On Kilian's 90th


Patrick Henry
September 17, 2011


Yesterday Kilian turned 90, a remarkable milestone that is the occasion for our gathering.  But there is another marker that deserves celebration.  Measuring from August 24, 1946, when Kilian made his first profession as a Benedictine, today is the 23,766th day that Kilian has been seeking God after a monastic manner of life at Saint John's Abbey.  What Kilian has accomplished as scholar, teacher, ecumenical visionary, and poet can be traced back to, and is held together by, Kilian the monk.

Kilian's lifetime thus far is bracketed by two Benedicts.

On April 30, 1921, just four and a half months before Kilian was born, Pope Benedict XV issued an encyclical on Dante to professors and students of literature and learning in the Catholic world.  September 14th of that year marked the 600th anniversary of Dante's death.  The pope says of the author of the Divine Comedy, "while he did not neglect any branch of human learning, at the same time he drank deeply at the founts of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers," and "his great glory [is] to be the Christian poet, to have sung with divine accents those Christian ideals which he so passionately loved in all the splendor of their beauty, feeling them intimately and making them his life."[1]

It is no slight to Kilian to say he doesn't quite match up to Dante (who does?).  It is not far-fetched, however, to say that 75 years after Pope Benedict's praise of Dante, Kilian, who had studied many branches of human learning-as he says in a poem, "(I, too, have been to the Uffizi, / read Dostoevski, Yeats)"[2]-and spent decades drinking deeply at the founts of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers, was touched by the great Florentine's spirit as he read a poem in The New Republic, said to himself, "I think I can do as well,"[3] and began singing with divine accents Christian ideals he felt intimately, ideals that he had made his life through those thousands upon thousands of days as a monk.  And Kilian actually hints that he felt this touch.  He calls Dante "one of my anchors in the tradition,"[4] and in a poem that links the art of writing and the art of dying, Kilian says this: "Weep, bleed again, curb the breezy / me, dramatize, come not unhinged. / Dante walks out of hell unsinged."[5]

On Christmas Day 2005, eight and a half decades after Benedict XV's encyclical on Dante, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical, about the love of God, the love that God is, that "Mary has truly become the mother of all believers.  Men and women of every time and place have recourse to her motherly kindness . . . .  They constantly experience the gift of her goodness and the unfailing love which she pours out from the depths of her heart."[6]  One of the most astonishing ecumenical reversals is the role of Mary in doctrine and piety. 

When Kilian was but a lad, and even well into his career, most Protestants thought Catholic Marian devotion idolatry.  Kilian has lived to see his regard for the Mother of God embraced, if not fully, at least ungrudgingly, by a wide spectrum of Christians.  This development, one that nobody in 1921 would have dreamed of, is due in no small part to the kind of ecumenical pioneering that Kilian demonstrated from the time he started his doctoral studies.  And Mary as exemplar of the church, indeed as one of its premier theologians, is nowhere better portrayed than in Kilian's poem about the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus mildly rebukes his mother, and then, when the water is turned into wine, Mary says, "I wonder: if a hundred and twenty / gallons is the measure of extravagance / at the beginning of glory, / what will be the end?"[7]


n the time between the XVth and XVIth Benedicts, the saint whose name they both chose played a major role in the U-turn the churches made, from coming apart to coming together.  It is through the efforts of Saint Benedict's sons and daughters, Kilian pre-eminent among them-their scholarship, their leadership, their dogged, unflagging engagement in dialogues that sometimes seemed to go nowhere, or even backwards-that much of the ecumenical progress of the past century has happened, progress sealed by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical where he reaffirmed the Second Vatican Council's irrevocable commitment to ecumenism.[8]

The Benedictines come by their ecumenical passion honestly.  Several features of the Rule of Benedict, which has so profoundly shaped Kilian for nearly 24,000 days, make it a charter for ecumenism.[9]

  • The lattice-work of biblical citation in the Rule is enough to gratify any Protestant, but the Rule goes beyond a catalogue of biblical passages to catch a biblical accent, captured in images rather than in categories.  Kilian, noting that Walt Whitman called the Bible "the fountainhead of song," goes on to say that "monastic life was built on the poetry, poetic narrative, and poetic imagination of the scriptures."[10]  In its biblical overtones and undertones, the Rule resonates with the most influential ecumenical document of the 20th century, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, published in 1982 by the World Council of Churches.
  • The monastery is primarily a family, only secondarily an institution.  It is a place where people live together, not always in peace, but always in the conviction that they are in it mutually for the long haul, for better or for worse, and that they need each other even when they cannot stand each other.  Kilian, meditating on the headstones in the monastic cemetery, conjures up the monks "who toiled in song, / spun in penitence, / fighting with me, / for me, against me, / but gathered in praise, / dwelling in unity."[11]  As the World Council of Churches declared in its founding Assembly at Amsterdam in 1948-an event orchestrated by Bob Bilheimer, whom Kilian would later credit as the second founder of the Collegeville Institute-"We intend to stay together."[12]
  • Prayer is at the heart of monasticism, and the Psalms are the heart of that prayer.  Praying the Psalms every day, Benedictines are reminded regularly of spiritual concerns far beyond their own immediate worries, and of varieties not only of religious experience but also of religious obedience: the confident, the despairing, the joyful, the sorrowing, the content, the angry, the king, the commoner-all these and many more live side by side in the Psalter and acknowledge each other's place in the people of God.  Kilian hints at this universalizing character of the Psalter when he writes, "This experience I share with everyone, including non-monastics, who take the quest for God seriously and make prayer part of the rhythm of the day."[13]
  • Hospitality is the hallmark.  Reminiscing about the founding of the Collegeville Institute, Kilian wrote in 1989, "No ecumenism is possible without real human relationships of trust and friendship, and those you do not build in a day."[14]  In my years at the Institute what I heard most often from resident scholars and summer consultation participants was amazement at how welcome they were made to feel at Saint John's and Saint Benedict's.  The Rule says that keeping the Liturgy of the Hours is the only thing to be preferred to the showing of hospitality to guests, and guests may come invited-or uninvited, unannounced, inconvenient.  One reason the Benedictines are such good hosts is that they know who they are.  The guest is not a threat to their identity.

The Rule of Benedict is a handbook, a field guide, a companion for those on the ecumenical quest.   With unselfconscious ease and naturalness, the Rule weaves the biblical revelation into the texture of everyday community and individual life.  The church is family first, and institution only in so far as it must be.  Prayer is at the heart of everything.  Hospitality is of the essence of the gospel life, not a social nicety to be indulged when schedules and resources permit.

Kilian and his confreres established the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research.  If they were to be faithful to the Rule of their Holy Father Benedict, they could hardly have done otherwise.


f there is a limit to the wisdom stored up in the Rule of Benedict, I certainly haven't found it yet, and I don't think anybody has.  I believe there are two keys to its inexhaustibility.  One is the first word: "Listen."  In other words, there is always something new to learn or, as Kilian articulates in what I consider his most brilliant image, worthy of Dante: "All our truths need / bungee cords."[15]  The other key is in the last chapter, where Benedict asks his followers to "keep this little rule that we have written for beginners."[16]  If the Benedictine does everything in the Rule-with "eager purity and weary virtue," as Kilian memorably puts it in his poem, "The monks of Saint John's file in for prayer"[17]-the most he or she can claim is to have made a start.

It is not, I think, a breach of humility to say that the Collegeville Institute in its 44 years, Kilian in his 23,766 days, Saint John's Abbey in its 155 years, Saint Benedict's Monastery in its 154 years, Saint John's University in its 154 years, the College of Saint Benedict in its 98 years, and the entire company of Benedictine men and women throughout a millennium and a half, have all made a pretty good beginning.


[1] "In Praeclara Summorum," http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xv/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_30041921_in-praeclara-summorum_en.html, chs. 3 and 9.

[2] "Don't Look Too Carefully," in Kilian McDonnell, OSB, Swift, Lord, You are Not (Collegeville: Saint John's University Press, 2003), p, 25.

[3] "Poet: Can you start at seventy-five?" Swift, Lord, You Are Not, p. 106.

[4] "A poet in the monastery: I do not tell 'noble lies,'" in Kilian McDonnell, OSB, Yahweh's Other Shoe (Collegeville: Saint John's University Press, 2006), p. 108.

[5] "Ars Scribendi / Ars Moriendi," Yahweh's Other Shoe, p. 1.

[6] "Deus Caritas Est," http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est_en.html, ch. 42.

[7] "The Ignorant Mary at Cana," Yahweh's Other Shoe, p. 26.

[8] "Ut Unum Sint," http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25051995_ut-unum-sint_en.html, ch. 3

[9] The four following features are a selection from, and condensation of, points I originally made in "Rule of Benedict: Charter for Ecumenism," The Scriptorium (Saint John's Abbey, 1985), pp. 28-40; also published in a slightly different form in Mid-Stream: The Ecumenical Movement Today, 32/1 (January 1993), pp. 59-69.

[10] "A poet in the monastery: I do not tell 'noble lies,'" Yahweh's Other Shoe, p. 105.

[11] "My Funeral," Swift, Lord, You Are Not, p. 75

[12] http://archives.oikoumene.org/query/Detail.aspx?ID=40913; also Robert S. Bilheimer, Breakthrough:The Emergence of the Ecumenical Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Geneva, WCC Publications, 1989), pp. 65-69 ("Engineering Ecumenical Events"); and Kilian McDonnell, OSB, "Twenty Years After," Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers (newsletter of the [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research), May 1987, p. 3.

[13] "A poet in the monastery: I do not tell 'noble lies,'" Yahweh's Other Shoe, p. 115.

[14] "Before the Beginning," Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers, November 1989, p. 2.

[15]  "Then It is Finished, Done?" Swift, Lord, You Are Not, p. 26

[16] RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1981), Prologue 1, p. 157; 73:8, p. 297.

[17] In Swift, Lord, You Are Not, p. 80.