Monday, May 19, 2008

Flashback: Pre-Vatican II Days at Saint John’s, the Bull of the Woods and the Birth of am 18-Year-Old Rebel for Fair Lady’s Favor.


[Fifty-plus years of memories written for my kids and grandchildren].

The Old Saint John’s of Blessed Memory.

There you are in 1946, a just turned 18-year-old, away from home for the first time, living in a college dormitory, part of an historic Benedictine abbey founded in 1857. tucked away in the midst of a dense 1,400-acre forest, with the hourly ringing of the huge abbey bells calling monks to prayers beginning with Matins (4 a.m.), Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (mid-morning prayer), None (afternoon prayer), Vespers (evening) and Compline (before retiring).

Just as Benedict at Monte Cassino, 19th century founders of Saint John’s abbey located it around a farm (500 acres), abundant maple trees (monks tap them for syrup), dairy cows, chickens, a wood workshop, scriptorium (now where a modern printing press was established) and kitchen. In 1946, Benedictine nuns from Germany who speak not a word of English are locked away in a separate convent to supply the cooking, washing of Mass linens and mending of vestments.

You are not a monk nor do you wish even remotely to be one, but you are indentured to an institution operating under the Rule of Saint Benedict that was written in 530 A. D.--and as a teen-age freshman, with your colleagues about the lowest on the totem pole. For this 18-year-old it was exciting, as different from university life that I had imagined as possible. Everyone else seemed to be going to college in cities, surrounded by secular environment. Taking the buses and trains to Loyola and DePaul in Chicago. But nothing of the sort here. These are the reenactment of the glorious Middle Ages.

And your life is affected. as a college student, by the ritual the monks follow. Benedict ordered that the monks behave as a family with the Abbot the father. In 1946 the stricture was rigidly observed for authoritarian rule. Chapter V of the Rule insists on prompt, ungrudging and absolute obedience to the Abbot “in all things lawful,” including “unhesitating obedience.” In 1946, all meals for students are held in the general refectory, waiters carry on tin trays the meals prepared by cloistered Benedictine nuns who remain behind doors and are unseen You dine in full view of your many (not all) of your professors, most of whom sit at a central table (the remainder of the monastic community takes meals in the cloistered abbey with readings from the Rule by monks. The Abbot eats with his flock to which he is seen as spiritual father.

University Regimen Circa 1946.

But back at the university refectory, the entire student body goes to Mass at 7:30 a.m. (not flatly required but seriously expected), then at 8:15 arrives at the refectory and stands waiting at their places at attention for the Dean to arrive who then hits a bell and everyone begins making the Sign of the Cross and expressing Grace, joined by the students. Lunch is at 12, dinner at 6 p.m. For the evening meal, it’s meat, potatoes, veggies and the abbey’s specialty, warm, whole wheat “Johnny bread.” When the meal is completed, all await the decision of the monks at the central table to arise. Everyone stands up, blesses themselves, says the benediction and allows the monks to withdraw before the students leave.

Sound tough? Not at all! Exhilarating is more like it. I missed World War II and military service by 6 months and was disappointed that there would be no rigid formality for me. Now there is and it’s better than nothing. It’s an adventure, really. I could never imagine the same monastery discipline being applied to me as it is to the black-robed community and…well…it’s fun, sort of. Certainly novel.

In 1946, the central routine of the university turns on the regimen of monastic life and the encouragement of spiritual growth that Benedict fashioned. In fact, the abbey-university acts like Benedict of Nursia just died. A scion of rich, noble Roman parents, he went to Rome at my age—19 or 20 at the most--to study law and became appalled by its sexual license and depravity. With a few young men who wanted to join him in the virtuous life, he fled from his studies taking with him (as a rich kid of the time would) his old nurse as a servant. They lived in a cave in the rugged mountain region of Subiaco to live. He designed a regimen of work and prayer. They made him their Abbot. For some of them, Benedict was too tough a disciplinarian. After a brief revolt, he moved with his followers who loved his austerity to Monte Cassino where he wrote the Rule. Monasteries had existed before him, but by the end of his life Benedictines were the model and his Rule became widely imitated.

In subsequent years, there were monasteries which turned decadent, yes—but monks left and built reformed ones. The time may be coming at this current Saint John’s to do this now.

In all things, with Benedict’s pre-Vatican II abbot successors, the monastery’s needs came first. So it was with the founding of Saint John’s. Saint John’s (named after the Baptizer) started as monastery, then a school for Indians, then a school for the white settlers and such youth around Saint Cloud, Minnesota who might be interested in attending. When the first Benedictines came to Saint Cloud from Saint Vincent’s abbey in Pennsylvania, they stopped at the Mississippi and looked for a boat to get across. The teen-aged son of the owner of the Edelbrock Inn volunteered his boat. The son joined them, labored as a brother, then a postulant for the priesthood, finally a priest and ultimately became Abbot of Saint John’s—Alexis Edelbrock.

Somewhat pliable and easy to please, Alexis passed the torch to Abbot Peter.Engel OSB a tough taskmaster but more martinet than spiritual. Then in 1921 the ideal combination of martinet and spiritual father took over…a man in the venerable image of Benedict, Alcuin Deutsch OSB who was both Abbot and president when I attended the university. A tiny man in his 60s then, trembling slightly with the beginnings of Parkinson’s, nevertheless when he led his crew into the abbey church for Matins at 4:30 a.m. carrying his shepherd’s crook the crosier, he was respected, feared, venerated and called at 5 feet four, a small man but every inch an Abbot.

In 1946, students exist and are taught at the convenience of the Benedictine monks who are excellently trained in the liberal arts with a solid Catholic underscoring. Catholicism permeates all the classes. Ancient history as taught deals superbly with the Greeks, Romans but zeroes in on the Middle East and devolves on the awaiting of the Messiah. The Dark Ages (falsely named) on the laboring of the (Benedictine) monks to preserve the treasures of the West from the barbarian. Medieval on the sanctity of the period plus the beginnings of decadence. Renaissance on the excessive materialism of the age. Contemporary on how wealth leads man away from God. Through each of the four years is integrated art appreciation, literature with emphasis on the immortal classics. Political science on the move from ancient chivalry to democracy. Heroes are the saints but also great men of stolid character. American history concerns the ideals of the founders in the style now called revisionist written by William Bennett i.e. pride in America.

The Bull of the Woods.

The university is geared to celibacy so as to make the lives of the monks easier. But for the chastely marriage-minded there is a girls’ Catholic college, Saint Benedict’s, down the road a few miles in the tiny town of Saint Joseph, run by nuns who stand watch over their charges’ vigilantly. There are a few mixers each year—all held on Sunday afternoon in the Saint Benedict’s gym, the sun streaming in the windows, all the lights on and nuns in charge serving non-alcoholic fruit punch. Men from Saint John’s who are not priesthood or monastery-bound are encouraged to date women from Saint Benedict’s—the purpose: not frivolity: they should marry, have children, raise them Catholic and serve the Church.

In this first postwar year of 1946, Abbot Alcuin has mandated that all students, whether pre-priesthood or not, take four straight years of philosophy and theology as part of a core curriculum. He makes that decision because at least 92% of the incoming freshmen class in 1946 are ex-GIs, freshly arrived from World War II, some with graying hair, some still wearing their old military jackets to class (which is allowed), all distinctly aware of the carnal temptations of the world, having met them and either resisted and yielded to them in Tokyo on R & R from the battles of the South Pacific, in France and Germany following the severe battles of Western Europe—or, if not sent overseas, in the military service towns in, let us say, Texas with leaves to go to the fleshpots of Juarez, Mexico from El Paso or Tijuana, Mexico from San Diego.

Abbot Alcuin also reinforces a rule that has become somewhat frayed with exceptions. There shall be a priest-prefect living on every floor of Saint Benet hall, the dormitory whose task it shall be to look with vigilance at all his charges. On weeknights the prefect is expected to keep his door open for those who wish to consult him. It becomes a habit of our particular prefect…Fr. Adelard Theunte, OSB, a rugged, black-haired, ruddy-cheeked German with a Ph.D in biology…to pace the long corridor on the second floor of Benet, saying his Office, occasionally rapping on a door to tell them to turn down their radio. He has the nickname “the Bull of the Woods” and indeed he looks like an enraged bull albeit without a ring in his nose. His highly polished shoes squeak as he walks and at our desk behind the closed door of our room, as we study, we can hear him pass by. When the squeaking stops, we lift our head from our reading. Something has attracted the attention of the Bull of the Woods. Then the squeaking resumes and we do the same.

He is muscular, a weight-lifter, an ex-athlete and a scowling presence. Rumor has it that he will be a future Abbot. Stories of his punitive actions have circulated the campus. Anyone seriously violating the rules (e.g. smuggling booze on campus) will be in trouble but if it happens on the floor of the Bull of the Woods there is no doubt: he will be expelled. Anyone who has a girl in his room excepting a sister on Sunday will be chastised (given that nothing serious has happened—and no one even thinks about this). But if it happens on the Bull of the Woods’ watch, he will be suspended. Anyone who leaves the campus on weeknights without permission will be…not expelled…not suspended…but no one knows what will happen if such an offense occurs on 2nd floor Benet under the vigilance of the Bull of the Woods. Maybe if he is lenient that day, the offender will be campus-ed” meaning kept in quarantine for a definite period of time when others can go to Saint Cloud to recreate. Backtalk to the Bull of the Woods means suspension. Questioning suspension of the Bull of the Woods means expulsion. No one in monastic hierarchy…neither the Abbot nor the Prior nor the sub-Prior…questions the Bull of the Woods.

Lights Out (Literally) at 11 p.m.

Lights go out at 11 p.m. and I mean “went out” since each dormitory floor has a monk-prefect who physically pulls the switch at that hour, cutting off the electricity. Those who want to continue studying are welcome to read by the light of kerosene lamps which can be purchased at Linnemann’s hardware store in nearby Saint Joseph. . At shortly after midnight the prefect visitd the rooms of those who are studying by kerosene lamp and orders the lights extinguished. All are in bed (two to a dormitory room with bunk beds) and you fall asleep as the huge bells toll throughout the night (you get used to be by the end of the year). So the difference for men who had been in the service and are in their mid-20s is significant…as for us teen-agers.

Some of the ex=GIs are married and live off-campus with their wives in makeshift barracks constructed by the federal government. Others are unmarried and are expected to live the celibate life with us (some of whom have just begun to shave). Some of these ex-GIs are 28 years old, somewhat grizzled from the war. To drown all the students in instant sanctity, Abbot Alcuin ordains that in late September, the school year will be launched with an obligatory 5-day retreat at which total silence will be mandated with lectures given by a Jesuit ex-Marine chaplain with the name of Rev. James Dismas Clark, SJ. The abbey community does not attend the retreat conferences, except for a few monks who are curious about the outer world. No student, utterly no one, is excused from attending the retreat and if one skips a session and is found lolling around he is to be expelled and on his way out of Saint John’s immediately.

The Retreat of All Retreats.

James Dismas Clark, SJ, about 50 years old with dark reddish hair pasted to his cranium in the era’s pompadour style, appears in cassock with a large crucifix tucked in his leather belt. He is simply the best thing to happen on campus. His sermons are far from academic; they involve men who have sinned in the service, men he has known…stories that caused all of us—teen-agers and gnarled ex-GIs to sit on the edge of our seats. One story had him rushing to a bordello in France to attend to a soldier stricken with a fatal heart attack as he committed fornication, the very contraceptive hanging from his member as Clark, his ear to his lips, heard his whispered words of remorse in confession, granting him absolution just before the young man died. At this point, some members of the cloister who were in the church gallery listening, retreated in dismay—but Clark went on. Some monks hurried to the Abbot and complained, saying Fr. Clark was shocking the student body.

No, said Abbot Alcuin, with a wave of his hand on which was the heavy ecclesial ring of authority, these men—especially the ex-servicemen—need this tough talk…and so far as the young ones are concerned, the talk is shocking to them but valuable since they will be dissuaded to be led astray by the older ones. The complaining monks retreat, shaking their heads and going tsk-tsk-tsk. But Abbot Alcuin was solemnly right. Men line up to go to confession to James Dismas Clark SJ every night of the retreat, until 4 in the morning, each confession being a general one in nature, beginning from infancy until the moment of enunciation.

Going to confession to Dismas Clark is a revelation for us teen-agers and even now, approaching 80, I calculate honestly that I have not experienced anything in a sermon so graphic as to produce blushing even among the ex-GIs—but graphics examples were needed and as he held high the crucifix, Clark provided the necessary shock therapy that jolted the campus to sanctity. Receiving the sacrament of penance by confessing all to Father Clark was a hair-raising experience that stays with me yet.

There is no confessional per se. He in alone in his room. There is a long line of men waiting for the experience. Occasionally the door opens and a man leaves, eyes reddened, heading for the chapel to recite his penance. The one just ahead of me in line was a saucy, skeptical ex-GI of about 30 known for his saucy and irreverent sallies at tradition. After a half hour he exited the room red-eyed and solemn, one cheek seeming to quiver from the tension he had just experienced. Now it is your turn.

You enter his room just off the university church. It is semi-dark. As your eyes become accustomed to the feeble light you see a figure slouched in an easy chair, his back to you, his giant crucifix clasped in his hands, his lips moving silently in prayer. You make your way to the chair and notice that pre-dieu or kneeler at his side. . You kneel by his side and he hands you the crucifix with the silver body of Christ thereon. He grips you around your waist. (It is startling but not to worry about undue familiarity as the debauched era of clerical pedophilia is decades away and unheard of as well as unimagined.)

He looks at your with burning eyes and says:

“My son, there have been men in this room before you who have wept with their tears falling on this crucifix. The last man who was here I had to help to his feet. And his experience in war was greater than my own. Now I will require you to make a general confession, beginning when you were first old enough to sin until the present day.”

Well, I wished not to disappoint him since men who had preceded me were veterans of the greatest war in history and tasted life, with all its excesses, to the fullest--but at age 18 what had I done to be even remotely interesting to this man who has heard everything? One had to think hard to summon up carnality when you lived the celibate life in the old Saint John’s atmosphere. I say carnality because this was the particular offense to God of which Father Clark is expert because he knows all about men…indeed after confessions are heard he reflects before the altar (God knows when he gets sleep since his Mass is at 8). This is, let me say, the most spiritually exhilarating confession I have ever made. But he made the most strides with the ex-GIs. A surprising number of the ex-GIs decide to enter the priesthood from that time—and some, now very old men, are members of the monastery yet, a tribute to the awakening they had from Dismas Clark SJ.

While I am not (nor have been since) remotely interested in the priesthood, I stay under confessional cross-examination for at least a half-hour—and as I leave I feel a sense of relief akin to having trod in the footsteps of Dante as he followed Virgil through purgatory and hell and then to walk behind his ideal woman, Beatrice to paradise. Complete and utter renewal of spirituality. If this is such for me, imagine what it is like for the ex-GIs. Some weep. Others remain in the chapel for most of the night in contrition and prayer. . And when Dismas Clark leaves Saint John’s at the conclusion of the retreat, a number of us weep as well. It was, in all, the most profound experience I have ever had. It was assuredly about the four great events of our lives: birth, confession, firm purpose of amendment, preparation for a life of service and ultimate resignation for death.

Even so, after the ardor for spirituality was ended, many of us , ex-GIs and teeners who do not wish to become monks…long to go to Saint Cloud for needed R & R for respite from the prospect of eternity spent writhing on a spit over the lapping tongues of fire and brimstone.

With the retreat over and Father Dismas Clark gone, the rush mounts to go to Saint Cloud or at the least Saint Joseph—anywhere where juke boxes play and beer is poured. I am too young to drink legally but do not allow that technicality to bother me, nor do the Germanic bartenders we visit on Saturdays. The procedure is to take the blue “Johnny Bus” from the campus to the tiny, boring town of Saint Joseph or, better yet, the larger community of Saint Cloud. Buses leave at 5 p.m. Saturday and return at 11 p.m. that night. There we melt into the Saint Cloud cosmopolitan crowd of farmers , blue and white collars and go to a German bar named Ubreken’s populated by farmers wearing Junior Gilliam overalls, to drink, with a few of the ex-GIs who had discover that for 50-cents one can get a bottle of Glueck Stite beer (12% alcohol) and a shot of bourbon. But the retreat does not fade ultimately—and has not faded yet. But there were the inevitable excesses of 18-year-old immaturity. Always however with firm purpose of amendment.

Saturday Nights Before 11 P. M. in Saint Cloud.

Several weeks into the Fall school term, we teen-agers decide to split from the ex-GIs rather than hear their interminable and boastful war stories with which we were unable to compete. In company with other teen-aged classmates, I go to an old-time polka dance at a public dance hall called the Coliseum with live orchestra (the Fairgrounds dance hall had “new time” music but cost more for admission).

The ex-GIs go to the Arrow Inn surnamed “the bloody bucket”…not as bad as it sounds… where they drink, tell their war stories to each other and try to figure out what had happened to them spiritually at the hands of Dismas Clark. They hope for the old-style, military camp followers for female companionship to take their minds off the experience—but the bishop of Saint Cloud has warned vigorously that young women…college women…should have nothing to do with ex-GIs unless the prospect of marriage is in the offing.

He says flatly id that the ex-GIs attending Saint John’s should go to the Sunday afternoon mixers at Saint Benedict’s college where fruit punch is served: otherwise Saint Cloud girls should be on their guard as their adversary the devil stalks like a hungry lion seeking whom he may devour.

So while the unmarried ex-GIs gather in male bonding sharing views of the retreat in the Bloody Bucket in Saint Cloud in the Fall of 1946, we teen-agers are regarded by the townsmen as acceptably fair game for their daughters. So here we are at the Coliseum dance hall while the band, presided over by a New Ulm native named “Whoopee John” Wilfahrt, oomp-pah songs like the “Blue Skirt Waltz.” Frankie Yankovic to come the following week and the week after that the “Six Fat Dutchmen.”

None of us teeners know how to polka but one bubbling, raven-haired girl my age leaves her dance partner mid-center on the dance floor and volunteers to show me how. What happens to her consort I never know but she is my partner now, named Mildred Murphy, my exact age, a nurse-in-training at Saint Cloud Hospital tutors me. We giggle at my awkwardness. But she is entranced that I am from Chicago. She has an older brother who was a monk of Saint John’s, Rev. Malachy Murphy OSB, conceivably (I thought) the only Irishman monk at that heavily Germanic monastery. He was. She has abandoned her former dance partner, a farm lad who stalks back to his booth. But I am overwhelmed.

She happens to be the first young woman in my entire life who pays me attention. Now that I have found one interested in me, I am insistent that no rival come between us. An ex-GI tries to ask her to dance; she responds with a flutter of her dark eyes and says “no tanks” in typical Stearns county Germanic accent despite her Irish surname. I am ecstatic that she chose to continue to teach me how to dance “old time.”

As “Whoopee John” plays, we exchange addresses and after an hour of steady dancing she has to leave for the nurses’ training residence at Saint Cloud Hospital. I cannot escort her there as I have no money to pay for taxi but the farm lad comes up from nowhere and she reluctantly goes with him.

So I groan but she understands that I cannot pay the taxi and gives my hand a squeeze of understanding. That night after I get back to my dorm, I scribble a letter to her by the light of the kerosene lamp (The Bull of the Woods with a temper to match allows the kerosene lamp to be used beyond midnight on Saturdays). In a few days halleluja! she responds on a scented envelope with lavender ink and a flowing feminine handwriting. I respond immediately expressing the wish that possibly we can go to the movies next Saturday. The next lavender-scented response said that she was agreeable—but alas, she is on duty at the hospital for every Saturday in the immediate future. I am desolate.

She writes tentatively: would a weeknight be appropriate? Of course it would NOT for me; Saint John’s inflexible rule…almost as sacred as the Commandments…is that NO DORMITORY STUDENT LEAVES THE CAMPUS ON WEEK NIGHTS WITHOUT PERMISSION. An injunction even the ex-GIs observe religiously.

Instantly, while my love of the abbey-university routine continues, for reasons of the heart I decide just this once to become a rebel. I have been at Saint John’s only two months and already I am plotting to violate a tenet of the university regimen. Willing to risk the worst from the “Bull of the Woods” for fair lady who gave me particular attention.

To be continued tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. Probably one of your finest. Confession to Fr. Dismas was/must have been gripping.
    I left the Church for a number of years due to circumstance. My return, and my wife's conversion were acts of God to be sure, but from different times and places. I believe that the WWII boys were the Great Generation.
    Our boys are too, unless cowards like Obama get in to fill Jimmie Carter's second term-