Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

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

Leaving a Mark, Making a Mark*

New York Times columnist David Brooks has long been interested in character and the process by which individuals develop their character.  He wrote a whole book on the topic called The Road to Character.

In a recent column, he explores the topic from a slightly different angle.  He explores the characteristics of institutions that, as he writes, “leave a mark on people.”  What kinds of institutions “become part of a person’s identity and engage the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul”?

Multiple Johnnie alumni sent me a link to this column, all saying that as they read it they had immediately thought of Saint John’s because it is an institution that left a mark on them.  In my job as president, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to meet many hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Johnnies.  What so many of these alumni tell me, either explicitly or through the lives they lead, is that Saint John’s left an indelible a mark on them—one that lasts a lifetime.

As you seniors get ready to finish your undergraduate experience at this rare and exceptional place, my fervent hope for you, and the wish of Johnnie alumni everywhere, is that this place has left a mark on you that will be a powerful part of your character in the years ahead and throughout your life.

Obviously each of you has had your own unique Saint John’s experience, but I would suggest that there are three consistent ways in which Saint John’s University marks its graduates, characteristics by which the world recognizes a Johnnie and maybe even expects from a Johnnie.

  1. Johnnies have each other’s backs.  This is probably the most well-known aspect of the Johnnie character and it is closely connected to the success of the famous Johnnie network.  With a mixture of wonder and respect, alums from other schools often remark on Johnnies’ loyalty to SJU and to each other.  At an admissions event, I asked the mother of a prospective student why her son was interested in Saint John’s.  She told me that she knew many Johnnies through her work and that they were all good guys that looked out for each other.  Her son wanted to be part of a community like that, and she wanted that for her son.
  2. Johnnies stand for something more than themselves.  This is not to suggest that Johnnies are purely selfless, but rather that they combine their own self-interest with a commitment to something more, something bigger.  It can be a commitment to their community, to their families, to their churches or even to their alma mater (as is true of so many alums in this room).  As Brooks describes it, those marked by institutions like SJU have characters in which “selfishness and selflessness marry,” to benefit the Johnnie and his community.
  3. Johnnies live out the Benedictine teaching of respect for all individuals.  The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that we are to treat all as Christ—to respect the dignity and worth of every person.  On campus we famously hold doors for each other as a small, daily reminder of the value of every individual.  In the world beyond Collegeville, Johnnies treat co-workers, acquaintances and strangers with that same respect and courtesy that our shared humanity demands.  This way of being in the world is even more important in a time of political polarization, where we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other and civilly engage on matters of politics and social policy.  Respectful Johnnies may, in some small way, help bridge these divides.

(courtesy of Sean Donohue)

Finally, as you leave Saint John’s as “marked men,” that is not the end of the story.  In fact, it is really only the beginning.  The faculty, staff, monks, fellow alums and your peers who all played a part in this process of making you a Johnnie expect one more thing from you.  We expect you to make your own mark in the world–to bring your Johnnie character to bear in all that you do, personally and professionally.

The world is a better place for having more Johnnies in it, and we look forward to seeing the fruits of the Class of 2017’s dreams, endeavors and successes in the years ahead.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

*A version of this was given at the 2017 Senior Dinner.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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