Benedictine and American Clashing or Blending Values

Published by Saint Vincent Archabbey Public Relations on

Historians studying Catholicism in the United States will note how often our generation used words like “evangelization” and “inculturation.” We were fascinated, they will say, by what happened when the values found in the Catholic tradition came into contact with other ways of understanding this world and with other traditions.

Many Catholics in Europe, not recognizing the particular characteristics of the Church in the United States, continue to see the Church here as but an extension of their own. Although the European roots of our Catholicism remained clear for many decades, distinctive American qualities have mingled with the old to form something new and unique. In this context we Benedictine rightly ask: In the history of American Catholicism is there something particular about how we have adapted to the values and traditions we found here, something that makes us different from monks elsewhere? Moreover, we ask if there is something special that we can contribute to Church and society.

Though the American mentality still had much in common with Europe when Boniface Wimmer arrived here, it had already begun to show signs that would differentiate it from its European roots. The philosophical concepts about freedom and individualism that came from the Enlightenment and that fostered the French Revolution and the War of Independence on the 18th century were accepted as positive values in the United Sates, even by the Church. The Catholic Church in Europe, on the contrary, was unanimous in its opposition to that movement, remembering that those ideas deprived it of its previous liberty and means of existence. Concepts such as individual rights, democratic participation in government, fair play (“taxation without representation”), and free expression of ideas were taken for granted in the new atmosphere but were still considered dangerous in European Church circles. In education the role of science and inductive reasoning from experience became commonplace in the United States. Europeans tended to remain more philosophical and speculative. New attitudes were also caused by the size and vastness of the new land that afforded unheard of opportunities for the venturesome. The frontier mentality wanted constantly to seek new horizons.

Blending the New and the Old

For Benedictines, adaptation to the new world took place rapidly. Benedictines must become indigenous at once because the vow of stability roots them in the culture and place where they build their monasteries. They belong to that specific place. Furthermore, new members must come from the country and region.

In blending their old tradition with the new the monks of Saint Vincent saw at once the importance of education. Their solid Bavarian educational tradition with its emphasis on the classics and science held them in good stead. It was not by accident that Saint Vincent College became known in those fields of study. In the new surroundings the monks saw that education was important for everyone, not just for the wealthy. Thus the monks adjusted well to the methods of the new educational systems developing in the United States and tried to add to those their own aesthetic tradition. They succeeded in blending the new and the old in their schools and in their monastic liturgies.

The spirit of rugged individualism was not just an American trait; the Bavarian founders were also strong individualists. Wimmer often had problems with priors assuming authority that was not theirs. The monks used that rugged individualism to good advantage in the founding of new monasteries whose survival required freedom to make decisions and on-the-spot adjustments. Saint Vincent sought, nevertheless, to keep community life intact against the individualism that characterized the nation. The delicate balance between community and individual was not always easy to maintain. The demands of parochial work, with monks often living alone for long periods of time, took monks away from the communal life. In such cases Wimmer tried without much success to form small priories so that the monks could live together. The monks had brought with them from Bavaria humane and compassionate discipline. At least in theory, Saint Vincent never abandoned the importance of community worship, communal meals and recreation, and chapter meetings. As novices continued to learn, the values of community life were extolled and, although practiced with many exceptions, never abandoned.

Schools and Pastoral Activities

Saint Vincent, it must be recalled, was founded before the monastic reforms of the abbeys of Solesmes and Beuron that sought to repudiate the school tradition and emphasize a more contemplative type of monastic life. I doubt if a more enclosed monastic style of life would have adjusted as easily and as quickly to the new American values as did the Bavarian tradition of monasticism with its schools and pastoral activities.

The new monastery in America also continued to develop the talents of its individual members to the fullest. In Europe it was taken for granted that such academic development would already have been finished when one entered the monastery. Monks in Europe did not go to major universities to specialize in various fields of study. One of the intuitive responses of American Benedictines was to value the talents of the individual and gives monks the best specialized training and education.

When Archabbot Alfred Koch called me to his office in 1948 before sending me to Rome for graduate studies, he talked of the importance of good theological training. He instructed me to take the major courses taught by the best scholars in the field but advised me not to absorb my time by taking their exams. He also instructed me to spend the first summer in France to obtain more proficiency in French and to study Gregorian chant, then to spend the second summer in Germany to make myself more proficient in that language and to study piano. In the meantime in Rome I was to take music privately, both theory and piano. “But don’t let your studies interfere with your education,” were his last words. He was being true to the Saint Vincent and American tradition of developing the talents of the individual.

Democratic Processes

Free expression and total participation in governance caused tensions in the monastery but did not seriously divide the community. Throughout the history of Saint Vincent monastic chapter meetings were often heated and intense. As the years went by, the power of the abbot became more and more circumscribed in the canonical constitutions as the seniors and the Chapter began to play a larger role. The Solesmes constitutions, for example, adhered closer to a literal interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict and stated that the abbot was to hear everyone but then to decide what he thought best. At Saint Vincent the abbot was bound by certain decisions of the Council of Seniors, by decisions of the Chapter of those monks living at home, and for the most important decisions by the whole Chapter that included those living outside the monastery. The abbot had to persuade and could not force his personal wishes upon the community.

Democratic processes entered the monastery but never became congregational  in practice, as happened in many mainline Protestant denominations influenced by American democratic principles. Monks disagreed with their abbots but never would have thought of eliminating the concept of abbot itself. A balance was always maintained between strong leadership and the demands of participation that the new culture postulated. Having been a member of the Council of Seniors before coming abbot, I know how much Archabbot Denis Strittmatter, like many abbots before him, struggled with these restrictions which seemed so contrary to the text and spirit of the Rule. Because of the American influence, the style of government in an American monastery tended to be more democratic and participatory.

Prayer and Work

American culture was pragmatic and experiential. The monastery absorbed that culture. Ideological monastic theories rose and fell but none ever took hold within the Saint Vincent community. For example, every decade or so saw the introduction of ideas from the Solesmes or Beuronese reforms that would have brought the monastery into a more contemplative mode, but they were not accepted. A certain pragmatic balance between the basic ideals of the Rule and the needs of the Church was sufficient to maintain the unity of the community. There have been no major ideological splits in the community of Saint Vincent in its history.

The frontier mentality also found expression in the last century in the thrust to found new monasteries. Wimmer’s missionary spirit blended well with the American frontier mentality. New foundations rapidly succeeded one another.

There were some aspects of the American culture that the monastery avoided. For example, the industrial revolution separated work from calling or vocation in life. Work for the middle class often was a drudgery and just a means of earning enough money to keep the family together. The monastery did not accept that trend. Work in the monastery was seen as a part of the monastic vocation and the way each monk contributed to the community, the church, and to society. Such an integration of work with the monastic ideal in the new setting is one of the finest achievements of the monastic tradition of Saint Vincent. Saint Vincent has never been known as a “contemplative  monastery,” but it has never abandoned its quest for balance between prayer and work. Also, it has not lost its thirst for intellectual and artistic pursuits.

The Story is Not Ended

What contribution can American Benedictine monasticism make today, both to Church and society? The monastic experience can teach the Church that participatory processes do not destroy hierarchical structures. The Benedictine Rule in the chapter on “Summoning the Brothers for Counsel” describes the kind of wisdom that the Church today is avidly seeking. Benedict knew that the Holy Spirit speaks through all, even the Daniel or youngest in the community. He knew that the process of discerning the action of the Spirit must involve all. In my years as bishop I can say that I learned much from my monastic experience. I enjoy and profit much from meetings of the Priests’Council and the Lay Pastoral Council. I would ask the consultors to meet every day if I could. Such bodies in the Church have yet to reach their full potential. The monastic tradition with its long history of discerning through listening to all in the community could help. A monastery like Saint Vincent is a fine example of such participatory governance.

The Benedictine ideal of a sane balance between work and prayer could contribute much to our Church and to the world around us. Our society runs at a hectic pace. Few people lead a balanced life. The need to prioritize time and weigh the values of more satisfying personal relationships against more income are real questions for Americans today.

Education in the Bavarian Benedictine tradition has not lost its importance. In addition to the traditional interests in language, literature, history, and the arts, that tradition saw a special mission to the scientists, to those who search for the meaning of this physical universe and all life on it. Benedict saw monastic life as a search for God and that search is one that every religious person is involved in. Since so many in our day do so in pursuits that were once considered secular, such an education can help to integrate life, work, and belief. The monastic experience can be helpful in achieving such an integration.

The Benedictine tradition of doing things well, whether it be art, architecture, or music, says something to our Church in the United States today. The fascination with Gregorian chant, the desire to make retreats in a monastic atmosphere, the mystery of the Liturgy of the Hours well sung all these express a quest for the presence of the transcendent in daily life. The relationship between the aesthetic experience and the religious one was well known to the monks at Saint Vincent and remains a part of their heritage.

The story is not ended. There will be a constant need to reflect on what is good in American culture, what is consonant with the gospel and can be absorbed into the Catholic and Benedictine tradition, and what instead clashes and is harmful. By continuing to do such reflecting monks will also contribute to the ever-changing world they live in. Such contributions are not as visible as those remembered in history like copying manuscripts or teachings people how to farm, but they are no less needed in our day.

Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B.

From Saint Vincent: A Benedictine Place; Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B., editor; Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1995

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