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imageA Glimpse into Eternity

I was quite surprised to hear from Gus last Friday.  I’d not been in touch with him for two years, and so his email came as a bolt out of the blue.  I use that phrase judiciously, because it’s the most apt description I can think of.  You see, Gus passed away two years ago.

Most of us hope for at least some measure of immortality, but modern technology sometimes gives the illusion of it in ways that would stun our ancestors.  In his case, Gus had already achieved a touch of it with his friendly voicemail greeting.  In the days following his death, I had left message after message.  Naturally I took his silence personally; but I also knew that such lapses in kindness were not like him at all.  Only when someone finally clued me in did I realize the cause of our failure to communicate.  Gus had been detained on business elsewhere, and rather unexpectedly at that.

imageThis week we pass through the most sacred time of the Christian calendar.  In a culture that can set aside scarcely any time to celebrate anything other than sports and Thanksgiving, Holy Week has become an oddity for most people.  Unlike their neighbors, however, many Christians try to dial back the intensity of their lives, and they engage in a bit of thoughtful reflection, punctuated by the most solemn liturgies of the year.  Those can require more than passive observance, because the marathon of the Triduum makes demands that are both physical as well as spiritual.

Over the years Holy Week has become my favorite interlude in the monastic calendar, but it hasn’t always been that way.  For one thing, I used to find the hours and hours in church oppressive.  For another, my work schedule took a big hit.  It’s true that the offices were closed for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and that did provide a measure of consolation.  But I’m also a big fan of routine, and the irregular schedule was a major irritation.

Granted that I did get more done over that stretch of days, I always wondered how much more I could have done without all those lengthy distractions in church.  This was compounded by services that went late into the evening.  As most of my friends can attest, I’m not a night person, and evening liturgies were likely the toughest part of the Holy Week endurance contest.

imageI’m not sure when the change in attitude came over me.  Perhaps it began when I realized that, try as I might, I was not catching up on work and likely never would.  So it gradually dawned on me that there might be a better use for Holy Week than just sticking as closely to the desk as I could.

I also came to better appreciate one nugget of wisdom bequeathed to us by a long-deceased prior, Fr. Berthold.  During a typical day he scarcely left his office, but the hours were filled with phone calls and monks knocking at the door to ask for something or to register a complaint.  He personally staffed the complaint department in the monastery, and I always wondered how he managed such a serene disposition.  One day a monk asked how he stayed sane, and how he ever got any serious work done.  Fr. Berthold merely smiled and offered this rejoinder:  “I make interruptions my priority.”  Since people knocking at the door were his primary interruptions, it finally occurred to me that Fr. Berthold had made people his priority.  All else was secondary.

I’ve long since given up on the priority of work over all else, and when it comes to Holy Week I know that the desk will still be waiting for me on Easter Monday.  In exchange for the call of the desk, however, I now let the week itself speak to me.  And the week speaks in an extraordinary number of ways.

imageFor one, the change in routine is actually a wake-up call for lives that are on automatic pilot.  I marvel, for instance, at being in church at distinctly unusual times of the day.  We’re not used to being there in the middle of the afternoon, and so the Good Friday service brings with it a special intensity of the sun.  That brightness reminds us of the inexorable change in the season.  As much as we might have resigned ourselves to an endless winter, it is really about to give way to a joyous spring.

Along with the sun, the silence speaks volumes.  Classes are in recess, and most students are away.  Because it’s still too early for lawnmowers, the campus is hauntingly quiet.  Only the birds are out, calling to each other in a desperate bid for mates and territory.

imageBest of all, I’ve now come to the point where I yield myself to the liturgy.  I learned that if I simply surrender to the beauty of the music and the sights and sounds of the ritual, then time becomes irrelevant.  Cares about schedules simply melt away too.  In the liturgy I’ve come to appreciate the pagan chief who visited Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 7th century.  He’d seen nothing like it in the woods of Bulgaria, and he marveled at what he beheld and experienced.  “I entered into heaven there,” was all he could think to say.  In that spirit I’ve come to appreciate the verse in the Passion that notes that the curtain in the temple was torn when Jesus died on the cross.  Whatever else that might signify, it suggests to me that you can catch a glimpse into eternity, even in the most mundane of Holy Week services.

Sometimes we all need a special wake-up call, and this Holy Week I was privileged to get mine from Gus.  I know full well that it was a virus that sent out the email under his name.  Ironically, however, the email showed the emptiness of all promises of immortality — all save one.  That, I would submit, is the message of Holy Week.  In Holy Week I now remind myself of the primacy of people over the routine of work.  Even better, I once again appreciate the search for God.  And with the help of many brothers, I sometimes even get a glimpse into that eternity.

imageNotes

+On April 5th I spoke at the annual luncheon of the Friends of the Libraries at the University of Missouri in Columbia.  I first came Columbia ages ago, when I stopped to visit a student from my very first class as a teacher at Saint John’s University.  He’s now a physician in Austin, TX.  Meanwhile, Columbia remains the lovely university town that it always was.

One special treat was a visit to nearby Fulton, MO, where Westminster College houses a museum on Winston Churchill.  He delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech there, and today the museum resides in the remains of a Christopher Wren church that was shipped from London several years ago.  It’s not what one would expect to stumble upon in central Missouri.

image+On April 6th I spoke on the art of The Saint John’s Bible at Wayzata Community Church in Wayzata, MN.

+Among the solemn and arresting chants of Holy Week is Christus factus est – “Christ became obedient for us, even to death on a cross.”  This beautiful rendition is sung by the schola of the Cistercian monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, located just outside of Vienna.  It is one of the oldest continuously-existing monasteries in Western Europe, and the Romanesque/Gothic church is well worth the visit.

+The pictures in today’s post derive from my recent trip to Missouri.  The first five show the exterior and interior of the Christopher Wren church in Fulton, while the last two are from the campus of the University of Missouri.  I spoke in the Memorial Union, which is the last picture in today’s post.

imageSelf-delusion: The Original Sin?

I recently heard the story of a sultan from Malaysia, whose golf game had gone to wrack and ruin.  Impatient, and unwilling to put in the practice to correct a terrible slice to the right, he did the next best thing.   He simply ordered that the trees lining the right side of every fairway be chopped down.  In one fell swoop he turned adversity to advantage, and by imperial fiat his bad slice had become a brilliant stroke, each and every time.

For most of us such a miracle is beyond our reach.  Life’s challenges continue to confront us, and we cannot wish them away.  Nor do we have at our disposal a menu of options as extensive as the sultan’s menu.  Nor can we abruptly change the rules and declare that our faults are really virtues.  When we do so, we may fool ourselves for a while; but our neighbors are not so easily convinced.  Sooner or later ours will be the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, because the innocents will see right through us.

imageSelf-delusion has been around for a long time, and we might even make the case that it was the original sin.  So while the Genesis story includes Adam and Eve and forbidden fruit, the point was not really about restrictions on certain kinds of fruit or produce.  It’s true that God had forbidden them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but it was their act of rationalization that did the damage.  In their minds they turned behavior that had been a sin into a virtue.  Even worse, it became God’s sin rather than theirs.  After all, did not God look with envy on their growing knowledge and freedom?  Why should they not be able to experience everything and be free to do all?  Only a vengeful and jealous God would impose such restrictions.  So it was that rationalization led to action, and they soon realized their mistake.  This was no victimless crime, because they had hurt themselves first and foremost.  They had chosen poorly.

imageThat tendency toward self-delusion has been with us ever since, and we’ve all resorted to it every now and again.  It should come as no surprise, then, that it’s imbedded in our cultural mores, or that marketers capitalize on it with great success.  As modern surrogates for the serpent, they urge us to “have  it your way” and to “just do it.”  And lyrics like Sinatra’s in his song I Did It My Way merely affirm that there are only benign consequences when you make up your own rules.

Not for a moment do I suggest that we adhere to rules for rules’ sake, and for this I take my cue from Genesis once again.  God certainly gave to Adam and Even boundaries and limits, but with them came the gifts of imagination and curiosity and ingenuity and creativity.  What was the point of all this generosity?  God intended that we use our wits to sort the good from the evil, and the wise course of action from the foolish.  In other words, God gave us wisdom, but there is no virtue in storing it in the cabinet to keep it in mint condition.  Rather, there are more than enough occasions on which to roll out our wisdom, use it, and perhaps even wear it out until it becomes an old and comfortable shoe.

imageI’ve always been intrigued by Saint Benedict’s description of the four classes of monks, because it’s applicable well beyond the cloister walls.  But when it comes to the fourth kind of monk, the sarabaite, his description is in effect the embodiment of self-delusion.  “What they like, they call holy.  And what they dislike, they call sinful.”  These are the monks who do pretty much whatever they want, and then they baptize their behavior and call it good.  There are no limits on what they can or can’t do, because in their ego-centric worlds they alone matter.

That pretty much describes the little world of Adam and Eve as they reached for the metaphorical apple, and it sums up the little worlds we create for ourselves every now and again.   You and I are chips off the old block, and our own self-delusion can be as breathtaking as theirs.  But is ours original?  Certainly not.

imageThere’s only a few days left to Lent, and it would be a shame to let slip the opportunity to inventory our lives.  Saint Benedict urges his monks to live every day is if it were a Lenten observance, but I can tell you from experience that most monks don’t succeed very well at that.  So the next best thing is to use Lent as best we can, short though it is, and leave the other days to fend for themselves.

In these few days then it may be worthwhile to remember that how we live does impact the lives of others.  How we justify our own actions will not be lost on our fellows, either.  Equally important is one standard we ought to apply when we evaluate all our actions:  the good we fail to do hurts people just as much as the evil we end up doing.  So every bit of our lives counts for something.  That’s both a challenge as well as a comfort — just in case  you ever wondered whether your life mattered.  It most certainly does.

imageFinally, there are days when I envy that sultan on the golf course, but not many.  All in all, I’d rather own up to real talents than to pretend I have what I don’t have.  Call it what you will, for example, a slice is still a slice, no matter how many trees you chop down.  At the end of the day everyone knows the real score, and no one has any doubt about the value that we add to the people around us.

As for me, I long ago discovered how horrible I was at golf.  The day I quit was the day I teed off, sliced the shot to the right and hit a semi on the interstate.  I knew I was no sultan and that I could not move the interstate further to the right.  So I owned up to the fact that I and golf had no future together.  The good news is that I went on to find other useful things to do, and that’s made all the difference.

imageNotes

+On Sunday, April 6th, I presided at the Masses and preached at Holy Trinity Church in El Dorado Hills, CA, outside of Sacramento.  The sermon, Jesus is no Superhero, can be found under Presentations.  I came to Holy Trinity at the invitation of Msgr. Jim Kidder, a friend and fellow chaplain in the Order of Malta, and while there I gave a Lenten retreat to members of the parish.

+On April 3rd Abbot Primate Notker Wolf OSB came to visit Saint John’s Abbey and spoke on leadership to a gathering of monks, faculty, staff and students at Saint John’s University.  As abbot primate he presides over nearly 1,000 Benedictine monasteries around the world, though I cannot imagine he has the time to visit them all.  He has recently published a book reflecting his experience over the years.  Entitled The Art of Leadership, it is available through The Liturgical Press at Saint John’s.

image+Since the waning days of World War II the monks of Saint John’s have been making maple syrup, and the effort is underway in full force.  For the sap to run, the temperatures need to be freezing at night and above freezing during the day, and at long last we’ve reached that point.  On a recent education day nearly a thousand people took tours of the woods and cooking facility.  Brother Walter has led in this effort for many years, and we all enjoy the product of those crisp early spring days.

+There is a great deal of wonderful music that enhances these Lenten days.  At the risk of offending a host of wonderful composers and choirs, I recommend one of my favorites, Libera, from the United Kingdom.  Their variation on Stabat Mater provides a peaceful and beautiful meditation during a busy day.

+The pictures in today’s post all come from photos I took at Holy Trinity Church in El Dorado Hills.  The site of the parish is stunning, perched at 1,300 feet above the valley. From their hill they can see Sacramento to the west and the snow-covered mountains to the east.  There is much wildlife on the hill, including lots of turkey.  They greeted us at the rectory every morning at 7 am, and at the end of one sermon that I delivered there was a loud gobble from the peanut gallery outside the window.    It is a veritable Garden of Eden, complete with warnings about the snakes.

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imageContext is Everything

For years one of my confreres at Saint John’s had on his office wall a framed piece of embroidery.  It was plain and homespun, and the dark blue thread on white cloth suggested that it had once hung by the hearth in a colonial New England farmhouse.  It was no great piece of art, and certainly it was not the child-like quality of the stitching that stopped people in their tracks.  No, that honor went to the message, which was a one-word quotation from the Gospels.  “Sin. (John 8:11)”  That was it.  No gospel passage could speak more eloquently — not least because it had an unfamiliar ring to it.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there was more to this message than met the eye.  Even the novice scripture scholars knew instinctively that this passage had been taken out of context.  And if they were industrious enough to look it up, they quickly discovered that John the Evangelist did not intend to encourage more sinning.  Neither then nor now do people need any encouragement in the sinning department.  And for his part John was encouraging quite the opposite.

imageThis may seem an odd lead-in to a reflection on Pope Francis, but perhaps it’s not so inappropriate after all.  We recently observed the first anniversary of his election as pope, and that day yielded a flood of words from pundits all over the place.  Not a few comments were especially cogent, while much of the rest ranged from blatantly self-serving to wildly speculative.  But the one element common to much of this was the eagerness to take the pope’s words out of context.

Despite first impressions, the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks are not mere blathering and unscripted asides.  Rather, they derive from a rich intellectual and pastoral underpinning, and most commentators have neither the time to research it nor the space to include it in their columns.

Remarkably, the honeymoon period for Pope Francis has yet to dry up, and he remains one  of the most fascinating persons on the planet.  Despite that popularity, however, there are not a few who’ve begun to entertain their doubts about him, perhaps because he has yet to deliver on the wish lists that they’d sent in the day after his election.  As far as I can tell, Francis has yet to become the puppet of any one pundit, and that has to be a little disconcerting for the talking heads.

imageThat brings me to the main point as I reflect on the pope’s first year in his no-longer-new job.  If there’s one sure way to understand Pope Francis just a bit better, then I would recommend that you go and read his work directly, rather than read what someone else says he said.  Gleaning snippets of his thought from secondary sources really is no substitute.  From them you will get phrases taken out of context, as well as ideas that are untethered from the principles that have guided the pope through much of his life.

So as the confetti settles after the party, I’ve recommitted myself to two courses of action.  First off, if I’m going to take Pope Francis seriously, then I may as well go straight to the horse’s mouth.  His sermons and talks are readily accessible on the web site of the Vatican Information Service, and that’s the best place to start.  And should I choose to read someone else’s reflection on Pope Francis, it’s always important to consider the source.

imageSecond, as important a figure as Pope Francis may be, knowing about him is no substitute for actually going out and living my own life as a Christian.  I’m indebted for that insight to Cardinal Francis George, who has lamented the fascination with all things Roman as sometimes a little unhealthy.  To that I would add that not a few people seem to hang on every word that emanates from the halls of the Vatican.  Scholars have written about the “creeping infallibility” that has caused some ecclesiastics to doubt the pope’s infallibilty but not their own.  To that I would add that in some minds even the Vatican janitors speak with apostolic authority.  But if the pope is the “servant of the servants of God,” then who might these other people be in the larger scheme of things?

What Cardinal George cautions against is a steady disengagement from parish life, as creative minds wander the Vatican halls, at least in their imaginations.  At the end of the day, this is just another case of fascination with celebrities, but it’s a fascination with an unintended byproduct.   It detaches us from the parish and religious communities where we are most likely to encounter the face of Christ.

imageNow that I think about it, I’ve never found Christ on the internet, nor in the pages of a journal, nor on the radio.  In fact, when I’ve been privileged to see the face of Christ I’ve always been standing next to ordinary flesh-and-blood people.  When I’ve seen Christ in my fellow monks and in my neighbors, I once again realize how important those relationships really are in building the kingdom of God.  That’s where I and all of us show the love and mercy and support and all those other things that Pope Francis speaks about so regularly.  That I suppose, is the real context of our lives.

So I may be citing Pope Francis out of context, and if I’m putting words into his mouth I apologize.  But on his first anniversary as pope, I suspect that Pope Francis might borrow freely from the words uttered by the angel to the apostles, as they scanned the heavens for the ascended Lord.  “Why are you standing around looking up to heaven, or to anywhere else for that matter?  Go out and do the Lord’s work, and get a life while  you’re at it.”

imageNotes

+On March 24th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, FL.

+On March 29th I gave a day of reflection for area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  The event took place at the Newman Center at the University of Washington, which is staffed by the Dominicans.  They kindly offered me gracious hospitality while I was in Seattle, and the day allowed me to reconnect with many local friends from the Order of Malta.

+On March 19th we were delighted by the announcement that our confrere, Fr. Matthew Luft, had successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in liturgical studies at The Catholic University of America.

+On March 21st our confrere, Brother Liting John Chrysostom Long, pronounced his solemn vows at our priory in Japan, Holy Trinity Monastery.  Abbot John was there to receive his vows.

image+On March 26th Bishop Denis Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and chair of the US Bishops Committee on Ecumenism & Interreligious Affairs, spoke at Saint John’s University. His presentation dealt with the anniversary of Vatican II and the document Lumen Gentium.

+On March 29th we were saddened by the passing of our confrere, Fr. Daniel Durken.  Fr. Daniel taught scripture to generations of students at Saint John’s University, and also served for several years as director of the Liturgical Press.  We will miss his wit and wisdom.

+The first five pictures in today’s post come from Monte Cassino, Saint Benedict’s monastery outside of Rome.  During World War II it was completely destroyed, and on March 21st, the feast of Saint Benedict, the monks and friends of Monte Cassino celebrated the anniversary of its restoration.  The next two photos show Brother John Chrysostom pronouncing his vows before Abbot John, and the community following profession.  No doubt Saint Benedict would be more than amazed at the thought that monks would be following his Rule in Japan in the 21st century.

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imageLent and the Winter of Our Life

There’s no denying that we’ve had a rather bracing winter in Minnesota this year, complete with numbing temperatures and daunting snowfall.  Still, when we reached into the 40′s a few days ago I thought that the worst was sure to be over. The melt began, and spring seemed just around the corner.  But last Tuesday another nine inches plopped down on us, giving Collegeville the coveted title of “most snow in Minnesota for the day.”  We basked in the state-wide recognition, and then moved on.  Glory is a fleeting thing, and who knows what the morrow might bring.

Ever the optimist, I go against the grain in my conviction that it’s bound to get warmer, and even greener, eventually.  That puts me at odds with Garrison Keillor, who long ago theorized that “bad weather is punishment from God, and good weather is a sign that bad weather is on the way.”  I’ve never subscribed to such Calvinist determinism, though my dissenting views provided scant consolation when the nine inches piled on last Tuesday.

imageAs many of my confreres in the monastery would be quick to point out, I probably lost my right to complain about the winter long ago.  So let me be the first to concede that work has caused me to miss a lot of the less clement weather in Minnesota this year.  For better and for worse, duty has taken me to places where the climate is at best benign, though not always as nice as some might think.  Whatever other benefits such places may offer, in those paradises there often can be scant opportunity to develop one’s character.  In an Eden like San Diego there is no testing of the spirits; and not surprisingly, the lack of adversity leaves little room to grow in wisdom and self-discipline.

For that reason, and despite the opinions of a few, my travels during February and March have not been an unmitigated bed of roses.  Just a few days ago, for instance, I flew to Lynchburg, VA, and on the day of my arrival it had reached into the 70′s.  At last I could get out for a walk and enjoy the beauty of the landscape.  What joy, I thought.  The next day it snowed.  And then the day after that it snowed.  Mind you, these were the snows that Minnesotans might scoff at initially, but ones they would learn to respect pretty quickly.  These storms blended ice and snow, and they were the sort that break bones and send cars careening into trees and ditches.  There were no walks for me in Lynchburg, and that was a keen disappointment.

imageThen I went to Florida, which promised no snow whatsoever.  Finally, there would be the chance to get outside without dressing like Nanook of the North.  So on the morning after my arrival I woke, dressed for a walk, and marched out to greet the sunshine and 70-degree temperatures.  I had gone an eighth of a mile when it started to rain, heavily.  Perhaps Garrison was right after all.

Weather is certainly one of the realities that most of us have to contend with.  For better and for worse it shapes our outlook on life and very often determines the quality of our day.  On the negative side it can ruin a day, but on the flip side it gives us something to talk about.  That’s why I pity the poor people of San Diego.  They enjoy picture-perfect weather each day and every day, so what in the world do they have to talk about?

imageWeather is also a metaphor for life.  Throughout life there is a constant parade of challenges and joys, but how we deal with all that is the expression of our true character.  With grim determination and resolve we can turn all those challenges to our advantage.  Or we can cave in and give up and declare the battle of life a total loss.

Lent is the time of year when we ought to stand back and assess how we are addressing life and all its storms and gentle springs.  Have we become passive onlookers?  Do we live in a world in which we let ourselves be swept along by the currents?  Or have we taken charge, confident that we are headed for something truly interesting?

imageIf we take proper advantage of Lent, we come to realize that its forty days are symbolic of the ongoing struggle that we all have to face.  But the days of Lent also point to something ahead and beyond.  They point to Easter.  If the days of Lent are the days the Lord has made, then we should be glad and rejoice in them.  At the very least, we ought to be grateful for each and every one of them.  But we should also be glad to emerge from this winter of our lives all the  better for the struggle.  We should also be firm in the conviction that we are on the way to something really important.  Not only do the joys of Easter await us, but so does the joy of springtime.  And when those days finally come, it’ll be no time to be passive onlookers.

Notes

+From March 16th through the 18th I was in Lynchburg, VA, where I gave several retreat conferences at Saint Thomas More Church.  Despite the snow and ice, I received a very warm welcome from the pastor, Msgr. Michael McCarron; and I thoroughly savored the beautiful landscapes of a part of Virginia that I’d not seen before.   It was a delight to meet so many wonderful members of the parish, and I was honored by the presence of several oblates from the community of the Benedictine Sisters in Bristow, VA.

+On March 20th I was in Bonita Springs, FL, where I attended a gathering of alumni and friends of Saint John’s University.  The star of the evening was Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University.

image+On March 21st Michael and I drove to Palm Beach, FL, where we attended the opening reception for an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Society of the Four Arts.  On the 22nd we hosted a gathering of alumni and friends of Saint John’s, during which I gave tours of the exhibit.  The pictures in today’s post well illustrate the beauty of the complex, located in downtown Palm Beach.

+On March 21st the monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrated the Feast of the Passing of Saint Benedict.  There are not many saints in the liturgical calendar who get two days, but clearly he deserves it.   We celebrate his memory yet another time on July 11th.

imageThrowing Good Words After Bad

We’ve all come to terms with the fact that it’s a small world, but sometimes it’s eerily so, as two recent instances suggest.

In January a friend whom I’ve known for ages wrote to say that she was attending a seminar in the south of France, in Villefranche sur Mer.  At dinner she happened to sit across from a man from Sweden, who was surprised to discover that she was from Minnesota.  His natural response at the news?  “Oh, my son just graduated from a college in Minnesota.  In Collegeville.  Saint John’s.”  Of course.  What Swede doesn’t have a son who’s graduated from Saint John’s recently.

imageThe second instance took place three weeks ago on a flight that had originated on the east coast and had stopped in Minneapolis before heading on to San Francisco.  When I came to my seat, I was not a little disconcerted to discover that my seat-mate from the east coast was already engaged in a vigorous monologue on the phone.  Tirade would be the better word to describe it, because the tone of his voice betrayed real irritation.  So did the volume of his voice.  I rolled my eyes and resigned myself to a long and unpleasant flight, and tried to tune the whole thing out.  But given that there was nowhere to escape, there really wasn’t much I could do to hide.  Worse still, in a few minutes it suddenly dawned on me that I knew the two people he was irate about.  I was dumbfounded, and pondered the odds.

I have no idea whether his anger was justified or not, but his exercise of free speech reminded me of two fundamental points that we all might want to keep in mind when we engage in private conversations in public places.  First off, you should never be surprised that the innocent person next to you might be the second cousin twice removed to the person you are ranting about.  Second, if you’re going to share your conversation with the general public, try and limit yourself to sweet nothings and gratuitous compliments.  You never know when or where your words might come back to haunt you.

imageFirst-time readers of the Rule of Saint Benedict are always surprised that he deals with the issue of speech at such an early point in his text — as if it were all that important.  In fact, he presents his ideas on the “Restraint of Speech” in chapter six, where he quotes from the Book of Proverbs when he writes that “the tongue holds the key to life and death.”  And on this Saint Benedict was no fool.  The reputation you save may be another’s; but the life you save may be your own.

Saint Benedict certainly was no Trappist monk when it came to taking vows of silence.  He didn’t forbid speaking, but he did urge a good deal of caution when monks have to resort to it.  Even the holiest of monks can get carried away in a “flood of words,” and once that torrent begins, we all know from personal experience that it’s hard to turn off the spigot.  One bit of gossip from our lips, or one snide remark about someone’s character is sometimes all it takes to prime the pump. And then we are off and flowing.  Only when it’s too late do we realize it with regret; and I’m sure each one of us wishes we could reach out into the air and grab those words.  But like the nasty email  that’s been sent in anger and in haste, these are words that are beyond recall.  The damage is done, and the repair can take half a lifetime.  No wonder Saint Benedict puts this issue way at the front of his Rule.

imageI got the normal reprieve on my flight to San Francisco when the announcement came to silence the phones.  This is truly the moment when silence is golden.  But to my own amazement I was unable to let sleeping dogs lie.  About an  hour into the flight I defied all my personal rules about flying and struck up a conversation with this guy.  I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that he was a really fine person.   As I had half-expected, we soon discovered that we had several mutual friends; though I judiciously didn’t touch on the objects of his earlier diatribe.  Happily for me, he failed to make that connection.  Happily for him, I stowed that earlier conversation in the circular file.  Throwing good words after bad does no one any good, and I can only hope that someday some kind person will do the same for me.

imageNotes

+On March 10th, 11th and 12th I gave classes in the novitiate at Saint John’s on three aspects of monastic history:  The establishment of the Rule of Saint Benedict as the official rule within the 9th-century Carolingian Empire; The monks of Cluny and their reform; and The Cistercians and the 12th-century renewal of monasticism in the west.  Now you may think there would not be enough to say about each of these to build a lecture around, but in fact you could do a course on each.  Trust me.  So it was quite a chore to compress each topic into forty-five minutes.

+On the evening of March 12th I gave a conference on Lent at the Parish of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville.  The parish for ages held its services in the lower church of the Abbey, but they have recently expanded its complex across Lake Watab so as to allow Sunday and weekday Masses there.  The pictures in today’s blog include the daily Mass chapel, the tabernacle and icon screen, and a very colorful stained glass window.

image+On March 14th I gave a talk and participated in three seminars at the annual book collectors’ conference for Friends of the Library at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.  I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible, and the library has recently acquired a set of the Heritage Edition.  It may come as a surprise that we at Saint John’s have worked with BYU on another project, that one involving HMML. Some years ago they turned over to HMML their efforts in manuscript preservation in Lebanon, thereby greatly facilitating HMML’s own work there.  One scholar at BYU continues to provide input and advice to HMML, and it was great to connect with him and many other wonderful people at BYU.

+In case you are looking for a musical meditation this Lent, you could do no better than to listen to this setting of Psalm 51 by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652):  Miserere mei, Deus. The choir of King’s College Cambridge performs it in their stunningly beautiful chapel.  In this rendition they sing it as part of their Easter liturgy, but it is traditionally sung on Ash Wednesday in many churches.

imageThe Stational Liturgies of Lent

I first learned about stational churches from a classmate in graduate school.  He was (and still is) a Jesuit, and he was writing his dissertation on stational liturgies in ancient Constantinople — today rebranded as Istanbul.  At the time it was all new to me, though I’ve since come to appreciate that the same customs existed in other major Christian cities.  In Rome the practice flourished for centuries, before it finally petered out.  But the designation of stational churches has remained on the books, and in recent times the practice has gone through a bit of a resurrection.

imageEssentially, the custom was this.  On each day of Lent people would walk in procession or gather at a designated church in the city, and they would continue the practice until the days of Lent were exhausted, or they were exhausted.  In each case they assembled for prayer, and the whole experience served to introduce people to neighboring parishes and to other parts of the city.  For visitors and pilgrims it provided the same exercise, with the added benefit that everything they saw was new to them.  But for everyone it was a local adaptation of the greatest of pilgrimages — the Way of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jersualem.  All were pilgrimages in their own way, and each local rendition was meant to focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When I first heard of such a practice, I was fascinated.  In fact, I was so intrigued that I accepted the invitation to join my friend for a few days when he went to Istanbul to do research one summer.  I was going to be in Spain at about the same time, doing my own dissertation research, so I could kill two birds with one stone.  I could get my own work done, and then go with an expert to a city that has always fascinated me.  So we decided to meet there in June.

imageUnfortunately, a film intervened.  One March evening my friend invited me to go to a movie.  Neither of us knew much about it, save that it involved a tourist in Istanbul.  Perhaps this might be a nice introduction to our destination.  The film turned out to be Midnight Express, which told the story of a young American who got thrown into a Turkish prison for possession of a small amount of marijuana.  Had I known the topic I might have reconsidered.  Had I known that it was filled with violence that was graphic and totally repulsive, I never would have gone.  I don’t deal well at all with violence, and so I covered my eyes for all of the brutal scenes.  It was all too much for me, and any thoughts of going to Turkey that summer went out the window that evening.  No Istanbul for me, and that was that.

imageHappily, Turkey has changed, even if my squeamishness about violence has not.  I’ve since had the chance to visit Istanbul and discovered that the notorious central prison of the city has now been transformed into a Four Seasons Hotel.  (How amazing is that in the lodging business — to go from no stars to five stars almost overnight.)  As for the churches, the few that remain from ancient times just dazzle the imaginaiton.  Just the thought of a liturgy at 6th-century Hagia Sophia is enough to send my history genes into ecstasy.  But the visit also left me keenly disappointed.  I was about a thousand years too late, and most of the grand churches and basilicas that figured in the stational liturgies of Constantinople have long since vanished.

Many of the churches and parallel liturgies in Rome still persist, however, and they are there for the visiting.  By custom the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome is the stational church for Ash Wednesday in Rome.  This year, as in the past, the pope and his entourage began the Ash Wednesday stational liturgy with the imposition of ashes at the Benedictine abbey of Sant Anselmo, which is a short walk from Santa Sabina.  From there they process to Santa Sabina, the 6th-century basilica that for centuries has served as the headquarters of the Dominicans.  It’s a lovely service, which I have yet to witness.  But someday I hope to see my very first stational liturgy.

imageIn the meantime, it is important to know that you don’t have to go to Rome or Constantinople or Jerusalem to replicate the experience of this Lenten custom.  Since most major cities have more than enough churches to serve the purpose, anyone can construct their own Lenten pilgrimage to as many churches as they wish.  For one thing, it’s a great opportunity to see some potentially interesting architecture.  For another it presents the chance to see and even meet other congregations as they worship in their own spirit and local customs.  It also allows you to meet other Christians who might very well have something to learn from you.  And there is an added benefit.  On any given weekday most city churches are crying for customers, so you might very well be welcomed with open arms.

God’s creativity is simply enormous, and in our pilgrimage of Lent it’s not such a bad idea to get out and see a few examples of it.  At the very least it might might broaden  your horizons.  At best, you might see how God works in other parts of town.

imageNotes

+On March 9th I celebrated and preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access the sermon, Chatting with the Serpents, in the section of Presentations.  In the Mass I remembered in a special way Mr. Bill McInerney of Oakland, CA, who died recently.  He was a lovely person, a good friend to me and so many, and a long-time member of the Order of Malta.

+On March 2nd we received two men as candidates for the monastery.  Nathaniel Putnam is from Oakland, CA, where he has managed a cafe and is a minister of faith formation in his parish.  He received a BA in American Studies at UC Santa Cruz and the MFA from New College of California in San Francisco.  Brad Rothrock is originally from Tucson, AZ, and more recently has been living in Boston.  He received the MFA from Rutgers and is completing his dissertation in Theology and Education at Boston College.  Pray for them as they enter this new phase of their lives!

image+We at Saint John’s were surprised by a short video clip of Pope Francis’ visit to Sant Anselmo and Santa Sabina on Ash Wednesday.  No one was surprised to see footage of the pope distributing ashes, since that was to be expected.  But we were delighted to see that the second person in the clip, also distributing ashes, was our confrere, Fr. Nickolas Becker, who is studying in Rome.  The video begins as the procession is leaving Sant Anselmo, going through the piazza that separates it from the palace of the Order of Malta across the way, and finishes with Mass at Santa Sabina.

The pictures in today’s post come from another lovely church in Rome, San Clemente.  It has some of the finest mosaics in Rome and is well worth the visit.

imageSaint Benedict’s Commentary on Winter

I’ve always been grateful that Saint Benedict was not a rigid fundamentalist when it came to his Rule for Monks.  While many other legislators made rigid demands on monks, Benedict seems much more easy-going.  He most definitely was not one of those Italian laissez-faire sort of guys, because he never for a minute believed that it was okay for monks to do any and everything they pleased.  In fact, he takes to task all those who’ve done their own thing and then called it holy.  And make no mistake about whether he had standards.  He most certainly did, but those standards were there to support the monk rather than crush the monk.  In this he likely took his cue from Jesus, who had once pointed imageout that the Sabbath was made for people and not the other way around.

Benedict’s flexibility shows in lots of areas.  If a community had a better way of organizing the Psalms for prayer, then by all means give it a shot.  But don’t bother him with inane requests about whether it’s okay to recite Psalm 122 on Tuesday rather than Thursday.  He also writes that the diet can be adapted to local conditions, and that includes things like work-load, season of the year, and availability of produce.  He does put off limits the consumption of meat, but in general he has few other restrictions.  For instance, nowhere does he write that Monday will be cauliflower day, while Brussels sprouts may be eaten only on Fridays in Advent.  Despite Benedict’s flexibility, however, later generations of monks have had a hard time resisting the temptation to make lots of rules, even on things like food.  For that reason I’ve always felt superior to the medieval English monks who forbade the eating of lard during Lent.  Heck, I have to be at least ten times a better monk than they, because I never eat lard, ever.

The whole business of dealing with winter is yet another topic where I give Benedict a lot of credit.  The fact of the matter is, we in Minnesota do not have an Italian climate, and I was reminded of this when I flew  back from Knoxville last week.  Actually, I knew this even before I went to Knoxville, but that’s beside the point.

imageIn eastern Tennessee the leaves weren’t yet on the trees, but it felt like spring to me.  When I got back to Minnesota, it was also clear to me that news of the arrival of spring on March 1st had failed to register.  No one had done a thing to prepare, as a quick glance around the place made abundantly clear.  When I stepped out of the airport it was still cold, and there was still snow all over the place.  And there were huge piles of it.

I experienced the practical implications of this on the drive back to Sant John’s when I stopped at the Burger King in Maple Grove.  Planning on a quick lunch, I headed to the drive-through; but it was anything but quick.  In fact, the drive-through was a lot like the luge at the winter olympics.  Six-foot walls of snow flanked the car, while tracks in the snow guided the car around the corner and up to the window.

imageI chuckled at it all until I grabbed the bag and tried to drive on.  I was stuck, and my wheels could only spin.  Unable to move, and with several cars behind me, I looked in helpless desperation to the young attendant standing at the window.  Without batting an eye, he told me to wait — which was not necessary, since that was the problem.  He rushed out into +8 degree weather without a coat, squeezed between my car and the one behind, gave me a solid push, and out of the rut lurched my car.  Apparently he must have done this several times already that day.  For him it was all in a day’s work, while I was impressed and more than a little grateful.  Who knew that Burger King provided all those other services?

Anyway, the point I’d like to make is that in Minnesota we deal with winter in a matter of fact way that must astound much of the rest of the country.  This is what allows us to smile wryly when Atlanta closes down after an eighth of an inch of snow.  It also makes us stoic and resilient, as the citizens of Lake Wobegon will be the first to point out.  We are tough, but ours is a humble and self-effacing toughness.  You’ll have to ask us three times before we’ll let on how tough we really are.

imageI finally got home to Saint John’s, where there were several more inches of snow than when I had left.  Since December 42 inches have fallen, which is twice the average.  Frankly, the stuff is everywhere, and we’re running out of places to put it.  Just the day before I had congratulated my audience in Tennessee for their ingenuity.  I hadn’t seen snow anywhere in Tennessee, and I asked where in the world they stored all their snow.  Clearly, we in Minnesota have much to learn from them.

Meanwhile, given that winter keeps showing up every year, I’m grateful for Saint Benedict’s lean commentary on winter in general and his flexibility on clothing in particular.  Undoubtedly, monastic pioneers like Saints Augustine of Hippo and Basil never imagined a day when monks would be found in Germany or England or Canada.  Thankfully, Saint Benedict never ruled out that possibility.  So he was way ahead of the game when he foresaw that the business of winter might come up, and he didn’t want monks pestering him for a lot of detailed legislation on how to deal with it.

imageWriting in the early 500′s, Saint Benedict had this to say about winter and what to wear:  “The clothing distributed to the brothers should vary according to local conditions and climate, because more is needed in cold regions and less in warmer.  This is left to the abbot’s discretion.”  He does go on to itemize a few articles of clothing and footwear, but he’s pretty much exhausted what he has to say about winter.  Reading between the lines, Benedict seems clear that he doesn’t want people in Manitoba writing to ask if it’s okay to wear ear-muffs when it’s -20.  In his reply he would likely point out that God gave people brains, and when it reaches -20 it’s a good idea to use them without having to consult him about it.

Meanwhile, winter goes on at Saint John’s and in Minnesota.  Despite the fact that we are now three days into spring, spring has made absolutely zero impact on our lives.  On the other hand, we are an optimistic lot.  March is the snowiest month of the year.  How exciting!  That means that spring can’t be far behind.  But in the meantime we need to figure out where to put all the new snow.  For worse, and probably for better, Saint Benedict didn’t write a chapter on snow removal.  He’d just tell us to figure it out for ourselves.

imageNotes

+On February 24th and 25th I made presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Carson Newman University in Jefferson City, TN.  To put things into perspective, when I was growing up in Oklahoma City, Catholics there numbered 3% of the citizenry, Episcopalians 2% and Lutherans 1%.  Such minority status fostered ecumenism long before it became fashionable elsewhere.  Since Carson Newman uses the First Baptist Church for its chapel services, you can better appreciate what an awe-inspiring experience it was for me to stand in the pulpit of the First Baptist Church and address the student body.  They don’t get many monks there, to say the least.  And their hospitality was over the top.

+February 27th was a very busy day, and it began with a class on monastic history, which I gave in the novitiate.  It’s been a while since I taught in the formation program for the young monks, and in coming weeks I am scheduled for seven classes.  In this session I spoke about the monk and pope Gregory the Great, who commissioned Saint Augustine as a missionary to England in the late 6th century.  The class took place in the morning, followed by several meetings.  Then late in the afternoon I presided at the Abbey Mass, which I said in memory of my good friend from the Order of Malta, Mr. Dean Pace.  You can reference my sermon, How Do I Use My Gifts?, under Presentations.

image+On February 27th and 28th I attended meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+Ukraine has been in the headlines of late, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to visit there two years ago.  Even then the tensions were high, but the beauty of cities like Lviv and Kiev belied the political division and the rampant corruption that showed up in the smallest details.  If you missed my post on this trip to Ukraine, you can visit the posting of 20 August MMXII: The Travails of Travel.  The pictures in today’s post portray scenes from Kiev. The city wears its Russian heritage on its sleeves, both in the stunning Orthodox churches and in the drab Soviet era piles.

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