After 45 Years at Saint John’s Abbey, Father Kilian McDonnell OSB Still Is.
By Saint John's Abbey Communications Intern Taylor Reaves
Maiden Teresa West, my eighth-grade teacher, six-foot-one, jaw assertive, resolute of step, eyes without eyelids, is said to have smiled once (her first student, Julius Caesar), towering down the aisle of desks, caught me passing lovely notes to lovely Mildred, the superintendent’s daughter, who had opal eyes only for Kermit Fadness (farmer hulk of wavy hair). Defeated in love, disgraced before the school, banished to the Alcatraz of the nearest cloakroom.
I will be a monk.
(The Moment of Decision, 2003)
After 45 years at the Saint John’s Abbey, Father Kilian McDonnell OSB still is.
As poetic critic John Hawley wrote in America Magazine, “It is no surprise that a late poem suggests the poet (Kilian) draws inspiration from Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson and Robert Hass. They would welcome him as a brother on the road.”
This September, as Fr. Kilian celebrates his 92nd birthday, the Saint John’s Abbey press and his devoted readers await the final revisions to his latest collection of poems, Aggressive Mercy.
Authoring and co-authoring 17 books and well over 200 articles up until the age of 82, Kilian found the art of writing by no means new. It was a talent that needed only to be tuned to a different key.
Through careful study of the canon of poetry, literary criticisms and biographies of the masters, including R.S. Thomas, Mary Oliver and Seamus Heaney, Fr. Kilian has published five collections of poetry in the past 10 years with the sixth soon on its way.
“I have a major advantage over other poets, especially religious poets. I am a trained theologian and therefore have at my command a body of technical, scholarly reflection not readily available to other poets,” Fr. Kilian said.
While Fr. Kilian’s early work derived from an abstract, academic, theological background, he was able to transition the same scriptural characters and themes into a concrete and earthy styled free-verse.
“I do not write pious verse or inspirational, sentimental poetry. I write about biblical people— Adam, Eve, Moses, Deborah, Bathsheba, Judas, Peter, John the Baptist— who have significant struggles with God and their neighbor just as you and I,” Fr. Kilian said.
Several brothers at Saint John’s Abbey are among those devoted to the innovative style of his prose.
“Kilian’s poems have a tone that’s all his own,” said Father Hilary Thimmesh OSB, director of the new Benedictine Institute and 1950 graduate of Saint John’s University. “I’ve asked myself how he does it. Part of it is to present poetry as the speaking voice, soliloquy or conversation. In his poems somebody is always talking. There’s no third person narration.”
The poem “In the Kitchen” from Fr. Kilian’s collection Swift, Lord, You are Not describes the Annunciation in which the Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary. Contrary to other popular interpretations, however, Fr. Kilian constructs a new understanding of the event from Mary’s own point of view.
“Giotto has it wrong,” Fr. Kilian writes. “I was not kneeling on my satin cushion quietly at prayer, head slightly bent. Painters always skew the scene as though my life were wrapped in silks, in temple smells. Actually, I had just come back from the well placing the pitcher on the table. I bumped against the edge spilling water on the floor. As I bent to wipe it up, there was a light against the kitchen wall as though someone had opened the door to the sun.”
In the same sense, his other titles, including Yahweh’s Other Shoe (2006), God Drops and Loses Things (2009), Wrestling With God (2011) and Aggressive Mercy (2014), suggest the same spirited nature of his works.
“What is of interest to me is less dogmatic questions, more the experience of the Word of God,” Fr. Kilian said.
Yahweh’s Other Shoe, for instance, displays only the image of a women’s high-heeled shoe on the front cover, which implies the anonymity of God’s gender to possible readers who otherwise associate God with masculinity.
“Quite remarkable on Kilian’s part to get so much mileage out of a single unexpected noun but characteristic of his best work again and again,” Fr. Hilary said.
Fr. Kilian creates these cover titles as hooks, basing some on personal theological struggles. Once capturing readers’ attention, he steers them toward innovative and alternative angles of interpreting a wide variety of scriptural passages, characters and themes.
“His titles show an attitude toward God that is beautiful. Some people are taken aback at first by what appears to be a flippant attitude toward God, but I think that is what Kilian uses to get your attention,” said one of Fr. Kilian’s fellow confreres of many years. “It’s so simple, it catches you. He has a way of taking biblical stories and turning them upside down. It’s a fresh approach to writing that is religious in nature.”
While some of his unpublished poems are going on a decade old, it is their aging process, not his, that continues to compel him. To Fr. Kilian, time is only measured in his stanzas.
“Poetic competence is my goal,” Fr. Kilian said. “Immortality is up to the gods.”
While he continues to serve as president of the Saint John’s Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, which he founded in 1967 for scholarly theological research, he remains in the finalizing stages of his latest collection, currently being edited at Santa Clara University, California.
Whether the poems will contain a wait, a search or a stumble, Fr. Kilian will appropriate each experience through his own meter, rhyme and diction in Aggressive Mercy, set to release in spring 2014.
Fr. Kilian’s most renowned positions include serving as a member of the national Presbyterian/ Roman Catholic Dialogue, and as a member of the national Lutheran/ Catholic, the national Presbyterian/ Catholic Dialogue, as well as co-chair of the international dialogue between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Roman Catholic Church and the co-chair of the international dialogue between the Pentecostal churches and the Vatican. Fr. Kilian also served as a member of the International Roman Catholic/ Disciples Dialogue, consultor to the Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity, as well as consultor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on charismatic renewal. Among his many prominent awards are the John Courtney Murray Award for Distinguished Contributions to Church and Theology given by the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1993, and the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Society of Pentecostal Studies in 2004.