Book Review: A Benedictine legacy of Peace:
June 3, 2005 - Lou Jacquet, The Catholic Exponent, Youngstown, Ohio
Life of Benedictine abbot, founding of Weston Priory make for fascinating reading
Just offhand, the idea that a book about the life of a German monk who tries to balance his leadership roles at a monastery in the Holy Land and a new foundation of monks he creates in Vermont does not sound like it would have broad appeal among a Catholic readership. But those who would think so have not had the pleasure of reading this finely written, surprisingly engrossing work about the life of a man who left an imprint on religious communities in two countries and Jewish/Christian relations around the globe when he died in 1982.
The man who would become Abbot Leo Rudloff was born in Germany in 1902 and had become a Benedictine priest and monk well before Hitler turned German life upside down. His unique journey of faith involves several story lines: the monk who comes to America to create and build up a community of American monks that could re-supply his monastery of aging German monks in the Holy Land; a love for Israel that led him to become an integral part of a commission which drafted the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate” on Christian relations with the Jews; and a former abbot who, upon return to Vermont in the final years of his life, becomes simply “brother Leo” (with a lower-case “b”) as he attempts to put aside his leadership tendencies to blend into the community of brothers he gave birth to, well before the monks of the Weston Priory became well-known throughout the United States for their liturgical music and their work for peace and justice.
The whole story is seamlessly and insightfully told by the man who knew Leo Rudloff best: Brother John Hammond, who had been a parish priest in the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., before becoming a member of the Weston community, then served as its prior from 1964-98. It is Leo's correspondence with him that forms much of the backbone of this insightful work. Throughout, the reader grasps the fact that brother Leo had a new and fresh way of thinking about monastic life that sought to break down the old walls between ordained monks and those who served their communities as religious brothers, a view that repeatedly caused him problems at the official levels and yet would become the norm in monastic circles in the final years of his life.
The tension between the various aspects of Leo's life causes some interesting and often distressing struggles, much of it played out against the broader cultural changes surrounding religious life in the 1960s and 1970s. One gets a real sense of the humanity of both the German and American monks, especially in regard to how difficult it was to choose the right leader for the Weston priory while Leo was still in the Holy Land. His amazing travel schedule, mostly via ships across vast oceans, would have tired a much younger man, yet the internationally known priest had to deal with that while struggling from half a world away to find the right man to shepherd the young Weston community, a struggle that saw several monks come and go in that role. Anyone who believes that life within a religious community is free of the maddening foibles of humanity outside those walls will know better after reading Leo's correspondence and snippets of his memoirs contained here.
This is an important volume for several reasons, not the least of which is that the trailblazing work of brother Leo in the area of Catholic/Jewish relations at the highest levels needed to be documented and must not be forgotten. But it is a book that captures as well an era in American life and monastic life that is mostly gone now, a time when travel was slower, correspondence was done by mail rather than via instantaneous electronic communication, and there was still an innocence and expectation in the immediate wake of Vatican II-the feeling that almost anything was possible in the Church, in liturgy, and in society at large. Time has shown that feeling to have been far too optimistic when measured against the problems that arose in the decades to follow.
A most worthwhile read for Catholics in the pews, high school and college religion courses, vocation directors in dioceses and religious communities, and for every reader interested in peace/justice and ecumenical issues. Highly recommended.
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