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image“Make Straight the Way of The Lord” — John the Baptist

“Eric, look out the window!”

The voice pierced the silence of the house as I sat reading in another room.  But curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the blinds.  And there it was: a huge truck wedged into an impossibly tight cul-de-sac.  Truly this qualified as one of  those things you don’t see every day.

It took nearly two hours for the driver to extricate himself and the truck, but not before he had done some serious damage.  For one thing, he tore up a major chunk of someone’s lawn, and he chewed up the sprinkler system for good measure.  He also grazed a mailbox, sheered off part of a hedge and some branches in a tree, crumbled the pavers in a driveway and clipped off a standing pipe.  All in all it was great entertainment, unless you were the owner of the lawn or the driver.  That poor driver sweat bullets the entire time, and it was no comfort to him that he had kept us amused for half the morning.  To be honest, I thought it was a scream; but ultimately I had to feel sorry for him.  There but for the grace of God — and a B+ in high school geometry — went I.

imageLeft unanswered was one simple question.  Why would a perfectly sane and seasoned driver ignore warnings and steer an extra-long rig filled with cars into a cul-de-sac that was impossibly small to manage?  There was no way on earth he could make that turn.  But he must have thought he could defy the laws of geometry by will-power alone.  He couldn’t, of course, and for his hubris he paid a hefty price.

Why any of us do stupid and irrational things is hard to understand.  Perhaps it stems from the overweening self-confidence that assures us we can do all things.  Perhaps we think we are exempt from the rules that govern normal society.  Or perhaps it boils down to the pride that says the laws of common sense exist for others but not for me.  I’m above all that, after all.  I am the center of the  universe and am bound by no constraints.

imageIn my personal journal of wonders, this qualified as one of the “great moments in trucking history,” and its timeliness could not have been better.  On the Third Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps onto the stage, and the question in everyone’s mind is his identity.  Who is he?  What has he come to do?  Is he the savior, or is there somebody else?

In short order John provides the answers.  His work points to another who is yet to come.  Life is not about him, but his life does have meaning because with his finger he points to God who is walking in their midst.  And, he concludes, “make straight the path to the Lord.”  That, by the way, was the advice the neighbors had given the truck-driver.  “Go straight down the this boulevard and stop.  But don’t you dare turn right into the street with the cul-de-sac.”

John the Baptist points to a fundamental choice we all have to make.  On the one hand the gravitational pull to an egocentric life is almost irresistible.   But the sooner we make room in our lives for other people, the better off we’ll be.  The sooner we allow God to tip-toe into our lives, the more quickly our lives begin to fill with wonder and beauty.  And the sooner we look for the direct path to God, the less likely we’ll be to wander off onto the byway and into the impossible cul-de-sac.

imageThe Bible is replete with stories of people who found themselves lost in  the desert, or built their houses on sand, or ignored the voice of God whispering in their ear.  Common to them all was the assumption that they did not need God.  God could add little value to their lives.  God was for the weak, but not for the strong and independent.  But soon enough they all discovered that they were not masters of the universe, despite the self-flattery that tickled their ears.

Basically that’s what John the Baptist said to his crowds, and it’s what he says to us as well.  We can try to hack our own path through the jungle of life, or cut corners through somebody else’s life, but those lead metaphorically and literally to some dead-end.  But if, on the other hand, we recognize our kinship with our neighbor and with God, we might very well find that the path to God is a lot easier than we thought.  If we can hear the voice of God speaking through John the Baptist, it’s also possible to hear God in our neighbor, telling us to take the high road.

We may get side-tracked now and again, but with the help of God and the support of our friends, we’ll never get stuck in a cul-de-sac.

imageNotes

+On Sunday afternoon, December 14th, the abbey hosted our Latino neighbors from parishes from around central Minnesota, in celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Abbot John presided at the Mass.

+There are a variety of ways to celebrate Advent, and across Europe the Christmas Market is among the most visible.  Little villages of shops sprout up in town squares, selling everything from food to gifts to Christmas decorations.  What makes them particularly pleasant is the unhurried nature of these gatherings.  Entire families go and take their time to browse, eat, and visit with neighbors and friends.  In this gallery I’ve provided photos that I took at a particularly impressive Christmas Market in Vienna, in the square that fronts the Town Hall.  It’s likely the biggest and best in the city, but it has competition in many other neighborhoods.

+In addition to the three photos of the truck in the cul-de-sac, I’ve included two that allow a glimpse into the festive character of Vienna in the Advent season.  Of course they have no monopoly on decorations, but in this season of Advent the center of the city is especially bright.  It helps them pull through the longest and darkest days of the year.  After New Year spring may not be just around the corner, but at least the days begin to lengthen.

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imageThe Sacred is in the Details

Every now and again even monasteries must tend to the little things in the daily routine.  As any astute observer of human nature can tell you, the devil is always in the details; and left untreated for long enough, little things morph into the big deals that come back to haunt us.

In that spirit the abbot posted a note last week, listing three appointments to responsibility within the community.  For the next six months Fr. Bob will be acting choirmaster, while the current monk-choirmaster is away on sabbatical.  Second, Brother Paul-Vincent will work with monks when they read or lead the prayers at the liturgy of the hours.  And rounding out the triad, Fr. J.P. will serve as the “in-house pronunciation guide.”

The abbot didn’t have to justify any of this, but he hinted at its importance anyway.  For one thing, he noted, we simply couldn’t get by for six months without a choirmaster.  As for the quality of our public reading, most of us could always do a bit — or in a few cases a lot — better.  We’ve come a long way since the 12th century, when Saint Bernard could preach to and be heard by 10,000 people.  Today, with the marvels of modern technology, we’re lucky to hear anything at all.  And as for proper pronunciation, perfection is always something for which to strive, but its achievement can be a mixed blessing.  Perfection would certainly better the tone of our prayer, but could we live with the trade-off?  Over the years we’ve compiled a short list of celebrated howlers and bloopers made by unprepared readers.  Could we live without that mirth?  There’s something to be said for spontaneous and pure laughter, even at prayer.  So I’m not sure we’re quite ready to sacrifice all that.

imageSo what does all this mean in practice?  Well, on the day of the note-posting, Fr. Bob spoke to the community about the quality of our singing and our cadence in the recitation of the Psalms.  He opened with the observation that while it’s true that individually we are each great singers, we can’t always say that about some of the monks sitting on either side of us.  (Mirth.)  He didn’t reveal the names on his list, “because we all know who they are.”  (More mirth.)

Compounding that, there are monks who are never happy with the pace, and so they take it upon themselves to speed things up or slow things down.  Innocent parties who prefer to go with the flow find themselves caught in the middle, not quite knowing how to handle the situation.  And then there’s the larger issue of our collective recitation.  The monks on the abbot’s side of the choir invariably sing too fast, while those on the prior’s side (my side, incidentally), tend to keep to a perfect pace.  How does a good choirmaster deal with these and a myriad other issues?  “Gently,” says Fr. Bob in more candid moments.

imagePublic reading is something even Saint Benedict found to be a problem, and he warned that “not just anybody should take up the book and read.”  I agree totally with that, and to that end I long ago compiled a list of monks who should not read in public, ever.  I’m sure most every monk would concur with my selections; but since the abbot is hesitant to go that far, he promises help to those who need it.  In brief, he wrote, if someone’s reading is “too fast, to slow, too soft, too anything,” then they can expect a helpful visit from Br. Paul-Vincent.

I have to confess that the appointment of the “in-house pronunciation guide” took me by surprise, and not because we don’t need such a person.  We most definitely do.  For one thing, we have a number of monks for whom English is a second language.  Then there are the monks for whom English is not a second language.  For years I’ve pointed out that Sweden and Minnesota are alike in so many ways, save that in Sweden everybody speaks better English.  So never underestimate our capacity for improvement when it comes to our public reading.  Still, Fr. J.P.’s appointment leaves unfilled the post of “out-house pronunciation guide.”  We’ve never had such an official, but perhaps the abbot anticipates the spread of potty-mouth English in years to come.  It’s best to be prepared, I suppose.

imageOne can argue that there are enough problems in the world and in the monastery, and we shouldn’t nitpick over this sort of stuff.  True enough.  One could also argue that we should be grateful that people bother to show up for prayer at all, and leave them in peace.  And that too is true enough.  But Saint Benedict suggests that everything we do has a sacred character, and anything worth doing is worth doing well.  And so it is that we need to pay attention to the little things, and not just because they can morph into big problems when we neglect them.  Because it’s also true that the little things, done well, become the foundation for a life well lived.

It seems to me that whether you live in a monastery or not, this principle applies.  So if we want the world to be a better place, the place to begin is with ourselves.  And if we start there, the best approach is to reach for the low-hanging fruit.  Focus on the least of things and go from there.  That, it seems to me, is how we develop good friendships, good marriages, and good relationships with the Lord.  Sure, it’s safe to say that other people, and even the Lord, are willing to overlook and even forgive a lot.  But why test their patience?  Why not bring out the best in ourselves each and every day?  It can only help, I think.

It’s safe to say that choir practice and attention to reading will always be remedial actions.  Twenty years from now a new abbot will post a list of new appointees who will tend to these same old challenges.  But such is life for everyone.  It’s why we get up each day to begin life anew.  It’s why we work for improvement and pray for continued growth.  It’s what makes life such an adventure as together we search for the Lord.

imageNotes

+On December 4th and 5th I attended meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On December 6th Bishop Donald Ketler visited the Abbey and ordained Brother Nickolas Kleespie to the diaconate.  This coming semester Brother Nickolas will work as deacon in Saint Joseph Parish, in Saint Joseph, MN.  For those unfamiliar with the geography of central Minnesota, this is three miles from the abbey, and monks from the abbey have staffed this parish forever.

+In the days following Thanksgiving the decorating crew swung into action, putting up greens and ornaments all over the place.  Pride of place belongs to The Great Hall, where the photos in today’s post were taken.  Their preparations culminated in a Christmas concert on December 5th.  But on the 4th the Trustees were privileged to hear a private concert, as student choirs rehearsed for performances on campus and at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, on December 6th.

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imageBe Watchful.  Be Alert.

You have to wonder what in the world the disciples were doing when Jesus pushed them to “be watchful.  Be alert.”  (Mark 13: 33).  Had they dozed off during one of his parables?  Had their minds wandered?  Did they assume that, as the ultimate insiders, there was nothing more to learn?  We’ll never know.  But I’m guessing they’d grown a little smug and thought they had nothing to worry about.  Life with Jesus was good.

Whether these words rattled them or not, we’ll also never know.  But one thing seems clear.  This was not an invitation to sit back, relax, and coast through life.  Jesus expected a little more out of them than waiting around for their turn to sit at his right in the kingdom.

What Jesus wanted from his apostles matters to us as well, since this gospel passage inaugurates the season of Advent.  And therein is a dilemma.  Is Jesus trying to scare us to death with talk about burglars breaking in when we least expect them?  Is he trying to make us paranoid with the thought that the loss of everything dear to us is just around the next corner?  Or does he recommend that his disciples and we dial down on the alarmism, but open our minds just a tad to what is going on around us?  It strikes me that we have two options here.  We can hit the panic button, or we can buckle down and tend to the quest of becoming Christian.

imageA popular stereotype of monks is that we are a dour and depressing lot.  People assume that we must worry constantly about our salvation, and that best explains why we spend all that time in church.  And Saint Benedict doesn’t help our public image when he tells  his monks to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  Who wouldn’t panic at the thought that today may see the end of everything.  I know I’d be anxious as heck at the thought that by nightfall I would pack it all in and face the grim reaper.

Most monks I know simply can’t and won’t live that way.  None of us can sustain that sort of emotional intensity for very long, because we’d either despair or go crazy.  On top of that, confreres who are like that are tough to live with.  That’s why we usually encourage them to search for God someplace else.  Life has enough difficulty without somebody constantly telling us that it’s going to hell in a hand-basket.

With all due respect, neither Jesus nor Saint Benedict were trying to have a little fun at our expense.  They did not intend to cry wolf and scare the daylights out of us, hoping to induce radical change in our behavior.  Instead, they both hoped we’d keep on searching for God, day in and day out.  No matter how boring it might seem.

imageThis point may be tough to tease out, but I think it goes something like this.  For those who expect salvation to be a personal big-bang moment, when God hits us on the head, they’re generally disappointed with the results.  Even Saint Paul, and even Martin Luther, had to deal with the realities of a long life after they fell from their horses.  Life proved too long to put all their eggs in the basket of a split-second conversion experience.  Life went on, and on.  And unlike so many other things for which life is too short, when it comes to the search for God, one life is more than long enough.  It’s a relationship that waxes and wanes through the years.  And like a marriage or a friendship, it’s something that requires regular investment.

So if Advent is an invitation to buckle down and be about our Father’s business, what exactly should we do?  Well, like New Year’s or Lent, one or two resolutions can be enough to nourish our relationship, at least for this interlude in our lives.  And as this passage from the Gospel of Mark suggests, our focus should be on the Lord in our midst.

imageOn the assumption that we should keep our eyes peeled to see Christ where we least expect him, I’ve decided to address one of my many pet peeves where my vision could use some improvement.  I know this sounds a little jaded, but one peeve results from years of experience with taxi drivers in New York.  If ever again a driver asks how to get where I hope to go (as two of them did recently), I’ve decided to take the question philosophically rather than literally.  “Let’s pray about this together, and I’m sure we’ll find the way.”  That’s definitely better than what I said two weeks ago, and on a few other occasions as well.  And the benefits of this approach?  I lower my blood pressure, and the driver is transformed before my very eyes.  He’s no longer the thief in the night, trying to lead me on a long and expensive diversion.  Instead, I realize that maybe he’s only trying to do the best he can.  In such a person it may be tough to see Christ at first.  But if you squint, it’s a real revelation when you finally spy Christ at the wheel of your taxi.

That, I submit, is the invitation Jesus puts to us in Advent.  This is no time to panic because we’ve not seen his face for ages.  Rather, it’s a few weeks when we buckle down and focus on someone who’s been there all along.  And so, if there are people on your list in whom you least expect to find the Lord, be watchful, and be alert.  The Lord may have been in them all along.  What a surprise to realize that — all this time — we’ve be gazing on the image of God.

imageNotes

+The monks of Saint John’s celebrated Thanksgiving with the customary festive meal.  Unlike in past years, however, the monks did everything, including the preparation of the refectory, the cooking, and the clean-up.  This gave the regular kitchen staff the day off, though from them it required an act of faith that we would not destroy the kitchen in their absence.  Actually, we are blessed to have several monks who have accomplished skills in the kitchen, and the meal was a great success.  At the end of the day the kitchen was in mint condition, much to everyone’s relief.

+On November 29th the University football team played its second game in the Division III national play-offs.  Sadly, they lost to Wartburg College, thus ending the season.  It was a great season though, and the final loss did come with a silver lining:  no more games in the cold of winter.  The winner gets to go on and freeze another day.

image+Over Thanksgiving I finished reading a book that I’d worked on for a while: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2013.)  As a medieval historian I found the narrative immensely interesting, as Heather traces the evolution of a new empire in the West and the development of the papacy from the 5th to the 12th centuries.  I had read a favorable review of it in The Wall Street Journal, which suggested its accessibility to the general reader.  It is accessible, but the novice historian will find the array of names of barbarian chiefs and kings bewildering.  The popes under discussion are slightly more familiar.  This is a terrific book for its narrative of how the Church and empire in western Europe became what it became.

+The prophet Isaiah shows up early in the readings for Advent, and the first photo in today’s post is of “Saint Isaiah”, from Oliva Cathedral in Gdansk, Poland.  The other photos are from the cathedral in Metz, France, which was near the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.

+In the post of 24 November I included a gallery of images of the Abbey church.  This week I’ve included selected photos of the Abbey church in use.

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imageCelebrate Thanksgiving Every Day

It would be nice to celebrate Thanksgiving more often than once a year.  Actually, we wouldn’t need to do the entire thing, because major chunks of the feast seem destined to be with us for all time.  We already have a glut of football for months on end.  Nor do we need to take to the next level our indulgence in food.  As for shopping, I’ll admit that an entire season devoted to it is a welcome relief from endless political campaigns.  But my own sense is that we don’t really need much encouragement in that department, though you’d never know it from all the advertising.

However, what I think we could use more of is the “giving thanks” part.  It’s that ever-so-brief ritual in the holiday when we acknowledge our debt to somebody other than ourselves.  It’s the slice of the Thanksgiving  holiday that is edging closer to extinction; and that, I think, is a shame.

imageI would submit that giving thanks gets shorter and shorter shrift these days, and there’s lots of reasons why.  For one thing, it’s not so easy any more to see the connection between people’s toil and our own life. When goods travel thousands of miles piled up on a huge container ship, it’s often tough to know where our stuff comes from, much less figure out who made it.  And in an era of massive and anonymous production, we lose track of whose creative talent makes all this possible.  We just go to the big-box stores and expect it all to be there.  After a while it becomes so easy to take it all for granted.

Yet another impediment to heart-felt thanksgiving is a core value in our own culture.  We live in a society that prizes independence and personal initiative, and we lionize the self-made person.  I for one would prefer not to live under some other arrangement, but there’s a price to pay for all of this.  It’s very easy to toy with the idea that I earned all this myself and owe no debt to anyone for it.  Never mind the creativity and toil that so many other self-starters invested to make possible my own independent life.  No, it’s pretty much me and me alone who made me who I am today.  So goes the conventional wisdom, and that’s a dead end.

imageIn a monastery, as in any community for that matter, you simply cannot run the risk of reserving thanksgiving to one prayer at one meal a year.  Thanksgiving has to be woven through the entire fabric of community, or you end up with a bunch of rugged individualists who see no debt to or dependence upon anybody else.  Perhaps that’s why it never occurred to Saint Benedict to schedule a special feast of thanksgiving in the monastic calendar.  He presumed that giving thanks had to permeate the entire regimen of the monastery.

The fact is, instances of thanksgiving are sprinkled generously through the monastic day, so much so that we tend to overlook them.  Our prayers are only the most obvious place where we find them, and  meal prayers come to mind most quickly.  But the theme of thanksgiving runs through the whole of the liturgy of the hours, and many of the Psalms are specifically prayers of thanksgiving.  Likewise in our petitions we pray regularly for “those who do good to us,” simply because their generosity makes our lives together possible.

imageBut certainly not the least important act of thanksgiving is our appreciation for the work and talents of others.  As I’ve matured I’ve become increasingly appreciative of what my brothers do to enhance our life in the monastery.  At the very least, their gifts mean that I don’t have to do everything myself. At best, I realize that they do so many things far better than I, given the meager state of my own talents.  For their sakes and mine, not only do I have to be grateful to them, but I am also obliged to give them my thanks every now and again.

In Benedict’s thinking, thanksgiving is more than acknowledging a debt to others — and to God — for what they have done.  Something more dynamic is at work here, as Benedict suggests in his Prologue to the Rule.  There comes a moment, after all this work and prayer and life together, when a monk finally realizes that something astounding has been going on, just beneath the surface and often beyond our notice.  And about this moment of insight Benedict has this to say: “These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds;  they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them.  They praise the Lord working in them….”

imageThanksgiving then is a hugely important act, and because it is we can’t reserve it to just one meal a year.  In giving thanks we confess the abundance of goodness around us, and we recognize the power of God stirring not only in our neighbor but deep within ourselves.  How extraordinary that God would be so mindful of us.  And if God takes the time to do great things in us each day, then why would we not want to give thanks, each and ever day?

imageNotes

+On November 17th I presided and preached at a Mass for the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University.  You can access the sermon, Leading People to Jesus, in the section marked Presentations.

+On November 21st I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY.

+Last week the weather and the success of our football team conspired to make necessary a unique cooperative venture.  This fall our football team won the conference title, meaning that they would play their first play-off game at home this past Saturday.  With 8,000+ visitors expected, somehow we had to move fourteen inches of snow from the seats in the stadium and off the field.  A great team of people, including a few monks, accomplished the feat.  Saint John’s went on to beat the College of Saint Scholastica from Duluth, securing a victory over a fellow Benedictine college and a place in the next round of the play-offs.

image+A recent book on the abbey church has been published by University of Minnesota Press.  This fall author Victoria Young has made several appearances on campus, recounting the research that helped her to produce Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space.  For those unfamiliar with the architecture of the abbey church, I have put together a gallery of photos that illustrates both the vastness of the building and the attention to detail that is its hallmark.

+I have finally owned up to the fact that winter is here to stay, as the pictures in today’s post suggest.  However, we in Minnesota lost the right to feel sorry for ourselves when Buffalo accumulated more inches of snow than anyone could measure.  I have since realized that Buffalo’s mission statement includes a provision to make Minnesota’s weather seem benign.

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.

imageNotes

+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.

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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.

imageNotes

+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.

imageNotes

+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.

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