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IMG_1258I Am the Way

By now fans of Downton Abbey have pretty much survived withdrawal and wandered off in search of other stately palaces.  Still, for many the aura lingers, because it’s tough to part with old friends, especially when they are imaginary.

As the series settled into its final weeks, aficionados enjoyed a bonus in the form of a few interviews from several of the actors.  For good measure the producer also threw in a conversation with the historical consultant, whose job was to make sure that the stray iPad or cell phone didn’t show up in a 1920’s drawing room.  My sentiments tended toward him, but the one who piqued my curiosity the most was the guy who played Lord Grantham, the patriarch of the series.  I expected him to be in life what he was in fiction, but he wasn’t.  When asked whether he resented the gradual expansion of the story line to include some of the servants, his response took me by surprise.  I assumed he must have resented the intrusion of lower class people into his exclusive realm.  But he hadn’t.  In fact, he noted, some 75 people lived in that house, and there were 75 individual stories.  Why?  Because all were the centers of their unique universes.  All of them, whether noble or common, thought that the sun rose and set on them individually.  So it only made sense that the writers had begun to make room in the script for everybody.

IMG_1260His comment left me puzzled, until I finally decided that this betrayed both maturity and great self-awareness.  What child doesn’t come into the world with the conviction that everybody is there to serve him or her?  Who isn’t at the absolute ground zero of their own little universe?  Who can’t recall the moment when they first began to realize that there were others out there who had similar or even superior talents?  Who wasn’t shocked to discover that they were not the acme of human evolution?

If people fear the possibility of life on some alien planet, it’s likely because they’ve also had a hard time coming to terms with the existence of their next-door-neighbors.  For most of us it’s tough to share top-billing on the world’s marquee.  But share we must, or we’ll never move beyond the narcissism into which we were born.  Only when we make peace with our neighbors in a much larger world do we begin to discover how truly exciting the world can be.

In the Great Hall at Saint John’s is an expansive image borrowed from the Byzantine tradition.  From the apse Jesus Christ Pantocrator rules everything under his gaze.  He dominates the space, and he pulls into his embrace all who enter.  And in his left hand he displays the gospel text that reads “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

IMG_1261It’s a breathtaking scene, because this Jesus draws us out of ourselves and into something much bigger.  It’s as though he reminds us that if we are ever going to make any difference in the world, then we must come to terms with the reality that we are not the only elephants in the world’s living room.

Our culture esteems rugged individualism and prizes self-fulfillment; and not surprisingly some say Christianity is rather oppressive.  For them Christianity appears to ask too much of people, because it demands a complete surrender of self.  Worse still, some contend that Christianity requires that people check their brains at the door of the church, because once inside there’s no room for imagination or freedom.  Once inside there’s only room for a narrow and stifling doctrine.

I’ll grant that Christianity does at times threaten the conventional notion of self.  I will also accept that Jesus places rather exclusive demands on us when he claims to be the way, the truth and the life.   But to be fair, Jesus has never asked that people turn off their brains in order to become his followers.  Instead, Jesus invites all to live in a world that is far bigger than anything they ever imagined.  For that we need all the brainpower we can muster.

IMG_1263The fact of the matter is, the small worlds in which we choose to live are the small worlds we have created for ourselves.  This was not what Jesus had in mind for us, and for that reason he urges each one of us to break free to see ourselves as part of something much larger than ourselves.

In idealistic terms Jesus invites us to participate in the fulness of his way, his truth, and his life.  More specifically, he gives us two great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor.  On the practical level, we tease this out in the relationships we have with one another.  What we do for the least of people, we do for Christ.  It’s why St. Benedict asks his monks to see Christ in the guest, in the young monks and the abbot, and in virtually everyone.

God did not create the little worlds that hem us in.  We did that all by ourselves.  On the other hand, Jesus invites us to emerge from our shells to embrace the expansive world that awaits us.  For that we will need all the talents and wits that God has put at our disposal.  We’re going to need them most as we get to know all the other elephants in God’s wonderful living room.

Perhaps it’s helpful to frame this challenge in the language of the actor.  It’s a mistake to assume that all of our neighbors are there to be our supporting cast.  In reality, we only begin to grow when we discover that they are our co-stars.  Alone we wither, but together we flourish.  Only then do we discover what Jesus means when he says that he is the way, the truth and the life.

IMG_1272Notes

+This was a rather quiet week for me, spent almost entirely at Saint John’s.  At the same time my thoughts were with members of the Order of Malta who went this week to Lourdes on the Order’s annual pilgrimage.  To say the least, I miss them.  On the other hand I don’t really miss the rain and cold that has beset them on this pilgrimage.  There was even hail one afternoon.  Who could imagine such a thing in Lourdes!

+On April 30th I was in St. Paul and took the opportunity to attend Mass at the massive cathedral.  In a few days they will welcome Archbishop Bernard Hebda as the new ordinary of St. Paul.  It should be a grand and happy occasion.

+The photos in today’s post come from the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The structure dates from the 1880s, while Brother Clement Frischauf executed the decorative elements in the 1930s.

IMG_1160Monks and Civilization

I don’t think that monks originally set out to save civilization.  I realize they get credit for this in some circles, and a few still think that’s part of our mission statement as monks.  All the same, if monks did make some contribution to the preservation of culture through the centuries, it was not a self-conscious decision.  If anything, it was just the byproduct of showing up for work every day to do what had to be done.

Saint Anthony, who wandered off into the Egyptian desert in the 4th century to pursue life as a hermit, had no idea he was saving civilization.  As much as anything he fled the complications of civilization and a church hierarchy that had begun to blend all too seamlessly into the ranks of the famous and powerful.  Anthony would have none of that, and when he did finally abandon his hermitage, he returned to Alexandria to serve the poor and imprisoned.  Who knows what belongings he toted back with him to the city; but there likely were few if any books.

Saint Benedict had an equally inauspicious start when it came to preserving civilization.  As a student in Rome he found the cultural environment terribly unpleasant, and he fled to the wilderness outside of Rome.  In his cave at Subiaco there was no need for a library, because like Anthony learning was not high on his list of daily activities, at least according to his biography.

IMG_1226Somewhere along the line Benedict had a change of attitude, and with one simple prescription in his Rule for Monks he set a course for his own community that has impacted monks in the west ever since.  His was a literate community, as evidenced by the recitation of the Psalms and readings from the Bible.  But he took it one step further with the command that during Lent each monk should read at least one book.  That meant that every monk had to be literate, and it meant there had to be enough books and a variety of books to go around.  Thus was born the library that every monastery worth its salt had to have.

Despite the Hollywood portrait of the vast library at the abbey of Melk in The Name of the Rose, monastic libraries tended to be quite small through much of the middle ages.  In the year 1,000 scarcely any monastery had a collection approaching even a thousand manuscripts.  Common to them as well was the location of these collections.  For the most part they tended to be housed in the sacristy, where they sat alongside the tomes necessary for Mass and the liturgy of the hours.

IMG_1245For much of the middle ages manuscripts were rare and the monks venerated the most ornate of them as both sacred and material treasures.  We get to enjoy them today on visits to the abbeys of Saint Gall in Switzerland and Melk in Austria, though most monastic treasures now reside in the national libraries of Europe.  There these manuscripts still intrigue the imagination and sometimes even dazzle the eye.

This is the tradition from which American Benedictines descend.  To no one’s surprise, when the first five monks steamed up the Mississippi to Minnesota in 1856, they brought with them five trunks filled with books from Germany.  It wasn’t much of a collection, but in the minds of those five monks those books were as necessary as habits, a roof over their head and a wood fire in winter.  Books were an essential part of life, even if they were not scholars.

That initial collection acted as a seed, and in the mid-1960s Saint John’s commissioned architect Marcel Breuer to design Alcuin Library, which now houses the descendants of the original five trunks.  Today the collection has grown to the point at which the University library, in tandem with Clemens Library at the College of Saint Benedict, comprises the 11th largest liberal arts college library in the country.  That’s a  huge accomplishment, considering that those first monks and nuns came to Minnesota with so little.

IMG_1197Last week we broke ground on an addition to Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  Given the advent of the electronic book, a renovated and expanded library may seem counterintuitive and even wasteful.  But of course it’s not if you’re interested in the future of civilization.  God forbid that an electronic burst would obliterate all the e-books, but you never know.  And you can never be too careful.

Beyond that, I was cheered by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.  It noted both a slight decline in the sale of e-books and a revival of independent booksellers in the US.  That just confirmed my own conclusion of several years ago.  I remain convinced that paper books will never go the way of the dinosaur as long as people continue to read in the bath tub.  They’d never dare take an electronic book into the water.

In the interests of full discloser, I am currently reading two e-books and two “real” books. My arms like the e-books when I travel, and my eyes like the paper when I read in the evening.

IMG_0041Notes

+On April 18th I said Mass and gave a presentation at the monthly gathering of the Order of Malta members in San Francisco.

+On April 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+Also on April 22nd I took part in the activities of Saint John’s Day, when we welcomed supporters of the University and Abbey to campus.  That afternoon we broke ground for the expansion of Alcuin Library and the addition of a new wing, to be named the Brother Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons.  As president of the University, Brother Dietrich appointed the first of many committees that planned this project — and that was nearly 25 years ago.  No one can say that monks rush into things.  The latter three photos include one that depicts the addition, while the others give a sense of the location next to Alcuin Library.

IMG_1165+The weather has reached the point of no return in regard to spring, as the enclosed pictures illustrate.  This also has meant the end of the maple syrup season, and Brother Walter reported that they were able to make 382 gallons this spring.

IMG_0002_2One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Contentious

In theory the Easter season should be a stretch of unrelieved joy.  After all, we continue to celebrate the victory of Jesus over death and the grave.  It was an extraordinary event — one that makes the decisive difference in the lives of each and every believer.

Be that as it may, in the aftermath of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus not everything was peaches and cream.  Even a superficial reading of The Acts of the Apostles bears this out.  The overriding theme in its pages may be the resurrection of Jesus, but sandwiched between every sermon is news of some sort of conflict or disagreement.  It’s good for us to remember that if the apostles thought everyone was going to stampede to the baptismal font, that simply didn’t happen.  The stoning of the deacon Stephen was only the rudest reminder of what was to come.  Those were the moments when the apostles must have recalled the words of Jesus, who said that he had come to divide father against son and mother against daughter.  Well, those days had come, in spades.

In the aftermath of nearly 2,000 years of experience we can easily lose perspective of the definitive struggles that shaped the early Christian community.  Things that we take for granted today were not nearly so obvious then, even to the apostles.  Should they stop going to temple?  Should they stop keeping a kosher diet?  Should they shun meals with non-believers — and the Romans in particular?  Should they require circumcision for men?  Those were just some of the issues over which they parted company from Jews, who literally were their brothers or sisters.

IMG_0006_2Beyond that, if they weren’t going to do some of these things any longer, then what were they going to do?  After all, as a community of believers they had to believe in something.  They had to rally around core practices and a creed that would set the course for the future, and that future was not always obvious.  Nor did everything get settled within the first month after Jesus ascended. As The Acts of the Apostles reminds us, the early Christians debated and argued and fussed with one another.  And when they were done with one issue, then they moved on to debate and argue and fuss over something new.  What’s more, they were not always polite or nice about these things.

In the Nicene Creed we describe the Church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” but to that we might just as well add “contentious.”  Each generation has had to contend with big issues, and the morality of slavery in the 19th century is an excellent though by no means the final example of this.

IMG_0012_2Why do Christians debate and argue?  Part of it boils down to the fact that Jesus asks his followers to submit every nook and cranny of their lives to him.  Not a single aspect of our lives is off-limits from the reach of Jesus.  There are no areas of our behavior which are exclusively ours to govern; and Jesus never said we could have a three-day weekend to use exclusively as we might wish.

Beyond that, Jesus claimed for God all the grey areas of life.  He noted that God was unimpressed by whole burnt offerings and the sacrifice of goats and birds.  Instead, God was and continues to be interested in a pure heart.  God wants lives of integrity — meaning, God wants it all.  Frankly, I prefer to offer the bulls and doves rather than offer up my integrity.  The latter is way too hard to do and much too intrusive into my life.

IMG_0029_2All this suggests why early Christians debated so many fundamental issues, and why ever since then Christians have invested so much passion in the discussion of God’s reach into our lives.  God wants it all, and so it all matters.

Easter makes the decisive difference in the lives of Christians, and if it does, then every minute of our existence has value.  Small wonder that we should give it serious thought.  People who struggle with faith and how to translate it into action should take comfort from the conflicts narrated in The Acts of the Apostles.  From where does our comfort come?  It was the Spirit who was present in those early discussions, and it is that same Spirit who abides with us as we deal with life.  Struggle, and especially struggle with the Spirit at our side, simply means that we are alive in Christ.

IMG_0047_2Notes

+On April 12th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 13th I taught to our Novice Cassian the final class in a series on monastic history.  Regardless of what he may have learned, it was a great review for me.

+On April 16th The Tallis Scholars sang a concert of chant and ancient music in the Abbey church.  Because I was away that day, it was something that I keenly missed.  I have been a fan of their music for ages.  I presume they take their name from Thomas Tallis, the Tudor-era composer of choral music.

+We were delighted by the recent news that one of our Benedictine Volunteers, Chris Heitzig, has been admitted into the doctoral program in economics at Oxford University.  He graduated from Saint John’s University in 2015 and currently is working at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.  I had the chance to visit with Chris in Newark this winter.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate one of my all-time favorite churches: Santa Pressede in Rome.  Built and decorated in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, it has some of the oldest and most magnificent mosaics in Rome

IMG_0188_2Who’s Cooking the Fish?

An hour earlier we had read the gospel passage about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and someone approached me with a question I’d never considered before.  “Who cooked the fish?”  Now that might seem a bit irreverent, but it’s no more so than what the apostles posed to Jesus:  “Where can we find take-out for 5,000 in a God-forsaken place like this?”

One or the other of the disciples must have giggled at the improbability of it all, but the facts spoke for themselves.  There was a big hungry mob that had followed Jesus into the wilderness;  there were no stores or fast-food joints anywhere;  and there were no grills or ovens in which to cook fish — even presuming someone had thought to bring fish for 5,000.  And since it is safe to assume that few were fond of sushi, this was a recipe for a really bad scene.

Against all the odds Jesus did manage to pull the rabbit out of hat on this one.  He did feed 5,000, though it remains an occasionally-debated mystery as to how exactly he did it.  But there’s something more important to draw from this.  The question of how Jesus did it will never be as important as what he had done.  Jesus had taken pity on a crowd that had trusted him, and he could not and would not let them down.

IMG_0240_2All of us face challenges that seem daunting at times, and it’s a stretch to imagine that Jesus could do much of anything to help us confront them.  These are questions like how the Lord — or anyone — is going to sustain me through fifty or sixty years of monastic or marriage vows.  How in the world can the Lord possibly turn around the lives of our children or close friends?  How can the Lord possibly ease someone’s sense of loneliness or despair?

The answers are much like the response he gave to the apostles when they felt overwhelmed by 5,000 people and no food to feed them.  For us it’s exactly as it was for the 5,000.  It matters far less exactly how the Lord sustains us; but it matters mightily that the Lord sustains us.  And he most certainly does, if we let him.

There are two conclusions that I’ve drawn from this miracle story, and both have kept me going in good times and in bad.  First of all, the Lord does indeed feed us in so many ways, and he does it through the ministry of people who are regularly there for us.  His own example was what he left to his disciples and to all of us, and he wants them and us to go and do just as he did.

IMG_0199_2Christians ever since have seen service to the hungry and the sick and the poor and the troubled as part of their job description.  All this falls into the category of the corporal works of mercy; but call it what you like, this is what Christians do.  It’s in that spirit that Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia once stated so clearly:  “We help others not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”  So it’s never enough to pray “Lord, Lord!” and assume all will turn out for the best.  More often than not the Lord calls us right back and tells us to get right on the problem.

The second lesson has to do with daily bread.  Certainly as believers we look to the day when we’ll share eternal life with the Lord in the new Jerusalem.  However, when Jesus fed the 5,000 he was dealing with the need for daily bread, then and there.  These people needed food, and it simply would not do to say “be well fed, and someday I’ll see you in heaven.”  No, for Jesus and for us we crossed the threshold into the new Jerusalem the very moment when we took our first feeble steps of faith.  So it is that Jesus invites us to pray for our daily bread, because our lives here and now matter.  And in that life the Lord sustains us daily, in ways we can appreciate but not always understand.

IMG_0232_2From now on, every time I read this story I’m going to wonder who cooked the fish.  Someday, perhaps, I’ll learn the answer.  But for now the more important question has to do with who is cooking the fish today.  Who is  nourishing those hungry brothers and sisters?  Who is called to do this crucial work of the Lord?

It no longer surprises me that the Lord uses us to do this work, and it’s not because the Lord is too lazy to do it himself.  Rather, as he demanded of the apostles, so he expects of us.  He expects us to be his eyes to see and his ears to hear.  He expects our hands to do his work and to cook the fish that will sustain one another.  And if we’ve never cooked fish before, then the Lord expects us to get out there and learn.

Notes

+On Aril 4th I gave a class in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.  That evening I spent an hour talking to some 25 of our students who work in the call center in the Office of Institutional Advancement.  I spoke about my own work at Saint John’s and tried to answer all sorts of questions.

+On April 8th, during a brief trip to Phoenix, I took part in the Mass, dinner and orientation for the Order of Malta’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, which takes place in less than three weeks.  It was after the Mass that I got the question about cooking fish.

IMG_0230_2+We at Saint John’s this week celebrated the news that our confrere, Fr. Columba Stewart, has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.  He will use this grant during the next year when he has a sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.  Fr. Columba is executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and also teaches in the School of Theology.  He is the fourth faculty member at Saint John’s to have received a Guggenheim.  Writer J. F. Powers received one in 1948; Fr. Henry Brian Hayes OSB received one in 1952-53; and novelist Jon Hassler received one in 1980.  This is a great tribute to Fr. Columba’s hard work and seminal scholarship.

+As a result of the early date of Easter this year, the feast of the Annunciation (normally March 25th) would have fallen on Good Friday.  But it was transferred to a later time, and last week we celebrated it.  This explains the illustrations in today’s post.  The first is from the Louvre, and the others from the National Gallery in Washington.  The second is by Jan van Eyck, and the third by John of Flanders.  I am especially fond of the 15th-century Expectant Mother with Saint Joseph, which is a French work from the 15th century.  The last photo, by the Master of the Prado, shows the Presentation in the Temple.

IMG_0660The Resurrection:  A Life-changer

There’s something a little chaotic about the scene in which the disciples baptized 3,000 people in one fell swoop.  They had preached to these people all morning, and when they had heard enough they literally burst out with the question “what’s next?”  Baptism, on the spot, was what came next.

Because of the rush there was no time to check birth certificates, no time to line up godparents, and no questions about whether everybody was taking a proper Christian name at their baptism.  Nor was there any thought to starting up a lengthy RCIA program.  All those things would come later, in the fulness of time.

This episode from the Acts of the Apostles describes the scene at Pentecost, but we read it at Mass on Tuesday of Easter week.  Since I was slated to preside and preach at the Abbey Mass that day, I prayed for inspiration, and this was what the Spirit sent.  I grant the absurdity of projecting back into this scene practices from later centuries; but I also contend that the Holy Spirit sometimes makes good use of such silliness to make a point.

What the rush to baptize 3,000 people may have lacked in attention to the details of ecclesiastical process, it more than made up for with the sense of urgency and excitement.  Christ is risen, and that was the key difference in the lives of these new believers.  They could not put off acting on that belief until another day.  Rather, news of the risen Lord was a life-changer, and it did not take these 3,000 people several years to figure that out.  The insight seemed to come almost in an instant.

IMG_0659Interestingly enough, this was something that the disciples picked up on fairly quickly, and it’s a point that Saint Luke makes in the Acts of the Apostles.  Most of the disciples had been with Jesus for three years, and they’d heard pretty much all he had to say.  But his death and resurrection seemed to change everything.  Now they had to tease out the implications of his teaching and integrate them into the nooks and crannies of daily life.

Peter, James, John and the others did not cease being Jewish and become Christian overnight.  It was a painful process for them, even if from hindsight it was a spiritual revolution that evolved quickly.  In fact it came with a lot of soul-searching.  After all, their lives had been rooted in the law of Moses, and it was not immediately clear where the teaching of Jesus was going to take them.  In the process some critics dismissed them as crazy subversives, but they defended themselves by saying that this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

I shudder to think what might have happened had Jesus become incarnate in the 21st century.  Had he come to our monastery we definitely would not have crucified him, because we’d bottle him up in committee instead.  We would parse his words and offer amendments both friendly and unfriendly, and we’d likely borrow the words that the Greeks on the Areopagus addressed to Paul:  “Come back and we’ll hear some more about this sometime.”

IMG_0657Of course monks are no different than church congregations and families when we try to integrate the words of Jesus into our lives.  We hear and we read what Jesus has to say.  We mull it over; and to the extent that we domesticate his words we also diminish the impact they can have on our lives.  Small wonder that the teaching of Jesus can at times seem irrelevant to us.  In those instances it comes as no surprise that his teaching neither sustains nor energizes us.

The message of Easter, however, is one of excitement.  It’s not only about the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s about our own resurrection as well.  It’s about our resurrection to a life that suddenly has a meaning and purpose that it might have lacked before.  It’s about opening our eyes to what we can and ought to do with our lives — not just on the Sabbath but on every day.

The 3,000 people “got it” as soon as they heard it.  Perhaps the contrast with their previous lives was so intense that all they could do was to ask what to do next.  Of course we’ll never understand what got those people so stirred up in the first place, unless we let the Spirit in to surprise us.  And it’s true — the Spirit can be disruptive and disturbing.  But is everything we do more important than our own resurrection?

IMG_0656Notes

+On March 29th I began the day with a class with our novice, Brother Cassian.  Later I presided at the Abbey Mass, and following that it was my turn to help in serving dinner in the Abbey refectory.

+On March 30th I went to Boston to make a few alumni visits, and while there I met up with our confrere Fr. Michael-Leonard, who is in the middle of his doctoral studies at Boston College.  I also got to spend time with two monks from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland — Brother Colman and Fr. William.  Brother Colman spent the last semester teaching at Saint John’s, and this semester he is a visiting scholar at the Center for Irish Studies at Boston College.

+While in Boston I stayed at the Jesuit residence at Boston College, and there I had the chance to reconnect with one Jesuit with whom I was in school ages ago at Yale.  Quite by accident someone had not spelled my name correctly on the sign on my guest room door, and instead of OSB they had typed SJ after my name.  When the rector apologized for these not inconsequential errors, I told him not to worry.  “I’ve been called worse things than a Jesuit.”  That brought a hearty laugh.

+The images in today’s post are sculptures in the cathedral of Toledo in Spain.  I have put them in reverse order, with the Ascension at the top of the post.  In that image all you see are the feet of Jesus as he ascends into the clouds.

IMG_0016Christ is Truly Risen.  What Now?

We can only hope that for most Christians around the world Easter services were a truly moving experience.  At Saint John’s a familiar set of rituals carried us through Holy Week and into Easter, but that familiarity also provided moments of insight.  The music in particular was eloquent, and the abbey schola introduced a few new pieces of music.  Still, those new pieces were imbedded in a round of hymns and chants that have by now become part of our bones.  As a result, we don’t always need to glance at the text to sing the notes and words.  That comfortable familiarity, it seems to me, is a necessary ingredient for transforming liturgy from theater into prayer.

Of course the focus of the Triduum is not the music but the message.  Jesus is truly risen, and so Easter is more than a celebration of an unjustly-accused guy who got the last laugh on his persecutors.  The message is more profound, and it’s this:  “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son.”  Not only did that son share in all the difficulties of what it means to be human, but there’s one thing more.  When all is said and done, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.  Rather, salvation is God’s gift to us.  It’s God who gently tugs at our sleeves and persistently pulls us toward the eternal.  It’s God who keeps whispering in our ears, inviting us into eternity.  That initiative is part of what it means when we say that God has mercy on each and every one of us.

IMG_7174So now that we’ve celebrated the resurrection, what’s next?  Well, we might rest content in the belief that God has mercy on us, the Lord has saved us, and there’s nothing more to do.  But there is more.  Believe it or not, God intended that Easter be only a beginning.  At Easter God coopts us into a lifetime of showing mercy in an often merciless world.

When Pope Francis proclaimed a year of mercy, I have to confess that my reaction was a less-than-hearty “ho-hum.”  The very idea seemed abstract and general, like many of the bland petitions we recite before the Offertory at Mass.  Who isn’t for peace on earth and an end to world hunger?  Who wants to see more disease and injustice?  But that of course creates some tension within us.  Who among us is really in any position to do anything about these gargantuan challenges?

For all those reasons and more, I thought of the Year of Mercy as little more than a pious exercise, and I prayed that someone would wake me when it was over.  But all that changed when I casually turned the pages of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book  on mercy.  There, right in the middle of the text, he roots the Year of Mercy in what used to be familiar territory for most Catholics.  As bland as a Year of Mercy might seem at first glance, that year is planted in the soil of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

IMG_1134Just when I was about to exempt myself from the need to solve problems that existed primarily on the other side of the world, Kasper reminded me that pretty much all I need to do when it comes to mercy is local.  In fact, his words are an uncomfortable wake-up call.  Unless I am willing to treat as Christ the people living down the hall or across the street, then there is really no point to the high-minded aspirations about people who live 6,000 miles away.  In short, if it’s true that charity begins at home, then so do the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  That, it seems to me, is part of the takeaway from Easter.  If at Easter the Lord shows mercy by reminding us that we cannot save ourselves, then the irony is that God uses us to reach out to others.  We become conduits of God’s mercy to family and friends and co-workers — and even to strangers.

IMG_1130In the renewal of our baptismal vows at Easter the Lord enlists us to be the hands that do his work of mercy in our own little world.  We feed the hungry.  We visit the sick.  We bury the dead.  And it is we who perform all these day-to-day works of mercy that demonstrate God’s continued love.  These are among the many ways in which the Lord shows mercy to each and every person, and it’s our awesome responsibility to do our part.  As professed Christians it’s the commission from which we cannot excuse ourselves.

So now that we’ve celebrated Easter, we can rightly ask ourselves what comes next, and the answer is simple.  You and I are channels of God’s mercy, and it’s not enough to say that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are just lovely aspirations.  They are in fact the checklist of what it means to be Christian.  It’s not enough, then,  to be hearers of God’s word to us.  For better or for worse, we must be doers as well.

IMG_1116Notes

+While the music over the Triduum in the Abbey was both moving and meditative, we did have one lapse that reminded us that we have not yet reached perfection.  The Psalm tone for the Magnificat on Holy Saturday evening was new to us, and it showed from beginning to end.  We never did get it right, and so the abbot’s side of choir reverted to a tone that we remembered from somewhere else.  The prior’s side of choir never could make up its mind, and they sang three versions simultaneously.  The whole thing brought smiles and even chuckles, which was okay because it was after all the eve of Easter.  Like Amish quilters who always add a mistake to remind themselves that only God creates perfection, so our Magnificat that evening demonstrates that God still has work to do with us.

IMG_1129+We were delighted to host several guests for the Triduum, including several Chinese priests who are doing graduate studies in the United States.  Sponsored by Maryknoll, they joined two priests from China who are currently living and studying with us at Saint John’s.  The vocations office conducted a three-day retreat that included several graduates of our Benedictine Volunteer program, and several of the monks participated by giving conferences to them.  Meanwhile Fr. Dale conducted a Triduum retreat at the Abbey guesthouse.

+On Easter Sunday morning we woke to a thin blanket of snow that reflected the change to white in the color palate of the liturgical season.  Thankfully it was gone by 9:30 am, and by afternoon we were looking at green lawns once more.  The latter are a harbinger of the green of Ordinary Time.

+The top photo in today’s post is one I took looking east over San Francisco Bay in February.  I opened the curtains to behold the rising sun, and I realized that the view would not last for long.  So I rushed outside with my phone camera, and it turned out to be a photo that I knew would appear in an Easter season post.  The second photo is of an icon by Aidan Hart, enthroned in the Abbey church.  The other photos illustrate the dusting of snow that greeted us on Easter morning.

IMG_0024_2Is There a Merciful God?

Nearly a year ago the members of the Order of Malta in Seattle invited me to give a day of reflection, on the theme of the “year of mercy” that had been proclaimed by Pope Francis.  Since I’m used to giving retreat days, this was hardly an insurmountable challenge.  Still, the theme of mercy was one I’d not considered before.  But with a year to prepare, how hard could it be?

Ask anyone a year in advance to do something and it will seem like no big deal, and that was true in my case.  So I conveniently filed the request away, confident that I would find plenty of material just in the nick of time to craft some decent conferences.  This was not the first time I’d made such a foolish mistake, but this was something I only discovered eleven months later.

With the retreat less than a month away, I’d not come up with a single idea that I could use, and I started to worry.  Then one day I began to panic.  What in the world could I possibly say that might inspire me, to say nothing of the people I was supposed to inspire?

IMG_0019_2Saint Benedict in his Rule reminds monks that sometimes wisdom is found in the youngest monk, and it was one of my youngest confreres who saved me by his recommendation of a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper, appropriately entitled Mercy.  Cardinal Kasper had begun the book after reflecting on the importance of mercy in the writing and preaching of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, and he had hoped to turn his thoughts into a series of retreat conferences.  Unfortunately his retreat conferences never quite materialized, but for me this book was a God-send.  His nuggets of insight saved my hide in Seattle two weeks ago.

As we begin Holy Week, one point that Kasper makes early on in his book seems especially apropos.  It deals with a conundrum that we confront, and it touches on the leap of faith that all of us must decide whether we’ll make.  If there is indeed a God, then how can we call that God loving and merciful in the face of the horrors of the 20th century?  That is a variation of the age-old question that has dogged every believer.  How can a God who is all-powerful and good stand back and allow hideous things to happen to decent and undeserving people?

Kasper describes one modern response, which is to deny the existence of God altogether.  A good God simply could not allow the horrors of the 20th century, and so to protect God’s reputation we have to deny that God exists.  That certainly is one way to resolve the dilemma, but to my mind it leaves us high and dry in answering two questions left on the table:  from whence does our existence come, and what is the purpose of our lives?

IMG_0018Kasper’s elaboration on this issue is too much for this short reflection, but he goes on to write that the Christian response to all this is the point of Holy Week.  As Christians we believe that God is loving and does care, and a God who shows mercy is a primary attribute of the source in whom we live and move and have our being.  That is the message that the liturgies and readings of Holy Week seek to communicate.

Christians affirm that our life has its origin in the creative act of God.  God does love us and God does wish the best for us; but God also gives us the free will that allows us to formulate our destiny.  Just as parents bring children to life and watch them mature, they must also eventually stand back, let go and let them make their own mistakes.  So God does with us, because without free will any response we make to God is pointless and predetermined.  With free will our response can be one of authentic love, however.

During Holy Week the Christian community proclaims that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to share in our existence.  God did not spare that son from the same  horrors that can afflict us all, but God did affirm that tragedy is never the end of the story.  There is always redemption to be found, even in suffering.  The ultimate direction of our lives, then, is resurrection and continued life with God.

IMG_0026_2So if God does exist, as we believe, is God aloof and uncaring?  Does God get riled up by our petty misdeeds and our high crimes?  Does God get his jollies by allowing waves of catastrophe to crash upon us?  Not at all, and that’s the point of Holy Week.

Though God tends not to intervene in our lives like an omnipotent superman, God does care.  God does love us.  God does show us glimpses of mercy that pull is little by little along the path to the eternal.  And on a practical level God’s fundamental message of salvation is one of mercy.  That mercy is something we can experience every day of our lives.

Mercy is the corollary to the painful conundrum of the passion and death of Jesus.  And so mercy is what I will write about next week as we celebrate Easter.

IMG_0184_2Notes

+On March 16th we were surprised to look out and see that the ice had gone out from Lake Sagatagan and the other lakes at Saint John’s.  It may not have been the earliest date for this, but it was not far from the record.  The warm spring does not bode well for collecting a lot of maple sap, but I don’t think we are ready to trade our warm days for a return to snow and ice.

+On March 20th I attended the first of a series of meetings in Naples, FL.  The series will end with a reception on the 22nd for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University.  Happily I will be back at Saint John’s in time for the Triduum.

+This was a challenging week for my sister and our family.  On Tuesday and Wednesday her husband suffered two severe heart attacks, and he is lucky to be alive.  On Thursday they became grandparents once again.  Happily the baby was born at the hospital where my mother volunteers, and the birth took place on her volunteer day.  So my mom had the privilege of seeing her new great-granddaughter just hours after the birth.  On a different front, a dear friend has had her cancer return.  Please keep her and my brother-in-law in your prayers.  Thank you!

IMG_0138_2+The photos in today’s post come from the marvelous cycle of frescos at the Abbey of Subiaco, to the south of Rome.  It was here that Saint Benedict began his life as a hermit.  As disciples gathered around him the community grew, and eventually he moved to Monte Cassino.  Fortunately these medieval paintings have survived in good condition.  Among the prized items is the only portrait from life of Saint Francis, made shortly after his visit to Subiaco.

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