Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’s Prep Newark’


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_0189_2Find the Sinners You Can Live With

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection for a young man who has now begun his formal entrance into the monastery.  It was his first day as a candidate, and Fr. John — the formation director — had asked me to deliver two conferences.  I was free to talk about anything I wanted, as long as it had something to do with the monastic life.  To say the least, that still gave me plenty of leeway for topics.

What advice do you give to someone who’s come to enter the monastery?  “Don’t do it!” is certainly one option, and it would have made my day much easier had I selected that.  But I knew that Fr. John would frown on that approach, and it wasn’t my sentiment anyway.  So I puzzled over several themes until I concluded that it would be presumptuous of me to tell any candidate what he needed to know or to do.  I also realized that I was going to have to sit through these conferences.  So why not say something that might make an impression on me?  That way if the candidate’s attention were to drift off as I droned on, at least one of us might get something out of the experience.  So in the interests of pure self-interest I decided to remind myself of three points.

First of all, why do people come to the monastery?  Saint Benedict supplied the answer in his Rule, and it’s simple enough.  “The monk comes to seek God.”  Still, that’s a little abstract and doesn’t really touch on the practical reasons for why people embrace this life.  The fact is, novices enter for all sorts of reasons.  They may have a friend or two in the community.  They find the life attractive.  They enjoy the liturgy and the music.  They want to be involved in some aspect of the work of the community.  These are just a few of the lures that the Holy Spirit dangles to inspire people to enter.

IMG_0191_2But these are not the reasons that cause monks to stay in the monastery for a lifetime.  The fact is, monks grow and mature, as do whole communities.  What matters at one point may matter less twenty years down the road as monks grow in age and experience and wisdom.  What brought them to the monastery merely began a process that lasts a lifetime, and change occurs along the way.

That brings me to the second point.  In the course of life most monks gradually discover that the abstract business of the search for God is actually why they remain.  They also discover that God is not nearly so distant as they may have once assumed.  Gradually, little by little, they learn the lessons that Saint Benedict intended to teach.  They do begin to get glimpses of God in the abbot, in the sick and elderly, in the guests and the young, and even in themselves.  That’s the unexpected reward of the monastic life, unless of course a monk manages to keep his eyes closed to all of this.  But if a monk can keep his eyes alert to the possibilities, then he will rub elbows with Christ, resident in the people around him.

IMG_0155_2My final point has to do with a fundamental reality of life in community.  Monks may see the face of Christ in one another, but they also must come to terms with the fact that monks are people too.  In spiritual terms they are both sinners and saved.  In social terms, they all have their assets and their liabilities.  Every monastery and each monk does some things very well, and they fall woefully short in other areas.  The irony is that it can be as difficult to live with gifted people as it can be to live with sinners.  But the challenge for any candidate is whether he can live with these particular sinners and their particular sins.  If this is a deal-breaker, then he needs to find other sinners who are more to his liking.

These are the points with which I satisfied myself during that day of reflection.   That said, I harbor no illusion that these issues are somehow unique to the monastic life.  For bettter and for worse these crop up in marriage and friendships and in most any human relationship.  And if they are the challenges that we all encounter in the course of our spiritual pilgrimage, then no one should be surprised to encounter them in the monastic pilgrimage.  Therein is the struggle, and therein is the reward of a life well lived.  Along the way, the important goal is this:  find the group of sinners with whom you will flourish on the path to God.  Not surprisingly, then, that’s what novitiate is all about.


+On March 30th I sat in on the weekly meeting of the Benedictine Living Group, led by Brother Aidan.  Participants are college students who live together for a year in one of the residence halls and commit themselves to regular prayer together, as well as a fall and spring retreat and a weekly seminar on the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It was fun to participate in their discussion, especially since I didn’t have to prepare anything in advance.

+On April 1st I gave the day of reflection to our incoming candidate for the monastery.  For two months he will live and work and pray with us;  and at the end of that period he can apply for the novitiate.

+We had plenty of guests during the past few days in the monastery.  For two days four students from Saint John’s University lived with us as part of their introduction to the monastery.  On Saturday April 1st sixty students and three faculty from St. Olaf College joined us for Mass.  This is a yearly trek for these classes from St. Olaf, and no doubt they were surprised by the fact that their host for the day, Brother David-Paul, is an alumnus of St. Olaf.  He is subprior of the monastery.

+On March 31st Brothers Simon Peter and Asiel arrived and will spend a week with us.  They are newly-professed monks at Newark Abbey in New Jersey.  For years we have sent our Benedictine Volunteers to work in their school — Saint Benedict’s Prep — and since 2007 we’ve enrolled over thirty of their alumni at Saint John’s.  On Sunday the current cohort of those students joined Brother Simon Peter and Asiel for dinner in the monastic refectory.

IMG_0102_2+The photos in today’s post all show art from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Crucifixion, by the Master of St. Veronica (Germany, tempera on panel, ca. 1400/1410).  Next is Calvary, by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster (German, oil on panel, ca. 1470-1480).  Below that is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene, by Pietro Perugino (Umbria, 1482-1485). The gruesome Crucifixion is by Matthias Grünewald, Germany, ca. 1511/1520.  At bottom is St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Cima da Conegliano, Venice, ca. 1500-1005.

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imageThe Privilege of Making a Difference

We monks have long been accustomed to regular visits by trustees of the University and Prep School at Saint John’s.  These encounters normally deal with issues of governance that touch on things like budgets or strategic planning.  What they are not about, however, are the lives of our alumni themselves.  So there we sit in discussion with some truly amazing people, but on the agenda is nothing about their personal stories.  That’s what made last Wednesday’s visit by one alumnus so different — and so engaging.

Ochi is not at all typical of the sort of people who come and speak to the monks.  For one thing, he only graduated from the University two months ago.  For another, he’s not yet an accomplished professional with loads of insight to share.  But what he lacks on that score he more than compensates in other ways.  In brief, he has a personal story that is not short on the unusualimage.

Ochi was born Ochirbat Bayanjargal in Ulaanbaator, Mongolia.  That alone was exotic enough to draw our attention.  Through dint of hard work and being at the right place at the right time, he ended up attending Saint Benedict’s Prep, run by the Benedictine monks in Newark, NJ.  From there he came to Saint John’s, where he majored in economics.  Next on his itinerary is the Benedictine monastery at Tabga in Israel, where he will work for one year as a Benedictine Volunteer.  After that, who knows?  But for now he plans to explore the world until it’s time to go back home and make a difference in his native land.

That, of course, is the barest outline of a life that already has more complexity than most of us will amass in spans of fifty or sixty years.  On top of that, it’s stunning to realize the personal sacrifice and discipline that Ochi has made just to get this far.  For instance, he’s only been home once in the last eight years.  But even more daunting has been the transition from a very traditional society into a culture and language that may as well be on another planet.  But I’ll leave it to him to write the autobiography someday.

As for me, a couple of things popped into my mind as he spoke to us.  First off, we monks — and anyone involved in a school — seldom get to see short-term results from our work.  We help to provide an education, and thirty years later we may hear from someone whose life did indeed turn out well.  Years after graduation he has become professionally successful and personally happy, and it’s gratifying to think that we played some part in all that.  But standing before us last Wednesday was someone who had already experienced more transformation than most of us will ever know.  And he has a lifetime still before him.

imageA second bit that struck me was the part that Benedictine monks have been privileged to play in the life of this young man.  To say the least, the monks in Newark have made an incredible contribution to the development of promising young men in a city that isn’t always gentle with its younger citizens.  Happily, we at Saint John’s have been able to augment their efforts.  For several years we’ve sent Benedictine Volunteers there, and this fall two more will go to Saint Benedict’s Prep for the year.  For the moment it’s tough to say who has reaped the greater reward — the Volunteers or the students.  But beyond that, in the past few years we’ve accepted into our college program at Saint John’s some thirty-five graduates of Saint Benedict’s Prep, and the results have been astonishing.  That alone makes sitting through planning and budget meetings worth the effort.

Last Wednesday we had the good fortune to hear from a poised young man who stood in front of us for nearly forty-five minutes, speaking and fielding questions.  He described growing up in a country of three million people, half the size of the United States.  Even today some 45% of the population is still nomadic, while the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is morphing into one of the modern cities of the world.  What an odyssey this has been for Ochi, while for us westerners it’s difficult to appreciate the occasional tensions as old ways meet new.

imageSuch was the day when Ochi’s father led home a live goat, which he had received in payment for some job. No one in Ochi’s house knew the first thing about butchering a goat, but they certainly knew they needed to eat.  So there they all stood, goat and family staring each other down, wondering what to do next.  The goat seemed to figure it out first, and it nearly trashed the house in a desperate attempt to escape his fate.  Ochi choked on his own laughter as he related a story that could never happen in a typical American kitchen.

So what’s the lesson for a group of monks in Minnesota?  For one thing, we should never underestimate the possibilities that are latent in the tedium of daily life.  Doing work for years on end may seem routine and undramatic, but it can have a profound impact on others, even if they aren’t from Mongolia.

imageSecond, we should never underestimate the value of our efforts, just because they don’t seem to solve a single one of the big issues confronting the world.  All God asks is that we receive each guest as Christ, whether the guest be from Mongolia or Minnetonka.  God will figure out where to take it from there.

And last but not least, while budget and planning issues will always be the necessary grist for running a University, the real point of it all is the students.  The surprise is that we need not wait half a lifetime to see the results in our students.  As often as not we can see the transformation is as few years as four.  What a gift God has given to us, and it’s important that we use our eyes to see and ears to hear of the generosity of God.  Even better, God offers this gift not only to monks, but to all who walk the paths of the Lord.


+On June 17th Saint John’s University alumnus Ochirbat Bayanjargal spoke to a gathering of the monks in the chapter house, on the topic of growing up in Mongolia.

+On June 17th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Lives of Quiet Service, through this link.

+On June 18th I delivered my last class on monastic history to our novice, Brother Aidan Putnam.  On July 11th, the feast of Saint Benedict, Brother Aidan will pronounce his first vows as a monk of Saint John’s Abbey.

+Last March I had the opportunity to lead a group of alumni and friends of Saint John’s University on a visit to various sites in Umbria, Tuscany and Rome.  In today’s post are photos from our stop in Montalcino, which is best-known for its local wine, brunello.  In a separate gallery I have gathered photos from the lovely Abbey of Sant Ántimo in Tuscany.  Though seldom visited, it is noteworthy for its lovely romanesque architecture and the gorgeous countryside.  Perhaps it is better that it remain a secret rather than be overrun with tourists.

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