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.

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.


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