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imageWhen Monks Bring Home Good Ideas

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?

imageThat’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.

imageTo 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.

imageWhat 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.

imageSo 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.

imageNotes

+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 Solomonin Presentations.

image+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.

 

imageHow Blessed is Uncluttered Vision

People seem so surprised when they learn that we monks don’t take the vow of poverty.  I don’t know exactly what they were expecting us to do, but that’s the unvarnished truth.  We simply are not Franciscans.  Benedictines have never taken that vow, precisely because of the rationale that Saint Benedict supplies in his 6th-century Rule for Monks.

As a keen observer of human nature, Saint Benedict knew how easily monks can stray from the path that leads to God.  In fact, experience taught him that distractions lurk around every corner; and poverty, to our surprise, is just as dangerous as wealth.  How so?  Benedict need only look at the monk who isn’t getting enough sleep.  Eventually, sleep is what he’s going to think a lot about and crave.  The same goes for adequate food and clothing.  Carried to the extreme, such deprivations will derail even the monks who are most fervent in the search for God.

imageTo be fair, Benedict has an equal concern for monks having too much of anything, but the point there is much the same.  Both poverty and wealth have ways of nudging themselves to the center of our attention.  So it is that Benedict prescribes sufficiency as the best antidote.  Monks should have enough of what is necessary for a decent life, but not too much.  It’s a delicate balance, as Benedict would be the first to admit.  But neither poverty nor wealth are central to the quest for God.  Nor does either one inevitably lead to God.  In fact, they run the greater risk of luring the monk off into all sorts of dead ends.

I bring this up as a useful preamble to the first of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”  What that does not mean is “blessed are those who are literally poor.”  Nor does it suggest a grand bargain in which the poor of this world can someday demand heaven as just compensation.  It promises no such thing, because Jesus had something entirely different in mind.  He was speaking of a frame of mind that should guide all Christians as they find their way through life.

imageSo if Jesus has other ideas in mind, what might they be?  Well, first of all I think that Jesus intends that we not dwell on our poverty — nor on our wealth — morning, noon and night.  All of us know from observation that the miser and the workaholic can push stuff to the center of their lives.  But such people don’t have any monopoly on this tendency.  The fact is, whether we have a lot or a little, stuff can easily become the ball and chain that ruin our lives.  In its pursuit, or in its defense, all decent values can slip away, such that our very lives become warped.  And this truth is apparent to anyone:  you don’t need a lot of stuff to cave into this temptation.

imageThe focus on the material also has a way of putting a price tag on human life.  For better, and largely for worse, many of us unconsciously value people in direct proportion to their wealth.  That’s something that Saint John Paul II hammered away at relentlessly, often with little success even within Catholic circles.  Reduced to its bare essentials, such a view makes the world’s poor expendable.  But as the Beatitudes imply, all people have value, and they do so because they are made in the image of God.  So the material view can never be the yardstick by which one Christian measures the worth of any other person.

Finally, I think that Jesus did not intend to elevate either poverty or wealth to some special status, nor to make of them something other than what they are.  In my own mind poverty is something from which we hope to escape, rather than wear as a badge of honor.  Conversely, Jesus never branded wealth as an intrinsic evil.  Rather, it is a tool through which a person can accomplish much good or much that is bad.

imageSo might it be helpful to tweak this Beatitude just a bit?  How might the following instances sound?  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their minds will be uncluttered by distractions.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will be free to see others for who they truly are.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will know that God loves them, here and now.”

Such people will see the world differently, through God’s eyes.  And such people will see that their neighbors are made in the image of God, no matter the amount of their material possessions.  And that brings us back again to Saint Benedict, who wished his monks to see the face of Christ clearly, in everyone, and even in the stranger.  How truly blessed are they to see such beauty in the world.image

Notes

+On July 19th I presided at the funeral of Joseph Scoblic of New York City.  Joe was a member of the class of ’62 from Saint John’s University, and through the years I had the chance to visit with him and his wife Barbara many times.  The funeral took place in the Abbey church, with the burial in the Abbey cemetery.  Joe had the distinction of looking out of his dorm room window through the years of the construction of the Abbey church.  So it was wonderful to have his funeral in a building that remained an inspiration to him throughout his life.

+On July 20th I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass.   You can access my sermon, Jesus still speaks in parables, in Presentations.

+On July 18th through the 20th we hosted ninety oblates of Saint John’s Abbey for their annual retreat.  This year Abbot John delivered the retreat conferences.

image+We have recently begun a new book in the Abbey refectory, co-authored by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.  The title says it all:  The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend.

+In terms of color, this must be close to the height of brilliance in many of the gardens at Saint John’s.  Plenty of rain and moderate temperatures have turned much of the campus into a park, and I’ve tried to give a taste of it with the pictures in today’s post.

imageA Little Suffering for Justice

When I first saw A Man for All Seasons, I knew right away what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Like Thomas More, I wanted to be a lawyer.  I also wanted to be chancellor of the king of England.  And lastly, also like Thomas More, I had no particular desire to become a martyr.  Like him, I could see clearly that I was not the stuff of which martyrs are made.  Unlike him, however, I have been right about myself on that score.

As for my professional aspirations, I’ve struck out on two and am rounding the bases on the third.  I didn’t become a lawyer, and I think it’s too late now.  Nor did I become chancellor of England, which turned out to be a wildly impractical goal anyway.  But I think I’m still on target when it comes to avoiding martyrdom.  I’m still not the stuff of which martyrs are made, and I remain thoroughly convinced of that.

imageLike many, when I hear Jesus bless those who suffer for righteousness’ sake, I think immediately of martyrs like Thomas More and Thomas Becket.  I conjure up people like Mother Theresa, who worked her fingers to the bone so that a few wretched souls might have a moment of grace and love as they died.  And I think of the millions who have died under the boot of fascism or communism or all sorts of other oppressors.   I give thanks for their witness, of course; but to be frank, I also give thanks that God hasn’t called me to the same vocation.

There’s no denying that untold numbers still suffer for righteousness’ sake, all over the world.  But if the truth be told, most of us who look in the mirror don’t see people who walk in their shoes.  Most of us are blessed to live rather serene lives, hassled only by the normal challenges that people face.  But we’re only kidding ourselves if we count ourselves among the Christian martyrs of our day.

So what do we do with a Beatitude that blesses those who suffer for justice’s sake?  Is this Beatitude wasted on the likes of you and me?  I think not.

imageThe other day I read a comment from a frequent flyer who wrote that if you want to change the world, then smile at the flight attendant.  Up until then it had never dawned on me that I could contribute to peace in the world with such a simple act.  What good could that possibly accomplish?  Then I was persuaded otherwise.

Each workday thousands of flight attendants all over the world are forced — for professional reasons — to smile at all sorts of people.  Crabby people.  Cranky people.  People in a big hurry.  People absorbed in cell phones and iPads.  People who never even look back at them.  It would shock you to know how many people never bother to smile back at the person who is committed to saving their lives in the event of an emergency.

Then it struck me.  There certainly is suffering that comes to those who search for righteousness, as we see in the cases of the heroic.  But those people do not exhaust the opportunities for such witness.  Simply put, the world needs all the justice and righteousness it can get, and all of us need to contribute in any way we can, no matter how small the instance may be.  Most of us may never make the supreme sacrifice that Thomas More and others endured, but there are not a few simple inconveniences that are worth our trouble.  And they come in the cause of securing a tiny bit of justice for our corner of the planet.

imageThe opportunities are myriad, but common to most of of them is the thought that a little sacrifice on my part can go a long way in helping another.  It will not kill me, for instance, to thank someone who has done me a special kindness.  It will not impoverish me to give a decent tip to a service employee who did a good job for me.  It will  not ruin my day to acknowledge the good work someone has done, or to encourage young people who are doing the best they can.

In short, you don’t have to  undergo beheading to witness to the need for justice in the world.  We can all contribute through the little kindnesses we extend to one another.  They may be slight inconveniences for us, and they may demand just a bit of sacrifice.  But blessed will we be when we can make even a small difference in the lives of others.  On top of that, we may even make for a better day for Jesus.  Happy will he be when he sees that his words have not fallen on deaf ears.

 

imageNotes:

+On July 8th Abbot John clothed two candidates in the monastic habit, and so began their year of novitiate.  Brother Aidan Putnam is from Oakland, CA, while Brother Brad Rothrock is from Boston, MA.

+On July 9th I presided at the Abbey Mass.  The text of the sermon, We are the lost sheep of Israel, can be found in Presentations.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and at the liturgy we witnessed the renewal of vows by monks who first professed sixty, fifty and twenty-five years ago. It was a wonderfully festive day.

+In June a new exhibit of original folios from The Saint John’s Bible opened at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, CT.  The exhibit will be available through November 2nd, and the museum staff members have done a wonderful job of staging it.  Though I encourage you to visit in person, you can also take a virtual tour of the exhibit.  And if you don’t have time for that, you can drive by the big billboard on the Connecticut Turnpike that advertises the exhibit.  It is located between a sign advertising some local lawyers and another for a car dealership.  Two friends called me from the Turnpike to report the sighting, so I know it’s there.

image+Believe it or not, I still do quite a bit of reading in between other activities.  I have just finished reading Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War, by Larry Haeg.  Larry is a long-time friend and an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and his book could make for a great Hollywood production — except that all the events in the narrative happen to be true.  For those who enjoy railroad and business history in the Gilded Age, this is a great read.  For those who like Wall Street chicanery, this book has plenty of it.

+The pictures in today’s post all come from the monastic garden, which was built by several of the monks in the late 1920’s.  The photos today focus on one corner of the garden, affectionately referred to as the Scary Mary Garden.  It takes its name from a statue of Mary Queen of Peace, by New York artist Doris Cesar.   While the statue portrays her as rather exhausted-looking, with the olive branch drooping, she still has a hint of determination in her face.  The quest for peace is never easy.

 

imageRend Not Your Garments

I never quite understood the ancient biblical fashion for rending your garments when you ran across behavior that was particularly shocking.  For one thing, shredding perfectly decent clothing is not good stewardship.  Nor is it very egalitarian, since it tells everyone that there are plenty more clothes where these came from.  On top of that, it’s not especially inclusive.  After all, if so many of the poor in the Bible had only one set of clothes to their name, how were they supposed to signal their disgust?  No, they faced the same dilemma that so many of us agonize over today.  Ripping up your clothes may play well to the crowd, but what will you do when you go out in the evening and have nothing to wear?

The other problem with garment-rending is that it can send the wrong message sometimes.  You may intend to communicate your disapproval by ripping in half your cloak.  But to some onlookers it might come across differently.  To them it could look suspiciously self-righteous.  How, then, can you be sure that others get the right message?

imageIf the Bible is correct on this, Jesus himself may have been the cause of many a session of garment-rending.  That may explain why one of his Beatitudes did not read “Blessed are those who thirst for self-righteousness.”  No, he’d seen plenty of such people already, hanging around the public square jostling for the best angle for the camera.  Jesus very likely worked on the assumption that the world had yet to run short of the self-righteous.  What it needed instead were a few more who searched for righteousness.  I think he meant to encourage that with this Beatitude.

It’s my theory that the thirst for righteousness does not subsist in pointing out the foibles of others.  Nor is it judgmental.  Nor does the know-it-all come to mind when I think of the righteous person.  Such people seem more intent on staking out the high ground, all the better to be seen in the best light.  In the righteous person, however, there is just a hint of humility.

imageI’m the first to admit that my own thirst for righteousness could be a bit more intense.  Still, I know it when I see it in others.  For one thing, the righteous person does the right thing, unselfconsciously.  Those who strive for righteousness are people of conviction and integrity, and they remain so even when such behavior comes back to haunt them.  Such people do what they must do because it is the honorable and noble thing.  They seem able to resist the herd mentality that justifies the worst behavior because “everyone else does it.”

A second trait in those who thirst for righteousness is the power that they command.  It’s not that they seek power for its own sake; nor do people bestow on them some legal responsibility.  Rather, they command respect because they are people of integrity.  They make a difference through lives of unstinting service, and unwittingly they become pillars of strength to whom others look for guidance.

imageStill another feature of such people is that they try to do the right thing, even if it’s not fashionable, and even if no one is watching.  They tend to the sick and the poor.  They pay attention to those in distress.  They take time to chat with the lonely.  They lend a helping hand without thinking twice about their own inconvenience.  And they do it all without benefit of megaphone, press release, or cameras rolling.

Where’s the reward in all this?  Frankly, we’d be better advised to ask those who thirst for righteousness, because they’re the ones most likely to find it now and again.  But my guess is that they do find it, and they find it in the faces of those who suffer, who in fact have the faces of Christ.   They also find their reward when they look at their neighbors and see people created in the image of God.  And at the very least, there has to be some little smidgen of satisfaction in knowing that you’ve given life your best shot.  Quite possibly, if virtue is its own reward, then the search for righteousness may be an excellent example.

imageThe fact of the matter is, we probably have more than enough of the self-righteous in the world.  By contrast, we are painfully short of those who search for righteousness.  Had there been more of such people, imagine how easy it would have been for Lot to find just ten of them.  Imagine how crowded it might have been at the foot of the cross.  Sadly, on both occasions far too many people were tied up being self-righteous and judgmental that day.

But hope springs eternal, which is why Jesus turns to us with advice that makes good sense and is cost-effective to boot.  “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”  Now there’s advice that’s easy on the budget.  And we may well discover that righteousness is far more prevalent than we had thought.

imageNotes
+The monks celebrated the 4th of July with a cookout and picnic in the garden behind the monastery. That’s been our tradition for ages, save for the times when rain ruined the day. This year the weather was perfect, and for our visiting monks from Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, India and Austria it was a great introduction to a traditional slice of American life.
+Last week I had the opportunity to meet our bees, up close and personal, courtesy of our bee-keepers, Brothers Nick and Lew. For generations the monks at Saint John’s have kept bees, and the honey ends up on our refectory table, when the bees have enough to spare. This year our bees seem to be doing particularly well, due, no doubt, to the rains that have produced an abundance of wildflowers.  At the moment clover seems to be the flower of choice; but in a few days the basswood trees will be in flower.  According to those who seem to know these things, basswood makes outstanding honey.
imageMonks in the Middle Ages were among the major bee-keepers in Western Europe. They used the honey in their cooking, but they also converted quite a lot of it into mead, a honey-based wine. In England the monks were especially revered for their mead, and the suppression of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII meant a major setback for that industry. Even so, there are still a few people who make mead, but its glory days are well in the past.

+In last week’s post I included several photos of Japanese tree lilacs that were in bloom across the campus.  In a happy postscript, I received an email from a long-time friend and alumnus of Saint John’s, who reported that those trees were once quite rare in Minnesota.  As a student he asked if he might have some seeds from the large specimen that stood in front of the Great Hall, and he duly forwarded them to the family nursery in Newport, MN.  There the seeds germinated, grew and multiplied; and from there they spread across the state.  Little did I know that our tree at Saint John’s had so many progeny!

imageBlessed are the Merciful

Most Americans take it for granted that our judicial system is fair and equitable, but we shouldn’t.  The fact is, much of the world doesn’t enjoy this luxury.  And we should never take our own system for granted, because justice only comes with a lot of hard work and honesty.

Take, for example, the recent case of the judge in Pennsylvania who had earned a fearsome reputation for his dealings with juvenile offenders.  Offenses great and small all earned the same punishment: a trip to the juvenile detention center.  And for his zeal in doling out such strict justice, he won acclaim from his many friends and neighbors.  Unfortunately, however, something else was going on here.

imageSomewhere along the line the county had privatized the juvenal center, and investors poured money into a new facility that promised to save the county buckets of money.  In their enthusiasm no one questioned why per-prisoner costs rose far beyond that of neighboring counties.  Nor did anyone wonder that conviction rates rose as well.  But they should have factored in the law of supply and demand.  A bigger facility demanded more prisoners, and among the first to recognize and exploit the opportunity was the judge.  As investigators eventually learned, the judge began to send “guests” at a pace that satisfied the needs of the administrators, while he reaped a per capita reward for his efforts.  So efficient did the process become, that in the morning the judge would send a list of how many prisoners they should expect by the end of the business day — hours before he had heard the cases.

This miscarriage of justice shocked a lot of people, and rightly so.  The vast majority of us appreciate the agony that the vast majority of judges endure as they try to balance justice and mercy.  But here was a judge who had managed to disregard both justice and mercy.  There’s no knowing how many lives he ruined; but justice finally prevailed, and ironically he succeeded in ruining his own life as well.

imageI would not begin to speculate on the fate of this judge when he stands in the divine courtroom, but I’m curious to know how God might apply the fifth of the Beatitudes to him.  At the very least, were I that judge, I would move to throw out the Beatitude that reads “blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  Then would come the big question on which the judge’s fate would hang.  Would God entertain such a motion?

Mercy is definitely a tough nut to crack, particularly when it is stacked up against the need for justice.  If on the one hand there is no  justice, then laws are pointless and the pushy are free to trample the  helpless.  But if there is no mercy, then we go back to the automatic penalty of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  From such judgements there can be no appeal, especially if you’re the one who paid the penalty.

There are a lot of practical benefits to mercy that we should not forget.  For one thing, mercy lets other people start over.  Mercy accepts their regret and atonement as authentic, and then it lets them move on.  And mercy is in a sense its own reward, since it allows us to move on as well.  It frees us from the stifling grip of past injury.  And what a wonderful thing it is to travel through life without that heavy baggage.

imageMercy also allows us the chance to salvage a relationship.  Being merciful means that we don’t use past hurts as leverage over people who otherwise could and should mean a great deal to us.  Mercy lets us wipe the slate clean, even as it frees us from the need to exact vengeance or the justice that may be due to us.

There’s still another side to the exercise of mercy that’s worth consideration.  There could very well come a time when we might need just a bit of mercy ourselves.  As unthinkable as it may seem, it’s not just other people who do terrible and despicable things.  We  have our own shot at such behavior too, and it’s within the realm of possibility that someday we’ll need, if not crave, mercy.  If we’ve been able to show mercy, perhaps we’ll teach others to render it in return.  And perhaps we’ll also know how to accept mercy gracefully when it comes our way.

imageI suspect all this is what Jesus had in mind when he taught us how to pray.  Not surprisingly, his prayer begins with a request for the simplest of things — our daily bread.  But by the end of the prayer he draws from our mouths words that are a little difficult to put into practice:  “forgive us as we forgive others.”  That’s a pretty bold request to put to God, unless of course we’ve become adept at being merciful already.

Clearly, a world in which there is no mercy is a place where most of us would not want to live.  No wonder Pope Francis keeps pushing this issue.  Who wants a merciless Church?  Who wants merciless friends and neighbors?  And who among us aspires to a life in which we are cold and merciless?  In such a society the mercy of God will be absent.  Why?  Because God chooses to exercise mercy through us.  We are God’s instruments, and God’s mercy enters the world when we show mercy to one another.  Only then will be we blessed and enjoy mercy ourselves.

imageNotes

+Every now and again we all make big and little goofs, and my turn came on June 26th.  I woke up cranky that day, made all the worse when I looked at the calendar and realized that I had forgotten that I was the celebrant for the Abbey Mass that afternoon.  I dutifully prepared a homily, and I showed up in the sacristy early (not a trait of mine, by the way.)  To my surprise, my least favorite chasuble was laid out.  Since the sacristan knew that I didn’t care all that much for that particular vestment, I began to wonder if I had offended anyone.  It turned out that my suspicions were groundless, as I had somehow misread the calendar.  I was not the celebrant after all, and all that preparation was for naught.  However, you can still read the undelivered sermon, Strong Walls or Strong Foundation?

+On June 25th the community rejoiced to move back into the abbey refectory, after several weeks of maintenance there.  Our temporary dining spot in the basement recreation room had been crowded and incredibly noisy, and we won’t miss it.

image+This past week the choir stalls for visitors were filled with an abundance of guests.  But the largest group happened to be twenty-six candidates for the diaconate from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis, here for a five-day retreat.  They adapted quickly to the rhythm of our recitation of the Psalms, and they knew all the hymns we sang.  So they added quite a lot to our prayer.  Not only do we wish them well in their ministry, but we will miss them!

+Each week of summer seems to bring some new delight in the landscape.  Currently the Japanese lilac trees are in bloom, and their pungent aroma fills the air.  We are blessed with many beautiful specimens scattered about the campus, as the photos in today’s post illustrate.

imageBlessed Too Are the Paranoid

Sometimes the Beatitudes seem idealistic to the point of absurdity.  Take “purity of heart,” for instance.  What in the world does it mean to be pure of heart?  What’s so blessed about it?  And why would any intelligent person want to be pure of heart anyway?

At first blush the pure of heart appear to be little more than innocents abroad.  They’re the sort of people with whom conmen and muggers have a field day, because with them the pickings seem so easy.  They are the lambs who happily march off to the slaughter, oblivious to the fate that awaits them.  Who in their right mind would opt to be such docile prey?

Were Jesus to rework the Beatitudes for a 21st-century audience, and were he playing to the crowd, he’d definitely have to make some accommodation to modern tastes.  For one thing, he’d need to account for the street-smarts that many value as a virtue today.  Out would be ideals like purity of heart, because they only lead to trouble.  In would be a radically different perspective on the world, and better Beatitudes would naturally follow.

image“Blessed are the paranoid, for they will see enemies behind every bush.”  “Blessed are the deeply suspicious, for they’ll never be disappointed.”  And “blessed are the pessimists, for they shall see things going from bad to worse.”  Those would be Beatitudes better suited to our brave new world.

Well, here’s a chance for Christians to put on their counter-cultural hats and stick to the words of Jesus with a rigid literalism. The fact is, Jesus very likely meant what he said about the pure of heart, and he had not a shred of doubt that such people are truly blessed.

It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus never advised his disciples to be naive or simple, and on at least one occasion he counseled them to be sly as serpents and innocent as doves.  So attentiveness to the world and its ways is a must, he suggests.  Precisely because of that, the disciples of Jesus must be sure that their eyes always are wide open, so that they can survey the entire panorama.  They can’t spend all their time looking for the demon behind every door, because that’s only part of the picture.  In fact, there’s all sorts of other stuff going on, and they ought not miss any of it.

Given what’s out there to see, through what filter do we want to sift all the data?  Do we really want to gaze out with unabashed purity of heart?  Do we really want to be people in whom there is no guile?  What’s the benefit of such an approach?

imageOne quick pay-back is a freshness of vision as we see things we’d not noticed before.  If we’re open to others, for example, we might very well discover some of the goodness we had overlooked in them.  If we begin to trust others, we could very well conclude that a great many people are worthy of our trust.  If we begin to give others the benefit of the doubt, we might find that some people — if not a whole bunch of people — are trying to do the right thing and to do the best they can.  And as an added bonus, we just might realize that others trust us in return, and they try to give us the benefit of the doubt.

At the risk of reducing the Beatitudes to a series of either/or options, then, I do think that Jesus intended just such an approach when he speaks about purity of heart.  There are indeed two ways of looking at life, and we have to choose.  On the one  hand, we can look at life through the lens of paranoia, and we’ll see evil lurking everywhere.  In such a world the devil roams freely, unchecked, and things only get worse and worse.  People, as instruments of the evil one, can scarcely be trusted, ever.  And since people generally live up to the expectations we heap on them, we’re never disappointed when we expect the worst of them.

imageBut consider the alternative — the lens of purity of heart.  There’s no denying that the world is a mixed bag of good and evil, but the pure of heart are lucky enough to get frequent glimpses of the good.  They’re not afraid to draw the curtains open and discover that God is at work in the world after all.  The pure of heart also have the courage to let the scales fall from their eyes, just long enough to realize that God does some pretty awesome things.  And God does them through our friends and neighbors, and even through strangers.  Who would have thought!

Anyway, that’s my take on purity of heart.  The pure of heart get the chance to enjoy the big picture, and they’re privileged to see God using some very imperfect people to do great things.  Meanwhile, the paranoid have their work cut out for them too, even if the world they survey is much narrower.  Ironically, blessed indeed are the paranoid, because they always seem to find what they’re looking for.  But blessed too are the pure of heart, for they get to see God.  That’s not all that bad of a choice.

imageNotes

+On June 19th and 20th I was in San Francisco to attend the annual investiture of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  I had two good reasons for being there, the first of which was my sponsorship of new member Maureen Wright, a long-time friend.  I was also a member of the planning committee for the investiture, so I had a personal stake in the smooth running of the events.

On the 19th the investees and their sponsors gathered for a two-hour vigil service at Mission Dolores, the 18th-century mission founded by Junipero Serra.  The next day we gathered for the investiture and Mass at the Jesuit Church of Saint Ignatius, a gorgeous baroque church on the campus of the University of San Francisco.

It was a good liturgy by the Jesuit definition, since no one got hurt.  All in all things turned out wonderfully, despite one small disappointment.  At the hotel entrance, as we waited for our transport to Mission Dolores, a small crowd had gathered outside.  Naturally we assumed they were there to greet us, but we were wrong.  They were waiting for the Boston Red Sox, who boarded the bus in front of ours.  And unlike the Red Sox, no one asked for our autographs, except when it came time to pay the bills.

image+Occasionally I write articles for various publications, and here is the link to a piece I wrote  last winter on Pope Gregory the Great, who served as pope from 590-604.  The article appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Journal, the newsletter of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  It is part of a series of profiles of several doctors of the Church.

+During the past week four of our monks in simple vows have been attending the annual formation program for young monks, held this year at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.  In addition to hearing about monastic topics, it gives monks in formation from houses across the country the chance to meet and compare notes.   Brothers Richard, Lucian, Eric and David are attending the two-week conference.

imageBlessed Are Those Who Mourn — Really?

There are times when Jesus seems to put the best face on something that no sensible person would really want.  Take mourning, for instance.  Who’s really all that keen on mourning?  Is there anyone who enjoys a good grieving these days?  Is there anyone who gets a thrill out of losing someone or something dear to them?  There may be such people, but thankfully I don’t know where they live.

Was Jesus just a little haywire when he suggested that mourners are blessed?  Certainly it’s a nice thought that someday they’ll be comforted, but is that promise of comfort enough to justify all the current sadness?  Frankly, I’m more than a little skeptical, and I’d be willing to forego both the mourning and the comforting, if that’s an option.

imageHeaven knows there’s plenty of opportunity in life to mourn, and most of us have already tasted a little bit of it already.  We also know how tough it can be to pull ourselves through such an experience, and comfort often comes only after prolonged struggle.  It’s never a picnic, and no sane person would wish to mourn — until you consider the price you must pay to avoid any and all mourning.

How might it sound if Jesus were to turn this whole Beatitude around?  At first blush, “Blessed are they who never mourn” sounds like a terrific option to me.  What a blissful existence never to lose anyone important to you.  How delightful never to lose anything of value to you.  What a blessing that would be — or would it?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but invulnerability to all pain and suffering might very well extract a heavy price.  It could demand that we be unfeeling and devoid of emotion.  It could require that we steel ourselves against any potential hurt or disappointment.  Would such a pain-free life be worth it?

imageSeen from that perspective, those who never have to mourn may be the ones to be pitied.  Because they’ve risked nothing, they’ve nothing to lose nor nothing to mourn.  Such people lead risk-averse lives.  Such people find it difficult if not impossible to make commitments, be they in marriage or in friendship.  Such people hold back from loving others, for fear of being hurt.  Such people dread closing off their options in life, lest they compromise their freedom.  Ironically, such people can cherish a bundle of competing dreams, but eventually they find they’ve never fulfilled a single one of them.

When we meditate on the Beatitudes it’s always good to see them for what they are: wisdom.  So when Jesus says that they are blessed who mourn, he’s merely pointing out the consequences of a life well-lived.  This Beatitude is an invitation to participate fully in life, knowing that along the way there will be ups and downs.  But long before we reach the finish line of life, we’ll know that it was worth all the effort just to run the race, as Saint Paul reminds us.

imageUnlike those who never have to mourn, those who do mourn do so because they’ve risked something of themselves.  They’ve loved other people and extended themselves to others.  They’ve made commitments, fearless in the hope that something good will come from them.  They’ve closed out some options, knowing that wisdom and common sense demanded it.  And they’ve chosen one dream and left others aside, just because it’s important to get on with life.

So where exactly will we who mourn find the comfort that Jesus promises?  Well, I think that one part of that comfort is in knowing that Jesus will walk with us every step of the way, no matter what.  The second comfort is like it.  In the course of a life filled with risk, we will meet fellow travellers.  We will not walk alone, and one of life’s joys is to be found in sharing life with others rather than in insulating ourselves from them.

Finally, we’ll likely gain a little wisdom along the way.  I’ve always puzzled over that other promise of Jesus, when he said that those who lose their lives for his sake will find them.  I may be risk-averse by nature, and I love predictability; but like most other people I also like surprises.  I just hope I’m open enough to let Jesus surprise me now and again.

imageNotes

+On Sunday, June 15th, I celebrated Mass at the Church of Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Rockville, MN, and you can find my sermon on The Feast of the Holy Trinity in Presentations.  Rockville is a village only thirteen miles from Saint John’s, and it wears its German heritage on its sleeve.  The small church, holding about three hundred, is just the right size for a parish church, as far as I am concerned.  One highlight of the Mass came when the children were invited to bring their offerings up and place them in the basket, which I held out to them.  One two-year-old dutifully dropped a dollar into the basket with one hand, and then reached in to retrieve another bill with the other hand.  His four-year-old sister put a stop to that.

+This week in the Abbey we did something that we rarely do:  we gave up on a book we were reading at table in the refectory.  We had been reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, but Abbot John summed up the feeling of many when he declared it to be “pretty tough going.”  We’ve now started Massimo Faggioli’s John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy.  At the very least, we can all imagine Pope John as someone who would be more than happy to sit down and join us for dinner.

image+Now that we are into the summer season, all sorts of groups have begun to appear on campus.  Last week we enjoyed the unlikely juxtaposition of two groups who coexisted happily as they shared the campus.  For years we have hosted an annual retreat of Buddhists, led by several elegantly-robed Buddhist monks.  This year all 250 of them did their daily rounds of silent meditation at one end of campus, while at the other end we hosted a weeklong camp for the Woconia High School Marching Band.  I wish I could have gotten a group photo of them together, but that was not to be.

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