Posts Tagged ‘Benedictine Volunteer Corp’


Shaped by the Benedictine Tradition

Morning and evening prayer at Saint John’s Abbey may be as regular as clockwork, but summer provides almost daily surprises.  Those surprises generally have to do with guests who, as Saint Benedict pointed out, are never wanting in a monastery.  More precisely, the surprises have to do with the number of guests who join us in choir, and their number can vary dramatically from morning to evening and day to day.

It’s safe to say that while the roster of monks in most monasteries may be shorter than fifty years ago, the number of guests who show up at monasteries to join monks for prayer is up dramatically.  Part of that has to do with Latin, which in former times may have discouraged many lay people from attending.  Whether its absence matters today is debatable.  But of greater significance is the growing number of people who recite the liturgy of the hours on their own.  Not surprisingly that draws them to join us at prayer when they are at Saint John’s.

67A0E5EE-3905-428E-B895-BE9626FA724AAs a result, we monks at Saint John’s have learned to expect the unexpected when we enter the choir for prayer during the summer.  On some days there may be only a sprinkling of visitors.  But then there are days when there are more of them than there are of us.  Of course that can impact the quality of our recitation, but I personally contend that it’s a wonderful problem to have.

It’s also important to note the summer-time presence of a particular group of young men at prayer.  Unlike the other guests, they sit with us in the stalls reserved for the monks.  Dressed in distinctive black polo shirts with “Saint John’s Abbey” stitched on them in white thread, they are the incoming and outgoing members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corp (BVC).  For the new members their presence is a chance to experience a bit of Benedictine life before heading off to monasteries around the world for a year of service.  For veteran members it’s a chance to share their experiences of the last year, and we are always eager listeners.

Normally the Volunteers are recent graduates of Saint John’s University.  A few months before graduation they apply, and in practice the program has been able to accept roughly half of those who wish to go.  This year 26 will go off to serve, suggesting that there was an applicant pool of 50+.

Those numbers may not seem like much, but with a graduating class of 400+ at Saint John’s University, it’s a big deal.  It means that 12% of our graduating seniors apply to live and work for a year in a monastery somewhere around the world, and 6% actually follow through and do it.  In a society that assumes that young people are not the least bit curious about religious life, these are pretty astounding percentages.  What college sends 6% of its recent alumni to do a post-graduate year in a monastery?

8257666A-5657-4307-AC5E-18D09BCEF2AFOur Benedictine Volunteers serve literally around the world, and it’s fascinating to hear about their experiences.  Over the years I’ve had the chance to visit Volunteers on site at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where life is very different from what they knew at Saint John’s.  Volunteers at Montserrat outside of Barcelona have taught English to the Catalan-speaking students in the choir school.  Topping the list for sheer courage was one Volunteer at Saint Anselmo in Rome.  His duties included driving the abbot primate to the airport and to appointments around the city.  Rome may be the eternal city, but the eternally insane traffic helps it to maintain the title.  And I and my confreres have listened eagerly to stories from returning Volunteers who have been in Tanzania and Chile and India.  Theirs are experiences beyond anything that they will likely have in their professional careers, and they are transformative, to say the least.

At Saint John’s we’ve been fortunate to maintain contacts with monks in communities around the world.   All the same, the Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s have added a new and lively dimension to this network.  If most of us never quite imagined this twenty-five years ago when Brother Paul Richards began the BVC, it’s happened nonetheless.

When Sant Benedict cautioned that “visitors we will always have with us,” he never foresaw anything quite like the BVC.  And as the program has developed, however, it’s brought into being a group of young men who certainly are not monks, but who are more than our average guests.  They are young men who for one year immerse themselves completely in the Benedictine tradition.  I have to believe that somehow it shapes the course of their lives from that year onward.  And while the Volunteers realize the value they bring to the places where they serve, they probably have little clue of the delight that they bring to us monks at Saint John’s.


+On June 27th I hosted two visitors at Saint John’s from the East Coast.  Both are members of the Order of Malta and devote their energies to prison ministry.  We talked about that, and lots more.

+Last week was very quiet for me, and I did not go near the airport.  In fact, the furthest I went from home was a visit to an alumnus and his wife in Lakeville, MN, a town which I had never visited before.  As always in summer, the trip back on I-94 was interesting.  Two minor car crashes managed to create miles-long back-ups in both directions.  Among the artifacts on view was a boat that had gotten away from somebody and which rested on the shoulder of the road.  But the prize from me went to the couch that sat serenely and stately in the median of the highway.  It was as if someone had set it up for the benefit of people caught in traffic jams with nothing else to do.

+On Friday June 28th our community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Jerome Coller.  Abbot John’s homily was particularly witty, noting that when Fr. Jerome returned from graduate school at Cornell he was eager to apply his compositional talents to our singing at Saint John’s.  His first major effort was a hymn which we sang at the blessing of the first Abbot John in 1971.  “That was when we learned that the community was not yet ready for an atonal Te Deum,” he noted.  That brought chuckles, as did several other comments.  But Jerome went on to compose many songs that we regularly sing today.

EE808153-B55B-443F-BDDD-31EDF6638497+On the evening of June 28th our confrere Fr. Meinrad Dindorff quietly passed away after a short illness.  Meinrad was involved in many activities at Saint John’s, but I remember him best from my days in seminary when he taught theology.

+On 29-30 June we hosted visitors for Family Weekend for the monks at Saint John’s.

+On 30 June I presided at vespers in the Abbey Church.

+It should not surprise anyone that the hours of standing in choir could tire medieval monks, and so they came up with a novel solution.  When the seat in a choir stall was folded up it revealed a small shelf underneath, and monks could perch on this while still appearing to stand.  This was called a misericord, or mercy seat, for obvious reasons.  Artists learned to take advantage of this new opportunity by carving all sorts of things underneath the choir stall, as these images from the cathedral in Toledo, Spain, illustrate.  Even today our individual stalls at Saint John’s have misercords; and while they are not decorated they provide the same service to monks who weary during long services.


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IMG_0016Christ is Truly Risen.  What Now?

We can only hope that for most Christians around the world Easter services were a truly moving experience.  At Saint John’s a familiar set of rituals carried us through Holy Week and into Easter, but that familiarity also provided moments of insight.  The music in particular was eloquent, and the abbey schola introduced a few new pieces of music.  Still, those new pieces were imbedded in a round of hymns and chants that have by now become part of our bones.  As a result, we don’t always need to glance at the text to sing the notes and words.  That comfortable familiarity, it seems to me, is a necessary ingredient for transforming liturgy from theater into prayer.

Of course the focus of the Triduum is not the music but the message.  Jesus is truly risen, and so Easter is more than a celebration of an unjustly-accused guy who got the last laugh on his persecutors.  The message is more profound, and it’s this:  “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son.”  Not only did that son share in all the difficulties of what it means to be human, but there’s one thing more.  When all is said and done, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.  Rather, salvation is God’s gift to us.  It’s God who gently tugs at our sleeves and persistently pulls us toward the eternal.  It’s God who keeps whispering in our ears, inviting us into eternity.  That initiative is part of what it means when we say that God has mercy on each and every one of us.

IMG_7174So now that we’ve celebrated the resurrection, what’s next?  Well, we might rest content in the belief that God has mercy on us, the Lord has saved us, and there’s nothing more to do.  But there is more.  Believe it or not, God intended that Easter be only a beginning.  At Easter God coopts us into a lifetime of showing mercy in an often merciless world.

When Pope Francis proclaimed a year of mercy, I have to confess that my reaction was a less-than-hearty “ho-hum.”  The very idea seemed abstract and general, like many of the bland petitions we recite before the Offertory at Mass.  Who isn’t for peace on earth and an end to world hunger?  Who wants to see more disease and injustice?  But that of course creates some tension within us.  Who among us is really in any position to do anything about these gargantuan challenges?

For all those reasons and more, I thought of the Year of Mercy as little more than a pious exercise, and I prayed that someone would wake me when it was over.  But all that changed when I casually turned the pages of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book  on mercy.  There, right in the middle of the text, he roots the Year of Mercy in what used to be familiar territory for most Catholics.  As bland as a Year of Mercy might seem at first glance, that year is planted in the soil of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

IMG_1134Just when I was about to exempt myself from the need to solve problems that existed primarily on the other side of the world, Kasper reminded me that pretty much all I need to do when it comes to mercy is local.  In fact, his words are an uncomfortable wake-up call.  Unless I am willing to treat as Christ the people living down the hall or across the street, then there is really no point to the high-minded aspirations about people who live 6,000 miles away.  In short, if it’s true that charity begins at home, then so do the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  That, it seems to me, is part of the takeaway from Easter.  If at Easter the Lord shows mercy by reminding us that we cannot save ourselves, then the irony is that God uses us to reach out to others.  We become conduits of God’s mercy to family and friends and co-workers — and even to strangers.

IMG_1130In the renewal of our baptismal vows at Easter the Lord enlists us to be the hands that do his work of mercy in our own little world.  We feed the hungry.  We visit the sick.  We bury the dead.  And it is we who perform all these day-to-day works of mercy that demonstrate God’s continued love.  These are among the many ways in which the Lord shows mercy to each and every person, and it’s our awesome responsibility to do our part.  As professed Christians it’s the commission from which we cannot excuse ourselves.

So now that we’ve celebrated Easter, we can rightly ask ourselves what comes next, and the answer is simple.  You and I are channels of God’s mercy, and it’s not enough to say that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are just lovely aspirations.  They are in fact the checklist of what it means to be Christian.  It’s not enough, then,  to be hearers of God’s word to us.  For better or for worse, we must be doers as well.


+While the music over the Triduum in the Abbey was both moving and meditative, we did have one lapse that reminded us that we have not yet reached perfection.  The Psalm tone for the Magnificat on Holy Saturday evening was new to us, and it showed from beginning to end.  We never did get it right, and so the abbot’s side of choir reverted to a tone that we remembered from somewhere else.  The prior’s side of choir never could make up its mind, and they sang three versions simultaneously.  The whole thing brought smiles and even chuckles, which was okay because it was after all the eve of Easter.  Like Amish quilters who always add a mistake to remind themselves that only God creates perfection, so our Magnificat that evening demonstrates that God still has work to do with us.

IMG_1129+We were delighted to host several guests for the Triduum, including several Chinese priests who are doing graduate studies in the United States.  Sponsored by Maryknoll, they joined two priests from China who are currently living and studying with us at Saint John’s.  The vocations office conducted a three-day retreat that included several graduates of our Benedictine Volunteer program, and several of the monks participated by giving conferences to them.  Meanwhile Fr. Dale conducted a Triduum retreat at the Abbey guesthouse.

+On Easter Sunday morning we woke to a thin blanket of snow that reflected the change to white in the color palate of the liturgical season.  Thankfully it was gone by 9:30 am, and by afternoon we were looking at green lawns once more.  The latter are a harbinger of the green of Ordinary Time.

+The top photo in today’s post is one I took looking east over San Francisco Bay in February.  I opened the curtains to behold the rising sun, and I realized that the view would not last for long.  So I rushed outside with my phone camera, and it turned out to be a photo that I knew would appear in an Easter season post.  The second photo is of an icon by Aidan Hart, enthroned in the Abbey church.  The other photos illustrate the dusting of snow that greeted us on Easter morning.

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