imageStart the Day with Your A-game

It was every shirker’s nightmare.  This particular tax inspector in Finland had spent years cultivating a reputation for dependability.  Each day he’d shown up for work, punctually.  He’d given every appearance of dedication as he hunched over his desk for hours at a time.  And I can only assume that his boss and colleagues considered him to be a productive co-worker.  But as it turned out, were I a delinquent taxpayer in Finland, he’s the guy I’d want on my case.  Why so?  There was actually a lot less here than met the eye.  So his office-mates duly discovered when they realized he’d been sitting there, dead, for two days.

Now I don’t mean to belittle the worth of fellow human beings, especially when they are down and out for the count.  But if you can sit at your desk for two days, dead, and nobody notices, then there’s a problem here.  If your presence makes not one whit of a difference to the people with whom you rub elbows, then there are some issues to confront.  And if, as you lie in state at your funeral, the eulogist has to strain every creative brain cell to explain what you did that made the world a better place, then that’s a very sad day, in more ways than one.

imageTo a recent article in The Economist I owe this bit about the Finnish tax inspector.  The latter was but one example of the larger problem of skiving, better-known in America as shirking, that seems to plague most organizations.  Specifically, the writer cites figures suggesting the average worker wastes one and a half to three hours a day.  As for who these people tend to be, evidence shows that those most accomplished in the art of shirking are to be found at either (and both) ends of the pay scale.  You’ll find them equally in the public and private sectors.  And though they are sprinkled among the newer companies, more often than not the people making personal mountains out of mole hills are at the older and more sclerotic institutions.  But the important point is this: no organization is exempt.  No doubt that explains the candid slip by Pope John XXIII, when a reporter asked how many people worked at the Vatican.  “About half,” he responded dryly.  After all, the man was a saint, and he couldn’t tell a fib.

imageI won’t comment on the lack of integrity that marks those who shirk their responsibilities.  Who knows why some people prefer to put in a half day’s work for a full day’s pay?  Nor will I touch on the injustice done to over-worked colleagues who must take up the slack.  Rather, I prefer to focus on the self-degradation of people who are blessed with loads of talent but choose instead to bury it all in the ground, or hide it under the bushel.

Saint Benedict in his Rule is well-aware of the possibility that people can take inordinate pride in their abilities.  It can “puff them up,” he writes.  But he’s more than willing to take that risk, because it is of far greater importance that monks make good use of all the abilities that come their way.  And when he commands that we treat the tools of the monastery as sacred, as if they were the vessels of the altar, then you have a pretty good idea of where he stands on the issue.  In each and every instance, all varieties of work in the monastery are sacred, and a monk works not so much for personal fulfillment but rather in service to God and neighbor.  That, I might conclude, is how a monk makes the monastery a better place.  And by extension that applies to all of us who have it in our power to do something of value for our fellow human beings.

imageWhen we wake up each morning I suspect that most of us don’t deliberately set out to do as little as possible in the course of the day.  Few of us rise from our beds, hoping to make little or no impact on the lives of others.  Few of us deliberately choose to play our B-game, in hopes that we will make absolutely zero difference in the world.  That’s not what we intend to do; but in the course of the day that’s often what happens.

Of course neither Saint Benedict nor Jesus demand that we be workaholics.  On the other hand, there are a few basic expectations that The Lord God Almighty places upon us, and it’s up to us to make at least a feeble response.

How then do we respond to God’s call when we begin the day?  For starters, I think it’s not such a bad thing to resolve to do at least one thing well, each and every day.  No matter how trivial or how important, do that one thing to the best of our ability.  And do it so well that it actually benefits someone.  That’s a good beginning, and imagechances are it may not kill us.

Once we’ve incorporated one good deed into our regular routine, then try for a second.  Don’t reach for a whole day’s worth of good deeds, because it just won’t happen.  But if we take these opportunities incrementally, one at a time, then pretty soon we’ll notice the difference.  Pretty soon there might come a time when our very presence might come to matter to the people around us.  But neglect to do it, and they’ll scarcely miss us when we go on that three-hour bathroom break.

That’s why it’s good to review our A-game every morning.  Don’t shoot for the moon, but aim for the possible.  With just one single item try to make the world a better place, for just that one day.  Why would we not want to do that?  At the very very least, it’s a good alternative to sitting at our desks for days on end, dead.


+On November 10th we had our first snowfall of the season, and at over twelve inches it was a day to remember.  Both the University and the Prep School were closed for the first (and I hope last) snow day of the season.  Unfortunately by the end of the week we had not yet climbed above freezing, and so this snow seems destined to be with us until spring.  The lakes also froze over, and by the weekend the first fishing house was out on the ice.

+On November 12th I attended and spoke briefly at a reception at Saint Agnes Hospital in Fresno, CA.  The occasion was the reception of their new Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.

+The article from The Economist, to which I made reference above, is by Schumpeter, and entitled A Guide to Skiving.  It appears on page 71 in the issue of October 25-31, 2014.

+On Friday November 21st the Abbey Schola will give a concert of sacred music, entitled Music of Thanksgiving.  It will take place at 7:30 pm at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Medina, MN, and it will benefit the Benedictine Volunteer Corps of Saint John’s Abbey.

+I didn’t have the will to include photos of our recent snow in this post, so I decided to recall warmer times in exotic places.  The photos in today’s post come from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.


imageWhy Do Hypocrites Go to Church?

We hadn’t intended to discuss religion when we sat down to dinner.  Birthday was on our minds, so it would be a light and lively evening.  Still, in a lull at our end of the table, it popped up out of the blue.  Cutting through the din of the restaurant came those words I dread to hear:  “I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do consider myself spiritual.”  So I braced myself and wondered where this ride would go.  Well, it took me down a path I’d not expected.

She’d broached the topic earlier in the week to a repairman working around her home. For no apparent reason she had brought it up with him, and along with the standard declaration about spirituality she had confided to him one of her pet peeves.  “I don’t mind going to church, but what gets me are some of the people who are there.  They’re such hypocrites.  Why do hypocrites even go to church?”

imageThe man paused, as if to choose his words carefully.  And his reply was simple and yet elegant.  “We go because we need to.”  That’s all there was to it.

His words had touched her, and she told me how she had begun to connect the dots later on. Sick people see doctors and go to the hospital because they need to.  Out-of-shape people go to the gym because they need to.  Sinners, and especially the hypocrites, go to church because they need to.

Conversely, if there were no sick people we’d have no need for doctors or hospitals.  If there were no out-of-shape people we’d need gyms only for recreation and not exercise.  And if there were no sinners — including hypocrites — then there’d be no need for churches.  That’s why hypocrites go to church, just like all the other sinners.  Church is where the healing is.  And is it their fault that they’ve chosen to specialize in a sin that Jesus just so happened to single out for special consideration?  In fact, those are exactly the sort of people Jesus likes to gather to himself.

imageHer story got me to thinking as well.  Then it dawned on me.  We monks, and most practicing Christians I know, all definitely belong in church, on a very regular basis.  So what if some of us choose concentrations other than hypocrisy?  God calls and accepts sinners of all sorts and from all levels of expertise.  Jesus is an equal-opportunity savior, and he’s more than happy to welcome the worst and the most tepid of sinners when they enter the doors of the church.

The second lesson that my friend learned from her encounter with the repairman was this.  She, like everybody else, expects us religious professionals to put up a spirited defense of being both spiritual and religious.  She, like many, are sometimes suspicious of the clerical estate because we seem to have a conflict of interest when it comes to going to church.  And that’s what makes it so easy to dismiss our elevated reasoning.  But the repairman had blindsided her.  She had not expected wisdom from a repairman.

imageThis had become the bargain of the day for her.  Not only had she gotten some repairs around the house, but she had gotten a dollop of wisdom as well.  That was something she’d never anticipated.  Nor had the guy even thought to send a bill for the advice.  The wisdom was on the house.

I too am not one to dismiss interesting advice from unexpected sources, and the repairman’s words hit me as well.  In my own case, the next time I go to church and silently complain about the unworthies sitting around me, I’m going to think twice.  And when I find myself praying the prayer of the Pharisee — “I thank you Lord that I’m not like these other people” — I’ll make a note of it to be glad.  Sure enough, that’s the prayer of the person who definitely needs to be in church.  I’ve definitely come to the right place, and I’m the one Jesus had in mind when he chipped away at hypocrisy.  Even better, I’m in church with my kind of people — the people who still need a little more tinkering from Jesus.  We most definitely need to be there; while church is definitely no place for the perfect.  I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.

My friend’s experience with the repairman dovetails nicely with the advice Saint Benedict offered to his monks and to anyone else who’s cared to read his Rule.  Wisdom is a prize, and we very often find it in the people in whom we least expect it.  That’s why he urged his monks to “Listen” every now and again.  Listen, even to the repairman.


+On November 7-9 I was in Albuquerque, NM, where I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral.  The cathedral had recently acquired a set of the Heritage Edition of the Bible.

I had never visited Albuquerque before, and to my friend Eddie I owe a great tour of the city.  Among other places, we visited the Abbey of Santa María de Vid, a Norbertine community founded by canons from Saint Norbert’s Abbey in Wisconsin.  They have a gorgeous spot of land to the south of the city, and from the hillside you behold great vistas of the mountains, as well as downtown Albuquerque in the distance.  In the valley below them flows the Río Grande River.  The photos in today’s post all come from the Norbertine abbey, and they include the church and monastery, an educational building, as well as one of the many hermitages there.

image+I was reminded recently of how small a world it is, and how important it can be to behave well, even in front of people whom you think are strangers and have no connection to you.  Three weeks ago a couple announced that they had recently met one of my brothers.  I assumed they meant one of my brothers in the monastery.  But no, it was my youngest brother.  They happened to be lost on some side street in Jerusalem, and they stopped to ask directions from some guy who looked like he knew what he was doing.  In short order they discovered that he was my brother.  As proof, they took a picture of him, which they proudly called up on their iPad.  Once again there’s an important lesson to take away from this.  Be courteous to everyone.  You never know what you have in common until you ask!

imageThank God for All Souls Day

I’ve always thought that All Souls Day was a much better fit for monks than All Saints. And yet again I was confirmed in this conviction when we celebrated these two feasts this weekend, and it only took a few seconds to remember why.

First off, when it comes to All Saints (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd), we’re not talking mere shades of difference.  Whether famous or obscure, all the saints have it made.  These men and women have fought the good fight, have finished the course, and now reap the reward for all that effort.  And they do so for all eternity.

All Souls Day, by contrast, recalls those who have crossed the threshold from this life, but they do not as  yet enjoy the full sight of God, face to face.  For all of them there’s work still to be done.  Just around the corner there’s yet another lane or byway to walk on their pilgrimage to the Lord.

imageThat not so subtle difference is not lost on us monks, and it hints at why we might be disposed to identify with the poor souls in transit.  As most any monk will confide to you in an unguarded moment, the monastery is crawling with people who could do with a little more spiritual polish.  Contrary to popular opinion, the monastery is no express lane to heaven, as monks will ungrudgingly confide.  Walking those halls are confreres who are very much works-in-progress.  We definitely belong with the poor souls.

Then there’s the issue of humility to consider.  For many monks the appearance of humility can be an easy stretch, because so many of us came to the monastery with a hearty dose of introversion.  That natural shyness renders any limelight difficult to endure, so you can imagine how excruciating would be the whole business of canonization.  Furthermore, most monks I know would be horrified by the prospect that some Vatican committee on saints would come knocking at our door, doing an inventory of our good deeds and heroic virtues. That’s just not us, and most of us have neglected to keep a running tally of our miracles.  For that reason we’re less inclined to put ourselves in the ranks of the saints.

imageThen there’s the business of the rite of canonization.  The mere thought of 100,000 people gathered at Saint Peter’s to proclaim my holiness would send me reeling for the exit.  Faced with such an ordeal, I’d commit a venial sin just to get out of there.  I and most monks simply aren’t cut out for that kind of veneration.  Plus, with all the prayers for intercession that would be sure to follow, peace and quiet would quickly become a memory.  Heaven would be anything but heaven.  Like the Hebrews who longed for the flesh-pots of Egypt, I’d pine for the days when I was a small-potatoes sinner in the cloister.

This partially explains the relative scarcity of Benedictines in the recent stampede to canonization.  But they’re not the only reasons.   As any astute observer of the liturgical year can tell you, the calendar is chock-a-block with monastic heroes from the early and high Middle Ages.  However, at a certain point the influx of saints from the monastic cloisters pretty much dried up.  It’s as if all the abbots and abbesses got together and declared “Enough already!”  “We have more saints than we can manage, so give it a rest.”

imageThat’s one explanation.  But narrowing standards for canonization in the 12th and 13th centuries provide another.  Once miracles and stand-out virtue became requirements for canonization, the ground rules that had favored monks and nuns crumbled.  With a spiritual focus on the search for God in the ordinary things of life, monks and nuns were hobbled in the competition.  Virtue in the monastery consisted in the spiritual equality of all.  So it was that the spiritual exceptionalism that Saint Benedict had banished from the monastery became a badge of honor in the new age.  How could monks and nuns possibly compete?

The same was true for miracles.  I can only imagine the uproar in the monastery if one of the monks started working miracles without the abbot’s permission.  Knowing many abbots as I do, I can’t think of a single one who’d give such a permission.  But if they did, they’d never hear the end of it from the rest of the monks.  At the very least he’d have to insist that the miracle-working monk should do it privately, when no one might be looking.  If not, soon everybody would want permission to work miracles, and where would we be then?  No, the monastic regimen demands that either everybody works miracles or nobody does them.  It’s the only way to preserve peace, and that’s the way it has to be.

imageThat, in sum, explains why monks and nuns in the Benedictine tradition are inclined to stick with the poor souls.  Like the poor souls, we are seekers of God, but we do so imperfectly and rather quietly.  Like the poor souls we are works-in-progress, and we still have quite a ways to go before our pilgrimage is complete.  And like the poor souls, we’ll accomplish all this with some measure of anonymity, or at least with a smidgen of humility.

That’s what happens when you go looking for God in the small things in daily life.  When you take this route there’ll be no big miracles to impress the neighbors;  but on the other  hand, every now and again there will be the tiny little miracles that pull back the curtain that  hides the face of God.

This may not be a very dramatic pilgrimage, and it very likely won’t end up in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square, with acclamation by a crowd of 100,000.  But together with a host of other poor souls we’ll in time enjoy the fulness of God.  Along the way the company will very likely be a delight, however.  And together, at journey’s end, the face of God will warmly welcome us latecomers to the heavenly banquet.


+On October 31st some 185 guests from neighboring parishes joined us at Saint John’s for the vigil of All Saints Day.  Among the number was Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud.  All were served up with tours of the relic chapel, as well as the thirty-four private Mass chapels in the crypt of the abbey church.  Following the vigil service monks and guests gathered for coffee and cookies in the chapter house.  It was wonderfully crowded in there.

+On November 2nd, the feast of All Souls, we processed to the abbey cemetery for a short prayer service.

+Different cultures and traditions remember the dead in different ways, sometimes to the edification and even delight of those who come later.  In graduate school I and a few of my classmates took regular walks through the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, where we marveled at the tombs of the famous and the less than famous.  Among my favorite monuments was one of a well-known Congregational minister.  On it were emblazoned the words “Lord, how I love thy law.”  Since the whole business of the Reformation hinged on observance of the law, we appreciated the delicious irony here.

imageSince then I’ve always made a point to visit such places when I can, and among the most interesting has been the city cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine.  A couple of years ago I used a few photos from that scenic spot in one of my posts, and I’ve recently constructed a gallery of photos that gives the flavor of a park beloved by the local citizens.

+In the Middle Ages monasteries often served as burial sites, and sometimes the permanent residents of the church included the rich and the famous.  The Abbey of Saint Denis, located in the suburbs of Paris, is justly celebrated as the first gothic church in Europe, and its stained glass was and remains stunning.  But visitors come today to gaze on the tombs of the kings and queens of France, who reside in stately splendor.  The photos in today’s post portray the royal pantheon.

imageThe End Times Are Upon Us

In last week’s readings at Mass there were at least two occasions when the texts pointed to the end-times.  Quite naturally, the mere thought of end-times is enough to send shivers up some spines.  Urgency floods into our consciousness.  Our blood pressure spikes.  We rachet up the intensity of our lives.  And not surprisingly, we often get a lot more done, even if we have to compromise on the quality a bit.  And common to many of us in such a pickle, we do our level best to squeeze every opportunity out of life — especially when our days seem numbered.  In the process we become very decisive people, as we deftly toss aside the less-important projects to concentrate on the things that suddenly matter.

All of this makes sense to me, because I know it’s true in my own life.  Through years of schooling, on the eve of deadlines I’ve miraculously produced research papers that may not have been good, but in the space of a few hours they became good enough.  And I’ve gotten productive beyond my wildest dreams when I’ve been up against the wall with office work long overdue.  Still, in each instance I knew that this was not the way I wanted to live my life.  I don’t like deadlines staring me in the face.  And if I don’t like the little deadlines, I can only imagine how I’ll deal with Jesus when he comes knocking at the final end-time.

imageThat may explain why I found the subject of end-times to be a little off-putting last week.  First off, the third week of October is nowhere near the feast of Christ the King, which marks the end of the liturgical year.  And it’s even less proximate to December 31st.  So what’s the point of having readings that are way ahead of their time?  Why talk about end-times when we still have plenty of time to put stuff off?  I for one prefer to leave end-of-the-year business to the end of the  year.  I do not at all appreciate readings that try and terrify me, weeks before I should be dealing with that emotion.

My other objection to this out-of-season scare-mongering stems from my life according to the Rule of Saint Benedict.  I’ve perused that Rule many times over the years, and despite my best efforts I’ve yet to find a passage in which Benedict meant to scare the daylights out of his monks with threats of end-times.  In fact, Benedict lays out a way of life that seems to minimize any need to lead a frenzied last-minute style of existence.  Granted, he does ask his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  But since it’s something he expects us to do every day, there’s no sense getting wild-eyed about the prospect of the end-times.  He seems to suggest that if that’s the sort of thing that motivates you, then you should live with that intensity every day, rather than embrace it only at the last minute.  Why delay, especially if there’s the risk you might not have the time to get to it, even then?

imageBenedict also expects his monks to  undergo a conversion of life, but he doesn’t presume that this will happen overnight, due to some crisis.  Rather, this is a process of a lifetime, fed by regular prayer, regular work and rest, and regular everything else.  Like wind and water that carve a landscape over thousands of years, so the slow and patient schedule of the monastic day should shape a monk.  But the horarium doesn’t do it in a day, and Benedict would be keenly disappointed if a monk put all that off until the final week of his life.

That still leaves us to consider just how ordinary and even boring such a life should be.  The fact is, Benedict hopes that his monks will encounter God in the ordinary things of life. There’s no need to go to the mountain when God is to be found in your neighbor.  Nor do you need to get a set of specially-carved stone tablets, because the monk can see God in the gentle breeze and in the sacred readings and in the kindness of a brother.

imageIn short, if we wait until the end-times to go looking for God, we’ll likely be terribly disappointed.  And that will be so because God was already there — underfoot and rubbing elbows with us, in the ordinary circumstances of our lives.  From that perspective, what a waste it would be to postpone the search for God until the end-times.  If we do so, chances are excellent that we’ll miss God then, even as we forget to notice the divine presence now.

Given that Saint Benedict warns us not to wait until it’s too late to search for God, perhaps it’s appropriate after all to have readings about end-times well in advance of the end times.  Perhaps it serves as a reminder that we all need, suggesting that life can and should be lived in October, and not just at the end of the year or at some other peak moment of our existence.  And if God can be found at any time of the year, and not just at the end of time, then it’s certainly worth thinking about.  Perhaps even today.


+On October 21st through the 26th I delivered conferences at the annual retreat of the members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta, held in Danville, CA.  This year members had read Chris Lowney’s book, Pope Francis: Why he leads the way he leads, (Loyola Press, Chicago.)  Some friends had recommended the book to me, and most in our group enjoyed it. It approaches the leadership style of Pope Francis from a business and organizational perspective.  It is an easy read, as long as you don’t mind the overly frequent references to the business world.

+On October 23rd Fr. Fintan Bromenschenkel, our oldest monk, celebrated his 96th birthday.  Many credit his longevity to his daily regimen of manual labor, and to the fact that he always takes the stairs rather than the elevator.  Say what you will about him, there is one thing upon which we can all agree:  Fr. Fintan is not nearly as old as he used to be.

+During the month of November the monks of Saint John’s Abbey remember in our prayers all friends and benefactors who have asked for them.  Those prayer requests are contained in a basket, and on entering the church for office or Mass each monk will take one slip of paper and remember the names printed on it.

imageOn All Souls’ Day, November 2nd we normally process to the cemetery for a short prayer service for the repose of our deceased confreres and members of the parish of Saint John the Baptist who are buried there.  During the height of the fall colors I was able to get some good photos of the Abbey cemetery, and you can access that gallery here.  Once inside the page, the icon “Galleries” will appear at the top of the page, and from there you can visit the other galleries that I’ve posted.  More will follow!

+The photos in today’s post come from the Liebfrauenkirche in Trier, Germany.

imageBare Ruined Choirs, Yet Again?

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Bare Ruined Choirs, by the English Benedictine scholar David Knowles.  As Knowles details Henry VIII’s closure of the religious houses in England, the story invariably stirs a bit of melancholy, a melancholy in keeping with the season of autumn.

As Knowles readily admits, it was true that a few English religious houses needed reform.  But that was not the case for the majority, notwithstanding the propaganda machine at Henry’s disposal.  On the contrary, in so many of them there was a deeply-rooted vitality, and their sudden disappearance in 1539 engendered a spiritual displacement within English Christianity.  That in turn contributed to social and political conflict that persisted for generations.

Recently a friend wrote to ask for prayers as her community discerns its future.  Like more than a few religious houses today, the seniority of most of the members in her community does not augur well for the future.  Will there even be a future for many such communities?  If not, have the last 100+ years of service been all for naught?  To some it might seem so.  To a few it’s as if God has not lived up to the bargain that the community seemed to have struck so many years ago.  So if survival is not in the cards, then what was the point of all that work?

imageAs a medieval historian I’ve learned one lesson that is as valid today as it ever was.  God never made covenants with religious communities; nor did God promise to grant them immortality, despite any assumptions to the contrary.  A case in point is nearly every monastery in Western Europe in the Middle Ages.  For centuries religious men and women had prayed day in and day out; but despite this fervor, hundreds of monasteries vanished in the wake of the Reformation.  And the French Revolution finished off most of what had survived.  So barren was the religious landscape of western Europe in the early 19th century that people began to speak of monasticism in the past tense.   Monasticism once was; but now it was no longer.  Still, the reports of its extinction were premature, because apparently God had other plans.

Today the dreams of so many 19th-century religious founders seem to have melted imageaway, and that raises the question of legacy.  Is there nothing to show for all that zeal?  Will there only be bare ruined choirs once again?

Ever the optimist, as well as the contrarian, my approach does not rely on autumn and winter as the best metaphor for what’s going on here.  First of all, it’s regrettable to see not a few religious houses face the wrecking ball or be repurposed into condos or offices.  At the same time it’s important to recall that God never did deals with buildings, nor did God swear eternal covenants with corporations.  No, God did deals with the people who lived in those buildings, and so the true legacy of any bona fide religious community will never be real esate.

That leads to a second point.  As near as I can parse it out, the whole point of religious life was and remains the search for God.  If so, one should expect to find the authentic legacy of any community in the lives and ideals of the people who comprise it.  Further, if they are worth their salt, you should detect trace elements of any spiritual vitality in the people whom they’ve served.

imageFrom this vantage, the only legacy that counts is a spiritual one, and who really knows how extensive that might be?  Who can possibly count the people whom those communities have nourished, either directly or indirectly?  Who can measure the spiritual vitality that has been stirred by their lives of prayer and service?  To no one’s surprise, there is as yet no instrument to measure this, so we may be well-advised to leave the evaluation to God, while we plow on.

That leads us to consider the practical course of action that we must take.  First off, religious should not be so foolish as to think they are alone in their anxiety about the future.  Everyone shares in building a life and then the prospect of letting go.  Everyone shares in the pursuit of daily bread, in the broadest sense of the term.  And God gives us all the mental acumen to do the best we can as we face life’s challenges.

imageBut there is also the spiritual reality to consider, and again we all confront it in one way or another.  In the Gospel Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to the sower who flung seed far and wide.  Given the generosity of God and the invitation we each receive, God expects from each of us some minimum of response and some sort of fruit.  And if by chance we haven’t a clue to the sort of fruit we will yield, that’s okay.  God will see to the harvest, and God will harvest a crop that we can scarcely imagine.

Meanwhile, what are we supposed to do as we await the harvest?  Well, it occurs to me that whether we might live in lively and vital monasteries or in houses that are aging gracefully into oblivion, the point of it all never loses its significance.  To live is Christ; and if we choose to live in Christ, then all else is secondary.

And there’s lots of precedent for this.  To take but one example, the martyrs asked for nothing and must have looked like absolute fools to many of their neighbors.  Mother Theresa must have seemed like someone doing a dead-end job.  And countless others continue to do the work of God, expecting little or nothing in return.  But the irony is that they enjoy life in abundance, even now.  What it will be like in eternity is in God’s hands.  But that will be God’s surprise for us.  And surprise us, God certainly will!


+On October 15th I was in Edina, MN, to attend a reception in support of the McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship at Saint John’s University.  It was a pleasure to visit with many friends and former students, including one young couple whose wedding I witnessed a year ago, and another couple whose wedding I witnessed twenty-four years ago.  Both couples are still happily married!

+On October 16th I spoke to the faculty and staff of Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, MN.

+During the past week we’ve enjoyed the peak of our fall colors at Saint John’s.  We’d almost given up hope when an early burst of color seemed to fizzle.  But this week the colors popped into focus, and maples, oaks, larch and other trees and shrubs made for an end-of-season show.  For images of this, visit the gallery at Saint John’s: fall color.

image+About a week ago my iPad rebelled and refused to accept any more pictures.  With over 6,500 photos stored away, I realized it was at capacity and it was now time to do something.  So I began to organize galleries for this blog, with the generous assistance of one of my colleagues.  On the tab marked Galleries, at the top of this post, you will be able to access the beginnings of this work.  For a sample, you might review the gallery on Saint Mary’s Abbey in York.  It fits well with the theme of this post.

imagePilgrimage: A Metaphor for Church

She wasn’t the sort of pilgrim who shows up at shrines like Lourdes or Fatima.  For one thing, she had elected to walk to Santiago Compostela.  For another, she definitely looked like she’d walked.  I’m sure a quick rummage through her back-pack would bear this out.  Fifty miles earlier she must have run out of freshly-starched and ironed blouses; and her last visit to the day spa had to have been at least a hundred miles ago.

On the other hand, she was sturdy, determined and friendly.  Perhaps that was a reflection of the Bavarian blood that coursed through her veins.  And she was also a mavarick.  Unlike everyone else who hikes or bikes or skate-boards to Santiago, she had begun her trek in Seville, far away in the south of Spain.  Was that even legal?  I wondered.  Is there even a hiking path for pilgrims from Seville?  Probably not.  Worse still, was she even a believer?  I shuddered to think.

Eventually you have to ask whether they let just anybody come to Santiago.  And the answer is a resounding “Apparently so.”  The fact that you can walk or bike to the shrine of Saint James means that quality control for pilgrims is largely absent.  At Fatima and Lourdes most people arrive pre-selected, pre-sorted, and in neatly overpacked planes and trains;  and it shows in the streets.  In Santiago people show up when they show up, and locals  have long since ceased to stare at what the cats have just dragged in.  As a result, Santiago still has the feel of the medieval Wild West.  That makes it, in my humble opinion, the most interesting pilgrimage destination in Europe, hands down.

imageThat mix of people of all shapes and sizes and classes and ethnic groups is what has made Santiago such a fascinating place for centuries on end.  What also fascinates is the movitation that has driven people there.  They’ve come to repent of sins great and small.  They’ve come out of curiosity.  They’ve been out to seek adventure.  And perhaps they’ve come to escape.  But above all, they still come to discover something about themselves; and for that reason the hike to Santiago is as important as the arrival.  A lot happens en route.  Thoughts are thought.  Friendships are made.  And lives are discovered.  As such, it’s a destination that encourages dreamers and searchers.

imageIf that’s what makes the road to Santiago such a vibrant place, that’s also what unnerves more organized people like myself.  I admit that I like my world tidy, and I dare say that I prefer the Church to be the same way.  So it is a bit off-putting that God keeps calling such a rag-tag mixture of people on pilgrimage to Santiago.  Couldn’t it be just a little more stately and serene?  I could only hope so, and for that I have prayed on occasion.

It’s in this vein that Jesus could easily have used Santiago as a parable of what he would like his Church to be.  Time and again Jesus indicated that he intended to invite everyone to the wedding feast.  In more than one parable the lord sent servants to gather people from the byways and crossroads, and in some cases they compelled the guests to take the seats that the preferred guests had earlier refused.

That meant that the unsavory and the less-than-perfectly-mannered would occupy places of honor — alongside the respectable.  That meant lots of surprises for everybody when they gathered to celebrate at the feast.  And for some it was sheer joy; while for a few others it had to be socially awkward, at best.

imageIn the current synod of bishops in Rome there has been some discussion about language, and more precisely, the appropriate words to describe a Church that includes all sorts of people at all sorts of stages in their spiritual journey.  To my mind pilgrimage is one of those words, because it describes people on the move.  They are people who may be on pilgrimage together, but as in any pilgrim group there are those who occasionally stray from the path.  Some stumble and fall.  Some get lost or sidetracked for a while.  But with minds fixed on the goal, they make progress that is unique to each.  Eventually, in God’s good time, God gathers them in, one pilgrim at a time.

If God allows people to make progress on their journey at their own pace, God also invites an infinite variety of people to take part in the journey.  Here’s where, yet again, I find myself uncomfortable with God’s approach.  I have to admit that there are more than a few times when I regret God’s indiscriminate taste in friends.  Why couldn’t God call a better sort of person to be part of the pilgrimage?  Why does God have to call people who clearly should not have been on the invitation list?

imageIf all this seems a little bit theoretical, it’s important to recall that Jesus meant his parables not just for other people, but for you and me as well.  In that light, I went back to consider the road-weary young woman who had hiked from Seville.  By a lot of people’s standards, and probably by my own as well, she did not deserve a place in the sanctuary in Santiago.  Bettter that she stand nearer the door, for a variety of reasons.

But then it recently dawned on me that perhaps God’s standards might differ rather significantly from my own.  Might God prefer the person who had walked two hundred miles to pray, versus the pilgrim who came by bus?  Might God prefer to hang out with the person who carried a backpack full of dirty clothes, instead of the monk with a bag of clean laundry?  I’m hoping God has better sense than that.  But given God’s taste in pilgrims, I think I had best prepare myself for a few surprises at the heavenly banquet.  After all, the joke would certainly be on me to meet people who were surprised to see me there.


+On October 8th I attended a reception for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University, held at the Museum of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, CT.  Currently there is a wonderful exhibit of original folios from The Saint John’s Bible at the Museum.

+On the morning of October 8th I had the opportunity to visit Saint Thomas More Chapel and the Catholic Center at Yale University.  For three years during my PhD studies I was privileged to live there and work as a student-priest chaplain.  The new addition to the Center is an over-the-top facility.

+On October 10th-12th I gave a retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta.  We met at the conference center at Mundelein Seminary, the archdiocesan seminary of Chicago.

+On October 8th our novice-confrere Brother Bradford successfully defended his PhD dissertation at Boston College.  In the audience was our confrere Fr. Michael Hahn, who has just begun his PhD studies in the same department at Boston College.

image+Given my frequent involvement in activities of the Order of Malta, one reader asked me to comment on the structure of the Order.  The Grand Master, Frá Matthew Festing, a Knight of Justice who takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, is the head of the Order.  He is both head of state, since the Order has governmental status; and he is the head of the Order of Malta as a religious order in the Catholic Church.  He is assisted in the work of administration by the Sovereign Council, which acts as a cross between a cabinet and a senate.  The Prelate of the Order oversees the work of the chaplains as well as the spiritual life of all the members of the Order.  Finally, the Cardinal Patron of the Order acts as a liaison between the Order and the Vatican.  His role is to promote the interests of the Order at the Vatican.

image+While perusing photos I’ve taken over the years, I recalled a statue of Saint James, perched on the wall of a building in Amsterdam.  That picture, along with other examples of building art in Amsterdam, are included in today’s post.  These little bits adorn the nooks and crannies of Amsterdam, and together with the canals and bridges they help to make Amsterdam one of the most charming cities in Europe.  I also like Amsterdam because it’s one city where smoked herring is available on so many street corners.

imageThe Miracle of Ordinary Life

Miracles have a long and close association with sanctity in the Catholic tradition.  A lot of this rests on the Gospel accounts of Jesus, where his miracles were a sign that the Spirit of God had come to rest on him.  He was the one in whom the Father was well-pleased.

In turn the Spirit came to rest on the apostles, and in the name of Jesus they too worked wonders.  Their disciples did the same, as have a parade of holy women and men ever since.  But throughout all this, it has been the character of their lives that’s mattered most, while miracles have tended to serve as icing on the cake.

For well over a thousand years this situation prevailed, until a few reformers realized the need for some quality control.  It was nice that local communities had spontaneously acclaimed the sanctity of their favorite sons and daughters, but there’s no denying that over time a few rotten apples had worked their way into the saintly barrel.  A process of canonization finally came into place, and on the checklist of requirements were miracles.  These countered the run-away enthusiasm of Chambers of Commerce across medieval Europe, and this is the process we’ve worked with pretty much ever since.

imageGiven all that, Saint Benedict was lucky to have crossed the finish line when he did.  It didn’t hurt his cause that his major champion was Pope Gregory I, who wrote in the late 500′s.  Even then it was good to have a papal stamp of approval.  But it helped even more when we recognize that Benedict was fortunate to live in an era when standards for the miraculous were very different from our own.

Take, for example, the very first miracle that Gregory attributed to Benedict.  The young aristocrat had just left off his studies in Rome and had begun to explore what religious life might mean for him.  Since Benedict took with him his housekeeper, we have to assume that he’d yet to reach the zenith of worldly detachment.  One day this servant borrowed a tray from the neighbors, only to have it fall from the table and break in half.  She was distraught, and her flood of tears drew Benedict’s pity.  So he prayed, and soon enough the tray was made whole — presumably better than new.

imageFor his efforts, Benedict got some great local publicity, and eventually someone had the presence of mind to hang the tray in the neighborhood church.  It was still hanging there in Gregory’s day, despite the chaos of the Lombard invasions.  This is likely the first place where Gregory and I part company in our concepts of the miraculous.  For Gregory the miracle may very well have consisted in the mending of the platter.  For me the miracle is that it survived the Lombards.

There was no Vatican office on canonization in Pope Gregory’s day; and had there been it’s unlikely even then that the mending of a plate would count for much of anything.   Even less so today.  If a group of monks were to unpack that miracle in front of the commission members, they’d likely be hooted out of the conference room.  “How’d you get by the receptionist with nonsense like that?  Now get out of here, and don’t come back until you have a miracle that’s worth our while.”  Parenthetically, that explains why there are so few Benedictines promoting Benedictine candidates for sainthood these days.  At best, we fix plates, and we’ll even do windows.  But don’t ask us to part the Red Sea.  Our miracles have always been of the more pedestrian sort.

imageIt’s only in this context that we can understand Gregory’s point.  This miracle really had nothing to do with mending a platter, because it had everything to do with sensitivity to a suffering soul.  In a society in which nobles scarcely noticed the existence of servants, Benedict couldn’t help but empathize with the deep distress of his fellow human being.  Her suffering mattered to him, regardless of their relative social standing.  That’s the miracle that Gregory would have his reader take away from this episode.   And that’s the lesson everyone remembered as they gazed on the platter hanging in the church.

imageMiracles come in all shapes and sizes and levels of drama.  The Bible is replete with them.  The lives of the saints are chock full of them.  But that doesn’t mean that you and I will never see one.  In fact, we experience the miraculous nearly every day, whether we notice it or not.  At the very least we experience the miraculous in our very existence and in the love of friend and neighbor.  Beyond that, for not a few of us just getting through the day is miracle enough.

So let’s not sell ourselves short on the miraculous.  If Pope Gregory can label Benedict’s regard for his servant a miracle, then chances are you and I are going to experience some sort of miracle before the day is done.  That miracle may not get us past the receptionist at the Vatican office of canonization.  But it will give us a glimpse of the face of God.  And we shouldn’t be surprised in the least.  After all, on any given day even God’s not all that fired up about theatrics.  Even God prefers to show up in the bits of ordinary life.


+On October 1st I concelebrated at the funeral of Fr. Richard Walz, a priest of the Diocese of Saint Cloud.  The funeral was held at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Saint Cloud.  Fr. Walz had been a student of mine in seminary, and subsequent to that he had worked at the diocesan mission in Venezuela and at parishes in Saint Cloud.  Before seminary he had served in the army in Vietnam, and while a priest in Venezuela he adopted two children.  He had an abbreviated but full life, and children and grandchildren attended the funeral, which was spiced with English and Spanish.

+On October 3rd and 4th I attended the festivities of Homecoming at Saint John’s University.  On Saturday just shy of 10,000 attended the football game against Hamline University.  Happily, the good guys won, and everyone had a good time.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate the campus this weekend.

image+As I mentioned in last week’s post, I had the opportunity to be home for my mother’s 90th birthday in Edmond, OK.  With festivities over, we had the chance to visit and to catch up on events at home.  Two stories topped the list, as far as I was concerned.

First, I got to watch as my sister fed all the neighborhood rabbits, night after night.  She had grown fed up as they kept nibbling at her flowers, so she now dazzles them with a nightly array of fresh carrots, lettuce and oats.  The neighbors have yet to catch on, and she has remained silent when they ask about whether she too has trouble with the voracious bunnies.

imageFirst prize went to the story about the summer visit of the insurance adjuster.  She had come to check the roof for hail damage.  Unfortunately, while rooting around in the attic, she crashed through the ceiling into the living room.  Though she was unhurt, she cried and cried anyway.  What do you tell the home office in a situation like that?

Life in the monastery can seem so tame by comparison.


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