img_3580Called to be Pharisees?

I’m sure the Pharisees never set out to be the bad guys of 1st-century Judaism.  But here we are, two thousand years later, and scarcely anyone has a good thing to say about them.  Is there anything anyone can do to rehabilitate their public image?

On the positive side, the Pharisees are a reminder of the diversity within 1st-century Judaism, just as 21st-century Judaism has its own diversity of tradition and interpretation. For their part, the Pharisees emphasized the importance of an ethical life — which I’ve always considered to be a good thing.  They were observant in the law, and to a certain extent they represented a relational rather than a mechanistic approach to God.  On this they were on pretty much the same page as Jesus.  Like Jesus they contended that God preferred upright behavior over the sacrifice of bullocks and goats and birds.  Conversion of life was prized over burnt offerings; and here the Pharisees — like Jesus — parted company from those who managed the temple and its daily sacrifices.

That shared perspective may explain why Jesus was so critical of the Pharisees.  It wasn’t that Jesus thought they were wrong when compared to the keepers of the temple.   Rather, the Pharisees were right, but they just weren’t completely right.  So it was that both Jesus and Paul parted company from a group which had come so close but didn’t follow through to the logical conclusion.

img_3621Jesus may have had much in common with the Pharisees, but he found fault with them on at least two important items.  In Sunday’s gospel passage (Luke 18: 9-14) Jesus took the Pharisees to task for their haughtiness, because they exalted themselves in the eyes of others.  In contrast to the tax-collector who humbly admitted his sinfulness, the pride of the Pharisee blinded him to his own faults.  The result?  He logically concluded that he was far superior to the hordes of people who stumbled daily in their religious observance.

Secondly, Jesus called the Pharisees on the carpet for their lack of mercy for those less observant than they.  Pharisees added to the religious burden of others, but in fact they had chosen the high ground for themselves.  They devised rules that were easier for themselves but more difficult if not impossible for others.  They then turned around to condemn the others for their failure.  As Jesus pointed, they made burdens for others to carry, but they were not willing to help others to carry those burdens.

img_3593What the Pharisees seem to have forgotten is that it is God who initiates everything, and it is God alone who redeems.  That redemption is never self-derived, even if you are a Pharisee.  So it is that neither a herd of bulls sacrificed on an altar nor the strictest daily practice will seal the deal with God.  Redemption is a gift from God, and anything we do is merely a response to God’s generosity.

Yet another reason why Jesus is so tough on the Pharisees shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us.  The Pharisees may have been a distinct party within 1st-century Judaism, but the inclination to be a Pharisee is the sort of behavior that is latent within each of us.  Every now and again we all imagine that the good we do will somehow earn points with God, and God will have to honor those points when we turn up to cash them in at the end of our lives.  The good we do can also tempt us to compare ourselves with others.  It allows us to mouth that self-justifying question:  “Why can’t others do even half the things I am doing for God?  If people only knew all the good I do for humanity!”

img_3627But it doesn’t work that way, because God plays by a different rule book.  The good we do is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work within us.  The good we do is an answer to God’s call and gift of grace.  It’s the response we give to the vocation that God has crafted and given to each of us.  So it is that the good we do is actually an expression of our discipleship to Jesus Christ.

When you boil it all down, I think there’s a huge advantage for us to play by God’s rule book rather than our own.  As crypto-Pharisees we can do all sorts of good deeds, but at the end of the day we always have to wonder whether we should have done more.  By God’s rules, however, we’re spared that doubt.  God loves us despite the fact that we could never have done enough.  Does that mean that the Lord loves us in spite of ourselves?  No.  It only means that the Lord loves us because of ourselves, warts and all.


+On 23 October we celebrated the feast of the dedication of the abbey church, which was blessed fifty-five years ago.  Some seventy-five friends of the abbey joined us for Mass and a luncheon; and afterward Brother David-Paul Lange gave a wonderful presentation on the renovation of the Breuer wing of the monastery as well as plans for the preservation of the abbey church.

+Autumn is my favorite time of the year at Saint John’s, and on these days I especially like to take the outside route to get from my room to the church for evening prayer.  At that time of day it is nearly dark, and the cold crisp air is exhilarating — at least to me.  Visitors to campus also notice that the fall colors are in their last hurrah, and many if not most of the leaves have fallen.  Today’s photos are evidence of that.

img_0012_2“Pray Always”:  An Impossible Command?

There’s a section in The Rule of Saint Benedict which usually comes as a surprise to novices in the monastery.  In it Benedict deals with the all-too-human conundrum that’s bound to happen in any monastic community.  In brief, Benedict wonders about the moment when the abbot asks impossible things of a monk.  What’s the monk to do?

Naturally there’s no easy answer to this, but I’ve always felt that Benedict’s sympathies fell with the monk who’s stuck in such a predicament.  All the monk can really do is to do his best and to hope for the best.  Being more practical myself, I would add one bit of counsel to Benedict’s sage advice.  If patience is a virtue, this may be one of those times when it can be a good strategy.  A patient monk can hope that the abbot will eventually forget what he had commanded.  And in the extreme, a young monk can rely on the passing of the years, which could very well leave him the last man standing.  Problem solved.

In the gospel of Luke Jesus seems to be asking one of these impossible things.  He tells the apostles to “pray always without becoming weary” (18: 1), and it must have left the disciples wondering.  It’s all well and good to speak those words if you’re the Son of God, but mere mortals like the disciples had a lot on their minds.  And it was not beyond their notice that even Jesus took time out to eat and sleep and to do all the other things that round out people’s waking hours.  Worse still, the disciples too must have realized the distractions that crowd the human mind, especially if you’re trying to pray.  Was Jesus setting the disciples up for a fall?  Was he asking the impossible of them?

img_0021_2Part of the problem of the command to “pray always” is that most of us are not at all convinced that it’s such a great idea.  Some of us have to go to work.   Some of us think it’s really important to concentrate while we’re behind the wheel on the highway.  Some of us have to deal attentively with other people — at least once in a while.  Wouldn’t it be better to reserve quality time for prayer at less critical slots during the day?  And do we really have to do it ALWAYS?

The good news is that Jesus never expected us to spend the whole day on our knees in prayer.  Nor does he expect us to pass the entire day, day after day, reading the Bible.  Nor does he expect us to spend our time in formal worship, ceaselessly.  Thankfully, I don’t think Jesus meant to speak literally when he asked the disciples to pray like this always, without growing weary.

What I think Jesus did have in mind, however, was an expression of prayer in which we consecrate the entirety of our lives to God.  In practice this means that there is no aspect of our lives that is off-limits to God.  Nor can we restrict God to certain gaps in our schedule, such as an hour on Sunday or the occasional fifteen minutes for a session of morning prayer.

Nor can we block off our work from a divine connection.  In practice this means that our work must be honest, done with integrity, and done with an eye to the benefit that it ultimately provides other people.  We must have a sense of mission about our work and do it well, because our work is an expression of who we really are.

img_0016_2The same goes with time spent with friends or in personal time out.  None of this can be cordoned off from God, because it’s all part of a full life lived well.  Such a life is always lived in the shadow of the Almighty, and we can’t reserve big chunks of it as if it were nobody’s business but our own.

Given that perspective, we begin to appreciate what Jesus is asking of his disciples.  Prayer then is surrender to God who has given us the gift of life, and prayer is the expression of the fulness of our lives.  Prayer means more than turning to God when the going gets tough.  Prayer is also the expression of joy and contentment and striving to better ourselves.  Prayer is the admission of God into our lives, in good times and in bad.

Finally, I think it’s important to own up to one item about praying always that intimidates most of us.  If we pray always, don’t we run the risk of sacrificing our distinct personalities?  Won’t God smother us if we pray always?  Could all this lead to a complete denial of self in which we fade into oblivion? By no means.

img_0018_2The goal of prayer is not to obliterate ourselves.  In prayer God neither destroys our identity nor our freedom to act.  On the contrary, God does promise to give us the strength to achieve far more than we could possibly achieve if left to our own devices.

In a nutshell, “praying always” sounds like a frightening command until we realize that God has absolutely no intention of wrecking or stifling our lives.  God merely wants to partner with us as we strive both to flourish and to meet the challenges that come our way.  Given the occasional ferocity of some of those challenges, I think I prefer to have the Lord walking alongside me, rather than me walking all alone.

“Praying always” is not such a fearsome command after all.  It’s nothing more and nothing less than the consecration of our lives to God, in the hope that God who has begun such good work in us will see it through to completion.  And with a little bit of patience, and just a little bit of insight, we might very well begin to see the finger prints of God in our lives.  They’re there, whether we take the time to notice them or not.


+On October 11th I attended a dinner in San Francisco, put on by the Order of Malta.  It was the annual fund-raiser for the Order’s free clinic at the Oakland Cathedral, but it also honored a very good friend of many year’s standing, Dr. Robert Stein.  He and his wife, Helen-Mary, have been very supportive in introducing me to the work of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On 13 October I attended the opening reception of an exhibit of original folios of The Saint John’s Bible, hosted by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Since Oklahoma City is my home town, it gave me a chance to see spots I’d not seen in quite some time.  That included driving by the hospital where I was born.  The exhibit will continue through the end of the year, and in November I will return to give a lecture at the Museum.

+On 14-16 October I gave a retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Mundelein Seminary, outside of Chicago.

img_0015_2+A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the town of Norcia in Umbria, in Italy.  The monastery there is built on the site of Saint Benedict’s family home, and our group had the opportunity to tour the church and ruins, as well as attend Mass.  We also had time to explore the quaint and lovely town.  Unfortunately the monastery and town suffered significant damage in the recent earthquake, and for a while the monks have had to relocate to Rome until repairs could be made to make the monastery safe once again.

img_3559One More Marvel in Our Eyes

All of us end up doing a few things that in a million years we never imagined for ourselves.  Many, if not most of these, land in the positive column and fall under the biblical heading of “a marvel for our eyes.”  Such was the case when I was privileged to speak a year ago from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, TN.  The church serves both its congregation as well as the students of Carson-Newman University, and I was there to speak on The Saint John’s Bible.  It was a happy experience, and I remember my time there fondly.

I describe it as an “improbable” event, because as a kid growing up in Oklahoma City I anticipated neither becoming a monk nor speaking from the pulpit of a Southern Baptist church.  In those days the Catholic population of my hometown was 3%, Episcopalians were 2%, and Lutherans were 1%.  In the context of the times, I’m confident that my Episcopal and Lutheran playmates –who were likewise scarce as hen’s teeth — also harbored no such ambitions for themselves.

Last week I returned to Carson-Newman to take part in the dedication of their gallery which will house both the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible and a fine collection of artifacts from the ancient Near East.  It was a lovely two-day event, and among the guests were Donald Jackson, the director of The Saint John’s Bible, and Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University.  Since we are constructing our own Bible gallery at Saint John’s, curiosity was one reason that drove us to see exactly what they had done.  It was well worth the trip.

img_3547On 31 October 2017, Christians in the West will begin a commemoration of the Reformation, an event that has divided them for 499 years.  On the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of the castle in Wittenberg, and that action unleashed a torrent of debate and conflict that endured for hundreds of years.  Only in our lifetime have the passions subsided enough to realize that what we share as Christians transcends the many items over which we disagree.

When we began work on The Saint John’s Bible we did so knowing full well that monks and Christians had made such Bibles for hundreds of years, but monks hadn’t made one in the last five hundred.  In the Middle Ages the very act of making a Bible from scratch defined what it meant to be both civilized and Christian, and we wanted to replicate the experience.  We hoped too that it would remind Catholics of the centrality of the Bible in our theology, spirituality and worship.  We also intended to make the point that, like our evangelical neighbors, Catholics and mainline Protestants were biblically-based.  There was no harm in pointing out what we all shared as Christians, and our hopes have scarcely been disappointed.

As Christians have begun to anticipate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s action, people have struggled over the verb that should best-describe our observance of the event.  Do we celebrate?  Do we atone?  Do we mark it with indifference, as if it were just one more historical date to memorize for tests?  Do we note it with regret?  Do we emphasize our continued separation or our gradual movement toward each other?  From my vantage, I think all these should be factored in.  But no one’s asked for my views, as of yet.

img_3573Still, if we fail to note how far we’ve come in the last two generations, then we forget that quite possibly it is the Lord who has quietly accomplished this.  On a micro level, the mere thought that a Bible commissioned by an abbey of Benedictine monks might someday rest in a place of honor in the library of a Southern Baptist university has to count as a marvel in our eyes.  The fact that Catholics and Baptists can together give thanks for the Word of God is testimony to the Spirit of God stirring in our midst.

It’s also important to appreciate this one event for what it is not.  It is not an isolated instance in which a few Baptists and Catholics swam against the tide to build a wonderful relationship that’s based on faith.  In fact, it’s part of a larger and longer story that stretches back to events that long-preceded World War II and the advent of warmer ecumenical relations.  This common awareness of a shared faith in Jesus Christ is something that has been developing slowly.  It’s happened under the radar and beyond the coverage of the blaring headlines.  But it’s happened nonetheless, and we should cherish it as a sign of hope.

img_3556It’s easy to turn on the news or open the papers and conclude that our world is headed over the cliff and that there’s little we can do to prevent it.  Worse still, it’s easy to look at all that chaos and justify our own inaction.  But despair and sitting on our hands would be a mistake.

In fact, there’s lots we can do, starting with mutual respect for the people whom we run into each and every day.  From our reading of Genesis we believe that God created each and every one of us in his image — be they Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, be they Jew or Muslim, or be they people of little or no faith at all.  It’s a joy — if even a puzzling joy — to know that God expects progress as we try and live in this belief.  But we can do it, and we can do it in the confidence that the Lord is there to help us, every step of the way.

At least for me, and I hope for lots of others, this too counts as one of the great marvels in our eyes.  It’s yet one more sign that life itself is one continuous miracle.


+On October 3rd I presided at the Mass at Saint John’s Abbey.  Who is My Neighbor? is linked to the short homily that I delivered that day.

+On 5-6 October I took part in the dedication events for The Lynn and Lydsey Denton Gallery on the campus of Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, TN.  I had a great time and once again enjoyed their warm hospitality.  Still, my one regret was that I was too early for the fall colors.  It’s a gorgeous landscape, sitting at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains.

+The pictures in today’s post illustrate how late we are with the fall colors at Saint John’s.  The photo at the bottom illustrates a portion of the gallery at Carson-Newman University.

img_3433The Reward of Discipleship

Several days ago I preached on Luke 8: 16-18, and it’s a passage that ends with some words that some might find disturbing.  It reads thus:  “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.”

There you have it — just the sort of thing that would make a six-year-old scream that “it’s just not fair!”  And in my own jaded reading, I’m tempted to agree.   This verse suggests that Jesus too believed that life was unfair.  Worse still, if this is what Jesus really believed, then it puts the lie to the Beatitudes, where Jesus offered at least some shred of hope to those who have so little.  So what exactly is Jesus trying to do here?  Does he mean to drive the poor into despair, while the rich cry all the way to the bank?

An appreciation of this passage depends a lot on whether you take a materialistic approach to its interpretation.  Thankfully, most experts believe that Jesus was speaking about neither capitalism nor matters of social justice.  Rather, he was talking about the spirit in which people approach life.  If they are generous with their gifts and talents, then they very likely will discover a personal capacity that they had scarcely imagined about themselves.  Conversely, those who are afraid to test the limits of their gifts and talents run the risk of having little or nothing to show for their lives.

img_3468That’s how I developed the sermon, and I concluded with this note.  Life is filled with risk, but perhaps the biggest risk is to give without any assurance that our efforts will make a bit of difference to anyone.  That’s the most challenging thing in the world to do, and I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he offered this bit of wisdom.

At the end of Mass one woman came up to thank me for my thoughts.  She and her husband had recently completed ten years of service in a project that had demanded a great deal of time and energy.  Appearances to the contrary, it had required not a little grit as they butted up against a culture that ran counter to what inspired them.  Had any of their efforts mattered?  Had they accomplished anything in the course of ten  years?  Would their contribution of time and talent evaporate the minute they left the property?

These issues confront us all, and not just those who commit themselves to some major charitable projects.  Parents realize this instinctively as they raise their children.  Who knows what kids will turn out to be when they grow up?  What teachers don’t worry about what will become of the students sitting in front of them?  What mentors don’t wonder whether their efforts will make any sort of difference?

img_3469These anxieties trouble all of us, and we wonder whether we should have bothered to do anything in the first place.  Worse still, the instances when our efforts accomplished little or nothing sow further doubts.  Should we ever risk anything again?

These questions now haunted this woman and her husband, and they had become almost depressed about the whole thing.  But my words had suggested a way out of their emotional conundrum.

I’d not fashioned my sermon to deal with such practical experiences, but this woman made real to me the challenges that all of us face in the course of life.  How many times do we have the chance to give of ourselves and yet shrink back because we’re not sure of the results?  What if people take advantage of our generosity?  What if people remain unchanged, and our efforts go for naught?  These questions confront all thoughtful people as they risk stepping out of their comfort zone for the sake of others.

img_3524These are the moments when we need to recall to mind the suddenly sensible words of Jesus.  Self-giving can never be reduced to a contractual relationship with the people we help.  Service can never involve a quid pro quo in which we demand specific results from our kids or our students or anybody else whom we help.  All we really have a right to ask is that someday these people will make the right choices in life, just as we’ve been given that same chance.

Two things strike me as good takeaways from all of this.  First of all, giving of ourselves makes the world a better place.  That’s true whether our efforts yield no results at all or spectacular results.  If we don’t risk ourselves, then we can rest assured that nothing will ever happen.  If we do risk something, then there’s at least some chance of a good outcome, even if it isn’t exactly what we had in mind.

Second, in Luke 8 Jesus did not promise that our efforts would  transform the world.  He promised nothing of the sort.  All Jesus promised was that our efforts would transform us. That, after all, is both the cost and the reward of discipleship.


+On September 26th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  The Center has been involved in the preservation of documents relating to the history of the Order of Malta, and today HMML has more of such material than any repository outside of Malta.  The Center has been involved in this work for 40+ years and continues to digitize various collections as well as build its own collections of resources.  Among other topics, we discussed current work of the Center at the Cathedral library and museum in Mdina, on the island of Malta.  Since the middle ages Mdina has been the seat of the archbishops of Malta.  It was the medieval capital of Malta, and was only eclipsed with the construction of the Knights’ capital of Valletta in the  17th century.  The city and cathedral in Mdina have a wonderful charm, as this gallery link suggests.

img_3422+On September 27th I hosted my friends John and Jack during a brief visit to Saint John’s University.  Together, John and Jack and I have been working to establish a scholarship program at Saint John’s for graduates of Immokalee High School, which is located outside of Naples, FL.  The photo shows John and Jack with the first four students at Saint John’s from Immokalee.  If you care to learn more about this project and how you could help, please email me at the blog  email address in the box marked “Contact the author.”

+On September 29th I gave three talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Xavier University in Cincinnati.  I had a delightful time, not least because I got to page through one of my favorite books, The Nuremberg Chronicles, printed in the late 15th century.  It is housed in the special collections department in the University library.

+This last weekend in Minnesota it was absolutely stunning weather-wise, and I enjoyed daily walks around campus.  As the enclosed photos illustrate the autumn colors have been slow to arrive.  Included among the photos is one of the new footbridge, which was blessed by Abbot John last week.  It was also a great weekend to contemplate the beauty of Lake Sagatagan, over which the Abbey looks.

{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.)