These days the phrase "building bridges" is thrown around casually and with increasing frequency, fueled in part by the contentious nature of the national presidential campaign. As far as I can tell, it's been a lot more talk than action. Fortunately, there are a few instances where communities have risen above that rhetoric, and I'm proud to say that Saint John's is one of them.
Last month about thirty Saint John's volunteers spent a few weeks at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Quite literally they were building a bridge, but this is no ordinary bridge. It's a hand-crafted, timber-frame covered bridge made from logs, with white oak beams for the base and white pine for the roof -- all harvested from the woods at Saint John's. And, I'm pleased to say, this bridge doesn't lead to nowhere. To the contrary, it will be installed along the heavily-travelled trail to Stella Maris Chapel. Soon it will replace the old concrete bridge near the Prep School athletic fields.
The process of making this structure was truly a "bridge building" experience. For starters, the project brought together a diverse group of people -- monks, staff, neighbors, alumni, and board members. They spent days working together, eating together, laughing together, and praying together; and in true Benedictine fashion, it was community-building at its finest. I had the good fortune to join the first group for a couple of days, and it was a pleasure to work alongside old friends and new acquaintances. Together, we learned the art of carving talens and mortises with chisels, mallets and squares.
This project also brought together two fine institutions, Saint John's and the North House Folk School. In many ways they share similar interests and values, and the North House mission statement, for instance, reads like a verse from the Rule of St. Benedict: "To enrich lives and build community by teaching traditional northern crafts in a student-centered learning environment that inspires the hands, the heart and the mind." Happily, this is a relationship that has already stood the test of time, since Saint John's and North House first partnered a year ago to build a trailhead that was installed near the student beach on the north shore of Lake Sagatagan. (See the blog post of 4 August 2015, by Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB.)
Bridges bring people together, and this was certainly the case in Grand Marais. Saint John's group members spent time with local residents in various coffee shops and eateries, including the Bluewater, Java Moose, Crooked Spoon, Angry Trout, and my personal favorite, the Rooftop at the Gunflint Tavern.
Most important of all, however, this bridge will serve for generations to come as a passageway for students and visitors who make the trek from the Saint John's beach to Stella Maris Chapel. During its span of time, hundreds of thousands of foot steps will pass across its planks. I'm sure it will be a popular resting stop along the Sagatagan trail, and it will undoubtedly be the perfect spot for thousands of selfies, to say nothing of marriage proposals.
I am deeply grateful to the benefactors who funded the creation of this bridge, as well as to the volunteers who gave of their time and talent to craft it. Their generosity has helped Saint John's extend the Benedictine values of hospitality and community in a most unusual way.