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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

Sustainability at Saint John’s*

July 11, 2017

The Feast of Saint Benedict, which we are celebrating today, provides a good opportunity to reflect on Saint John’s Abbey and University’s deep and longstanding commitment to sustainability, particularly in light of the ongoing discussions of climate policy in the United States and abroad.

Benedictine communities, of course, have been emphasizing self-sufficiency and sustainability for over 1500 years, though the situation for 21st century communities in an industrial era is rather different than that faced by the original monasteries in a pre-industrial world.

In 2007, Saint John’s President Dietrich Reinhart signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).  Saint John’s was a charter signatory, and we committed to a goal of becoming carbon neutral, meaning zero net emissions of carbon dioxide, by 2035. Two intermediate goals were set at the time to ensure continued progress: reduce emissions 15% by 2015 and 50% by 2030.  We also set up a process to measure our progress toward these goals.

The ACUPCC calls for a significantly more ambitious commitment to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions than anything envisioned in the Paris Climate Accord or any other international agreement.**  We have already made significant progress toward reducing our emissions, and we continue to stand by that commitment regardless of what is happening internationally.

The most recent Green House Gas Inventory was completed in 2014.  As of October 2014 Saint John’s had reduced carbon emissions by 57.76% compared to 2008 emission levels. This reduction is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,363 average American households.

We were able to accomplish this level of reduction through a number of major projects. The first occurred in October 2013 with a shift from burning coal in the Powerhouse, which is the primary source of heat on campus, to burning natural gas.  This reduced emissions at the Powerhouse by nearly 60%.

The second major project has been occurring over the last eight years with a significant investment by Saint John’s in solar energy. In 2009 Saint John’s Abbey and University partnered with Westwood Renewables, a Minnesota based solar company, to create the four-acre Abbey Solar Field which, at the time, was the largest ground mounted solar array in Minnesota.  This solar field produced 3.77% of annual electricity needs at Saint John’s. With the success of this first solar array, two additional installations were constructed in 2014 and 2017, for a total solar installation of over 27 acres.  At present, Saint John’s receives 18.75% of its annual electrical needs from solar energy.  This renewable energy source has reduced greenhouse gas emissions even further since 2014, though the exact reduction will not be calculated until our next Green House Gas Inventory, planned for later this year.

Smaller projects such as LED light upgrades, induction lights in the pool area, new temperature controls on the campus and general conservation efforts have also contributed to a reduced carbon footprint. Through these and multiple other efforts we are many years ahead of the ambitious goals set when Br. Dietrich signed the ACUPCC.

Rooted in Benedictine Tradition, Saint John’s Abbey and University have always had a focus on the good stewardship of resources.  Regardless of the political and policy storms that may be raging in the world beyond Collegeville, members of our community can be proud of our commitment and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.  Our actions communicate our commitment to protect and sustain both Saint John’s and our natural world for future generations.

Happy Feast of Saint Benedict!

Sincerely,
Michael Hemesath
SJU President

** The Paris Accord, for example, allowed each country to determine its own climate-action plan.  The United States’ plan set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2025.

Below are links for those who would like more information about sustainability at Saint John’s, including waste reduction, local sourcing of food and the Sustainable Revolving Loan Fund:

*  This letter was sent to the SJU/CSB community on 11 July 2017, the Feast of Saint Benedict.

By |July 19th, 2017|Categories: Economics, History|0 Comments

The Second Benedict Option

St. Benedict is trending.  Kind of hard to believe that in our 140-character social media world a 6th century monk would be of much interest. But, maybe if you survive 1600 years, you inevitably come back into fashion, and now seems to be one of those moments for St. Benedict.

My first clue was back on Valentine’s Day when New York Times columnist David Brooks made a reference to St. Benedict.  In a column entitled “How Should One Resist the Trump Administration?” Brooks wrote:

It could be that the primary threat

[from the Trump Administration] is stagnation and corruption. In this scenario, the Trump administration doesn’t create an authoritarian regime, but national politics turns into a vicious muck of tweet and countertweet, scandal and pseudoscandal, partisan attack and counterattack.

If that’s the threat, St. Benedict is the model for resistance. Benedict was a young Umbrian man who was sent to study in Rome after the fall of the empire. Disgusted by the corruption all around, he fled to the wilderness and founded monastic communities across Europe. If Rome was going to sink into barbarism, then Benedictines could lead healthy lives and construct new forms of community far from the decaying center.

If we are in a Benedict moment, the smart thing to do is to ignore the degradation in Washington and make your contribution at the state and local levels.  Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notices that some of the interns in her think tank are thinking along Benedictine lines. In years past they were angling for career tracks that would land them in Washington, but now they are angling to go back to the places they came from.

I found Brooks’ reference a little surprising.  Among the New York Times readers, I suspect that knowledge of Catholicism, even among its many Catholic readers, doesn’t typically extend to 6th century Italian saints or Benedictine monastic communities.  Despite being less than 500 years old, the Jesuits tend to get better press and draw the attention of Hollywood.

But Benedict is hot, in part due to new book by Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation that came out this month.  I have not read the book, but Brooks, a friend of Dreher, offers a mini-review and commentary in an eponymous column, “The Benedict Option.”  Brooks calls the book “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Dreher offers a critique of the modern Western culture and his proposed response, primarily but not exclusively for Christians.  Brooks describes Dreher’s thesis as follows:

Rod says it’s futile to keep fighting the culture war, because it’s over. Instead believers should follow the model of the sixth-century monk St. Benedict, who set up separate religious communities as the Roman empire collapsed around them.

The heroes of Rod’s book are almost all monks. Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith, he says. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.

Brooks’ initial “Benedictine possibility” was made in response to our polarized political life, while Dreher’s Benedict Option focuses more broadly on our cultural life.  Both suggest that St. Benedict would encourage those who are disaffected to retreat from political life or the cultural world into small, self-sustaining communities.

I do think this may be a possible Benedictine moment in our culture, but not for the reasons Brooks and Dreher hypothesize.

The Benedictine option can be critiqued from a variety of perspectives.  First, and probably most obvious, few people can or want to set themselves apart from their society, culture, families and homes. Even the monks that are my heroes are not interested in that.  The monks of Saint John’s Abbey are among the most worldly men I know and have been deeply immersed in the world throughout their long history, even as they have chosen to live in community in central Minnesota.  I wonder if Benedict himself, with his emphasis on work in addition to prayer, would encourage such segregation in the modern, post-agricultural era.

Second, setting a community apart for the sake of some utopian dream has a long and failed history.  From New Lanark in Scotland to Brook Farm in Massachusetts to New Harmony in Indiana, history is filled with communities brought down by the all-too-human frailties of their residents.  Even my favorite Benedictine monks would acknowledge that every human weakness is found within monastic walls. Escaping human society is well-nigh impossible unless you are the fictional Robinson Crusoe.

These brief critiques and others, however, should not suggest that St. Benedict does not have much to offer modern society, both in response to Brooks’ political concerns or Dreher’s cultural ones.  Over its 1600 year history, Benedictine teachings have been adapted to changing times and applied more widely than to monastic life, a point that does not seem to be acknowledged by Brooks or Dreher.

I would suggest that there is a Second Benedictine option that might be a more practical and powerful response to the challenges we face.  The Second Benedictine option is simply (or not so simply) to live a Benedictine life within the many communities – personal, professional, religious, geographic – we all occupy.

The Rule of St. Benedict does not offer a definitive description of a Benedictine life but offers guidance for how to live well within any community.  Benedictine Values are described on the website of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, with textual references to The Rule:

Benedictine Values

Awareness of God

To look for God not in the abstract but in the ordinary events of every day.
“We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.” R. B. 19

Community Living

To become who we are by our relationships with others.
“Let all things be common to all.” R. B. 33

Dignity of Work

To appreciate the dignity of work in God’s creation.
“…they live by the labor of their hands.” R. B. 48

Hospitality

To offer warmth, acceptance, and joy in welcoming others.
“Let all…be received as Christ.” R. B. 53

Justice

To work toward a just order in our immediate environment and in the larger society.
“…that in all things God may be glorified” R. B. 57

Listening

To hear keenly and sensitively the voices of persons and all created beings.
“Listen … with the ear of your heart.” R. B. Prologue

Moderation

To be content with living simply and finding balance in work, prayer, and leisure.
“All things are to be done with moderation.” R. B. 48

Peace

To strive for peace on all levels: with self, others, and God. R. B. Prologue

Respect for Persons

To respect each person regardless of class, background, or professional skill.
“No one is to pursue what is judged best for oneself, but instead, what is better for someone else.” R. B. 72

Stability

To cultivate rootedness and a shared sense of mission.
“To stand firm in one’s promises.” R. B. 58

Stewardship

To appreciate and to care lovingly for all the goods of this place.
“Regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” R. B. 31

Community living, hospitality, listening and respect for others seem particularly germane to the challenges raised by Brooks and Dreher, and all these values can be lived out in virtually any community.  The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University offer one example of how Benedictine values can shape a community, both during a four-year undergraduate experience and for a lifetime afterwards.

While our community is certainly not free from the foibles, weaknesses and sins inherent in any human endeavor, we do offer a realistic, lived example of Benedictine wisdom.  I’d welcome David Brooks or Rod Dreher to come visit us (I’ll cover the hospitality costs) to see how a Second Benedictine Option might provide the practical basis for a more civil political and cultural life for all of us.

By |March 21st, 2017|Categories: History|4 Comments