Br. Aaron Raverty, OSB began serving as the Saint John’s Abbey/Collegeville Institute liaison at the beginning of the 2015/16 academic year. In an effort to learn more about him, Elisabeth Kvernen conducted the following interview.
What led you to Saint John’s Abbey and the monastic life?
Even as a child, I had a strong desire to enter religious life in the Catholic Church—though not necessarily the priesthood. I would describe my family as “moderately” devout. I attended a Catholic grade school in St. Paul, Minnesota, for my first eight years, and I recall being very moved by and impressed with the teaching skills, unwavering devotion, and spiritual sensitivity of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
Almost every day after school, I visited the adjacent parish church to have a little talk with God. I subsequently spoke with vocational directors and representatives of several religious orders to learn more about their specific charisms: Jesuits, Dominicans, Passionists, Franciscans—and, of course, Benedictines. When I was a graduate student at Penn State, the Benedictines from Saint Vincent Archabbey (the motherhouse of Saint John’s), who staffed the campus Newman Center, hosted me at their monastery and encouraged me to visit Saint John’s upon my return to Minnesota. They introduced me to a Benedictine ethos, and, strangely enough, when I first set foot at Saint John’s upon my return, I felt immediately that I was “home”—this was where I belonged. And so I have maintained my monastic vow of stabilitas—stability both of place and heart—ever since then, which is forty-plus years now.
You are trained as a sociocultural anthropologist. Could you describe what that means and what drew you to that field?
I’ve always been fascinated by the tremendous variety of human behavior and beliefs. I think my mother first sparked my interest here. She and my uncle visited many of the Anasazi cliff dwellings when she was only a girl, during her summer vacations in the Southwest United States. I recall the excitement I felt when she described some of the things she saw and experienced. She conjured up in my already active imagination descriptions of the reconstructed lifeways of these “ancient ones.” I believe anthropologist Conrad Phillip Kottak summarizes my longing in the subtitle of one of his textbooks, where he describes anthropology as “the exploration of human diversity.” I remember always being prompted to try to make sense of it all. What did it really mean to be a human being in both the broadest and most basic sense of that term?
You have an extensive background in interreligious dialogue. How did you become involved in this work?
As a teenager I used to go to the library in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, because I was attracted to the scriptures and other sacred writings from a wide array of non-Christian religions. I later attributed this longing to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I never felt that these writings thwarted or supplanted my Catholic upbringing; on the contrary, I sensed that the various perspectives broadened and somehow complemented my own understanding of my commitment to the Catholic faith. God must love diversity, I thought; otherwise, why would God have allowed religious multiplicity to come into being in the first place?
Reading these sacred texts from other religious and spiritual ethnicities demonstrated to me how God can work with the symbols, conceptual frameworks, and devotional practices of other traditions to bring us to a deeper knowledge of who God is in all God’s marvelous Trinitarian transcendence, and of God’s immanent action in salvation history. In 2014 I published a book, Refuge in Crestone: A Sanctuary for Interreligious Dialogue (Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland) that epitomizes my fascination with the interplay between anthropological research methods and the Catholic quest to develop a theology of religions.
You’ve participated in monastic exchanges with Buddhist monks in Nepal and Tibet. What did you learn from these experiences? What was it like to meet the Dalai Lama?
In the 1990s, as secretary of the board of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID), I was invited to join an exchange program whereby Tibetan Buddhist monastics and North American Catholic monastics reciprocated travel to immerse themselves in each other’s geographic setting and monastic lifestyle. Our “gang of four”—a Benedictine priest, two Benedictine nuns, and I—were guests of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his staff in his government in Dharamsala, India. We traveled to some of the classic sites of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in Nepal, Tibet, and northern India. Through translators, we expounded our Catholic faith in many different settings of monastic men and women and learned a great deal about Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in turn. We were greatly honored by an audience with His Holiness who loved to surprise you with serious narrative punctuated with unexpected explosions of hearty belly laughs! Adding to knowledge acquired from my master’s degree in systematic theology, I learned much about my own faith in these encounters, and it is an experience I’ll never forget.
Tell us more about your hobbies, and why they’re important to you.
I’ve always enjoyed trekking. Not only did I consider these long walks refreshing, but they were a way for me to deal with feelings and work out issues. Such walks also fed my interest in diversity since I loved to observe all kinds of things around me. If the walk involved nature, so much the better. In fact, I suspect my captivation with birds and birdwatching grew out of this interest in trekking.
Another hobby is handwriting analysis. As a teenager, I researched many different systems of handwriting analysis, finally settling on Graphoanalysis® as the most accurate (see www.igas.com/). I later obtained certification in the methodology of this psychological projective technique through course study from the International Graphoanalysis Society in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. In line with my passion for anthropology, I studied Graphoanalysis because of my fascination with human diversity—in this case, by the many different constellations of personality traits in human beings that can be discerned through handwriting analysis.
Music captivates me, as well. My experience singing in grade school and high school choirs prepared me for participating in the Saint John’s Abbey Schola and in singing as a precentor at abbey liturgies. Aldous Huxley has been credited with saying, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
When you were asked to consider serving as the Collegeville Institute/Abbey liaison, what excited you about the opportunity?
I love to exercise my intellect and immerse myself in new topics and fields of academic endeavor. When Abbot John asked me if I was interested in this position, I reveled in anticipation of the opportunity to interact with dedicated scholars from many different academic fields who were pursuing fascinating research projects with their own unique passion. I hoped that, as a monk and a professional anthropologist with a staunch Christian and Catholic theological background, I might be able to offer a hitherto unexpected and/or unexamined glimpse into their research endeavors. I look forward both to learning from committed others, and to broadening and deepening my own Christian faith commitment at the same time.