, and the community of monks sang the psalmody especially well.  Without the organ our voices resounded strongly through the church.  The schola for its part sang a wide range of pieces, beautifully.  Fr. Nick’s rendition of the Exultet was particularly nice, while Br. Aaron once again chanted the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet at morning prayer on Friday and Saturday.  Meanwhile the liturgies moved along with grace and ease.

IMG_0025_2By now, after over 160 years of doing this, people might be inclined to assume that we’ve got this down pat.  How hard can it be?  Well, it may look effortless, but anything can go wrong at any point.  Certainly the Exultet can go awry, as even the best of cantors can get tangled up in this hauntingly beautiful and challenging piece of chant.  Many of us have memories of unfortunate experiences, and I recall one instance which I have ever since labeled The Exultet from Hell.  Yet another mishap from our liturgical archives occurred when a student, acting as candle-bearer, bowed a little too profoundly when the entrance procession reached the altar.  Unfortunately his hair brushed the candle and burst into a lovely blue flame.  No harm came to the student, but it brought the opening hymn to a screeching halt.  And he needed a haircut afterward.

It’s the absence of such incidents that reminds us of all the hard work that our confreres invest in the liturgy.  They make it look easy, when in fact it is not.  For the rest of us their efforts make for a wonderfully spiritual experience.

+The two manuscript illuminations in today’s post are from antiphonals housed at the Civic Museum of Bologna in Italy.  The first depicts the Last Supper, and it dates from ca. 1275.  The second, ca. 1335, shows the empty tomb, with the angels greeting Mary Magdalene.

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IMG_1272The Terms of the Covenant

There’s no denying that we live in a culture that worships at the altar of rugged individualism.  Given that frame of mind, what are we supposed to do with the covenant that God and Abraham made, which Genesis succinctly describes?  How could one man possibly commit generations of his descendants to an agreement in which they had no say?  Was there no wiggle room for his children and grandchildren — to say nothing of all of his descendants to the thousandth generation?  And if even one person had the nerve to walk away from the covenant, was that the end of the deal for everybody?  Was the pact annulled from that day forward?

Had Abraham’s commitment been binding on all of his offspring, then the failure of one might have invalidated the whole thing.  Had that been the case, the story would have ended with Abraham, and the Bible would have been a lot shorter than it is.  Meanwhile, the other party to the agreement — God — could have wandered off in search of a more loyal flock.

Fortunately it didn’t work out that way, and Genesis gave way to Exodus and so on down the line through to the Book of Revelation.  Throughout all this, generations of individuals came to terms with the implications of the covenant.  Some followed it, and some did not.  But the covenant endured, and the biblical narrative continues beyond Abraham and tells the story of all those successes and failures.

In the first grade we used as our religion textbook a short book with the rather focused title of Jesus and I.  Ever since then I’ve been tempted to think of my relationship with God in rather exclusive terms — something strictly between me and God.  How things were going between me and God was nobody else’s business; just as someone else’s religious situation was none of my affair.

IMG_0061_2In time I did grow beyond this slightly warped view.  My viewpoint began to change as I realized that the “Jesus and I” relationship was a necessary first step, but it was not the goal.  I began to understand that I have to respond to the call of Jesus to live with and in him, but that’s only the start.  Life in Christ necessarily takes into account the people with whom I make my earthly pilgrimage to God.  Frail and prone to failure as we all might be, we are still in this together, like it or not.

As much as I may resent that Abraham dragged me into his covenant without consulting me, I do have to give him credit for reminding me and everybody else of the social dimension of the covenant.  We may make it with God, but we live it out with one another.  We weave the covenant into our friendships and into our marriage commitments.  And for those of us who have chosen to make vows in a monastery, it permeates our lives together.  As a result, the monastery can never be just a residence hall where we as rugged individuals go about our business.  We commit ourselves to seek the presence of God and to get a glimmer of God in one another.

Holy Week presents us with the chance both to renew and to participate in the covenant.  Of course there’s nothing wrong with praying in solitude.  But imagine a Holy Week schedule that catered to individual tastes.  So the schedule on the monastery bulletin board might read thus:  “Br. Edwin will celebrate the liturgy of the Lord’s passion at 3:00 pm.  Fr. Rudolf will do it at 3:47 pm.  Fr. Peter will celebrate it at 10:45 am.  Br. George will celebrate it at a time yet to be determined, if and when he gets to it.  Reservations are highly recommended.”  Then add one hundred more entries, and you get an idea of the chaos that would ensue in my own community.  Inevitably that would say more about the dysfunction in a community than it would about any belief in the saving action of Jesus Christ.

IMG_1292So it is that monks and other Christians don’t celebrate the Triduum as solitary pilgrims, at their individual convenience.  Rather, we gather together as friends and spouses and families.  We monks even go to the trouble of lining up and then processing in together, and that’s not just to insure there’ll be only one official starting time for everybody.  We do it so that we can begin each service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — together.

There is in this a certain irony of course, because whether we are monks or members of a congregation, our decision to be there is quite personal.  Once gathered, however, we belong to each other and to the Lord.  We’ve gathered as friends, family and as a community of monks to search for God, together.  And together, in a renewal of the covenant, the object of our search becomes tangible.  We truly seek and experience the risen Lord.

Palm Sunday 003Notes

+On April 6th I was the celebrant for the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and for me it was a personal accomplishment.  It was the first time to be celebrant since I pulled my back several weeks ago, and I managed to stand up without a walker or cane.  Nor was there any mishap on the steps.  I continue to make progress on my back and am grateful to all those who have offered their prayers.

+Every now and again I am reminded of just how long I have been at Saint John’s.  Last Saturday I had dinner with one of my very first students, and the previous week I had met his son for lunch.  His son is a senior at Saint John’s University and will graduate in May.  From my own perspective I do not think of them as father and son, since I have not known them that way.  Rather, they are individual friends of mine.  The second son will be a freshman at Saint John’s this fall, so I will add a third friend to the mix.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items from the Cloisters Museum in New York.  At top is a Palmesel (Palm Donkey, 15th-century, German), which was pulled in Palm Sunday processions in many German-speaking villages until the Reformation saw the practice fade away.  Below that is a silver-gilt chalice, made in Northern Europe in 1222.  It is among the few signed works of the time; and the inscription on the base — “Bertinus me fecit” — identifies Brother Bertinus as the maker.  Next is a lindenwood Pietá, made in Germany ca. 1440.  The Calvary is by the contemporary artist Gerald Bonnet, and it hangs on a wall outside of the chapter house at Saint John’s.  At bottom is the crucifix in the Abbey refectory.  The mural was painted by Br. Clement in the 1930s.

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IMG_0189_2Find the Sinners You Can Live With

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection for a young man who has now begun his formal entrance into the monastery.  It was his first day as a candidate, and Fr. John — the formation director — had asked me to deliver two conferences.  I was free to talk about anything I wanted, as long as it had something to do with the monastic life.  To say the least, that still gave me plenty of leeway for topics.

What advice do you give to someone who’s come to enter the monastery?  “Don’t do it!” is certainly one option, and it would have made my day much easier had I selected that.  But I knew that Fr. John would frown on that approach, and it wasn’t my sentiment anyway.  So I puzzled over several themes until I concluded that it would be presumptuous of me to tell any candidate what he needed to know or to do.  I also realized that I was going to have to sit through these conferences.  So why not say something that might make an impression on me?  That way if the candidate’s attention were to drift off as I droned on, at least one of us might get something out of the experience.  So in the interests of pure self-interest I decided to remind myself of three points.

First of all, why do people come to the monastery?  Saint Benedict supplied the answer in his Rule, and it’s simple enough.  “The monk comes to seek God.”  Still, that’s a little abstract and doesn’t really touch on the practical reasons for why people embrace this life.  The fact is, novices enter for all sorts of reasons.  They may have a friend or two in the community.  They find the life attractive.  They enjoy the liturgy and the music.  They want to be involved in some aspect of the work of the community.  These are just a few of the lures that the Holy Spirit dangles to inspire people to enter.

IMG_0191_2But these are not the reasons that cause monks to stay in the monastery for a lifetime.  The fact is, monks grow and mature, as do whole communities.  What matters at one point may matter less twenty years down the road as monks grow in age and experience and wisdom.  What brought them to the monastery merely began a process that lasts a lifetime, and change occurs along the way.

That brings me to the second point.  In the course of life most monks gradually discover that the abstract business of the search for God is actually why they remain.  They also discover that God is not nearly so distant as they may have once assumed.  Gradually, little by little, they learn the lessons that Saint Benedict intended to teach.  They do begin to get glimpses of God in the abbot, in the sick and elderly, in the guests and the young, and even in themselves.  That’s the unexpected reward of the monastic life, unless of course a monk manages to keep his eyes closed to all of this.  But if a monk can keep his eyes alert to the possibilities, then he will rub elbows with Christ, resident in the people around him.

IMG_0155_2My final point has to do with a fundamental reality of life in community.  Monks may see the face of Christ in one another, but they also must come to terms with the fact that monks are people too.  In spiritual terms they are both sinners and saved.  In social terms, they all have their assets and their liabilities.  Every monastery and each monk does some things very well, and they fall woefully short in other areas.  The irony is that it can be as difficult to live with gifted people as it can be to live with sinners.  But the challenge for any candidate is whether he can live with these particular sinners and their particular sins.  If this is a deal-breaker, then he needs to find other sinners who are more to his liking.

These are the points with which I satisfied myself during that day of reflection.   That said, I harbor no illusion that these issues are somehow unique to the monastic life.  For bettter and for worse these crop up in marriage and friendships and in most any human relationship.  And if they are the challenges that we all encounter in the course of our spiritual pilgrimage, then no one should be surprised to encounter them in the monastic pilgrimage.  Therein is the struggle, and therein is the reward of a life well lived.  Along the way, the important goal is this:  find the group of sinners with whom you will flourish on the path to God.  Not surprisingly, then, that’s what novitiate is all about.

IMG_0182_2Notes

+On March 30th I sat in on the weekly meeting of the Benedictine Living Group, led by Brother Aidan.  Participants are college students who live together for a year in one of the residence halls and commit themselves to regular prayer together, as well as a fall and spring retreat and a weekly seminar on the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It was fun to participate in their discussion, especially since I didn’t have to prepare anything in advance.

+On April 1st I gave the day of reflection to our incoming candidate for the monastery.  For two months he will live and work and pray with us;  and at the end of that period he can apply for the novitiate.

+We had plenty of guests during the past few days in the monastery.  For two days four students from Saint John’s University lived with us as part of their introduction to the monastery.  On Saturday April 1st sixty students and three faculty from St. Olaf College joined us for Mass.  This is a yearly trek for these classes from St. Olaf, and no doubt they were surprised by the fact that their host for the day, Brother David-Paul, is an alumnus of St. Olaf.  He is subprior of the monastery.

+On March 31st Brothers Simon Peter and Asiel arrived and will spend a week with us.  They are newly-professed monks at Newark Abbey in New Jersey.  For years we have sent our Benedictine Volunteers to work in their school — Saint Benedict’s Prep — and since 2007 we’ve enrolled over thirty of their alumni at Saint John’s.  On Sunday the current cohort of those students joined Brother Simon Peter and Asiel for dinner in the monastic refectory.

IMG_0102_2+The photos in today’s post all show art from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Crucifixion, by the Master of St. Veronica (Germany, tempera on panel, ca. 1400/1410).  Next is Calvary, by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster (German, oil on panel, ca. 1470-1480).  Below that is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene, by Pietro Perugino (Umbria, 1482-1485). The gruesome Crucifixion is by Matthias Grünewald, Germany, ca. 1511/1520.  At bottom is St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Cima da Conegliano, Venice, ca. 1500-1005.

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