On Monday evening, April 11, 1994, the provost of Saint Vincent College, Brother Norman Hipps, O.S.B., addressed a Student Government Association assembly about a number of issues facing the school. The audience, composed of almost a hundred faculty members and students, listened to comments concerning grading, tuition, athletics, violence, dormitory expansion, and development. As he summed up his remarks, Brother Norman produced a pocket edition of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and read the following lines from the Prologue:
Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.
The very fact that such a sixth-century document could be read to a post-modern generation is in itself remarkable. But just as remarkable is the ease by which a monastic rule was adapted by the provost to an academic mission. The assembly listened intently, evidencing a quiet sense that this was somehow foundational to their academic lives and human formation. The silence and then the ovation which followed were a sign of their reaffirmation of a fundamental orientation of Saint Vincent College as Benedictine.
Saint Benedict’s description of a monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service” renders it a fitting center of spiritual education so congenial for the emergence of analogous schools of intellectual life. The inscription over the entrance of Wimmer Hall echoes this theme from the Rule: “Come, children, and hear me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Teaching is the mission of Saint Benedict in his “school.” Likewise, he regards the abbot as an instructor whose teaching “should, like a leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of his disciples.” Education as a model for spiritual and communal formation is so suffused throughout Benedict’s Rule that it quite naturally develops into a primary Benedictine mission. Benedict’s frequent allusions to the monks as “students,” “beginners,” and “children” provide the monastery with a keen appreciation of the profound potentiality of the young to learn and be formed: “Every age and level of understanding should receive appropriate treatment.”
If the education model was valuable to Benedict to elaborate the character of a monastery, then it is likewise true that the model of the monastery provides the Benedictine college with a special character as well. A monastery is a community of the most intense and encompassing nature, where the temporal and social unity of a group is confirmed by a spirit of vocational and prayerful union. Placed in the heart of an educational institution which revolves around it, the monastic communion becomes a source of community and identity for many others.
The prayers of the monastic community of Saint Vincent have long provided a basic and intimate component of the college which shares its name. When parents of students are ill, when a maintenance worker is hospitalized, when a faculty member’s family is grieved, or when exam-time pressures increase, requests for prayer flow readily to the monastery, are posted on its bulletin board, and are raised up in the petition of its community prayer. When death brushes one of the families of Saint Vincent’s outer circle, its inner circle gathers and seals the moment with an invocation for divine mercy. This is a rite for which the college community feels an entitlement, and a feature of social life that binds it together in a unique way.
On a more organic level, the monastic community supplies not only an intellectual and administrative resource for the college, but also an anchor of persons committed for the long haul to its students. The peculiar vow of monastic stability gives to the Benedictine college a long memory and a profound sense of continuity across several generations. Saint Vincent alumni touch base with the past, and comprehend the present state of the college by inquiring of the succession of monks who served there. “When did Father Armand die?” “Does Father John still teach anthropology?” “Is Father Earl back in Admissions?” “Who is the new moderator in Aurelius Hall?” Students who do the annual telethons realize this reality very forcefully when their conversations with alumni invariably turn to such questions.
Furthermore, the Benedictine charism of Saint Vincent College includes all members of the academic community. Laypersons comprise two-thirds of the faculty and are partners with Benedictines in accomplishing the mission of the college. Saint Vincent is a college of tutorial pedagogy, where professors are commonly perceived to be so committed to the project of student formation that they can be prevailed upon to linger after class, extend office hours, participate in student events, and offer counsel in the vicissitudes of youth. Lay and monastic faculty members alike feel the weight of the truth which is so critically Benedictine: education succeeds only within a grand investment of care and personal interest.
Such investment of care may be associated with Christ’s own care, or with doing the work of God in the world. Faculty members may share these sentiments, or perceive their investment within the broad university tradition of mentoring – making real the solicitude of their Alma Mater, their caring mother. But even this tradition of mentoring is itself a legacy of an epoch when schools were the province of monasteries. Education was an act of adoption into a community in order to learn from a loving teacher. Saint Benedict says of the abbot and, by extension, to the teacher in a Benedictine college:
The abbot must always remember what he is and remember what his is called, aware that more will be expected of a man to whom more has been entrusted. He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate. He must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence that he will not only keep the flock entrusted to his care from dwindling, but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock.
Mark Gruber, O.S.B.