Column #039. First published in the St. Cloud Times Oct. 26, 2010
It’s a week from Election Day, and you expect me to say something about it. In a sense this column is about the election, but in a way I’d not have predicted before Oct. 13.
On that date I attended the funeral Mass for the ninth abbot of St. John’s, Timothy Kelly, who had died at age 76 from esophageal cancer.
During the time he was abbot (1993-2000), Timothy was a member of the board of directors of the Collegeville Institute where I was executive director, so he was one of my bosses.
Abbot Timothy demonstrated an ability I’ve noted in many monastic leaders, one that I suspect they learn from living according to the Rule of Benedict: the capacity to see the world in both wide-angle and telephoto simultaneously.
Benedict knew, already back in the 6th century, that you’ve got to pay attention to daily stuff while concerned about long-term matters — in his case, the salvation of souls.
Any institution that has been around for 1,500 years will have accumulated some wisdom about sustainability and resilience and making it through hard times.
Abbot Timothy was in charge during a particularly dark hour in St. John’s history. He led the way in openness about the sexual abuse scandal, and helped to found the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute for open dialogue between both victims and perpetrators.
At the same time, he was also thinking globally, and inspired the whole Benedictine Order to add to the
celebration of its ancient origins in the West a focus on its potential future in the East. He was especially
interested in monastic communities in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and China.
At a time when “reaching across the aisle” is an ideal more talked about than practiced, Abbot Timothy was in dialogue with the Dalai Lama and was an advisory board member of the Academy for Spiritual Formation of the United Methodist Church.
I once heard Abbot Timothy reminisce about his early days in the monastery. It was close to the time when his application for membership would be voted on. “I kind of wanted it, but it was as if a boulder was coming down on me that would crush me.” He went to the novice master, who listened carefully — “I don’t know what he said, but my image afterward was that I went in with a huge boulder and he saw this huge balloon that required only a pinprick to burst. He put me in the context of the whole community that was supporting us in whatever our problems were.”
Maybe you’ve already figured out how this will segue into observations on the opportunity we have Tuesday to chart our community’s course by choosing our public officials.
The problems before us as a state and nation are daunting, and we need leaders who, like Abbot Timothy, will be honest with us about how tough it is going to be to solve them and who won’t duck them.
Be skeptical when someone gives you an answer they had arrived at before studying the issue from
multiple angles. As Abbot Timothy liked to remind people, the first word of the Rule of Benedict is “Listen.”
While kicking the can down the road is fun for kids, adults should not play that game with state budget
shortfalls — “We’ll fix it in the next biennium — or some biennium down the road.”
Look for leaders who, like Abbot Timothy, have a fresh and compelling vision that helps them determine what to do now. We can’t predict the future, but we can get ready for it.
“Reaching across the aisle” was not for Abbot Timothy an add-on, or even a strategy. It was an expression of his identity. Look for leaders for whom it is similarly natural.
Finally, remember, with Abbot Timothy’s novice master, that a whole community supporting all its members — not enabled but empowered — can turn boulders into balloons.