WINDSOR — The printed word seems to be waning as information is now accessible with a few keystrokes, yet a new library filled with books recently opened at Transfiguration Monastery. There’s a computer on a desk in the corner, but a visitor gets the sense that what’s on the shelves — countless paper pages in 8,000 books — is much more important.
“Some people believe naively they’re going to disappear,” said Sister Donald Corcoran, OSB, prioress of the monastery. Sister Donald’s passion for books goes back 53 years to her novice days at St. Paul’s Monastery in Minnesota. It was there that she first met Father Jean Leclercq, a French Benedictine monk and scholar, who spoke of “the love of learning and desire for God.” His then-newly published work gave her vision for a Benedictine vocation. Sister Donald was one of the founders of Transfiguration in 1979. Leclercq visited there three times prior to his death.
It’s as if she lost friends when a water pipe burst in 2006, sending untold gallons of water into the former library in the guesthouse. Dozens of people came to help. More than 5,000 books were thrown away.
“That got to be so discouraging that I couldn’t even look at the books that we were putting in the bags. It was too hard to save them,” Sister Donald said.
Others were delicately cleaned; there were replacements and new additions. All were set aside for the day that came in late December 2013, when Bishop Robert J. Cunningham dedicated the Jean Leclercq/Thomas Merton Library as more than 25 friends and benefactors looked on.
A donation several years ago by a friend of the monastery paid for construction of the new library. The new building smells of fresh hewn wood. Radiant heaters in the concrete flood keep the temperature at 50 degrees when not in use and warm when people are present. Two carpenters stayed in the guesthouse while they completed the project.
“One of them has done master’s [studies] in religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He was really fascinated by the books. And he’s a Zen practitioner from a Christian background,” said Sister Donald.
She pointed to a shelf that contains spiritual classics worth thousands of dollars. Christian writers are prominent, yet there are also books on Islam and Judaism.
“We’re solidly committed to the Christian tradition, but also hanging on to others,” Sister Donald added. “The Vatican in the early 70s asked the Benedictines and the Cistercians to take leadership as far as relating to monastics of other traditions like Buddhists and Hindus.”
Monasteries have long traditions of preserving the written word, dating back to Celtic monks during the Dark Ages. That’s not lost in the age of technology.
“People will say the era of the book is now outmoded — I don’t believe so. One great solar flare or EMP [electromagnetic pulse] could wipe out the grid, the Internet,” Sister Donald emphasized.
The volumes are carefully catalogued, for easy reference and borrowing. But this is more than a lending library; people have already come to spend time in research on a variety of spiritual topics. They have some books that aren’t so easy to find, or may not be on the shelves elsewhere.
Several of the monastery’s Oblates, people spiritually connected to the community, have made inquiries about the books. One woman is a graduate student in religion in psychology, who would otherwise have to purchase what’s on the shelves here.
Another Oblate is studying theology in Belgium.
“I showed him a book about a philosopher who’s at Louvain. He didn’t know about this fellow, who I think could be one of the most important philosophers in religion and art. So he’s going to look him up for his PhD dissertation. All those things are just accidental, but it showed the potential that’s here,” Sister Donald said.
While many will be welcomed to spend time there, care will be taken if someone wants to take a book away. She’s not ruled out the possibility of a fee for that privilege.
“We’re not a public library where people come in and browse unless they’re serious theological people like a priest or a deacon or a lay person who is just interested in that kind of reading,” she said.
The library building also includes a gift shop featuring monastery-produced items, plus religious articles and books. In a nearby building, there are plans for the old library. It lacked a catalogue system and was housed in a locked room next to the kitchen of the guest house. Only on rare occasions were visitors allowed behind that door. That will change as some books will soon be available for guests there, too. One might say the monastery’s library has a smaller branch already.
The Jean Leclercq/Thomas Merton Library at Transfiguration Monastery is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to
5 p.m. Take Rt. 17/Interstate 86 to Windsor Exit 79. Go three miles south on Rt. 79; monastery is on the right. For information, call (607) 655-2366.