R. R. Reno
Years ago I read Geoffrey Kabaservice's 2012 book on postwar conservatism, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. I learned a great deal from this fine and detailed history, which made me want to read his earlier 2004 book, The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment. I've only now gotten to it. I don't share Kabaservice's unbridled admiration for the postwar WASP elite, but this lavishly researched study of the Ivy League grandees of the greatest generation offers wonderful insights into what the tumult of the 1960s looked like for the liberal establishment that sat atop society.
With the United States roughly midway through its 100-year disintegration, the long march through the institutions by leftists proceeding with wondrous and effectual resolve, it's time to get back to the writings of the country in its youth. The Journals of Lewis and Clark are a tonic. They record the remarkable two-year journey up the Missouri River, over the mountains to the Columbia River, and onward to the Pacific—then the return, all of it presented against a background of national aspiration. We have encounters with Indians; vast herds of buffalo and antelope; grizzly bears that frighten the heck out of the men; French trappers out to undermine the project; Sacagawea, her hearty infant (born during the trip), and her feckless husband Charbonneau; the occasional whipping of rule-breaking men in the company; and America the Beautiful throughout.
The Indians are lively characters. The black skin of the slave York fascinates them, and York enjoys playing up his singularity. (The white skin of the Americans is a reassurance that Lewis and Clark are not from another, hostile tribe.) The Sioux and Arikaras press the men to take their wives to bed for the night as a sign of mutual giving. Most encounters go well—lots of pipe-smoking—but in one incident Lewis kills one when he and a few comrades try to steal their guns. Lewis himself is shot in the leg by one of his own men in a hunting accident.
Lewis composes most of the entries in the little volume I have. He focuses on weather, landscape, natives, flora and fauna, boats, and the men, rarely reflecting upon himself. One passage, however, shows a turn inward, with him pondering his own condition in something of a confession. Halfway through the trip, he writes,
This day I completed my thirty-first year, and conceived that I had, in all human probability, now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little, indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation . . . I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. But, since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought, and resolve in future to redouble my exertions and at least endeavor to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which Nature and fortune have bestowed on me; or, in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.
That was on August 20, 1805. Four years later, on October 11, Lewis was dead, shot in his room in an inn near Nashville; a likely suicide, though some argue for murder.
After spending last year as an intern at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, I thought it was about time I became better acquainted with the life of its foundress. Mother Benedict, known by the community as Lady Abbess, died in 2005. In the years leading up to her death, journalist and friend of the abbey Antoinette Bosco conducted a series of interviews with Lady Abbess. These were pieced together into a biography published by Ignatius Press in 2007, Mother Benedict. The book is not a literary masterpiece, but the story is compelling enough that it overcomes the author’s shortcomings.
Mother Benedict was born Vera Duss in 1910. Although an American, she grew up in Paris and later trained at the Sorbonne to be a medical doctor. In 1936, days after she received her degree and against the wishes of her mother, Vera entered the Benedictine Abbey of Jouarre and took the name Sr. Benedict. Almost immediately, the abbess named Sr. Benedict as the community doctor and the young nun began to win the affections of her fellow sisters. But it wasn’t long before Europe found itself in the throes of World War II. The war years were an especially trying time for Mother Benedict and the community at Jouarre, but the difficulties came to an end when General Patton’s Third Army liberated France. The sight of the white star on the allied tanks inspired Mother Benedict to found an American monastery in gratitude for that day. And with the aid of friendships with two men who would later become popes, the indefatigable energy of Mother Mary Aline, and a divinely sanctioned dose of luck, Mother Benedict managed to found the Abbey of Regina Laudis in the little town of Bethlehem, Connecticut.
The last third of the book depicts something of what the first couple decades of the foundation were like: in a word, scrappy. There was the ever present question of money for necessary buildings, the difficulties of bringing a distinctly European tradition to America, the challenge of forging a community identity in the midst of Vatican II, and the daily grind of learning to live with a vast array of personalities. Then, in the midst of all this, a band of young people began hitchhiking to the abbey. Full of questions about life and not quite sure what a monastery was, they were nevertheless drawn back again and again. With time a few of these young people entered, and stayed, and built a community that remains radically countercultural—even if what it means to be countercultural has changed dramatically since Mother Benedict first found her way to Bethlehem.
Perhaps my strongest objection to Bosco’s work is the way she structures her narrative arc by naming the ’70s the “Golden Years” and ending on the sour note of the troubles that befell the community in the ’90s. It leaves the reader with the impression that Regina Laudis has already peaked and since joined the ranks of Religious Orders That Were. But while some monasteries have curdled over the past fifty years, becoming nursing homes and then museums, life pulses at Regina Laudis. With a newly rebuilt monastery and chapel, a strong group of novices in formation, and a steady stream of young women coming to inquire about their own vocations, the abbey is poised to embark on a new “golden” era.
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