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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

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The Monastery:  A Sacred World

Guests are never lacking in a monastery, as Saint Benedict noted in his Rule (RB 53.16).  Therefore we might assume there would be a streamlined procedure for receiving them, but efficiency was not in Benedict’s lexicon.  In fact, the welcome accorded to guests included prayer and the greeting of peace, a bow or prostration to show respect, sacred reading, the offer of food, the washing of hands and, later, the washing of feet.  It was labor-intensive, and it explains why subsequent generations of monks and nuns dispensed with key elements, such as the hand and foot-washing.

Still, I find the practice of hand and foot-washing curious.  They were symbols of hospitality.  But did they hint at spiritual cleansing as well?.  Did Benedict want to purify guests for their transition into the sacred precincts of the monastery?

IMG_7414Guests in Benedict’s time could scarcely fail to notice that they were about to enter a world far different from that of their rustic villages.  The monastery was a sacred space, populated by God-seeking people who followed a regimen built around a sacred calendar.  It was also meant to be a place where peace and love prevailed.  That was the theory, at least, but could that have a broader application?  Medieval monastic practice suggests that many thought so, and it explains why monks and nuns sought to expand the sense of the sacred and apply it to all of society.  Many abbeys in the MIddle Ages joined in transforming society through movements like the Peace of God (Pax Dei) and the Truce of God, and these efforts chipped away at pervasive violence, with limits that were both practical and measurable.

The principles were simple enough.  If violence were sinful, then it was doubly so when done on Church land.  Violence on Sundays and during seasons like Lent was equally abhorrent to God.  Worse still was violence done to the clergy or to the defenseless or the poor.  In time these notions took root, and this helps to explain the universal shock that greeted the news of Thomas Becket’s murder in the late 12th century.  He was an archbishop killed inside a cathedral during the Christmas season.  Could there have been a more serious crime?

For centuries the Church encouraged these limits on violence, and gradually European society evolved from the age of warlords to a culture in which all were considered sacred.  Gradually, too, spread the notion that all time and spaces are sacred, because they belong to God.

All of this was far in the future when Benedict wrote his Rule, but the vision for a peaceful society was there.  For him the monastery was the blueprint for the city of God.  Why restrict that vision to the cloister?

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Notes

+On October 10th and 11th I gave presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Montreat Conference Center, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The Presbyterian Church/USA runs the center, and it is tucked into a somewhat remote wooded valley in the western part of the state.  I’d only been to North Carolina once before — to Charlotte — so this was new and lovely territory to me.  I spoke at an annual gathering of Presbyterian clergy.

+The multiplication of natural disasters during the past few weeks have touched the lives of so many, and we are not exempt from the consequences even if we live in Minnesota.  Last week, for example, the president’s office and the office of campus ministry at Saint John’s University received resources from faculty and staff and some alumni, which will be forwarded to support the relief efforts of Catholic Charities in Immokalee, FL.  We currently have six students from Immokalee at Saint John’s, and the recent hurricane severely impacted their hometown.  On another front, the Abbey joined with several other Benedictine monasteries to send support to the Abbey of San Antonio Abad, in Puerto Rico.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that community in 1948.

IMG_7435+In between times I still manage to do casual reading, and I’ve just finished Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is a piece of non-fiction that my sister had recommended to me.  Set in Osage County in northern Oklahoma, author David Grann of The New Yorker tells the gripping story of the Osage tribe, which had been relocated to what was considered worthless land, only to become fabulously wealthy when oil was discovered on its property.  The true story recounts several dozen murders of tribal members and the efforts of the early FBI to solve the case.  For several years my other sister lived on a ranch in Osage County, and so it became familiar territory to me.

+Today’s post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey.

+The fall colors have been late in coming to Minnesota this year, and particularly so on our campus.  During the last few days they have peaked, however, and I am guessing that by next week the maple leaves will have fallen.  That in turn will pave the way for an encore from the oaks.  The photos in today’s post show some of the leaves at their best.

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Be Careful What You Pray For

I usually don’t pay all that much attention to the lyrics of the hymns we sing.  In some the words are benign, while in others the sentiments can be sweet or inane enough to make me cringe.  As a rule, then, I invest my energy in the music — particularly with hymns that I’ve come to love.

IMG_0002_2This last Sunday, however, the final hymn at the Abbey Eucharist caught my attention.  The gospel passage of the day — from Matthew 18 — had spoken of the importance of forgiveness, and Jesus made his point with the parable of a servant who had begged of his lord forgiveness of a huge debt he could not repay.  Then he turned right around to press a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of that amount.  It was an example of ingratitude at its worst, and it turned on its head that old saw about doing to others as you would have them do unto you.  Needless to say, those familiar with this parable know the grim fate in store for this wicked servant.

The parable calls to mind the Lord’s Prayer, which urges God to forgive us as we forgive others.  That shifts the onus for initiative onto our shoulders;  and now that I think about it, I’m tempted to pray that segment with more caution than I have in the past.  I say that prayer several times a day with my confreres, and it now dawns on me the risk I am taking.  I’m literally asking for it.

Anyway, the hymn in question is entitled Forgive Our Sins, and Ralph Finn’s text opens innocently enough.  Through the first verse I was able to concentrate on the music.  But the second and third verses stopped me in my mental tracks.

 

“How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

In blazing light your cross reveals

the truth we dimly knew:

How small are others’ debts to us,

How great our debt to you!”

 

IMG_0024_2With these words I lost track of the music, and only with the final verse did I regain my bearings.  Still, what I took away was an intriguing thought I’d not considered before.  I am keenly aware of the many wonderful things I do for others, and naturally their frequent instances of ingratitude hurt.  Against my own interests I sometimes clutch tightly to those hurts, because they can be hard to let go.  Worse still, if I’m not careful they can become part of the emotional baggage that I have to carry around.  That baggage can spoil relationships, but it can also spoil me.

It also dawns on me how much I owe God, and I have to confess that I fall short in expressing my gratitude.  All the same, God forgives my ingratitude, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty unforgiving of others.  The fact is, God sets a better example when it comes to forgiveness than I do, and for that I should be even more grateful.

One practical application of this comes to mind, and it’s a bit of advice from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  He writes about a monk who nurses a grudge, and I hope it will not come as a shock to know that this warning was not written solely for my personal benefit.  Benedict points out what happens to me and any other monk who nurtures hurts.  Nurturing such hurts transforms me, and I gradually become someone I never set out to be.

So I return to ponder those words of Ralph Finn as my meditation for the day.

 

How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

It’s something to chew on.  Better still, it’s advice to act upon while there’s still plenty of time to live.  And as for that bit about praying that God will forgive me as I forgive others, I think I’m going to be more careful about what I pray for.

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+On September 13th our confrere Fr. Fintan Bromenshenkel passed away, nearly three weeks shy of his 99th birthday.  He was our senior monk.  In his long career he headed the computing center in the University, and later served for several years at our mission in the Bahama Islands.  In his later years he worked in the garden and weeded the gravel path that ran diagonally across the monastic garden.  He was a wonderfully cheerful soul, and we will miss him.

+September 12th was a rather unusual day for one of our alumni.  That day Mark Vande Hei, ’89, blasted off into space, where he will serve for several months at the international space station.  He was a physics major and in ROTC at Saint John’s, and later he earned a graduate degree at Stanford University before teaching at West Point.  In the course of his space travels he will lead a class with our students, which he will conduct from the space station.

+On September 15th-16th we hosted Bishop Steven Lopes, who heads the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  In that capacity he shepherds former Anglican clergy and congregations in North America who have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.  Bishop Lopes and I have been friends for many years, and have worked together as chaplains in the Order of Malta.  Before his ordination he spent time at Saint John’s while he considered a monastic vocation.

+The top photo in today’s post is a tryptic of the crucifixion, done by our deceased confrere Brother Placid.  For the last fifty years it has hung in the Prep School, but some enterprising monks carted it over to the Abbey church for the Feast of the Holy Cross.  The other photos show renditions of the cross in fresco, stained glass and sculpture.  They are all housed at Saint Alban’s, a one-time Benedictine abbey located north of London.

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Every Day is Labor Day

What’s a monk to do on Labor Day?  Logically it seems like a day when I should go all out and work overtime.  But then again, it’s a national holiday, which suggests I should labor as little as possible.

Faced with this conundrum, I tend to do what I always do on a stray holiday such as this.  I just put together an extra-long to-do list, do about a quarter of it, and end the day frustrated because once again I’ve squandered a golden opportunity to catch up on things.  Assuming that this is what will happen today, once again I will end up promising to do better next time.

Saint Benedict spilled a lot of ink on the importance of work in the monastery, and in his Rule he devoted an entire chapter to the topic.  However, it was a complex issue for him, and for that reason his comments on it pop up all over the place in the Rule.

IMG_7183It’s undeniable that Benedict had a healthy respect for work, even if it was and is an unavoidable part of life.  “They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands,” he wrote, and elsewhere he asked his monks to treat the tools of the monastery with the same respect that they would show to the vessels of the altar.

But work is more complicated than that, and Benedict realized it.  He knew that some monks would grumble about the work assigned to them, while others would flourish and be grateful for the chance to do work that they really enjoyed.  Some would take inordinate pride in their skills, while others would grab for the chance to convert their responsibilities into little fiefdoms.  All of this suggests one fundamental point:  when it comes to work monks then and now share pretty much the same attitudes that pervade the general population.

In addition to that reality, Saint Benedict conceded that work is a necessary part of life in the monastery — and it was so every day.  Whether he and his monks liked it or not, there were no days off — and that went for Sunday as well.  After all, even on the holy days somebody had to prepare and serve the food.  Somebody had to clean the dishes, set the tables, and sweep away the mess.  Others had to tend to the guests and prepare the church for the liturgy.  Somebody else needed to see to emergency repairs so that the buildings wouldn’t burn up or fall to the ground.  Others had to take care of the sick and elderly.  With these sorts of responsibilities there could be no days off, nor could the monks delegate much of this stuff to outside contractors.

IMG_7186In sum, in Benedict’s day every day was Labor Day.  It’s also safe to say that life for his monks paralleled life as it prevailed throughout society.  The same is the case today.  For better and for worse, we all know what would happen if everyone decided — for one whole day — to do absolutely nothing.  For starters, we’d all wonder who would wait on us.

So on this Labor Day the best course for me is to keep in mind the balanced life that Benedict proposed for his monks.  I should do some sacred reading and go to pray with my brothers.  I should take my meals with them and recreate with them.  I should rest.  And I should do some work.  And as I do my work I need to do my very best and at the same time remember two important points.  First, my value as a human, being created in the image of God, rests on a lot of stuff, and not just on the job that I have.  I am more than what I do.  And second, I should always be grateful for all the work that others do.  Without them, I’d have to do absolutely everything myself.  I just don’t have that kind of time.

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+August 28th marked the first day of the new school year at Saint John’s University.  It began, as is customary, with an academic convocation in the Abbey and University church.

+The only official act on my calendar last week was to attend the first football game of the season, at which Saint John’s hosted the College of Saint Scholastica, from Duluth.  It took place on September 2nd, and it was a beautiful day but a lop-sided game.  Saint John’s set a record by winning 98-0.  To be fair, they did not try to run up the score, and practically everyone on the team of 180 players got to play — including two first-year quarterbacks.  It just was not Saint Scholastica’s day.

+Every now and again a piece of work comes up for which there is no mention in The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Such was an instance last week when one of the bells needed repair.  Brother John fearlessly stepped forward to do the work, and in the top three photos in today’s post you can see him perched at the top of the ladder.  You can click on the photos and enlarge them, and the third one of Brother John in the basket gives an idea of just how huge the cross is.

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Jesus, Be Patient with Me!

The quickest way to spread news in a monastery is to tell someone not to tell anyone.  It’s just human nature, and St. Benedict was under no illusion that monks were different from anybody else.  After all, he knew only too well that monks were people too.  So he ordered his monks not to engage in gossip or murmuring of any sort.  Good luck on that one!

In Matthew 16 Jesus warned his disciples to tell no one about about his real identity.  The cynic in me says it was a clever ploy, and it worked.  In short order the disciples took the news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.  But a lot happened between Matthew 16 and the commission to preach to everyone, and therein we see the patience that Jesus showered on his disciples.

IMG_6847The passage from Matthew 16 opens with this simple question that Jesus puts to the disciples.  “Who do people say that I am?”  Here Jesus sounds a bit like a politician concerned about the polls.  Was Jesus insecure about his public image?  Or did he simply want to satisfy his own curiosity?  I can only speculate, but I would suggest that perhaps he meant the question to stir his disciples rather than to find out how his message was going over with the larger population.

The data that the disciples gave to Jesus was a little odd.  Some said that Jesus was John the Baptist.  Others thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  These were ridiculous answers if they were meant literally, because Jews then and now — like Christians — do not believe in reincarnation.  And so I interpret these answers as signs of a struggle over the identity of Jesus.  Clearly many had concluded that Jesus was some sort of prophet in a long line of prophets — and a great one at that.  But just as clearly some thought that Jesus brought a message from God, but he was neither God nor the Son of God.  For them Jesus was an interesting fellow with a compelling message.  But he had no claim on their hearts.

Not so for the disciples, as Peter’s testimony suggests.  It had begun to dawn on them that Jesus had a claim on them, and they could never be the same after meeting him.  They would be very different poeple over time, and in Matthew 16 we see evidence of that spark of understanding.

Perhaps Jesus asked for their silence at this stage because it’s one thing to confess the Lordship of Jesus, and quite another to let Jesus transform one’s life.  Anyone who knows the gospel story can certainly see this distinction take flesh in the lives of the disciples.  The disciples may have had an inkling of the real identity of Jesus, but that didn’t prevent them from running away on the eve of his passion.  Nor did their post-resurrection behavior suggest that they were thoroughly convinced of who Jesus really was.  But still they were curious.

IMG_6851St. Benedict set up his monastery as a place where monks might seek God.  But much like the dog who chases a car but has no plans were he to actually catch it, so monks face the same dilemma.  What do monks do when they unexpectedly find that their search for God gives a glimmer of success?  Well, from my own experience I’ve come to realize that the search for God is more than a mattter of satisfying my curiosity.  Far from it.  The search for God is a lot like playing with fire.  So when I do seem to snatch a fleeting glimpse of God working in my brothers, I know I cannot respond conventionally.  It’s not a matter of calling a pollster to report that Jesus is the Son of God.  It’s deeper than that.  Like the disciples, I too have to let that insight percolate through and transform my life.

Any search for God requires patience and time — perhaps even a lifetime.  But because we live in a culture that demands instant gratification, we’re inclined not to budget time for long-term projects.  And so I tend to be one of those who is willing to give Jesus a day or two to do his work, and if nothing happens then I’m tempted to move on.  But this is short-sighted, to point out the obvious.  The encounter with Jesus needs to stretch out for a lifetime, and thankfully Jesus is willing to invest the time in us.  That explains the patience that Jesus showed to his disciples — and to Peter in particular.  And it explains the patience he shows to me.  Heaven knows how I need him to be patient with me!

IMG_6850Notes

+On August 24th I spoke to a group of about fifty alumni of Saint John’s University, gathered in St. Louis Park, MN.  The subject was our work with First-Generation college students at Saint John’s, and more particularly my own work with a project that has brought students from Immokalee, FL, to Saint John’s.  Happily, this fall we now have six students from Immokalee, and it is gratifying to see them progress, both in age and wisdom.

+On August 25th we monks welcomed the 467 freshmen at Saint John’s to pray evening prayer with us.  Following that, the students broke into smaller groups in order of meet with individual monks and learn something about our lives in the monastery.

+On August 26th I gave a day of reflection for people preparing for the Promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  This took place in Evanston, IL.

+On August 28th — today — the new school year begins at Saint John’s University.  Gone is the tranquility of summer, and in its place is a wonderful sense of energy.

+The images in today’s post show a spectacular retable and frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, made in Castile in Spain, ca. 1396.  It is housed in the Art Institute in Chicago.

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Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.

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+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.

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What’s In a Name?

On Saturday at morning prayer Abbot John invested Jordan as a novice.  To no one’s particular surprise Jordan chose to take a monastic name — Brother Jacob.  Coincidentally, three hours later the first reading at Mass told the unflattering story of how Jacob had connived to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, leaving his older twin Esau holding the bag.  Was this some sort of omen?

For centuries monks and nuns have taken religious names to mark these moments of transition, and we’re not the only ones to do this.  Popes are the most obvious examples, and on occasion monarchs do so as well.  In a twist on this, many adopt the surname of a spouse in a wedding ceremony.  All have their individual reasons for doing so, but common to most is the desire to note the passage into a new chapter of life.

IMG_0126_2Until the 1960s monks at Saint John’s Abbey, like most other monks and nuns in the Catholic tradition, were expected to take a new name that was unique in the community.  In smaller communities this posed no problem, but in larger communities this sometimes triggered the law of unintended consequences.  This was particularly acute at the Monastery of Saint Benedict, our sister-community down the road.  With over a thousand sisters requiring unique identification, latecomers could get stuck with some truly gawd-awful names.  I will forever recall the morning when we noted the passing of Sisters Domatilla Volkerstorffer and Theofrida Berling.  It must have come as quite a shock when the prioress bestowed those names on the two unsuspecting young women.  It had to be particularly tough on Miss Volkerstorffer, who had to be hoping for something simple like Linda or Joyce.  What a moniker to have to carry around for the next seventy years!

Needless to say, the stones in the convent cemetery carry a nearly complete inventory of seldom-used Saxon and other Teutonic names.  Small wonder that when given the chance to return to baptismal names, many did so with undisguised relief.

IMG_0056Today monks at Saint John’s can choose to change or not to change their names.  When I arrived there were eight monks named Michael, and I decided not to be the ninth of anything.  So I took Eric, and not because of any particular devotion to Saint Eric.  In fact, I had to look him up to see if there was such a person.  I adopted it for the simple reason that it wasn’t bizarre;  and just as importantly, I wouldn’t have to share it with anyone.  That plan worked well until a second Eric arrived many years later;  but we’ve managed well enough with a Brother Eric and a Father Eric.

I have to confess that I secretly hoped Jordon would have kept his name.  The last monk with that name — Father Jordan — passed away several years ago.  So the name was available and it was unique.  But my reasons for this arose primarily from my arcane sense of humor.  I’ve long been fond of that Advent hymn that begins “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry…”. That Jordan’s bank is only a short mental leap to those venerable English institutions by the name of Barclay’s Bank and Lloyd’s Bank.  I always wanted to meet Barclay or Lloyd, just to ask them about their banks.  And I would have even settled for a chat with Bob of the fictional Bob’s Bank in Lake Wobegon.  But I know that will never be.  However, I could know Jordan of Jordan’s Bank.

IMG_0045Just to be clear about this, I’m not the only one to indulge in such thoughts.  To cite but one other example, it’s helpful to know that we have a number of monks with hyphenated names, á la Pope John-Paul.  One confrere voiced the hope that the new novice might consider the name Brother Michael-Jordan.  That apparently didn’t make it past the first round of cuts.

Brother Jacob hasn’t tipped his hand as to why he took that name, but I suspect he was nonplussed to hear that reading on Jacob on the day of his clothing in the habit.  So what does that story portend about Brother Jacob?  Will he pattern his life on that of his namesake, who connived to get his brother’s birthright and tricked his father out of a blessing that should have gone to his brother?  Or does this suggest that Brother Jacob has come to the monastery to seek God and will strive for that vision, no matter the personal cost?  Who knows.  But if he’s come with high hopes and a dollop of the flaws that all of us have, then he’s come to the right place.  We’re just the sort of people to welcome him on our flawed and meandering pilgrimage to the Lord.

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+On the 4th of July the monks celebrated Independence Day with a cookout in the garden of the monastery.  I also chose that day for a hike of 10.7 miles.  To my recollection it’s the longest I’ve ever walked, and coming on the heels of my back injury this winter it was a major triumph.  Needless to say, I was tired at the end of it, though not sore.  Some soreness did pop up for the next two days, but overall this was a great personal accomplishment on the road to my own recovery.  The doctor had advised me that walking would be good. and he’s given his blessing to an abbreviated walk of the Camino to Santiago Compostela in the fall of 2018.  So I may as well get used to such walks now if I am going to have any chance to do it next year.

+On July 8th Abbot John clothed Brother Jacob as a novice at morning prayer.

+On July 11th we will celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and for that reason I have resorted to photos from the Abbey of Subiaco outside of Rome for today’s post.  Saint Benedict began his monastic life there; and while the frescos are a bit faded, they are authentic and illustrate the life of Benedict.

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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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