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JAMES BEHRENS: Late religious writers leave words of wisdom for fertile minds of the future

James Behrens

James Behrens

Our monastery bulletin board is right inside the door leading from the cloister garden to our main building. There are always notices on it, varied pieces of news that are posted to catch the attention of the community at large or individual monks. If a monk wants to spread the word on one issue or another, its point of departure is the bulletin board.

The monks go out of their way to offer verbal or written comments on the homilies given by brother monks. I, for one, appreciate the more positive feedback that I am given when it is my turn to preach. But not all the comments are favorable.

Some months back I gave a homily in which I praised my former Newark archbishop for welcoming into the archdiocese some wonderful speakers. Many of them were known internationally.

All of them spoke with the enthusiasm and spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the effects of which were just beginning to unfold. That is a process that is continuing to this day.

One of the monks posted a note to me, writing that the men and women I had mentioned were all dead (which was true); that no one sitting in our church that morning had probably never heard of them (probably not true); and that the writings of the people I mentioned were outdated (certainly not true); and, finally, that he had read all of them and was very familiar with their work (no comment).

I never replied to the note, other than writing this piece. But I have not forgotten it. I must say it made me think.

Aside from wondering if the writer of the note surveyed the people in the church that day for their reading knowledge, which I very much doubt that he did, I wondered if it perhaps was of little use speaking of writers and speakers who are no longer on the planet. So I was willing to agree to some extent with the writer of the note.

But then I thought about the value their words were and still are to me. They are still very much a vibrant and living part of my life, my questions, my search for God in this life.

I felt justified in sharing a bit of, in Raymond Carver’s words, “Where I’m Calling From.” (Carver is also deceased but his words still captivate me. The title is that of one of his short story collections).

The church is a long, rich and complicated tradition. It is made up of the living and the dead, saints and sinners, rich and poor, nitwits and geniuses, the highbrow and the low, and, yes, writers and theologians. Most of whom are dead.

It is a percent of a percent of a percent who are yet alive and kicking – or writing. But those who are writing do so with a reverence for and an informed awareness of those who have gone before.

Yes, they stand – and write – on the shoulders of giants. It is what a lived tradition is all about. We carry on. We keep on truckin’. We build on the past and, hopefully, learn from its mistakes.

Well, this may be too long to post on our bulletin board. But I do not think it is necessary. I am satisfied with what I wrote, what I read, what I like.

Dead writers live through their words and make wonderful companions on this road of life. Maybe the monk who wrote the note to me may well need them someday. They may have lived and written in the past – but they wrote so that their insights may yet grow and take root in the fertile minds and hearts of we who yet live.

If my brother monk ever realizes he may be suffering from an arid and parched spirit, he can always take a drink from the sweet and running waters of the past. I will show him the way to the stream.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net.