Thursday, April 23, 2009

St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville

I spent most of the week after Easter at the Conference for Benedictine formation directors, held at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN.

The trip there was only mildly arduous, involving an overnight stay in New York City with one of my oldest friends in OHC, Fr. Carl Sword. Carl has been a psychotherapist practicing in NYC for many years, and like me, for many years a monk not in residence. I was up and out early on Tuesday morning and took the airport shuttle bus from outside Grand Central Terminal to La Guardia. The Northwest (becoming Delta) flight to Minneapolis was uneventful. At the gate for the connecting flight to St. Cloud I found Fr. Aelred Glidden, the Prior and Novice Master from St. Gregory’s in Three Rivers, MI, and Fr. Joel Rippinger, our conference leader. Fr. Joel is a well-known Benedictine scholar whose specialty is the history of the monastic movement in North America. He is the author of the standard history of American Benedictine communities, and is a monk of Marmion Abbey in Aurora, IL. The flight to St. Cloud lasts about 11 minutes, shorter than its attendant preparation and debarkation procedures. The flight steward was humorous throughout in the best self-deprecating Lake Woebegone, MN, fashion. Jokes about the flight to and from Minneapolis and the St. Cloud airport are de rigueur at St. John’s.

We were met by Br. Paul Richards, the Novice Master at St. John’s. Last summer, Br. Paul finished a 20-some year stint as director of the boys’ choir associated with St. John’s schools, and took up his new work at the same time I did. I sat up front in the van and had the opportunity to talk with him at length. He took us the scenic way. I had never been in Minnesota before, but it looked a lot like I remember the area around Lansing from my Michigan State days – flat to low rolling countryside, patches of woods and occasional wet areas. The campus of St. John’s is very large, encompassing farmlands and St. John’s University. The monastery is only a small part of it, forming a bridge between the Church and the University buildings.

The Church is enormous, looming over everything. Designed by Marcel Breuer and built in the 1950's, it is resolutely mid-20th century modern, representing I suppose an ecclesiastical version of brutalism in its style. The famous front is dominated by the campanile wall. I had seen pictures of it, but had no idea of it as a functioning building nor of its relation to its surroundings. After four days of worship in it I found it a liturgical success, both for the Daily Office and for the Eucharist.

The Community at St. John’s could not have been warmer in its welcome. My entire time there was punctuated by kind greetings and the small conversations between monks which indicate good will and benevolent interest, from the retired monks to the newest members and even to the Abbot, who sat down next to me at lunch on Friday. Abbot John Klassen is a listener, and obviously both a kind and a firm father of the community. He, like our Presiding Bishop, is a scientist by training. The atmosphere of the monastery and community was one of respectful, mutual and loving patriarchy in the best Benedictine sense.

We were housed in the monastery, some in the older section, others (including me) in the newer Breuer wing connecting to the Church. These newer rooms are functional, laid out like simple motel rooms: an entrance area with closet on one side and bathroom on the other, then a fair sized room with a big window and sliding door with view of the lake which the monastery property encompasses.

The daily worship schedule begins with morning prayer at 7, then noon prayers, Eucharist at 5, and evening prayer at 7. We were busy in the evenings, but my impression is that Compline is voluntary and private. They generally wear habits but no big fuss is made if some of the monks come in civvies. They use their own books -- well-printed and loose leaf, a seven or eight binder set -- for the daily office, as one would expect at this great liturgical center. The psalms are the Grail translation, the music is to modern modes – two or more simple melodies in a set, much as our Camaldolese friends do, and which Holy Cross uses in Santa Barbara and Grahamstown. The St. John’s usage is distributed with artful variety and care between the two sides of choir and one, sometimes two, cantors, which they call soloists. The organ backs up the melody. The singing is well-modulated and in the somewhat indistinct acoustical environment of the Breuer church it blends well and sounds good. I am not a huge fan of this setting for the Office, but at St. John’s it works and I enjoyed it. I found myself looking forward to the next time of prayer.

The other participants included Aelred and Paul as well as the three-man formation team from St. Meinrad’s, in southern Indiana, and individual “formators” (as the Roman Catholic world now designates those who usher in the new monkly generation) from St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee, OK; New Subiaco in Subiaco, AR; from Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, SD; from Holy Trinity in St. David, AZ; from Christ the King in Schuyler, NE; and from St. Benedict's in Oxford, MI. It was quite a jolly group.

The conference itself was wonderful. On the first day Fr. Rippinger led us through some strategies for teaching the Rule of St. Benedict, and on the second day ways to approach teaching our individual monastic community history. I found it very useful.

One of the blessings of our time at St. John’s was the funeral of Br. William Borgerding. He was a classic monastic character. His uncle had been a monk there as well, a missionary among the Native Americans who formed part of the monastery’s original ministry in Minnesota. Br. Willie was in charge of cattle until they gave that up, and then was monastic night watchman for both the monastery and the university. He was both loved and legendary among the students, and when the student pub opened, they voted to name it after him – Brother Willie’s Pub. I imagine that his legends include reasons for his name being appropriate to a pub. It was a privilege to share the rites surrounding his burial, which included the reception of the body and vigil on Wednesday evening, and the office of the dead, funeral and burial on Thursday. The monastic community, including all of us attending the conference, processed chanting in double file, leading a large gathering of family and friends, to the cemetery overlooking the lake, where Br. Willie was laid to rest, the latest in lines of hundreds all buried in their new order of precedence, that of their entrance into the Larger Life of the Risen Christ.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Family Tidings

My Aunt Mary, known to the world as Mary Catherine McCoy McKay, died on Monday. I learned about it on Wednesday from her son, my cousin Bruce McKay. She was 101. Aunt Mary (if you just called her Mary, you might hear a word or two from her!) was the second girl in a family of five children: Emily, Gauin, Orlo, Mary and Duncan, who was my father. They grew up in a fairly large but by no means pretentious house in Smethport, PA, in McKean County, northwestern PA. My grandfather, Guy Huenerfeldt McCoy, worked in the bank and later in the drug store owned by my grandmother, Edna Dunbar McCoy. Aunt Mary became a nurse, and a part of her training was in New York City (grandfather had studied pharmacy at Columbia). She spent part of her practical training in East Harlem, which was my home for seven years. She married Alexander McKay, who became an architect, and after World War II Alex was posted to Germany, where they lived for some time. They returned to Pennsylvania, then lived near Rochester, NY, where Uncle Alex designed tract houses. After he died, Aunt Mary moved to Silver Spring to live near Bruce and his wife Suzie and their children.

Aunt Mary turned 100 on January 1, 2008, and practically the whole family was there. I saw cousins I hadn't seen in 40 years. I decided there must be something to genetics after all. I got out of my car, dressed in khakis, turtleneck and a wool sport coat. Across the way was my cousin Guy, a retired physician who lives near Albany, dressed in khakis, turtleneck and a wool sport coat. Bruce opened the door to us, dressed in khakis, turtleneck and a wool sport coat. So it is genetic!

She had all her marbles that day, and it was glorious. She was a keen genealogist, and several of the younger folk have taken her interest to heart. One cousin by marriage had prepared a really fascinating account of the family. I had known that we were related collaterally, through the Dunbars (my grandmother's paternal line) to Henry David Thoreau. But the great discovery was that in the 1600's we had a pirate, and not just a run of the mill pirate, either, but one who left his wife and family in Denmark (I think) and landed in North Africa, converted to Islam, and became the ruler of a small city state in coastal North Africa. I think we're descended through the Danish line. He changed his profession once he went south and apparently made his living by capturing people in Iceland and selling them in North Africa. So, we have a pirate king. I have always loved that song from Pirates of Penzance, and now I know why.

She was also a keen Christian and Episcopalian (except when she got mad at one of the Sunday School teachers and moved the family to the Methodist Church for a while). The McCoy family attended St. Luke's, Smethport PA, where an uncle, William Van Dyke, was the rector. He was a huge influence on my father's vocation to the priesthood. He also had been a novice for a time in the Order of the Holy Cross.

This fall Aunt Mary began to suffer psychological disorientation, probably due to brain function changes. She had to have more intensive care. A few weeks ago she fell out of bed and broke some ribs, and began to decline.

She was a wonderful human being, full of life and love and always with that McCoy edge that I think is also genetic. We all have it. Her funeral will be at Grace Church, Silver Spring MD on Wed., April 22, at 11 am.

In the course of spreading the news about Aunt Mary I learned that my brother Duncan has entered politics and won his first race. He was elected to the City Council of Boulder City, NV, in the first election by more than 50% of the votes, which allowed him to avoid a runoff.

Dunc has been a professional librarian all his working life, specializing in directing city libraries in Kansas (I forget where), Colorado (Rifle), Wyoming (Laramie) and Nevada (Boulder City). He retired last year. He says that his wife encouraged him to get out of the house and find something useful to do, so he did. He has always been a schmoozer, and hides a keen intelligence behind a facade of western good old boy-ness. I am very proud of him.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Texts in Context

In the course of teaching Bible and early monasticism over the years I have become aware, as I suppose is inevitable, that modern readers come to these texts with our own presuppositions. This is not exactly news. But it is also not always obvious to us when we are reading. We aren't usually conscious of the biases of our own culture until we have something to compare it to.

The first thing to know about an ancient text is that it was not written in our language. English as we speak and read it only emerged between 1500 and 1600. And for quite a long time after that, there are enough differences between our form of English and theirs to require fairly heavy notation. In fact, our language is always changing. Something written 50 years ago can already seem linguistically and culturally dated.

For many people this does not seem to be a problem, though. Just get it translated. And so we do, and we can read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer in our own language. Except then we soon discover that the text we are reading doesn't make much sense. Not because the words aren't clear, but because what they are saying isn't part of our world. Translating the words is just the first step.

In fact, with any text older than approximately this morning we need to do historical and cultural translation as well. When we read things from our own past, or see an old film or hear an old song or look at an old photograph, we do this automatically, remembering the date it was produced and adjusting our focus accordingly. We can do this because we have the tools to understand the context in which what we are reading or hearing or seeing was produced, because we lived in that context and can remember it. If we were alive and conscious when it was produced we can retrieve the context. In doing so, we automatically make what might be called a hermeneutic shift, imagining ourselves back into the original context and then comparing it to what we might make of it in the present moment.

This is the essential process for confronting anything from the past. And since we are used to that process in things within our own range of experience and memory, we apply the same process to things from before our time. But unfortunately, we don't always have the tools we need to interpret the past. Translation is only the beginning, and it is often problematic itself, as anyone who has compared vastly different translations of the same text will know. A translation is always dependent on the cultural presuppositions of the translator, and translators sometimes have agendas. Think of translations of the Bible which serve different theological and denominational interests.

I have long thought that the best way to study anything from the past, including the Bible, is to read it with a double focus: What did it mean to its author and his original audience? and, What does it seem to mean to us today? Then the task is to move beyond our (always at least partly) uninstructed contemporary perceptions of what we are reading to ask a second level question: What would be an analagous meaning in our own terms?

But to tell a group of students or a Bible reading fellowship that they can't really understand the text or artifact they are considering until they understand its original context is not very helpful unless they have some access to that culture, that context. And unfortunately, most of the time the answer is to point them to the library, where, if they apply themselves, they will soon discover themselves mired in the almost trackless forests of academe. The minute you think you have a grip on some important cultural fact that allows you to go back to your text and approach it with a new and better instructed confidence, along comes another scholar ambitious for fortune and fame, or at least tenure, and knocks that down.

What to do, short of discouraging people from reading intelligently at all? Well, one might provide some tools for reconstructing context.

Some years ago I discovered an approach that I have found consistently illuminating. An old friend, Phina Borgeson, years ago, recommended the work of a cultural anthropologist named Bruce Malina to me. I went looking and eventually discovered his major work, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Originally written in 1979, and now in its third edition, Malina outlines major cultural categories that are different from ours. I have to say that this book completely changed the way I have read older texts, and not just the ones from the New Testament period. This alternative cultural understanding opened my eyes to the possibility of the double focus, the hermeneutic shift, not simply as a theoretical possibility but actually.

Malina uses major categories of cultural anthropology and compares those of the New Testament period with our own: Honor as the primary cultural value instead of material and professional success; the absolute importance of locating oneself in one's in-group for identity instead of achieving one's own autonomy; finding one's psychological identity in what others think of you instead of cultivating your own interior self (the dyadic personality); the idea that the wealth of the world is a fixed quantity (limited good) and all that flows from that in terms of fixed status hierarchies instead of our assumptions of social mobility; and so much more.

With these categories the stories of Scripture take on new life. The Prodigal Son moves from a touching drama of family forgiveness to a confrontation about the nature of God: in the values system of Jesus' time, a father who allowed a son to behave as the younger son did was endangering the family's future (by halving its resources, which were not likely to recover) and inviting public shame by the violation of the family's honor (the direct insult of the son to the family demanded a severe and public punitive reaction from the father). What the people listening to that story would hear in the extravagant welcome of the son home would not warm their hearts, but chill them to the bone. If this father is a stand-in for God, then God is violating every norm of civilized behavior, is in fact undermining the very fabric of human life as they understood it. The parable should be called the Prodigal, that is, Criminally Irresponsible, Father. And of course, Jesus is telling the story to make the point that God's love for us transcends the assumptions of our culture which would bind and constrict a human father's love and condemn a wayward son for life instead of reincorporating him into the family.

And then, more importantly for us, how does this story challenge us? We can be smug and tell ourselves, Well, thanks to your teaching, Jesus, we don't live in those presuppositions anymore, and so we're home free on that one. Our fathers can welcome their sons home without the tiresome cultural baggage of the past. But that would be a false reading, I think. In place of adopting the specific cultural shift Jesus seems to be recommending to his culture as our own and then basking in our superior understandings, I think we should ask ourselves, What process of cultural criticism would be analagous to us? What fundamental presuppositions of our culture would come under judgment if God acted so recklessly in our terms? That might set us back as much as it doubtless set Jesus' hearers back. The message for us both would seem to be, God really is not interested in validating our deepest cultural assumptions when they would stand in the way of redemptive love.

I have found Malina's book so profound that I have introduced it to almost every class I have taught both in Bible and early monastic texts. It gives some actual, helpful categories to place our encounter with ancient texts in context. It gives us a way to analyze ancient texts and the compare them to our own situation. It helps our reading move away from cultural solipsism. I heartily recommend it.