Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #112.  First published in the St. Cloud Times Nov. 2, 2016; in print Nov 6

I’m not endorsing anyone.

Columnists were given permission to advocate, since the Times decided not to make choices in state legislative races. I have strong preferences. Regular readers will have no trouble guessing what they are. To use these inches of print to tout candidates would alter my relationship with both my fans and my foes.

I’m not saying anything further about the St. Cloud school district levy referendum. I’ve written about it before. The Times has published informative articles and persuasive opinion pieces. You know I agree with the Times Editorial Board: “Yes, Yes” is the right response.

Here’s what I’m writing about — hope and reassurance and civility when such notes are faint, even inaudible, in our public discourse.

Last month those notes sounded loud and clear at a funeral. Sister Shaun O’Meara, OSB, had died of Alzheimer’s at age 85. I knew her well for several decades. Indeed, for a dozen years she was one of my bosses, as a board member of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research.

A monastic funeral is a case study in community. The sisters process along beside the coffin, bow to the altar and then to each other. One member speaks about the departed, in what amounts to both a eulogy and a meditation on a life lived in what St. Benedict called “a school for the Lord’s service.” There is no claim of perfection; after all, Benedict says he wrote “a little Rule for beginners.”

I thought about Sister Shaun — her legacy of teaching as a professor of theology, of leadership (she was in charge of St. Benedict’s Monastery’s daughter house in Japan for several years), of commitment to ecumenical and interfaith reconciliation— and suddenly I wasn’t as gloomy as I had been earlier in the day, awash in the latest uglinesses churned up by the season’s politics.

During the funeral service, my mind catapulted into the tachometer’s red zone as I marveled at the range of experience and wisdom arrayed in that chapel. Stories I’ve heard about those who have gone before tumbled from my memory and mingled with my first-hand knowledge of Sister Colman and Sister Linda and Sister Theresa and so many more.

Several years ago a student at the College of St. Benedict wrote about meeting some Benedictine sisters: “They see the world in many colors.”

This hints at the gift the sisters are to us. When the skies of our public life are overcast and our spirits fogged, their life reminds us that there are rainbows. Indeed, I suspect that the sisters go beyond the visible spectrum and have glimpses into infrared and ultraviolet spiritual realms.

Are you tired of being caricatured by those who disagree with you on politics and religion? Are you secretly ashamed of your own mocking of them?

In the 159 years since Mother Benedicta Riepp and five companions arrived from Bavaria, the Sisters of St. Benedict’s Monastery have been demonstrating how human types of every variety can create a home together. If you don’t get your way, you don’t whine that the system is rigged. And you don’t get voted off the island.

Are you tired of stale arguments about leadership that get bogged down in win-lose, or even lose-lose?

There is a terrific story from 1965 that illustrates Benedictine women’s way of leading both gently and firmly.

The formidable 72-year-old Bishop Peter Bartholome of St. Cloud and the equally formidable Mother Rosamond Pratschner, OSB, of St. Benedict’s, nearly 80, are conversing. The backstory is the successful effort by the sisters to switch from diocesan to papal oversight.

“You know you and I really haven’t gotten along very well. You are a very independent lady, but I have to tell you one thing. I do admire you. I didn’t think it was a good thing for the sisters to become pontifical, but you believed it was. Despite my opposition you hung on to the idea. I really admire you!”

Mother Rosamond replies, “Thank you, Bishop. I felt it was the right thing to do and I still do.”

“Well,” responds the bishop, “perhaps.”

Seldom are bishops cornered so they have to leave it at “perhaps.” In this case, it was a woman who did it.

Are you tired of hopelessness, of fearing that everything is falling apart and nobody has a clue?

I wish you had been with me in Sacred Heart Chapel on that October afternoon, in the midst of a gallery of characters, both living and dead, whose example is a powerful antidote to what ails us as a society and culture. For an hour, at least, you’d have felt part of a wondrous story, a true story, right here in our neighborhood.