A Conversation with 2019 Jefferson Lecturer Father Columba Stewart
On Oct. 7 2019, Father Columba Stewart will give the 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities—“the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” Father Columba is a Benedictine monk, scholar of early religions, and executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN. This is the first time a Minnesotan has been honored with such an award and the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC) was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with him prior to next week’s lecture.
Stewart was interviewed on by MHC board member Patrick Henry. Henry served as executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, where Stewart is currently a resident scholar, from 1984 to 2004.
Patrick Henry (PH): Whom of your monastic forebears would you most like to see sitting in the audience on Oct. 7?
Father Columba Stewart (FCS): Saint Columba [sixth century]. He loved books, was an author himself, and is famous for copying manuscripts and preserving them. He was a traveler and adventurer—and the first person to have seen the Loch Ness Monster.
He would be surprised and intrigued to hear me talking about Islam, because it didn’t exist in his time.
PH: You forged a partnership in Mali to digitize more than 250,000 ancient Islamic manuscripts and books rescued from Timbuktu. What would you say to Christians of earlier times who think you should burn those manuscripts?
FCS: They weren’t mine to burn. We’re in a different cultural moment. But there is historical precedent. The first translation of the Qur‘an into Latin was commissioned by Peter the Venerable in the 12th century. He found a Christian Arabist who could translate it. The goal, to be sure, was theological refutation, but he started by reading the other guy’s stuff, instead of from the outset trying to destroy all of it.
PH: The title of your lecture is “Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View.” What accounts for this “long view”?
FCS: Being deeply rooted in a tradition, we Benedictines are able to be confident in opening ourselves intellectually and ecumenically because we don’t feel threatened by stuff that’s newer. We’re like a deep-rooted tree—we can sway a bit.
And the admonition in the Rule of Benedict to “Keep death daily before your eyes” gives us a binocular vision. We can be present in the moment but at the same time have an eye toward something farther out. Some wisdom from early monks: Treat your body as if you’re going to live another hundred years but at the same time think of this as your last day.
I don’t need to rush. At the same time I need to do it. Yet I don’t have to finish it.
The obituary of monasticism has been written often, but it never seems to go away. The motto of Monte Cassino, the monastery founded by St. Benedict in the sixth century and subject to many vicissitudes since, is succisa virescit, “cut it down and it grows up stronger.”
PH: Are there times you find it difficult to persuade holders of manuscripts to let you film them?
FCS: Often. It’s usually related to anxiety about the loss of control by people who have protected their patrimony for centuries, frequently against invaders, imperial powers, colonial powers. It may seem to them that if we put pictures online, we’re stealing a bit of the soul of the manuscript.
People who are [savvier] about the way the exchange of ideas works understand the importance of what we do, and some realize that they might lose them entirely, so there’s an insurance aspect of having the photograph somewhere.
Sometimes there’s a fear that we’re going to monetize it, and they’re not going to benefit financially. We tell them that the only way to make money off a manuscript is to sell it.
Sometimes we don’t overcome resistance. But we never take an initial no as definitive. You keep showing up. We try always to have a local partner who speaks the language and understands the mentality.
PH: What of your holdings is now available, and what sort of impact do you have?
FCS: We have over 12 million digital images, most of them two pages. Every week we’re adding more of them online at HMML. The site currently has about 2,000 active users. You have to register, but it’s simply a matter of filling out an online form. We’ve had 600 new registrations already this year, so growth is accelerating.
The impact I’m most personally aware of is in Syriac studies, which has been one focus of my scholarship. Up until now, nearly all study of the Syriac Christian tradition has depended on the holdings of European libraries, treasures taken by colonial powers or by buyers from the Vatican, England, France, Germany. Now, thanks to the materials HMML has made available from the libraries in the Middle East, scholars are much better equipped to give a rounded account.
Our mission is to complexify.
PH: We’re both Texans, you from Houston, I from Dallas. Are there features of Texas culture that have stayed with you that you value, and that maybe inform your work?
FCS: I am increasingly aware of my “Texanity.” It has something to do with an eagerness to do things and adventuresomeness. I’m not afraid to go into the wilderness, and in my 16 years at HMML I’ve had plenty of wildernesses to go into.