St John’s Abbey was founded in 1862 and moved here in 1865. Its monks make honey, candles and fine furniture, but have not brewed beer since a temperate Minnesota archbishop forbade it in the 1880s. They spend each day gardening and teaching, following rules set down by St Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century that call for a balance of prayer and work in everyday life. Occupying a great deal of their affection, and most of Father Columba’s time, is the abbey’s library.
The Benedictines’ longevity is rooted in their intellectual instincts. “We had scriptoria for very practical reasons,” Father Columba says, referring to the “writing places” of medieval European monasteries. “You can’t do theology without philosophy,” he says, standing in his own 21st-century equivalent. “You can’t try to be a self-sustaining monastery if you can’t take science seriously.” So, as a policy, any relevant text was copied. Over one and a half millennia, knowledge has been a matter of survival for the Benedictines, allowing one collective to pick up where another left off, in low times and in high. Today, thanks to machines, the library is copying more efficiently.
There have always been threats. The Vikings, the Reformation, Napoleon’s looting spree and the second world war all scarred the writing places of Europe. American soldiers used ancient Benedictine manuscript pages as kindling to make a fire in a freezing European castle; Russian soldiers used them to roll their cigarettes because newspaper was too expensive. Monte Cassino, St Benedict’s original monastery, was bombed in 1944 as the Allies battled to take Rome.