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Posts Tagged ‘Lake Wobegon’

IMG_5645Serving the Niche Market

He was a fixture on campus during my first years at Saint John’s.  Each morning, like clock-work, with measured steps he strode up to Wimmer Hall and disappeared into the building.  Never did I meet him, nor did I ever get to hear his voice live.  But Garrison Keillor’s electronic voice was a daily presence in my life — as well as in the lives of many of my confreres.

I recall wondering at the time whether Keillor would ever make something of himself.  Certainly I was of the opinion that he was a scream, what with his ads for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique and Jack’s — “All tracks lead to Jack’s.”  I longed to walk the streets of Lake Wobegon, though I knew it was a fictional amalgam of several nearby towns.  Then there was his approach to sports, which I very much appreciated.  It was Keillor who had introduced Jim Ed Poole to the world of sports broadcasting, and when Keillor turned to Jim Ed for the scores, that’s precisely what he got.  “7-3.  8-2.  10-5. Etc.”. Then there were the days when Keillor asked about the previous day’s games, and Jim Ed happily obliged with the same spare style.  “The Detroit team played the Boston team.  The Kansas City team hosted the Los Angeles team.”  That pretty much satisfied my interest in sports, and I often wondered why the NFL never drafted Jim-Ed to do the color-commentary for Monday Night Football.  I speculated that Minnesota Public Radio had Jim Ed locked into a lucrative multi-year contract.  If so, it was the NFL’s loss.

IMG_5603Fr. Colman Barry, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, had an amazingly productive imagination.  During his tenure as president of Saint John’s University in the late 1960s he presided over a campus building boom and a range of projects that continue to this day.  Under his aegis came the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and its mission to preserve manuscripts from the Middle Ages and beyond.  The Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies was the first such initiative at a Catholic college, and the Collegeville Institute promoted ecumenical relations.  All are in the midst of celebrating milestones in their existence, and each has made a singular contribution to religion and culture.  Their endurance argues that Fr. Colman’s ideas were anything but frivolous and ephemeral.  But if there was one idea that exceeded his wildest dreams, it was Minnesota Public Radio.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, last week MPR returned to its birthplace at Saint John’s and for two days resumed broadcasting.  This time around Sexton Commons served as the makeshift studio rather than Wimmer Hall, and spliced within its staple of recorded classical music were live performances by our music faculty and students, as well as interviews with various local notables.  In the course of the broadcasts all sorts of people dropped in to watch and listen, and it was a festive experience of arts and culture and ideas.  Fr. Colman would have been delighted.

IMG_5668When Fr. Colman started a campus radio station at Saint John’s his goals were modest.  At the very last he wanted to supply central Minnesota with classical music — something that tended to be in short supply on the radio dial across much of the country.  It was a niche market that had potential; nor was potential lacking in Bill Kling, the student to whom Fr. Colman entrusted leadership.  Under Kling MPR has grown into a national force, and at 50 years it now has 21 million listeners.

In retrospect Fr. Colman’s effort was unusual for its lack of confessional orientation.  For many years MPR did broadcast the Sunday Mass at the abbey, but absent was the spiritual didactic that has become the staple of religious radio and television today.  Fr. Colman’s goal was cultural enrichment for everyone, and it didn’t bother him in the least if the audience included Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, agnostics and atheists.  The irony of course is the fact that it came from a Benedictine abbey, and from the Benedictine perspective it all glorified God.

There is nothing in the Rule of Saint Benedict about radio stations or even cultural life.  Still, Benedict’s blessing of daily work and his reverence for the tools of the monastery can embrace any creative human endeavor.  Not surprisingly then, monasteries through the centuries have engaged artists and architects to design work that has inspired not just the monks but also the visitors to their monasteries.  From a larger perspective, they have stretched their musical talents even as they have honed their agricultural skills.

IMG_5586That helps to explain the character of a Benedictine house.  Certainly we pray, and we do so in formats that have scarcely changed through the centuries.  But monasteries continue to evolve because individual monks bring unique talents with them when they come knocking at the door.  That suggests that each monk is himself a unique gift from God, meant to enrich the lives of the monks and the people they serve.  That’s the theory at least, and often enough it works.

The campus radio station at Saint John’s was meant to serve a niche market.  Who knew that the niche would grow to include 21 million listeners by its 50th birthday?  Obviously it has met some need.  But then Saint Benedict wrote a rule for a group of monks at Monte Cassino in central Italy.  How could he possibly have known that someday somebody would be following that rule in Lake Wobegon?  He didn’t know, of course, but it was still another niche market that had potential.

IMG_5687Notes

+On 24 April I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On 25 April I sat in its makeshift studio as Minnesota Public Radio did its broadcast from Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.

+On 29 April our confrere, Fr. Mark Thamert, passed away at age 66 after a long struggle with cancer.  Fr. Mark was a gifted teacher and an imaginative individual, and we will miss his enthusiasm for life.  He earned a doctorate in German from Princeton University, and he came alive in the classroom and particularly when leading student groups to Europe.

+As I write this I am in Paris waiting to join the annual pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes.  I have come three days early, and the Metro with its challenging stairs have proven to be excellent therapy for the recovery of my back.  Lourdes, with its marathon processions and endless milling around, will be the big test.

+Today’s is the 300th post in this blog.  Thankfully I have not yet run short of ideas.  Thank you for reading, and I’m grateful for the comments and ideas that people have sent in the course of five and a half years.

IMG_5584+The photos in today’s post illustrate the broadcast day of Minnesota Public Radio at Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.  The photo of the building shows Wimmer Hall, and its third floor housed the broadcast studios for Minnesota Public Radio in its earliest days.  In the photo at bottom a technician puzzles over all the stuff it takes to broadcast, even from the road.  Gone are the simple days.

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imageThe Price of Springtime

Many years ago — once upon a time, to be precise — one of my students introduced me to the wit and wisdom of Cheech and Chong.  For someone steeped in the lore of Lake Wobegon and Olie and Lena jokes, these two Angelinos were a bit jarring.  But humor is humor, even if it doesn’t come packaged in a Minnesota accent.

What won me over to them was an album in which they recast several children’s stories, and they transplanted them squarely into the middle of East Los Angeles.  My favorite, hands down, was their fractured version of The Three Little Pigs.  To sum up in brief, mama pig had just slammed the front door on the three little pigs, and she went off to rouse papa pig from his early morning torpor.  “The three little pigs have gone off to school.  What shall we do?”  After a pregnant pause, the duo answered in unison, with a rousing “Let’s move!”  And so they did, leaving no phone number or forwarding address.

For years I thought this was a charming and much better rendition of the version I had heard as a child.  And for almost as long I continued to think of it as just another nice story, until some friends of mine up and did the exact same thing to their kids.  Both of their kids had finished college, and in time each had meandered back to the ancestral manse in suburban Chicago.  And there they stayed, and stayed, and stayed.  And who wouldn’t.  With doting and accommodating parents, it was a little piece of paradise.

imageBut the kids had badly misjudged all that affection, and their strategic error was to be away from home for a few months — at the same time.  Then, like mama and papa pig á la Cheech and Chong, the parents seized the initiative and decamped to a one-bedroom condo just off Michigan Avenue.  Of course they would always be welcome for dinner, they assured their kids.  They also encouraged them to stop by for coffee whenever they might be in the neighborhood.  Then they all lived happily ever after, which actually is the most accurate part of this largely true story.

I bring all this up because this is the season of college commencement, and yesterday we graduated our seniors at Saint John’s University.  No doubt it was a joyous occasion for our seniors, and for spoken and unspoken reasons it was a joy for their parents as well.  But lurking in the imagination of more than a few parents was a fear shared by millions each year at this time.  What if their pride-and-joy comes home and stays and stays and stays?  Had it been a mistake not to sell the house and move into an efficiency apartment earlier?  Well, now they will find out.

imageA glance out the window at this time of year shows the renewal that is the very essence of springtime, and with it comes obvious change.  Those graduations and weddings and movings that are typical of this time of year bring changes in our human relationships as well.  Such upheaval can be exhilerating for some and wrenching for others, and for most of us there’s a little of both.  Parents naturally have to be thrilled to see their kids grow up and begin to strike out on their own;  but any good parent feels the anxiety that comes from letting go.

In May and June all this activity seems to accelerate.  All sorts of people and events crowd into the scene, and these test and stretch family ties and friendships.  Along with that, people mature in unexpected ways, and coming to terms with that can be a challenge.  With it comes the uncertainty of how all these new relationships will shake out.  Will there be room for everybody in the new order of things?

imageThere are many ways to respond to this seasonal upheaval, but sooner or later everyone has to deal with it, including monks in a monastery.  In our own community in the past month we’ve welcomed the ordination of one monk as a priest and another as a deacon.  We’ve accepted the applications of our two novices to take their first vows, as well as those of four junior monks who will pronounce their final vows in a few weeks.  And while this may seem like undiluted good news, it comes with a price for us all.  In the case of each and every one of these young monks we have to stand back, let go a little, and allow them to grow into our peers.  It sounds easy, but I imagine that it’s very much like a parent letting go and allowing a son or daughter to mature into the person they always hoped to see someday.

All that takes both work as well as an act of faith that somehow it will turn out well.  It means letting go so that the Holy Spirit can continue the work, and to do it in new and surprising ways.  It means standing back to allow the growth that springtime brings.

Naturally there’s anxiety about the future, but it’s a lot better than trying to keep things exactly the way they have always been.  That, it seems to me, is the goal of commencement.  And it’s the goal of any worthwhile human endeavor.

imageNotes

+Two weeks ago, on the eve of my pilgrimage to Lourdes, I noted that the weather forecast had included torrential rain, floods, and avalanches.  Well, the weather people struck out on two of them.  There was scarcely any rain, and if there were avalanches, I didn’t see them.  Ironically, it was unexpectedly warm, and all that heat and sunshine caused the snow in the mountains to melt quickly.  In turn that caused the Gave River to roar through the town of Lourdes, flooding the grotto and the sacred baths.  No one got hurt, but it did leave more than a few pilgrims disappointed.  For a gallery of photos from this pilgrimage to Lourdes, please visit Lourdes: May 2015.

+On May 10th we celebrated commencement at Saint John’s University.  Preceding the event I attended the President’s Luncheon, which included a few students and their families, a few trustees and officials of the University, Abbot John, and Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud.  Sadly, rain did fall on our academic parade, but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of graduating seniors and their parents.   Because of the rain the graduates lined up in the Great Hall before proceeding to the abbey church, where friends and relatives awaited.  The pictures in today’s post were taken in the Great Hall as the seniors gathered for their moment in the sun.

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imageBehold the Rosy-fingered Dawn

I’m no meteorologist, but then again anyone who lives in Minnesota for long enough becomes one anyway, honoris causa.  Experience makes you something of an expert, and it’s why those of us who live in the shadow of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon appreciate the weather report that opens his weekly monologue on our venerable town.  It’s the one element in his oral essay that’s non-fiction.  And it’s a vital part of the story because weather shapes the lives of everyone in Minnesota.  It keeps us from getting bored, and it builds character.

I raise this issue because last week we witnessed a change in the behavior of the monks.  In the summertime, in that space between morning prayer and breakfast, many monks instinctively take the outdoor route from chapel to refectory.  It takes us through the monastery garden and sweeps by the overlook to the lake.  En route we hear birds and see the dew on the grass and savor the moist early-morning air.  It’s an exhilarating wake-up call, and die-hards will continue in this routine  until Thanksgiving.  After that only the crazies will venture out.

imageBut something happened last week.  After weeks of cold we sensed a change in the air.  I first noticed it on Wednesday, when light filtered into the church as the 5 pm Mass began.  Even slightly longer days are enough to stir the blood.  But it was also getting warmer, and on cue the next morning quite a few of us monks instinctively walked out without coats into the bracing 30-degree air.  It was wonderful.  What’s more, already at 7:30 am there was some light, and not just ordinary light.  “Behold the rosy-fingered dawn” came the words from one monk a few steps behind me.  And he was right.  It was gorgeous all the way around, and none of us needed to do any calculations to realize that better times were on the way.

We’re way ahead of the robins, but these glimpses of spring give me hope, and they remind me of two things that stick with me through all these years.  First, colleges in Minnesota have the longest freshmen orientation programs of any in the country.  At Saint John’s it begins when students from places like California and Texas arrive in late August, vaguely aware that it will get chilly sooner or later.  50-degree days soon come, and they wonder  how they will survive.  Then it’s 30, and then 0, and life seems impossible.  Then comes 37 and they’re out in shorts and t-shirts, playing frisbee and catch on a sunny afternoon.  That was the case last Friday, and there was no stopping them.  Orientation was over, and they had become one of us.

imageThat brought to mind one of my students from Scottsdale who years ago asked me to take a picture of him, in shorts and t-shirt, perched on a six-foot pile of snow in a parking lot.  He planned to send it home as proof that all was well — and normal — in Lake Wobegon.

The second point is my appreciation for what monks and everyone else had to go through for centuries before central heat came along.  Ever practical, monks in the 6th century built their churches on an east-west axis.  In southern Europe the cloister would spread out on the north side of the church, where it would enjoy cool shade and protection from the hot winds.  In northern Europe it was the opposite.  There the church shielded the cloister from the cold north winds and reflected the warmth of the sun down into the cloister.  Today we call this discovery passive-solar.  Back then they called it common sense.

Needless to say, the early monks at Saint John’s put our cloister on the south side of the church, where it still stands today.  Who knows how many BTU’s of energy that arrangement has saved.  But for decades it spared literally tons and tons of firewood.  And it eased a lot of aching backs as well, I would imagine.

imageWe’re almost to the point at which few in this country remember the pioneers who braved the heat of the south and the cold of the north to create new lives.  I suspect those entrepreneurs didn’t think of their efforts as extraordinary, because that was what you had to do back then.  Today, of course, we can take their efforts for granted, but we shouldn’t.  Whether in north or south, the weather shaped their character, and people lived wonderful lives because of it, or in spite of it.

I’m under no illusion that winter is gone for good this year in Minnesota.  But the signs of change are in the air and on the horizon.  In fact, the great harbinger of spring — Lent — is just about three weeks away.  I know that Lent is supposed to be penitential, but how can you get down about something that portends rebirth — both in nature and in the spiritual life?  I guess I’ll just have to take it as it comes.  I plan to be stoic on the outside and joyful on the inside.

Notes

+On January 25th I spoke at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, CO.  That evening I attended a reception for prospective students and their parents in Denver, hosted by the Admissions Office of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+Last year one of our younger alumni from Saint John’s University, along with his high school classmate from Denver, won a Grammy Award for their work in children’s music.   Known as the Okee Dokee Brothers, they’ve been nominated yet again for a second album.  This week I’ve included a link to a song in the album that won them their first Grammy, Can You Canoe?  Their music may be geared for the very younger set, but they’ve also sung to older audiences across the country, and I occasionally discover that this particular song rattles around in my mind.  Next week I will provide a link to the album that I hope will earn them a repeat of last  year’s honors.

+On January 21st Pope Francis named Fr. Daniel Elias Garcia as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Austin, TX.  As the announcement from the Vatican Information Service duly noted, Bishop-elect Garcia earned an MA in Liturgical Studies at Saint John’s University in 2007; and of course we are delighted that someone who has studied with us would assume such a responsibility in the Church.

Of personal significance is Bishop-elect Garcia’s home-town of Cameron, TX, which scarcely anyone has heard of.  My father grew up just a few miles from Cameron;  my great-grandparents are buried in nearby Westphalia; and my grandparents are buried in even-closer Burlington.  On visits to my grandparents we always went to Cameron, where my father’s cousin owned the local Dairy Queen.  It’s a small world, at least for some of us.

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