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In Europe, Insight on a Mountain

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Scala students visit statue of St. Benedict  at Ampleforth Abbey

Scala students visit statue of St. Benedict at Ampleforth Abbey

Scala students visit statue of St. Benedict at Ampleforth Abbey

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I had the privilege of spending 4 weeks traveling throughout five different countries in Europe. My trip began with a 10-day summer program called the “Scala Summer Seminar” (http://scalafoundation.org/rediscovering-integral-humanism/). The seminar started at Oxford University and finished at Ampleforth Abbey in York (a Benedictine monastery).

The Seminar packed in a semester’s worth of readings and discussions, all centering around the topic of “Integral Humanism.” This idea, coined by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, might sound a bit intimidating. But it’s actually very much relevant to what we believe at SBP.

Within each human being  is a set of needs and desires. Some are “horizontal,” others are “vertical.” In other words, we have material and psychological needs for things like food, shelter, a loving family and community, and so on. On top of all this, we need a deeper, transcendent sense of meaning. Without this, our work and relationships remain without roots. We need something more substantial than our material well-being or emotional contentment provides.

Maritain realized that modern society largely ignores the need for something eternally true. The result is that we just seek success or pleasure, and end up treating each other like mere cogs in a machine, or numbers in a system. But the fact is, our dignity as humans stems from our being made in the image of our transcendent creator, and thus are worth much more than anything we accomplish or produce.

One topic that struck me in particular was our discussion about Peter Brown’s writings on monasticism in the early church and Rod Dreher’s book The Benedictine Option. Rod Dreher’s thesis is that contemporary culture has become so hostile to a vertical worldview that religious people need to retreat into small intentional communities, following St. Benedict’s example during the sack of Rome. Brown’s central notion, however,, asserted that the early monks were not trying to hide from the world. Rather, he wrote, they were trying to live their faith with more intensity and sincerity. Naturally, other people were attracted to their holiness, their “integral humanity,” and wanted to be involved (whether internally or externally) with their lifestyle.

I shared with the others at the seminar that this is what we do at SBP. While the school is separated from the rest of the city as a “holy ground,” it is open to the people of the city. We welcome them to come and have a taste of Christian communal life, where each person’s material and spiritual needs are accounted for and nourished. We offer opportunities for students to grow in knowledge, brotherhood, holiness, and in life experience. From our experiential Spring Phase classes, to our Jesus Runs, and our group system, our students are offered a space to grow into full (or integral) personhood.

Few of my classmates knew of academic institutions like ours that ascribe to such an integral view of its students. I see how this has allowed me to have meaningful relationships with my students and coworkers in a way that many teachers are not able to because of the restrictions and “data driven” ideals that are imposed on them. In addition to reading about monasticism, spending time with the monks at Ampleforth Abbey (which being in the middle of the British countryside is quite distinct from Newark Abbey) has reaffirmed just how much the centuries-old tradition of Benedictine monasticism continues to offer a uniquely human way of living faith and community life. I left the seminar with a deeper sense of gratitude for the freedom that SBP affords me as a teacher.

After the seminar, my travels brought me to France, Spain, and my “mother countries”: Greece and Italy. While in Italy, I visited the first monastery founded by St. Benedict himself in Subiaco.

As much as I’ve gotten to learn about the Benedictine charism while working at SBP for the past 4 years, I don’t think I fully understood its radical nature until this trip. Being in the physical place where Benedict said “yes” to God’s call so many years ago allowed me to look at the tradition “face to face.” Up on the mountain, there’s nothing else to do other than pray and work. It’s such a simple lifestyle, and yet it generated a cultural and spiritual revolution which changed Europe and eventually the whole world. And it continues to impact our daily lives (literally…we would not be at SBP if it wasn’t for Benedict’s “yes”)!

“Up on the mountain (at St. Benedict’s monastery in Subiaco), there’s nothing else to do other than pray and work.”

Usually when I think about the needs of the people in my life and in the world in general, I start thinking up ideas to “fix” these problems. It’s not just me. Everywhere I turn, someone on the news has some “new” plan to fix or change society for the better. Yet they never seem to be able to follow through on the change they promised. What’s surprising about Benedict’s “revolution” is that he had no intention to fix Rome or “make the world a better place.” Rather, it all began with a simple “yes” to the daily work and prayer life that God placed in front of him. Seems ridiculous, right? Rome is burning, and you want me to just pray and work all day? But the evidence is irrefutable. Admiral William McRaven’s words came to mind as I left Subiaco: “If you want to change the world, start by making your bed.”

I’m starting this school year asking if obedience to my daily tasks–from things as basic as greeting my students at the door with a smile to teaching my lessons with passion–will be of more use than my “schemes and dreams” to fix the world’s problems.

 

If you’d like to read more about my travels, feel free to check out some of my blog posts:

https://english.clonline.org/letters/2018/08/17/christ-s-face-in-our-work

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cracksinpomo/2018/07/406/

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cracksinpomo/2018/07/monks-in-newark-york-and-beyond/

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In Europe, Insight on a Mountain