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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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imageThrowing Good Words After Bad

We’ve all come to terms with the fact that it’s a small world, but sometimes it’s eerily so, as two recent instances suggest.

In January a friend whom I’ve known for ages wrote to say that she was attending a seminar in the south of France, in Villefranche sur Mer.  At dinner she happened to sit across from a man from Sweden, who was surprised to discover that she was from Minnesota.  His natural response at the news?  “Oh, my son just graduated from a college in Minnesota.  In Collegeville.  Saint John’s.”  Of course.  What Swede doesn’t have a son who’s graduated from Saint John’s recently.

imageThe second instance took place three weeks ago on a flight that had originated on the east coast and had stopped in Minneapolis before heading on to San Francisco.  When I came to my seat, I was not a little disconcerted to discover that my seat-mate from the east coast was already engaged in a vigorous monologue on the phone.  Tirade would be the better word to describe it, because the tone of his voice betrayed real irritation.  So did the volume of his voice.  I rolled my eyes and resigned myself to a long and unpleasant flight, and tried to tune the whole thing out.  But given that there was nowhere to escape, there really wasn’t much I could do to hide.  Worse still, in a few minutes it suddenly dawned on me that I knew the two people he was irate about.  I was dumbfounded, and pondered the odds.

I have no idea whether his anger was justified or not, but his exercise of free speech reminded me of two fundamental points that we all might want to keep in mind when we engage in private conversations in public places.  First off, you should never be surprised that the innocent person next to you might be the second cousin twice removed to the person you are ranting about.  Second, if you’re going to share your conversation with the general public, try and limit yourself to sweet nothings and gratuitous compliments.  You never know when or where your words might come back to haunt you.

imageFirst-time readers of the Rule of Saint Benedict are always surprised that he deals with the issue of speech at such an early point in his text — as if it were all that important.  In fact, he presents his ideas on the “Restraint of Speech” in chapter six, where he quotes from the Book of Proverbs when he writes that “the tongue holds the key to life and death.”  And on this Saint Benedict was no fool.  The reputation you save may be another’s; but the life you save may be your own.

Saint Benedict certainly was no Trappist monk when it came to taking vows of silence.  He didn’t forbid speaking, but he did urge a good deal of caution when monks have to resort to it.  Even the holiest of monks can get carried away in a “flood of words,” and once that torrent begins, we all know from personal experience that it’s hard to turn off the spigot.  One bit of gossip from our lips, or one snide remark about someone’s character is sometimes all it takes to prime the pump. And then we are off and flowing.  Only when it’s too late do we realize it with regret; and I’m sure each one of us wishes we could reach out into the air and grab those words.  But like the nasty email  that’s been sent in anger and in haste, these are words that are beyond recall.  The damage is done, and the repair can take half a lifetime.  No wonder Saint Benedict puts this issue way at the front of his Rule.

imageI got the normal reprieve on my flight to San Francisco when the announcement came to silence the phones.  This is truly the moment when silence is golden.  But to my own amazement I was unable to let sleeping dogs lie.  About an  hour into the flight I defied all my personal rules about flying and struck up a conversation with this guy.  I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that he was a really fine person.   As I had half-expected, we soon discovered that we had several mutual friends; though I judiciously didn’t touch on the objects of his earlier diatribe.  Happily for me, he failed to make that connection.  Happily for him, I stowed that earlier conversation in the circular file.  Throwing good words after bad does no one any good, and I can only hope that someday some kind person will do the same for me.

imageNotes

+On March 10th, 11th and 12th I gave classes in the novitiate at Saint John’s on three aspects of monastic history:  The establishment of the Rule of Saint Benedict as the official rule within the 9th-century Carolingian Empire; The monks of Cluny and their reform; and The Cistercians and the 12th-century renewal of monasticism in the west.  Now you may think there would not be enough to say about each of these to build a lecture around, but in fact you could do a course on each.  Trust me.  So it was quite a chore to compress each topic into forty-five minutes.

+On the evening of March 12th I gave a conference on Lent at the Parish of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville.  The parish for ages held its services in the lower church of the Abbey, but they have recently expanded its complex across Lake Watab so as to allow Sunday and weekday Masses there.  The pictures in today’s blog include the daily Mass chapel, the tabernacle and icon screen, and a very colorful stained glass window.

image+On March 14th I gave a talk and participated in three seminars at the annual book collectors’ conference for Friends of the Library at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.  I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible, and the library has recently acquired a set of the Heritage Edition.  It may come as a surprise that we at Saint John’s have worked with BYU on another project, that one involving HMML. Some years ago they turned over to HMML their efforts in manuscript preservation in Lebanon, thereby greatly facilitating HMML’s own work there.  One scholar at BYU continues to provide input and advice to HMML, and it was great to connect with him and many other wonderful people at BYU.

+In case you are looking for a musical meditation this Lent, you could do no better than to listen to this setting of Psalm 51 by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652):  Miserere mei, Deus. The choir of King’s College Cambridge performs it in their stunningly beautiful chapel.  In this rendition they sing it as part of their Easter liturgy, but it is traditionally sung on Ash Wednesday in many churches.

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