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Meet John the Baptist

Only in recent years have I gotten to know John the Baptist a little better. In my childhood he scarcely figured in my imagination. Later on he slowly moved in from the shadows in my mental living room, but he didn’t have much of a profile. As far as I was concerned John’s self-effacement earned him only a bit part at best. After all, if he meant to decrease while Jesus increased, then the latter seemed to be the one who deserved my greatest attention.

Several years ago I became a chaplain in the Order of Malta, and that meant there were times when I had to preach on John the Baptist. The official name of the Order is “the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta,” and as a chaplain I could ignore John no longer. He was the patron of the Order, and I couldn’t get by with “he was a nice guy” and then move on to another topic. I suppose I could have done that, but I figured he deserved better. But what was I to say?

While John earned martyrdom for denouncing Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, what really distinguished John was his preaching. Specifically, he urged people to repent, refocus their lives, and return to their faith. That did not mean a return to mechanical rubrics and whole burnt offerings in the expectation that they would allay the wrath of God. Rather, John urged his listeners to fix their internal compass on some north star for their lives. He preached the need to transform articles of faith from words into actions. It meant that those who thought that true religion was an hour or two a week in a synagogue or church were only fooling themselves. If inner conversion mattered, it had to find expression in love for God and neighbor.

At a crucial stage in his own growth in age and wisdom Jesus stumbled on the teaching of John. John’s themes must have resonated with what Jesus had already begun to pray about. That means we should be neither surprised nor apologetic that Jesus should step forward to be baptized by John.

How could I not begin to admire someone like John? Now, after all sorts of sermons and comments on John, I see him more clearly. I see him as self-effacing to a fault, but I also realize what an incredibly daring man of God he was. He is what all of us who have been baptized should strive to be. Maybe that’s why we meet him each year, at the beginning of Advent. Such a great man certainly deserves a moment of our time. Like Jesus, we might even pick up something useful. And do I have any regrets this Advent? Yes. I wish I had met John the Baptist years earlier.

NOTES

+This last week I was the reader at morning prayer.

+As the semester nears an end, I have begun to set aside time to visit individually with several of our college students from Immokalee, FL. So far it’s been a good semester for all of them, and it has been a treat to touch base with them.

+On November 28th Abbot John blessed the University Christmas tree in the Great Hall. A reception followed in the hall, crowded with students, faculty and staff.

+On Saturday December 3rd we monks met for evening prayer at 5:00 pm, two hours earlier than usual. This freed the church later that day for the annual Christmas Concert by the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+Guests we have always with us. Recently we hosted for several days Prior Jacob Deibl of the Abbey of Melk in Austria, and Abbot Austin Cadiz of the abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat in Manila, Philippines. Abbot Austin is a graduate of our School of Theology/seminary.

+Saint John the Baptist serves as the patron of Saint John’s Abbey, University and Preparatory School. As you might expect, we have an abundance of artistic images of John, starting with the statue at top by Doris Cesar of New York. Commissioned to stand in the baptistery, his fingers point to the font, and they have been polished by handshakes from visitors through the years. In the middle of today’s post is a smaller version of the tapestry of John baptizing Jesus, which hangs in the Cathedral of the Angels in Los Angeles. This smaller version hangs in our guesthouse.

Oh Crud, Was That Today?

Picture in your mind two young sophisticated dinosaurs. They’re standing on a beach, chatting away as if there’s no tomorrow. Then, distracted for a moment, they both spy a big wooden ship whose deck is clogged with animals. There’s two giraffes, two elephants, two ostriches, two cats — two of everything except for the two of them. In shock, one blurts out what the other is also thinking. “Oh crud, was that today?” That’s when it dawned on them that there really would be no tomorrow. Noah’s ark had left without them, and it was their own fault.

Yeas ago I chose as a personal motto something that could counteract my inclination to be a hermit. Simply put, it goes like this: “If you don’t show up, you don’t get to play the game.” That sports analogy has helped me in so many ways, and when I’ve acted on those words I’m always grateful that I have. Each time it’s pried open my world just a little wider; and best of all, it’s led me to appreciate a tenet fundamental both to Jesus as well as to Saint Benedict. For Jesus it consisted of the two great commandments — the command to love God with all our heart, our soul and our mind; and to love our neighbor as ourself. But then Jesus took that one step further by saying we should translate these aspirations into practice. “What you do for the least of people, you do for me.”

Saint Benedict picks it up from there when he urges monks to see Christ in the senior monks, the youngest monks, the abbot and most especially in the guest. Benedict pretty much leaves no one out, so it’s a reminder that Jesus should be no stranger to any monk. Wherever we turn there is some sign that Christ has been there and still might be. Blink and we’ll miss him, and that’s why being alert matters. It’s also why showing up matters. If you don’t show up — to prayer, to Mass, and to meals — monks could easily miss the moment when Christ has crafted a message specifically for them.

But there’s more to our encounter with Christ than mere listening. Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the command to “listen!” but he doesn’t mean for us to stop there. Otherwise time in front of the computer screen might count as a modern fulfillment of the monastic life. Rather, listening must lead to action, and action leads to love and service to one another.

The other day I ran across a comment by civil and children’s rights advocate Maria Wright Edelman, and her words struck a chord in me. “Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.” By that she doesn’t mean to say that earning a living or enjoying good conversation or time spent with others don’t count for diddley-squat. Rather, taken together they are part and parcel of a life well-lived. They are the ingredients for a life lived to the fullest. And to that I would add a life filled with an awareness of God’s presence among us.

I don’t propose to stand here today and tell you that the dinosaurs went extinct because they missed Noah’s ark. But I am willing to say that this ancient story becomes in Jesus’ telling a parable — a reminder that we can all miss the boat. We can all miss the chance to see Christ slipping into our lives. We can all miss Christ as he appears to us in the faces of our friends, our neighbors and the stranger. And every time we miss those glimpses of the divine in our midst we lose our connection with eternity. We fall short of our potential as human beings. We become someone else rather than the persons we first set out to be.

In his Rule Saint Benedict invokes an image that I’ve always found powerful enough to get me back on track when I realize I’ve stumbled or strayed. In the prologue to his Rule he reminds us that our lives are like a truce. We are not created to live on this earth forever. Rather, we are created in time so that someday we will live in eternity. We are privileged to have twenty or forty or eighty years. It’s the slice of time we’ve been gifted to use — our time to make something of ourselves. It’s the stretch for our pilgrimage into eternity, and in this time of truce we have glimpses of God in the here and the now. To the extent that we close our eyes to the presence of Christ among us, we fall short of who we can become. To the extent that we can open our eyes, an entirely new world unfolds around us.

Today’s gospel passage (Matthew 24: 37-44) began with a reference to Noah’s ark, and by inference that’s an invitation to be on that boat when it leaves the harbor. Jesus closes his sermon with a reference to a thief who comes to us in the dead of night to run off with what’s most important to us. Clearly what’s important to us is not the stuff we accumulate so greedily, only to have to let go of it all someday. Rather, the thief steals our time. The thief steals our chance to explore our vocation as Christians and as human beings. The thief destroys years meant for creativity by steering us into escapism.

Advent reminds us that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. That might be a call to repentance, but I think it’s even more important that we see it as a plea to examine our lives. It’s a plea for us to see where we are headed and what we’re doing with our potential. It’s a plea to make the most of every day, and to make the most of every opportunity.

If today we hear his voice, let’s not harden our hearts. With open arms let us greet the Lord and make the most of all he’s given us. Let’s never let the thief steal our best days and hours and minutes. They are ours alone to use!

Let’s also be a little wiser than the dinosaurs. If today we hear God’s word, let’s not be shocked and turn to one another in stunned disbelief. Let our response not be “Oh crud, was that today?” Rather, let ours be the reply of the young Samual as he waited for the response of the Lord: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

NOTES

+Certainly the highlight of the week was Thanksgiving, on November 24th. As is our custom, the kitchen staff had the day off and the monks prepared the festive meal. Gracing our table were seven guests from our School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s. They included five graduate student/priests from Haiti, one priest from Rwanda and one from China. It was a pleasure to share one of our customs as we learned about theirs.

+On November 26th we had the funeral for our confrere Fr. Rene. Several hundred visitors joined in paying tribute to him and his life of service. Thankfully the weather was lovely for the burial service in the abbey cemetery.

+On Sunday November 27th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a transcription of the sermon that I delivered that morning. I referenced a cartoon that I have cherished for many years as one of my favorites, and I believe it is by Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson. If it’s not by him, it should be.

+This Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, and the photos in today’s post show the abbey church as it had been prepared for the season. The mural above the abbot’s throne was painted by our confrere Fr. Nathanael, and the icon at bottom is by English artist Aidan Hart.

Be as Rich as the Poor Widow

Whenever I read the story of the poor widow who gave from her poverty, Saint Benedict’s comment on the wealthy pops into my mind. Benedict makes no value judgment on what it means to be rich or poor. However, he does raise a note of caution about the knee-jerk deference we tend to pay to the rich and the powerful. We do so without thinking, and we have to compensate by recalling a fundamental teaching of Jesus. All of us are created in the image of God; and in the case of Saint Benedict, we must strive on a daily basis to see the face of Christ in our neighbors, be they rich and especially be they poor.

So what grain of wisdom might we glean from this passage from the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel? I think there’s a natural tendency to think that Jesus intends this passage for the rich, and he certainly does. To whom much is given, much is expected, he reminds us elsewhere. But I don’t think he means us to stop there, because he extols the generosity of the widow, who gave out of her need. And what might be the point of this?

For myself I have used my own situation as an excuse to do nothing when I should have done something. I don’t have billions of dollars. I don’t have a seat in Congress. I’m not a bishop, nor am I part of the international network of the powerful and influential. Can I rightly give up and sit back and watch in deference to what these others can do? Not so, says the better part of me.

When he singles out the widow Jesus reminds us that we have the capacity to do something of value in life. It may not be in the realm of great philanthropy or leadership, but there are things that I am gifted to do — things that Jesus calls me to do, regardless of how powerful or powerless the world judges me to be.

You and I have gifts, as did people like Mary the mother of Jesus and Mother Theresa and Saint Francis and the countless other saints we remember on All Saints’ Day. Our lives have meaning, and so what we choose to do with them matters. That, I think, is one lesson we draw from a meditation on the generosity of this poor widow.

You and I are created in the image of God, and we have God-given talents. There’s no excuse for burying those talents, because there’s something we can and must do with them. And that’s the point of this story. Jesus reminds us that we can be as rich as this poor widow, and for that we give thanks.

NOTES

+Last week whatever pretense we had of a lingering autumn came to an end. For two days it snowed off and on, and when it came time to climb into my car, I had to brush off several inches of snow. Rest assured that I love the snow — especially looking at it. But I don’t care to drive in it. But this snow is here to stay until an early spring thaw. The photos in today’s post give a taste of what we enjoyed this week.

+On November 16th we were delighted to see an eight-minute segment of the PBS News Hour devoted to a story about our expanded pipe organ and our wood-working shop, which is under construction. Thankfully that program occasionally devotes some time to arts and culture, which can be a good reminder that mayhem does not rule the world entirely. The segment can be found on YouTube, and the link can be found on the abbey web site.

+On November 20th our confrere Fr. Rene McGraw passed away after a long illness. He was revered as a philosophy teacher and counselor to hundreds of our students. May he Rest In Peace.

+November 21st I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a transcription of the sermon I delivered.

What Must I Do to Get a “C”?

If you’ve ever been a teacher, then you know the questions to expect. “What do I need to do to get an A in the class?” “What must I do to pass this course?” “Why did you give me a C and not a C+?” The list goes on, but it all boils down to one simple request: “What is the least I can do to get the most in return?”

Jesus heard this sort of thing too, but the simplest version came from the rich young man. He wanted to know what he had to do to be saved. The answer, however, was more than he could handle. “Give everything away and follow me.” That, we know, was more than the young man could bear.

Saint Paul also got questions like that, and in his letter to Titus, chapter two, he gives an answer that some likely did not expect — or want. I’m guessing that somebody had written to Paul, complaining that people in the community were not acting the way they should. And so they wrote to Paul, much as they do to the bishop or the pope or some cardinal today, hoping for the formula for the perfect Christian life. What they really want are laws and rules that they can use as ammunition against neighbors whom they think need a good scolding. But that was not what Paul gave them.

Instead of precise rules, Paul gave advice that stretched the talents of everybody. “Older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love and endurance.” “Older women should be reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good…self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers” and so on. He then goes on to give similar advice to the young.

All in all this was not the sort of advice some people were hoping to get. Paul instead set a high bar that scarcely anyone could reach. But even worse, this was advice that was not easy to slam in face of neighbors who needed a good scolding. After all, advice like this could come back to haunt you.

What Paul has done is what Jesus did when confronted with the question of how we might be saved. He did not give ten new commandments to add on to the old ten. Rather, he reminded people of ideals that would stretch everyone’s talents to the limits. It was easy to give a laundry list of rules and regulations. But for those who wanted a real challenge, there were two great commandments, out of which everything flowed. Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. This was an appeal to a life of wisdom.

I have a friend who was the dean of a law school and is now a retired federal judge. As a teacher he got questions similar to those Paul got, and in time he formulated an answer that borrowed from Paul. To the irate student who got a C on an exam he had a ready answer. “I gave you a C because what you wrote was correct. But it was exactly what I had given you. Had you taught me something I didn’t already know I would have given you an A.”

That’s what Saint Paul and what Jesus ask of us. We can choose to do the minimum and wonder why life seems so unfair. Or we can rise to the challenge to live with wisdom and self-awareness. In the process we grow into people we never imagined we would become. That, I think, is exactly what Jesus would have us do.

NOTES

+On November 8-12 I took part in the a retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta, followed by the annual meeting of the Western Association of the Order of Malta. It took place in Orange County, CA, and the venues were a contrast between the sacred and the profane. On the one hand our liturgical activities took place at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove and at Saint Michael’s Abbey, while our hotel was right across the street from Disneyland. In fact, my room was on a level that looked right into the high point of the roller-coaster. Every forty-five seconds or so I heard the screams of those about to plunge from the heights to the depths.

+On November 10th the boys choir from the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat outside of Barcelona sang a concert in the abbey church at Saint John’s. On Sunday the 13th they sang at the abbey Mass. We have a long relationship with the monks at Montserrat, and for several years members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps have worked at the choir school at Montserrat. The choir is absolutely angelic.

+Today’s post is a variation of a sermon that I delivered to members of the Order of Malta, gathered at Saint Michael’s Abbey.

+During the month of November we pray for deceased relatives and friends of the abbey. Before each liturgy we take the individual prayer cards that people have sent in and remember those for whom we’ve been asked to pray. The photos in today’s post show scenes from the abbey cemetery. In the cemetery there are sections reserved for the monks, for members of the abbey parish of Saint John the Baptist, as well as for friends and alumni of Saint John’s.

A Wedding Homily

A few days ago we read in the liturgy the parable of the shepherd who left the 99 in search of the one lost sheep. It’s a story very familiar to many of us, so much so that we have a hard time looking at it from another angle. Can there be anything here that we’ve not already seen dozens of times?

One recent homilist said “yes.” He pointed out that it seems really crazy for the shepherd to leave the 99, because when he gets back the number could be down to fifty, or forty or even ten. What’s to keep the sheep who were left behind to stay put? Not a very practical shepherd was he.

But practicality is not the point of the story. That shepherd will go after each sheep until he’s gotten to each one of them. And more to the point, Jesus is that shepherd, and you and I are among the 99 who can wonder off just like the one lost sheep. But the Lord never stops looking for us.

Long ago I realized that as nice as the Beatitudes may sound, I didn’t really care to be on the list of those who are poor in spirit. Nor do I want to be among those who mourn. I’m glad that other people hunger and thirst for righteousness, but I’m not sure about my own calling to be one of them. Nor do I care to be persecuted or insulted for the sake of Jesus. I love the Lord, but something inside me has whispered that I’m not the stuff of which martyrs are made.

Then one day I looked at the Beatitudes differently. By avoiding all those things I could live calmly and comfortably; but in fact there could be a high price to pay for a life with no pain, no anxiety, no tension. Such a life is the equivalent of living on opioids.

The first time I saw the positive benefits of the Beatitudes was when I realized the importance of mourning. A life without an ounce of regret or the shedding of even one tear is a life in which someone has never taken a risk. Someone has never loved for fear that love could end. Someone has never gone out on a limb for fear that they might get hurt. In fact, such a life is a constant numbness. There are no tears and there is no pain because there were no risks. There was no joy. It is a life in which the axiom “nothing ventured nothing gained” came true. In short, people who mourn are people who’ve had a taste of something wonderful in life. They’ve risked themselves for some greater good. That greater good is a full life — a life of devotion to friends and in the case of Johannes and Adriana today, a life devoted to each other. Who wouldn’t mourn the loss of relationships like these? Yet, that’s exactly what happens to those who dare not risk themselves by loving others.

Today we gather to witness as Johannes and Adriana commit themselves in God’s presence and in ours to life together. They’ve chosen to throw in their lot with one another. They’ve chosen to risk it all in a life together. And what does the Lord promise in return? There will be a few tears. There will be times to mourn. There will be moments of contentment and rejoicing in love. In short, the Lord promises a life of intensity. Theirs will be anything but a life of bored numbness. And if Jesus promises life in eternity, remember that eternity begins now, and it includes this very moment as you consecrate yourselves to one another.

I’m not going to wish all the Beatitudes on you today, but you have already begun to discover to which ones you’ve been called. Some of these will be a challenge, others not. You can be peacemakers among your family and friends, and I wish you well in that. You can and will thirst and hunger for righteousness, and in that I’ve seen your passion already. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I do think your weak suit is meekness. So I pray you get a dollop of that every now and again.

Anyway, the Beatitudes are a recipe for a life well-lived, a life lived with commitment, a life lived with intensity. And together we all pray that the Lord will be with you always. And may the Lord who has already begun this good work in you bring it to completion both now and in the eternal Jerusalem. Amen.

NOTES

+On November 4th I flew to New York to participate in the wedding of long-time friends Johannes and Adriana. The wedding was held at Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Wyckoff, NJ, and today’s post is a transcript of the homily I delivered. I have never posted a wedding homily before, but I chose to do so in this case in hopes that a few readers might find something useful in it.

+On November 5th I took advantage of the chance to be in New Jersey to visit Princeton, where I went to college. It was a game day, the weather was perfect, and the trees still had some color left.

+One of the surprises of my recent visit to Italy was the chance to visit the city of Aquileia, about an hour north of Venice. In Roman times it was a large seaport, and the remaining ruins are quite impressive. Most impressive is the basilica, which dates from the 4th century. Intact is the stunning mosaic floor, and altogether it is a World Heritage Site. Not many visit, as tourists prefer to jam into the Venice and Rome. But it rewards a visit. Today’s photos illustrate the basilica.

What’s Your Cup of Tea?

A day at the archives isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but all the same my visit last week to the Florence State Archive was a rare treat. I went with two good friends who are members of the Order of Malta, and together we got the royal introduction to the archives of the Order of Malta, housed in one of the greatest archives in the world.

For fifty years HMML, our manuscript library at Saint John’s, has worked with the National Library of Malta to preserve the Order’s archives there. As you might expect, it’s been a methodical and arduous task, but that archive is a trove of information dating back to the 1100s. When the chance to partner with the Florence State Archive to preserve the Order’s archives in Tuscany came along, it was an offer HMML could not refuse.

What in the world would you find in such an archive? For one thing there are the Proofs of Nobility that admission to the Order required through much of its history. Applicants had to show nobility in the family stretching back two hundred years, and those charters tend to be ornate and well-designed. Their value to social historians and genealogists is significant, simply because they provide an outline of family relationships stretching across much of Europe for centuries.

The elegant documents always stand out, but it’s the bushels of rather plain pages that catch the eyes of many historians. Things such as account books detail the purchase of food and clothing and land for the Order. Others describe the service of the members to the poor and the sick of the region. Taken together, any archive can shed light on the lives of individuals and communities, and this one certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The sheer volume of material in the Malta archives in Florence is daunting, but one document I found particularly interesting. It was a parchment outlining the religious observance of the women at the convent of the Order in Florence. Not a few people think of the Order of Malta as a mens-only outfit through most of its history, when in fact there were convents of women as well. As such, this document provides a glimpse into the spiritual regimen of the Order as well as into the lives of women in the Order. Both are understudied.

There was one thing about this archive that did not surprise me in the least, however. Much of this material has rested on the shelves, unread, for centuries. Some of the scrolls have been rolled up since the scribes put them into safe-keeping, and that has made photography a real challenge. Still, the fact that they’ve survived all this time is a tribute to those who have cared for them. Archivists knew that someday this trove of information would be of interest to someone. It was their job to make sure it would be there, and digital photography makes it all accessible in ways none would have imagined.

History is one of those subjects that gets a bum rap in the modern school curriculum. That’s unfortunate, because whether they realize it or not, every person has memories. Every person is a historian. Every person works off of some vision of the past, be it insightful or wildly inaccurate. That’s just one reason why the preservation of our historical record remains so important.

HMML’s work at the Florence State Archive is a task of many years, and I look forward to the chance to return someday. I grant that such a visit is not everybody’s cup of tea. But it’s my cup of tea!

NOTES

+On October 25th I flew to Rome, for my first visit to Europe since the pandemic.

+On October 26th I and two friends from the Order of Malta visited the Florence State Archive.

+On October 27-28 we travelled to Venice, where we stopped by the Grand Priory of Venice, which also houses a great collection relating to the history of the Order of Malta.

+On October 30th I visited with two of members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who are working at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo, the international Benedictine headquarters. Jonathan and Graham graduated from Saint John’s University in May 2022.

+On October 31st I visited with our confrere Brother Joseph Schneeweis, who serves as the head of the library at Sant Anselmo.

Always Drink Upstream from the Herd

Last Saturday I spoke to a group with which I’ve had a long association. The Friends of Saint Benedict meet monthly at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, and through the years I’ve become good friends with many of the members. So it was a delight to see them once again and to share some thoughts on the Rule of Saint Benedict.

I opened with a recollection of my last visit with them, which took place just as covid burst into our consciousness. I had enjoyed that visit and went home with fond memories that lasted for all of five days. On the sixth day I glanced at The Washington Post, and the lead story left me paralyzed with fear. Doctors had discovered the first verified case of covid in the DC area, and I had shaken the afflicted man’s hand and chatted with him in a narrow hallway. Was I doomed? I prayed earnestly that I was not, and I wasn’t. But for a while I could only imagine the worst.

This Saturday I took as my theme Bach’s Wachet aufSleepers Wake! It’s grist for a good Advent meditation, but it’s also appropriate for most any day as far as I’m concerned. It’s a reminder that we can wander through life oblivious to the opportunities around us, and I for one have been guilty of that on more than one occasion. So how do we rouse ourselves from the slumber that so often holds us in its grip? That was the question I intended to address.

Since covid has affected us all, I then commented on my own decision not to let fear of it paralyze me. After one month into the pandemic I realized I could not live in gnawing fear, and I had to do something. So I sat myself down and formulated three practical resolutions that I still follow today. First, I decided to take a nap every day. Second, I resolved to come early to community prayer, because I owed it to my confreres after a lifetime of being late for almost everything. And third, I decided to write all of my letters by hand rather than by computer.

I’ve stuck with all three, and I’m amazed at the impact they’ve had on my life. Plus, they’ve piqued my curiosity about what others have done to cope. Responses have ranged from the simple to the daunting, but I finally gave the prize to a friend from Arizona who also had formulated a trio of observations to guide him. “You cannot unsay a cruel word.” “The best sermons are lived, not preached.” And last and best of all, “always drink upstream from the herd.” I’ve treasured that last one, not just for its practical value, but also for its allegorical possibilities.

So what’s the point of an exercise like this? For one thing it can be a challenge to translate lofty spiritual aspirations into lived reality. For example, praying for world peace always seemed fruitless until I finally realized that I had to start with peace in my own life first. Seeing Christ in others, which is Saint Benedict’s command to his monks, only happens if I actually act as if the next person I meet has been created in the image of God.

The list is capable of endless expansion, but the point is simple. The promises we make at baptism and renew at Easter ought never remain abstractions. They are in fact daily challenges to our imaginations, and it’s up to us to translate them into practice. Transforming spiritual ideals into easily-recalled bits of wisdom may seem childish, but in fact our success as Christians depends on it.

Meanwhile I continue to gather the ideas that others have to offer. Some have been silly and others quite profound, but in each case I’ve had to remind myself that these are deeply personal resolutions that have worked for others. Might some work for me? The answer seems obvious, and it explains why I have adapted a few for myself. To cite but one example, I no longer drink downstream from the herd. You can never be too careful when it comes to swallowing something second-hand, be it water—or gossip. I should have thought of that years ago, but it’s better late than never.

NOTES

+On 17 October I hosted a small group of new staff and faculty at Saint John’s University and Preparatory School. Sponsored by the Benedictine Institute at the University, I spoke on The Rule of Saint Benedict.

+On 20 October Saint John’s alumnus General Paul Nakasone spoke to a packed house in the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s. Paul is the director of the National Security Agency and oversees cybersecurity for the US Army.

+On October 21st I flew to Washington DC, on what turned out to be a very long ordeal. Just as we were set to board our flight from Minneapolis, the gate agent announced that maintenance issues had rendered our plane unusable. Fortunately there was an incoming flight from New Orleans that we would take. Just as we were about to board that plane, the agent announced that that plane too had maintenance issues. Thankfully there was an inbound flight from Philadelphia which we would board — as soon as it arrived. The third time was a charm, and we arrived in Washington at midnight. But the day was not yet over. On the way to the taxi a wheel fell off of my suitcase, but by then I was too tired to care.

+On October 22nd I spoke at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Washington to The Friends of Saint Benedict.

+On October 23rd I visited with a recent alumnus of Saint John’s University. Following graduation Nick had been a Benedictine Volunteer at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, and he now teaches at the Don Bosco/Cristo Rey High School in Washington as part of the ACE program at Notre Dame University. He graciously toured me through the school.

+The first four examples of Renaissance art in today’s post are all housed at the National Gallery in Washington. At top is The Annunciation & Expulsion from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo (Siena, ca. 1435). Below that is a Madonna and Child by a follower of Fra Filippo Lippi (Florence, ca. 1470), and next is The Annunciation by Fra Carnevale (Umbria-Florence, ca. 1450). The fourth photo shows a Madonna and Child, in the style of Agostino di Duccio (Florence, ca. 1460). At bottom is my friend Nick standing in front of the school in Washington where he teaches: Don Bosco/Cristo Rey.

Welcoming Guests into our Lives

“After Jesus had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home.” Luke 11: 37.

I have to wonder how this dinner at the home of the Pharisee turned out. It certainly began pleasantly enough, and perhaps the Pharisee felt even a little pleased to host a notable such as Jesus at his table. But then the tone changed when Jesus failed to observe the age-old rituals that his host expected him to follow. What was wrong with this guest? I’m guessing that the Pharisee turned this over in his mind for more than a few days.

Every day God sends all sorts of people into our lives, and like the Pharisee we all tend to get out the tape to see if these people measure up to our expectations. To no one’s surprise — least ways to ourselves — we sometimes set over-the-top standards that make it easy to dismiss at least a few people out of hand.

Even so, all people are gifts from God; and Saint Benedict is only one of many writers and saints who reinforce this idea. The challenge comes, however, when uninvited people come strolling by. Can we seat them at our table? Can we welcome them despite the fact that they are so different from us? To the extent that our hospitality demands change on their part but none on ours, we have failed a basic test of hospitality. We have failed to welcome gifts whom God sends into our lives.

NOTES

+On October 11th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a variation on the homily that I delivered that day. The gospel text for the day was Luke 11: 37-41.

+On October 14th we opened our blinds and curtains to discover that nature had blessed us with the first snow of the season. We had not yet disposed of the autumn colors, and the white snow contrasted beautifully with the yellow and red leaves that are still with us. By noon the snow was gone, but it will be back soon enough.

+Also on the 14th, Saint John’s University dedicated a new student housing complex on the other side of Lake Watab, which wraps around the west side of campus. Abbot John blessed both the housing and the Tom and Elizabeth Nicol Bridge which crosses the lake. In keeping with the mixed weather of the day, a sudden burst of sleet and cold rain saw the celebration move indoors.

+On Sunday the 16th I said Mass for the Benedictine sisters of Saint Paul’s Monastery in St. Paul, MN. Our monks have served the sisters there since the foundation of their community in the 1940s. It was my first time to be there in many years.

+The photos in today’s post demonstrate how we are on the cusp of autumn/winter. Despite a few days in the 50s later this week, winter will return and prevail. The photo at top was the morning view from my room in the monastery.

What Legacy Will I Leave?

“What parent among you would hand a child a snake when the child asks for a fish? Or hand the child a scorpion when he asks for an egg?”

I once preached on this passage to my fellow monks, and I opened with the comment that certainly I would not be a parent like that. However, I could easily provide the names of people who were likely to do just that. I went on to say that it was wiser not to name names, but we all knew who they were. Once you start down that road of naming names, it’s hard to stop; and who knows where it will end.

That brings me to the point of this particular passage from the teaching of Jesus. First of all, as much as some people would like to frame Jesus as some sort of supreme law-giver, he would beg to differ. He certainly knew the books of the law, but he’d be the first to admit that he was not a lawyer. Nor did he intend to provide a commentary on the law. Rather, it was the books of the prophets and the wisdom literature that inspired Jesus, and woven through his teaching are all sorts of references drawn from those books. These certainly are not texts that reject the law, but they touch rather on the question of what sort of person I would choose to be. For what values will I stand and wish to be known? Can I be relied upon to speak and act from the heart?

In that light I think Jesus used snakes and scorpions as a way to seize on his hearer’s imagination. No one would ever give a child a snake or a scorpion, and the apostles certainly knew that. But as an aid to memory these are vivid images that we don’t easily forget. They draw us into the heart of the matter as far as Jesus is concerned.

For Jesus the issue has less to do with what people should give and more to do with that people should give of themselves in service to others. And what they should give should be the best of their energy, the best of their intentions, the best of their talents and their generosity of spirit.

That, in sum, comprises the legacy we should all strive to leave. What better memorial can we create than the memory of our generosity, our sense of responsibility for the lives of others, and our love?

NOTES

+On October 3rd I attended the meeting of the Religious Formation Committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On October 4th I attended the monthly meeting of the Regent’s Council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.

+On October 6th I took part in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+Today’s post is an adaptation of a homily that I delivered on Luke 11: 5-13.

+The photos in today’s post show sculptures by Andrea Pisano, the 14th-century master of the works at the Duomo in Florence. From top to bottom they illustrate the work of Adam and Eve, the beginning of the art of music, and the beginning of metal work. They are housed in the Duomo Museum.

Faith the Size of a Mustard Seed

I’m not often stymied by the parables that Jesus crafted to teach his disciples. For the most part it’s not terribly difficult to tease something useful from them, but in Luke 17: 5-10 there is a parable that stands out from the others. In it the servants return from hard work in the fields, only to be sent to the kitchen to prepare dinner for the master. What’s the point of a story like this? Is this Jesus’ way of saying that life is difficult and we should expect no special favors from anyone? Is that what we should expect from God as well? Should we anticipate no gratitude for any of the good work we may have done? At first reading that seems to be the lesson we should draw.

For hundreds of years theologians and pastors and people in the pews have stewed about this issue. Will we stand as “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as Jonathan Edwards suggested? Will we be saved by a forgiving deity, despite our many mistakes? If we can be saved, then how should we prepare for the day of our salvation?

For my own part I’ve taken comfort in the thought that salvation is less a moment in a divine courtroom and more of a life-long relationship with God. That in essence is what the first verses of this passage from Luke suggest. If faith can uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea, then what else might it accomplish? Might it fashion a life-long and loving relationship with God? Jesus suggests that this is not only possible, but it is that for which we should strive.

Because there are moments when my faith has been the size of a mustard seed, I’ve often prayed that God might help my unbelief. That’s been a common prayer for many, and it’s what builds and sustains a growing relationship with God. Faith the size of a mustard seed can accomplish more than anything we might dare to imagine. Such faith transforms us — not into passive spectators — but into energetic sons and daughters of God. In the process we become people greater than we ever imagined.

So it is that those of us who are weak in faith should never hesitate to ask from the Lord the greatest of gifts — the gift of a faith that sustains us for a lifetime — and more. In turn the Lord will respond with a generosity that will amaze us.

NOTES

+On 26 September I delivered the prayer that opened the dinner for the annual Clemens Lecture at Saint John’s University.

+On 27 September the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were welcomed to a reception hosted by the faculty, staff and students of the School of Theology/Seminary.

+On September 28th I gave a talk on the Benedictine values of stability and stewardship, attended by new faculty and staff members at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+Several weeks ago my good friend Al Wegleitner passed away at the age of 102. I visited him whenever I had the chance to be in Phoenix, and it was always a delight to see him. On September 30th I attended his funeral at Saint Gabriel’s Church in Hopkins, MN.

+On October 1st I attending Homecoming festivities at Saint John’s University.

+Like everyone else, I was stunned by the devastation that struck southwest Florida last week. I was particularly concerned for residents of Immokalee, which is to the east of Fort Myers. Seventeen of our students are from Immokalee, and thankfully the town was spared serious damage.

+I was saddened to receive news this week that Professor Giles Constable had recently passed away. Professor of medieval studies at Harvard and also director of Harvard’s center for Byzantine studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, Professor Constable was a giant among medievalists. I got to know him ages ago when I sat in his class on monastic history. His advice to me at the time shaped the course of my graduate studies. Like each of his students, I considered myself privileged to know him.

+On September 30th we celebrated the feast of Saint Jerome, the 4th-century scholar who provided the Latin translation of the Bible that was standard in the West for centuries. Images of him in medieval art abound, and in today’s post I’ve selected four. At top is Saint Augustine’s Vision of Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, by Matteo di Giovanni (Italian, c. 1430-1495), housed at the Art Institute in Chicago. Below that is Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, by Cima de Conegliano (Venetian, 1459-1517); Saint Jerome Reading, by Alvise Vivarini (Venice, ca. 1476); and Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, by a follower of Pietro Perugina, ca. 1490. The latter three paintings are all resident in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.