January 15, 2009
Reflection by MaryAnn Baenninger, president of the College of Saint Benedict,
at Memorial Service for Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB
Jan. 15, 2009
Saint John's Abbey Church
I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--
Of Visitors--the fairest--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—
Back in early 2004, before my life included monks, and when I barely knew Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, I got a call from my new colleague, Br. Dietrich Reinhart, inviting himself to visit us at our home in Pennsylvania for a few days. Our house faced, in the back, to a fairly steep hill with terraces on it—the hill was a mountain from a Minnesotan perspective, and as I later found out, from Dietrich’s own perspective. The first morning after Dietrich arrived, forgetting momentarily that we had an overnight guest--I woke up to this vision outside of my back window. On one of the terraces on the hill, there was this ethereal figure in the morning mist striking odd, Asian-looking poses. This was my introduction to Dietrich, and to Tai Chi. I was later surprised to find that the Abbey grounds are not every morning filled with Tai-Chi-ing monks.
Dietrich saw possibilities at every turn, and he made something out of our ordinary back yard that I hadn’t seen before. I later heard him describe our Pennsylvania home to someone as “a mountain with a forest on it.” This appreciation of the ordinary and trust in the possible is something I learned from Dietrich and grew to expect from him. In his last months, the idea of “the possible” became something of a theme in our conversations.
“Can we switch gears for a minute?” Do you recognize that phrase? I want to talk about Dietrich’s love of history, particularly CSB/SJU history. As you know, Dietrich was an historian both as a scholar and in his approach to everyday life. I expect that the archives of his presidency are neater and more ordered than those of any college president--ever. Countless times during our presidency he would press into my hand or my email inbox this or that archival report or white paper about something the colleges had done or deliberated through in the past. He wanted me to have the historical perspective. And I was impatient with that at first because before I got to really know him, I thought he wanted to move back to the past.
I learned that Dietrich’s intent was quite the opposite. He didn’t want to us to get sidetracked down roads we had traveled before, and he wanted us to know what the roadblocks were before we stumbled upon them again. Yet there were times when I was the one who insisted that we revisit an old issue or try something again. Dietrich would agree, saying, “it’ll be different with you here, you’ll see, it will be grand.” While he was showing trust in me, I know he exhibited that generosity of spirit to all of his Saint Ben’s president colleagues, and he did it time and time again. What he was really showing is trust in the possible.
As I traveled the country colleagues would ask what is it like working with a president who has been in office for 15-16-17 years? If they didn’t know Dietrich, they assumed that my colleague would be burnt out, jaded, indifferent. My reply was always the same.
I expressed my hope that if I have the opportunity to serve even half as long as he, I could demonstrate such vigor, such interest, such energy and hope for the future, and such deep abiding love as Dietrich had for these communities—his beloved brothers, the sisters, his faculty and staff colleagues, and of course, the students.
From our selfish perspective in the undergraduate colleges, Dietrich’s greatest “dwelling in the possible” was the imagination and sustenance of the coordinate relationship, and his belief that Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s truly are special and offer a unique and unparalleled experience for our students. It is hard sometimes to nurture such a delicate and complicated system. Dietrich always kept his eye on the possible and I have no doubt that the future of these great institutions will be sustained largely through Dietrich’s contributions. I’m humbled by the responsibility to carry on his legacy.
As Dietrich would say, “I’m just thinkin’ out loud here,” but I’ve been reflecting for the past few months about the gifts Dietrich has brought to our lives. Foremost amongst them is the gift of encouraging us to “dwell in possibility” to imagine Paradise, and to embrace it with grace, humor, gentleness, and enduring hope. I wish these for each of us.
As Dietrich said, or wrote -- and most importantly meant -- thousands of times, “Peace” and “God Bless.”