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Archive for September 17th, 2018

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The Artisans of the Monastery

When our first monks stepped off the boat and onto the shore of the Mississippi at Saint Cloud, there wasn’t much there to greet them.  There was even less when they ventured a few miles west to the site that would become Saint John’s.  There were no shops, roads, churches or even a place to live.  Those pioneers, like their neighbors elsewhere in Stearns County, had very little except for the dreams of what might be someday.  But if they ran short on many commodities, those monks had one thing in abundance:  trees.  Lots and lots of trees.

Trees were essential to life at Saint John’s in the early decades.  The monks used wood to put up the first buildings.  They used wood to keep warm in the winter.  And they used wood to make furniture.

D038891E-411E-438A-B41F-DCAA796E146AToday we don’t use much wood for warmth save for the three fireplaces that survive in the monastery.  But wood remains the essential ingredient for the furniture that graces our rooms and halls.

To the raw materials of wood and water and earth the first monks found at Saint John’s they applied the skills that they brought from Germany.  Some we no longer practice, like shoeing horses.  Nor do we really regret the loss of the cooking skills that the monks brought with them.  But one skill from the Old World has survived and continues to thrive at Saint John’s, and that is woodworking.

After 160 years and more, the making of furniture is an integrated project at Saint John’s.  It begins with the seedlings in the forest.  Some sprout naturally and some are planted, but all need protection from the relentless predation of Bambi and his relatives.  They also need thinning when they crowd themselves.  Finally, when the time comes for harvest or when the wind has blown down prime candidates for furniture, the logs go to a nearby Amish sawmill, where they become boards.

From the mill the boards return to the lumber yard, where they cure until the need for oak or maple or cherry or pine requires them.  Then they enter one end of the shop as boards and emerge at the other as completed pieces of furniture.  Some are utilitarian, like the pine caskets that we make for ourselves and for sale; and some are masterpieces, like the cabinets made to house sets of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.

4FCAD555-DCD6-4050-802F-2724125CA039I like to think that the products from our woodworking shop are an expression of the values we draw from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  There is no junk.   There is no veneer.  All is solid and meant to last.  So it is that we take for granted pieces that have been around for a hundred years or more, and many of those still have another three or four hundred years of use in them.

There’s a lot that makes a monastery a stranger to the 21st century, beginning with the 6th-century Rule we still follow.  Of course we adapt it to our situation, as monks have done for centuries.  And if we’ve fallen short of Benedict’s ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s the art of woodworking that reminds us of the values we’ve inherited from him that we try to follow today.

If then the monastery at times seems out of place in our age, it also stands as a prophetic witness to values worth preserving.  In a throw-away culture in which machines make most everything, woodworking still benefits from the human hand that produces something of timeless beauty.  And if most everything today is destined for recycling or the landfill within a few years of its creation, then something made to last for hundreds of years communicates a profound message.

Like woodworking shops across the country, our shop is a reminder of the dignity and creativity of human work.  Equally eloquent is what these artisans produce:  something made to last for generations.  All that may seem a bit strange in our day and age, but why would anyone want to aspire to anything less with their lives?

1A7F37A4-4F9E-4F0A-8C6D-62B552A49075NOTES

+On September 10th I presided at the funeral of Lillian Schneider, at the Church of Saint Casimir in St. Paul.  Lillian was the mother of my friend Jane Hughan of San Francisco, and the occasion provided a nice opportunity to visit with her and her husband Wade.

+On September 11th and 12th I hosted my two friends John and Jack, who flew from New York and Providence to visit our nine students at Saint John’s from Immokalee, FL.  John and Jack started the scholarship program that brings them to Saint John’s, and this year marks a milestone: we now have students in all four years.  The photo at bottom shows us gathered after dinner.

+Many people are surprised to learn that we still have an active woodworking shop at Saint John’s.  In fact, it was one of the first things that the monks started up when they came to central Minnesota.  Today Fr. Lew Grobe works there fulltime, alongside several long-tenured colleagues.  A few other monks put in occasional stints there, as do a number of student workers from the University.  Readers interested in accessing the Abbey Woodworking Shop can reach it at this link.  The site includes a range of photography showing their current work.

+The top three photos show pieces produced in our woodworking shop, including the table and chairs that now reside in the Heritage Room in the University Quadrangle.  Below that is a buffet that sits in the abbey refectory.  The fourth photo shows Fr. Lew (at left) with colleague Mike Roske and an unidentified student worker looking on.  At bottom are our nine students who are part of the Immokalee Scholarhsip Program at Saint John’s.

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