Reflection by William Cahoy, School of Theology Dean

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January 15, 2009

Reflection by William Cahoy, dean of the School of Theology•Seminary,
at Memorial Service for Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB
Jan. 15, 2009
Saint John's Abbey Church

We gather here today to remember, honor and celebrate Br. Dietrich Reinhart—President, Colleague, Friend, Brother, Monk.  Dietrich took special delight (we shouldn’t really say pride for monks) in being a monk in this community.  It shaped him and his work deeply.  He also loved being an educator.  He loved students and cherished the thought that he and this place to which he devoted his life might enrich the lives of students--your lives.  He once said “It is a great life’s work to teach, mentor and befriend the young” (or in the case of some of our School of Theology students, the not-so-young).  That was his life’s work and he knew how blessed he was to be able to do it.

I would like to reflect here on that work of Br. Dietrich, primarily as monk and president, in light of that familiar reading from Matthew.  It’s part of the Christmas story and was the Gospel two Sundays ago for the feast of the Epiphany:  the manifestation of God.   But why at a Memorial Service for Br. Dietrich?

Well, for one thing, Dietrich was a wise man from the East:  Minneapolis.  For another, these Magi, as they are traditionally called, got that name because people thought they knew magic.  For those of us who worked with him, some of Dietrich’s schemes sometimes seemed a little like magic.  But, fun as it might be, that’s not the direction I want to go.  Instead, I would like to think about that star and about following and leading.

At heart, Br. Dietrich was a monk and at heart a monk is one who seeks God in a particular way.  These Magi, these wise men, like all wise men and women, I would say, were also seeking God.  They tracked the movement of the stars to discover how God was at work in the world.  When they saw this star, they decided it would lead them to the new King of the Jews, so they left home and set out to see this new thing God was doing.  Though the star illuminated their journey, they were not sure where it would take them or what they would find.  But they went.  It was not easy.  They had to make their way across the desert and then had to deal with Herod.  But they followed to the end and “were overwhelmed with joy,” finding God at work in the world in a new and unexpected way. 

This is the story of all of us as human, and in a particular way as Christians.  This was Dietrich’s story as he sought God as a monk.  It was not always easy.  It rarely is.  It may have had some desert stretches and maybe even a Herod here and there but there were also times of great joy.  He stayed on the journey to the end, finding God at work in unexpected ways and unexpected places all along the way.  The journey is as much the Epiphany as the arriving.

But the end did illuminate the whole in a profound way.  When his diagnosis was clear and he knew his days were likely to be few, Dietrich recorded some powerful reflections on his CaringBridge site—teaching, mentoring, befriending until the end.  He wrote that he realized in a new way that everything he’d experienced since his original melanoma 20 years earlier, had been a grace.  He said “I have never felt so surrounded by love.  This is the most grace-filled time in my life.  … an unending source of hope and well-being at the core of my being—pure gift.”  And my favorite: “Something wondrous is afoot.  I just can’t see it yet.”

At the end of his journey, this monk, this God-seeker, found God at work in surprising ways with an Epiphany, a promise, of something yet more wondrous to come.

But the reason so many of us are gathered here for this memorial is not simply because of Dietrich the monk but because in the course of his journey this monk became President.  Here too, the story of the Magi is helpful.  At the heart of his leadership, I suspect at the heart of all true leading, is following.  Just as the Magi saw that star and followed it, Dietrich had a vision for Saint John’s—what it was and what it could be—and he followed it through thick and thin.  It was because of that vision and because of his commitment to follow it and his ability to communicate it that he could lead so effectively.

But the story of the Magi—and of Br. Dietrich’s leadership—is about more than just seeing the star.  Vision is necessary—an irreplaceable beginning—but the story is also about hard work, persistence, courage.  No offense to Mr. Cricket or Mr. Disney, but this star is not about wishing.  Wishing does not make it so.  Wishing does not get you to Bethlehem.  Wishing is not Leadership.

No, this star calls us to action:  to leave home, to venture out of our comfort zone into strange lands, perhaps even some uncharted territory, and to raise the suspicions of the powers that be—at home as well as in Jerusalem.  From the start and at hundreds of points along the way it would have been so easy, so tempting, so reasonable, to say, “Nyaaah, let’s just stay home, have a beer, sit out on the deck, and watch that star of wonder—and maybe make a wish or two.”

We all know how easy that is—and how hard it is to actually move and make things happen.  Br. Dietrich knew it too.  His gift to Saint John’s, to us all, as president, is that more often than not he overcame that inertia, pushing himself and the rest of us to move towards that vision.  His vision and his faithful following of it was the key to his leadership and his legacy.

May our memorial be not just this beautiful service and a few tears, but the service of lives lived in search of God, lives lived with vision, persistence and courage in things large and small.  If we can do that, then the great work of this place he loved and led—“to teach, mentor and befriend”—will shine truly—one generation to the next—and we may each come to our own Epiphany, discovering God at work in surprising ways.