Ann KESSLER. Benedictine Men and Women of Courage: Roots and History, rev. ed., edited by Neville Ann Kelly. Seattle: Lean Scholar Press: 2014. pp. 480. $26.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-9904497-0-6. Reviewed by Jakob Karl RINDERKNECHT, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI 53201
Western monasticism has resisted many attempts to systematize it. In one famous anecdote often repeated by Benedictines, a frustrated early twentieth-century pope (usually Leo XIII, sometimes Pius XI) is said to have yelled out that the followers of the Rule of St. Benedict constitute an “ordo sine ordine” [an Order without order]. This book, written by S. Ann Kessler and revised by Neville Ann Kelly, does a remarkable job of telling the story of the daughters and sons of St. Benedict without either truncating the family tree or imposing more of a structure than is there.
The scope of the book is vast, beginning with the Desert Abbas and Ammas and stretching to include the world-wide foundations of the twentieth century. This breadth of scope means that not everything can be equally exhaustive in its treatment. The weight of the work’s attention is given to the medieval monastic reforms, the struggles arising from the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century foundations in the new world. This attention comes at a cost to both ends of the timeline. Its description of the foundational era of monasticism, stretching from the desert fathers and mothers in the third century through Benedict and Scholastica in the sixth, is covered in 25 pages. The worldwide diversity of post-Vatican II monasticism is described in a mere ten.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this work is the attention it pays to a different kind of balance. It is careful to tell the often-neglected stories of Benedictine women. While sisters and nuns have been active in all eras and regions of monastic history, their stories often remain untold. Here, those stories are given equal footing with the struggles and triumphs of the monks. This is important. It is may be enough on its own to recommend the book.
This book is highly recommended for anyone who is looking to gain an appreciation of the messy but beautiful history of Benedictines, broadly understood. For such a reader, it will provide a framework for future work, an introduction to the important issues, and some intriguing judgments about that history which may inspire new and more specialized research. It would serve as a useful textbook for a class in monastic history, especially if it were to be augmented at the beginning and the end of the timeline. It will not generally be of great help to the specialist in any particular era of monastic history.
An exception may be the author’s work with the original sources of the American foundations. S. Ann makes an important contribution to understanding the stories of the great American founders: Benedicta Riepp, Boniface Wimmer, and Martin Marty. Her balanced description of the interactions between these figures, especially the difficult history of S. Benedicta and Archabbot Boniface, anoints no untarnished heroes nor appoints any scapegoats. A broader attention to this careful history could do much to help contemporary American Benedictine women and men reappropriate their common history together.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this work is its author’s narrative style and grasp of the whole. Monastics are great story tellers. The particular charisms and characters of the different federations, congregations, and communities are passed on as much in stories told about previous members as they are in the constitutions and customaries that provide structure to the communities’ lives. This book therefore serves an important function beyond mere history. It is, in effect, an answer to the frustrated exclamation of that early twentieth century pope.Benedictines have never been a regimented Order in the sense of the Dominicans or the Jesuits. There are few clear lines of command, no uniform structure that gives worldwide shape to all communities. At its best, the Benedictine family has been a loose conglomeration of a variety of ways of living out a shared sixth-century Rule. Nevertheless, there is an order there. Reading stories of the Trappists and the Cluniacs, of Boniface Wimmer and Benedicta Riepp, of cloistered nuns and missionary sisters, one can discern a real family resemblance. Learning the stories of monastic struggles and triumphs, of battles both internecine and with the powers of the world, gives the reader a realistic picture of what it means to be a Benedictine, and the tools to begin to see the order within the admittedly messy Order.