The American Monastic Newsletter

Volume 32, Nr. 3, October 2002                   Richardton, ND 58652

 

Lest We Forget: The Love of Learning and Desire for God

In the name of all who attended the 2002 ABA Convention in Bismarck, I offer heartfelt gratitude to our monastic colleagues at the three monasteries in Bismarck and Richardton. The theme, the presentations, the ensuing dialogue and the pleasant accommodations serve as a wonderful model of the lived-out spirit of true Benedictine hospitality. Special thanks to Valerian Odermann for his creative leadership as ABA president, and to the local committee and others who worked together on the many details of such an enriching convention. The emphasis on mentoring as an on-going process for passing on the values of our Benedictine heritage will continue to offer us valuable insights on the various ways in which we as communities and as individuals are able to preserve our monastic way of life. Congratulations to all who aided in the creation of such a challenging, on-going experience.

I also thank Eugene Hensell and Kathleen Hickenbotham for their years of generous service as members of the ABA board. I look forward to their continued presence in their sharing of insights as ABA members. Congratulations to the newly elected vice-president, Richard Oliver, and to the three elected board members: Cyril Drnjevic, Ramona Fallon and Dennis Ockholm. I am honored to be a part of such a creative group of individuals who are willing to share so generously of their time and talents.

As noted in my presidential address, the theme for the 2004 ABA convention, to be held August 12-15, at St. Benedict's Monastery, St. Joseph, MN, is "Monastic Culture: Revitalizing the Life of the Mind and the Spirit." At a time in history when many communities are experiencing a decline in membership, a dwindling of financial resources, and an emphasis on active ministries, scholarship and intellectual pursuits tend not to be viewed as priorities. This can create an anti-intellectualism which will deprive contemporary and future cultures of a valuable part of the centuries-old Benedictine heritage. Hence, the theme of revitalization of the life of the mind and the spirit seems particularly important at this time.

The issues relevant to the 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 and formation of all members of community, and for oblates and others for whom the monastic way of life and teachings have significant contemporary relevance. Although the continued need for first-rate Benedictine scholarship will always exist, it must also continue to be made accessible to the many interested readers on the popular level. It is equally important to remain in dialogue with our non-vowed colleagues and with monastics in other religious traditions. Their monastic experiences, shared in a variety of ways, can offer insights into the common, basic values inherent in the various forms of monastic life, while also aiding us in understanding more clearly the inherent significance of the Benedictine way of life.

We need to remind ourselves and our communities that scholarship and learning are not luxuries, but necessities. They are means for attaining the monastic goal of "truly seeking God." As medieval monastic writers remind us, true knowledge (scientia) must always lead to wisdom (sapientia). John Leclercq reiterates this as well in his literary masterpiece, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. He demonstrates how the true Benedictine heritage has always included the two on-going pursuits of learning and the continuous seeking of God. And if we forget or neglect this dual aspect of our lives, we take the risk of rewarding mediocrity rather than creative productivity. As the ABA conventions so clearly demonstrate, true scholarship involves all aspects of study: literature, painting, music, sculpture, architecture, liturgy, drama, technology, etc.

One of the greatest contributions of the ABA conventions has always been to engage the participants in addressing the interface between past traditions and contemporary concerns. So it is important to have input from members of the ABA. I thank those of you who have already submitted ideas and suggestions related to the theme of the 2004 convention and/or to topics which should be considered at the next ABA business meeting. The ABA board has accepted the gracious invitation from Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, AZ, to hold its next board meeting there, January 18-19, 2003. 1 encourage you to contact a member of the board with any suggestions, questions, etc., that you might want to share with the board. This will aid us in our efforts to have the ABA conventions continue to help us live into the hard questions and issues vital to the on-going life of our Benedictine heritage.

Peace to all, and let us together pray that the present troubling world situations can be resolved in non-violent means. May each of us help in whatever ways possible to foster true Benedictine peace throughout our world.

Rosemary Rader, OSB
President, American Benedictine Academy

Issue Contents

 

An Open Letter:
The Oblation of Discernment

In his Open Letter of February, 2001, "Welcoming Oblates with Discernment," Professor Gerald Schlabach offers as his conclusion the uncomfortable parable of the dishonest steward. Prof. Schlabach's point was that monastics, like the steward, can take advantage of some disagreeable circumstances to further their own aims. Specifically, our American religious culture's instability and superficiality currently motivate people of awakening faith to take refuge in the stability and significance lived out in monastic institutions. This is a good thing in that it brings monastic principles into wider dialogue in society generally; but it is also a troubling thing, because there are so many would be sharers of monastic resources and those resources are relatively limited.

I would like to answer Prof. Schlabach's parable with a scriptural reading as troubling as the one he provided: that of the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 (also the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7). The woman is an unbeliever, that is, not a Jew, and she comes to petition Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus rebuffs her, stating that his message is for Israel. He tells her that the children first must be fed, and that bread is not given to dogs. The woman stands her ground and says to the Son of God that even the dogs feast on the children's crumbs. Her assertiveness proves her faith, and he heals her daughter.

I am one of those dogs. I am a layperson with the most tenuous ties to an abbey. But my life has been profoundly transformed by the Rule and by the Benedictine hospitality of inclusivity, even though I have never set foot in a monastery, never visited an abbey, and have never attended a retreat anywhere. Even without the formal relationship of oblation, I feel as wanted by and as worthy of Benedictine community, as perhaps the scores of you who are life professed or are oblates.

Let me also tell you, it's a lot of work! It is the oblation of constant discernment: How do I serve God? How do I fulfill my baptismal and confirmation promises? How do I empty myself of the constant shouting voices of conventional adult life in a noisy, argumentative, competitive society, to become a pendulum of God's quiet but tangible vibratory presence? And how do I stifle these constant measurings against this benchmark and that benchmark of spiritual "achievement"?

The discreet little communities of the first Christians resembled monastic cells. They were not "worship centers" of 1500 people herded through three Communion services on Sunday. There must be an equally small and discreet place in us for the indwelling of our God. The fact is that our American church culture is not about quiet or smallness or introspection. It's yet more consumption, expansion, competition, and ambition. Churches market themselves, plan for growth, collect statistics, and light up the internet with graphs and pie charts.

The Rule is the Ockham's razor of the current church scene: it is what is true and what is sufficient and little more. As Father Andrew Marr, OSB, has written, "It all boils down to saying that the monk is one who lives the Christian life in its bare bones. Nothing else is allowed to dress it up for us." And indeed, "As we discover the need for worship, for giving of our life to God, for making space within us for God, for following the way of powerlessness, we discover that there is a monk in each of us" (quotes from the 1986 "Abbey Letter" of St. Gregory's Abbey). There's an end to dressing up in identity costumes and satisfying our appetites for ego possessions with tidbits from the feel good spirituality cafeteria.

This is Christian life in its bare bones, lived in the cell of the individual soul, embracing doubt, torment of conscience, and loneliness, and not accompanied by praise music nor toasted with fellowship coffee. There is no reward except, this day, offering the Work of God to God, and that off stage in the radiance of silence. Those are the crumbs of St. Benedict, falling from the tables of abbeys and monasteries to dogs such as me. All the would be oblates coming to your doors are already "monks." All Christendom is monachism in the passion of discernment. Every person in being called to the Order, however he or she is, has offered a first work to God, by inclining the ear of his/her heart. Sometimes the most important resources that you religious can share with us are simply your own presence and persistence. Just being there and doing what you do are crumbs enough for a feast of simplicity and encouragement, enough to sustain us in our own Work.

And now I think I'll go read The Cloister Walk and see what I've been missing. . . .

The author wishes to remain anonymous. Ed.

Issue Contents

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