Friday, April 12, 2013

Knapsack 4-18

Notes from my Knapsack 4-18-13

Jeff Gill


A monastery, of sorts



President Dale Knobel was speaking to a roomful of Denison University faculty & staff recently, about his retirement in just a few weeks, the last fifteen years, and the future of the college.


In talking about the role of a president in higher education, he made the observation that the job is less like a king than a mayor. Presidents don't declare or mandate, they "nudge," he observed, and they spend most of their time working with constituencies. Alumni, bill-paying parents, Granville residents, as well as the more usual groupings of students, faculty, and staff each have a vision, some sense of what the institution is or should be, and the president of a college is moving between them listening, rephrasing, and "nudging" perhaps a bit the dialogue towards their own goals for the campus community.


Mayor doesn't seem like a bad metaphor for that sort of role at all, but Pres. Knobel's reflections made me think about another way of looking at the occupant of Monomoy House, one deeply rooted in the history of colleges and universities even if largely forgotten today. You could consider him a sort of Abbot.


In the late Roman era of the Christian West, monasteries were the bastions of classical learning, the holders of ancient records, and the final defense of communities as Goths, Vandals, and Visigoths, let alone Vikings came and picked over the corpse of Empire.


When the world began to re-form into semblances of nations and political structures, and safe passage became a little more certain across at landscapes, some monastic communities with a healthy population of monks having learning to spare opened schools. The "Oxbridge" tradition of higher education in England began with two islands of stability where learned clerics gathered students around them, formed colleges of shared interests, and enough of these collegial groups in Oxford and Cambridge clustered together for shared  efforts that added up to a breadth that was nearly universal in scope . . . the first English speaking universities.


And yes, they spoke little enough of English in their chapels and refectories and dormitories (see films of Potter, Harry, Hogwarts setting of), all elaborations on the already almost 1,000 year old traditions of monastic life in common. They spoke and wrote their charters and constitutions and diplomas in the church Latin which was on of their common stocks in trade, since work in the church was the destination for most of these scholars.


So we still have in academia our quads and convocations, hints of "Sic transit gloria Latinam" at least in official documents, and job titles like Provost and Chancellor and Dean, all of which came out of a roster of Priors and Cellarers and Sextons in churchly tables of organization.


There became many titles for the Head of such institutions, but most of them related back to the original presiding official of a monastery: the Abbot. The word goes back not just into Latin, but Greek, and before that the Aramaic that might be familiar to readers of the New Testament: Abba, Father. "Abba" as the Aramaic term for father, but a term in fact of endearment, a "Dad" or "Pops" more than a formal "Dear Father." That's why the significance of Jesus' address to God was preserved in the original to help us remember the weight of such personal relationship: Abba, Daddy.


When the very earliest communities of those devoted to their profession of faith were formed, this relationship, and that word was preserved, and monks called their mentor, their guide, their daddy in the family gathering, an Abbot. It's become a formal word in modern usage, but it cuts both ways.


So in history, in tradition, and in the vital sense of personal relationship that has marked his tenure, I think it would make a great deal of sense to call Dale Knobel a sort of secular Abbot. Pointy hat optional, but even there, academic garb holds onto some of those more peculiar prerogatives of church leadership: the leader's mace, the silk-lined hood over the simply cut preacher's robe.


And in all that ceremony four weeks from now, it won't be as President that I'll start to miss Dale Knobel during his last commencement in office, but as an Abbot, an Abba for our many constituencied community.


Thanks, Dad.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been part of the Denison community for years, too. Tell him what you'll miss about Dale & Tina Knobel's departure at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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