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.

imageThe Wisdom of Modest Goals

Last week I had the privilege of giving the annual retreat for the Benedictine monks of Saint Andrew Abbey in Cleveland.  I use the term “privilege” deliberately, in part because I usually get far more out of a retreat that I am preaching than do the people who have to sit there and listen to me drone on and on.  At least they get to nod off when things get tedious.

For my part, I’m stuck listening to myself.  After all, it wouldn’t look good if I got lost in the middle of one of my own sentences.  And lest one naively assume that all monastic conferences are electric, I have news for them.  They’re not; and I’ll always recall the abbot (not mine) who once fell asleep during his own conference.  We never did hear the end of his sentence, which I thought was a cheap stunt just to pique our curiosity and leave us panting for more.  After all these years I still wonder how he intended to finish.

In my last post I wrote about the temptations that all monks face during retreats.  Many monks will succomb and slip off to the office to do some chores;  while those who don’t do that end up spending a lot of time wishing they had.  The monks of Saint Andrew have addressed the first temptation in a rather novel way by packing everyone up and carting them off to a retreat house in Akron, some forty miles away from the abbey.  Technically they are still home, I suppose, since they sponsor the retreat center, and one monk is in residence there.   But whether it’s theirs to call their own or not matters little.  It’s just too far away from home to allow monks easy access to the office.  And for monks who don’t drive or have none of the keys to the vans that brought them there, getting home is an impossibility.  So there they were in the country, stuck for all those days with no alternative but to listen to me speak to them twice a day.

imageLong ago I recognized the wisdom of setting modest goals for a retreat in a monastery.  I realized it was too much to change individual lives, and it was completely unreasonable to expect me or anyone else to resurrect a house about to go over the cliff.  So I settled on a far less ambitious aspiration:  don’t leave the monks worse off than they were when I got there.  That way I don’t raise any unrealistic hopes in anybody.

This goal I derived from the experience that a friend in another monastery once related to me.  His community faced many difficulties, due largely to a failure to communicate on the part of several of the monks.  And so an outside facilitator came in and spent the entire day trying to get them to open up to one another.  By the end of the day he had succeeded brilliantly, and conversation had erupted like a volcano.  Unfortunately, there was only enough time to open up the can of worms, and he left with the lid still off.  In retrospect their retreat turned out rather badly, because the facilitator had only succeeded in unleashing a flood of words.  On the other hand, he had unintentionally affirmed Saint Benedict’s admonition about the dangers of just that sort of flood.  For me that was a lesson too good not to heed.

imageMy second goal is not to get personal with my conferences.  The fact is, a retreat director stumbles unwittingly into the lives of other people, and a focus on particular sins and faults runs the risk of riling people up.  It’s easy enough for some monk who is guilty of a particular sin to conclude that the abbot has clued me in and asked me to address the question in front of the entire community.  To avoid that mess, I always begin a retreat with the same disclaimer that TV crime shows being with:  “Any similarities to actual people or events are purely coincidental.”  Lately, just to be on the absolutely safe side, I tell people that I’m only going to talk about my own lurid sins, and not theirs.  Naturally ears perk up, and I can usually engage audience interest for as much as six or seven minutes.  It works until they finally begin to realize that my sins are scarcely more exciting than theirs.

So if my goals are few and modest, where’s the “privileged” part in all of this?  Well, in my limited experience I’ve discovered one fundamental truth.  Monasteries are not all alike, nor are they monocultures in which all the monks conform to a particular mold.  The personalities one encounters are unique, and the gifts and talents are varied.

Further, the Holy Spirit animates communities in very different ways, and it’s a marvel to discover how creative and imaginative God can be in the lives of the monks.  Ironically, the monks usually don’t see this in themselves, and they assume they are pretty ordinary people.  They aren’t, and the monks of Saint Andrew did not disappoint.  And so it was a gift to see the hand of God at work in their midst, if only for a few days.


+From June 8th through the 12th I gave the annual retreat to the monks of Saint Andrew Abbey in Cleveland, OH.  On the 8th I presided at the community Mass, and you can access the sermon that I preached on that occasion:  Blessed are the Risk-Takers.

+On June 13th I participated in the ordination to the permanent diaconate of Saint John’s University alumnus David Flynn, which took place in the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Fairfield, CT.  On Sunday the 14th I presided and preached at the first Mass in which Deacon David ministered as deacon.  That took place in the parish to which he has been assigned, Saint Jude, in Monroe, CT.  For the text of my sermon see May the Lord Finish the Good Work He Has Begun in Us.

image+The pictures in today’s post come from the monastic garden at Saint John’s, save for the photo of Deacon David Flynn, in the center.  To the right is Msgr. Dariusz Zielonka, the pastor of Saint Jude in Monroe, CT.  By coincidence Msgr. Zielonka lived in the same residence as our Fr. Matthew when they were in graduate school at Catholic University of America.

+This post is the 201st of this blog, and in August I will have written this for four years.  I can scarcely believe it’s continued for this long without running out of things to say.  I thank readers for their continued interest, as well as for their occasional ideas and questions.  Thank you!

imageThe Case for Fraternal Correction

Last week the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat.  By any measure it can be a pleasant week, though there can be some challenges to confront.  Chief among those is work.  It takes iron discipline not to slip away to the office between conferences.  Second on the list of challenges is thinking about slipping off to the office.

It may seem odd that monks would rank work above sitting through spiritual conferences, but that’s because most peope don’t know any monks.  We are products of our culture, and on most monastic productivity scales work outscores most everything else by a long shot.  Like most people, then, that’s where our default settings are.

All the same, we do derive much benefit from speakers who come from outside of the community to deliver retreats.  For one thing, we sometimes learn something.  For another, such people provide a perspective that corrects our sometimes insular views on things.  They also have the advantage of being neutral when it comes to an examination of our own faults.  After all, they generally don’t know us, and they can’t be blamed if they hit the nail on the head when they identify our faults.  How could they have known?  And how can we blame them?

imageThis retreat was slightly different, however, because the refection committee caused a minor stir by posting several signs outside and inside of the monastic dining room.  As long as the retreat director was helping us to re-order our lives, the committee decided to use that as cover to issue a short list of points that fell somewhere between suggestions and demands.  Specifically, table etiquette had slipped markedly, and it was not just a matter of using the cutlery in unacceptable fashion.  No, this had to do with how and how not to go through a buffet.  And because words are not always enough, the committee used illustrations to help those who might not understand the prose.

Nobody likes to stick their neck out and scold a community, so this was a pretty brave thing to do.  Because of that, in true monastic fashion the committee took the precaution of listing the names of all the members in a follow-up email.  And also in true monastic fashion, the warning went out to everybody, rather than to the violators alone.  No sense blaming just the ones who deserve it.

imageSuch an issue normally rates a nod and a chuckle, but Fr. Brad tackled the subject again at Mass the next morning.  He could imagine each monk reading the signs and saying in mock horror:  “Surely it is not I, Lord!”  And of course they’d be right.  It’s always about someone else, or at least it is in my case.

If the truth be told, most of us could not possibly imagine that we’ve ever irritated anyone.  Most of us couldn’t think of a single thing we do that someone else might find obnoxious.  This is why sooner or later all of us deserve to be called clueless.  And we’re cluseless because we put ourselves at the center of our own little universe and imagine we can do no wrong.  Ever.

Saint Benedict was well-aware of the potential for petty conflict and irritation in the monastery.  As an abbot of a small monastery he likely had to staff the complaint department all by himself, but generally he hoped that monks would settle things amicably, among themselves.  “Fraternal correction” was just one method that he hoped might solve problems, long before such issues escalated into agenda items for committees.

imageEven so, it’s worthwhile periodically to do a self-examination of our habits and actions, and try to imagine whether we might be doing things that get on the nerves of others.  One never knows, because in time we can easily morph into the people we once found irritating.  So it was with one confrere whom I heard muttering in the refectory about one of his table-mates:  “That man ought to be in a barn.”  That of coure was years ago, and the offending monk has long since gone to the heavenly banquet, where he likely dines in the barn.  Ironically, the mutterer has gone on to fill his shoes, and now my only hope is that he can take the time to read the pictures.


+From June 1st through the 5th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat, with Fr. Edward Mazich, OSB, as our retreat director.  Fr. Edward is a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.  The first monks to colonize Saint John’s left Saint Vincent in 1856 and within the year had settled in what became Collegeville.

+On June 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass.  It happened to be the feast day of Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions; but we also celebrated the jubilee of ordination of eight of our confreres.  For a transcript of my sermon, please go to Priesthood in the Monastery.  Following the homily Abbot John thanked the jubiliarians for their many years of service, which included two monks who celebated seventy years of ordination, one who celebrated sixty, two who celebrated fifty, and three who observed twenty-five years as priests in the monastery.  Community members then extended their hands as the abbot blessed our eight confreres.

image+In between conferences I did slip away to visit the doctor for an annual physical.  While there I got two shots, which were painless enough.  When the nurse had finished I looked down, expecting to see the usual flesh-toned bandages.  Instead I was wearing two Bugs Bunny Bandaids.  I tried to explain that monks do not wear Bugs Bunny Bandaids, but the nurse waved it off.  They had bought a truck-load of cartoon bandaids, and the kids would wear the Micky Mouse Bandaids but turned up their noses at the Bugs Bunny Bandaids.  So that’s what they were giving out to the adults.  And they did not have any flesh-tone bandages.  They hadn’t been on sale.

+With generous rains and perfect temperatures, the landscape at Saint John’s has been lush and verdant.  The first three photos are from the Scary Mary Garden, which is tended by Fr. Geoffrey; while the last three photos come from the garden in the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

imageWhen the Well Runs Dry

There comes the day when most speakers run out of stuff to say, and I came perilously close this weekend. Of course I had known for months that this day of reflection for members of the Order of Malta was on the horizon, so it wasn’t like it came as a total surprise, out of the blue.  But the real challenge came from years of speaking to this same group.  Was there anything new to say?  Was there anything that I could repackage and present in a novel way?  Or could I do a variation on that line from the gospels — could I pour old wine into new wineskins?

I suppose the title of my conferences hinted at my dilemma.  How do you replenish the well when the well runs dry?  My intention was to address the issues of my audience, but the title was as much for my benefit as for theirs.  Of course it was a catchy title for a group living in drought-plagued California.  But it also happens to be an appropriate theme for people who have committed themselves to service that they pledge to keep up for a lifetime.

There’s no denying the fact that as people mature they find many old commitments increasingly difficult to keep.  Marriages can coast on early enthusiasm for only so long, and eventually people have to invest a lot of work to make the relationship flourish and deepen.  The same is true with friendship.  But it’s in the commitment to serve others where the strains can show most easily, and often it shows after only a short while.

imageIt’s great to work in a soup-kitchen, for example, but if the lines never get any shorter people can reasonably begin to wonder if there’s any point to it.  MInistering to the sick and to those in their last weeks and months can drain care-givers beyond anything they ever imagined.  Even the most optimistic of parents can slip into depression when children wander away from the values they sought to instill.  And the strongest of people can be adrift at sea when close friends find themselves estranged from their faith in God.  In the face of apparent defeat, what are people to do when they have given to others day in and day out, and there seems nothing to show for it?

It seems to me that if people intend to keep giving of themselves but not be drained entirely, then they must replenish themselves somehow.  The first step to renewal seems not to be intuitive, however.  Renewal can only begin when people admit that they cannot stand alone.  They cannot be their own sole source of inspiration.  Sooner or later they will run out of reserves, and there will be nothing left.

imageIt’s a genuine temptaiton to want to be independent and strong for the sake of others, but eventually that becomes the temptation to be like God.  It’s the very same thing that Adam and Eve reached out for in the Garden of Eden.  But they, like most people since, learned the cruel and ultimate lesson of life.  None of us can stand alone.  We need to rely on someone else, and ultimately that someone else is God.

Saint Benedict opens his Rule for Monks with one simple word that invites the monk to reach out beyond himself to discover the real source of strength.  “Listen” in Benedict’s way of thinking is not passive.  It’s an active engagement with inspiration that comes from outside, and it’s that inspiration that replenishes the monk who is on the verge of empty.

Of course that’s just as true for other Christians as it is for monks.  If people are to be renewed, and if they are to avoid running out of enthusiasm or commitment to service, then they have to reach beyond themselves.  They have to “listen with the ear of their heart,” as Benedict advises.

imageBenedict’s words of course embody the wisdom of the ancients, but they are equally valid for the internet age as well.  So it is that even people in the 21st century who find themselves drained need to find nourishment somewhere, and that naturally has to come from outside of oneself.  For Christians that nourishment comes from reading the scriptures, praying alone and with others, and participating in the worship of the community.  And if it’s important to have ears that are open to the noises God sends our way, it is equally important to have eyes that are open to the work of God that takes place right in front of us.  Closed in on ourselves, it’s easy to succomb to self-pity and think that we alone carry burdens that are unique in all the world.  With eyes open we can see others who carry similar burdens, and they do so with generosity that can be equal to our own.  And in fact some of them are so generous that they’re willing to reach out and help us carry our own heavy burdens.

There’s no easy solution for replenishing our own well when the well runs dry.  But for sure the solution is not self-derived.  Thankfully God gave us ears to hear and eyes to see and brains to use.  And God invites us to use them all.  Using them all is the quickest way I know to refill the well, even to overflowing.


+On May 30th I gave a day of reflection to the members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.  We gathered for that at Vallombrosa Retreat Center in Menlo Park, CA.

+On May 29th the community gathered for the funeral of our confrere, Fr. Richard Eckroth.

+On May 31st we celebrated the feast of Trinity Sunday.  Depictions of Jesus abound in the history of Christian art; but illustrations of the Trinity are few and far between.  Just such a depiction of the Trinity is to be seen on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto, in Italy.  The pictures in today’s post come from that cathedral.

imageThe Pilgrimage to Santiago

For the last three weeks I’ve followed the travels of a friend who is making the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela.  Santiago sits in the far northwestern corner of Spain, and pilgrims have been going there since the 9th century.  They’ve gone primarily to venerate the relics of the Apostle James, which are enshrined in the venerable 12th-century cathedral.  But as often as not it’s the trip itself that has drawn pilgrims by the tens of thousands;  and the tide shows no sign of letting up as we’ve entered the new century.

Several years ago the Spanish government caved into the popularity of this pilgrimage route and repaired and repaved the dangerous pathway that runs across the north of the country.  In the middle ages the road was much longer, with four trailheads that began in the middle of France.  Once in Spain the routes converged, only to split into northern and southern routes.  Today scarcely anyone has the time to begin the journey in France, which is just as well since there likely is no road to follow.  And today everyone takes the southerly route via León, which is still a challenge despite any modern amenities.  Whether by foot or bike, the trip requires a major investment of time and energy, but at least it’s not dangerous like it was in the middle ages.

imageI confess that I’ve only done this pilgrimage by coach, so I’ve never had the blisters and aching knees that those who are truly pilgrims continue to enjoy.  Nonetheless, I’ve been able to hear enough stories from bonafide pilgrims to appreciate what they go through en route.

First off, one naturally asks why anyone in their right mind would want to do this.  Why take off weeks from a job or abandon a comfortable home just to tromp through crummy weather and a rugged and often lonely landscape?  Well, there’s one reason I long ago crossed off the list.  People do not make the trek to Santiago because they have nothing else to do.  People who are addicted to the recliner in the den are the least likely candidates to do this.  People who are chronically bored rank a close second.  People who wonder what to do to fill up their day rank third.  In short, almost all the people who walk to Santiago do so for a reason, and the non-adventurous need not apply.

imageThose reasons vary, of course.  Some do it because they are at a crossroads in their lives and have to sort things out or do some serious soul-searching.  Others go because they have lost someone dear to them.  Still others go to mend fences or come to terms with broken relationships.  And others do it for the sheer joy of testing their limits by walking several hundred miles.  Can they do it without taking a week off at the spa?

A second important lesson about this pilgrimage is that one never travels alone.  People may take their first cautious steps out onto the road, thinking they don’t know a soul.  But within a mile or two people tend to link up and travel together.  En route they share their stories, and soon enough therapy and camaraderie blur together.  People begin to support one another;  and as is the case with life, they sometimes move on to join new clusters of pilgrims, only to rejoin friends they had made a hundred miles earlier.

imagePretty soon a pattern emerges, and the parallels to normal life start to emerge.  Of course absent from all this walking is the busyness that crowds the daily routine at home.  Shorn of trips to the mall and time spent at the office or in front of the television, the pilgrimage route tends to reduce life to its bare-boned basics.  What the pilgrim soon confronts is the endless horizon, but in getting there each step counts for something.

Pilgrimage to anywhere is a metaphor for life in general and Christian life in particular.  The nice thing about Santiago is that there’s a clear destination and a decently-marked trail to get there.  One also has roughly some idea of how long it will take until arrival.

Unlike the road to Santiago, normal life isn’t quite so tidy.  There are all sorts of uncertainties about destination and duration, and there may be lots of detours along the way.  But in common with Santiago, how one gets there is all-important.  Each step along the way counts for something.

imageVeterans of the road to Santiago all comment on the renewed appreciation for life that they’ve come home with.  They’ve learned to savor the little things, which is one lesson that comes from miles and miles through endless fields and forests and mountains.  And most of all, they come home with a renewed respect for their fellow travelers.  On the road to Santiago there are no strangers, because everyone eventually becomes a fellow pilgrim, and together they walk the road with the Lord.

In a few days my friend will reach Sahagún, which is the site of a once-great Benedictine abbey.  It was in Sahagún where I learned my last and best lesson from the pilgrimage.  It was there that I met a  young German woman who had decided to start her pilgrimage in Seville, far in the south of Spain.  Nobody does the pilgrimage from Seville, because there is no hiking path from Seville.  My first thought was that she must be crazy.  Then I recalled the parable of the wedding banquet, when the host went out to the byways and invited any and all into the feast.  That’s when I realized that this woman may have been eccentric, but she was a metaphor for the Church.  Whether we start in Seville or Arles or in Barcelona, it is the Lord who will gather us in.  And many other surprises will await us as well.


+On May 18th and 19th I attended the annual retreat of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, held at Saint John’s.

+On May 23rd Saint John’s Preparatory School held its graduation exercises in the abbey church.

+The pictures in today’s post were taken by Michael Becker, who photographed the recent ordination of Fr. Nick Kleespie as priest and Brother Lew Grobe as deacon, with Bishop Donald Kettler presiding.  On May 24th Fr. Nick celebrated the Eucharist at his home parish in Morris, MN.

+Santiago Compostela was likely the most popular medieval shrine in Europe, after Rome itself.  But it held no monopoly on pilgrimage, and many local and regional pilgrimage destinations emerged to entice visitors from near and far.  In the gallery on the Cathedral of Chartres you will see samples of the sculpture and stained glass that dazzled visitors from France and beyond.

imagePearls of Wisdom

A few weeks ago the president of Saint John’s University posed to me and several of my colleagues a very simple question.  “What do you know now that you wish someone had told you at twenty-two?”  It’s the sort of thing for which everyone has an answer, and to no one’s surprise it prompted a lot of replies.  And even though the president had asked us not to give it much thought, clearly there was wisdom in the nuggets that came pouring in.

The fact that wisdom came back at all was reassuring, since it need not have been that way.  To cite but one example of the latter, I wish someone had told me to buy stock in Apple when I was twenty-two.  Of course it didn’t exist back then, but eventually it would have changed my life, for sure.  The same would hold for buying real estate on the Florida coasts.  I’m now on in years to the point at which I could have cashed in on a fortune, even with the paltry sum I could have invested at age twenty-two.

imageTo everyone’s credit, however, there were no self-serving bits like these, and it speaks to their altruism.  To no one’s surprise, most contributions were thoughtful, and they were of the sort that could benefit any and all twenty-two-year-olds, provided they were willing to listen.  The latter isn’t always the case, as many of us can attest from our personal experience.  But the probability of people listening to our ideas was not something the president had asked us to factor in.

I won’t itemize what my colleagues had to offer, but I will say that I had a tough time deciding between two of my own long-time favorites.  One adage has served me well for ages, and it really could have come in handy when I was twenty-two.  “The only thing better than perfect is done” was the best thing I learned in graduate school, and I’ve used it ever since to ward off procrastination.  It’s stood the test of time, at least most of the time.

But I finally went with a more noble sentiment that would have helped me a lot in my early years.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  Now at first blush that sounds terribly self-centered, but I don’t mean it that way.  It can sound like I’m driven by a fiercely competitive spirit, but that’s not me.  It can sound like the desire to manipulate people is topmost in my mind, but I hope that’s not me either.  And it can sound like I’m the person who likes the front row in synagogues and banquets, but that’s definitely not me.  Since the first grade I’ve preferred the third seat in the third row, since it’s the ideal hiding place for someone like me who used to be terminally shy.  No, this aphorism is about something else entirely.

image“If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  It can sound crass and opportunistic, but in fact it’s been a great prod to get me in gear and to show up at events and places where I’d rather not be.  It’s a reminder that if I don’t participate in discussions, then I lose the right to complain about decisions that don’t go my way.  It’s also a reminder that if I’m peeved that no one has asked for my wisdom for days, it may be because I’ve stayed in my room all that time.

These are compelling reasons for adopting this motto, but it still hasn’t touched the most important rationale.  That has to do with talents that are ignored or underused.  If I absent myself from human interaciton, then I end up hiding my talents under a bushel.  Now I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I have a ton of talents, but what few I do have are wasted if I don’t trot them out every once in a while.  Talents that are seldom used tend to atrophy, and eventually they are of no use to the owner.  Not surprisingly, they’re of even lesser value to the people around me, and they’re the ones who need them most.

imageThat, it seems to me, is the whole point of living in community.  Life in community, whether in a monastery or in a church or in a family, isn’t just a matter of shared goods.  It also involves shared talents, shared points of view, and especially shared lives.  It’s the latter in particular that makes life in the monastery potentially wonderful.

That was my contribution to the president’s request, and I’m curious about why he had asked for this.  He certainly didn’t mean to share it with his one-year-old twins, since they would have paid zero attention.  And I doubt that he needed it for personal use, since he has more than enough wisdom already.  Perhaps he meant it for our own benefit.  Perhaps he wanted us to realize how far we’ve each come since age twenty-two.

imageNow that I’ve had a chance to mull all this over, I’m glad that no one told me about Apple or Florida real estate when I was twenty-two.  It would not have been enough, because I would have been upset not to know about Facebook and Google and all the other stuff that would have made me even richer.  And even had Apple and Florida been enough, it likely would have ruined my life anyway.  After all, stock tips and insider information are no substitute for wisdom and all the other things that really matter in life.

In some respects it may be a fruitless exercise to tell a twenty-two-year-old something that only comes with age and grace.  After all, back then I knew amost everything there was to know.  Nowadays, I know a lot less, but I’m blessed to know a little bit about what really matters in life.  And these are pearls of great price, without a doubt.


+On May 17th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and via the link you can access my sermon: The Feast of the Ascension:  Let’s Be Moving On.

+Last week twelve graduating seniors of Saint John’s University began a two-week retreat at the Abbey.  This fall  they will each begin one-year terms as members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  In the course of the year they will spread to Benedictine abbeys across the world.

+Last week the rains came in abundance to central Minnesota, and on Saturday night we received over two inches.  It was a welcome relief for us, as well as for the neighboring farmers.  It also boosted the spring flowers, and it provided continued encouragement to the monks who are avid gardeners.


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