Life of St. Benedict fresco by Sodoma, Cloister of Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey, Tuscany, Italy (Kim Petersen/Alamy Stock Photo)

Opening to the World

My journey from young monk to mature scholar

Late in the summer of 1963, I entered the novitiate at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, thinking I’d arrived into a tranquil and unchanging world. The community was of medium size for Benedictine monasteries, with a total of about sixty monks garbed in the distinctive Benedictine habit: a simple black tunic with a leather belt around the waist, over which was a scapular with cowl, or hood. The main work was administering and teaching at St. Ben’s, the adjacent minor seminary from which I had recently graduated, but the common life demanded that all the monks play a variety of roles—cantor, organist, mechanic, barber. The community consisted of choir monks and lay brothers: the former solemnly professed and either ordained as priests or in training for ordination; the latter having made simple vows and performing the bulk of the practical work required in a large community. The monks lived a radically communal life, in which all possessions were shared; the practice of a community of goods expressed the virtues of obedience and humility. All of this was standard and had been for centuries.

Appearances, however, deceived. As I began this new life, forces of turmoil and dramatic change were at work below the surface. The reforming ferment of the Second Vatican Council was already stirring. It was also a time of cultural upheaval around issues of sexuality. Much emphasis was placed on personal fulfillment, and the celibate life was an easy target. Monastic life could seem, even to its adherents, out of touch in a religion that was rapidly privileging the active over the contemplative life. The effect of these upheavals was the disaffection and then the departure of many monks. The depletion of the Catholic religious orders had begun. Perhaps as an indication of the lean years to come, I was the only novice to enter St. Joseph’s in 1963.

 

On making simple vows in 1964, I took the name Luke, partly because it was biblical and partly because it was short and difficult to twist by the clever young boys I thought I would someday teach. Thus, my authorial name, Luke Timothy Johnson. Holding on to my monk name is deliberate. The mark of monasticism on me is permanent, and the name reminds me that, in addition to my baptism into the faith, I also carry with me the effects of another initiation into a special form of discipleship. By my vows, I also signed on to the system of preparation for the ordained priesthood as prescribed by canon law. This meant that my next years would be spent in the formal study of philosophy and theology.

The young monks studied philosophy at Notre Dame Seminary, located on Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, and in 1964 the classic curriculum of philosophy classes remained unchanged. Lectures and exams were in Latin. Students moved progressively through the categories of philosophy that date back to Diogenes Laertius in the third century. The framework was the form of scholastic philosophy that had been dominant within Catholicism since the time of Leo XIII, namely, neo-Thomism. Thomas Aquinas was the unsurpassed authority and the abiding spirit. Students began with logic (Aristotelian logic, to be sure), then they moved to epistemology, cosmology, metaphysics, and ethics. Although the schema was rigid, I was deeply grateful for learning it, first because Thomas’s philosophy is a remarkably sound and sane perspective on reality, and second because this framework allowed me space to explore all other philosophical voices without confusion.

The work of a monk-student was to study, so I was free, apart from the regular round of prayer, meals, and recreation, to indulge as never before my passion for wide reading. Actual work on classes took little time. Instead, I went on a spree of freelance reading in philosophy, indiscriminately and with no thought to sequence. I was drawn to thinkers who might be called existentialist in orientation and whose approach was concrete and phenomenological. Human experience as the object of thought and the shaper of thought summoned my attention, and would continue to do so for the rest of my life as a scholar. The two thinkers who influenced me the most were Søren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel. I cannot remember how I found either, but once discovered, they galvanized my mind. Kierkegaard thrilled me first not only because of the sheer brilliance of his writing and the daring character of the dialectic he was working out through his use of pseudonymous authorship, but also because he thought directly on the face of existence. In Marcel, I found a French Catholic existentialist philosopher who would be an intellectual companion for life.

Philosophy, I understood, was not about dogma, it was about a process of reflection on reality.

My voracious reading went completely unnoticed by either fellow monks or seminary professors. Nobody seemed to have any clue that I was engaged in such a passionate pursuit. But what was I pursuing? “Truth” is much too large an answer, for I was not interested in a “truth” that was other than the one within which I lived. I think I was truly hungry to read words written by great minds. By no means did I wish to become a Kierkegaardian or a disciple of Marcel. Why I valued them, I think, was that in them I began to learn how to think in a way I had not before. Philosophy, I understood, was not about dogma, it was about a process of reflection on reality. It was about thinking, concretely, clearly, and without deception, on human existence in all its manifestations.

At the end of these two years immersed in philosophy, I came to two conclusions. The first is that I really had learned what thinking was about, and that I had started to think for myself in response to all these thinkers. This gave me a great boost of self-confidence. The second is that whatever thinking I would do in my subsequent life, it would be based not on abstractions but on contact with and reflection on actual human experience. I would not be a student of texts alone, but of texts as transparent to existence in the world.

 

Rather than continue at Notre Dame for my theological studies, I was sent to St. Meinrad School of Theology in southern Indiana. This was a singular blessing. It continued to provide a context of pervasive religious faith, monastic discipline, excellent music, good fellowship, and wide reading. I can see now that my time at St. Meinrad, an archabbey and seminary set on a high hill and at the time one of the best theologates in the country, put me firmly on the path to becoming a scholar.

During my four years at St. Meinrad, I was able to share fully in the monastic life as a visitor who had no other obligation except to study. But the monastery and school of theology struggled with a number of tensions. First, the decrees of Vatican II pressed all religious communities to decide individually how reforms were to be embodied. At St. Meinrad, a deep rift developed between the older monks (largely conservative) and the younger monks (largely liberal). The liberals advocated for change on the basis of history, arguing, for example, that patristic-era Eucharistic formulae clearly antedated and were superior to the Tridentine version, while the conservatives stood on the basis of tradition. Sadly, ideological differences mingled with personal animosity, forcing one to pick sides. Another tension involved the question of how to teach theology, now that the traditional scholastic handbooks had been abandoned. This proved difficult to answer. Students still learned doctrine and morals and canon law, but in a much more ad hoc and diverse manner.

I entered the school of theology at the point when its faculty had made two clear decisions. The first concerned rigor. The basic grade was to be a C; students had to demonstrate that they deserved an A or a B. During my time in the theologate, that standard was fairly well maintained. The second decision concerned the curricular framework: history, not scholasticism, was to hold the learning of theology together. Thus, Church history was required every semester of the four years. History, moreover, was to be based as much as possible on the study of primary more than secondary sources. The Second Vatican Council had been preceded by a century of reform-minded Catholic scholars “returning to the sources,” and this spirit animated the program at St. Meinrad.

Luke Timothy Johnson (Kaleen Enke)

My first year at St. Meinrad was particularly memorable. The class in early Christianity was taught by the young Aidan Kavanagh, who would become a universally recognized authority in the study of liturgy, and Polycarp Sherwood, who had published a pioneering and authoritative work on Maximus the Confessor. Classes were demonstrations of superb scholarship, with specific attention to the sources. Aidan led us from Jewish synagogue services through the early Christian Church orders, which displayed the variety of early Eucharistic prayers that shortly would, on the council’s decree, stand alongside and relativize the Tridentine Latin Mass. Polycarp dealt with the development of doctrine in complex and rambling lectures that students called “Sherwood’s Forest,” but occasionally he would exegete passages from patristic writers (in Latin and Greek) with great delicacy and precision.

A couple of events from my time at St. Meinrad stand out as significant in my becoming a scholar. The first was a Jewish-Christian dialogue between the Conservative rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and the German Catholic theologian Johannes Baptist Metz (a student of Rahner), who represented the new “political theology” that deliberately engaged Marxist theory and praxis. The entire student body and monastery attended the lengthy, multi-day sessions. It was my first real experience of public theology—and on such an important issue, in light of Vatican II’s declaration on the Jews—and it left me with the sense that such public intellectual activity was eminently worthwhile.

The second was the chance to work for a master’s in religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. The School of Theology and the Department of Religious Studies at IU made it possible for us to take a semester of classes on campus, then write a thesis, and so receive the MA virtually simultaneously with the MDiv from St. Meinrad. We lived in the graduate residence, mixed with all the other students, and participated fully in a normal graduate program. This was the first time I had mingled with, much less partied with, women of any age, since grade school. It was 1969—“Hey Jude” blared in the student lounge, a malcontent set fire to the university library, and the “Free University” held classes in the meadow—so the atmosphere was heady for one who thought of himself as otherworldly. Heady, and invigorating, but not yet destabilizing.

The most mind-opening class was William May’s course on religion and culture. We began by examining some of the classic texts in religious phenomenology (Otto, van der Leeuw, Eliade), and then began to apply its categories to cultural phenomena, such as the burgeoning student movement. The books that most challenged me were Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality and Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy. I fought Berger page by page, but I ended up accepting his argument. I fully understood that, for the first time, I had stepped out of the monastic world by which I had defined myself. I grasped that the monastic culture, and indeed, Catholicism itself, was but one of many “plausibility structures” by which humans secure identity. And, remarkably, I was less afraid than exhilarated.

 

I spent the year of 1970–1971 back in my home monastery in Louisiana. Apart from one session of summer school in Indiana, I had, in fact, spent three months of each year in my own community. During these summer sojourns I participated fully in the routine of my monastic home. My work assignments were enjoyable precisely because they involved the kind of hard physical labor that encouraged contemplation: hauling garbage to the dump, mucking out the holding barn at the dairy, and cutting back the growth that threatened to overwhelm the grounds in the brutal Louisiana heat. Apart from those assignments, though, I was free to spend many hours reading in the monastic music room.

When I returned full time (as I thought) to my community, I was considerably changed from the young man I had been as a novice.

But when I returned full time (as I thought) to my community, I was considerably changed from the young man I had been as a novice. I noticed that, unconsciously, I had allowed the alternating pattern of stays at St. Meinrad and St. Ben’s to camouflage deeper personal issues. I realized that, however satisfying the studies at St. Meinrad, I would each year grow more and more critical of the tensions within that large community. “Things were better at home,” I would tell myself, as I eagerly awaited the summer. And each summer, it would at first seem as though they were. Yet, by late August, I was always itching to get back to St. Meinrad.

Still, the constant conflict between the younger, reformist monks (with whom I gladly if unreflectively aligned myself) and the older, traditionalist monks at St. Meinrad was a cause of irritation. It was all too easy for us young theological blackshirts to caricature and despise those clinging (as we saw it) to old ways. After all, we had history on our side. We were right! We wanted revolution now. And we got it. Reforms were so drastic that all the old forms of piety were discarded. The Latin texts that had sustained monks for 1,500 years were literally thrashed. The Gregorian chant was replaced by ersatz compositions of little worth. Worst of all, we had no concern for the stories that might have been told by the older monks, about what those forms of piety had meant to them, about what the cost of radical change might be. We may have been right on the issues, but we were not righteous in our dispositions. (A decade later, I looked back at this frenzied period and felt a great weight of guilt at our—and specifically my—behavior, and I began a lifelong project of thinking how communities might discern righteously through the recognition of God’s activity among all God’s people.)

The atmosphere was better at my own community. We did not experience such hostile divisions. Charity continued to reign. But certain fundamental things had shifted within me, making me begin to wonder if I was truly fit for life as a monk. At the most overt level, I was deeply troubled, as many Catholic theologians were at that time, by the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae. I considered Paul VI’s argument supporting the prohibition of artificial birth control both formally and materially in error, and I was not sure how I could deal, as a priest, with penitents who confessed such practice as a sin. More covertly, I was increasingly aware of the tension within me between an awakening desire for intimacy and my punctilious observance of the rules. In light of Paul’s letter to the Romans, I felt deeply convicted of a “works righteousness” in my rigid (one might even call it obsessive-compulsive) adherence to rules. Finally, my experiences at St. Meinrad and IU gave me a much greater confidence in my intellectual abilities, as well as an openness to “the world” from which I had turned when becoming a monk. By dint of a habit of intellectualization and a knack for compartmentalization, I had suppressed desires that I could not name even to myself. But I was a tinderbox, ready to be lit.

A big factor in lighting it was the Catholic charismatic movement. It emphasized the gift of the Spirit as an actual and present power in lives, which could be expressed by speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healings, and it was spreading rapidly among Catholics who were, in light of the council, eager for renewal by God and not just by ecclesiastical decrees. As it happened, a charismatic group began in Covington, gathering in the seminary for its prayer meetings.

An attractive, vivacious thirty-six-year-old local woman with six children was part of the leadership team. Her name was Joy Barnett, and she attended Mass daily at the abbey church. She and her husband enjoyed considerable wealth, and they lived at Oak Hill Farm outside Covington. My life became more complicated when Joy’s spiritual director insisted that she take the class on comparative religion with me. This led to a friendship that would eventually explode my life and reshape it. In 1971, I was accepted into Yale for doctoral work—a monk and intellectual with some scholarly leanings and some scholarly ability. When I finished at Yale I had the focus and the desire to produce that mark the mature scholar. I was also a husband with a child and six stepchildren. My life had undergone changes I could never have anticipated.

The memoir from which this excerpt is adapted, The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar, will be published in March by Eerdmans. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Published in the February 2022 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.

 

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