Benedictine Institute Essay Contest 2012


Matthew Palmquist

Benedictine Institute Essay Contest Winner


Who Knew?

"Even the best men go astray with words, when they are to express something very gentle and almost unutterable...if you have a love for insignificant things and seek, simply as one who serves, then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory in your innermost consciousness, wakefulness, and knowing." ~~Rainer Maria Rielke, 1903

I don't know what brought me to Saint John's. I was happy at home, a place where most kids don't leave. They might leave for the big city to study for a few years. But they return-a few years older and a few pounds heavier-to wander the small town streets and wait for the bars to open. Living in Smalltown, Minnesota was comfortable. But as time got closer to applying for school, I got this uncontrollable itch for more, to leave my happy square universe, and to be part of something greater.    

College has always been part of my life plan; I just never pictured where I'd be. I never think about the future like that-picturing where I'll be in "x" amount of years-because life's most predictable facet is its unpredictability, and trying to control unpredictability leads to disappointment. So I sent out the applications, and let hazard and chance choose for me, knowing that I would be happy wherever I ended up.

A few months later, glowing in the sunset, I was sitting at my favorite spot on top of the town's ski jump overlooking the coniferous forest to the South, the reservation lowlands to the West, and the glittering faded buildings to the North and East. I thought my last night at home would be a raucous celebration of this epic transition. But there was nothing. Only the late August breeze whistling over the canopy blowing through my hair, the setting sun, and the people starting their cars, some with their lights on, moving silently across the highway.

As it was, chance and hazard brought me to the edge of the prairie with a head full of doubt and a trunk full of junk. Living with the football players not only established that I was small for my age, but also that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. That year proved the college stereotype correct; drunken parties, sleepless nights, dumb decisions, and slow recoveries. Though I thought it was fun at first, it got old quickly, and by Christmas, I was desperate for a more meaningful experience.

School has taught me a tremendous amount of both useful and useless knowledge. For example, it taught me that despite having the freedom to drink on a school night and stay up late, it is not a good idea to do so when you have an 8:00 am the next day. I have learned about physics, metaphysics, biology, theology, and poetry, amongst other things. But my greatest and most profound experiences have not occurred in the classroom nor have they occurred out with friends roaming the city streets. They have occurred during my summer experiences here on campus.

Summertime at school moves slower and more quietly in the absence of loud drunkenness, cafeteria food, homework, roommates, classes, and other commitments. In the stillness, my spirituality is heightened, and I feel God more present in all things. I feel it when I reflect quietly by a campfire, or sit under a powerful Oak tree, or walk the outline of a wintery ridge at sunrise, or through a still arboretum's autumn midnight. St. Benedict wrote that "the disciple's part is to be silent and listen."  I was excited to get away from the small-town bustle and gossip to spend some alone and actually listen.

It started with the frustration of not getting my dream internship one summer. But, as life's unpredictability had it, I landed a job with the Saint John's Pottery Studio. I didn't know much about the studio, but the job description called for manual labor. I loved the idea of spending my summer chopping wood, digging holes, and milling lumber as a way to get away from the stress of school. I believe that the academic school year is for mental toughening, but the summers are about physical labor, working hard with your hands, and rejoicing in the results. The Rule says that "idleness is the enemy of the soul," and I can't imagine a more soul-enriching experience than waking up in the early morning sun before the heat and humidity weigh a body down, and chop wood for a few hours. But I didn't just do physical labor at the studio; I gradually learned there was a deeper, richer experience to be had there. Sitting by the tea table sharing tea in community, I learned about the studio's philosophy, its commitment to generational learning, community involvement, to the richness of life, and the need to ground our lives in the earth that sustains us.

The following summer, carrying the wonderful experience of the studio with me, I decided to follow my own passion and pursuit of God through labor and art through another on-campus job: the Abbey Woodworking Shop. I was inspired by the sepia toned pictures of monks proudly standing by their circle saws and planers. Most of my days in class are spent in the Quad, and I would look up at the exposed wooden beams which hold the floors together, and think about the monks who built such an impressive structure. As opposed to the loose, fluid days at the pottery studio, days at the woodshop were rigid, precise, and detailed. As opposed to clay, a material whose morphology is often part of a piece's beauty and evolves with both the potter and the kiln, if a piece of wood is not cut precisely at the correct length, width, and height, it will not work.

When I am in the shop with the distinct wood smell in the air, I think of autumn days in the arboretum reading beneath the shade of a thick white oak; I think about the stories that each tree has and the hands which have touched it as it has been felled, milled, dried, planed, jointed, ripped, glued, pressed, sanded, and eventually assembled the wood. And even though woodworking is about square angles and preciseness, I sense life's circularity in the process as this living material is transformed into a functional object. When I am finished with a project, I can once again read and feel the oak tree close to my skin, like a primal need for a natural embrace.

Those summers are truly what have made my experience here at school worthwhile. I came to this school with no expectations or knowledge of what I was getting myself into. I expected college to be a shuffle of parties and exams, but what I have experienced here has transcended and eclipsed those expectations. I have had the pleasure to know monks, each with a unique story and the greatest humility, with their heads bowed and eyes towards the ground, radiating peace. I never thought that the little Rule of St. Benedict book each freshman received his first day at school would be so elemental in my character development. Its ideals of community, silence, work, and meditation have provided a rhythm to my lifestyle, just like chopping wood or running the planer give my life a rhythmic balance. Life's unpredictability led me here for some reason and it has been a beautifully unexpected experience. It has given me a deep appreciation of the natural world, a strong sense of community, and a little paperback book that will continue to influence my life for years to come.