The Power of Benedictine’s Symbols
I discovered Benedictine College in campgrounds across the Midwest 10 years ago, drinking my early morning coffee and hearing the cicadas waking up, and I will use what I learned in my 11th year this fall — coronavirus or no coronavirus.
I had printed out stacks of pages from the college’s website, and had three-hole punched them and arranged them in a binder. I read the vision statement (“we are building one of the great Catholic colleges in America”) the mission statement (“educating students in a community of faith and scholarship”) the four pillars (“Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts and residential”) and the 10 values (starting with “Jesus Christ,” ending with “Prayer and Work”). I also learned the college’s symbols. There is the Benedictine “B” with a cross in it. And there is the Raven ― everywhere, the Raven ― the bird that snatched poisoned bread out of the hand of St. Benedict, saving the monk’s life and locking in the bird’s place as the school’s mascot.
I was preparing to interview at the college. We incorporated the trip for the interview into our family vacation. I took my wife and eight children (at the time) on a road trip from Connecticut to a family reunion in Minnesota. My father-in-law took us on a side-trip to South Dakota. Then we drove on to Kansas. In the mornings, I’d wake in whatever campground we were in and re-read my binder.
There I found a culture. I met the founder of the college, a monk who went AWOL, then made nice with his Archabbey once he had started a new Benedictine community in Atchison. I met the Benedictine sisters who “floated down the Missouri River, unpacked their belongings and used the boxes as their furniture” to found Mount St. Scholastica in town. I met the improbably named founder “Innocent Wolf,” and learned how the college was founded as the Civil War began, endured the Great Depression and World War II, and always with a welcoming spirit. The college prided itself on the rugged “can-do” spirit of its history, and on being a place of hospitality against all odds.
During my interview, I don’t think I ever referred to these stories. I don’t think I ever uttered the buzzwords I had learned. I did not reference the Raven. But I “got” where the school was coming from and where it wanted to go.
They were building one of the great Catholic colleges in America — and being in a small town in Kansas wasn’t going to stop them. It didn’t stop Father Lemke, Mother Kremmeter and Abbot Wolf. They weren’t just a school, they were a community. They weren’t just a community, they were Benedictine and residential. They were bonded by shared experiences in their life together by the Missouri River. They were a family. I had learned this between a motorhome and a campfire, sitting cross-legged in the grass. I got it.
In my first weeks, I began to see just how bonded this family is by their symbols.
At convocation, I witnessed a procession of faculty in robes — a custom with Benedictine origins — but also a procession of freshmen in beanies. I had seen those freshmen “get their beanies” a week before at a banquet. A tough ex-football player addressed them: “When you put on that beanie, you’re stepping into 1,500 years of Benedictine tradition,” he said. Then he got stern ― teary-eyed stern: “You’re standing on the shoulders of centuries of men and women. Make. Them. Proud.” Then the Freshmen came to the stage in groups, donned their beanies and, on cue, cawed. They cawed like ravens. They cawed with pride. From that day forward, for a week, they had to wear those beanies every day or be forced to caw like a raven in a public place. (Not that there’s anything wrong with cawing like a raven in a public place.)
A week later, at the convocation, President Stephen Minnis, the mission-driven president of the college, addressed the Freshmen who stood nervously before him. “In a moment, I’m going to let you take your beanies off. At that point you will be fully in the community of Benedictine College. You will be a Raven. Marines are always marines, and you will always be a Raven.” When he gave the word, they took their hats off, and then — in unplanned glee — they began clapping their hands rhythmically. If you know this school, you know what happened next. They launched into the school fight song, accompanied by the ritual choreography that always accompanies the song. They were Ravens. They were proud.
The features of the ritual sound silly. The ritual itself is not silly. It is fun and light-hearted, but not awkward or odd. The rituals, the stories, the heroes and the symbols are constantly reinforced on campus.
I told you about the first week of school. A week later came another ritual: The dedication of the new grotto. When Benedictine College built their grotto, they didn’t just pile some rocks and apply mortar. They brought in Lourdes water France, to mix the concrete with. In this concrete, somewhere, they embedded a St. Benedict medal, as they always do in every new building. This time they also embedded a rosary in the foundation ― one blessed by Pope Benedict, who took St. Benedict’s name.
When Mary’s Grotto was completed, President Minnis told the story of a monk lost in the prairies of Kansas who prayed to Our Lady for help, afraid he would die alone. At that moment a girl woke from her prairie bed and her mother lit a candle and put it in the window — because the girl had seen a beautiful lady dressed in white at the foot of her bed. The monk was Father Lemke, and Benedictine College was founded it in 1858 ― the very year that another small-town girl was seeing that same lady dressed in white in faraway Lourdes, France.
Benedictine’s grotto is thus a place of prayer and reflection. But it is more. It’s a kind of grotto of dreams, a “build it and they will come” place where heaven stooped down and beckoned. That’s the meaning that these stories and rituals create: The connection between a muddy Kansas field with a storm drenching a frightened monk and the Mother of God filling a place with mystical possibility so great the earth can’t contain it.
This symbol system of Benedictine College points to true things about the school. It really is a place of extraordinary hospitality, and people there really can touch the divine through the sacraments and theology. But it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your trajectory is going to be totally different if you launch from a beanie banquet into a culture of symbol and service than it would be without those aids. The rituals aren’t cultic ― there are no limitations put on people or strong-arming to get them to conform. They are cultural. They are human. They have the weight of tradition (1,500 years of it), they have humor (“Caw like a raven!”) they have specialized language (down to the pronunciation of the school’s name: Benedict-in to Ravens, Benedict-een to everyone else) and they even have a kind of magic (“A lady dressed in white woke me …”). These symbols are like a combination of the Boy Scouts and a fairy tale, a family and a public institution ― an Abbey, a Mount, and a college.
When the president gathers the faculty for his remarks for the beginning of the year in Fall 2020, there will be a lot of talk about the year’s limitations: Masks. Social distancing. Fewer athletic games.
But maybe he will say something like what he said the year I started here:
“Especially after talking about tough times, I want share with you our theme: ‘Forward, always forward, everywhere forward.’ These are the words of Abbot Wimmer. He said: ‘Forward, always forward, everywhere forward! We must not be held back by debts, bad years or by difficulties of the times. Man’s adversity is God’s opportunity.’
“I love that phrase: ‘Man’s adversity is God’s opportunity.’ We here at Benedictine College know the truth of those words more than most. You have all heard the early history of the college — founded in the teeth of the Civil War, we endured despite the Great Depression, and built in the face of World War II. From the very beginning, Benedictine College has lived in the crucible where man’s adversity becomes God’s opportunity.
“We still do, today. Times are tough, but we will go ‘Forward, always forward, everywhere forward!’ as we turn adversity into opportunity.”
I know what we often say, and we’re usually right: Slogans are cheesy. Corporate inspirational cheerleading is “cheap grace” at best. “Win one for the Gipper” appeals are usually thinly veiled rhetorical tricks to make you do more for less. Spin it one way and it’s “vision.” Spin it another way and it’s manipulation.
But I must say how I felt when I heard those words. I felt proud. I felt like I was standing on the shoulders of giants. I felt 1,500 years of tradition buoying me up. I felt watched over by a beautiful lady in white who offered warmth and healing. I felt “damn the torpedos – full speed ahead!”
I felt every inch a Raven.