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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Scholastica’

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Called To Be a Witness, Not a Fossil

I’d never sat down for a long visit with an abbess before last Friday.  It’s not that I have deliberately avoided such contact, but rather it’s due to the scarcity of cloistered nuns in the United States.  In Europe such houses are more plentiful, though they are definitely not overcrowded.  In any case, I and my fellow pilgrims had come to the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria to visit with the abbess of the monastery which had founded our sister monastery in Saint Joseph, MN.

The abbey has its origins in an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon who came from the south of England.  She arrived as part of the same missionary migration to Germany that brought Saint Boniface, and together they put a Benedictine stamp on the Church in Germany.  Two hundred years later the founding nuns of Saint Walburga gathered her remains, and a thousand years later pilgrims still visit her shrine.  That in itself is remarkable, since most medieval shrines had male guardians.  That alone led me to conclude that the nuns at Saint Walburga have been a pretty tenacious lot.

2FE5D52F-D6A5-4FD5-8AFD-CE5927A5F479To be honest, I wondered what in the world we could talk about for an hour with the abbess.  What could we possibly have in common with someone in a cloistered community?  Would she and her community be something of a curiosity?  Would they be aliens in a modern era, untethered from their moorings in an ancient past?  Not so, we soon found out.

The abbess, Mother Francesca, surprised us with her wit, her wisdom, and her command of English.  We knew we were off to a good start when she gave a review of the restaurant where we had eaten the evening before.  “It’s overpriced and the portions are too small.”  How she knew that she did not say;  but my guess is that not much in Eichstätt escapes her notice.

Mother Francesca has seen a lot as she nears her thirtieth year as abbess.  For one thing, she noted, the abbey used to be much larger, and the huge complex clearly says that.  While she laments the passing of those days, she’s also happy that the community attracts a novice or two each year. Not all stay, but it ensures the future of the community.

CF5B0F89-D08D-45D5-93CB-3EECB3D11170To our surprise we discovered that these cloistered  nuns do not sit around praying and contemplating all day long.  They have a strong work ethic, she stressed, and several of the nuns teach religion in the grade school which they sponsor.  Another young nun, holder of a PhD in mathematics, teaches in the University of Eichstätt.  Still others help in the guest house and make crafts for the gift shop.  So there seems to be no twiddling of thumbs there.

Our conversation ranged all over the map, but Mother Francesca offered three comments that were great takeaways.  First, despite living in a monastery whose bones are medieval and whose façade is baroque, these nuns are not fossils.  “We are not a museum,” as she put it.  They are not relics of a bygone age.

49FEDA0E-5BEE-4C84-88AC-3035BD315289Second, she lamented the divisions that beset the Church today.  In response to this she and her fellow nuns deliberately stand squarely in the middle of the life of the Church.  “We must be here ready and open to talk with anyone and everyone, wherever they might be on the spectrum.”

Finally, she accepts her own lot in life as abbess.  Her sisters elected her for life, and she will serve as long as she is able.  Then she offered this important caveat:  “I may have some administrative responsibilities, but this is not an administrative job.  I am the mother of a family, and you don’t elect a mother for a term or two.”  It’s a vocation within a vocation.

This led nicely to her parting comment.  “All too often our spirituality suggests we become like angels, so much so that we forget to be human.  But Christ calls us to be human, and Saint Benedict calls us to be the best humans we can be.”

Pope Gregory the Great in his biography of Saint Benedict tells the story of the saint’s last visit with his twin sister Scholastica.  His description of their conversation is standard for the era, and he writes that they got so wrapped up in holy talk that they lost track of the time.  I have to admit that I’ve always been skeptical about that claim.  What holy things could be so interesting that they would lead us into overtime?  Well, last week at Saint Walberga I got a sample, and it made a believer out of me.

E13A1CFE-AF96-4C53-9B3A-4819EEE0F902NOTES

+During the past few days I have been part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour that took alumni and friends of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to monastic sites in Italy and Germany.  Chief among the monastic houses in Italy which we visited were Subiaco, where Benedict began his spiritual journey as a hermit, and Monte Cassino, where he built a large community.  Today the two places could not be more different, both architecturally and in terms of the life in their respective communities.

+In Germany we visited the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria, the place to which our sister community in Saint Joseph, MN, owes much of its heritage.  We then ended the trip with a visit to the Abbey of Metten, in northern Bavaria.  It was from that community that Abbot Boniface Wimmer came to the United States to minister to the German immigrants.  In his extensive work he was the founder of Saint John’s.

+The monks of Saint John’s and all associated with Saint John’s note with sadness the passing of John Gagliardi, who was a revered mentor and coach at Saint John’s University.  In his long career he built a record as the coach with the most wins of anyone in football.  Though in failing health for some time, this fall he still made an appearance at a Homecoming reception in his honor.

+The photos in today’s post show aspects of the Abbey of Saint Walburga.  At top is a statue of the saint that stands above her shrine, and at bottom is her shrine.  The fourth photo shows the choir chapel where the nuns pray the liturgy of the hours, and just above is a photo of Mother Francesca and Sister Martina, together with some of the members of our tour.

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Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.

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Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.

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Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.

9780A5CF-AD21-49AF-8413-B6CB2F6717D5NOTES

+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.

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imageSaint Benedict and the Command to Love

I came way too late to the monastery to experience those first heady days of ecumenical encounter in central Minnesota.  To be clear, I’m not writing about the dialogs among Catholics and Lutherans and Episcopalians.  Those talks came much later, and they were possible only because of the earlier breakthrough between the German Catholics and the Polish Catholics.  It’s hard to imagine the day when a mixed marriage in Stearns County, our county, was the term for a union between members of those two communities, and people spoke of such marriages in whispered tones.

Given that disquiet about Catholics of non-German extraction, you can just imagine the level of enthusiasm that our early monks brought to the triad of feast days that sit squarely in the middle of Lent.  On March 17th, the feast of Saint Patrick, the more daring of the monks admitted to trace elements of Celtic blood flowing in their veins; while the more cautious among them owned to having met someone of Irish heritage, once.  Then, on the 19th, came the feast of Saint Joseph.   Way back then there was little of anything Italian in our community, save for the decrees that came by boat from Rome.  Then, in the next breath, the monks celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict on the 21st.  Now that was a feast they could sink their teeth into, despite the glaring note of his accidental birth in Italy.  In fact, he may have been born Italian, but there was something wonderfully German about the man that more than compensated.

imageOur community, since day one, has had a strong work ethic.  This turned out to be a strategic advantage in the pioneering days of Minnesota.  In the days when the option for everybody who came here was hard work or freezing to death, our founding monks came well-disposed to make the right choice.  And so a man like Benedict, whose motto was “work and pray,” had to have at least a little German in him, or so they must have thought.

As for the Italian DNA in Saint Benedict, everyone knew it was there, though they must have hesitated about it.  Here I’m not referring to the strain of legalism that has coursed through the Roman bureaucracy for centuries.  Rather, I speak of the reputation for creativity that Italians have earned as they’ve applied the ideals of Christian doctrine to its lived expression.  To say the least, I’ve always admired them for their genius at sorting out issues of law and love.  But of course they are artists at heart.

Nowhere is the tension between law and love better expressed than in the last visit that Benedict paid to his sister Scholastica.  On the prescribed day they left their respective monasteries and met at some spot halfway in between.  But as the visit stretched beyond Benedict’s self-imposed curfew, the latter grew antsy to get home.  Scholastica was not so eager to call it a day, and she dismissed out of hand her brother’s insistence that his own Rule forbade an overnight absence from the monastery.

imageScholastica then went on the offensive, and in as many words she let her brother know that “we’ll see about that.”  So she prayed and shed copious tears, until finally God got the message.  It rained cats and dogs, and Benedict was forced to admit defeat.  “What  have you done, sister?”

That evening Scholastica got the better of her brother, and Benedict’s biographer, Pope Gregory the Great, did not hesitate to say so.  “Surely it is no more than right that her influence was greater than  his, since hers was the greater love.”  So it was that the writer of the Rule lost out to his sister, and that day her great love trumped his excellent laws.

Stories such as this one abound in the early monastic tradition, and I’ve fondly recalled one that amused us to no end when we read it at evening prayer many years ago.  In that episode an Egyptian monk was walking down a road when he spied a group of nuns headed his way.  Worried that he might compromise his integrity, he hid in the ditch and covered his face until they had walked by.  Then he stood, brushed off the dust, and walked on with more than a smidgen of self-satisfaction.  But while he was still within earshot, the abbess called out to him and stopped him dead in his tracks.  “If you were a real monk, you’d never have even noticed that we were women.”

imageThe monastic tradition has delighted in these sorts of stories, partly because they owe so much to the spirit of the parables in the gospels.  Common to them all is the suggestion that every now and then God really does raise up the lowly to confound the proud.  They also warn that a healthy reserve of humility can come in handy, just when you need it most.  And last but not least, they offer this one bit of wisdom:  law has primacy, and the greatest of the laws is the command to love.  Teasing this wisdom into everyday life is not easy, of course, but that’s what monks and nuns try to do.  It’s also what thoughtful Christians do.

All this is a little disconcerting for those who would like to put law and wisdom into opposite corners and dispense with one or the other.  The fact is, we  need a healthy balance of both.  For its part, law is the practical embodiment of Christian ideals, and they lead us on the path to God.  But the Holy Spirit grants us wisdom for those cases when we’re tempted to walk a straight line down a twisting road.  Weaving the two together, it seems to me, is the challenge of Christian life.  It’s also what makes it wonderfully beautiful.

This March 21st I plan to celebrate the memory of the Benedict who wrote the Rule that still guides the lives of me and my brothers.  But I also plan to celebrate the man who could look squarely at the command to love, and be wise enough to adjust his plans accordingly.

imageNotes

+On March 15th I gave a conference to the Benedictine Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, who had gathered for the Abbey Mass, lunch, and lectio.  At the conclusion of the day, five individuals made their oblation, completing a year of study and prayer.

+I neglected to mention in the last post that during our visit to Norcia, the city of Benedict’s birth, I was named a citizen of the town.  To my great surprise I received a document signed by some civic official, suitable for framing.  Only later did I have the presence of mind to ask our guide whether this entitled me to any special rights or privileges. “Do I qualify for a pension?” I asked.  “Oh, I guess they forgot to tell you.  We’re broke.  Flat broke.”  I’m now going back to read the fine print and find out whether I’m the first and only citizen of Norcia required by law to pay taxes.

+I’m reaching back a bit to mention that on February 26th I attended a lecture at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University, entitled Templars, Hospitallers and 12-century Popes.  The Malta Study Center at HMML sponsored the talk, delivered by Dr. Jochen Burgtorf.  Dr. Burgtorf is Professor of Medieval History at California State University at Fullerton.

+The photos in today’s post all come from Monte Cassino.  At top is a wonderful modern sculpture, depicting two monks who support Saint Benedict as he surrenders himself to God.

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