It’s strange to be here among the monks. St. John’s is a university and abby both, so streets and walkways and hallways are full of teenagers dressed in the shorts and t-shirts you’d expect to see at a college campus on a hot summer day. What you don’t expect to see are these guys in their long, starched, dark, hooded robes, bodies covered from forehead to toe tip, their only concession to the heat the hoods drawn back on their shoulders. There are a handful here from another order wearing belted white tunics over their robes, either Cistercians or Trappists, I think, who roll up their sleeves a bit below the elbow. But the Benedictines don’t truck with that sort of casual attire; according to The Rule of St. Benedict, they even sleep clothed and girded with belts or cords, though they are supposed to remove their knives “lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep.” Tough bunch.
Yet they are incredibly, unbelievably hospitable. This setting, the Butler Center, the cottages overlooking the lake, these expansive grounds, the unifying architecture of the place – all of this is soothing, calming, welcoming. Last night I watched Dieter stare down a deer as he walked back to his cottage after supper; in the dictionary I believe there is a small photo of the Collegeville Institute adjacent the word idyllic. Even all the lawn furniture matches – and it is all for our use for a week. They joke about the food, its abundance, the presence of tater tots at every meal, our choice of meal sites (cold breakfast and lunch at the center, hot meals at the refectory). A cooler full of wine and microbrews anticipates our arrival wherever we happen to land for supper, with a college senior in tow to hold our hand and set the table and a standing invitation to raid the refrigerators any time of day or night “because we want you to feel at home.” Then there is the reason we are here, the reason they have brought us here. Every day, an entire morning free to write; every afternoon, ninety minutes set aside for a bracing critique of our work, led by a gifted writer who claims to be both an introvert and hard of hearing, yet somehow never misses an opportunity to silence our excuses, distractions and digressions. Last night I tried to share my astonishment at their generosity with the Institute’s assistant director. She smiled, then said simply, “According to the Rule of St. Benedict, guests are to be welcomed as Christ. The Rule is very much alive among the monks.”
Those are the real stars, the monks. Like loving Darth Vaders they linger in the background, setting the tone, ancient yet intense. We’ve been invited to dinner in the Great Hall with three of their shining stars: Father Killian, the Institute’s founder; Father Luigi, a member of the board; Father Wilfred, a retired professor who had lived at the Institute itself for 30 years. Our table drew Luigi, who charms us with stories about growing up in Venice and twice falling into the canals, the second time into water so cold he leapt out so fast his underwear was still dry. His accent is painfully thick, the conversation ponderous and paced, yet this gentle man would know our names, where we’re from, what we do, and I find myself wanting desperately to please him. So for the second time I try to express my astonishment and gratitude for such outrageous hospitality, and Luigi becomes silent, deep brown eyes widening and searching, and I think I have offended him. For the briefest moment he looks shyly down and away, then looks back up at me and smiles. It is the most stunning thing, his smile, and to say it lights up his whole face is to understate its brilliance. It is the smile of a child who has found something wonderful on the seashore, the smile of an old woman as she holds her first grandchild, the smile of that girl ahead of you in the checkout line when she’d run out of change and you passed all of yours to the cashier. Father Luigi smiles, just smiles, and then he says, “The Rule of St. Benedict tells us that guests are to be welcomed as Christ.”
I have never seen anyone express such joy in serving another, the simple joy of offering a meal, a bed, a prayer, a breath. This old man has squandered his life to offer strangers like me a moment of peace, and I have met the living word in his smile.