At the beginning of a new year, I often find myself thinking not so much about the year just ended, but rather about the year just begun. Although it was a perfectly fine year on a personal level—my youngest son got engaged, I signed a contract for a new book, Jeanne and I went to Scotland on vacation, and many more positives—2018 was eminently forgettable from a national and global perspective. But I am an incurable optimist, so I hope for better things in 2019. Since I cannot impact national and global events except indirectly, my thoughts turn to how I can be a better person in the upcoming year. It’s time to think about New Year’s resolutions, in other words.
It is ten years since I arrived on a sub-zero January day—President Obama’s 2009 inauguration day, in fact—at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville Minnesota for a semester-long sabbatical as a resident scholar. The experience changed my life; I have spent the last decade, including more than six years on this blog, exploring and discovering the ways in which these changes have and continue to worked their way into my day to day reality.
One of the many friends I made while on sabbatical was a Benedictine monk named Kilian McDonnell. In the 1960s, he was the founder of the Institute where I was a resident scholar; at that time, Kilian was a young, rising theologian who, over the next three decades became somewhat of a rock star at St. John’s Abbey just up the road from the Institute, an internationally recognized and respected scholar. When I met him in early 2009, he had just turned eighty but was still full of energy and Irish wit—he looks a bit like a leprechaun and took a very strong liking to Jeanne when she visited me at Easter. I once misspelled his first name with two “l’s” in the middle—he corrected me and said “Kilian has only one “l.” Maybe when I get to heaven, they’ll let me have another one.” Another time, he told me that “Vance, sabbatical is God’s best idea, and getting old is God’s worst idea.” I have been back to the Institute and the Abbey many times in the decade since my sabbatical; every time Kilian sees me at Abbey prayers, he hugs me and says “Welcome home.”
There are Kilian stories in every corner of the Institute, the Abbey, and St. John’s University where the Institute and Abbey are located; my favorite is about Kilian and the helicopter. Some years ago, Kilian arrived at evening prayer with a packed suitcase. Shortly after prayers began, the monks were interrupted by the deafening sound of a helicopter landing on the large green directly in front of the Abbey, in order to whisk Kilian off to yet another important event requiring his presence. He hopped on board and the helicopter lifted. Prayers then resumed, only to be interrupted yet again by a descending helicopter. Kilian had forgotten his suitcase; once he was united with his luggage, the helicopter lifted again, carrying him to distant parts, while evening prayer picked up at the point where it had been so rudely interrupted—twice.
Now in his nineties, in retirement and landlocked at the Abbey where he has spent more than seventy years of his life, Kilian is in the retirement wing of the monks’ residence; I saw him when I was in Minnesota for a writers’ conference last summer. He’s forgetful now, but some things he doesn’t forget—after giving me a hug, the first thing he asked me was “Where’s Jeanne?” About five years before I met him, in his middle-seventies, Kilian had started writing poetry—his third volume of poetry had been published just before my arrival: “Swift, Lord, You are Not,” “Yahweh’s Other Shoe,” and “God Drops and Loses Things” (two more have been published since). Kilian’s poetry is very much like the man—to the point, often humorous, and always from an unusual angle.
To Vance, a man who dreams but never wastes time.
Now that’s something worth aspiring to.
I suspect that the reason Kilian’s inscription did not stick with me at the time is because I didn’t think it was true. In the manner of Hillary Clinton’s memorable, somewhat oxymoronic description of herself as “a progressive who gets things done,” Kilian’s inscription connects two characteristics that, stereotypically at least, do not play well together. I have always been time-efficient in my work life, well-organized and planning ahead. That doesn’t carry over seamlessly to my non-work life, where I can procrastinate and waste time with the best of them.
The real challenge in Kilian’s inscription, though, both then and now, is the “man who dreams” part. My father was a dreamer and a visionary of sorts, but impractical in many ways. I’ve always thought of myself as my mother’s son, introverted, practical, the person to turn a task over to once the dreamers are done dreaming about it in order to guarantee that something actually happens and the dreams come to fruition. My administrative tasks during my academic career have been executive—I was the guy asked to make the vision happen once the legislative sausage-making in the faculty senate and various committees was finished. I’ve been the person to organize and lead people, often resistant to being organized or led, as we collectively find ways to make a vision into a reality. This often requires letting the visionaries know that large parts of their dreams are impossible to do, others can only be done with significant revisions on the fly.
So I ask myself now, as I read this inscription that a trusted friend, just as I wondered when he wrote it a decade ago: What did Kilian see in me that I don’t see in myself? I’ll be thinking and wondering about that as we proceed into the New Year. For starters, my New Year’s resolution is to balance task orientation with reflection, nose-to-the-grindstone with deep breaths. Dreaming certainly has something to do with hope, and hope is both a commodity without which we cannot live fully human lives, as well as a commodity that seems to be in short supply these days. My New Year’s resolution is to find reasons to be hopeful each day, then to find practical ways in which that hope can inch toward reality.