Let the Abbot know who he is

This is an excerpt from BRUISED REEDS And Other Stories by Alfred H. Deutsch, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: Saint John's University Press, 1971), pp. [i]-8. Copyright © 1971 by The Order of Saint Benedict, Inc.

Father Alfred was born in 1914 in St. Paul, came for his high school studies to St. John's Prep, and almost never left again. He entered the monastery in 1933 and was ordained into the priesthood in 1940. During the War years of 1941-45, he was at the University of Illinois, completing his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English literature. At the time of the thinly fictionalized post-War events that he tells of in Bruised Reeds, Fr. Alfred was Dean of the Prep School. After six years as dean, he became a full-time professor of English and was chair of the English Department until 1969. His other administrative work included such posts as Rector of St. John's Seminary (1971-1977). Fr. Alfred died in 1989.

Bruised Reeds begins this way:

A bruised reed he will not break
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
-Isaiah 42:3

Let the Abbot keep his own frailty ever before his eyes
and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken.
-The Rule of St. Benedict, ch. 64

Author's Preface

To use the standard apology that any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental would be the most fictitious statement in this book. Anyone associated with St. John's Abbey more than ten years could hardly overlook similarities to monks who have lived out their lives in the environs of the Abbey. Likewise, any who have lived close to the monastery would know that the persons and events depicted are not historically accurate.

What attempts to be accurate is the portrayal of a style of life lived not many decades ago, and to a great extent still lived, at St. John's Abbey, and probably in many other religious communities. The stories began as a series of portrayals of the different ways men lived their Benedictine vows; of the ways in which they maintained their individuality while moving in the same direction of seeking God. In retrospect, they force a recognition that religious people before Vatican II had not been automatons made will-less by their vows of obedience, even when living under forceful superiors.

No attempt has been made to authenticate the events portrayed in these stories, nor was any research done into the lives of the characters drawn here. They are purely the reconstruction of the memories and gossip that I have accumulated in my own almost forty years of living in the same community that created these persons. I hope that the tone will show the reverence and love I hold for these who have been my teachers.

Chapter 1

Let the Abbot know who he is

A footnote in history will doubtless record that some time late in the twentieth century the English language lost from its active vocabulary - active, that is, among a fairly restricted group of people - the word monastery and the word monk. The predicted loss is not, however, a prophecy that men will cease to live in groups in one house under the governance of an Abbot (that term, too, is probably doomed to loss), because the history of mankind for two millennia has shown almost a natural tendency for a certain type of individual to want to cluster together in a common life under an elected leader, in order to go about the necessary business of finding eternal salvation, or perhaps human salvation.

There might be dozens of underlying reasons for discarding these words which crept into the language in the days of Alfred of Wessex, but the coup de grace will have been delivered by the eminent psychologist who first framed the term identity crisis. Like any other human beings, monks also are subject to the trends and whims and fads of the society from which they never quite separate themselves - and this contributes to the crisis. The lack of precise definition of these words unsettles those who need to know exactly who they are. Another blow will have been struck by the public relations man who coined the word image to connote the congeries of meanings and pictures evoked by a certain name or term. Put the identity crisis into the same arena with the image and a huge cloud of dust arises. {p. 4 begins}

The word monastery conjures up for some the imagined world of Walter Scott, who wrote fictitiously about abbeys: medieval dungeons and torture chambers; strange vaulted niches lined with thigh bones or arms or skulls; or calefactories, the only heated rooms in medieval monasteries, where an empty coffin stood in the center to remind those warming their bodies that the earth was cold - all the Gothic paraphernalia of sick imagination. Chaucer's monk has bequeathed a portrait that no self-respecting monk could possibly identify with: a fat, greasy sort of person who felt more at home outside the monastery astride his berry-brown palfrey chasing down rabbits behind his greyhounds; dressed in fur-trimmed cassock with a gold-embossed pin to hold his hood together; possibly lecherous, certainly a gourmet. And too many people know only the Machiavellian monks of Robert Browning, sniveling simpletons or rapacious hypocrites. As if monks proper did not have a bad enough image, they acquired by loose use of the term the faults of bumbling friars who tangled the lives of Romeos and Juliets, and the crimes of the inquisitorial torture chambers.

When the twentieth-century monk, therefore, introduces himself as a monk of the Order of St. Benedict, he can see in the mind of the stranger the procession of images that the men of letters have so distorted. If he feels that he has thereby been put on the defensive, he might launch into the genealogy of the word and discourse on the transition from the solitary hermits of the desert to the group living under St. Benedict in the fifth century after Christ. If the stranger has not yet walked away, he then feels it necessary to describe the historical origin of his cassock, scapular, belt, and hood. Artists and photographers like to picture long lines of black-garbed, hooded men carrying lighted candles down long, dismal corridors. Romantic historians like Carlyle and Newman offset somewhat the monks of Chaucer and Browning, but there are precious few monks who turn the sod and till the fields, changing the rough countryside into prosperous farms.

None of these images of the modern-day monk is quite accurate, and the self-conscious monk squirms under his identity doubt. Is he in the world or out of it? He takes a vow of poverty and lives in quite ample security. He takes a vow of conversatio morum, a Latin term that no one has yet satisfactorily translated or explained. He argues at length - and fruitlessly - about the meaning of the {p. 5} vow of stability, an innovation created by the founder of the Order. Is he in essence contemplative or active? He wears a long robe over his masculinity and wonders whether the title "Mother" would not be better than "Father." His vow of obedience dissolves none of his problems.

When Abbot Martin Schlerbach governed his monks in the second quarter of the twentieth century, he was fortunate that the public relations man had not yet discovered the word image. He was even more fortunate that the common man had not yet discovered the identity crisis. Even had it been discovered, Abbot Martin certainly would have suffered no crisis, for he knew who he was. Long before he ascended the throne which became his upon installation, he knew that monks were lineal descendants of St. Benedict, who had written a Rule for simple people who wanted to live a simple life together in a joint effort to seek God. Their home was the monastery. To this place they attached themselves for the term of their lives; to it they returned like homing pigeons whenever any business that had taken them away was completed. This attachment he understood by his vow of stability. He further vowed a conversatio morum, which he understood to mean his day-by-day effort to move closer to God through the instruments of good works which the Holy Rule detailed. Most important was obedience, for central to the Rule was the injunction that "the monk return to God by the labor of obedience from whom he had departed through the sloth of disobedience." And when a newcomer arrived to join the monastery, he was given time to exercise himself in these virtues under the guidance of the Abbot, who interpreted for him the will. of God. Abbot Martin had no doubts that the title "Father," given by St. Benedict to the Abbot, meant what his German heritage had taught him about fathers.

Father Martin had accepted his election as Abbot after he had lived his vows almost twenty-five years under the same Abbot. From his predecessor he had learned both by example and by inference what kind of man the Abbot of the monastery ought to be. He fell to intensive study of the two chapters in the Rule which discuss the role of the Abbot, and then set out to do what St. Benedict exhorted him to do.

That a monastery is no easy place to govern he had also known in a remote way, but the theory now became living knowledge. To discern the nature of each individual, the care of whose soul {6} had been committed to him, became an on-going pursuit. Which were the intelligent who could learn from his words? Which were the "harder hearts and ruder minds" that needed the power of his example? The Rule reminded him that St. Benedict had to deal with the same kind of men in the fifth century as he had to deal with in the twentieth century. Each one needed individual consideration. On this point St. Benedict was quite specific: "threatening at one time and coaxing at another as the occasion may require, showing now the stern countenance of a master, now the loving affection of a father. That is to say, it is the undisciplined and restless whom he must reprove rather sharply; it is the obedient, meek, and patient whom he must entreat to advance in virtue; while as for the negligent and disdainful, these we charge him to rebuke and correct."

St. Benedict had learned many centuries before that no monk abandons his will when he vows obedience. No monastery of men becomes a robot factory, turning out copy after copy of potential saints. When a mother who was about to give her son reluctantly to the monastery witnessed the choir of monks rising and bowing together one Sunday at Vespers, she shed wasted tears over the fate of her son - she could not see that though the heads were bowing in unison, the hearts were not. Men may learn to walk in line and they may be taught to rise and bow together in choir, but an Abbot can never produce the machine-like finish on his monks that an orchestra director can achieve on a group of musicians.

These were not saints over whom Abbot Martin was given governance; they were only students in the school of the Lord's service. When the monks had come before his throne one by one to renew their vow of obedience at the ceremony of his installation, he saw the file of humanity before him - all of them united in varying degrees of one pursuit: to seek God under the yoke of holy obedience. He knew by this time that each works out his own brand of pursuit with the passing years. Some few stand out above the rest as age releases talents and idiosyncrasies. But the majority prefer to fall into quiet anonymity, content to work and pray without distinctiveness in quiet obedience. They work their work and pray their prayers with little fanfare.

The Abbot was to learn rather quickly which ones would come before him in fear and trembling, which ones he could stare down, which ones would talk back. Theoretically, he knew that the monks {7} shape an Abbot: he is rounded off by the grinding and tumbling of their contact, so that given enough years, he is polished into mellow humanity. They, as much as chapter two of the Holy Rule, determine over the passage of years "what kind of man the Abbot ought to be."

Abbot Martin, therefore, had as little identity crisis as Abbot as he had had as a simple monk. The Holy Rule denned his role; sixty years of monasticism transplanted from Germany shaped the work the monks were doing and molded the traditions of his Midwestern abbey.

When he prepared himself for his solemn installation, he submitted easily to the medieval tradition that the Lord Abbot (he never had liked the title) had to have a coat of arms and a motto. His choice of motto foretold the thrust of his reign: Si adhuc populo tuo sum necessarius, non recuso laborem, which translates roughly into "Lord, if I continue to be necessary for your people, I will not refuse the task." He chose to tilt the Benedictine motto of "Work and pray" somewhat toward the "Work." Secretly it was an admission that he was not really a man of deep prayer. Despite his degree in philosophy and despite his formal training in the mystical life and his reading of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, he found himself still struggling to rise above the purgative way of life when he was elected Abbot. Secretly, too, he was envious of those saints who had in their lives attained what St. Benedict held out to his monks in the preface to his Rule: "for as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love." Like the rest of his monks, he accepted his humanity, strode weekly to his confessor for an admission of his human frailties, and hoped someday to be able to run with "unspeakable sweetness."

Physically, he might have been better endowed to be Abbot of this, the largest monastery in the country. He came from a line of short-statured men, so that invariably he found himself talk- ing up to the people he met. With some strain he could touch the floor with the tip of his toes when he sat. Over years of practice as student disciplinarian, rector of the university, and prior of the monastery, he had learned what strength lay in a stern countenance and a cold eye, and how physical size could cower before them.

Native virtue brought a different strength: reared in a large German family, he moved easily into the kind of obedience St. Benedict asked of his monks. Also, from the poverty of his parents, {8}immigrants to Minnesota, he learned that soup was nourishing and temporarily filling; that meat was for the working men in the family; that bread was the staple of the children's diet. Not to his dying day could he put to rest the unease which arose from a sumptuous meal in a restaurant, with cocktails and liqueurs, even when he didn't have to pay the check. He did allow himself the pleasures of tobacco - Union Leader for his pipe, and vicious black Italian rat-tails, sold under the name of cigars, when he wanted something stronger than the pipe. Stability was not difficult in an age when trains and trolleys furnished the only public transportation. When he enrolled in the monastery prep school at the age of fourteen, he transferred his allegiance from his natural family to the other, never relinquishing fully his affection for the family he left behind. When necessary travels brought him to the locale of his family, he usually found a relative with a primitive automobile willing to transport him on the round of visits to brothers and uncles. Such were the natural endowments his family had given him as his dowry when he entered the monastery.

He knew who he was - a simple man who could not trace his lineage back more than one generation, who through the grace of the Holy Spirit and some monastery politicking had been elected Abbot of the largest monastery in the States. He knew what his strengths were, and over the course of years of dealing with all brands of monks, he learned his weaknesses. When the Bishop of the diocese formally invested him with the symbols of his office, he did not bow his head like Queen Victoria and say, "I will be good," but stole a character from David Copperfield and said, "Martin is willing."

For twenty-two years Abbot Martin proved not only that he was willing but that he was able. He watched his monastery grow steadily in its number of monks, and he saw the assets of the monastic plant increase. He took pride in the knowledge that other monasteries of the country looked upon his house as a model of monastic life and that other houses sent him their young monks for formation and education. By 1946, age and weariness and post- war expansiveness connived to threaten the hold he kept on his monastery. The college was experiencing growing pains and moving restlessly in his grip. Somehow he managed each morning to set aside the weariness of the previous day and steel himself with the motto of his regime: "I will not refuse the task."