Saint John’s: A Thin Place

The sense of place at Saint John’s is what drew many of us here.  I have had dozens of alumni tell me that they got on campus and just knew this was the right place for them to live and study.

We still consider a campus visit an essential part of recruiting Johnnies (and no small number of Bennies).  Alumni and parents come back to campus often simply to re-visit the beauty and experience the reinvigorating ethos of this place.

It is always a pleasure to welcome visitors to campus, especially those who have not visited before.  Invariably they comment on the beauty of the place—both natural and manmade—and how well-maintained the grounds and buildings are.

As someone lucky enough to live and work here, I thought I had a very good sense of Saint John’s and its beauty, but this summer a guest to campus offered an insight that made me look at this place with new eyes.

Dennis Turner, Wikimedia Commons

A non-alum friend of one of the monks was here for an event in June.  He told the monk how much he always enjoyed visiting because he considered Saint John’s to be “a thin place.”  The monk was not immediately familiar with the reference.  His friend said the term came from Celtic spirituality and “described a place where heaven and earth are very close, where the veil between here and above is thin.”  The Celts used it to describe, among other places, the western Scottish isle of Iona, where St. Columba brought Christianity from his native Ireland.

I liked the description and did a little more searching and found the following description of a thin place:

In the Celtic tradition, a “thin pace” is the place where the veil that separates heaven and
earth is nearly transparent. It is a place where we experience a deep sense of God’s presence
in our everyday world. A thin place is where, for a moment, the spiritual world and the natural
world intersect.

I trust for many alumni and friends of Saint John’s, this is one of their thin places.

Courtesy: An Oblate of Saint John’s Abbey, June 2016

By |August 3rd, 2017|Categories: Alumni, History|0 Comments

Across Generations: Mike and Ramond

Most Johnnies naturally have their closest relationships with classmates and those within a couple years either side of their graduation year.  Yet it is also true that many Johnnies have found that the Saint John’s experience is powerfully transferable across time.  Whether they meet a current student or an older alum, the typical Johnnie finds an almost immediate connection with current students or other alumni because of the shared connection to Collegeville and the educational experience here.  It can be knowledge of the same professors, the shared Benedictine values, a connection to a favorite monk, love of Johnnie athletics, a shared love of the natural beauty of the campus or any one of a dozen other things that make the Johnnie experience unique.

I was reminded of this powerful intergenerational connection between Johnnies as I observed the relationship between an alumnus coming up on his 50th Reunion and a 2017 graduate.  Mike Scherer will celebrate Reunion with his 1967 classmates this June 23-25, and Ramond Mitchell received his Bachelor’s Degree in Theology a few weeks ago.

They met initially when Ramond served as the student representative on the Building and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees.  Mike was Chair of that committee, and he took Ramond under his wing, orienting him regarding B&G Committee issues and serving as a mentor.  Coincidentally, around the time they met, Ramond served as a student host when Mike’s grandson, Sam, visited campus.  (Ramond must have done a good job, as Sam is now a junior at SJU.)

But the relationship grew deeper as these two men came to enjoy time together beyond committee meetings.  Ramond is from the Bahamas and was not always able to travel home on breaks.  Mike and his wife, Sue, invited Ramond to spend time with them at their home in Wayzata.  Coincidentally, Sue had connections to the Bahamas from her time serving as a volunteer nurse, so she and Ramond had a shared love of the islands and their culture.  This year during the annual CSB and SJU alumni visit to the Bahamas, Mike and Sue went along, and Ramond arranged for them to meet and spend time with his mother and sister.

Earlier this spring Mike and Sue ensured that Ramond’s mom was in Collegeville for Mom Prom.  When Commencement Week rolled around, Mike and Sue hosted Ramond’s mom, sister, grandmother and a close family friend for a week—introducing them to the delights of Minnesota, like the Twin Cities and the Mall of America, and providing transportation to Collegeville where they all witnessed Ramond’s graduation together.

Though Mike and Ramond’s friendship may be slightly atypical given their ages and places of origin, it is but one example of the relationships that have grown out of a shared Johnnie experience.  If you have other stories of the power of Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s to build unique friendships, I’d enjoy hearing about them.

Mike Scherer will receive the 2017 Walter Reger Distinguished Alumnus Award at Reunion this summer, June 23-25.

Ramond Mitchell gave the 2017 Saint John’s University Student Commencement address.

By |May 31st, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

The Secret Ingredient: Benedictine Stability

Virtually every Johnnie has had the experience.  At work or at play, you describe something about your time at SJU or something you did with a Bennie friend or how some Johnnie helped you out (or vice versa), and your non-Johnnie listener will say, “What is it with you Johnnies and Bennies?  I went to X (some other good liberal arts school), and I care about my alma mater, but you guys LOVE SJU and stay so tight even after you graduate.  Is there something in the water up there?”

That is a question that I have given a lot of thought to, both before I came back to my alma mater to work and certainly in the last five years as I have become even more deeply engaged with our amazing alumni community.

Every Johnnie has his own story and for each of us there is likely a constellation of factors that bind us to each other and to this place, but the more I have considered this, the more important I think the Benedictine value of stability is to binding so many of us to this place.

Fr. Mark Thamert ’73, SOT ’79, OSB

Among the things that tie alumni to their alma maters are the relationships they have with those they met and knew as students.  Obviously their personal friendships with classmates are most important, but relationships with faculty, staff and work supervisors are central as well.  When alumni return to campus for reunions or other visits, they often seek out the adults who played a formative role in their undergraduate experience, particularly faculty.  As the years pass, however, ties to the campus naturally weaken as faculty and staff move to new jobs or retire or die, and visits become more about nostalgia rather than reconnecting to a living person who both knew and knows the alumni.

At Saint John’s there is an additional special aspect to alumni ties that cannot be overstated: monks.  All students have some interaction with members of the monastic community during their four years, either as a faculty resident, faculty member, work supervisor or in extra-curricular activities like campus ministry.  This means that when returning to campus after graduation, alumni often seek out members of the monastic community to reconnect.  What makes these relationships special and unique is the stability of monastic life.  Monks at Saint John’s (and other Benedictine monasteries) take a vow of stability which commits them to this community and this place for the rest of their lives.  They often work or study in other places, but they always come back to Collegeville.  This is where they will retire, this is where they will die, and this is where they will be buried.

So when alumni come back to Saint John’s, there is almost always someone on campus who knew them—even if only in passing, but often more deeply.  This link can connect a Johnnie to Saint John’s for a longer time than most educational institutions, often a whole lifetime.  In close, lifelong friendships with the monastic community, a Johnnie is known from his youth through middle age and beyond, with all the life changes, disappointments, challenges and joys.  And the alum often knows the monk through his working life, into retirement, through aging and even unto death.

All of this has been on my mind recently as the community at Saint John’s has witnessed the very public dying of a beloved monk and faculty member.  Fr. Mark Thamert, OSB, ’73 and SOT ’79 died of stomach cancer on April 29th and was buried in the Abbey cemetery last Saturday.  He had been sick for three years and decided to stop all treatments earlier this year.

While he was no longer teaching in the classroom, he did not stop living in the community.  He met with colleagues, visited with alumni and friends, and gave public presentations, including a powerful Lunch and Learn for the Benedictine Institute where he offered his insights on dying.

He shared some of his favorite poetry and observed, “All these poems are now different to me.  They mean something different as I approach God, as I approach the threshold.”

He found a similar experience in his relationships:

This last chamber, this last room I’ve entered, was every bit as much a mystery as dying itself.  You have no idea what these last days, these last weeks are going to be – and they’ve been amazing.  My relationships have all changed. Almost all of them have intensified, and have become beautiful beyond all expectation.

And he asked a favor of us as his end neared:

I want you guys to be the send-off party for me.  I can picture it like a football stadium or something running through and handing me off to the Divine.

Fr. Mark’s students, some of whom were at the lunch and many others who came back to visit him in his last months, would never have been able to share in the beauty, grace and courage of his dying without the Benedictine vow of stability that kept him in this place, where his relationships could be sustained and nurtured over decades.

These rare relationships with members of our Benedictine community are among the secret ingredients that make Saint John’s such a special place.

I encourage alumni to take advantage of this stability.  If you know a monk in the health center or living in the monastery, do not hesitate to drop in to visit.  They may or may not remember you, but you were a part of their lives and they are a part of yours.

By |May 12th, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments