The community at Saint John’s Abbey lives, "committed to hospitality; very interested in quality education; and with a certain confidence that Benedictine values are gospel values." These themes stood out in my conversation with Abbot Timothy Kelly about the community last fall.
Abbot Timothy’s discussion began with the community’s abbots: "I don’t think that the abbots in and of themselves put a mark on the community - but there’s a tendency for them to express during their time as abbot what the spirit of the community is. The community elects the abbot."
He noted the tendency with Saint John’s of "thinking big:" "Boniface Wimmer thought big when he started Saint Vincent’s: thought so big it stretched beyond Saint Vincent’s, Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s...." Prior Demetrius di Marogna led the group that came out from Saint Vincent’s; Rupert Seidenbush was the first abbot.
"The second abbot, Alexius Edelbrock, was pushed out of office - he thought too big. He built the quad. The third abbot, Bernard Locnikar, was a holy man - probably kind of a worrier. He lost the novitiate in a tornado; and died young."
"Peter Engel was abbot for thirty years, and a calming influence in the community." Here the community "settled in to be what it is. This has a great deal to do with the whole spirit of hospitality. Abbot Peter was very welcoming, and interested in a whole lot of things - for example, photography."
Abbot Alcuin Deutsch’s time was one of growth. "He had a real appreciation of what education is, and can do - he sent Virgil Michel to study in Europe, and Godfrey Diekmann - people who have made a big impact on the place, and on the Abbey."
Abbot Alcuin’s emphasis was outreach. He served as the administrator for abbeys in the United States that were going broke; and after World War II, gave help to European monasteries that had been bombed out. He was the administrator for an abbey in the Philippines before World War II; two monks of Saint John’s were interned there during the war. While there had been earlier foundations - in the Bahamas since 1892, in Washington State, in New York parishes, in Abbot Alcuin’s last seven years the community established foundations in Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Kentucky. "There was no monastery in the Bahamas until 1946, so he is responsible for that," Abbot Timothy continued.
Abbot Baldwin also had a vision of growth; though his was "a more artistic, architectural vision," he shared Abbot Alcuin’s sense of reaching out. He supported the new foundations - and independence for those that had become "stable, mature, and able to do it on their own." Later abbots continued this support - from Abbot Baldwin to Abbots John, Jerome, and Timothy himself. "Continuing in the tradition of what Saint John’s is, we’re now trying to help facilitate the possible expansion of Benedictine monasticism in Asia. We’re trying to build a monastery in Japan, and are working to develop an organization of Benedictine monastic communities on the Pacific Rim."
Saint John’s continues its commitment to the Third World . "We now have Chinese seminarians, and a Chinese priest studying here - as well as twenty-two visiting monks, from Africa, Korea, Japan, and South America. We aid them financially to some extent - and we also help other people get educations, and sabbaticals. Saint John’s is part of the local church - and proud to be that - but it’s also part of an international community, and its interests are also international."
As the past moves into the present, things change. "We are looking to the future. We are not living just now. This is very much the pattern of lectio - looking at the past in the present with hope for the future. It becomes a question of the status quo, vs. a vision for the future. And we need hope."
"But hope in what? In God - in Jesus Christ as the center of our life. And with Him as the center of our life - why not hope? God gives the growth.....
If God gives the growth, fine; if not, all right, and we will do everything we can with what we think God wants. Our hope is not in anything short of God. Anything."
Abbot Timothy also noted ecumenical dimensions of the community’s work: the Ecumenical Institute, the Episcopal House of Prayer, and, across faith lines, the East-West dialogue. "If we’ve gotten used to listening in the past, we will be able to listen in the present to what people’s experience is."
"These were also basics of religion to St. Benedict. That our work with them will always be imperfect is obvious. But Benedict says, listen, be non-judgmental, be cooperative, be open. There is great openness in this community to feminist causes, for example - there is a great willingness to change. And I think all that is a part of hospitality."
His comments on the community continued. "This is not a community that retires.... With any community, one of its very real functions is to hand things on to the next. It’s absolutely useless to bemoan the failures of the present generation - the only future is for those who see the present as good, as an outgrowth of what they have received in the past."
Another characteristic of the community is that it cares: "not just that it cares, but that we care about each other. There is a willingness to care for one another, and everybody in our lives - which is far from co-dependency. It is a very tolerant community: to care for someone is to be non-judgmental. You can see all kinds of problems in how we live with one another - but not meanness."
"Roseanne Keller made a statue of Joseph and Jesus - they’re looking into each other’s eyes, each equally absorbed in the other - that’s a good model for monastic life."
"It’s fun to be part of a community like this - one that’s international. It transcends diocesan and national boundaries. Many monks are local - like Godfrey. Some are from neighboring states."
Four abbots, he noted, came from Wisconsin: Peter, Baldwin, Jerome and himself. "We moved to Minneapolis when I was eight. The move brought hope for my family - but for myself, it meant leaving everything I’d ever known."
Abbot Timothy has served in many of the Saint John’s apostolates. "When I came forty-five years ago, I took care of the seminary garden.... We raised hay for our cattle, and one of my favorite jobs was haying - though I wouldn’t want to try it now. I taught in the Bahamas and in Mexico, I was in the parish in New York, a chaplain in northern Minnesota, studied in Rome. I taught English, theology and monastic studies here." He was a consultant with the United Methodist Academy for Spiritual Formation, and the East-West Dialogue Chair of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. "I visited with the Dalai Lama in India in 1986, I went to Japan in the early eighties, and have been back four times as abbot. I’ve been to China ."
We shifted briefly to a discussion of what the oblates can do to support the community. "The whole attitude of being a hospitable person is one willing to serve, in very humble ways - not one with status. This is important to knowing who we are - and to support what we’re doing as a community. Administratively, everything has to do with education: with supporting good principles of Catholic Benedictine education, with the school and the Liturgical Press."
"Some communities almost conscript a number of hours from their oblates - we don’t do that. There are occasions when oblates can be very helpful. But it’s hard to be specific. When my mother died, my brother was particularly grateful to those who’d come, not saying, ‘is there anything I can do,’ but rather, ‘you need to have this done and I can do this;’ ‘would that be helpful’ - looking around, finding what needs to be done, and doing it."
"I’m more impressed with what people do than with what they say. We can say, we welcome Christ in the guest - but unless we’re treating the person as Christ, we are not saying anything at all."
"There is the power of intercessory prayer: we pray for the oblates, and we hope the oblates pray for us, to be what God wants us to be. Everyone is called to be a Christian in the world, to be connected. Who we are, what we do and say is from the man Benedict, but from the gospel embodied in the Rule of Benedict."
"Prayer is important to the monastic life - and also to the non-monastic. In Chapter 58, Benedict talks about recognizing people who are truly seeking God. What are the criteria? And one is, the eagerness for prayer. For oblates, this may be an eagerness for prayer with his or her local church community - participating in the liturgy on Sunday, in prayer with family and friends - but also privately."
"Benedict also talks about an eagerness for obedience - listen, hear, do what God wants us to do, and avoid the rest. There is an eagerness for opprobria - to be of humble service to other people, not to seek kudos, not to seek status, but to be of service…. Humility."
"This has not been a boring life. It’s a very good community - with a tremendous amount of generosity. One characteristic that comes through hospitality is the experiences that other people bring with them, when they come to visit us for however long. That’s part of our experience. I’m tremendously grateful for the people who come - they’re part of my own experience of Christ. Who we are is more than the sum of all the different experiences people have of us."
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