Mark McGinnis has done a great service to the Benedictines in the United States by preserving in print the biographies of thirty Benedictine elder men and women. Most of them are still alive, although some have died since McGinnis did his interviews. McGinnis is an artist, writer, and art professor at Northern State University in South Dakota. He is also a Benedictine Oblate of Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota. His previous books are Lakota and Dakota Animal Wisdom Stories (1992) and Buddhist Animal Wisdom Stories (1992). He also did a project on elders in his region called Elders of the Faiths in 1995, which is similar to this book in idea.
McGinnis and his wife, Sammy, visited many Benedictine monasteries throughout the U.S. The superiors of the monasteries would select an elder of their community to be interviewed and have their portrait done. Mini-portraits are on the first page of each chapter; the background of each portrait is from where the elder lives.
Sixteen sisters were interviewed (taped and later transcribed) from various Benedictine congregations in the U.S.; thirteen priests and one brother were also interviewed. At least a second brother probably should have been interviewed to get a broader glimpse at the life of a brother and balance the priests’ stories, although the single brother interviewed did a thorough job. A nun from an enclosed monastery probably should have been interviewed, too.
Sister Joan Chittiser, O.S.B., provides the foreword for this book, and McGinnis provides a short introduction to the elder and the his or her community. The elders tell their life stories from their pre-monastic days to when they realized they were called to be Benedictines, then relate their experiences as monks or nuns. Most did not find their early monastic lives easy; many were assigned to do jobs they were not really trained or educated to do. Somehow, though, they did the best they could and moved on. Many were involved in education and many in parish work. When asked about their thoughts on the future of monasticism, especially about their own community’s future, most agreed monasticism will continue, but that communities will grow smaller in membership.
These interviews flow very well. They are easy to read and to understand – the chapters vary in length, but most are at least five to six pages long. If a reader needs to know more about some monastic terms, McGinnis provides a glossary in the back of the book. He also provides a short chart on the major congregations in the United States, though no bibliography.
An elder from this reviewer’s community (St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, Oklahoma) was not interviewed, although one of those interviewed is from St. Joseph’s Monastery in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Those who were are great examples of Benedictine eldership. . This book is recommended for those interested in learning about the Benedictines.