At first blush it seemed we had little in common. Professor Conrad Rawski was a senior scholar of medieval Italian literature, a retired dean of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and widely-respected for his multi-volume translation and commentary on Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae. I, on the other hand, was a youngster in the medieval world, a student of Spanish history, and in no way destined for the kind of scholarly status that he had achieved. Yet, despite the odds, we became good friends, and I still cherish the privilege of having known such a lovely human being.
I first met Conrad via the U.S. Mail. At the time I was director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s, and we routinely served scholars from all over the place and on all topics relating to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. One day an inquiry arrived from Conrad, and despite my ignorance both of his work and who he might be, I decided to answer the letter myself rather than pass it on to one of my colleagues.
So it began as an old-fashioned, pre-email exchange, and as the correspondence stretched out, so did the topics of discussion. For one thing, he and his wife Helen lived in Chagrin Falls, and that was something I could scarcely resist. In my second letter I had the temerity to ask whether Chagrin was a noun or an adjective, and whether Falls was a verb or a noun. It was just the sort of whimsy that intrigued Conrad, and that silly bit fueled a conversation that went on for years.
Eventually I got to meet Conrad, after he had arranged an invitation for me to speak at the Rowfant Club, one of the oldest book-collecting clubs in the country. The Club had its home in a stately old mansion on storied Euclid Avenue in Celeveland; but because Conrad was by then too frail to attend, I only met him the next day. Then, for the first time, I got to shake the hand that had written so many fine letters and had authored so many scholarly texts.
It turned out that we actually did have something in common, which came as a great surprise to me. Conrad had grown up in Vienna, but that wasn’t what we shared. What did bind us, however, was a Benedictine thread that ran through both of our lives. Conrad had attended the Schottenstift, a monastery in the center of Vienna founded in 1155. Visitors to Vienna even today can step into their church and listen to the monks at prayer, as people have done for centuries. Anyway, the Benedictine monks of the Schotten had befriended Conrad, and as the prospect of war loomed after the Nazi Anschluss, the monks had helped to spirit Conrad out of the country. He eventually found refuge in the U.S., earned a doctorate, and compiled a distinguished career at Case Western.
It was only later, in his retirement, that I was privileged to step into Conrad’s diminishing circle of friends. And it was quite possible that I was one of the last of the guests for whom Conrad prepared his favorite treat — Wiener schnitzel.
Eventually Conrad slipped away, and his wife Helen called to share the sad news. She later wrote to say how much our correspondence had meant to Conrad, and then she asked whether our library would be interested in having some of his most prized possessions — books that had once belonged to his father and which Conrad had taken with him when he left Austria decades earlier. “Gladly! We’d be honored to give them a home,” I responded — trying not to sound too eager.
A few weeks ago Helen once again contacted me, this time about the one remaining volume that she had saved as her personal memento of Conrad. It was a 1492 edition of Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae, and it was the volume that had inspired Conrad’s translation and commentary. It was time for her to downsize, and once again she thought of Conrad’s love of the Benedictine tradition. Would we want it?
Last week I paged through that text for the first time in many years — and not in Chagrin Falls but in the special collections department at Saint John’s. Of course it was a great example of early printing, but for me it had long since acquired an added value. The Benedictine thread that wove through both Conrad and me had brought this book from Vienna to Collegeville, and now it was also a symbol of a cherished friendship.
Sometimes we can only marvel at the twists and turns that bring people together in friendship. Certainly one can make the case that accidents sometimes bridge the divides, but sometimes just a little bit of the credit belongs to God’s providence. That, I think, is what friendship really is. It is just one more of the many gifts of God that grace our lives. For that providence we really ought to give thanks every now and again.
+On January 9th Jordan Berns, a 2014 alumnus of Saint John’s University, came to the abbey as a monastic associate, in preparation for his entrance as a candidate for the novitiate in April. At Saint John’s he was a music and theology major, and for one year after graduation he served as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.
+On January 11th I departed Minnesota for Barcelona, where I met with a small group for a tour of the area. It had nothing to do with the fact that it had become beastly cold in Minnesota, because we had planned this months ago. The absence of cold and snow in Barcelona was one of those minor inconveniences that we had to endure. Actually, it was not so bad. My experience of Barcelona stretches back to graduate school, when I flew there to spend a summer in Spain doing dissertation research. I had been back twice since then, but ages ago. It is an amazing city, and if you’ve not been there, it is something to add to your bucket list.
+On January 15th we went to the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat, located about thirty miles outside of Barcelona. In addition to attending Mass and touring the monastery grounds, we got to spend time with our two Benedictine Volunteers there, Tanner Rayman and Thomas Friebe. Both are 2016 graduates of Saint John’s University. Tanner was a biology major and Thomas a music major. During their year as volunteers they are working with the Escolonia, the boys choir school of the abbey.
+The first five photos in today’s post show the south portal of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, and construction has continued for over a hundred years. The design was revolutionary for its time, and even today it is absolutely stunning. If you think you have seen all that can be seen in church architecture, it’s because you have not seen Sagrada Familia. They project ten more years of construction, and the building of several more towers, before it is complete. In the final photo I stand with our two Benedictine Volunteers, Tanner and Thomas, with the medieval wing of Montserrat in the background. More on that in nexts week’s post.