imageBe As Generous as Children

If you pay the least bit of attention to the scripture readings Sunday after Sunday, there finally comes the day when you think you’ve heard it all.  That certainly was the case two Sundays ago when I attended a parish church and heard for the umpteenth time the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  Like many people, I long ago assumed that the final word on it had been uttered.  So it was that I settled into the pew and prepared to day-dream my way through the sermon.  But I’m glad I didn’t.

That Sunday the priest took an approach that was entirely new to me.  I had always accepted that this miracle demonstrated above all the power of Jesus.  It also highlighted the ineptitude of the apostles.  Beyond that, the story wasn’t all that flattering to the crowd either.  Did no one among the 5,000 think to remember there’d be no convenience stores out in the wilderness?  Clearly nobody had done the least bit of planning, nor did they have any reason to expect that Jesus would cater the event.

imageThat Sunday the preacher ignored all that and went off in an entirely different direction.  In his telling, it was the boy with the sack lunch who was the critical piece to this gospel account.  As soon as the boy realized the problem, he knew he had a choice to make.  He could offer what little he had, or he could hold on to it.  Logic told him that a few loaves and a couple of fish wouldn’t go very far with this crowd, and he needed no apostles to tell him that.  His own intuition likely whispered in his ear that there was little if anything that he could do to make a serious difference.  He was just a boy, and it wasn’t his problem anyway.  But be that as it may, in all naiveté he came forward and offered what little he had.  Despite the naysayers and scoffers in the crowd, he stepped up.  He may have been the least of the 5,000, but he was the only one who made the move to do something.  And he was the one person on whom Jesus depended to do his miracle.

A few days later I recounted this to my friend Willa, expecting her to say that she’d never considered this slant to the story either.  But not so, and she went on at length to make two other points.  First, what if this was food he’d brought for his family?  It takes a lot of nerve to sacrifice their needs just to help out other people who had made zero preparation for this day.  And then came her second point.  Children can be generous to a fault, while adults can hold on for dear life to what they have.  “Who else in that crowd of 5,000 had also thought to bring food?” she wondered.  “Why didn’t they step up sooner to share what they had?  Why was it just him?”

imagePerhaps there are two miracles in this story, and not just one.  In the first miracle Jesus let the boy turn the hearts of the crowd.  Once the boy had acted, we can only hope that a few others finally stepped forward to share what little they had.  That was a miracle all by itself.  But in his second miracle Jesus took what was at hand, blessed it, and then fed the 5,000.  All were filled, and no one could explain how it had happened.

So what are the takeaways from this umpteenth reading of the miracle of the loaves and fishes?  First of all, we must never sell ourselves short when it comes to the importance of taking the initiative.  We’re all tempted to believe that we can’t make much of a difference.  But if we act, and if we try to do something, we can make all the difference in the world.  Just ask the boy.

Second, Jesus doesn’t always rely on the important people to get things done.  In this miracle, for instance, the apostles did not cut very dynamic figures.  In fact they’re pretty much clueless.  Jesus could see it, and so could the little boy.  As for the crowd of 5,000, it was passive at best; and at worst there may even have been a few who blamed Jesus for getting them into a such fine mess.

imageThe boy seemed to be the only one who realized he could do something, even if it wasn’t much.  Perhaps he thought that if he came forward, it might encourage others to do so as well.  Clearly none of this occured to the apostles.  And not a few in the crowd must have looked at the boy’s gift of bread and fish and rolled their eyes.  But of course Jesus saw in this simple act of generosity the chance to work a great sign.

The last takeaway is a reminder to read the scriptures over and over again.  If Jesus asks us to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven, he’d likely apply the same mathematical formula when it comes to chewing on the Word of God.  We may think we know all there is to know about the gospels, but there’s always the potential for more insight.  And so, when you think you know all there is to know (like me), just turn to your neighbors for confirmation.  They might very well surprise you.


+The last few days have been mild at Saint John’s, and there’s a hint of autumn in the air.  Our first students will begin to arrive on campus in two weeks, and in anticipation of that, summer activities have begun to taper off.  Two very different events bracketed the last week, however.  On Monday a group of high school students from Saint Rita’s Church in Hawaii gave a performance of song and dance in the Great Hall.  On Friday the high school marching band camp ended its week with a spirited performance in Clemens Stadium.  On a more domestic note, the abbey bees gave us eighty-five pounds of honey this last week, with the promise of more to come by fall.

+The newest addition to the landscape was installed last week, with the construction of a structure that marks the entrance to the hiking path that leads to Stella Maris Chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan.  The wooden beams are white pine that had been planted on the Abbey property over a hundred years ago; and in the spirit of the Benedictine tradition, we expect the new trail entrance to last anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty years.

image+The photos in today’s post include the new structure that marks the entrance to the trail going along the lake.  The trail makes its first major stop at the statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, which stands on a hilll overlooking the lake.  At the saint’s feet is a dog, and over the years cross-country runners have polished the dog’s nose as they touch it on races through the woods to the chapel on the other side of the lake.

imagePrepare Your Eulogy

If you’ve not paged through The Road to Character, by David Brooks, it’s definitely worth your while.  By now there have been plenty of reviews, and perhaps you’ve read one.  But as an inveterate Brooks fan, let me add to the chorus of appreciation for his latest book.

In it Brooks laments the change in personal ambition that’s taken place over the last fifty years,  For too long now, he notes, increasing numbers of people have spent the bulk of their lives compiling resumés.  To their regret, as they sometimes discover in their twilight years, they should have spent more time on the qualities better-suited for a eulogy.

The root cause of this change in direction is an infatuation with what Brooks calls “The Big Me.”  If, once upon a time, people espoused ideals that tilted toward altruism, that’s simply not the case any longer.  Today “it’s all about me,” and we value others primarily for what they can do for me.

imageHe devotes the bulk of his book to sketches of several gifted individuals who each faced a crisis of character.  Because he’s assembled such a diverse pool of personalities, you wonder what all of these people could possibly have in common.  But the thread that runs through all of them was the dawning awareness that life and civilization and the universe itself was not all about them after all.  In fact, life only began to have meaning when they made room for others in their own lives.  To borrow from the gospels, which Brooks does on more than one occasion, they discovered the nugget of wisdom that Jesus pointed out about those who lose their lives for the sake of others.  Only when they they lose their lives do they begin to regain them.  Only then do they acquire a real sense of purpose.  Only then does life begin to have some semblance of meaning.

If I may be so bold, this is a variation of a theme that I have  hammered away at in retreat conferences for a few years now.  I’ll grant that the point is not unique to me, but my self-interested approach may be a bit on the singular side.  It’s this.  For years I’ve pleaded with people to keep me in mind when they consider end-of-life plans.  “Don’t make me have to tell a pack of lies at your funeral.  For heaven’s sake, and for mine too, give me something to work with.  Think ahead, and give me and your friends some material we can use in your eulogy.”

imageIt strikes me that this is a useful complement to the advice Brooks has to give.  It’s also a chance to leverage self-interest and put it at the service of others.  This is one case in which being considerate of others means doing a big favor for yourself as well.

As a case in point, I cite the eulogy that the abbot has to give on the death of each of our monks.  He usually begins with material that Brooks labels resumé, and he lists the assignments and jobs of the deceased.  What we monks all realize is that these responsibilities were held by monks who went before the deceased, and now that he’s gone we’ll have to find someone else to do them.  So these initial comments of the abbot say little or nothing about the monk whom we remember that day.  It’s not that these things don’t matter;  its just that a resumé does not describe a real human being.

The abbot then shifts to speak about the qualities that this particular monk embodied in his life.  He tries to describe the character and the soul of our confrere, and this is what occasions wistful memories and an occasional chuckle.  This is the description of a real live human being.  This is the monk who loved and prayed and worked and walked alongside us.  This is the man who did some things well and others less well as he joined us in the search for God.

And all the while, as the abbot goes through this exercise, each of us knows that someday our turn will come.  As for me, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve given the abbot enough material for a decent eulogy.  Or will it only be data for a resumé?

imageWhen Brooks points to The Big Me as the root of the problem, it occurs to me that this business has been around for a long time.  Perhaps the first instance of it was the offer that the snake made to Adam and Eve.  Since then a myriad of thoughtful people have reflected on this, including Saint Benedict.   His teaching on the need for humility suggests that The Big Me was alive and well in the sixth century.  More recently I’ve been struck by a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta.  We pray that we be “forgetful of ourselves,” so that we mgiht be clear-eyed to see the needs of the sick and the poor.

The battle with The Big Me rages on within most of us, and as a culture we seem to be losing ground each day.  Given that, it’s helpful to keep one thing in mind.  It wasn’t all that many centuries ago when most people believed that the universe revolved around the sun.  Today we mock them for living in their heliocentric world.  But are we really any smarter for living in an egocentric world?  Only time will tell, and so will our eulogists.  And if we see them heading for the confessional after our funeral, we’ll know we didn’t give them enough to work with.


+On July 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Sheep with a Shepherd, through this link.

+In addition to reading The Pursuit of Character, by David Brooks, I also recently completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2015.)  I enjoy all of McCullough’s work, and I would only fault this book for being too short.  In the Abbey we are reading in the refectory the new encyclical by Pope Francis.

+The summer continues to be lovely at Saint John’s, and in today’s post I have included photos of the gardens inside the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

imageThe Oblates Retreat

Ever since Saint Anthony ran off to the Egyptian desert at the end of the third century, many people have been fascinated with the monastic life.  Certainly that was true for the practitioners of it, but it was equally the case for those who hiked out to catch a glimpse of these holy men and women.

But when people treked out to the wilderness to talk with Anthony and hundreds of others like him, what did they go out to the desert to see?  Well, not a few went out to satisfy their curiosity.  Others sought spiritual advice.  Still others hoped to get a taste of the holiness of God that had taken root in these holy men and women.  And quite naturally a reckless few went out to join them in the quest for God.

If you fast-forward two hundred and fifty years to Saint Benedict, the interest had not cooled.  If anything, it was more intense, and Benedict noted that in his monastery guests were never wanting.  In fact, by his time guests had become such an important part of the monastic life that he incorporated them into the spiritual experience.  He wrote that monks should welcome guests as they would welcome Christ, just as they welcome Christ in the abbot and in their fellow monks.

imageIn our own day people still visit monasteries, though not quite in the same numbers as they do sports stadia and malls and theme parks.  However, curiosity about all things spiritual has by no means vanished from the face of the earth, despite our fascination with all things commercial.  Maybe it’s precisely because of the latter that people come to monasteries today, as well as for all the reasons that they did in Anthony’s day.

Saint Benedict may have anticipated all of this, but he likely never imagined the birth and growth of oblate programs in the twentieth century.  So it is that he made no provision for people who might want to associate themselves with a particular monastery, and who would promise to live according to the principles of the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Given their circumstances, such people today promise to live according to the Rule, “insofar as their state in life permits.”  However, that means they don’t have to ditch their spouse or abandon their children.  Nor do they have to give up their day jobs to spend all of their time in prayer.  But it does involve a commitment to weave the sacred into their lives.  It entails a life in which they see the face of Christ in their neighbors, and they commit themselves to daily prayer to sustain this vision and way of life.

imageAt Saint John’s Abbey the oblate program has grown significantly in the last few years.  Today some five hundred-thirty oblates are affiliated with the abbey, and this last weekend ninety of them gathered at Collegeville for an annual three-day retreat.

Who are our oblates?  For one, they are a diverse lot.  They come from all walks of life and professions, and they include alumni from our University and prep school as well as people who only discovered Saint John’s much later in life.  And despite the existence of oblate programs that are bound to be located nearer to their homes, our oblates come from all over the place.  In a short space of time on Saturday I chatted with one oblate who had flown in from Santa Rosa, CA; another from San Antonio; and I spied one from Toronto.  Of course the majority of our oblates come from the midwest, but these days geography seems to matter little. Technology allows people to share in our community life in so many ways, and for many the mere awareness of that spiritual communion is enough to sustain them.

imageSo what in the world do people do on a three-day retreat in a monastery?  Well, for those who’ve never done it, it can be a total mystery.  But boring it is not.  Nothing to do?  Definitely not.  The fact of the matter is, most participants find there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it.

The entire retreat schedule entwines around the liturgy of the hours, and our oblates join the monks for the entire schedule of prayer.  And if the addition of ninety voices sounds like it could throw the recitation of the Psalms out of kilter, be assured that it works okay, at least most of the time.  And I have to imagine Saint Benedict’s pleasure at seeing so many joining his monks in the praise of God.

Then there are the conferences.  Monks take turns on this, and two years ago I delivered the talks.  This year Brother David-Paul, the subprior, delivered four conferences.

imageIn between prayer and conferences there are festive and not-so-festive meals, and woven throughout is camaraderie.  A lot of these oblates have gotten to know many other oblates as well as many of the monks.  This is the time to renew those ties, so everyone savors the moments of holy leisure that allow friendships to renew and deepen.

If the time at Saint John’s replenishes the oblates, it also nourishes them for life after the journey home.  After all, the  whole point of being an oblate is to live according to Saint Benedict’s vision, but not to move in with us to do it.  So it is that people wishing to become oblates go through a one-year probation, at the end of which they make their commitment to this way of life.  This year eight people made their oblation, and they did so to Abbot John, in the presence of the monastic community, at evening prayer on Saturday.  In a parallel to the rite of monastic profession, each promised to live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, “insofar as their state in life allowed.”  Then they signed their document on the altar, as oblate director Fr. Michael Peterson looked on.

imageFor two and a half years Fr. Michael has worked with the oblates, and he followed Fr. Don Tauscher as director.  In place is a schedule that includes Advent and Lent days of reflection, as well as monthly meetings both at Saint John’s and elsewhere.  Fr. Michael sees value in a program that creates a connection between the monks and the oblates.  It’s mutually beneficial; and it answers a spiritual need that is as great today as it was in the days of Saint Anthony.

“People look for a spiritual tradition that is ancient and fresh, and practical for life,” he says.  “They want tools to foster their discipleship.”  And after 1,500 years, the Benedictine way of life is still capable of that.


+On July 13th I presided at the Eucharist for the students and faculty of the School of Theology at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, Stretching the Limits of Love, through this link.

+From July 17th through the 19th the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey were here on their annual retreat.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate their gathering.  In the fifth picture Fr. Michael demonstrates his unique way of calling the audience to order.  It’s a bit more elegant that the customary “shut up!”  At bottom is Brother David-Paul, waiting for his turn at the podium.

+On July 18th I presided at the interment of Cheryl Dobberstein, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Mark Dobberstein.  This took place in the abbey cemetery.

imageMonastic Profession

Last week we experienced a wonderful transition in the abbey.  It began on July 8th when Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian as a novice.  So began his year of discernment, during which he considers a calling to the monastic life and a commitment to our community.

On Saturday the 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and having come to the end of his year of novitiate, Brother Aidan pronounced his first vows.  In that same ceremony Brothers Eric, Isaiah, Lucien and Richard made their solemn vows.  They had completed a year as novices and three years as junior monks, and from this point they take their place as full members of the community.  Among other things this means that they now take part in the monastic chapter meetings, and they get to cast a vote alongside the rest of us.

Most people have never seen any rite of religious profession, which is too bad.  For one thing, it’s filled with symbolism that includes gesture, word and clothing.  But of even deeper significance, it can convey a sense of vitality and hope for the future in any community.

imageIn our case, much of the ritual dates back 1,400 years to the time of Saint Benedict.  So it was that Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian in the monastic habit, in the presence of the community, at morning prayer.  On the 11th the novice and four juniors who were to profess knelt individually before Abbot John, and they read the petition which each had written in his own hand.  Then, again in accord with the Rule of Benedict, each signed his petition on the altar, and together the five petitions rested on the altar through the remainder of the liturgy.

Abbot John then gave to Brother Aidan a copy of the Rule — which was sort of redundant because he had read it many times already.  Following that the abbot clothed the four solemnly-professed monks in the cuculla.  This is a flowing wool garment that we wear over our habit, and it is best-bestowed in July when the weather is at its hottest and most humid.  This time around the weather came very close to ideal for that, but not quite.  Still, visitors never fail to ask why the other monks don’t wear the cuculla in mid-July, and the answer is simple.  The cuculla is best worn in winter when it can do some practical good.  But for the newly-professed it signifies full membership in the community.  There’s always time to be practical later on.

imageAt the end of this liturgy it’s our custom to gather under the bell banner to give the sign of peace to the newly-professed.  On Saturday that was the joyous conclusion to a splended event, and it marked a new stage in the lives of the professed and the community as well.

The admission of new members into the community quite naturally brings growth.  That may be true in terms of numbers, but it’s truer still when it comes to spirit.  Saint Benedict writes that the abbot should seek counsel from all the monks, and not just from among the seniors.  There is wisdom to be had among the young, he writes, and when six people become a part of the community, the pool of wisdom is bound to grow — at least in theory.

On a more tangible level, change is bound to take place with the addition of even one new monk.  Simply put, new people change us and we change them.  And this change comes because Benedictines do not create clones when new people enter.  We welcome them lock, stock and barrel.  We welcome their talents, their personalities, their experience, as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future.

imageSo what have these young men brought to our community?  For one thing, they’ve brought geographic diversity.  Novice Cassian is likely the first in our community to come from Atlanta.  He attended Belmont University in Nashville and later earned a graduate degree in theology from Vanderbilt — yet another first for us.  Brother Aidan lived in Okaland, CA, and he attended the University of California at Santa Cruz.  He also holds an MFA degree.

Our solemnly-professed are a diverse lot as well.  Brother Richard grew up in Sioux City, IA, and he graduated from Saint John’s University.  After that he worked in the theater department at Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict.  Brother Isaiah grew up in a military family, but primarily in Tucson; and he too went to Saint John’s.  After graduation he worked as an accountant for several years at Price Waterhouse in Phoenix before coming to the monastery.  Brother Lucien lived in San Antonio, where he eventually earned an MA in history at the University of Texas.  Finally, Brother Eric grew up in Ohio, attended college at the University of Dayton and earned and MS in engineering at Ohio State University.

imageOn paper their backgrounds and varied interests show that they bring a rich diversity to our community.  But the important point that I always celebrate is the presence of each as an individual in our community.  Each brings character and unique wisdom.  Each is a reminder that God does not call people by group or in herds to the monastery.  Rather God calls individual souls by name, and each is a gift to us.  That’s the hope anyway.

This year the feast of Saint Benedict was a happy day in the life of our community, and for that we senior monks give thanks.  At the very least it gives us pause and a reason to be optimistic for our future.  And it suggests that the Lord is highly likely to call other workers to the vineyard.

But regardless of who comes next, we can rejoice because of this infusion of wisdom.  After all, we need all the wisdom we can get as we continue the daily search for God.


+On July 8th I presided at the abbey eucharist, and you can access the sermon, Putting on the Face of Christ, through this link.

+On July 9th through the 11th we hosted thirty alumni from the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who were here for a reunion and retreat.  Given that each one has spent a year in service at some Benedictine community around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories to share.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  In addition to the profession of vows, we also celebrated the anniversary of profession of monks who made vows twenty-five, fifty, sixty and seventy-five years ago.  Pride of place went to Fathers Magnus and Fintan, who made their vows to Abbot Alcuin, in 1940.

image+The photos in today’s post all come from the celebration on July 11th.  We were also favored by the presence of several hundred guests, who filled the nave of the abbey church.  We were especially delighted to welcome Bishop Donald Kettler, our bishop and good friend of the abbey.  He sat with us in the choir stalls, and I’ve included his picture in this post as well.

imageConsider the Lilies

If the thought of twenty-four hours of non-stop lambing intrigues you, then Icelandic public television has the channel for you.  I first read about this in a short snippet from The Week, and my initial reaction was amused skepticism.  Who in their right mind would sit there for an entire day watching sheep give birth to the cutest little creatures on God’s green earth?  Surely this story had to be a joke, and so I went to the internet for confirmation.  To my surprise, there it was, not only on the BBC News, but on other respected sites as well.  Sure enough, it was true; except that the bit about the sheep-birthing marathon was only the tip of the iceberg.

imageFirst of all, it turned out that this program was not an isolated one-off.  Apparently it’s only the latest example of a phenomenon called slow TV that has gained popularity in northern Europe, and Norwegian public television seems to be in the vanguard of the movement.  There stations have tested the limits of the modern attention span, with shows that have featured twelve hours of wood-burning and four hours of knitting.  There’s also the program that showed eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream, sixty hours of Psalm-singing, and one hundred hours of non-stop chess.  And for those left pining for an even greater challenge, there were one hundred-thirty hours of a cruise ship sailing up and down the fjords of Norway.  It all leaves me wondering what’s next.  What are the limits of human endurance?

It would be so easy to make light of all this and conclude that there’s really nothing else going on in Scandinavia anyway.  We could even pity them because they don’t have enough shootings or scandals or political hot air to sustain even one decent cable news channel, much less the dozen or more that we enjoy.  No wonder they are reduced to filling the airwaves with such tedium, we might conclude.  But we’d be wrong to do so.

imageIn point of fact, slow TV is a critique of the sometimes shallow character of our information age.  For all the data that we have at our fingertips, it’s tough not to be overwhelmed.  Worse still, it’s often difficult to sort out fact from fiction in the avalanche of information that besieges us every day and hour and minute.  Ironically, the newscasters may tell us that we know more than any generation that has gone before, but in point of fact we are likely less-informed about life than any of our forebears.

I’ve not viewed a single example of slow TV, but it strikes me that it is a variation of the warning to stop and smell the roses.  It’s perhaps a reminder that we should never let events and the currents of the world drive us like lemmings over the cliff.  It may also be a caution about letting others dictate to us the standards by which we live our lives.  In blunt terms, it may very well be an invitation to get a grip on ourselves and figure out what we’re doing to ourselves — or allowing others to do to us.

imageThere’s resonance for all of this in the scriptures, and at the root of it is the invitation to be thoughtful and proactive in shaping the course of our lives.   When Jesus invited people to consider the lilies of the field, he certainly didn’t just mean for us to do so from an aesthetic point of view.  The array of lilies, so beautiful and yet seemingly unimportant, is a reminder of the care of God for each and every person.  Each lily has meaning, just as does each person.  And yet it’s so easy to forget about all that in the rush of activity and the flood of words that threaten to engulf us all.

There’s lots more to say about all this, but for the moment I’m struck by the invitation that Jesus puts to us to behold the sparrows, and to survey the plants of the field.  Given that perspective, Jesus is just the sort of guy who would ask us to consider watching a bit of slow TV as well.  And with that in mind, if I had to choose between ten hours of sheep-sheering and ten hours of mayhem on our freeways, I now realize that this is no choice at all.  I’d have to be crazy to choose the mayhem.


+On June 29th alumnus Brandon Dorsey spoke to the monks about his experience as a Benedictine Volunteer during the past year at Benedictine abbeys in India and Sri Lanka.  Brandon grew up in Pasadena, CA, and he graduated in 2014.

+On the 4th of July the monks gathered for festivities and a cook-out in the monastic garden.

+The gardens around the campus at Saint John’s continue to flourish, as the photos in today’s post attest.  Given all the work that the crew puts into the flowers and trees and shrubs, the least we can do is to stop and enjoy them for a moment — or even longer.

imageNothing to Show For His Work

An artist has a canvas, a bricklayer has a house, and a baker has a cake.  What they and so many others have in common is the chance to stand back and take a look at the results of their work.  Literally and metaphorically, the proof of their effort shows in the pudding, and that’s what allows so many people to point to the product of their toil with justifiable pride.

But what about those who have nothing to show for all their work?  What if the whole point of their job is to leave no trace of their contribution?  Such is the case with my colleague Tim, who has worked with The Saint John’s Bible for more  years than either of us wishes to count. Nearly two years ago Donald Jackson and his team completed the hand-written and illuminated Bible that Saint John’s had commissioned eighteen years ago.  From the beginning it was a masterwork, and by now it has sparked the spiritual imagination of millions of people around the world.  But when the team had finished the final folio of the Book of Revelation, which just happens to be the last book in volume seven of the project, there remained one really big task.   Next came the creation of the Book of Honor.

The Book of Honor is the roster of all those whose generosity made possible The Saint John’s Bible.  It has the same dimensions as each of the seven volumes of the Bible, and it’s been fashioned from the same materials:  vellum, hand-made inks and paints, and gold leaf.  It was designed to sit alongside the other volumes, and the good news is that it too is nearly done.  But not quite yet.

imageWhile the toughest part of the creation of the Book of Honor is now behind us, there remained a few odds and ends that could only be done after everything else had been completed.  Proofreading was one of those, and that onerous job fell to Tim and to another colleague, JoAnn.  Reading hundreds and hundreds of names and dedications was daunting, and for the sake of accuracy they decided to do it all backwards.  Starting with the last word on the last folio, they worked their way back through 1,500+ names, until they finally reached the beginning.  That had to be a riveting experience.

That still left perhaps the most thankless and anonymous task of the entire project.  Before anyone could write on the vellum, somebody had to pencil in the lines to guide the calligrapher’s quill.  Once the text was complete, then somebody had to go back and erase every last one of those lines; and it was Tim who drew the short straw.  To him went the honor, as well as the tedium, of removing any and all trace of the pencil lines that had made possible the elegant array of lettering.  His goal?  Make it look like there had never been anything there in the first place.

imageObviously this is not work for a novice, since the trick is to erase the lines but not the letters that sit on them.  It takes a practiced hand and meticulous care, and my guess is that it takes a special kind of humility as well.  This is not a job for someone with a big ego, since the whole point is to leave the impression that there had never been anything there in the first place.  The goal is to highlight the art of the one who wielded the quill, but not leave a monument to the guy who wielded the eraser.

So what kept this from becoming a mind-numbing experience for Tim?  First off, an aching shoulder prevented him from falling asleep.  Second, he discovered a rhythm and a reflective quality as he worked around each and every letter of the text.  And as he touched every single one of the 1,500+ names, he appreciated once again just how many people it had taken to make this whole thing possible.

What Tim might hesitate to point out is the importance of all those whose work had a rather anonymous quality about it.  Certainly the star talents who created The Saint John’s Bible were absolutely necessary;  but those talents relied on the people who sanded and smoothed the vellum, who prepared the quills, who bought the supplies, and who did the thousand and one things that made the more visible work possible.  And of equal value was the work of the one who erased the lines, which allowed the lettering to hover effortlessly over the page.

imageIn his Rule Saint Benedict asks his monks not to take inordinate pride in their work, in part because they should never think themselves indispensible.  At the same time he values work, and work can be especially beautiful when so many hands have banded together and labored toward a common goal.

As for all those who are blessed to have a task or job for which there seems nothing to show by way of results, they should take heart.  Such people allow others to shine.  Such people allow others to do their work.  On these sometimes anonymous contributors the fabric of any community depends.

So to my colleagues Tim and JoAnn and to all in the world who make it possible for the stars to shine in the firmament, I give thanks.  The Saint John’s Bible is better because of their efforts.  And so is the world.


+On June 25th and 26th I took part in the annual investiture of new members in the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The vigil service took place at Our Savior Parish, the Catholic chapel at the University of Southern California; while the investiture took place the next day at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

+Last week we had the unusual circumstance of the passing of two of our senior monks.  Fr. Barnabas died on June 23rd, while Brother Nicholas died on June 27th.

+On June 24th, the feast of Saint John the Baptist, Michael Hemesath — the President of Saint John’s University — hosted the monks, staff and faculty at an ice-cream social in the monastic garden.

image+The photos in today’s post were taken by my colleague, Tim Ternes, who was responsible for erasing all the lines from the Book of Honor.  In the coming year we will formally unveil the Book of Honor, but for now this blog constitutes the first semi-official glimpse of these marvelous folios.  The final photo is one I took on a highway just outside of Palm Springs, CA, last week.  Those are not clouds behind the mountain, but rather it’s smoke from a major fire.  To my surprise there were small fires alongside the shoulder of the road, and that made stopping somewhat dangerous.  I was just overwhelmed by the extent of the drought in California, and it’s clear that a great many trees simply will not make it through the summer.  What a tragedy this will be for the landscape.

imageThe Privilege of Making a Difference

We monks have long been accustomed to regular visits by trustees of the University and Prep School at Saint John’s.  These encounters normally deal with issues of governance that touch on things like budgets or strategic planning.  What they are not about, however, are the lives of our alumni themselves.  So there we sit in discussion with some truly amazing people, but on the agenda is nothing about their personal stories.  That’s what made last Wednesday’s visit by one alumnus so different — and so engaging.

Ochi is not at all typical of the sort of people who come and speak to the monks.  For one thing, he only graduated from the University two months ago.  For another, he’s not yet an accomplished professional with loads of insight to share.  But what he lacks on that score he more than compensates in other ways.  In brief, he has a personal story that is not short on the unusualimage.

Ochi was born Ochirbat Bayanjargal in Ulaanbaator, Mongolia.  That alone was exotic enough to draw our attention.  Through dint of hard work and being at the right place at the right time, he ended up attending Saint Benedict’s Prep, run by the Benedictine monks in Newark, NJ.  From there he came to Saint John’s, where he majored in economics.  Next on his itinerary is the Benedictine monastery at Tabga in Israel, where he will work for one year as a Benedictine Volunteer.  After that, who knows?  But for now he plans to explore the world until it’s time to go back home and make a difference in his native land.

That, of course, is the barest outline of a life that already has more complexity than most of us will amass in spans of fifty or sixty years.  On top of that, it’s stunning to realize the personal sacrifice and discipline that Ochi has made just to get this far.  For instance, he’s only been home once in the last eight years.  But even more daunting has been the transition from a very traditional society into a culture and language that may as well be on another planet.  But I’ll leave it to him to write the autobiography someday.

As for me, a couple of things popped into my mind as he spoke to us.  First off, we monks — and anyone involved in a school — seldom get to see short-term results from our work.  We help to provide an education, and thirty years later we may hear from someone whose life did indeed turn out well.  Years after graduation he has become professionally successful and personally happy, and it’s gratifying to think that we played some part in all that.  But standing before us last Wednesday was someone who had already experienced more transformation than most of us will ever know.  And he has a lifetime still before him.

imageA second bit that struck me was the part that Benedictine monks have been privileged to play in the life of this young man.  To say the least, the monks in Newark have made an incredible contribution to the development of promising young men in a city that isn’t always gentle with its younger citizens.  Happily, we at Saint John’s have been able to augment their efforts.  For several years we’ve sent Benedictine Volunteers there, and this fall two more will go to Saint Benedict’s Prep for the year.  For the moment it’s tough to say who has reaped the greater reward — the Volunteers or the students.  But beyond that, in the past few years we’ve accepted into our college program at Saint John’s some thirty-five graduates of Saint Benedict’s Prep, and the results have been astonishing.  That alone makes sitting through planning and budget meetings worth the effort.

Last Wednesday we had the good fortune to hear from a poised young man who stood in front of us for nearly forty-five minutes, speaking and fielding questions.  He described growing up in a country of three million people, half the size of the United States.  Even today some 45% of the population is still nomadic, while the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is morphing into one of the modern cities of the world.  What an odyssey this has been for Ochi, while for us westerners it’s difficult to appreciate the occasional tensions as old ways meet new.

imageSuch was the day when Ochi’s father led home a live goat, which he had received in payment for some job. No one in Ochi’s house knew the first thing about butchering a goat, but they certainly knew they needed to eat.  So there they all stood, goat and family staring each other down, wondering what to do next.  The goat seemed to figure it out first, and it nearly trashed the house in a desperate attempt to escape his fate.  Ochi choked on his own laughter as he related a story that could never happen in a typical American kitchen.

So what’s the lesson for a group of monks in Minnesota?  For one thing, we should never underestimate the possibilities that are latent in the tedium of daily life.  Doing work for years on end may seem routine and undramatic, but it can have a profound impact on others, even if they aren’t from Mongolia.

imageSecond, we should never underestimate the value of our efforts, just because they don’t seem to solve a single one of the big issues confronting the world.  All God asks is that we receive each guest as Christ, whether the guest be from Mongolia or Minnetonka.  God will figure out where to take it from there.

And last but not least, while budget and planning issues will always be the necessary grist for running a University, the real point of it all is the students.  The surprise is that we need not wait half a lifetime to see the results in our students.  As often as not we can see the transformation is as few years as four.  What a gift God has given to us, and it’s important that we use our eyes to see and ears to hear of the generosity of God.  Even better, God offers this gift not only to monks, but to all who walk the paths of the Lord.


+On June 17th Saint John’s University alumnus Ochirbat Bayanjargal spoke to a gathering of the monks in the chapter house, on the topic of growing up in Mongolia.

+On June 17th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Lives of Quiet Service, through this link.

+On June 18th I delivered my last class on monastic history to our novice, Brother Aidan Putnam.  On July 11th, the feast of Saint Benedict, Brother Aidan will pronounce his first vows as a monk of Saint John’s Abbey.

+Last March I had the opportunity to lead a group of alumni and friends of Saint John’s University on a visit to various sites in Umbria, Tuscany and Rome.  In today’s post are photos from our stop in Montalcino, which is best-known for its local wine, brunello.  In a separate gallery I have gathered photos from the lovely Abbey of Sant Ántimo in Tuscany.  Though seldom visited, it is noteworthy for its lovely romanesque architecture and the gorgeous countryside.  Perhaps it is better that it remain a secret rather than be overrun with tourists.


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