Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lessons from Monte Cassino

The garden at Monte Cassino as it is today
I’m a Benedictine who loves history and loves to read. That led me recently to a book on the bombing of Monte Cassino, a beautiful, huge abbey in Italy. It was founded by St. Benedict in the 6th century and sits on a mountaintop overlooking the city of Cassino and the beautiful valleys and mountains surrounding it. Unfortunately, this abbey occupied a strategic position during the battle for Italy in World War II. The Germans were established on that mountain in a defensive position and were so close to the abbey walls that the Allies assumed they were actually in the abbey and using it as an observation post from which they could view any effort by the Allies to move up the mountain and capture it. The truth was that while there were no Germans in the monastery, the abbey was housing thousands of refugees from the city, along with the Abbot and the few monks who had not been evacuated to Rome when most of the historical and art treasures had been moved there.

Time and again the debate had continued over how the Allies could take the hill when the Germans had strategic position on the heights and kept killing the troops with unusual accuracy. The American commander had been told repeatedly to spare the monastery, respecting its historical importance as an ecclesiastical and artistic center, and as a monument to Western civilization. The debate about whether or not the German army was actually IN the monastery continued, and the intelligence reports on that truth differed. Finally the New Zealand and Indian commanders whose troops had been ordered to take the hill after over 1,000 Americans had been killed in a previous effort, told the General Commander that the mountain could not be taken unless the monastery was bombed and totally destroyed. This was based on their assumption that the Germans occupied the monastery and would lose their chief defensive advantage along with many of their soldiers in the bombing. The American commanders resisted that thinking for days after it was proposed. They continued to see intelligence reports which would confirm that the Germans were IN the monastery, but other intelligence reports continued to contradict that. Some said they were NOT; others said they definitely occupied the abbey.

In the final analysis the commanders pressing for the bombing and the affirmative intelligence reports won out. The result was the bombing of the abbey of Monte Cassino for days, with huge, massive tonnage of bombs. In any sense of the word, it was an extreme overkill for one single site. It resulted in the death of many civilian refugees who inhabited the abbey, and the report from the German side said that not one German soldier was killed in the bombing.

I write about this as an example of the difficulty of making decisions in war. When intelligence sources contradict each other; when the target is an important monument to Western civilization and a neutral site, what DOES constitute “military necessity?” Does one act in so serious a matter depending on assumptions alone? In this case why was a neutral observer not sent to the monastery to verify whether the Germans were really in the buildings? Why weren’t the neutral countries involved in the effort to ascertain the truth? What was lacking in the communication between commanders, intelligence officials, government leaders, that led to this disaster? Why did there have to be a frontal attack on the Germans instead of approaching and assaulting them from other directions? No doubt the same problems continue in today’s warfare as just one more example of why “war is hell.”

I asked myself what lesson I could personally learn from this disaster. I concluded the following. Continue to seek the truth in situations. Don’t act on assumptions alone. Go to the sources for the facts and then communicate frequently and accurately. Prevent disaster by making wise and informed decisions. Above all, don’t forget to ask for God’s help.

Roberta Werner, OSB

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inauguration Day 2013/Martin Luther King Day

(You might remember from previous blogs that I am spending the year at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago)
Of my 10 classmates in the Institute of Religious Formation, three are from African Countries.  Today, Martin Luther King Day, we have no class and the school is closed, a good excuse to have a leisurely breakfast after Eucharist.  Four of us were sitting at one table, two Africans and two Americans. Julius from Namibia turned to Bruce, an American, and said, "If you are driving at night in South Africa and you come to a red light NEVER, EVER wait for the green light, use the traffic light as a 4-way STOP sign and drive on.  If you do wait for the light to change you are taking a chance that you will be hijacked, or worse, killed." That started a flow of stories, first from Julius and then from Kayula who is from Zambia, about situations they had themselves been in, witnessed or heard about.  It occurred to me as they related their stories that in the past five months that we have been together we don't often take the opportunity to listen or even ask our eight international students what their life is like at home. They might drop a hint from time to time but are we too polite to ask them to elaborate, or do we simply choose not to take the time to listen to the answer?

Living together, all 11 of us, on the same floor in the residence hall, attending our classes together, eating our meals in the cafeteria, mostly by ourselves, and recreating in the lounge gives us a unique  perspective and, for me personally, a once in a lifetime opportunity to move beyond my comfort zone and become aware of the prejudices I might carry concerning other cultures. The choice is mine:  I can pay more attention to the hints my international friends drop occasionally, or I could take the initiative and inquire about their family, what they do for leisure,  how they celebrate special days, etc

This would make our 10 months at CTU, not only worthwhile academically, but would also push our horizon so much further out than it is at present. Just like the picture above one has to be willing to swim out into the deep unknown in order to experience the exhileration of surfing the big waves.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2013: An Epidemic of Listening

As the 2013 year goes forward, I can’t help but muse about how it will unfold. I wonder what might be spawned if our communal inner humanity chose to envision it as a year of “personal and global listening”. The “speaker” could be anyone or anything that enters our lives.

Many have experienced how readily listening conveys respect. Whenever someone chooses the requisite “self-forgetting” needed for whole-hearted listening, the door to tender truths embedded in the “speaker” is allowed to open. Listening to another, to the “other”, comes as a fleeting gift. Within those precious transpersonal moments, something always shifts both in the “speaker” and the listener. Both are left with a residue of mysterious “insights” twinned with subtle mutual invitations.

One person’s listening insights likely will not directly affect the quality of dialog in the large arenas of politics, religion, education, health, social justice, etc. during 2013. But the cumulative discovery of uncluttered listening and life-giving, respectful breathing space for “speakers” may potentially release creative energy into the universe. This compassionate listening energy has potential connectivity-power. What if it spawned an “awe-filled” epidemic, which gave language to the rich complexity of those we consider “others”? That’s a contagion-dynamic I’d eagerly be willing to live with in the months ahead.

Mary Rachel Kuebelbeck, OSB

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Now and Here

We often speak of our lives as a journey... and a journey implies a destination. But, recently, I received a new insight into the kind of journey ones' life might be. On a trip to California, a friend overheard a conversation between two men -- let's call them Peter and Paul -- trying to establish some connection with one another. Peter asked the stranger seated next to him: "Going somewhere?" to which Paul surprisingly said: "No." After an embarrassed silence, Peter responded: "I've been there. Now I'm going back!" i.e., "I'm going back to nowhere."

Might you have stated his journey differently? I'm often tempted to divide the word "nowhere" into its two components: "now" and "here". "Nowhere" sounds so devastatingly lost! But when separated, there is immediacy and presence: "I am here, now!" Isn't that better and even more realistic? Or perhaps we are wont to say: "I'm here. I want to be here, in this place, where I am at home, the only place where I can really be my yearning, striving self and not only 'here, but 'now'. The "naked now" as Richard Rohr would put it!

Life may be a journey - though not necessarily one where we need to go anywhere. We need only go in an inward direction - deeper into the place where we are, to the center of our own beings where God awaits, forever looking upon us in love as we try to find our way home

Renee Domeier, OSB

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Experiencing Japan: Impressions of a First Time Visitor

In November, we ran  a series of blogs about the experience of Sisters Olivia Foster and Colleen Haggerty when they visted Japan recently. Another Sister, Kerry O'Reilly, also recently traveled to Japan. Today, she shares some reflections on her experience as a first-time visitor to Japan.

Hakucho Bridge

I was privileged to travel to Japan on community business. It was a first time for me so I was excited to meet the Sisters I knew only from our monastic history and to see this beautiful country. My long trip ended in being welcomed by the Sisters at St. Benedict's Monastery in Muroran, Hokkaido, in northern Japan.

Japan is an island. Creative use of space is required for living within this limited land area with a large population. The Sisters have an innovative monastery only a couple blocks long that is built up rather than out, with levels and half levels and every corner used.

When I experienced the Hakucho Bridge, a large suspension bridge connecting the northeast mainland to a smaller island, I reflected on perspective. From a distance the Hakucho Bridge is a beautiful, gleaming white structure; drawing nearer, there comes an understanding of how immense it is. Driving on it, going up and up, is a thrill.

The Monastery
One might say the Sisters are a bridge as they live their monastic life within this port city. From afar, in their high up monastery, they may seem removed. Up closer, it easy to see how this community with its stability and hospitality are connectors in a Buddhist country with an estimated one tenth of 1% of the population Christian . When living with this community, the mutual support in seeking God offers a picture of a praying, caring community.

The Sisters pray several times a day, welcome all who come to the door and walk with the local parish community. Since the tsunami, they are taking turns spending time in the city of Miyako, in the southern part of Japan, offering help where the disastrous earthquake and tsunami took place. This city has been dedicated as a place of rest and recuperation for people as they slowly recover from this life-changing and country-altering calamity. In this enormous change for the people of Japan, the Benedictines of Muroran again bring their prayer and presence.

I was so excited to go to Japan – and it was perfect!