Faith’s Archivists

The secret evacuations began at night. Ancient books were packed in small metal shoe-lockers and loaded three or four to a car to reduce the danger to the driver and minimise possible losses. The manuscript-traffickers passed through the checkpoints of their Islamist occupiers on the journey south across the desert from Timbuktu to Bamako. Later, when that road was blocked, they transported their cargo down the Niger river by canoe.

So begins a really gripping story in The Economist about our Hill Museum and Manuscript Library: “Faith’s Archivists.”

HMML has a historic emphasis on medieval Latin manuscripts, but has increasingly branched out into filming Islamic and other materials in the Middle East.

I’m more than a bit proud of my confrere and good friend, Fr. Columba Stewart OSB, who is director of HMML. The Economist says of him and of us:

St. John’s Abbey was founded in 1862 and moved here in 1865. Its monks make honey, candles and fine furniture, but have not brewed beer since a temperate Minnesota archbishop forbade it in the 1880s. They spend each day gardening and teaching, following rules set down by St Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century that call for a balance of prayer and work in everyday life. Occupying a great deal of their affection, and most of Father Columba’s time, is the abbey’s library.

It’s thrilling and sometimes dangerous work, filming manuscripts in war-torn regions. And it’s very important. I’m glad there is this connection between the Middle East and Collegeville.

On the other side of the world, Father Columba heads back to the monastery’s guest house, where the windows are streaked with ice. “Benedictines are fundamentally optimistic about the human project. That’s why we’re not frightened by science or novelty,” he says. “When people look at what we’re doing with Muslim communities, they say, why do you do this? I say, this is the time God has given us. We can’t pretend we live in the sixth century when Benedict wrote his rule, or the 13th, or the 1950s, before the sexual revolution. We live now. And part of the reality is cultures which are threatened trying to figure out how to work together on this fragile planet.”









One comment

  1. Yes, this is a really nice article – highly recommended. As a faithful reader of both The Economist and PrayTell, I was thrilled to read it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.