The American Monastic Newsletter

Volume 32, Nr. 1, February 2002                    Richardton, ND 58652


President's Message

Pass it on: Encouraging the heart

 WHAT: In August we hold our next convention -- some have called it a biennial Benedictine summer camp! In this issue, you will find information on its shape. One innovation adopted by the board has been replacing pre-convention papers with an electronic forum. You will find the way to get involved in this initiative delineated elsewhere. A vigorous exchange of ideas is to be hoped for.

The theme of Convention 2002, "Monastics and Mentoring: Re-Founding the Tradition," will be fleshed out by people with impressive experience. They will mentor us in these days. A wisdom tradition welcomes new ways of expression in order to remain alive; our speakers will give us reason to rejoice.

WHY: You probably won't find a lot of cynicism. You know, the type where people (some of them monastics) who, after visiting a monastery, recite gleefully a litany of woes as they proceed to trash the place where they have been "received as Christ." They employ "awfulisms" à la Albert Ellis ("isn't it awful that . . .," "terrible that . . .," etc.). This cynicism, trying to pass for realism because dressed up in big words and lengthy harangues, is anti-mentoring. It's like what the physicists call a black hole; it sucks out life.

People interesting in mentoring have a profound sense of handing on something worthwhile to the next generation. They are generative. They get involved at Ground Zero (to use a term popularized these days). They know you can impress someone from a distance, but you can only influence them from up close. That's hope in action.

Mentors look for connections, the "inter"- as in inter-generational, inter-institutional, inter-national, inter-denominational (to name just four). Relationships are key. Bridge-building is the name of the game. Mentors invest themselves in "encouraging the heart" (cf. RB Prol 1, 49), which is incidentally the title of a recent book on leadership.

WHERE: Convention 2002 will be held at the University of Mary, Bismarck, ND. It just so happens that I work there (I am grateful to the hosts because it has made planning, oh, so much easier). I began teaching theology there in 1989, but the Roman method of dating would be more appropriate. The Romans employed "A.U.C." -- abs urbe condita -- "since the founding of the city." At U-Mary they could also, but for them it would mean "Always Under Construction." You see, I came to U-Mary seven buildings ago. Fortunately, this year nothing major is going on.

Interested in the future of things monastic and Benedictine? Or in nurturing your Benedictine soul? Come to the plains, hear a Benedictine Prairie Tale, and share your own. You are most cordially invited to Bismarck. However, and let it not be said that you weren't warned, it's a place where "driveby wavings" are a fact of life.

--Valerian Odermann, OSB
President, American Benedictine Academy


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Welcoming Oblates, with Discernment

Benedictines are hospitable. Monasteries do not turn away strangers. Monks do not turn away oblates. Yet Benedictines also do their welcomes discerningly, or should. And the oblate phenomenon, while certainly welcome, does require discernment.

Benedictine hospitality has never meant that a welcome has no limits. Chapter 53 of the Rule famously admonishes Benedictines to welcome guests as Christ, receiving them warmly and with prayer. But it goes on to require that even short-term guests receive rudimentary instruction in monastic patterns of life, prayer and work, in part lest they interrupt the rhythms of monastic life. Realistically, the Rule also makes provision for politely but firmly disinviting monastic inquirers who prove unduly disruptive (RB 61) and, of course, newcomers to the monastic life who have longer-term prospects are not to be allowed "an easy entry," but must first pass through a period of careful discernment (RB 58).

So monastic Benedictines are too polite and hospitable to worry out loud that the surging number of Benedictine oblates in the last decade could prove disruptive, but that does not mean that they are obliged to welcome the oblate phenomenon without discernment. Quite the opposite.

Perhaps as an oblate I can say what monastics are too polite to say: The oblate phenomenon does present a challenge to monastic communities. In practical terms, monasteries must decide how much of their scarce pastoral and apostolic resources to dedicate to oblates. Fifteen-hundred-year Benedictine memories will urge them to resist fads, yet Benedictine practices of discernment will urge them to read "the signs of the times." Whatever amount of pastoral attention they give to oblates will require formation, yet inevitably that formation must adapt to different lifestyles.

The challenge that the oblate phenomenon presents can, of course, be an opportunity rather than a threat but, for that to happen, monastics, oblates, and especially oblate directors will do well to name the challenge. In doing so, we may discover a clue, a clue to what any serious oblate formation will have to mean.

As I analyze some of the reasons why I became an oblate and listen to other oblates, I think I discern a pattern. The very conditions in society that are creating a hunger to experience some measure of monastic life are also the very conditions that oblates are trying to transcend (often intuitively). The very conditions that are bringing people to the doorsteps of monasteries are also the very conditions toward which we long to be less vulnerable (often unconsciously).

Here are four examples:

Cyberspace: The Internet is making connections and bringing prospective oblates and other seekers to the doorways, guest rooms, and retreat houses of monasteries. Surely this is a good thing; I followed this route myself within days of learning on the first page of Kathleen Norris's Cloister Walk that one could be a Benedictine oblate without being Roman Catholic. Yet cyberspace has a downside. At least it would have a downside if it existed in any spatial place; the fact that it offers freedom from place is exactly its problem. Because the Internet has such unprecedented potential for making connections, it tempts people to settle for mere cyber-community, giving them ways of relating to each other without ever having to relate deeply to their neighbors next door.

A surge of books on monasticism: Again, this phenomenon is helping to make people aware, bringing seekers and prospective oblates to monastery doors, and so on, but it can also play into the culture of consumerism. Publishers are quite glad to milk the trend, perhaps soliciting more manuscripts than we need. (This is not to judge any particular manuscript or book. After all, I might write one sometime myself!) The problem is that modern consumer culture tempts people to relate to what interests them by buying something. Own a book and learn to relate vicariously. Obviously such books have helped make connections and gotten many of us started in spiritual practices long shaped in the monastery. But insofar as the habits of consumerism have played a role in our formation, oblates and other seekers must go on to transcend those habits if they are to be serious about monastic life.

Denominational restlessness (for want of a better term): Denominational boundaries are almost by definition permeable. As the denominational system has developed in Protestant America, it has served to express loyalty to some vague whole (maybe "the Church" or maybe American civil religion) that makes it easier to move from one denomination to another.

Roman Catholics have an uneasy relationship with denominationalism. After all, to gain acceptance within the system is to implicitly relinquish their specific Catholic understanding of what constitutes the basis of Christian unity. Still, many others have their own very different reasons for denominational restlessness, longing as they do for the gifts that other Christian traditions offer. This restlessness prompts and allows people to bridge their traditions in new ways. Those of us who are not Roman Catholic are thus able to relate to Catholic traditions with less and less apology. Yet a danger does still remain. It is the danger of "cafeteria Christianity," which lets people mix and match traditions any way they want, without discipline and without accountability. Unless we transcend cafeteria Christianity, our practices will be more sarabaite or gyrovague than Benedictine (RB 1).

Hyper-modernism: Summing up the other three phenomena, perhaps, is a kind of "post-modern" flexibility about life commitments, truth commitments and committed relationships, that leaves every commitment open-ended at best or optional at worst. Actually, what goes by the name of "post-modern" may be a kind of "hyper-modern" individualism, by which we continually seek to reinvent ourselves and our communities, yet are hardly transformed.

After all, the one option that hyper-modernism disallows is that very stability we need for God to do the transforming. As Benedictines know well, such transformation requires that we listen obediently (RB Prol) for a word we could not have invented for ourselves, and stay in community with those we might not have chosen. Yet here is a great paradox: Many of us owe a debt to the very instability that has allowed us to seek life, refreshment, and nourishment in other streams. In other words, it is in part the very un-Benedictine instability of our culture that is helping to bring some of us to monastery doors while that very instability is what we hope to transcend.

That, I suggest, is a critical clue to the task of oblate formation. It will require ongoing discernment on the part of oblates and oblate directors alike. Our challenge is to help one another take advantage of the cultural trends and conditions that have brought seekers and prospective oblates to monastery doors, even while calling one another out from those conditions, beyond those trends, in order to transcend them.

Remember that enigmatic parable Jesus once told about a steward who was about to be laid off? Jesus ended up commending him because he used his last week of work so astutely. As long as he still held his position, he used it to lower other people's debts and earn himself a future. No interpreter is quite sure what to do with the parable because on the surface it seems a counsel of embezzlement. But never mind, the parable applies to us. We too are expropriating some passing trends in society in order to secure a new and more stable future. Yet we too must be astute, and notice how limited are the very conditions we use to move on, in order to move on.

--Gerald W. Schlabach, OblSB

Gerald W. Schlabach is an oblate of Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota. He teaches theology and ethics at the University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul, MN. For further reflections on these themes, see his article, "Stability amid Mobility: The Oblate's Challenge and Witness" in the American Benedictine Review 52:1 (March 2001).


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The American Benedictine Academy

Junior Essay Competition



Elections and Appointments

Several Cistercian monasteries have chosen superiors recently. Brendan Freeman, OCSO, of New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, IA, and Francis Kline, OCSO, of Our Lady of Mepkin in Moncks Corner, SC, were both reelected to continue their service to their communities. Mark Scott, OSCO, is the new abbot of Assumption Abbey in Ava, MO, and John Denburger, OCSO, was elected at Genesee Abbey, Genesee, NY.

In other elections, the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing have chosen Sister Kevin Hermsen, OSB, as prioress of Immaculata Priory in Norfolk, NE and Sister Ramona Varela, OSB, was elected prioress of the Tucson priory of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Father Justin Brown, OSB, has been elected abbot of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, LA. Jerome Tingerthal, OSB, a monk of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN, will serve as administrator of Saint Leo Abbey in St. Leo, FL.

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Vocation Directors

Men and women who guide those discerning a monastic vocation met for the Benedictine Vocation Directors' Conference at the St. Benedict Retreat Center in Schuyler, NE. Their theme was "Call and Discernment of a Benedictine Vocation." Dr. Lynn Bisonette, a psychiatrist, gave several presentations on psychosocial perspectives to be considered when evaluating persons for monastic life. Adam Ryan, OSB, spoke on a biblical theology of vocation.


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