Let nothing be done without the consent of the Abbot

An excerpt from BRUISED REEDS And Other Stories by Alfred H. Deutsch, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: Saint John's University Press, 1971), pp. 26-38. Copyright © 1971 by The Order of Saint Benedict, Inc.

Chapter 4

Let nothing be done without the consent of the Abbot

Aside from the Abbot's office, one other place in the monastery bears heavy traffic - the procurator's office, where the business of the monastery is transacted. Both the Holy Rule and corporate law work together to make the procurator of the monastery a very important person. The Rule delegates to him responsibility for the clothing of the brethren, the amount and kind of food which is set before them, the care of all monastery equipment and shops, the supervision of all the enterprises of the monastery. Corporate law makes him one of the legal trustees of the property of the monastery and treasurer of the corporation, so that he, rather than the Abbot, appears before the public in the disposition of business. Salesmen come here to peddle their soaps and waxes; lay employees come here to pick up their checks; monks stop to pick up tobacco and matches and watches and snuff and batteries. Here, too, they must come to receive money allotted to them for travel. In any business hour the procurator might dispense a box of cigars or arrange for the replacement of a snowplow or be consulted about the hiring of a new professor or the transfer of a Brother from bee-keeping to the carpenter shop.

Amidst this variety of dealings. Father Maur had grown portly with the passage of years. Good monk that he was, he listened four times a year to the reading of the Holy Rule about the procurator of the monastery; hence he knew well the source of his power and the scope of it. He knew how to give a pleasant answer {p. 27 begins} when he received an unreasonable request. Under his frugal management the monastery had acquired a reputation for fiscal soundness. Every day he sat for long hours at his desk carrying out the details of the office, meeting the public with ease and assurance, reading stock market reports for the progress of his investments, and furtively reading the comics for his daily amusement.

Over his glasses he peered at Brother James sitting uncomfortably in the straight-backed chair beside the desk. The faint ammoniac smell of the barn prompted Father Maur to reach for his snuffbox and thumb some snuff into his nostrils. He passed the snuff to Brother James, who put a generous pinch behind his lower lip.

"What are we going to do. Brother, about this new regulation from the department of public health?" The nasal voice was level and unexcited, though the business at hand was about to cost money. He reached for the papers on the right-hand side of the desk, shook the particles of snuff from one of them, and glanced at it over his glasses. "We've known for some time that the department of health has been urging Congress to make pasteurization of milk mandatory. Now Congress has finally passed the bill. I have a letter here from our district representative, who argued against the bill, with the details of the law. Briefly, the law requires that milk served in any public place must be pasteurized. If we were serving only the monastery, we could legally ignore the process, but when we consider the student body we know we have to do something." He paused to blow his nose into a blue bandanna.

"I see three courses of action. We can sell the herd and go out of business altogether - we're already buying a third of the milk we need. If we do this, we will bring most of the monastery on our backs. We can send our milk to town to have it pasteurized, but that would be expensive. Or we can build a pasteurization plant - and I will fight that." He pushed his glasses back into position and tapped the cover of his snuffbox.

Brother James had been uneasy at his job since the time the government began to meddle with the dairy industry. He squirmed in his chair, leaned over to hit the spittoon, turned his strawhat in his hands, and found the courage to say what had been forming in his mind for some time. "I'm not very keen on selling the herd. Since we began to buy our bulls from that convent in Missouri, the quality has improved and we now have a first-class herd. For the past five years we've been winning ribbons at the state and {p. 28} county fairs. And now a lot of the farmers around here are beginning to buy their young stock from us, so I say we're making a good contribution to the area we live in. And neither of the other processes would be cheap. To send out for pasteurizing would mean we buy a storage tank and install refrigeration and pay the cost of transportation and pasteurizing. I don't know what it would cost us to put in our own plant."

Father Maur nodded in agreement. "The real question is, what will the Abbot want to do?" Brother James continued. "He likes the herd. He was the one who encouraged me to shop around for quality stock, who let me go to Missouri; he comes to the barn sometimes on his walk and talks about the monasteries in Europe with their rolling pasture lands and name herds. I'm not sure that he knows we're already buying milk since the student body began to grow so big. I didn't want to tell him that."

Father Maur gathered his papers together to let Brother James know that the business was finished for the moment. "The health department is giving us six months to comply with the order. In the meantime we should learn more about our operation. I want you to keep a strict cost-accounting for a couple months - the cost of your feed, the cost of your help. I wrote to Father Bernard at the University and told him to plan to spend part of the summer here to make a study of our dairy operation."

Brother James leaned over the spittoon again and then left the office. Without hesitation he walked to the Abbot's office, listened at the door to determine whether anyone was inside, and rapped timidly. Brother James was quite ill at ease, for he was in his workclothes. His visits to the Abbot were rare - once a year perhaps at the beginning of Lent to declare his resolutions to the Abbot and get his blessing - and then he always wore his monastic garb. When no answer came immediately, he sensed relief and was about to turn away, but a faint "Come in" decided the matter.

The Abbot emerged from his back office carrying a sheaf of papers and puffing on a black stogey. His greeting was cordial as he offered Brother James a chair. "Well, Brother James, you are not a frequent visitor. This must be important."

In the warmth of the greeting James sat back in the chair, placed his hat on the floor, clasped his hands around his knees, and told his story. "I just came from Father Maur's office, and I think he wants to sell our herd. If this is what you and the community {29} want, I think I've learned enough obedience to go along with it. But I've worked with our herd for thirty years. I'm over fifty now, and if we sell the herd I won't know what to do. I've had no other training - I can't go to the carpenter shop, I can't learn plumbing at my age, I don't think I would be happy as a janitor in the monastery." As the words poured out he got caught in his own emotion, a mixture of self-pity and anger at the procurator. His lips trembled and mist began to form in his eyes.

Immediately the Abbot recognized the embarrassment that followed Brother James' manifestation and broke in. "Nonsense, Brother James, I am sure that the procurator has no intention of selling the herd. He certainly would have told me about it by this time. You just continue to do your good work there and let me worry about the disposition of the herd. Are you well satisfied with that bull you bought at Florissant?"

On more familiar ground and buoyed by the Abbot's self-confidence, Brother James rambled on for some minutes about the qualities of the bull, then left the Abbot's office whistling under his breath.

As the door closed, the Abbot picked up his phone, dialed three digits, and enveloped the desk with smoke. "This is the Abbot. Can you come to my office?" He replaced the receiver and waited for the expected rap at the door. Father Maur entered and was waved to a chair. "What is this about selling the herd?"

Father Maur had grown used to this kind of summons, yet he never answered one without trepidation. He saw on the Abbot's face that strained look which appeared when the Abbot sensed he was in the dark about something. Now that the subject of the business had been launched, Father Maur was at ease. "I guess Brother James was here."

"He was. He said you were thinking of selling the herd."

"Father Abbot," the nasal voice was soft and assured, "I have not been hiding anything from you." He went on to detail the situation which was pressing the business office: pressure from the department of health to serve only pasteurized milk; the need to do some exact cost-accounting; the proposal to keep Father Bernard home part of the summer to make a survey of the situation; the alternatives possibly open to the dairy; the increasing costs of the dairy operation.

As the story unfolded, the Abbot nodded in understanding and {30} the strained look left his face. The puffing on the stogey decreased in intensity as the details became clear. "There is one matter that you did not bring up, and that was the subject of Brother James' visit to me. What would happen to him if we sold the herd - which we will not do?"

Father Maur braced himself for a confrontation with the Abbot that he knew would have to arise some time regarding the concept of self-sufficiency in an economy which was changing rapidly. Unconsciously he reached into the pocket of his cassock, extracted the familiar snuffbox, and rapidly brushed a pinch into his nostrils. The particles which fell down on the scapular he brushed into space.

"Father Abbot, I have been meaning to talk to you about this." His voice was soft, quiet, deliberate, now that he had found the courage to broach the subject. "Sooner or later you are going to have to accept the facts of the American economy. The war shot the economy all to bits, and the pieces are flying all over; this country is expanding in a way that we've never known. The growth of the student body is bringing that world to us more and more, and we won't be able to keep it out. Those students have to be fed, and unless we make radical changes in our farm operation, we cannot produce the food they need.

"Do you know that we're already buying a third of the milk that we use?" Sure of the facts that he was presenting, Father Maur dared to lean forward in his chair and point a pinch of snuff at the Abbot in the process of directing it to his own nose. "Do you know that when I go to North Dakota each fall I am contracting to buy our supply of potatoes, that I go to the stockyards in Fargo and buy the meat that we fatten in our barns? This fall I'll have to buy vegetables because Brother Linus can't produce enough in the garden to carry us through the winter. Haven't you noticed the supply trucks coming to the kitchen door? Haven't you seen those cattle trucks rolling up to the barn, or those big trucks standing by the potato cellar?"

The Abbot interrupted abruptly. "Don't become impertinent. Don't presume from your long tenure in office that you are irremovable. Of course I have seen those trucks, and I am concerned about them. I have wondered whether you were not taking the easiest course in dealing with our expansion." {31}

The anger which had been slowly simmering in Father Maur began to show itself in the narrowing of his eyes. "Father Abbot, the day you take me out of the business office will be the happiest day of my life. But until you do, I am bound to administer my office with all the diligence I am capable of. And until you remove me, I will continue to buy beef and potatoes and milk."

The Abbot leaned back in his swivel chair, hands crossed over his chest, and suddenly broke into a chuckle. He knew from Father Maur's anger that he again had the upper hand. From his long dealing with the Abbot, Father Maur recognized a favorite ploy of his. Again he eased back into his chair, tapped the cover of the snuffbox, and waited for his anger to subside. When the ritual of inhaling the snuff had been complete, he resumed his nasal drawl.

"I know you're concerned about Brother James and Brother Linus and all the men in the monastery, but that concern should not cloud the whole picture. It is a big concern: what do we do with Brother James if we sell the herd? Yet the facts, as we have them so far, indicate that we will have to sell the herd. We've been doing closer cost-accounting of our operations and have changed our system of bookkeeping in order to detail more exactly the cost of our operations. The plain fact seems to be that the herd is a losing business. We'll know much more if you allow Father Bernard to spend the summer here to study the dairy operation."

"Very well, I will write to Father Bernard and tell him to make plans to spend the summer here. It probably was a mistake to send him to the University in the first place, particularly to a pagan university which can do nothing but upset his sense of values. He could just as well have gone to business college in Freemont so that he could get back to the monastery every day.

"I can already foresee the results of the cost-accounting. He will allot a salary to every one of the Brothers working on the farm; then these salaried Brothers will raise hay and feed, which they will sell to salaried Brothers in the dairy barn, who will in turn sell the milk to the kitchen, who will sell the milk to the students. After each one has taken his profit, the milk will cost the students twice what it costs in the store."

Father Maur could not hold back his comment. "And if we install a pasteurization plant, another middle man will get some profit." {32}

The Abbot was momentarily nonplussed, as his bobbing head revealed. Quickly he admitted the point scored and chuckled with Father Maur.

"I am as reluctant as you are, Father Abbot, to admit some of these facts. I too grew up in the old country and saw some of those European monasteries with their large tracts of land and beautiful herds and green pastures and immense forests - and empty buildings with not enough monks to fill them. No, Father Abbot, we have left that country and its monasteries behind. Inch by inch the American economy creeps up on us and will shrink our herd and level our forests. I'm having my difficulties with the new system of bookkeeping, but I'm working at it."

The Abbot's silence and meditative puffing at his stogey encouraged Father Maur to bring up another tender subject. Owing to his closeness to the college, since he was also its chief business official, Father Maur was aware of talk in the offices of the deans about accreditation of the college by a national association. Up to the end of the war in 1945, the school had remained quite secure in its reputation, able to matriculate sufficient students for its comfort, chugging along with minimal profits, warm in the loyalty of its alumni, and accepting casually the accreditation of the state university.

The return of the veterans and their determination to go to college with pockets lined with GI money strained the capacities of colleges and universities. Enrollments mushroomed, classes swelled, and every spot. large enough for a bed meant more money from the government. Out of necessity the colleges became more selective, and high IQ's were the first guarantee of admission. When high intelligence could offer no bargaining power, other criteria were taken into consideration - relation to alumni, family income, letters of recommendation from bishops and monsignori, relation to a member of the faculty.

When high intelligence was the chief criterion, the applicants themselves could choose their college. Lying in foxholes, they had had time to dream of successful careers in professional life and split-level homes in fashionable suburbs. Which college would afford the most prestige? Which would guarantee admission into the best graduate schools? Ambitious veterans read the fine print in college bulletins as it had never been read before, except by {33} a few college officials. They read the sources of college accreditation as a measurable component of the prestige it enjoyed.

Recently the dean of the college had begun to worry in earnest when applications from highly desirable students were withdrawn because the college could show no affiliation other than that with the state university and the Catholic University of America. Ambitious students needed greater attraction than that. Further, a few recent graduates could not get into the graduate schools of their choice because their diplomas had not come from an accredited college. It appeared that all the graduates would have to go to the state university or larger Catholic universities. The future of the college seemed limited to teaching mediocre students.

Father Maur tapped the cover of the snuffbox and summoned his courage. "You must know, Father Abbot, that the college dean has made some preliminary investigation into accreditation of the college and has received guidelines for going about it." He ignored the increased tempo of the bobbing head and the fury of the glowing stogey to pursue his point. "One big part of the investigation would cover the financial stability of the college - its sources of income now and in the future, its financial capability of providing the kind of education described in the statement of aims. It will ask detailed questions about the amounts of money spent on the library, on recreational activities, on faculty education and growth, on retirement plans, on faculty salaries, and so on. All of this would mean a complete new system of accounting, a far more detailed analysis of every bit of income and expenditure. It will mean that the personnel in my office and other offices will have to be increased."

A gentle rap broke into Father Maur's delineation of the secular threats making inroads into the monastery. The Abbot's "Come in" was louder and sharper than usual. The doorknob turned slowly, as if the monk on the other side were aware that the moment of the entry was unpropitious. Father Maur looked up to see who the victim would be, helpless to warn the hapless monk about to catch the brunt of the Abbot's fury.

The quizzical face of Father Ladislaus, dean of the college, appeared around the edge of the door, muttered a quick "I can come back later, Father Abbot," and began to retreat. "Come in, Father Ladislaus." The voice of the Abbot was angry and insistent. {34}

"You are just the man I want to see. By what right have you begun negotiation with an accrediting agency without consulting me? Have you forgotten that I am still president of this college? You had better learn to shinny on your own side or you will not be in the game at all." (Only on rare occasions, when he sensed his authority infringed upon, did the Abbot employ the term used in a childhood game similar to hockey, except that clubs replaced sticks and a small Carnation milk can served as the puck; any player who crossed the imaginary on-side line made by the can laid himself open to injury.)

Father Ladislaus looked from the Abbot to Father Maur, caught the apologetic smile and shrug of the shoulders, and knew that he was the victim of a rebound. Too hastily he began to form his answer and the words tumbled over each other. "I was just about to bring you the information on that matter," he said, pointing to the folder he held in his left hand. Then he launched into the problems that had begun to face the college in the recent months - the matter of getting good students, of placing graduates - problems that could be partially resolved if the college had the backing of a national accrediting agency.

The Abbot was adamant. "I am not about to subject our college to the scrutiny of a bunch of educational nincompoops who will dictate to us what we can teach and who can teach and how we will spend our money. That is our business and ours alone. If the students are not content with the kind of education that we are giving them, let them go elsewhere."

Since his appointment as dean of the college, Father Ladislaus had weathered storms like this before; he knew that in time the Abbot would temper his position and grudgingly consent to the proposed course of action. If the Abbot had one educational principle with respect to the college, it was to preside by resistance. It was a practicable method of conducting business, but a painful one. Every inch of progress made in running the college had to be won through a tug of war involving shifting maneuvers and delicate footwork. One monk played it like a game of cards:

"Whenever I want anything from the Abbot, I lay my hand out very carefully. First I ask him for something absolutely unreasonable, which I know he will deny; then I ask for something almost equally impossible and again force him to deny it. After playing about four cards like this, I lay down my trump card - what {35} I wanted in the first place. By this time he is either tired or ashamed of denying me and gives me what I ask for." Usually the kind of business that Father Ladislaus had to present demanded a different type of game. He preferred to view his encounters with the Abbot as rounds in a boxing match where you lost as many points as you scored.

Father Maur began to rise as if to leave the battleground to Father Ladislaus, but the Abbot waved him back. "I want you to hear all of this." Patiently Father Ladislaus began the footwork and maneuvering normal in the early rounds of a boxing match. "I am well aware, Father Abbot, that you are president of the college and that no step of this kind could be taken without your authorization and final approval. But all that I have done up to now is to make inquiries about accrediting associations. I have received information from the one pertaining to our college and a list of the type of inquiries that would be part of the investigation. This is what I was bringing to you. I assumed that you would have wanted me to make these preliminary surveys in order to save your time and to have some basis of discussion with you before the matter could go to the faculty."

Gradually the wrinkles on the forehead of the Abbot straightened out and the puffing on the stogey became more measured. When it had become apparent to him that the dean was shinnying on his own side, his anger began to subside. "Very well. I will look through the schema when I have time."

After Father Ladislaus had left, the Abbot turned his attention to Father Maur, who by this time had accumulated a sprinkling of snuff on his lap. "And you, my procurator and friend, what is your position in this matter?" Before Father Maur could give an opinion, another tap at the door stopped him. After the Abbot's "Come in," the door opened gently and the head of Father Aldo, the college registrar, appeared. Again the mumbled "I can come back, Father Abbot" was overridden by the Abbot, and the registrar closed the door behind him.

"This is rather embarrassing, Father Abbot, but I have a letter here from Mrs. Jablowski of Blue Earth telling me that you have accepted George Jablowski into college." He bowed a brief acknowledgment of the presence of Father Maur, who again stirred as if to leave and was again waved back into his seat. Just as Father Maur was cognizant of most affairs of the college, so {36} was he cognizant of the Abbot's refusal to recognize that he was not the registrar of the college nor its director of admissions nor the manager of its scholarship funds. To retrain a man who for twenty-four years had, like a medieval baron, been lord over all he surveyed would demand a vast amount of patience and the expenditure of a huge amount of energy. Not only was it known to the entire administration but apparently was known equally well by all the widows in the state through their own grapevine that the Abbot was a soft touch for a few tears expended over a son who could not afford the expense of college or merit a scholarship on intellectual grounds. Father Maur admired the courage of Father Aldo, registrar now for two years, one of the least outspoken men on the administrative staff of the college, for his willingness to attack the sacredness of the "black book."

The little "black book" hidden within the inside pocket of the Abbot's cassock was a storehouse of little known facts that would occasionally spill out to the discomfiture of some monk or official of the college. Before the war, when the college functioned with a gemutlichkeit acquired over years of placid existence, directors of admissions were seldom disturbed when the Abbot presented, a few days before the opening of school, the list of students he had accepted. Now, under pressure from too many applicants for the housing space available, the black book made any accurate headcount impossible.

The Abbot leisurely filled his pipe before reaching into the hidden pocket for the book of memory jostlers. When the ritual of pipe-lighting had been completed, he riffled through the pages of the book. "Who was that? Mrs. Jablowski? Yes, yes, I meant to tell you about her. I remember her. Poor woman. Her husband died two years ago and left her with eight children. Her son so wants to go to a Catholic college that she was willing to spare him from farm work if some way could be worked out. She is a good mother. And he is a fine lad. I told her that if she could pay the activities fee for this first year, we would see that he received a good Catholic education." He sat back in his swivel chair, smiled serenely at Father Aldo, and indicated that the matter was settled. Father Maur quickly calculated another eight hundred dollars not to be collected.

Father Aldo was not about to be dismissed so readily. "Father Abbot, you just cannot do this kind of thing any more." The smile disappeared from the Abbot's face, the wrinkles crept into his {37} forehead, and the head began to bob. Monks did not come into his office and tell him what he could do and what he could not do. Before an outburst was possible, Father Aldo continued. "Did Mrs. Jablowski tell you that we had sent her a letter denying admission to her son? If you had seen his high-school record, you would have agreed with our decision."

"I did see the high-school record, but Mrs. Jablowski told me how hard her son had to work on the farm after the death of his father, how he had to miss days of classes when emergencies arose, how he had helped to take care of the family when she was sick. He is a fine lad, and you will see how well he does when he can give his full attention to schoolwork. You will find room for him. That is my privilege as president of this college."

Father Aldo would not be dismissed. He gave the Abbot detailed facts about the number of applicants for the following year, the presumed space that would be available in campus dormitories; he described the pressures put on his office by letters of recommendation from priests and nuns and politicians. Only after relieving himself of all this information was he willing to be dismissed.

When the door had closed behind Father Aldo, Abbot Martin turned back to Father Maur. "I sense some collusion in this business to increase the enrollment of the college. What do you know about it?"

Though Father Maur winced at the suggestion of conspiracy, he was aware of discussion among the college personnel concerning increasing enrollment. Calmly he set out to explain the growing importance of a college education after the war, the lack of space and faculty to admit all students who applied, the tactics used by students and their sponsors to gain the coveted admission. He described the efficiency studies recently made about the proper use of space and of the faculty.

Just as calmly the Abbot listened and puffed evenly on his pipe. When Father Maur paused in his recitation, Abbot Martin asked, "And if we refuse to expand, what happens? If we do not apply for accreditation, would that not be sufficient to keep our enrollment at the level it is?"

"Not at all, Father Abbot," Father Maur replied. "It would only mean that the best students would pass us by. The hundreds of mediocre students would be ours to choose from, and they would {38} apply in numbers far beyond our capacities. We would choose the best of these, and the rest would wind up at the teachers colleges and state universities."

The Abbot leaned back in his swivel chair, watching the swirls of smoke ascending to the chandelier. For some minutes they sat in silence; then the Abbot swung his chair to face Father Maur. "You have not answered my question."

"What question was that, Father Abbot?"

"Your position on the matter of accreditation."

Father Maur cleared his throat, reached into his pocket for his snuffbox, and answered slowly. "I believe that the move is inevitable. I was about to discuss this with you before Father Ladislaus came in. We may be able to postpone it for a short time, but we will have to face it sometime. I suggested that we would most likely have to increase the personnel in the business office. Some of the college administrators have begun to talk about building a new dormitory. I see the need for it, but I can't see how we can possibly finance it. Now - you have not answered my question: What do we do about pasteurizing milk?"

"Let Father Bernard make his study this summer, and we can take the matter up again in the fall. Thank you for your patience, Father Maur. I will reassure Brother James that we are not going to sell our herd."

Father Maur rose slowly from his chair, ignored the particles of snuff that fell on the carpet, and shuffled to his office.