{Today’s post was delivered as a sermon to members of the Order of Malta on 24 September, 2016}

imageLazarus and the Rich Man:  Who Is My Neighbor?

One of the great issues that Jesus dealt with was the answer to a very basic question:  “Who is my neighbor?  It’s one with deep cultural roots in all peoples, and in the Old Testament it’s one that the prophets framed in moral overtones.  On the answer depended a lot.

Though Jesus may have answered the question, it’s one that Christian preachers and missionaries have struggled with ever since.  And as a historian I’ve found it fascinating to examine its impact on various cultures, as those preachers pushed both the question as well as the envelop of those who answered very narrowly.

For example, in the 8th century as missionaries sought to transform nominal Christians in the Carolingian Empire into authentic Christians, this was a question that made scarcely any sense at all to the inhabitants of many a German village.  In their settlements the word neighbor extended to the limits of the village; but people in the next village definitely did not qualify as neighbors.  So it was that generations of preachers pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a neighbor.  It was tough enough to get people to accept as their neighbor the people in the adjacent village.  It was tougher still to include people who spoke a different dialect altogether.  And it was an enormous stretch to embrace the total stranger as neighbor.

In Christian parlance, as Jesus taught, our neighbor is any fellow human being whom God or chance sends into our lives.  No matter how different they might be from us, they are our neighbor and even our kin, because God has created them — just like us — in his image.  They too bear the face of Christ.

imageGiven all that as background, we can better appreciate the role that Jesus assigns to the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.  The rich man had lived well, and he lived well in a household that extended hospitality only to a tight circle of relatives and friends.  Ironically, the rich man knew who Lazarus was, because he saw him every time he stepped through his front door.  He even knew the name of this poor suffering man, but Lazarus was no neighbor to him.  And so, when he called from his perch in hell for Lazarus to bring a drop of water, he considered Lazarus to be a servant, at best.

But the rich man sealed his fate when he asked Abraham to send a warning to his brothers.  “Save my brothers, so that they don’t end up like me,” was his plea.  As caring and thoughtful as that might seem, it is in fact the narrowest definition of neighbor.  He cared little for anyone else, because his family alone fell into the category of neighbor.  No one else mattered; no one else was his neighbor and he scarcely had a thought for anyone else.

Can it be that the rich man has given us a glimpse of what hell is really all about?  In hell there is no personal growth.  In hell there’s no desire to mature in wisdom and understanding.  In hell people never seem to get it, because all their lives they never really got it.  And just as likely, their sojourn in hell began on this side of the great divide.

imageIn his first letter to Timothy St. Paul writes about the “noble confession” of faith which we all make as Christsians.  What’s important to realize is that your vocation and mine is to translate this “noble confession” of faith into some sort of lived reality.  Paul suggests what that might mean when he includes righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

When Paul does this, it occurs to me that there are at least a couple of things that we should keep in mind.  First, Paul doesn’t say that our profession of faith should be used as a yardstick to measure how other people are living out their faith.  It’s not our mission or vocation to spend time condemning others for the absence of righteousness or devotion or love or patience or gentleness.  And that brings us to the second point.  This is one of those  very rare instances in life in which it truly is “all about us.”  Our confession of faith is noble, but not when we devote ourselves to chipping away at others for their lack of nobility.  It’s only noble when we daily examine our own progress on the road to righteousness and devotion and all the rest.

imageWe might conclude with one last reference to the business of who might be my neighbor.  As members of the Order of Malta we act in the conviction that always and everywhere we see the face of Christ in our lords the sick and the poor.  They are our neighbors, whether we know their names or not.  They are, in fact, gifts of God to us, just as surely as the dying men and women in the streets of Calcutta were gifts to Mother Theresa.  For her, and for us, these people are the face of God, standing right in front of us.

But this vision does not stop there.  If we cannot transform ourselves into Chrsitian visionaries, then our own personal hell begins now, just as surely as did the rich man’s long before he ever crossed to the place of torment.  And so, like him, we have the chance to translate into practice the noble confession of faith of which St. Paul writes.  And in that profession we vow to be the hands of Christ, lifting up the sick and the poor.  We vow to be the voice of Christ, speaking to those who are depressed or lonely.  We vow to be the face of Christ for those who always wondered what Jesus looked like.

Happily, the answer to that last part is wonderfully simple.  On a good day, the face of Christ can look a lot like your face and mine.


+On September 19th I presided at the monthly Mass for members of the Order of Malta in San Francisco.

+On the evening of September 20th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at The University of Saint Joseph in Hartford, CT.

+I rounded out a very busy week by attending the annual orientation for provisional members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, held on September 24-25 at a hotel at the Los Angeles International Airport.  At that gathering I gave two talks and celebrated the Sunday Mass.  Thankfully, the airlines did their work well this week, and I did not miss anything.

+Today’s post is in fact the sermon that I gave to members of the Order of Malta in Los Angeles this weekend.

+The photos in today’s post all depict items in the V & A in London.  The first is an altarpiece by Andrea Ferrucci, ca. 1526, Tuscany.  Next is an 18th-century wrought iron screen, made in Germany.  The post concludes with an altarpiece and tabernacle from Santa Chiara in Florence, ca. 1400.

img_3363A Meditation on the Seasons

The passing of summer might have slipped by entirely  unnoticed, save for one thing.  For much of July and August platters of tomatoes from the abbey garden greeted us as we filed into the refectory.  By early September the bounty had reached a crescendo.  But by last Monday it had tapered off to one platter per meal.  By Thursday there were none.

My disappointment came at lunch on Wednesday, when the very last batch of tomatoes made its appearance on the salad table.  I was one of the latecomers, and as I stared at an empty platter, one monk reminded me of a distinctly non-gospel truth:  “The first shall be first.”  To that I should have added this adaptation of The Magnificat:  “And the last shall go empty away.”  Unfortunately I thought of that too late to offer any solace.

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict links the monastic life to the seasons of the year in ways that are both sensitive and sensible for someone writing in the 6th century.  For instance, he provides for more food in the summer, because the daylight hours allow for harder and longer sessions of manual labor.  He also concedes heavier and warmer clothing for monks who live in colder climates.  And of course the liturgical cycle reflects the progression of the seasons.  Along with the rest of the Church in the northern hemisphere, monks celebrate Christmas during the darkest days of the year; while the lengthening days of late winter offer up Easter as the unfailing sign of spring.

img_3356In the course of the last century life has become untethered from the seasons, at least in much of the first world.  Most fruits and vegetables are now available at any time of year.  Artificial lighting has ended the stranglehold that long and dark winter nights imposed on people.  And the advent of easy travel has made autumn the signal to start packing for Arizona or Florida.  In short, we’ve managed to create a world in which we have just about freed ourselves from the grip of the seasons.  But not quite.

Let me be among the first to say that I don’t want to return to the days when it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.  Nor do I harbor any nostalgia that would cause me to turn off the central heat so that I could savor my frosty breath during morning prayer in an ice-cold church.  And certainly I have no desire to go without year-round cauliflower and strawberries — though I’d be more than willing to sacrifice tasteless tomatoes.

Still, there is a downside to the benefits that come from our independence from the seasons.  For one, there’s the temptation to believe that we’ve domesticated nature and that we’re monarchs of all we survey.  We also delude ourselves with the notion that we’ve achieved what Adam and Eve only dreamed of.  They aspired to have the knowledge of good and evil.  We, however, think we’ve achieved that knowledge — and more.  For their hubris God cast Adam and Eve into the metaphorical world that we inhabit to this day.  Sadly for them, they fell short of their goal and instead got an unexpected dose of reality.  As for us, some day we are likely to sit down to a banquet of consequences, as one writer has put it.  Hubris tends to do that to people.

img_0114The seasons are both beautiful and challenging.  For starters, each one reminds us that we are part of a cycle of life that is much larger than ourselves.  Try as we might, we can never really step out of that cycle; and for the life of me, why would anyone want to do so?

The seasons also mock our indoor world of artificial light and temperature control.  They teach us of the challenges of life, and those are the sorts of things that cause us to stretch and grow.  Every time we step out the front door, then, nature reclaims us for the ultimate source of our being — the God who put us here.

In short, the seasons inject into us the same dose of reality that surprised Adam and Eve.  The seasons show forth something of a universe that’s bigger than any one of us.  They show forth the glory of the God who orchestrates our lives and who every now and then gives us a nudge and a push.  That’s what the seasons have always done to God’s servants, whether they’ve lived inside or outside of the cloister.

Summer is gone, but it doesn’t mean the end of life as we know it.  There’s a hopeful note as we look forward, and even the salad table in the monastery refectory reflects it.  We may have said goodbye to summer’s tomatoes, but can winter squash be far behind?  As far as I’m concerned, the best is yet to come.  So it is with the course of our lives — and especially with life that is eternal.


+On 12-13 September I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, held at Saint John’s.

+On September 15th Brother Paul Richards was honored as “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” by the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  He was so cited because of his work in founding The Saint John’s Boys Choir and the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  Through those efforts he has impacted thousands of people, literally around the world.

+On 17 September we celebrated Homecoming at Saint John’s University.  At the football game we hosted Saint Olaf’s College, whom our team bested 44-0.

+Last May, with the completion of the school year, Alcuin Library closed for renovation and the addition of the Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons.  In addition to a thorough reorganization, one interior wall was removed, which has opened up a spectacular view of the Abbey church from inside of the library.  Two photos in today’s post illustrate some of that.  In addition, the renovation will make room for the new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible.  Appropriately enough, the doors for that gallery are being made in our woodworking shop, from lumber from our woods.  To my colleague Raj Chaphalkar I am indebted for those two photos.  For The Renovation of Alcuin Library Gallery, click this link.

img_1205The Brother of the Prodigal Son

Several years ago I presided at a funeral in St. Paul, and afterward we all adjourned to a reception at the home of the lady who had passed away.  At 96 she had accumulated a lot of memories, and a ton of photos cluttered the walls and the tables to remind us of those memories.  They were fascinating, and the oldest of them were a slice out of Minnesota social history.

One photo in particular caught everyone’s eye, however, and in it the deceased lady posed with a group of young men and women dressed in black tie and gowns.  They were gathered round a sumptuous table in an elegant dining room, and we could only imagine what might have been the occasion for this grand evening.

An elderly lady at the reception was especially taken with the photo, mainly because she could remember every face in the picture.  With delight she rattled off the name of each person, but the delight vanished when she got to the last face.  These had all been her friends, and with that last face she realized she’d not been there that evening.  “I wasn’t invited,” she declared.  For the rest of the reception she was not a happy camper.

It’s tough to say what irritated her most.  A big dinner party had gone on without her, and the hurt was visible and fresh 75 years later.  Had her omission from the guest list been an oversight?  She didn’t seem to think so.  Was it deliberate? Was she a killjoy 75 years earlier, just as she became at that reception 75 years later?  Of course I had the good taste not to ask.

img_1201The writer H. L. Menken once defined Puritanism as the haunting, lingering fear that somebody, somewhere, was having a good time.  Certainly there’s an element of prudery in his definition, but it also involves envy of those who have a good time and don’t include us.  Certainly that was the case with this lady; and she managed to let envy about something that had happened 75 years earlier spoil her afternoon.

This may be an odd story with which to begin a reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, but it may give an insight into a well-explored story.  The parable involves three people — the son who wasted his inheritance;  the father who welcomed him back;  and the elder son who came home, only to discover a dinner party in progress.  And he’d not been invited.  He’s the one we often identify with.  He’s the one with whom many of us feel a natural kinship.

The brother of the prodigal son is a complicated person.  He had worked hard, or so he believed.  He had obeyed his father, and he seems not to have groused when his brother had left home with his share of the inheritance.  But patience has its limits, and finally envy held the elder brother in its grip.

Clearly he resented the easy forgiveness that his father gave to his younger brother.  Perhaps he also envied his brother for all the fun he’d had while the elder brother had stayed home and worked.  Perhaps he even envied his brother for having the nerve to do what he himself dared not do.  But most of all, he envied the love that the father showed to the wayward brother.  He assumed — incorrectly — that his father loved his brother more.

img_1186It’s small wonder that the Christian spiritual tradition puts envy on the list of the seven deadly sins.  Envy is almost silent, but it’s insidious as it eats away at our soul.  We leap to the conclusion that life is unfair because others have talents or opportunities or respect that we never seem to get.  In short, we conclude that we always seem to draw the short straw in the game of life.

Envy can crop up at any stage of life.  When we’re in high school or college we envy other people because they are attractive or athletic or popular or smart.  Sad to say, when we’re older we envy people because they are attractive or athletic or popular or smart.  In short, whether we’re young or old, envy causes us to twist reality.  We see others as they are not; and worse still, we see ourselves as we are not.  Envy makes us blind to the reality that each of us has talents.  And each of us has foibles.  And each of us must deal with them as best we can.  This is the hand that God has dealt to each of us.

Pilgrims to the ancient Oracle of Delhi were greeted with one bit of wisdom as they entered the temple precincts:  “Know thyself!”  It was good advice then, and it remains so today, for one good reason.  We all need to take stock not just of our short-comings but of our talents as well.  Each of us is blessed with more talents than we can possibly develop; but if we use none of them, then we slowly become that prodigal son who wasted much of his life before he finally came to his senses.

img_0003_2But self-awareness is only the first step to health.  We must take the second step toward an appreciation of our neighbor.  That means we can never envy other people for their talents.  They are who they are, and we should be grateful for the gifts and talents that they bring to the table.  Our lives are better because of our gifts and theirs, and wishing we were someone else is a losing game.  For this insight I am in debt to Oscar Wilde, who famously advised a friend to “be yourself, because everyone else is taken.”

This brings us back to the trio we have in the parable of the prodigal son.  If you think you may be the prodigal son, then it’s time to get a grip on yourself before you waste another day, much less the rest of your life.  If you tend to be the envious older brother, it’s time to recognize the gifts God has given you.  It’s time to realize that God invites you to use your talents to be yourself and not somebody else.

And finally, if we are going to be like anyone else at all, we would do well to become the forgiving father.  Forgiveness of his wastrel son was a sign neither of weakness nor of gullibility;  nor was it a sign that he loved his older son less.  Rather, it was a sign of the wisdom into which he had grown.  He was who he was, and he had two very different sons.  On the day he got both of his sons back, nothing else mattered.


+On September 7th I gave a talk to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta, on the feast of Our Lady of Philermo.  This was part of the spirituality series that they have put together in recent  years, and presenters deliver the talks over the phone to members who dial in to the conference call.  So this time I delivered this from the comfort of my office in Collegeville.  For the transcript see:  Our Lady of Philermos.  It can also be accessed on the homepage of the American Association.

+On September 11th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  Today’s blog post is the transcript of that sermon, and I have to say I was rather pleased with one thing about it.  Any sermon that combines the parable of the prodigal son with references to H. L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, and the Oracle of Delphi has to have something going for it.

img_0028_2+During the past week Abbot John has been in Rome attending the Congress of Benedictine abbots from around the world.  Among other things they elected a new abbot primate to succeed Abbot Primate Notker from Germany, who retired after sixteen years in the office.  The new abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation is Abbot Gregory Polan, who is from Conception Abbey in Missouri.  We at Saint John’s were delighted with the news of his election, since he is a good friend to our community.  He is a graduate of our School of Theology at Saint John’s, and he lived in our community for four years.

+The first three photos in today’s post are from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while the latter three are from the Cloisters Museum in New York.  I chose them in light of the feast of the Holy Cross, which occurs on September 14th.  First in the post is a painting by Joos van Cleve, ca. 1525.  Next is a painting of Christ by Hans Memling (ca. 1481), followed by a late 12th-century fresco from Catalonia.  Below that is a late 12th-century crucifix from Castile-León, followed by the cross of Bury-St. Edmunds (11th-12th century.)  The final photo shows an Italian altarpiece by Andrea da Giona (ca. 1430.)

IMG_3065The Qualities of a Monk

Last week a friend of mine emailed to ask what qualities we should expect in a candidate for the Order of Malta.  I’d not really thought about it in great detail, so I decided to reply with some random ideas about membership in the Order of Saint Benedict.  Of that I’ve had lots of personal experience; and in some respects the two orders have similar expectations of their members.

So what exactly do we look for in someone who wants to be a monk?  An essential prerequisite, as Benedict lays out in his Rule, is that someone comes to the monastery to seek God.  That’s a good start, but if that’s all one brings to the door of the monastery it will earn the caller a warm welcome and best wishes for a good life — somewhere else.

It’s not that monasteries try to be overly fussy, in spite of the fact that Saint Benedict wrote that admission should not be easy.  Still, there are hopes and expectations that every community has for its candidates.  For instance, most Benedictine communities want someone who is spiritually in the mainstream of the Church.  That’s practical, because we don’t need monks who are willing to speak with only two or three percent of our guests.  We have to see Christ in all of our guests, and not just in the few who meet our personal standards.

IMG_3151Next, we don’t need big egos.  Monasteries really don’t need anybody whose working principle is “my way or the highway.”  We need people who can respect not only their brothers but also the leadership in the community.  Of course that doesn’t mean a monk has to agree with every last word that comes from the mouth of the abbot.  But a monk has to accept the proposition that somebody has to represent Christ and that somebody has to be in charge.  He has to live with the thought that until the community elects him as the next abbot, he has to live with the guy who currently has the job.

A newcomer has to accept the mission of the community, as it exists when he enters.  Of course he has the right to hope for some gradual change, but there are limits.  If, for example, a community sponsors a school or some other particular ministry, a novice cannot reasonably demand that the monks chuck everything and become hermits.  It’s just not fair to everyone else to expect overnight change.

IMG_3154St. Benedict also expects his monks to respect the elders and to love the juniors.  That roughly translates into acceptance of the people who got here first and some confidence that the newcomers didn’t come here for the sole purpose of wrecking the place.  To be blunt, monks need to welcome and gradually share responsibility with those who come after them, simply because one generation of monks cannot rule future generations from the grave.

There are a few other things we hope to see in someone who intends to become one of us.  For one, they should be even-tempered and have pleasant personalities.  They should have the potential to show up for important stuff, regularly.  They can’t be set in their ways, because the rest of the community simply won’t adjust to the most recent person to come in the door.  Candidates should also be capable of growth.  They need to be adaptable and tolerant of some change.  This takes tangible form in a willingness to make room for new people who may have slightly different gifts or personalities.

This brings me back to where I started on the discernment of a vocation to the monastic life.  Such a person must truly seek God, and that candidate must be willing and able to translate this spiritual aspiration into visible practice.

IMG_3164I sent this list off to my friend, and only then did I realize that I don’t know anybody in the monastery who has all of these qualities.  In fact, I’m fairly sure that even I don’t have all these qualities.  So are we all pious frauds?

Actually, we’re not pious frauds, because we are only people who continue to seek God.  We’re pilgrims en route to God, and along our way we continue to discover faults that need paring away and virtues that need shoring up.  In short, we are works in progress rather than finished products.  Only when we’re ready for the cemetery is our work of self-improvement done.

This brings me to a last point, which is of great personal comfort.  Jesus Christ did not come to save those who are already perfect and have no need of him.  Rather, he came for the imperfect — to those who have need of serious growth and know it.

Coincidentally, these are exactly the people that St. Benedict had in mind for his monastery.  Not surprisingly, these are the sort of people we need in the Church and in groups like the Order of Malta.  These imperfect people are kindred spirits whom Jesus came to gather in.  They’re his kind of folks.


+I managed to stay home for the entire week, and I will continue for yet another one this week.  I did not miss the security gate at the airport, and it gave me the chance to enjoy the landscape as summer winds to an end.  On September 3rd I took the opportunity to attend the Saint John’s/College of Saint Scholastica football game.  8,000+ people came, including Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud.  He is a regular at these games when he’s able to make it, and it is always great to host him.  Saint John’s managed to win, 49-7.

+The new school year sees the return of Fr. Nickolas Becker, who this spring completed his doctorate in theology in Rome.  He takes up teaching in the theology department and in the School of Theology.  Meanwhile, Fr. Michael Hahn continues his doctoral studies at Boston College, while Brother Daniel Morgan begins graduate studies at the University of San Diego.  Fr. Columba Stewart left this week for a year of sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ.

IMG_3187+Autumn is approaching, and there are hints of color in some of the leaves.  But the lush green of summer persists, as the photos in today’s blog illustrate.  I’ve also included several photos in a Game Day Gallery, which gives a portrait of a lively weekend at Saint John’s.  The link will connect to twenty-one photos.

IMG_3035The Parable of the Talents

We all come into this world with a basketful of talents.  No one develops them all.  A few develop many.  Many develop a few.  And a few manage to ignore theirs altogether.

In my mind that’s the gist of what Jesus had to say in the parable of the talents.  At the very least his words are a challenge to be good stewards of what we’ve been given.  On another level they serve as a reminder that we each have more resources than we can possibly use, and some remain fallow or go unnoticed.  But for virtually all of us the parable is a call to keep on growing, even in our years of decline.

That’s the conventional interpretation that I’ve always taken with this parable, but the first time I realized that it was capable of a good stretch was when I was in graduate school.  For three years I had the good fortune to be in residence at St. Thomas More Chapel, the Catholic Center at Yale;  and with that residence came a regular turn in the Sunday pulpit.  For the first year this was an unnerving experience, and the presence of my dissertation director in one of the front pews was intimidating, to say the least.  With him and a brain-trust of faculty mixed among the students, the pressure was intense, even if it was largely self-imposed.

IMG_3032Eventually I realized that they were there to learn something rather than to grade my performance.  That came as a relief, especially when it led to pleasant conversation after Mass.  That’s also when I began to realize that the comments they offered weren’t meant to question my competence as a preacher.  They merely sought to open a conversation that could benefit us all.

One Sunday this gospel about the talents came up, and I gave the conventional reflection.  Afterward a distinguished member of the law faculty thanked me for it, and then he shared what he had drawn from the parable years earlier.  Unlike me, he had not identified himself with the servants.  Instead, he found himself standing in God’s shoes.  His insight had come to him when a student had turned in a perfectly respectable essay exam, and he had given it a “C.”  Upset, the student asked what he’d done to deserve such a mediocre mark.  His reply was genial and succinct, and he echoed what the master had said in the parable.  “Your paper is fine, and in fact it reflects the ideas I presented class.  But that’s exactly the trouble.  All you did was give back to me what I had given to you.  You put nothing of  yourself in the paper, and you didn’t challenge me.  I learned nothing, except that you have a good memory.  That’s what this ‘C’ recognizes.”

IMG_3010From that I learned one fundamental truth about education.  It’s purpose is not to create clones of the teacher.  It’s goal is not to create disciples who can parrot everything they’ve heard.  Rather, real education occurs when knowledge touches the life of a person and growth takes place.  That synthesis takes work, and it may even take a long time.  But that’s what produces a thoughtful and wonderful human being.

All that has proven to be good grist for my own spiritual mill, and I reflect on it at the start of every school year.  It’s a nugget of wisdom that I share with any student who is willing to listen, but mainly it’s something I turn over in my own mind — for my own benefit.

IMG_3015Saint Benedict called the monastery a school of the Lord’s service.  That said, he never thought of the life of a monk as one long stint of rote memorization.  Rather, it’s a lifetime of conversation with God in which we listen and apply the insights to those many talents that we’ve stored away, as yet unused.

Like a teacher who hopes to learn at least something from a student, God expects us to mull over what he has to say, and God hopes we grow from the experience.  God is not particularly interested in creating 6+ billion clones of himself.  Rather, God expects each one of us to make the most of the basket of talents that comes our way.

That, it seems to me, is good advice for any student at the start of the school  year.  Even better, it’s inspiration for all of us who are enrolled in life-long learning in the school of the Lord’s service.


+Last week the students returned for the new school year at Saint John’s University.  For the freshmen it was a time of orientation, while for returning students there were picnics and all sorts of other social activities.  Gone is summer’s peace and quiet.  But in its place has come energy and enthusiasm.

+On August 26th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere Fr. Martin Rath.  In his many years as a monk he served in several capacities, but notably was the post-master for the U.S. Post Office in Collegeville, MN.  At age 57 he was ordained, and then he served in parishes and chaplaincies.  He lived a long and full and happy life.

+On August 26th the incoming freshmen at Saint John’s joined us for evening prayer, after which they broke into small groups and spent time meeting with individual monks.

IMG_3058+On August 27th Frs. Ian, Nick Kleespie and Michael Peterson concelebrated Mass in Baldwin Park, at the edge of Lake Sagatagan.  Some 1,000 students attended.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate some of the student activities as they prepared for the new school year.   The last picture is of Baldwin Park, where 1,000 gathered for Mass on Saturday evening.  By Sunday evening, when I took this photo, only three people remained.


IMG_2954A Bridge to Somewhere

Benedictine monasteries have generally had a great sense of place, largely because they root themselves in a spot and stay put for centuries.  I say generally because that’s not always been so in every case.  In the 7th century, for example, the monks of Lindisfarne settled on an island off the coast of England and thought they had the ideal spot, with long-term potential.  That was true enough for a while, until the Vikings discovered how easy it was to raid the place.  Eventually one of the monks posed the question that by then was on everyone’s mind:  “What were we thinking?”  Then prudence won out and they moved to a safer place, inland.

At Saint John’s we’ve been blessed with a scenic place, and thankfully our local Vikings have about all they can handle far away in Minneapolis.  We’re further protected from them by heavy traffic and endless road repair, and so we’ve never had to consider moving.  So it is that we’ve been here for 160 years, and by now several generations of monks have put their stamp on the place, and vice-versa.

IMG_2929“They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands.”  So wrote Saint Benedict in the 6th century, and it holds true today just as it did then.  That said, through the centuries much of their work has been more on the order of administrative, as monks then and now have involved themselves in house-keeping, the sacristy, the scriptorium and the like.  They’ve also taught and done ministry.  Worthy of note is that many of these occupations were individual rather than group activities, and for the most part they didn’t involve hard physical toil.  Today that’s especially the case, as there’s just so little opportunity for that in the era of mechanization.

At Saint John’s in the 19th century monks made the bricks and helped in the construction of the massive quadrangle that still dominates our campus.  Nearly a century later a few monks helped in the construction of the new abbey church.  Still, such manual labor has been the exception rather than the rule in the course of 160 years.

IMG_2940However, we’ve not been idle, and every now and again there have been projects in which monastic hands have played a key role.  Many of the old stone walls on campus were the fruit of monastic effort, for example.  The forests show monastic management, as do the trails that crisscross them.  So too do the footbridges that ford streams and inlets around the lake.  And that brings me to the subject of our most recent enterprise:  the replacement of several bridges that have definitely seen better days.

The main trail from the monastery to Stella Maris Chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan dates back to who-knows-when.  Ages ago the monks put in place several bridges that made hiking both easy and a delight.  But as everybody knows, even bridges have a life span, and so we’ve begun to replace them, one by one.

Last summer several monks and volunteers built a trail-head to mark the entrance to the network of paths through the woods.  This year eight monks, in addition to many volunteers, have joined to construct the first in a series of bridges meant to replace structures in advanced states of decay.  Though not yet finished, the unfolding beauty of this first bridge hints at the potential of the entire project.

IMG_2973This new bridge is built from local materials and, like its predecessor, it is meant to last.  Trees harvested from our woods yielded the massive beams that should hold up for decades.  They in turn have been crafted so that their tongue-and-groove connection fits them together like a giant set of Lincoln Logs.  The results will be sturdy, and this first bridge will grace the woods and please the eye.

There’s something remarkable about people whose toil transforms them into a team.  In an era of rugged individualism it’s nice to see a group work toward a common goal, knowing that there has to be one supervisor, not eight or nine.  The result is the work of a community — not a committee in which subcommittees each get to design their own section.

IMG_2963Happily, I too contributed to this project.  I was very careful to stand back and not get in the way.  I was also wise by not offering any advice for improvement.  St. Benedict would have been delighted by my self-awareness of what I can and cannot do.  He would also be delighted by my appreciation of the talents that my brothers have.  Because they have their talents, and I let them exercise them, it means that I don’t have to do everything myself — save that I need to thank them when they’re done.

The abbot is scheduled to bless this first new bridge in September, and next summer work will begin on a second span.  Depending on funding and the energy of the monks, the project will continue, with one bridge per year.  Such is the pace of monastic toil.  All will get done, in its own good time.  That’s how monks put their stamp upon a place, and vice-versa.


+The University school year is upon us, and one sign of the changing times was the day-long department workshop that I attended on August 15th.  More obviously, we have seen the onset of the new school year in the arrival of many of our students, including members of the football team.  This week I also saw touches of red on some of the leaves of the trees.  Frightening.

+As today’s post narrates, work continues on the new bridge on the trail to Stella Maris Chapel.  Fr. Lew has directed those efforts, and this week members of the football team lent their expertise by lifting into place the heavy beams.

+This week The Saint John’s Boys Choir began its new season with a choir camp on campus.  Over the years their voices have added immeasurably to the beauty of our liturgy, and we look forward more of same this year.

IMG_0006_2Advice from Ruth

I seldom get an invitation to preside at a wedding, and so I was particularly glad to have that opportunity this last Saturday.  It was a wonderful occasion to be part of this moment in the lives of two lovely young people, and I wish them well as they go forward in their pilgrimage of life.

That said, I was a little taken aback at their choice of a reading from the book of Ruth, chapter 1.  For those not familiar with that text, the essentials of the story are simple.  Naomi, with her husband and two sons, had moved to Moab, east of the Dead Sea.  Her two sons married local (i.e.: non-Jewish) women, and all seemed to be going just fine.  Then Naomi’s husband died, unexpectedly.  Then her two sons also died.  Then one daughter-in-law took off.  That left Naomi and Ruth, her other daughter-in-law, and between them they confronted almost hopeless prospects.

What an inspiring story to tell at a wedding!  And more to the point, it’s a sobering tale for a prospective mother-in-law and bride to chew on.  So what’s a homilist to do with something like that?  Where’s the consolation, and where’s the optimistic message people expect to hear at weddings?

IMG_0019_2Thankfully, there’s a lot more to the story than that, and the bride and groom had chosen this unconventional reading precisely because of one gorgeous nugget nested square in the middle of chapter 1.  Just when Naomi seems bereft of any sort of future, Ruth turns to her to promise her loyalty.  Who knows if she was recalling the good times that they had all enjoyed before this disastrous turn of events; but she still has hope for the future.  “Entreat me not to leave you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge;  your people shall be my people, and your God my God….”

Have there ever been words more beautiful or better-suited to a wedding?  For that matter, what better commitment can one friend make to another, or a monk to a community?  Such words define a pledge to live a noble life, one in which love and commitment transcend any and every challenge that may come along.

Since the bride and groom had chosen this passage for their very special day, I decided to run with it, largely because there was lots to consider.  And there’s food enough for a lifetime of meditation.

IMG_0024_2For starters, Ruth pledges that where Naomi goes, she will go.  This is a reminder to all of us that life is a pilgrimage, not just in terms of geography but in terms of experience as well.  In marriage people pledge to make their pilgrimage together.  One promises not to leave the other behind — in every sense of the phrase.  In sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, they will walk together through life.  They will travel in the hope that their life together will be far richer than had they taken separate paths.

Then Ruth promises that Naomi’s people will be her people. That is a pointed reminder that married people live in a community of family and friends.  All their family and friends are part of the marriage, because the two of them bring to each other what family and friends have invested in them over the years.  In marriage they do not shut people out of their lives.  Rather, they embrace all of their family and friends and bring them with them into this new relationship.  That’s why everybody was invited to the wedding in the first place.  It wasn’t because of the gifts, after all.

IMG_0275_2Finally, Ruth pledges that Naomi’s God will be her God.  That defines this relationship in terms of a consecration in the Lord.  The faith that has brought them to this point was not self-derived.  The seeds of faith were first planted by parents, and then watered and nourished by friends.  That’s what has shaped them as people who now give themselves, one to the other.

Anyway, that’s what I drew from this passage from the Book of Ruth, and that’s the message I tried to preach at this wedding.  Ironically, Ruth’s words were never meant to be used at a wedding, but they are as perfect as anything could be as a guide for two young people as they walk through life, together.  Even better, these words are a good foundation for friendship and life in community.  After all, that’s what Ruth meant them to be.

For those who’ve not read the book of Ruth, the story turns out pretty nicely, because Ruth followed through on all her promises.  And Ruth would encourage us to do likewise.  She would encourage us to be true to one another, in sickness and health, and in joy or sorrow.  She’d be the first to say that if we walk together in the ways of the Lord, our lives will be far richer than if we take separate paths.


+This was a great week for me, and I managed to stay away from the airport for the second week in a row.

+On August 12th I said Mass and gave a talk to the members of the Serra Club of Minneapolis, gathered at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, MN.

+On August 13th I presided at the marriage of Carl and Lezlie, held at the chapel  of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the campus of the University of Saint Thomas, in St. Paul.  My connection to the couple came through Carl’s side of the family.  I had met his parents many years ago when I gave a talk at the University of Minnesota.  After that we became good friends.  I connected with Carl via another route, after he had spent a year of service at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where we’ve sent Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s for the last twelve years.  By contrast, Lezlie and her family attended Holy Name Church in Edina, MN.  Our monks served that parish for over a hundred years, and the family fondly recalls our confrere, Fr. Arnold Weber, who was pastor for many years.

IMG_0175_2+On August 14th I joined our monks in the chapter house as we listened to a presentation by Francesc Gomis Domenech, who has been a Benedictine Volunteer at Saint John’s for the last few months.  Francesc attended The Escalonica Montserrat, the choir school at the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, outside of Barcelona.  Saint John’s has had a long relationship with Montserrat, that stretches back to the days when our community came to the abbey’s assistance at the end of the Spanish Civil War.  Years later the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University microfilmed the medieval manuscripts in the abbey library.  For the last few years members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps have served at Montserrat.  It was wonderful to have a volunteer from Montserrat with us these past few months.

+Since today is the feast of the Assumption of Mary, I have included depictions of Mary’s life.  All are housed at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.