Saint John's Day April 25, 2003

Remarks by Br. Dietrich Reinhart

It is difficult to be the last speaker.  Hard to follow good and generous words by so many people whom I deeply admire.  Devilishly difficult to come after excerpts of earlier speeches in which my periodically fractured syntax and tearfulness have simply been spliced out.

I knew I was in trouble yesterday when my "much younger" sister, Sue, sent me an e-mail with the subject line "The inauguration of FDR."  My reply - hearkening back to more than one childhood - was "Pay NO attention to that man behind the curtain!"

So I am a bit daunted this evening.  I want to say something tonight about a great story.  Everyone in this room knows parts of it far better than I ever will, and that is part of the story's power.  It is a shared story, open-ended, born in challenge and risk, marked by transformation and fidelity.  The story is Saint John's story, but it is not about us!

In 1856, 147 years ago, a handful of Benedictine monks set out for the Minnesota Territory. They hoped to establish a flourishing monastery on the frontier. At every turn, however, they were pulled apart  because of people's needs in surrounding communities.  Even as the first monks settled on this land, they set out across the region, and further afield, to one town and city after another, in fact to 361 different places over the first century.  In those communities, generations of Saint John's monks lived apart from one another as pastors and teachers.  They labored with generosity, and their lives were greatly enlarged, sometimes painfully so, by the witness of the Benedictine sisters and lay men and women with whom they worked and lived. 

All along, a core of monks - never stable for long - worked, against the odds, to create a durable monastic ethos here at Collegeville.  These monks' lives were shaped, sometimes turned inside out, by each year's influx of dozens, then hundreds of young men who, shall we say, "marched to the beat of a different drummer" than St. Benedict - young men, with their dilemmas and dead-ends, their fresh starts and startling growth, young men who shaped the monks seeking to mentor them far more than they ever knew. 

Saint John's was not founded according to any textbook I know of.  It has always been a "work in progress" - in which the common life is prized, but members are enriched by such a wide array of influences that, generation after generation, it is difficult to pull together and share all that has been learned. In good times, this is remarkably enriching; at other times, it feels like this place is going to hell in a hand-basket.  Yet our forebears and all of us who are a part of Saint John's have stayed in relationship, stayed together in community, while things brand new, that no one is in charge of, are born.  For, after all, this story is not about us!

Let me illustrate this: 

·    Education began at Saint John's in the 1850s with an overwhelming focus on short term, very practical preparation for the world of commerce.  But in the 1920s and 30s the faculty shed those imperatives and remade Saint John's University into the four year residential liberal arts college that we know today. 

·    Not surprisingly, spirituality began at Saint John's with a pronounced focus on "devotions" and personal piety. But attention to the actual words and rituals of the Mass eventually changed Saint John's into one of the great seed-beds of the 20th century liturgical renewal, with its emphasis on community formation in Christ.

·    Saint John's began as one of many outposts of fortress Catholicism, bent on protecting the faithful from heresy.  But the experience of religious plurality, beginning awkwardly in every place where monks served, compelled Saint John's to make ecumenical and interfaith commitments that have helped renew Christians and people of faith throughout the whole world.

·         Saint John's began educating boys and men, doing it quite well.  But for the last 40 years we have been educating men in a coordinate relationship with a women's college -- gender has gone from being a mark of exclusion to our focus for liberal arts inquiry and the formation of undergraduate women and men, within a coordinate relationship unique in American higher education. 

·         For its first century, Saint John's at its advanced levels was a regional seminary for monks and clerics.  But beginning almost 50 years ago, and with a rush over the last decades, the SOT•SEM has become nationally significant, educating women and men -  lay, religious and clerical - for collaborative ministry and breaking new ground in pastoral renewal and the faith formation of the young.

·         We can never forget that the initial appeal of this place was that there were ample trees for lumbering, good moving water and sufficient land to grow much of the Saint John's community's food.  But over a century those classic activities of primary land usage gave way environmental stewardship programs serving our whole region.   

·         The first monks arrived with a number of rare and precious books, kept in a succession of cupboards in buildings of logs, stone, brick, then cement.  Learning to care for those rare books gave birth to the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, one of the great world-class projects for the preservation of ancient manuscripts, and - in the last decade - the establishment of Arca Artium, a remarkable collection focusing on printing and the art of the book. 

·    After Saint John's founding a few works of art made their way from Europe to be housed in simple prairie buildings.  Over time, a finely-honed creativity and aesthetic sense emerged within the heart of the community, expressed in painting, sculpture, printmaking, pottery and, of course, world-renowned architecture.

·         And, to wind up this reckoning, we first looked to the Bible largely for texts to prove the superiority of Catholicism.  Generations ago that focus shifted to serious theological study and to the savoring of scriptural texts in worship.  In the last years, the Bible has come to be the primary staple of a re-discovered, ancient form of monastic prayer called lectio, accessible to all, a major reason for the recent surge of guests.  And now the Saint John's Bible is being written by the foremost calligrapher in the Western world, one of the great artistic projects of our times, widely heralded and creating unexpected common ground for persons of faith throughout the entire world.   

All of this makes for a great story.  It is open-ended.  It is our story.  But it is NOT about us!  Monastic life in a new culture, residential liberal arts education, liturgical renewal, ecumenism, an unabashed reckoning with gender, collaborative ministry, cultural preservation, art and architecture, the Bible as inclusive tool for renewal and common purpose -- these signature characteristics of Saint John's were not present, full-blown, at the start of things.  They have been created because courageous people saw new needs in the broader world, most often anticipated them, endured opposition, and pulled together to make new things happen.  It is this tradition of transformation to meet the deepest needs of others that drives the story of Saint John's.  And that story is not over.

The demands of the next decades call the Saint John's story to deep and profound transformations, some of which we only dimly understand.  At every turn startling vistas for the enhancement of human life open up, borne by advances in technology and learning, manifest in new initiatives, transforming all sectors of human interchange - science, arts and letters; business and public service; education and human services.    

Yet human lives are torn apart by terrorism, warfare and violence.  Shocking disparities of wealth and education, nutrition and health abound across the globe and throughout our nation, nestling out of the sight of most of us, just down the road, in our own towns and cities.  Fear, injustice, racism and prejudice fracture common purpose, even in the midst of our greatest undertakings.  And massive climate changes embedded in virtually every dimension of our day-to-day life threaten in the next fifty years to diminish the very ecological systems and diversity of species essential to human life.

The pace and scope of change breaking in upon us is both exhilarating and enervating.  Some human lives are greatly enhanced, while many are degraded. The realm of human creativity expands, at the same time as the well-springs of memory are drained and imagination is converted into a commodity.  Wondrous dimensions of relationships and intimacy open up, while the communal and moral supports that sustain commitments erode.  And the individual hunger for spirituality and meaning is palpable, at the same time as durable communal traditions of teaching and practice that can sustain the life of the spirit are deeply discredited. 

The mission of Saint John's University is a simple one:  to renew the fabric of community from one generation to the next.  The "fabric of community" needs to be renewed in this time of deep, massive and unsettling change, lest we lose all that we most value.  Keeping faith with those who have gone before us, let us look with daring, wisdom and compassion at the deep, massive and unsettling changes of our age, and engage them for the sake our students and all who look to us with hope. 

Let us redouble our energies to ensure the excellence of Saint John's University, along with the College of Saint Benedict, as first-rate Catholic, residential, liberal arts colleges; the excellence of graduate theological education in the School of Theology•Seminary;  the excellence of the signature programs in arts and culture, the environment and spiritual renewal that make Saint John's unique in all of America.  Let us redouble our energies to ensure that these three precious arenas of Saint John's - the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Theology•Seminary, and our signature programs renewing the heart and the imagination - become the vehicles for a profound, open-hearted, lively engagement with the greatest hopes of this age and its most vexing challenges.

This is a tall order.  It is daunting to imagine what will be demanded of us.  It would perhaps be easier just to tend our monuments and tell stories of the past.  But Saint John's has never been wedded to what once was and dares not be so today.  We can create a stronger, renewed community of lay people, monks and religious; faculty, staff and students; alumni and friends - with plenty of new people in each category - committed to enhancing the lives of others in age of promise and great threat.  This is a great aspiration.  And it is possible to articulate because the story of Saint John's, its deepest trajectory, thank God, is not of our own making, nor ours to control. 

We can draw hope from blessed John XXIII who, as he was dying forty years ago, sought to comfort those who feared that the new vitality and hope they had come to know would perish along with him.  A frail John XXIII looked up from his bed, opened his hands and said, "The Catholic Church is made up of concentric circles, that are larger and larger, always larger."  Great stories do not end.  They grow more expansive, deeper, more inclusive.  Saint John's is one of those great stories, embedded in and carried along by that greater story to which John XXIII witnessed as he lay dying. 

 

For a time each of us is privileged to play a role in the story of Saint John's.  And our greatest response, that which must always live in our hearts and actions, must be gratitude.  Gratitude is all I can express tonight to each of you - the only worthy response to your encouragement and support, your love and your generosity, and to all that has been given to us by that great multitude whose beloved members have made our lives possible, who (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) now dwell on a "another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number."

 

It is so easy to take gratitude for granted.  We end times together, letters and conversations, gift-giving, with words of thanks, formulas often so commonplace that they threaten to detach from that which is within.  But in these early years of a new century and millennium, in a world of great promise - beset by dangers seeming beyond our capacity to tame or understand -  it might just be that only gratitude, etched deeply into every part of our minds and hearts, can stimulate the wisdom and strength, the common purpose, needed to continue the Saint John's story make it life-giving for the generations to come.  So, I extent my heart-felt thanks to all of you ... and I wish you God's abundant blessings! 

 

 Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB

  President