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.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Faith Works 4-13-13

Faith Works 4-13-13

Jeff Gill


Bonds or shackles, and how to tell them apart



In Rod Dreher's new book "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming," a small town boy grows up, leaves home, goes to the big city, then does something very strange and wonderful. He goes back.


In fact, he states "What I once saw through the melodramatic eyes of a teenager as prison bars were in fact the pillars that held my family up when it had no strength left to stand."


Dreher's family needed support because his sister, who never left rural Louisiana and never wanted to, and never understood anyone who did, was about to leave this old weary world, carried off by a sudden vicious form of cancer. It is not a spoiler to tell you that she does in fact die, and it is not the author's intention to highlight that there is no grand reconciling between brother and sister, except for a mysterious sort of communion which results in the prodigal brother and his family returning home for good after her death.


"The Little Way" of the title, talking about a Louisiana Methodist gal in a book by her Eastern Orthodox by way of Roman Catholic brother, evokes the name of "The Little Flower," St. Thérèse of Lisieux. A Carmelite saint of the 19th century, she wrote from her convent of a simple life of prayer, obedience, and faithfulness. Rod comes to see in his sister Ruthie's life a modern echo of this same chosen path, a "little way" that does not presume greatness as a spiritual necessity, and all the more significant in its unforced humility.


Ruthie's "little way" is small town in nature, but it's small town in a way that is widely transferrable. It's the decision to accept a path and a field of service which puts personal relationships and face-to-face commitments first. You could live out, and be sustained by this humbler journey whether in a Utica or a Toboso, or on Hudson Avenue or Partridge Court. It only asks that you look at those around you and see Christ in them, Christ loving you, and Christ Jesus' own smile delighting in your offer of service.


It's a road which also allows for the fact that all of us sometimes end up in the ditch, and when we try to hard to get ourselves out on our own, sees us slamming up and out and over into the ditch on the other side, too.


Starhill, Louisiana has ditches and stuck folks and few plaster saints of any sort, even if the actual name is ridiculously perfect for a book like this one. It made me think often of my own hometown, whose name means "vale of paradise," although our administrative manager at the church recently called "Valla-walla-something." (It's Valparaiso, Indiana.)


Today, all four of us kids live in different places across the Midwest, and even my parents are much of the year down where snow shoveling is not on the menu. But I think of that town often, and the life it gave me. Then I recall my parents' hometowns, both under a thousand, both surrounded by fields and far from big box stores even today.


Those locations, and the sense of community they once held, are still part of who I am. Reading "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming" didn't make me think about moving "back" to Kansas, Illinois or Anita, Iowa (or even Thirsk, North Yorkshire), but all those communities make me look more closely at the neighborhood where I live, the village we reside in, and the unique nature of this marvelous county where my wife and I both work. How are bonds of mutual obligation and cycles of tradition a life-giving framework for our family, and for the work we believe our family is meant to be doing – not just anywhere, but right here?


So many stories of adulthood and escape end with a sort of wistful looking back, and mainly a sense of loss, of rueful unredeemable regret. This book shows another way, that you can go home again; not that it's easy, or necessary for everyone, but it is in truth possible. Maybe even more possible in the internet age, ironically, than it was not long ago for a wired-up person to live and work somewhere far away from the usual plugs and outlets.


Reading this book didn't make me think that Rod Dreher believes I should move back to MY hometown, but is a friendly guidebook to reading the signs for finding the hometown paths and connections right where you are.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's at home here. Tell him where you feel at home at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.