Students and Teachers and the Benedictine Way

by Dr. Hilary Thimmesh, OSB

Sister Emmanuel Renner, Sister Mary Reuter, and Abbot John Klassen have written "Catholic, Benedictine Values in an Educational Environment," a 24-page essay that is being widely discussed on our campuses. Environment is a key word in their title. They highlight the moral climate you can expect on a monastic campus: inner awareness of God's presence, respect-even reverence-for one another, a sense of the common good, a shared sense of mission, stability and frugality as key conditions for growth and stewardship.

That is a sketchy summary of a few main ideas in their paper. I mention it to recommend it, but also to note that the monastic tradition yields further values that have a bearing on how and why we learn and teach.

You can, for instance, think of the contemplative dimension of monastic life. What does contemplation mean for students and teachers? Thoughtful? Not superficial? Focused? Poets are contemplative. They see things closely. "I'll tell you how the Sun rose-" says Emily Dickinson, "A Ribbon at a time-." People of a contemplative bent sense the weight and texture of things. "We believe that the Divine presence is everywhere," says Benedict. "Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices." It's a good rule for thinkers, whether lecturing or discussing or writing: to respect the mind-one's own, one's listeners'-and the power to express oneself thoughtfully. Philosophers, mathematicians, political scientists, every discipline and field of learning can find a home and encouragement in this fundamental monastic quality.

Peace. Monasteries traditionally foster peace. Many have the motto "Pax" at the front door. In the monastic context, peace is not a passive condition. It doesn't happen because for the moment nobody is angry at anybody. It doesn't result from the absence of contention. Rather it is the result of constructive forces in society: people working together, accepting a shared mission, or, more accurately, accepting their individual roles in a cooperative endeavor. Peace doesn't just happen. It is built by people taming their impulse to self-aggrandizement with a healthy humility. Peace is the result of teaching, health care, social work, the administration of justice. Monasteries model such forces in care for their own elderly and infirm, for visitors, retreat makers, students.

Benedictines traditionally sought to maintain their communities by their own efforts as far as possible. Doing so manifested a positive attitude toward work. "When they live by the labor of their hands," says Benedict, "then they are really monks." In our culture this principle translates into a responsible approach to meeting one's own needs and the needs of others in our care. It does not disdain doing the ordinary tasks that keep a place in good running order, whether it's making the soup or doing the laundry or scrubbing the bathroom. It values skill at every level of achievement and takes delight in the accomplishments of others. It is not competitive; rather, cooperation gets high marks. So does sufficiency, or rather the ability to recognize when one has enough.

These are a few central characteristics of Benedictine life-call them values if you will-that easily translate into values for students and teachers wherever they may be, but that are particularly persuasive in a Benedictine environment.