imageMy Pet Peeve

We all have our pet peeves, and the term is an apt description.  To an item they tend to be about inconsequential things, and they reveal our capacity to be small-minded.  And as much as we  hate to admit it, most pet peeves are the property of a single owner.  It’s just as well, then, that most people don’t care about my private causes, since big fights and wars start when too many people care passionately about the same picky little stuff.

As a human being, I have a warehouse filled with pet peeves, but a few of those contained therein are peculiar to a monk and a priest.  These are the ones that relate to liturgy, and for years the topper for me was that space in the Eucharist that comes between the Lord’s Prayer and the congregation’s response:  “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours….”  Free-wheeling celebrants have taken this interlude as a license to go free-range and wax eloquent about a wide variety of causes and concerns and hopes and aspirations.  To give them their due, I suppose they’ve meant to sound spontaneous and sincere, but it’s always sounded canned to me.

imageEventually such celebrants will alight back on earth and slide seamlessly into the conclusion: “as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”  That is the the cue for the congregation to chime in with its response.  But in my pre-ordination days I swore that someday I’d end that flight of fancy with these words: “As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the end of this prayer.”  That would show everybody, I thought.  Then I realized that all it would do is reveal my own eccentricity.  So I’ve never done it.  But I still might, someday.

I drag this pet peeve of mine out of storage because the other day a friend of mine asked me about chapter 20 in The Rule of Saint Benedict.  This is the section in which Benedict says we should “lay our petitions before The Lord…with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.”  A bit later he continues: “Prayer should therefore be short and pure…,” and then he concludes that “in community…prayer should always be brief; and when the superior gives the signal, all should rise together.”  Or to translate this into the vernacular, when people pray they should not rattle on in a flood of words.  Say to God what’s on your mind, and then give God a chance to get a word in edgewise.  And then be done with it.

imageWhen I reread this chapter, I realized that Saint Benedict certainly had his roster of pet peeves too, and prayer had made the list.  For one thing, he encouraged an economy of words, because simplicity and the direct approach to God generally are the best course when it comes to private prayer.  Anything beyond that, and a monk will run the risk of joining the chorus of Pharisees, whose primary audience when it came to prayer was their neighbors, rather than God.

As for community prayer, sticking to the text was an ideal form of humility for Saint Benedict.  For one thing, you join your brothers in solidarity of purpose.  You’re one with them and just like the best and least of them.  Beyond that, prolonging the whole exercise can translate into an attempt to hang out your personal holiness for all to see.  At least that seems to be part of the caution that Benedict gives here.

In all the essays on prayer that I’ve run across, I’ve not really seen much of anything about God’s perspective on this.  I know from the Gospels that God no longer accepts animal sacrifice, and that God generally prefers a pure heart instead.  But what exactly does God want to hear when we pray?

imageWell, I’m not God, and I’m not about to presume to plant myself in God’s shoes; but I figure that God would  be satisfied with some variation of The Golden Rule.  God may very well be content with a chat much like the ones that we have with our family and friends — complete with praise, questions, complaints and all.

For the moment, let’s assume that God’s as busy as the rest of us.  Still, it’s important to realize that as long as we’ve got time to talk, God’s got time to listen.  Second, it doesn’t matter to God that we don’t always know what we want when we begin to pray.  That’s the whole point of conversation, and it should be one of the reasons we call God up in the first place.  And finally, God doesn’t mind it at all if we don’t ask for anything.  If the truth be told, God probably appreciates the occasional call when we have no ulterior motive hidden behind all of our pleasantries about God’s greatness.

That may very well reflect Benedict’s views on prayer.  Prayer should be honest and pure, as if you were talking with a friend or family member.  Such an approach avoids the pretense that so irritated Benedict, and it probably saves everybody a lot of time.


+This was a very busy week, but somehow I muddled through it all with minimal wear and tear.

+On September 8th I said Mass for Los Angeles area members of the Order of Malta, gathered at the Passionist Retreat House in Sierra Madre, CA.  Afterwards I gave a talk on the Rule of Raymond du Puy.  Dating from the 1120’s, it is the earliest extant rule for the Order of Malta.

+On September 11-13 I was in Newport, RI, where I presided at a wedding at Saint Joseph’s Church.  I also had the opportunity to slip over to nearby Portsmouth Abbey, where I gave a retreat to the community many years ago.

image+On September 14th I said Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Rosary in Duluth, MN.  Afterward I gave a talk on the development of doctrine in the Church to the Guild of Saint Raphael, an association of physicians in the Diocese of Duluth.

+Most major cathedrals and abbeys in medieval Europe had chapter houses, where the canons or monks met for business regularly.  The chapter house at York Minster is particularly striking, since it is both spacious and covered with an elegant dome.  The photos in today’s post all come from that spectacular space.

imageWhat Is Your Order?

I try to avoid fast-food as much as I can.  Still, when you’re driving around an unfamiliar town, and there’s little time for lunch, the standard places beckon.  That’s how I discovered the jalapeño burger at McDonald’s this summer.  It’s great, and it will remain my hands-down favorite until science produces something even more alluring.

So it was that my car homed in on McDonald’s recently, and I placed my simple order: one jalapeño burger, and nothing else.  As expected, the service at the first window was friendly, and at the second window I grabbed the bag and went to park and eat in peace.  Then I opened the bag, unwrapped the package, and there they were: apples.

imageUndaunted, I drove back to the drive-thru lane, waited five minutes, and then explained to the skeptical attendant that I was not fibbing.  I really did not want apples for lunch.  He finally waved me on to the second window, and there another guy apologized and said it would never happen again.  He cheerfully handed over a new bag, and off I drove to give lunch another try.

With all that reassurance, you can imagine my surprise when I opened the bag and found two double-cheeseburgers, and more apples.  I gave up, and ate the hand that I’d been dealt.

So much of life is predicated on getting exactly what we order.  We select from a menu and expect to eat precisely what we want.  Conversely, we’d never buy a pair of shoes in another size simply because they were out of our own size.  And the list goes on.  But the important point is this: most of us are lucky to live in a society in which we can imagine and then get almost anything, as long as we can pay for it.  It’s all so predictable and efficient, and that allows us to concentrate on other things.

imageWould that we could do the same with people and with God.  How nice it would be if we could simply glance their way, bark out a few orders, and then expect to see it all done in a flash.  Sadly, most people, and sometimes even God, are not nearly so reliable as fast-food outlets.  With people, and with God too, we may or may not get what we have in mind.  And even worse, we sometimes get exactly what we deserve.

In the Rule of Saint Benedict there’s a curious passage about monks at the dinner table.  Benedict writes that if the abbot offers something to a monk, and the monk turns it down, then the monk should not ask for it later, just because he’s had time to reconsider.  Nor should the abbot offer it a second time.

imageIt occurs to me that this passage is about a lot more than the simple sharing of food.  At the very least, Benedict encourages his monks to be honest in their speech.  If they want or don’t want something, they should say so.  But the table is no place for mind games.  Nor is it the place for false displays of humility.  If you want to accept the abbot’s kind gesture, accept it.  If not, then graciously decline.  But don’t revisit the issue later on.  Life is too short to fill it up with regret or argument.

But Benedict’s comment yields even greater wisdom if we think of it in terms of the surprises that come our way in life.  As has often been noted, life for most of us is not always a bowl of cherries.  Challenges come our way.  Major and minor hurts come our way.  Tragedy comes our way.  And all these things happen because we’re dealing with people, rather than with the fast-food window at McDonald’s.  But it’s these very threats to our serenity and equilibrium that lead to growth.  They push us out of our comfort zone and cause us to reconsider the course of our lives.  With luck we’ll get into the habit of regular self-reflection, when the surprises happen.  Or not.

imageElsewhere in his Rule Saint Benedict writes that monks should see Christ in the abbot, and in virtually everyone whom we might meet.  In this metaphorical world, could that have been the abbot in the service window at McDonald’s?  Could it have been his hand reaching out to give me that bag?  And might it have been the voice of God calmly saying:  “Here.  Try this.  You’ve been eating way too many jalapeño burgers anyway.”  What a wonderful irony for God to tempt me with some apples.

That day I’d been given two bags already.  Who knows what a third bag might have contained?  But on the second time around I took my cue from the Rule of Saint Benedict, and I ate the dish that the hand of God — or the attendant — had offered to me.  It wasn’t at all what I had ordered or expected.  But it turned out to be not so bad after all.


+On September 2nd I returned from a six-day residence at Saint Michael’s Church in Duluth.  What a difference those days had made, since now at Saint John’s there are touches of color on the trees and fall is definitely in the air.  I managed to take two walks in the woods, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

+On September 6th I flew to Los Angeles, and will celebrate Mass and give a presentation to the area members of the Order of Malta on Monday, the feast of Our Lady of Philermo.

+On September 7th we celebrated the feast of Saint Cloud, the patron of our Diocese of Saint Cloud.  This has always seemed to be an odd choice of patron in a diocese in which 95% of the people who settled it came from Germany.  Cloud was an early bishop of Paris, while the main street in Saint Cloud, MN, is named for the Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris.  “Go figure,” as we and our neighbors would say.

imageI celebrated the feast of Saint Cloud by breaking a tooth.  Some time ago the dentist had told me to expect this, since that tooth contained the last of my childhood fillings.  It was a little inconvenient to have done this in Los Angeles, but thankfully there are dentists there too.  It would have been nicer to have this happen just a little closer to home.

+I’ve never been fond of the idea that parish churches have to seat 1,500 and more to be useful.  My own tastes run to those that comfortably seat 300 or less, such as the pictures in today’s post illustrate.  Depicted here is the Church of Saint John the Baptist in the town of Burford Priory, in the Cotswolds in England.  Despite the destruction of the English civil war, this Anglican church managed to preserve much of its medieval decoration.  No doubt the locals risked their lives to do it; and for that I am grateful.

imageSaints Monica and Augustine: A Legacy

Saints Monica and Augustine, mother and son, still make for an intriguing duo in the saintly pantheon.  Both were strong-willed, and both had a streak of independence.  Both also had the patience to pursue long-range goals.  But what’s of enduring interest is their mutual relationship.  Like any parent, Monica wanted for her son what she thought was best.  Augustine, quite naturally, saw it rather differently, until he finally didn’t see things differently.  And therein lies a book, or at least a screen play.

There’s something remarkably modern about this twosome, and I think it’s due to the very public nature of their relationship.  What personality sketches that come to us from the 4th and 5th centuries are few and far between, and in the case of saints they tend to be so thoroughly bleached and laundered that they bear little resemblance to real live people.  Frankly, most saints from that time are standardized and featureless, which explains why it can be tough to get interested in most of them.  Not so Monica and Augustine.  What we know of them makes us want to know all the more.

imageMonica was a determined woman, and perhaps her biggest setback was the failure to convert to Christianity her pagan husband.  I’m sure it wasn’t for lack of trying; and I can only imagine how tense things must have been every time the subject of religion came up in that household.  On that subject Monica was relentless with her son, so it would have been out of character to ignore the issue with her husband.  No, when it came to religion Monica was as stubborn as they came, and it’s fair to assume that her husband came to dread her nagging.

Augustine would have been Monica’s second great setback, save for the fact that he finally caved in.  And if Augustine finally surrendered himself to God, it may have been due to the flood of prayers that Monica sent God’s way.  So God’s wooing of Augustine may be one of the few instances in which God too caved in — just to get Monica off of the divine back.  God may have endless patience, but this may have been one of the few times when God’s patience may have worn dangerously thin.

Both Monica and Augustine were complicated people, and not all their concerns dovetail consistently.  Monica seemed intent on baptizing everyone in her circle, and she especially devoted herself to the conversion of her son to Christianity.  But not all of her goals were of the eternal sort.  She also badgered her son to give up his mistress — the mother of his child — so that he could take a socially respectable bride and rear a boatload of heirs — aka, grandchildren.  In any other context this might be a noble aspiration, but not when we’re constructing the vita of a saint.  This crusade was not Monica’s finest moment, but  you have to admire her humanity all the more.

imageAll of this brings up the issue of the legacy that these two pillars have left behind.  What did they get for all their efforts?

For her part, Monica only got some of what she wanted.  She buried her unbaptized husband, but she lived long enough to see her son’s conversion.  She never got the daughter-in-law or grandchildren, nor did her hopes for Augustine’s professional life materialize.  On the other hand, God heard her prayers, but she got only part of what she wanted.  Monica got her son’s conversion, but that was it.  And God got Augustine, lock stock and barrel.

But Augustine also emerges with a mixed legacy.  Since Augustine wrote so much and did so much, it can be difficult to sort out his priorities.  What legacy did he intend to build?  Well, he succeeded in leaving behind a ton of writing, including two all-time best-sellers: The Confessions and The City of God.  And he left so many sermons that even in our own day long-lost snippets turn up in the neglected manuscripts of European libraries.  In his writing alone Augustine qualifies as one of the greatest personalities of western history.

imageBut we have to imagine Augustine’s disappointment when he realized that much of his life’s work would go down the drain.  He was a bishop, after all, and he devoted much of his energy to pastoral care in his diocese of Hippo and across North Africa.  But even as he put the final touches on The City of God the barbarians literally were at the gates.  And shortly after his death they forced their way in and looted the place.  Had he lived a bit longer, he would have seen all his hard work in Hippo unravel.  And had he lived even longer, he would have seen Hippo itself vanish, and along with it the entire Christian community of North Africa.

Neither Augustine nor Monica got all of what they wanted.  Monica did not get her grandchildren, and her blood line died with her son.  Augustine lived just long enough to know that much of his work would not survive him.  But perhaps he anticipated that in The City of God.  In it he argued that human cities will come and go, but only the city of God will have enduring value.

That perhaps is Augustine’s greatest legacy, because in it he poses to us the same challenge that he and Monica confronted.  Ironically, like them we can try to create a grand legacy of brick and mortar, or financial or political empires.  But eventually they all go the way of Hippo.  They will not last forever, as Augustine finally had to admit.

imageNot a few of the distinctions that Augustine makes in his writing may seem irrelevant to many in our own time; but he would have no difficulty in recasting the dichotomy between the earthly city and the heavenly city into our own distinction between the material and the spiritual.  The material world is as good as it goes, he would gladly admit, but human beings are more than that.  They are made in the divine image, and they have far greater value than city walls and stores bulging with stuff.  Such a distinction, he would argue, is worth considering today and always.  On how we choose to answer depends the legacy we each create.

In sum, we cannot tell the story of Monica and Augustine apart from each other, and I guess that’s why we celebrated their feasts on successive days last week.  Each got part of what they wanted out of life, but it’s safe to say that in the end God got the both of them.  And they each left a legacy that they scarcely could have imagined.  It’s a legacy that rattles around in our minds even today, sixteen centuries later.  Even by our secular standards, that’s not such a bad legacy.


+This past weekend I again assisted at Saint Michael’s Church in Duluth, MN, while the pastor was away.  Among other things, on August 30th I presided at the wedding of Jonathan Launspach and Kay Kinderknecht.  For better or for worse, their friends were unable to convince them to take a hyphenated name after their marriage.  Kinderknecht-Launspach would have look so nice on their Christmas cards.  But alas, it will not happen.

+On August 30th and 31st I presided at the four parish Masses at Saint Michael’s, and I preached on the first reading, from Jeremiah 20: 7-9.  You can access the text of the sermon, You Tricked me, O Lord!in Presentations.

+Tucked into various corners of the campus at Saint John’s are nice little perspectives that we easily miss as we rush through the daily routine.  Included in today’s post are many of these.  One can appreciate the simplicity of such nooks, but they didn’t just happen.  Someone planned even these seemingly forgotten spots.

imageEgo and Kids

For centuries Saint Augustine has taken a lot of heat for his views on original sin.  There’s plenty to ponder here, but if there’s one thing that rankles, it’s this.  Augustine saw evidence of original sin in the egomania of infants.  How dare he impute such dark motives to sweet innocent kids!

More recently I’ve noticed a subtle shift in the objections to Augustine’s theology.  Nobody contests the existence of a lively ego in people of all ages, but not a few have begun to betray impatience with the idea that all the original sins have already been spoken for.  People who have a solid sense of their own creativity find it irksome to learn that all the really big sins have been done before.  “How dare someone take credit for a sin that I thought was mine alone!”

I’m no expert on Augustine, but I do appreciate his point about original sin.  And whether that sin was one of greed or pride or jealousy or any of a dozen other basic faults, it does help to explain the humanity common to us all.  And Augustine had the intellectual advantage of seeing consistency in people, from birth to death.  If we’re downloaded into the world with an app for future sinfulness, then we don’t have to explain why people suddenly become a new species when they commit their own very personal, and very original, sin.

imageDespite the naysayers, then, I’m willing to live with the notion that even babies are preoccupied with their own needs long before they care about world peace.  In short, I’m willing to grant that most of us — from day one — are self-absorbed and put ourselves squarely at the center of the universe.  Augustine merely pointed out the obvious when he suggested that infants cry because they want to be fed, changed, rocked and tended to.  On the other hand, there’s yet to be one recorded instance of infants crying because they wanted to give mom the day off, but couldn’t.  Such altruism is largely undeveloped at that age.

Given all that, I’ve always ceded to our younger citizens the benefit of the doubt when I see them crying in grocery stores and on planes.  I did, that is, until I recently stumbled into a conversation between two colleagues, each of whom has a toddler to report to at home.  That was when I realized how cloistered I’ve been all these years.

For ages I’ve given crying and screaming kids a lot of leeway.  They have needs to fill, and they have a rather narrow range of signals to express those needs. I also realize that clever marketers dazzle them with products that stir their greed.  Only later, when they’re adults, will they be entirely detached from such cheap manipulation — maybe.  But that explains my willingness to give them wide  berth as they learn the finer points of effective communication.

imageBut in short order my colleagues demolished my notions.  Sure, their kids have basic needs, and by two and three years of age they have refined their wants to include useless junk.  But not for a minute should anyone assume that their emotional outbursts are all about greed.  They are about control.  These are to-the-death contests of will-power, which pit kid against mom in the cosmic struggle over who’s in charge.  These tournaments are about nothing less than control within the family, and who gets to call the shots. And, according to these two young moms, the parents don’t always have the upper hand in this battle of wits.

They carefully explained to me how sophisticated these tykes can be.  At an early stage they learn to push their mom’s buttons and play her like a violin. And once they realize that mom wants only the best for them, then the stakes intensify.  This is yet one more bit of vital intelligence at the disposal of a ruthless toddler.

imageBut there’s more.  Kids are masters of public relations, and here’s where people like me come into play.  I always thought I was part of the audience as I’ve watched tantrums and screaming fits out of the corner of my eye.  But no, I’m definitely part of the cast in this drama.  I might find the crying heart-rending or irritating, but my very presence makes me part of the pressure on mom.

Parents are not defenseless, as my colleagues informed me.  If such a fit takes place at Target, for example, they can always walk out immediately, dragging their kid in tow.  Sheer force can often win the day.  But a parent can do that only so many times at the grocery store.  You can live for a while without the stuff that Target stocks; but  you can’t live without food.  So when kids drive their mom or dad out of the grocery store via public pressure, it’s the same as an army that besieges a walled city.  Sooner or later hunger will cause somebody to surrender.

I bring all this up in the realization that most of us grow out of this phase.  Eventually most of us allow love and respect and altruism to take root and grow; and in the course of a lifetime we become people transformed.  But we don’t do it without a lot of help from parents and relatives and friends who put up with us through thick and thin.  It is they who see the potential in us, and it is they who test our mettle as we grow into maturity.

imageSuch growth is necessary if any relationship is to be life-giving.  All spouses and friends must sacrifice themselves for the other, and they must do things that a child would never consider.  And the commitment is necessary for a monk as well, as Saint Benedict suggests in his chapter on obedience.  His is not a long meditation, but it explains why a lengthy period of formation is necessary for monastic life, just as it is for marriage or friendship.

When it comes to obedience, Saint Benedict prescribes a level of commitment that parents would never expect in any child.  When confronting a command of the abbot, monks “immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished.  With the ready step of obedience, they follow the voice of authority in their actions.”  And I can assure  you from personal observation that we monks do exactly that, quite a lot of the time.

imageThe fact that we don’t do it all of the time suggests that a residue of infancy — and original sin — lurks in all of us.  We are born strong-willed, and we remain so throughout life.  But all who seek life and want it in abundance must learn to conform their will to God.  And it also means we conform our will to the needs of others.

Original sin, or our particular variation of it, continues to pull us off course.  But with the help of many brothers, and with the help of friends and spouses, we eventually reach the perfection that allows us to be valued and esteemed brothers and sisters.  Ironically, then, after years of contesting the will of our parents, we become our parents.  What a fitting reward for all those tantrums.


+On August 22nd the freshmen at Saint John’s University joined the monks at evening prayer, during which Abbot John delivered a welcome.  After evening prayer they broke into smaller groups, and twenty-six monks led them in presentations on Saint John’s Abbey and their own lives as monks.

+Over the years I’ve led several tours to Europe, and I’ll have the chance to do it again this winter with a Benedictine Tour of Italy.  It will run from February 27th through March 7th, 2015, and we will visit sites such as Norcia (where Saint Benedict was born) and the abbeys of Subiaco and Monte Cassino.  In addition, we will make several cultural side visits.  This is not meant to be the “basic tour of Italy,” since it has a rather  specific focus.  And one should not be surprised that the itinerary reflects my personal interests!

imageThe Benedictine Way Committee of the Alumni Board of Saint John’s University has organized this trip, and we still have a few spaces available.  You can find links to two important documents that describe the trip in greater detail.  The first is a the Itinerary that outlines the tour and what it includes and does not include.  And the second is the Registration Form.

This tour reflects my personal druthers: namely, it will be small, with a maximum of 22 participants.  Again, there are a few spaces still open, so please consider this very personalized experience of the Benedictine tradition.  If you have further questions, you can email me directly via the gmail address on my blog; or you can register directly on the form provided.  The deadline for final registration is October 3rd.

This trip is a mix of the serious and the whimsical, and, as always, Italy is a glorious place to visit.

+On 26 August I had the opportunity to visit Grounds for Sculpture, a lovely garden in Hamilton, NJ, outside of Princeton.  The pictures in today’s post portray the park and its array of sculpture.


imageWhat I’ve Learned from the Guests

As chapter 53 of his Rule makes explicit, even in Saint Benedict’s day the guests who showed up at the monastery were a varied lot.  In their number were the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlettered, and Christians and non-Christians.  In each case, however, Saint Benedict urged his monks to treat these guests as if Christ himself had come knocking at the door.  Literally, of course, they weren’t Christ. But metaphorically they were; and that was enough for Benedict.

The vast majority of guests at monasteries are models of decorum, but every now and again there’s a guest who presents special challenges.  That certainly was the case with the barbarian chief who rode up to Monte Cassino one day, with every intention of killing all the monks, looting the monastery, and then burning the place to the ground.  To his credit Benedict didn’t wait for this guest to make the first move.  He took the initiative and went out to meet him.  Sadly, we don’t have the transcript of their conversation; but whatever Benedict said must have made an impression.  The chief rode off, and perhaps that was the day when Benedict learned that it was possible after all to kill somebody with kindness, metaphorically at least.

imageUnfortunately, Benedict’s successor as abbot must have forgotten the secret formula.  He too had to welcome a barbarian host, but he handled the situation less deftly than had Benedict.  On account of his misstep, the abbey of Monte Cassino lay in ruins for several decades.

Aware that guests come in all shapes and sizes, Benedict made one astute observation that has stood the test of time.  Guests have kept coming in a steady stream, century after century, “and monasteries are never without them.”  For that reason I’ve concluded that Benedict would be thoroughly pleased to scan the roster of the guests we’ve received at Saint John’s this summer.  At one extreme, we’ve hosted two camps for high school marching bands, while pride of place at the other extreme goes to the 250 Buddhists on a week-long silent retreat.  We’ve also welcomed a high school business conference, family reunions, sports camps, and alumni who have come from Luxembourg and Hong Kong and all points in between.  And sandwiched in among all these have been the weddings.  On virtually every Saturday there’s been at least one, and sometimes two.   To our credit we’ve managed to keep the marching bands and sports camps and weddings out of each other’s way.

imageIf these were opportunities for us monks to encounter Christ, what were some of the things that we learned?  For one thing, we learned that despite over a century and a half of processions, we are pikers compared to the precision of the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  Even laden with tubas and drums and the like, they still showed a  discipline that’s way beyond anything we can muster.  As for the Buddhists, their ability to maintain silence for days on end puts us to shame.  Most of us in the monastery may be quiet introverts, but we are veritable chatterboxes by comparison.

But now, in the dog days of August, a major change comes over our campus.  A different kind of guest began arriving last week, and most of them will stay for four years of college.  Their stay is qualitatively different, because at a certain point they cross the line from being a guest to being members of the larger community that is Saint John’s.

imageThese new guests arrive bright-eyed, optimistic, and a little bit apprehensive.  Unlike the more transient guests of summer, however, they know that something important is afoot.  But as often as not they have no inkling of how life-changing the experience will be.

As was the case with marching bands and all the others, I think there is a lot for us monks to learn each August as a new wave of freshmen arrives.  First off, it’s maybe wise not to speculate too much about what goes through student minds as they watch their parents drive away.  But a thought common to many of them is that now begins their big chance to fashion a new persona.  Now comes that once in a lifetime moment to grow into someone new,  because nobody from their former life is there to hold them back.

imageOf course some fear change and hesitate to leave behind the mental world of high school.  Others, however, are more than eager to begin the process.  Typical of the latter was one student named Billy, who became Bill on the first day of college.  Much like the novice who takes a new name along with his habit, Billy saw this window of opportunity, opened it, and jumped through.

So what have I learned as I’ve beheld cohorts of young people begin their college careers?  Well, the first take-away is that I do not envy them in the least.  I have absolutely no desire to turn back the clock and relive the experience of college.  That was then, and this is now.  In college I made a lot of decisions that have shaped my life, but I have no desire to repeat them.  Nor do I have any yen to live in the past.  I’ve long since embraced that bit of monastic wisdom that we repeat on feast days:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice in it.”  That desire to live in the present, I would submit, is part of the secret to living a full and youthful life, no matter your age.

imageOn the other hand, freshmen also remind me that the chance to begin anew isn’t the exclusive preserve of the college years.  The monastic routine here again underscores the daily opportunity for this.  Day in and day out we start morning prayer with these words:  “O Lord open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.”  Literally, of course, we do open our lips at that moment, for the first time each day.  But we also pray to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, and especially our minds.  And we pray for all that because we’re going to need all of our senses to make the best of the new day that the Lord is about to unfold before us.

And the final lesson I would draw is this.  The first day of college can be the chance to begin life anew.  But it’s also a reminder that this is practice for a lifetime of beginning anew.  Each day, for the rest of our lives, we have the chance to open our lips, our eyes and ears, and best of all our minds.  I hope that we’ll all open them gladly to the new opportunities that the Lord presents.  After all, today and each new day is the day that the Lord has made. We’d all be well-advised to rejoice and be glad in it.


+On August 14th, at morning prayer, Abbot John welcomed and conferred a blessing on Fr. Bernardine Ness, as he became a member of Saint John’s Abbey.  Fr. Bernardine had been a monk of Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota, and for many years he ministered at their mission in South America.  In recent years several of our Benedictine Volunteers had the good fortune to work with him there.  Due to declining numbers, Blue Cloud recently closed, and Fr. Bernardine petitioned to become a monk of Saint John’s.

+This week the first of several monks from other monasteries arrived to begin theological students at Saint John’s.  Brother Dominic is from Saint Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, Saskatchewan, in Canada.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that monastery in 1892.

+The Saint John’s Boyschoir began their new season by singing at the Abbey Mass on Sunday, August 17th.  The boys had just completed a weeklong camp, and they added immensely to our prayerful experience.

image+On August 13th the first of the college students began to trickle in.  Leading them were those who will serve as the resident assistants in the dormitories.  In addition, the members of the football team returned that day as well, and practice sessions began that afternoon.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate some of the residence halls at Saint John’s.  These in particular stand out for their architectural merit, and all were designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer.  Included in their number is Saint Thomas Aquinas (Tommy) Hall, built in 1954; and Saints Boniface, Patrick and Bernard Halls, completed in 1968.

imageThe Feast of Saint Clare

When it comes to Saints Francis and Clare, there’s no denying that Francis hogged the limelight.  One big reason for this has to be his undeniable charisma, and even at a remove of eight hundred years Francis tugs at the heart-strings.  And if people were surprised that Cardinal Bergolio would take the name Francis, we should be equally amazed that no one had taken that name sooner.  After all, sixteen popes have taken the name Benedict so far.

But leaving aside the issue of personality, Francis did a few things that Clare never dared to imagine.  For starters, it was Francis who reportedly stripped off his clothes in front of his father and the bishop and townspeople of Assisi.  Had Clare pulled a stunt like that, it would have been equally shocking, but not quite for the same reasons.  It was Francis and not Clare who went to Rome and knelt before Pope Innocent III.  It was Francis and not Clare who preached to the sultan of Egypt.  In fact, it was Francis who did all sorts of things that pushed the envelope; and not surprisingly, even in the 21st century, Francis looms large.  Meanwhile, Clare seems to be a member of the supporting cast in Saint Francis: The Movie!

imageThere’s no need to rehash the social and economic situation that confronted both Francis and Clare.  Many have done that already.  But suffice it to say that 13th-century Italy allowed men like Francis a lot more leeway when it came to lifestyle.  Francis was a free spirit who captured the popular imagination.  Meanwhile, what people found charming in someone like Francis, they could not and would not abide in a woman like Clare.  They seemed willing to let Francis wander, depending on the charity of others.  But Clare was another matter.  The streets were not safe for women then, just as they are not safe in some cities of the world today.

imageWhether the citizens of Assisi thought Clare was mad or naive we can only guess.  What we can imagine, however, was their initial reaction to her proposal to gather a community of women and live entirely on charity.  They would not own land to support themselves, nor would they make stuff to sell.  Rather, they would devote their lives to love of God and neighbor, and somehow God and neighbor would provide.  “What joy,” a few of the cynics must have thought to themselves.  “It’s what this town has always needed.”

Clare proposed a monastery that was unlike any other at the time.  Undoubtedly all monasteries depended  on some measure of charity, but most made an honest effort to do some work, just as Saint Benedict had demanded in his Rule.  But Clare, like Francis, marched to the beat of a different drummer.

As a monk I’m tempted to join the chorus of the more skeptical citizens of Assisi.  Not a few of them could see where this was going, and sooner or later Clare and her sisters would join the growing ranks of unproductive mouths to feed.   They would depend on the kindness of others, but they would offer nothing in return.

imageClare spoke in an entirely different language,  however.  Certainly she knew the social and economic realities of Assisi, yet she forged ahead and pushed a message that she thought the world needed to hear.

In my mind Clare brought two important ideas to the table.  First, she relied literally on the providence of God.  Just as God cares for the sparrows and the lilies, so God would care for her and her sisters.  God would sustain them in good times and bad, come what may.  But the takeaway here is that God does this for everyone, including the cynics in Assisi.

Second, in order for her vow of poverty to work, Clare would have to depend on the kindness of others.  In this scenario her neighbors became the chosen instruments of God.  Through them God showed lovingkindness to the world, and on such people Clare depended for her very life.  But the same is true for all of us, she would be quick to point out.  We don’t exist in isolation, complete unto ourselves.  For Clare it was important that people know how important they are in the lives of their neighbors.

imageNo wonder some of Clare’s fellow citizens thought her naive.  But to their suprise, people seemed not to tire of Clare and her sisters after all.  Her life spoke to the people of Assisi, and she reminded them that they too were important in the larger scheme of things.  They were more than mere economic units, because their real value derived from God.  They were God’s instruments in the world.

In hindsight I’m glad that Clare never went to the center of town to strip off her clothes, as did Francis.  She didn’t need to do that to make her point.  I’m glad she didn’t kneel before Pope Innocent III.  I’m glad too that she never wasted her time preaching to the sultan of Egypt.  Ironically, Clare had a profoundly important message to deliver, but her message was too important to rely on theatrics to make her point.  The very simplicity of her life, and the surrender of her life to God, spoke eloquently enough.

And what about the cynics of Assisi?  I’m sure they’d be miffed at how everything has turned out.  Today, eight hundred years later, we don’t know their names and we’d all yawn if we recounted their concerns — if we even knew them.  But ironically we do know what Clare cared about.  Clare reminded all of her fellow citizens of their intrinsic worth in the eyes of God.  Such a message was naive and uneconomic then, and it remains so today.  But it’s one we need to consider more often than merely once a year.


+On August 7th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access my sermon, Who do you say that Jesus is? in Presentations.  I remembered at that Mass Mr. Edmund L. Luzine, a member of the Order of Malta who lived in Albany, NY, and who died recently.  I had met Mr. and Mrs. Luzine many years ago at a Saint John’s University event in New York.  Subsequent to that they flew to Saint John’s to be present for the award of an honorary doctorate to Fra Andrew Bertie, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta.

+On August 8th I visited with a former student and friend who now lives in Luxembourg.  He and his family stayed at the Abbey guest house, as part of their annual vacation with family and friends in Minnesota.  That evening, as we walked around the campus, we ran into Bishop Donald Ketler of Saint Cloud, who was showing the campus to a priest-friend from Iowa.

image+On August 9th I said Mass for a gathering of alumni from the class of ’58 from Saint Saint John’s University.  The liturgy, and the dinner afterward, took place in Edina, MN.

+The horrible news from the Middle East has affected so many, but this week it touched our colleagues at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  For some time they have worked with the Dominicans in Iraq, in an effort to digitize the Christian manuscripts in that troubled part of the world.  Not so long ago the Dominicans had moved from Mosul and found refuge in a Christian town that they assumed to be safe.  Sadly, like most of the Christians of that town, they had to flee this week after it was overrun by the militants.  But to where will they go?

image+The pictures in today’s post all come from the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  Dating to the 19th century, this is the oldest building on campus.  For many years the courtyard sat neglected, but it has become the site of a vibrant garden, as the photos indicate.  In particular, it’s been a great year for the hydrangeas there.

imageThe Great War

August 4th no longer commands the attention that it once did.  That’s a shame, because on that date, a hundred years ago today, the guns roared to life and rattled the summer tranquility of Europe.  Still, vacationers across Western Europe did not worry as they glanced from their coffee or tea to read the headlines.  This would be an easy, a quick, and a wonderfully patriotic war.  And to everyone’s comfort, God seemed to be on everyone’s side.  Of course, none of this turned out to be the case.  But who knew?

Last week I listened in as a father carefully explained to his son the whole business of The Great War.  He rattled off the names of the protagonists, and who was on whose side; but he couldn’t quite recall the why’s of The Great War.  Not surprisingly, there are no veterans of that conflict nor bystanders alive today who can tell us from personal experience what it was all about.  On the other hand, there must be thousands of books that could help.  Fortunately, too, there’s likely a three- or four-sentence article on the Internet that could explain definitively why 2% of the world’s population had to die in that spat.  Truly it was The Great War, but not in the way in which we tend to use the word great in casual conversation today. Now we hesitate to label any war great, in contrast to all the great times we have all the time.

imageMy grandfather fought in World War I, which actually was one of the many ironies of that conflict.  Born in Austria, as a youth he came with his parents to settle in central Texas.  There he was drafted into the army, and at least symbolically he ended up fighting against the land of his birth.  Happily, he came back from the war with only memories to show for it.  There were no battle scars, and that put him among the lucky ones.  As a result I got to know him and savor the fragrance of his cigars.

It may have been my grandfather’s part in The Great War that first kindled my interest in the subject, but it was the writer Barbara Tuchman who fanned the flames.  In high school I devoured her book on the opening days of the war — The Guns of August.  But after that she had me hooked not only on the war but on history in general.  In time I paged through almost all of her many books, and to her I give credit for my vocation as a historian.

imageTuchman had a wonderful gift as a teller of tales, and for a long time she stirred the resentment of the professional historians who toiled away in classrooms across America.  After all, she had no degree, nor any kind of license to teach.  All she could do was write well and spark the reader’s imagination, including my own.  The results were galling, since many of her readers filled their classrooms.  Teachers everywhere owed her, and often it was a debt they hated to admit.

I became a teacher of history because Barbara Tuchman inspired me to do so.  She taught me, first of all, the importance of history.  She taught me how fascinating it could be.  And were she alive today, she would point out the enduring relevance of one bit of it, namely, The Great War.  For one thing, the war chewed up the lives of millions and destroyed a generation of Europe’s best-educated young men.  It also brought down some of society’s most venerable institutions, as well as a way of life in Europe.  As you may be aware, this was not the last time this has happened.image

Did we learn anything at all from The Great War?  At the armistice many believed it to be the war to end all wars.  No one would ever be so foolish again, many people thought at the time.  That, unfortunately, turned out to be wishful thinking.  People also assumed that most issues surrounding the war were settled.  Never again would France and Germany come to blows.  Never again would we squabble about the Balkans or the Middle East.  That too proved to be a bit wide of the mark.

But most arresting of all were the days leading up to the war, because the movers and shakers of the day seemed paralyzed by the inevitability of it all.  Once the Serbian had shot the Austrian heir to the throne, there was no stopping things.  One ultimatum followed the other, then the treaties and alliances kicked in, and finally the guns let loose.  There seemed to be no way to put the brakes on, particularly since all the decision-makers were on holiday.  It was August, after all.

imageTherein is the lesson for us all.  I’m not about to give a prescription for modern international relations, but there is in the events leading to the outbreak of The Great War something of value on a personal level.  All of us tend to be creatures of habit, or at least creatures of unquestioned principle.  Most of us live lives of predictability and routine, shaped by decisions made years earlier.  As valuable a foundation as all of that may be, it can put us on the trajectory to disaster.  Simply put, we cannot put our lives, our decisions, or our relationships on automatic pilot.  Never for a minute can we take life, or other people, for granted.  Not for a day, and not for a minute, can we assume that life is set and we need not reflect on where we are going.  Nor ought we ever assume that we’ll never need to tweak the direction of our lives.  The minute we cease to do so, our lives head inevitably into the ditch.

The Great War could have been avoided, but no one bothered to sit down and try to stop it.  In the short term the allies won the war, it is safe to say.  But World War II showed that there were no real winners in the First World War.  And even today we continue to pay the price for the absentmindedness of August 1914.

But we need not, and ought not, do that to ourselves.  It’s worth a moment, each day and every day, to pause and reflect on the direction of our lives.  The good news is that there’s nothing inevitable about where we are going.  Happily, Jesus encourages us to get a grip on our lives and seize the future.  It’s ours to throw away, and ours to shape and to enjoy.  As for me, I think I’ll give the latter my best shot.


+On July 28th I preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, An Abundance of Biblical Metaphor, in Presentations.

+On July 29th I left for London for a few days of meetings.  In between times I had the chance to visit Saint John’s Gate, the museum of the Order of Saint John.  This is the Anglican branch of the Order of Malta, and the museum has as its home the late medieval gatehouse of a property once owned by the Order.

+On August 2nd I had the opportunity to tour the Houses of Parliament, which was an incredible experience.  The halls just ooze with dignity and history, including Westminster Hall, which still preserves sections of its 11th-century stones.  It’s rare that one can catch the English off guard, especially at a place like the Houses of Parliament; but I managed to pull it off.  To my surprise, the Gift Shop had for sale “Cufflinks of the Nights of Saint John.”  To the clerk I pointed out the mistake.  But to be on the safe side, just in case it was correct, I asked whether they might have “Cufflinks of the Mornings of Saint John,” since I am a morning person.  He smiled.

image+In Saint Margaret’s Church, across from Parliament, hangs a memorial listing the names of all the MP’s who died in The Great War, and there are quite a lot of names inscribed on it.  Fortunately, such a thing could not happen in the UK or the US today.  We’ve long since recognized the inherent conflict of interest that would ensue if the people who declared the war were allowed to enlist and actually fight in it.  Thankfully, our legislators have not needed to pass a law to forbid this.  How unfair it would be to declare a war and then take advantage of inside information to sign up for all the best spots on the front lines.


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