First performance of the CSB Pageant

1934

Campus: CSB

Short videos (without sound) of the Pageant and Pageant practice are also available, as is a PowerPoint on the history of the Pageant.

From 1934 through 1965, the Pageant was an important part of orientation for first-year students at the College of St. Benedict.  See below for a detailed description.


Note: Some photos of the Pageant can be seen below; others can be found by searching for the keyword pageant in the Saint Benedict Monastery Archives digital collection.  Also included there is a 1958 radio show about CSB history, to which photos have been added, the last third of which includes a segment on the Pageant.

See also The History of the Pageant by Mariella Gable, OSB, as well as the entry for the Last performance of the CSB Pageant.

The following text is reprinted from Saint Benedict’s Quarterly, June 1957, and was written by Angeline Dufner.  Dr. Dufner, CSB 1957, is Professor Emerita, English Department (1961-1998).

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So Let Your Light Shine:
Annual Pageant, College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minnesota



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The pageant, "So Let Your Light Shine," has been given at the College of St. Benedict each fall for twenty-one years until now it has become a tradition at St. Benedict's. This pageant is not only a magnificent spectacle but also bears the distinction of being the only college initiation of this type in the world.

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Every fall when the first leaves turn crimson and yellow a unique event occurs on the campus at the College of Saint Benedict--unique in the whole range of education and drama. When we say unique we mean that as far as the teachers and students at the College of Saint Benedict know, there is nothing like it in the United States or in any country in the world. That annual event is the formal induction of college freshmen in a magnificent pageant which is at once a profound lesson in history, a stirring inspiration, and a dedication to carry on the traditions of a Benedictine culture which has been primary in civilizing the Western world. That pageant is "So Let Your Light Shine."

Is it possible that so brilliant a discovery in the realm of educational experience, something unique by way of making students conscious of the traditions lying behind the kind of school they have selected, is it possible such a thing should have taken its rise in a small college of only 350 students? Well, size seems to be unimportant. The little German town of Oberammergau has only 2,000 inhabitants. It would seem that idealism, love of beauty, the determination to realize a dream are all utterly independent of size. Perhaps magnitude would even have been a hindrance.

"So Let Your Light Shine" has been given at the College of Saint Benedict each fall for twenty-one years until now it has become a tradition at St. Benedict's. Lights shining down on an open campus at night, music and dance, a great central bonfire lit by St. Benedict from the lamps of prayer and work, flaming torches, the bright colors of costumes, and the warm fall air with its just-a-hint of the coolness of October-all add to the splendor and beauty of the pageant to fill its watchers with a sense of exaltation. Here men's minds, unlimited by the usual barriers of time and place, can see the great story of the past told in all its glory. They can see that story sweep up to the present and move forward to embrace the future. They see more than a hundred new students, perhaps their own daughters, step forward in cap and gown to receive fourteen lighted torches from the fourteen centuries of Benedictine tradition. These girls are to be tomorrow's scholars, tomorrow's mothers and teachers. This is not the customary pageant presenting a string of dull episodes; this pageant is beautiful and it is timeless.

"So Let Your Light Shine" was created as a means of initiating college freshmen. Rather than submit them to the hazing that so often humiliates, the pageant provides a constructive orientation. It is a magic window through which each student sees the glory of the Benedictine heritage and discovers herself as committed to carry on that heritage. The pageant tells the story of the Benedictine contribution to civilization since 500 A. D.

Twentieth-century man can sit in his living room flipping his TV dial from the Greek Antigone to Shaw's Androcles and the Lion and need never think of the years it took to build that set or the span of time between the men who wrote those plays. Because of the luxury of today's living, clichés and catch phrases often take the place of thought with the result that the unthinking or the ignorant easily equate the Benedictine with the medieval and relegate both to a hazy but definitely undesirable period called the "Dark Ages."

During these Dark Ages Saint Benedict wrote his rule. But the monasteries he set up were more than a natural way of life. His rule was written for men to live by so that they might more easily and perfectly attain final happiness with God. The sanity of his ideas called to men and women of all rank, and monasteries and convents spread over the countryside.

However, the times were unsettled ones. Barbarians from the North and East threatened more than once to sweep over the continent and destroy the entire civilization. It was during this time of trouble that the monasteries became the centers of stability. Benedict had provided that those who lived under his rule would, through their work, be self-supporting, and the result was that monasteries soon held men skilled in every trade. They were independent of the country outside. Montalembert in Vol. 1 of his The Monks of the West writes:

However it might be, the results of Benedict's work were immense. In his lifetime, as after his death, the sons of the noblest races in Italy, and the best of the converted Barbarians, came in multitudes to Monte Cassino. They came out again, and descended from it to spread themselves over all the West; missionaries and husbandmen, who were soon to become the doctors and pontiffs, the artists and legislators, the historians and poets of the new world. They went forth to spread peace and faith, light and life, freedom and charity, knowledge and art, the Word of God and the genius of man, the Holy Scriptures and the great works of classical literature, amid the despairing provinces of the destroyed empire, and even into the barbarous regions from which the destruction came forth. Less than a century after the death of Benedict, all that barbarism had won from civilization was reconquered; and more still, his children took in hand to carry the Gospel beyond those limits which had confined the first disciples of Christ.

When a horde of barbarians swept down destroying the weak political government, the monasteries went on harvesting their crops, mending harnesses, copying treasured books, studying, commenting, praying, and converting their new neighbors, the barbarians. Thus, in the Middle Ages the Benedictines proved to be the salvation of civilization and culture that was tottering.

It is to the Benedictines that we owe many of the cultural benefits we have today. It was they who saved for us the great books of the past. It was they who paved the way for the tremendous scholarship that was to arise in the thirteenth century. It was they who civilized most of our own ancestors. To imagine what Europe and its colonized lands would be like today without the influence of the Benedictines is to imagine what the world would look like without green and blue color.

The pageant that started as a dream and ended as a poetic reality tells us this story. Like any really artistic work, it makes its story live now. It combines historic certainty with today's immediacy in a way so beautiful that we are aware of both the glories of the past and the needs of the present. The pageant is always on a Sunday night in fall, just ten days after the opening of college. That it can be produced in so short a time always amazes the audience. Two hours before it starts the crowds begin to take their places on bleachers that surround the playing field.

     
By seven o'clock darkness is complete. Only guided spotlights show the people where to find their seats. People murmur as they wait quietly. A man's deep-throated, subdued laugh floats out from the crowd, and occasionally the flare of a lighted match silhouettes a profile against the darkness of a giant spruce. Cigarettes glow at scattered intervals. Then, as the tower clock strikes seven, organ music begins and lights go on, catching the full spectacle of the white-robed speech choir. High in its midst stands St. Benedict in a long, dark robe. Flanking it on either side are the two friezes of prayer and work. On the left is the angel of work and her representatives; on the right the angel of prayer and her contemplative children. In her hands each of these two angels carries a lighted lamp from which St. Benedict will later take the flame to light the central bonfire.

Meanwhile the music from the electric organ has- stopped and the chorus turns to St. Benedict, asking in profound tones that the audience.

Behold him whom the Lord raised up
When the Roman Empire fell
That Europe might be saved.


Suddenly, from out of the darkness comes the vibrant boom of a tom-tom and wild barbarians appear in dusky, red light, their long hair falling over strong shoulders. In ragged skin garments, these sons of Wodin cry out their creed and their threats. These are the hordes which threatened the civilization of Europe. Only when they see Benedict do they cease their wild dancing.

From the hushed stillness comes the prophetic voice of the chorus:

O, there shall be light in the darkness.
There shall be light.


The music becomes soft and beautiful and Benedict, descending from his high place, goes forward with the sister angels of prayer and work to light from their lamps the flame that is destined to spread over all of Europe. A great bonfire has been carefully laid in the center of the playing field. The flame catches and springs up. In a moment the living fire glows over the whole field. St. Benedict blesses it and returns to his place to watch it grow.

     
Slowly fourteen slender figures dressed in red and gold rise up from around the fire, and then begins the most beautiful part of the pageant-the dance of the flames. The girls are tall and slender, and they weave gracefully back and forth, in and out, with all the freedom of unchallenged joy. After the pageant each year, it is the dream of every freshman girl to be a flame dancer.

But the music suddenly shifts to a barbarous challenge. The barbarians do not accept the light without a struggle. Tom-toms beating, they oppose the flames of Christianity. Now a great struggle ensues between the barbarians and the flames-first one side dominating, then the other. The entire struggle is portrayed through dance. At first the barbarians seem triumphant, but slowly they are subdued and then, with arms extended high above their heads, they carry out of the circle the flame of Christianity which they now have as their own.

Fourteen Benedictine saints enter, each one a representative from one of the fourteen centuries since the time of Benedict. As the chorus identifies them the flames bring to each a burning torch lit from the central fire of prayer and work. These saints are the men and women the freshmen have been reading about in English class. All during the ten-day preparation, they have been studying the history and literature which explains the pageant, and they have done it chiefly through the Benedictine saints. What great persons these men and women were! St. Scholastica, Gregory the Great, Augustine, Bede, Boniface, Alcuin, Ansgar, Dunstan, Anselm, Bernard, Gertrude, Thomas More, Mabillon, and Cardinal Gasquet, each in the dress of his country and time, stand as a tribute to that double light of prayer and work. Each is, as the chorus says, "a light unto our own times." Thus concludes the first part of the pageant.

The second part of the pageant shows us what happened to the barbarians after they were Christianized by the Benedictines. They became either peasants, scholars, or rulers. As peasants they are happy people; they carry their sickles with them and do a light-hearted sickle dance. While the chorus catches their joyful spirit with a harvest song, the peasants bear in sheaves of barley out of which they build shocks. Scholars in long, black robes enter studying the parchment scrolls they carry with them.

Here are the fruits of prayer and work --peasants who joyfully plant and harvest the fruits of the earth; scholars who search for and harvest the fruits of the mind. And in the background the two Benedictine friezes of prayer and work remain throughout the entire pageant as a constant, stable influence.

     
The prince, the third type of converted barbarian, enters. Now all levels of society are represented. He bids his people rest from their work, and, with the response of happy children, at their prince's bidding they perform a beautiful folk dance.

Behold the light
Behold the light of fourteen centuries
Behold the light that changed the wild tribes of Europe
To singing peasants. . .
To patient scholars.


Behold the light that gave us princes and scholars, laborers and saints, the light that preserved western civilization, the light that illumines the pavement of the Way.

As the dance ends a chime rings out, silvery across the air. It is the Compline bell

So sweet upon the air
Calling everywhere
The world to prayer-


The scholar and the peasant and the prince bow their heads with all Christendom as they join together in the evening prayer of the Church. Here is the great tie-prayer-that binds the past to the present and both of them to the future. All classes are found praying the liturgy.

The compline prayer.
The prayer that binds all classes into one,
The prayer that makes for brotherhood,
Strong, patient, powerful, and good;
The prayer that knows no class or station,
No cleft of language, race or nation-


Now begins the third part of the pageant the induction of the freshmen. The chorus invites them, the youngest students, to join in this pageant of St. Benedict.

Ready the torches, burning so brightly;
Ready for young hands to catch and to hold…


As they walk forward to get their caps and gowns, symbolizing their membership in this community of students, they hear their names added to the roster of all students who have gone before them. They receive their caps and gowns from St. Benedict, and a few moments later they kneel to receive the lighted torches from the saints. Then, as they stand together facing outward, they pledge their loyalty in a burst of song. Now they, too, are recipients of this proud heritage and will someday be a part of that heritage handed down for others like them to receive.

This is the way freshmen are initiated at the College of St. Benedict. They receive no humiliating tasks; they are subjected to no tormenting upperclassmen's sport. Theirs is an honorable initiation, one that truly orientates them to the college and Benedictine education.


Production

When the performance is over and enthusiastic visitors gather, they invariably say "Ten days! How can this glorious spectacle with its precision and perfect timing be produced so quickly?" It is because of the remarkable teamwork, the Benedictine family co-operation. During the first days of school, classes are shortened to allow two extra hours for practice each day. Twenty-one faculty members teach the pageant, each being responsible for one part. Some train the freshmen to march with the precision of West Pointers in rows of fourteen to receive the fourteen torches. Another teaches peasant dances, barbarian steps, and the graceful dance of the flames. Another works with the chorus group for unity and meaning, and still another teaches light-hearted peasant songs and the chant of Compline.

To the students the first few days seem a time of aching muscles, learning steps, and striving for simple meanings. But before the second week has begun groups work together, costumes are fitted and adjustments made, and polishing is well under way. Through student-faculty concentration and co-operation such things as the often humorous attempt to get the horse carrying the prince to arrive at the precise moment become, at the night of final production, a reality.

     
The pageant is a more effective social orientation than any party that could be devised. Perhaps this is true because it aims at more than mere socialization. It is an attempt to reach the beautiful, and many people working together toward such a goal have a far stronger bond than if they were working for individual or selfish ends.


Why The Pageant Was Created

St. Benedict's did not always have the pageant nor have the students always known the importance of the heritage that was theirs. The pageant was born at Columbia University in 1932. There Sister Mariella, studying for her doctor's degree, was told that the next two lectures would be devoted to the Benedictines and the Medieval Ages. She had heard many tales of young Catholics who lost their faith through attendance at a secular institution, and she was filled with fear lest she absorb some damaging interpretation of her order. But she need not have feared. The lectures demonstrated how Western civilization had been saved by the Benedictines. They overflowed with appreciation for the magnificent contribution made by the Benedictines to culture and to civilization. All this from the lips of a lay teacher. She, a Benedictine nun, had had to attend a secular university to learn the great things her order had done! And what filled Sister with anger and chagrin was that she had been permitted to pass through a Benedictine college and convent so abysmally ignorant of the glories of her own order's history. She vowed then that no student (and certainly no Benedictine nun like herself!) would ever again go through her training without knowing her order's history. Sister adds that of course NOW no Benedictine could leave the novitiate as profoundly ignorant of the Benedictines as she had been.

When Sister Mariella returned to the college to teach in the fall of 1934, she asked the English teachers to prepare a dramatic pageant. Students worked and teachers worked, but the pageant they produced was like all other pageants-at best a stringing together of historical scenes in episodic form, a "poor, bowlegged little thing." When they asked her what she wanted her pageant to be like, she told them she wanted it given at night with dances and horses and lights and music, and a great central bonfire and flame dancers to carry the light outward, and magnificent choral interpretation with splendor emanating from it like a glory. "Impossible!" everyone said. But she set to work to do it anyway. She planned what she wanted, and then began the long, grueling hours of experimenting to see what would work. She wanted dances, but dances would have to be created. She went to Constance Zierden, the physical education teacher, and together they worked out the dances, Sister explaining and Constance experimenting and revising. But there were other problems, too, and it was the little ones that were the biggest headaches. Horses had to be rented from riding stables and a whole outside theatre constructed. Because there was not enough electrical power from the home plant for the lights and electric organ, they had to tap state power lines. Trying to make a torch that would not burn out within a few minutes or timing a fire to see how long the flame would last or trying to find the wood that would burn a long time with little smoke got to be a more nerve-wracking problem than some of the more important jobs.

In 1936 the first "So Let Your Light Shine" pageant was produced. The next year more was added until now the pageant is the most important event in the whole school year.

"So Let Your Light Shine" has become more than the nun who wrote it, the students who take part in it, or the teachers who direct it. It is an art work in its own right. When Sister Mariella wrote it over twenty years ago, she could only hope and work towards its growth. As she herself says, "Now I can go sit on the roof and watch it, and it's a tremendous experience. It's not often in this life that you can have a dream and see it actually spread out before you the way you dreamed it."

Visitors who see the pageant come back year after year. Some of them write back to express their appreciation of it. Professor Krey, head of the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, wrote in 1946: I found the pageant for the initiation of your new students as thrilling as a football game and much more edifying.

Cliff Sakry in the St. Cloud Times of the same year wrote:

"It is no exaggeration to say that St. Benedict's annual pageants are marvelous spectacles to behold and must rank high among dramatic undertakings of this kind. There is a faultless precision of sound and movement, together with unusually striking originality of theme. Artistically, these pageants are nothing short of superb."

But what of the students after they have left school to fulfill their roles as mothers or business women or teachers. As freshmen they witnessed the pageant and received the torches pledging their loyalty to carry on the great work of learning. For the next three years they helped produce it. As alumnae they came back and watched it. For them the pageant takes on a patina independent of author, performers, or observers. They forget the struggle for co-ordination and remember instead the gentle flames of Christianity weaving gracefully around a bright night fire. They lose remembrance of aching muscles and think of barbarians who almost conquered Europe. Occasionally a lilting harvest melody or a polka runs through their minds. But regardless of what else they forget, they carry away with them a bit of the light that began burning fourteen centuries ago, a light that gave us order and justice, that "changed the wild tribes of Europe to singing peasants and patient scholars" who studied and copied for the children of the future "so that all of us might have the wisdom of the great past." For the students the historian’s Dark Age has become lustrous. From it came the stability of monasteries, illuminated manuscripts that carried the story of a living religion, the subduing of a wilderness to the service of men. And through it all they will remember a dark robed figure bearing in his hands a double light that lit the way for fourteen centuries the lights of Prayer and Work.


Reprinted from Saint Benedict’s Quarterly, June 1957