As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
On July 28, 2014, nineteen years after she attended her first Collegeville Institute consultation, Krista Tippett stood in the East Room of the White House. She received the 2013 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama “for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation.”
The Collegeville Institute was fortunate beyond measure to engage Krista, fresh out of Yale Divinity School, as interviewer for an oral history project of our work. She had been a journalist and a diplomat, jobs in which she honed skills that served her and us well. Her reports to the Board of Directors, of which she was subsequently a member from 2001-2004, are among the chief treasures of our institutional memory.
The benefits of our friendship have gone both ways. Krista has credited her learnings at the Collegeville Institute for laying the groundwork for On Being, her Peabody Award-winning public radio program. She has written eloquently about the first-person method, also known as the Collegeville approach, and its impact on her life both personal and professional.
When asked to write this introduction of Krista as a Collegeville Institute Great, I delved back into a number of other texts. I call attention to what I think of as a special clue to her spirit. It is in the final paragraph of an article she wrote, titled “Reflections on Children, Parenthood, and the Nature of God,” Occasional Paper No. 47, which was published in the November 1996 issue of Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers (the Collegeville Institute’s newsletter from 1985 to 2003):
I watch my daughter make mistakes and learn through them, threatening usually to hurt herself in the process, and I think sometimes that it is too much to ask of a person to be a parent, to live with this dangerously reckless new creature in a spirit of love and responsibility and respect. Yet I also recognize all her recklessness as a possible source of creativity, wisdom, and strength. I cannot imagine a more lively proof of a maker’s covenant with a creation than this: that even in our recklessness, our failings and false tries, we are given again and again the seeds of creativity, wisdom, and strength. As my teacher of the Old Testament has concluded, this God who is revealed to us in Scripture—and, I would add, in the details of our lives—is an indefatigable romantic.
The following reflection was excerpted and reprinted with permission from On Being. To read the full version, please view the original essay on the On Being website.
Saint John’s Abbey and its sister community Saint Benedict’s Monastery are in central Minnesota — a part of the world I would once have imagined as the middle of nowhere. These Benedictines were, after my heart, contemplative and industrious at once. Ora et Labora is their motto — worship and work, simultaneous and inextricable. They live and teach and publish and pray on prairie their German forebears settled in 1856 in the midst of a devastating plague of grasshoppers. They take great pride in the fact that their order began in the 6th Century, pre-dating the major divisions of the Church, and they draw ethical sustenance from a generous, sacred, not quite linear view of time. I emerged from divinity school with a sense of the vastness and relevance of the theological enterprise — the human search for words about God, and lives crafted in their resonance. But I could not find these aspects of religion visible in our public life. I could not find a way to trace their imprint until I fell down Collegeville’s contemplative rabbit hole.
In the decade of my birth, the 1960s, while political America was protesting, loving not warring, warring not winning, dreaming spaceships, grieving, these monks were building. They lent creative genius to the liturgical renewal of the Roman Catholic Church before and after Vatican II, of which word had not reached my Southern Baptist childhood. They built a manuscript library that is becoming the world’s greatest repository of formerly buried monastic treasures, now catalogued in microfiche and digital for present and future generations. As it happens, Collegeville was also the birthplace in 1967 of my current employer, Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media, which became a media phenomenon with a talent of comic brilliance, Garrison Keillor, and an entrepreneurial leader, a Saint John’s alum named Bill Kling. But I first came under the spell of another, less media-savvy Saint John’s progeny, a place of ecumenical conversation and research now called the Collegeville Institute. It remains small and quiet by choice, and has done mighty works in the world.
In 1995, I first spent a summer week at the Institute. With 14 soon-beloved strangers, I sat around a plain round conference table that I came to imagine as a rival, or at least a counterpart, to those self-important strategic conference tables of Berlin. Here, life and death, mystery and meaning, were on the table. We engaged in a simple, life-changing exercise of reflecting on theological questions by looking back at our lives. That can sound reductive, and strictly personal. But time and space become more generous when we explore ultimate truths in the presence of others. Thin places open up. This experience is had in churches and synagogues and mosques and temples all the time. It happens among friends and in marriages and at hospital bedsides. We make the discovery that when we are honest and vivid and particular in describing what is most personal and important in life, we can summon universal and redemptive places at the very edge of words. In Collegeville we did so in the act of engaging religious difference. […]
And as the people around that table opened up one by one, taking their time and telling their stories, doctrine and tradition and religious history came alive before me. Our conversation of six days began with an intense, delightful, Armenian Orthodox scholar who began his personal history 600 years in the past, with the assassination of an ancestor who was a bishop. His fierce modern struggle for faith still found its source and counterweight in that drama. One of our moderators was a Roman Catholic woman whose parents were Catholic intellectuals and writers. As the Second Vatican Council drew all the Catholic world to Rome for four years, she passed around canapés to her parents and their friends and inhaled the vast excitement and promise of that event. I imagine her as a girl hearing the dramatic statement of the council’s convener, Pope John XXIII, that he intended “to shake off the dust that has collected on the throne of St. Peter since the time of Constantine, and let in some fresh air.” She has devoted the rest of her life to dialogue between the Catholic church and other traditions, dialogue that happens softly on the sidelines of world events but grows ever more critical in an interconnected world. […]
In 1995, I was engaged to conduct an oral history of the Institute. With its then-director Patrick Henry, a man of immense energy and a large and generous intelligence, I drew up a list of 55 people whose lives and thought had intersected with the Collegeville Institute. This journey of conversation lasted for two years, and took me to both coasts as well as Atlanta, Chicago, and Rome. My conversation partners were lay and ordained, and some of them were among the great Christian thinkers of the 20th Century. They included the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan; the late great liberation theologian Robert McAfee Brown; the Evangelical philosopher Richard Mouw; the biblical scholar and later president of the National Council of Churches, Bishop Thomas Hoyt Jr.; and the prolific author and political activist Sr. Joan Chittister. They were all my teachers. And as different as they could be, there were recurring qualities in these people, constants that I came to associate with God and that I have continued to find as I have continued such conversations with people across the world’s traditions: thoughtfulness, humility, a sense of humor and an openness to being surprised. Patrick Henry, who wrote a vibrant book called The Ironic Christian’s Companion, always puts “a sense of irony” on his list of common qualities of great lived theology; I’ll include that too.
In all of my non-religious years in Europe, l had eschewed cathedrals and religious capitals. I had been to Florence and Venice but never to Rome. Now I spent five days there, in hours and hours of conversation with a Paulist priest, Tom Stransky. He had been Pope John XXIII’s liaison to non-Catholic observers of Vatican II, and had later headed the Paulist order. Now he was running the Tantur ecumenical Institute on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, bringing Christians, Muslims, and Jews to speak together in the place in the world where their kinship was most obvious and also most prone to violence. Tom Stransky is an eccentric genius, and although I tend towards awe and affection at the good minds of others, I don’t use that word lightly. He told me over one of our delicious dinners that week in Rome, after our interview for the day had finished, that he had published several works of poetry and fiction under a pseudonym. For all I know he has a double life as J.D. Salinger.
But in our formal interviews he also revealed to me the secrets of the Collegeville approach to conversation that had changed so many lives and was about to change mine. They call it the “first person” approach – and that became the title of one of the early incarnations of my radio show. But that is too simple, nor did it work as a radio title.
It disallows abstractions about God, even as it takes account of the fact that it is hard, and so intimate, to speak about this aspect of life directly. The Quaker author Parker Palmer likens the nature of the soul to a wild animal deep in the woods of our psyche which, if approached brusquely or cross-examined will simply run away. We have to create quiet, inviting and trustworthy spaces, Parker says, to keep the insights and presence of soul at the table. And we put words around what the soul knows, Stransky told me, not through what we think, but through who we are, through the story of our lives.
There is a term, “narrative theology,” that also describes what the first person approach elicits. St. Augustine’s Confessions, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison; Sr. Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking– these are vivid and persuasive theological tracts, because they present religious ideas as forged and expressed in the language of life, of reality in the raw. Anne Lamott’s salty religious memoirs are among the many lively contemporary examples. The Benedictines and their constellation of friends gave a new credence and context to my inborn, ingrained drive to be effective, pragmatic, real. But they changed my vision about that and taught me a whole new set of intellectual and creative tools to turn that vision into something useful for myself and others. From them I inherited the notion that everyone has relevant observations to make about the nature of God and ultimate things — that the raw material of our lives is stuff of which we construct our sensibility of meaning and purpose in this life, of how the divine intersects or interacts with our lives, of what it means to be human. I believe this with all of my heart, and I believe that we have too often diminished and narrowed the parameters of this quest. We’ve made it heady or emotional and neglected to take seriously the flawed, mundane physicality, the mess as well as the mystery, of the raw materials with which we are dealing.
And as I began to talk and travel for the oral history project, I conducted it in this spirit. I did not invite people of faith to pronounce. I asked them to trace the intersection of religious ideas with time and space and the color and complexity of real lives –not just the trajectory of their lives, but what they knew of the world, the work they did, who and what they loved. This both grounded and exalted what they had to say, and it let me in. I was most surprised at first by how listenable these conversations were, in dramatic contrast to the strident religious language of our public life. There is a profound difference between hearing someone say, this is the truth, and hearing someone say, this is my truth. You can disagree with another person’s opinions; you can disagree with their doctrines; you can’t disagree with their experience. What I heard invariably shed some light on experience of mine, or lit up some corner of another faith that had been closed to me, mysterious and even forbidding. I could never again dismiss one of those traditions of my conversation partners wholesale, because it now carried the integrity of a particular life, a particular voice. People tell me that this is the effect of listening to the far-flung perspectives of Speaking of Faith, and this delights me. […]
To read more of Krista Tippett’s reflection, please view the original essay on the On Being website.