imageBare Ruined Choirs, Yet Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

imagePilgrimage: A Metaphor for Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

imageThe Miracle of Ordinary Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Life in the monastery can seem so tame by comparison.

imageInaction Is Never an Option

There’s likely no silver lining to be had anywhere in the Middle East as a result of all this chaos.  Yet, if we are to salvage even a shred of inspiration it has to be in the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  Despite logistical nightmares and the possibility of genuine danger, teams of photographers from HMML have worked for nearly a decade to capture the images of manuscript pages from sites in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere.  The result is a vast trove of images that will serve scholars for generations to come.  But of even greater significance, these images will remind us of a culture and a Christian community of ancient lineage that will soon disappear.

HMML began its work in 1965, in response to a plea by Pope Pius XII.  Noting that we could restore buildings destroyed in war, he encouraged the Benedictines — any Benedictines — to preserve the manuscript heritage of Europe before the next war obliterated everything.  So it was that the Library began its efforts in Austria, and from there it expanded into Spain, Portugal, Germany, Malta and Ethiopia.

imageWith the specter of instability lurking on the horizon, HMML turned its efforts to the Middle East, and the results there have been beyond impressive.  Yet, despite the great accomplishment, there is a sad note.  Who would have imagined that events would prove the value of that initiative so quickly?  Teams in places like Syria and Iraq worked at a fevered pace, and they managed to finish their work just as violence began to erupt all over the place.  Now, with images safely stored away on servers at Saint John’s and elsewhere, worry has shifted to the safety of HMML’s local partners across the region.  Some have barely managed to escape the carnage, at least physicallly unscathed.  Others have not been so lucky.

imageDuring my last year as director of HMML, I had the chance to visit Lebanon and Syria for what likely will be the only time in my life.  This was twelve years ago, and Lebanon was still recovering from its civil war.  Syria, by contrast, was the picture of serenity.  It was enjoying the peace that often comes in an absolute dictatorship.  Still, I recall vividly our party of three’s astonishment when an armor-plated car and two armed guards met us planeside on the tarmac in Beirut.  Of course we were surprised by the lavish reception by our hosts.  But eventually I began to wonder.  Have they gone overboard on the security business just to impress us?  Or might there be a genuine need for such a vehicle?  Back then I wasn’t sure.  Today, in answer to the second question, I would give a resounding “Yes!”  Still, I recall when the reality of it all registered for the first time.  One day I had a chance to open the car door all by myself, before either of the guards had a chance to jump out and get it for me.  “I’m not that helpless yet,” I thought to myself.  But I couldn’t get the thing to budge even an inch.  It was just too heavy.  “This is our little secret,” explained the genial driver.

imageIf there was a peak moment that has stuck in my memory, it was a visit with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV.  There I was, chatting with him in his study, astonished that I sat alone with the successor of Saint Peter in a community whose roots went back into the Acts of the Apostles.  But that day, years before civil war would come to Syria, there was even then a grim foreboding in the words of the Patriarch.  Antioch, one of the five great patriarchates of the Church and once a distinguished city in Syria, has for generations rested within the borders of Turkey.  As a result, he scarcely got to go to visit his see city.  Meanwhile, much of his flock was scattered across Syria and Lebanon.  But he could see the writing on the wall.  For more than a generation increasing numbers of the Syrian Christian community had been relocating to places like Argentina and the United States.  What was to become of those who remained?  With resignation written all over his face, he knew there would be a day when he might be the only one left.  Of course at that moment he scarcely imagined how quickly things would spiral out of control, and how suddenly his worst fears would materialize.

imageMy one memento of that visit is a framed picture of the two of us, and it now hangs in my office at Saint John’s.  Patriarch Ignatius died two years ago, but he lived long enough to see the Christian exodus accelerate.  He also lived long enough to see his concern about the survival of their cultural heritage diminish somewhat by the work of HMML.  At that time he wondered aloud about the safety of their manuscripts and where they would go when the people had left.  Today it’s likely that no one knows the fate of all of those collections and their contents.  But at least the images on those pages have endured, thanks to the dogged effort of the staff of HMML.  And thanks too to their local partners in Iraq and Syria, who now must flee for their very lives.

Even the shortest reflection on the Middle East makes one wonder about the fragility of civilization.  With barbarism at the gates, cultural life can vanish almost in an instant.  So it is that the cradle of civlization that was once the Middle East now seems poised to throw away thousands of years of creativity.  Likewise, we are not far from the day when the only Christians to be found in the homeland of Christianity are tourists.

imageThere’s a range of emotion that comes calling in such a meditation.  Depression is one of them.   Horror is another.  But indifference and resignation are unforgivable.  They are not options in the Middle East nor in any of the other challenges that we encounter in life.  And I believe this to be so because in the worst of situations there’s always some glimmer of  hope and some faint opportunity to which thoughtful people can hold tightly.  Happily, our colleagues at HMML have done their bit, against steep odds.  That in itself serves as an example of the power that dedicated and determined people still have.

And what ought we to do when life throws us our own curve balls?  Something.  That’s why God gave us brains, imagination and energy.  They are among the most precious of the gifts we have.  But of course all gifts come with the obligation to do more than store them away.  God actually expects us to use those gifts, in whatever endeavor we are engaged.  Not only is that the least we can do, it is exactly what God calls us to do.


+On September 25th and 26th I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, in Collegeville.

+On September 27th I gave a talk on the spirituality of the Order of Malta at the orientation for candidates for membership in the Western Association, held in Los Angeles, CA.

+On September 28th I was in Oklahoma City to take part in the celebration of my mother’s 90th birthday.  I had the chance to visit with cousins I had not seen in ages, and enjoyed meeting the next generation of relatives whom I had yet to meet.  Some eighty people attended the reception,  held at our parish church of Christ the King.

+This last summer the staff of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library vacated their offices, while a destruction and construction crew came in and completely rebuilt the interior of the Library.  The results are nothing short of astonishing, as the pictures in today’s post suggest.  They are a preview of the renovation of Alcuin Library, in which HMML is located.  They show what you can do with a building that is in desperate need of renewal.

image+If you are wondering how I managed to make the flight schedule implied in the travels above, I too wonder.  This was not the best of weekends to travel, but it all worked.  Despite disruptions due to the fire at the air traffic control center in Chicago, I managed to make it to everything on time.  The kid in the seat behind me made the trip to Los Angeles particularly memorable.  He kicked my seat for much of the way.  At the last judgement may God have mercy on his soul.  By then I’m sure he will have built up quite a resumé.  Finally, I vowed years ago never to take the red-eye again.  But that’s exactly what I had to do to make it from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City in time for my mother’s birthday.  Never again.

imageTell No Tall Tales

Saint Benedict tells his monks that they are not to discuss with fellow monks what they’ve seen and heard on a journey.  I’m not entirely sure why, but it serves as a good reason for why I’m not going to talk about two little episodes I had on a trip to Indianapolis last week.

The first involved a connecting flight through Detroit.  For those who flew through the old airport and vowed they’d never set foot in that terminal again, I’m happy to report that for a few years now it’s been safe to fly through Detroit.  They must have sold the old terminal to a third-world country, or put it in a museum.  Anyway, it’s long gone, and in its place stands a sight to behold.  It’s shiny and sleek, and its main concourse is ideal for long-distance runners.  But since I’ve seen that new terminal before, that’s not what caught my eye this time around.  Rather, it was a magazine.  Or to be more precise, it was two successive issues of a magazine.

imageWe’ve all seen those glossy magazines that toot the glories of every hamlet and burg across America, so it should come as no surprise that Detroit would have one too.  However, it was not the magazine, but the lead story on the cover, that caught my eye as I sped along.

That issue had a headline that boldly compared Detroit to Paris.  This came as a surprise to me, to say the least.  I’ve been to both places, and up to now the resemblance had completely escaped me.  They don’t even speak the same language, for heaven’s sake.  But beyond that, evidently there’s a lot I’ve missed in my visits to those two cities, but I’m willing to give them both a second review.  Maybe someone will point out what I failed to see the first time around.

Three days later the return flight to Minneapolis also connected through Detroit.  My number one goal this time was to find a copy of that magazine on Detroit and Paris.  Without proof, my confreres would never believe my claim to have seen such a story.  So I searched high and low, but alas, there was no trace of a copy to be found anywhere.  Clearly, other equally stupefied travelers had snapped them all up, or the Chamber of Commerce had impounded them all, to avoid further embarrassment.

imageAll was not lost, however.  In its place was a new issue that proclaimed Detroit to be the 9th most creative city in America.  Actually, it could have been the 9th most creative city in the world, but I didn’t have time to read the fine print.  And again I didn’t have the presence of mind to grab a copy.  All that means that if I talk about this at home the abbot might conclude that I’m delirious and won’t let me off the property again.  And at best, my confreres will tease me for reading back-issues of Mad Magazine or The Onion once again.

The second notable experience took place in a rental car in Indianapolis.  Before I got into this particular vehicle I used to think that our abbey cars were pretty modern.  They all have roughly the same number of wheels, brakes, seats and a steering wheel on the left side.  And they all operate pretty much the same way.  But this car was unlike anything I’d sat in before.

imageFor one thing, it took me quite a while to start it.  It’s not that I’ve not driven a push-button car before.  It’s just that in this car I couldn’t figure out which button I dared to push.  Finally I tried one, and nothing happened.  Then the second one worked, and I felt a great sense of relief.  How would it look to go back to the rental desk and ask how to start their car?  I’ll tell you how it would look:  not good.

After that I spent quite a while figuring out how to turn on the radio.  That done, it took another thirty miles on the road before I discovered how to change stations.  It happened when my hand brushed against something and the music changed from country to rock.  Desperately I retraced the movement of my  hand to recall what I’d done to make this happen.  I figured it out at last, and I then had the luxury of choosing among twenty-five country and rock stations.  I never did find the classical or jazz, however.  For all I know, despite all the techno-gadgetry, maybe this car didn’t play that kind of music.

imageI never did learn how to adjust the side-view mirrors, but in true Minnesota fashion I decided they were just fine the way they were.  Nor did I dare try and find out what a lot of those other buttons did.  “Let sleeping dogs lie” is always a good motto to follow.  But in all this I did have one personal triumph.  All by myself I finally found the magic button that opens the flap to the gas tank.  Given the lengths to which car-makers go to hide that thing, I should have gotten some sort of prize, like a free trip to Detroit, where I could practice my French and eat croissants.

Anyway, for obvious reasons these are the kind of things you can’t talk about when you go home to the monastery.  For one thing, the monks will think that all I did was read humor magazines while I was gone.  For another, after that episode with the car in Indianapolis, the prior might very well ask me to turn in my driver’s license.  And I just got a new one a week ago.

Some tales are best left untold.  And so, out of respect for my confreres, I will not tell them that Detroit and Paris are a lot more alike than they had ever imagined.  And I’ll spare the nerves of the prior with my harrowing story of the car of the future.  And once again I will heed Saint Benedict’s sage advice.  He gave it for just such occasions.


+On September 15th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.   Among the distinguished members of the committee present were Fra Emmanual Rousseau of Paris, Fra Thomas Mulligan of Chicago, and Ambassador Robert Shafer, the Order of Malta’s representative at the United Nations in New York.

+On September 16th and 17th I gave talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Anderson University in Anderson, IN.

image+On September 19th through the 21st I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  This took place at Cardinal Stritch Retreat Center on the campus of Mundelein Seminary, in suburban Chicago.  You can access a copy of my sermon on Sunday, Understanding God’s Ways, in the section marked Presentations.  This turned out to be an interesting weekend to be in Chicago, since Cardinal George presented his successor, Bishop Blase Cupick.  We adjusted our retreat schedule so we could watch the news conference, which was quite interesting.

+I took the pictures in today’s post several months ago in Paris.  Unfortunately, I do not have a similar batch from Detroit.  However, since I’ve read that the two cities are very similar, these should serve for both.

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.


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