A tribute to Saint John’s on the Feast of Saint Benedict

I’ve lived in California for most of my life. And as a baby liturgist, I always knew that one day I’d study at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, because from what everyone told me, that was the birthplace of the liturgical movement in the United States. So in the summer of 2001, I flew from LAX to MSP, rented a car, turned left, and went about 90 miles to where there were only cows, pine trees, mosquitoes, and monks.

Now I had been raised on a steady diet of OCP and GIA, a lot of badly played organ, and a good portion of decent “folk” ensembles. I had little exposure to hymnody, chant, and the organ as the primary instrument next to the voice, much less the daily practice of the hours. So aside from finding out that “pop” meant soda, discovering the wonder of brats and kraut, experiencing the beauty of lightning, and learning never to take a path to the lake through the woods without wearing a thick layer of Deet or a bio-hazard full-body suit, Saint John’s opened up for me an entirely new window into our liturgical tradition, and I am most grateful for everything that place taught me.

There, I learned about the liturgy—how it works and how it doesn’t, why, and why we all need to be so attentive to it—as much from praying it daily with the monks as I did from studying it in the classroom. Each fed and flowed from the other. That rhythm of daily prayer and study became for me my own ora et labora.

On the first day of my first six-week summer there (just before that fateful detour into the woods), I visited the grave of Virgil Michel, OSB, and asked him to help me. In honesty, after about two weeks, I thought I had made a mistake in coming there. Central Minnesota is worlds apart from Southern California in so many ways. But somehow Virgil and all the monks there got me through. And through it all, I fell even more deeply in love with the liturgy and with Saint John’s.

Today is the Benedictine community’s feast day, always a grand event at the Abbey. My most favorite memories of this day are the banner bells calling us to pray (and rung again as we sang the Gospel Canticle at the office) and this passage proclaimed every year from Sirach:

Frequent the company of the elders; whoever is wise, stay close to him.
Be eager to hear every godly discourse; let no wise saying escape you.
If you see a person of prudence, seek that person out;
let your feet wear away the path to his doorstep! (6:34-36)

Good advice for us all.

At the graduation banquet for the School of Theology·Seminary, each graduate gets to say a few words before his or her fellow classmates and professors. I want to share with you what I said at my graduation because I think it conveys the beauty I saw at Saint John’s and my deep gratitude for how that community has shaped me in this work of the liturgy we share. On this feast day, I remember them and pray for their continued blessing.

Saint John’s University
School of Theology·Seminary Summer Graduation Banquet
July 22, 2005

Years ago, as I was preparing to begin my first real full-time liturgy job, I did a very Californian, Gen X thing and got a tattoo to mark the transition. And two weeks before I left for Saint John’s for this last summer of study, I did another very trendy thing and got my navel pierced. I figured if I could survive poking a hole in my belly-button, I could handle comps. These may sound like strange ways to mark these significant events, but someone told me that my last name, “Macalintal,” means “marked.” So marked I would be.

I wouldn’t have believed it back then when I started five years ago, but I believe it now. I believe we have all been marked by this place called Saint John’s, marked by something deeper than superficial tattoos and piercings.

We have been marked by feast and vigil, stone and colored glass, piercing bell and penetrating silence, wooden jubilee canes and simple pine coffins. We have been marked by the rhythm of morning and noontime, evening and night, hot sticky days of summertime heat and welcomed breezes on lazy afternoons. Mosquito and deerfly have left their marks on us, calligraphied rainbows of God’s Word have illumined us, potters hands have shaped us, music has infiltrated us, and teachers have breathed Spirit back into us.

In this place, we have been measured by the rule of Benedict, scrutinized by the alien figure of John the Baptist, and pondered over by the gaze of Mary, the bearer of Wisdom. Here we have breathed the same Spirit-filled air as those named Virgil, Aelred, and Godfrey, and we have been revivified by the loving spirit of those such as Patty, Bill, and Abbot John.

I will forever be marked by the memory of professors named Anthony, Dominic, and Theresa, Max, Christian, and Jim, Thomas, Martin, Kevin, and Charles, and by the stories of so many who have come through the summer doors of the School of Theology.

But most of all, I will be marked by the profound beauty that I have witnessed here during my five summers—that deepest beauty of creation and humanity, time and space struggling to live together in harmony; the beauty found in the cultivation of flower and harvest, in the discipline of musicians and the expectant hope of the potter and kiln, in the lectures that become poetry and you just have to put down your pen and listen. It is the beauty of student and teacher striving for truth and clarity and in the end realizing that it is all tremendous mystery. It is the beauty of a community of faith, living daily in work and prayer, struggling to be faithful through abuse and accusation, apathy and agedness. It is people of faith, working in parishes and schools, beaten down by despair and disappointment, disrespect and division, living through divorce, debt, and doubt, yet still loving this sinful and holy Church of ours, and giving all they have to see it breathe life again into our weary world.

It is this beauty that I will live for and work for and strive for, Sunday after Sunday, through word, music, movement, and environment, through action and stillness, time and timelessness—the beauty of tired hands presenting broken gifts and broken lives and knowing that they are the best we can offer before the aching beauty of the cross.

I give thanks for all of you, especially for my conspirator, Nick, the one who breathes with me. I will miss this place and all of you connected with it, but I will take with me the mark of beauty that you have impressed upon me. I believe we have come from Beauty, and I believe we will gather once again in Beauty.

My first day here, I came to this Great Hall and fell in love with these angels—not your Hallmark card angels, but angels you don’t want to mess with. Now the circle has closed and I return here again to this Great Hall and offer to you these words of love by Annie Dillard.

Angels, I read, belong to nine different orders. Seraphs are the highest; they are aflame with love for God, and stand closer to him than the others. Seraphs love God…. The seraphs are born of a stream of fire issuing from under God’s throne. They are, according to Dionysius the Areopagite, “all wings,” having, as Isaiah notes, six wings apiece, two of which they fold over their eyes. Moving perpetually toward God they perpetually praise him, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy…. But according to some rabbinic writings, they can sing only the first “Holy” before the intensity of their love ignites them and dissolves them again, perpetually, into flames. (Holy the Firm)

May we all be marked by beauty, ignited by faith, and dissolved by love for all those whom our God loves.

6 comments

  1. One of the great blessings of my life was to spend my last three undergraduate years at Saint John’s during the Vatican Council.

    Saint John’s was post Vatican II even during the Council. I had Latin, Greek and a philosophy minor as a pre-divinity student, but was an English major, and lived in the regular student dorms rather than the pre-divinity dorm after my first year. The Office of the choir monks was still in Latin, but the brothers sang Gelineau Psalms downstairs. I preferred the Latin Vespers; we sat in the empty brothers choir upstairs.

    Hopefully Virgil Michel would be pleased that the real indelible mark of Saint John’s for me was in social justice: my introduction to the Catholic Worker, civil rights and anti-war movements. All these influenced my decision to choose an interdisciplinary psychology and sociology doctoral program.

    The liturgy culture wars began immediately at Saint John’s. The monks were interested in being a model for parish liturgy; some of us students wanted guitar music. So a separate student guitar Sunday Mass was instituted. Some of us students who preferred Latin Vespers also preferred guitar music at Mass! Ideological consistency did not develop quickly.

    I like to think of my undergraduate degree from Saint John’s and my masters in spirituality from ND after retirement as the bookends that frame my life as a social scientist.

  2. What Diana has not reported is that at the end of her remarks, there was a standing ovation from her student colleagues. In retrospect, we were applauding our own experience of Saint John’s as much as we were applauding her stirring remarks.

    I think a lot of us in the Liturgical Studies program made our way out to the monastic cemetery at one time or another to pay our heroes a visit — Godfrey Diekmann (d. 2002) and Frank Kacmarcik (d. 2004) were two that I had met in life, admired greatly and visited regularly on that most holy hill. (On occasion they also had to listen to me rant about the state of the church ecumenical generally, and of liturgical affairs particularly. . . but that’s another story.)

    Living and dead, they were praying for us, these monks of Saint John’s — and they still do, day in, day out. And the doors of the Abbey Church and the stalls of the monastic choir were open to us for the Offices every day: What a tremendous gift. . . what an amazing formation!

    To the monks of Saint John’s Abbey (and to Benedictines throughout the world): Happy Feast Day! Happy Feast Day, and thanks.

  3. What a moving tribute. Thank you Diana.
    Keep doing what you are doing, St. John’s Abbey–it’s a blessing!
    And happy feast day to all Benedictines.

  4. I first heard of St. John’s in high school and always had this yearning to go there. I finally had a chance in the summer of 2001 when I attended LIFE (http://ilmdayton.org/life.htm). Eventually, the Holy Spirit led me back to this holy place and I am so grateful for my time there. I am also glad to hear I wasn’t the only visiting Virgil in the cemetery. Praise God for this community!

  5. As the director of Little Rock Scripture Study for many years, a partner with Liturgical Press, I had many opportunities in the ’90s to travel to St. John’s and take in the monastic spirit and hospitality of the abbey and university. Diana’s wonderful tribute to this holy ground resonated powerfully with me too. I have no doubt believing that her peers gave her a rousing ovation on that occasion. I’m sure that California has benefitted from the Benedictine charisms of the monks and faculty at St. John’s and I know that St. John’s was changed forever by the wonderful spirit of southern California and Diana Macalintal.

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