Monks are creatures of habit, in more ways than one. Given that we commit ourselves to goals that are best-described as long-range, it should surprise no one that only with great reluctance will we make changes to the daily schedule — known as the horarium. So it is that the horarium has scarcely evolved in my umpteen years at Saint John’s, and I’m not expecting any major changes to the routine in the foreseeable future.
This is yet another instance in which monastic values clash with those of our prevailing culture. If our society prizes spontaneity, we monks will opt most times for predictability; and we do so because it provides the nurturing environment that keeps a community going for at least a century or two. That explains why we don’t try to re-invent the wheel every week or two. Nor do we embrace the latest fads. Everyone would go crazy if we did.
But a regular routine can easily morph into an end in itself, and it’s easy to slip into a mindset in which we are there to serve the horarium, rather than vice versa. It’s our own variation of the conundrum that Jesus once pointed out about the observance of the Sabbath. Do people exist to serve the Sabbath, or can it be the other way around?
That’s where travel and a vacation can benefit everyone, even monks in a monastery. Most people accept the notion that travel broadens you; and a vacation opens you to new possibilities that you might not have considered otherwise. At the very least, you return home glad to have entered back into the familiar rhythm. But every now and again you can discover different ways of doing things, and sometimes you’re eager to give some new idea a trial run.
I first began to appreciate these side benefits of travel when I stayed in one particular hotel whose room arrangement I didn’t like. Specifically, I didn’t appreciate the location of the waste basket, sitting several feet away from the desk. This wasn’t the first time that had happened to me, but this time I let a minor irritation balloon into a federal case. As a creature of habit and a fan of the status quo, I had suffered in silence every time it had happened before. But that day it dawned on me that this was a test of character. And suddenly, impetuously, I got up from the desk, walked over and picked up the waste basket, and planted it squarely by the desk, where I thought it belonged.
To my utter astonishment there was no clap of thunder or alarm. Nor did the housekeeper rush in to demand that I put it back. In fact, nothing happened at all, except that I was at last satisfied. And the next day the housekeepers left it where I had put it. That was when I realized a fundamental truth about hotels: most housekeepers couldn’t care less where we put the waste basket. All they care about is that it’s still there when we leave.
That was a moment of great personal insight, and since then I’ve tested my limits even further. Lately I’ve learned that if I don’t like the placement of the furniture in a hotel room, it’s okay to rearrange it to suit my tastes. And I’ve consoled myself with the thought that I’m not there to keep the room company. Rather, the room is there to keep me safe and rested while I tend to my work. All of this has been a great revelation, and I’ve come to relish my sense of freedom. But of course I always put the furniture back before I leave.
What else have I learned through years of travel? Well, I’ve long recognized that I take too much stuff along. Given the nature of my work, I often have to pack my habit and an alb, and a suit and dress shoes. This puts space in my suitcase at a premium. Everything gets wedged in tightly, and every now and again I fail to notice that something hasn’t made the cut. I’ve been devastated to realize that I’ve left without toothpaste, but leaving home without socks once was even worse. But that led to another consoling discovery: other places have stores too. Minnesota is not the only place in America where you can buy toothpaste and socks. So now I don’t get all worked up when I forget something, because — after all — it’s only a trip, for heaven’s sake.
The best lesson in learning to keep my cool came when I and Brother Dietrich were leading a tour of alumni to Spain. I was leaving a day early, and on the day of departure I ran around like a madman, and I managed to get to the departure gate only forty-five minutes before the flight. Frazzled but relieved, I gazed to the floor, only to realize that my shoes didn’t match. Normally I would have gone into a panic, but not this time. I calmly called Dietrich and asked him to go to my room and open the closet door. When he had found two shoes that didn’t match, grab one and bring it with him. Two days later, in Madrid, I had a matched pair of shoes, as well as a spare that had come along for the ride.
So what are the best bits of wisdom that I’ve gleaned from my travels? Well, first of all, I’ve learned to make myself at home wherever I am, and I’ve not been shy about rearranging the furniture. But I’ve also learned one caution here, because if you’re staying with friends the best time to move the furniture is just before you leave. But I’ve also learned to forego this luxury if I have hopes that they’ll ask me back someday.
The second lesson involves coming home to the monastery after a long journey. Saint Benedict wrote about just this sort of thing in his Rule, because even in the 6th century monks had to go out on a journey. His advice back then was to refrain from recounting what you had seen while away; and for a long time I thought that the reason for this was obvious. Clearly, the returning monk ran the risk of rousing the envy of the monks who never seemed to go anywhere. So Benedict’s was wise counsel.
Now I realize that Benedict’s advice may have had more to do with monks who return from journeys with big ideas in their heads. There’s nothing more irksome than when monks have to welcome back a brother who comes home with all sorts of suggestions on how to improve everything in the monastery. As often as not, that means change for some, if not for everyone. Happily, my confreres have been gentle in processing my ideas, and for their forbearance I have been grateful. And that’s been yet another benefit of a summer vacation.
+Last week I was in residence at Saint Michael’s Church in Duluth, MN, while the pastor was away. There’s no way I could claim that I took his place, since my primary contribution was to say the daily Mass. But it was a wonderful week, largely because Duluth is such a beautiful place to visit. One day I was also fortunate to drive along the North Shore of Lake Superior to a point between Lutsen and Grand Marais. It was a hundred miles of gorgeous shoreline, while the highway was lined with wildflowers, including an endless parade of lupines.
+On July 27th I presided at the three parish Masses at Saint Michael’s in Duluth. You can access my sermon, The Wisdom of Solomon, in Presentations.
+Benedictines tend to work from a long-range perspective, and most abbeys are good at preserving bits and pieces of their heritage. At Saint John’s we’ve been rather exceptional at this, though the pictures of Sexton Commons in today’s post don’t give any hint of that. As the student center for the University, Sexton Commons occupies a site in the middle of campus. But so did a late 19th-century structure before it. To make way for Sexton Commons, we moved the older building to another spot, where it serves today as the pottery. Meanwhile, Sexton’s hint of romanesque style evokes our older brick buildings, as well as our European roots in Germany.