Rosemary Rader, O.S.B.
At this year's ABA Convention we've had the opportunity to reflect on the role of mentoring as an important, viable means of passing on the "torch" of the centuries-old Benedictine tradition. The emphasis was on mentoring as the process by which the vital aspects of Benedictine monasticism would be passed on to our contemporaries and to future generations interested in the real-life values of Benedictine monasticism.
The theme I suggest for the 2004 ABA Convention is one of content, the essence of that which is being passed on. The emphasis is on learning and scholarship which articulate the ideas, motivations, practices and events of our Benedictine heritage. Hence, the theme, "Monastic Culture: Revitalizing the Life of the Mind and the Spirit."
The topic has about it an urgency suggested by the fact that for many communities today, scholarship may be in jeopardy. Because of the drastic decline in community membership, due to aging and the sparsity of new members, and because of dwindling financial resources, ongoing education and scholarship are no longer viewed by some as a viable option, and therefore, not a priority. Add the fact that since Vatican II some communities view higher education and scholarship as less important than hands-on social justice ministries. As important and necessary as these ministries are, and must continue to be, the fallout has sometimes created an anti-intellectualism which deprives both the communities and culture in general, of an important ingredient of the Benedictine heritage.
Granted, Benedictine communities who sponsor colleges and universities will, by necessity, continue to train members in more scholarly pursuits, and most of our communities gratefully share in the fruits of that scholarship through participation in monastic forums and summer classes offered through the communities' centers of higher education. But that does not allow the rest of us to neglect the focus on scholarship and study necessary for the preservation of our monastic history, spirituality and way of life.
The issues relevant to the theme of revitalization of learning, of scholarship and of the spirit of monasticism are many, but a primary concern is that of establishing priorities related to the education of new members in initial formation and in the ongoing, continued formation of all members of the community, and for oblates and others for whom the monastic way of life and teachings have relevance.
Because of a lack of language training, there are declining numbers of monastic scholars capable of working with the original texts. Add to that the tension between formal studies and contemporary ministries, and organizations like the American Benedictine Academy need to play a key role in reminding the members, the respective communities, and scholarly colleagues and friends, of the need for a renewed commitment to ongoing education and scholarly, critical studies which are deeply rooted in scriptural, philosophical and linguistic advances. The fruit of such study must also be accessible to the many interested, eager readers on the popular level. Aiding such studies today is the greater accessibility of sources via the Internet and other technological advances. And if we truly believe that the Spirit speaks to us through contemporary situations and through a variety of people, then we need to remain connected with and encourage our oblates and non-vowed scholars and colleagues to be engaged in dialogue with us on aspects of the monastic tradition. Their engagement with monastic history, their shared research, publications, and their lived-out experiences and observations of the richness of monastic life shared through their presence among us both in dialogue and in presentations offer us many valuable insights into our own experience of the Benedictine monastic traditions and their relevance to contemporary cultures.
Similarly, we have much to learn from monastics in both Christian and non-Christian communities (e.g., Buddhist and Hindu), and organizations like the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) and The Interconfessional Conference of Religious. Understanding the experiences and traditions of other members of such communities can both expand and clarify some of our own views, and help us to discern the common, basic values embodied in the various forms of monastic life.
Apparently the issue of the diminishing role of scholarship is endemic to other communities as well as the Benedictine, since both the Franciscans and Dominicans have within the last several years held conferences and have written books and articles questioning how and whether they are able to retrieve their intellectual tradition from within, in an age which considers intellectual pursuits marginal when compared with other community commitments and priorities.So how do we deal with what some of us consider a diminishment of scholarly research within our communities? Hopefully, a variety of responses will be forthcoming as we address the issue at the 2004 Convention. But each of us can contribute our wisdom to the ongoing dialogue by our support and encouragement of the role of learning and scholarship both within and outside our respective communities.
And as we continue to encourage others, especially the younger members in our communities, to be interested in, and even enthused about, the treasures of our heritage, new insights from studies of the past and the present will make a difference in our monasteries, in the Church and in society, especially as these insights are articulated by a corporate voice.
An issue which some raised at the 2002 Convention is that of membership in the ABA. How do we incorporate others? How do we invite them into participation in dialogue with others who want not only to preserve the basic traditions and ideas of past monastic traditions, but want to relate them to contemporary situations, and particularly to spirituality? How do we show them that real scholarship is not a luxury, but a necessity; not only the transmission of texts and their translation or interpretation, but a way of truly seeking God. We need to recall medieval monastic writers' message that the acquisition of scientia, knowledge, must always result in sapientia, wisdom. How do we convince others that the transmission of our Benedictine heritage is not solely textual studies, but includes all aspects of study: literature, architecture, paintings, sculpture, music, liturgy, drama, technology, etc. And without scholarly research, without interpretations and publications in these various areas, the particular messages of Benedictine culture can all too easily be lost.
Even as we appreciate the great contributions of our Benedictine tradition over the centuries, we need to remember, as Jean Leclercq advises us in his literary masterpiece, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, that if the great ideas and traditions of our Benedictine past are to remain vital and meaningful to us today, "each generation must, in turn, think them through and rediscover them in their pristine newness" (p.44). And that is what scholarship involves, what it is able to do for us now and for future generations; i.e., to revitalize us through the combination of intellectual pursuits (which includes all forms of creative arts) and the continuous seeking of God. Without an ongoing revitalization of our tradition of scholarship, teaching and learning, we may see an increasing collapse of our religious institutions of higher learning and the decline of our communal identities. Granted, one of the contributions gifts of these ABA conventions has always been to engage the participants in addressing the interface between our past traditions and contemporary concerns. It is also true that some communities are attempting to continue the ongoing dedication to the education of its members, which contributes to the maintenance and strengthening of the communities' creative intellectual tradition.
And the ABA 2004 convention can continue to serve us well by having individuals and groups sharing their experiences of viable means for retaining and revitalizing the tradition of learning which is such an integral part of our heritage. As someone reminded me at a previous ABA convention, if we allow ourselves to neglect the dual pursuit of knowledge and the seeking of God, we are taking the risk of rewarding mediocrity, rather than productive creativity. If such occurs, our monasteries may well become museums of past history, rather than living Christian communities of prayer, moderation, balance and hospitality.
The 2004 Convention will hopefully continue the ABA's tradition of serving to remind us that living our true Benedictine heritage demands an ongoing commitment to prayer, to education, and to scholarly pursuits in all the arts. To neglect these aspects of our tradition is to lose our memory of who we are, because without the memory of what has been and what is, we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to breathe new life into those forms and structures which are such an important part of our heritage, and which may be crucial to our survival. So it will be important to have input from communities and individuals on ways in which they are actively promoting monastic education among their members, and to hear from college personnel and others who are exploring different ways of instilling Benedictine values into their educational environment.
Lastly, I invite you to submit your ideas, your suggestions for topics and speakers for the 2004 convention, particularly as they relate to the theme, "Monastic Culture: The Revitalization of the Life of the Mind and the Spirit." This is important in order that our ABA conventions will continue to be a source of our own individual revitalization and that of our communities. It is in listening to each other that we continue to live into the hard questions and issues which will ensure the ongoing life of our rich Benedictine heritage.