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img_4111Friendship:  God’s Graced Moment

At first blush it seemed we had little in common.  Professor Conrad Rawski was a senior scholar of medieval Italian literature, a retired dean of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and widely-respected for his multi-volume translation and commentary on Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae.  I, on the other hand, was a youngster in the medieval world, a student of Spanish history, and in no way destined for the kind of scholarly status that he had achieved.  Yet, despite the odds, we became good friends, and I still cherish the privilege of having known such a lovely human being.

I first met Conrad via the U.S. Mail.  At the time I was director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s, and we routinely served scholars from all over the place and on all topics relating to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  One day an inquiry arrived from Conrad, and despite my ignorance both of his work and who he might be, I decided to answer the letter myself rather than pass it on to one of my colleagues.

So it began as an old-fashioned, pre-email exchange, and as the correspondence stretched out, so did the topics of discussion.  For one thing, he and his wife Helen lived in Chagrin Falls, and that was something I could scarcely resist.  In my second letter I had the temerity to ask whether Chagrin was a noun or an adjective, and whether Falls was a verb or a noun.  It was just the sort of whimsy that intrigued Conrad, and that silly bit fueled a conversation that went on for years.

img_4116Eventually I got to meet Conrad, after he had arranged an invitation for me to speak at the Rowfant Club, one of the oldest book-collecting clubs in the country.  The Club had its home in a stately old mansion on storied Euclid Avenue in Celeveland;  but because Conrad was by then too frail to attend, I only met him the next day.  Then, for the first time, I got to shake the hand that had written so many fine letters and had authored so many scholarly texts.

It turned out that we actually did have something in common, which came as a great surprise to me.  Conrad had grown up in Vienna, but that wasn’t what we shared.  What did bind us, however, was a Benedictine thread that ran through both of our lives.  Conrad had attended the Schottenstift, a monastery in the center of Vienna founded in 1155.  Visitors to Vienna even today can step into their church and listen to the monks at prayer, as people have done for centuries.  Anyway, the Benedictine monks of the Schotten had befriended Conrad, and as the prospect of war loomed after the Nazi Anschluss, the monks had helped to spirit Conrad out of the country.  He eventually found refuge in the U.S., earned a doctorate, and compiled a distinguished career at Case Western.

img_4138It was only later, in his retirement, that I was privileged to step into Conrad’s diminishing circle of friends.  And it was quite possible that I was one of the last of the guests for whom Conrad prepared his favorite treat — Wiener schnitzel.

Eventually Conrad slipped away, and his wife Helen called to share the sad news.  She later wrote to say how much our correspondence had meant to Conrad, and then she asked whether our library would be interested in having some of his most prized possessions — books that had once belonged to his father and which Conrad had taken with him when he left Austria decades earlier.  “Gladly!  We’d be honored to give them a home,” I responded — trying not to sound too eager.

A few weeks ago Helen once again contacted me, this time about the one remaining volume that she had saved as her personal memento of Conrad.  It was a 1492 edition of Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae, and it was the volume that had inspired Conrad’s translation and commentary.  It was time for her to downsize, and once again she thought of Conrad’s love of the Benedictine tradition.  Would we want it?

img_4115Last week I paged through that text for the first time in many years — and not in Chagrin Falls but in the special collections department at Saint John’s.  Of course it was a great example of early printing, but for me it had long since acquired an added value.  The Benedictine thread that wove through both Conrad and me had brought this book from Vienna to Collegeville, and now it was also a symbol of a cherished friendship.

Sometimes we can only marvel at the twists and turns that bring people together in friendship.  Certainly one can make the case that accidents sometimes bridge the divides, but sometimes just a little bit of the credit belongs to God’s providence.  That, I think, is what friendship really is.  It is just one more of the many gifts of God that grace our lives.  For that providence we really ought to give thanks every now and again.

img_4154Notes

+On January 9th Jordan Berns, a 2014 alumnus of Saint John’s University, came to the abbey as a monastic associate, in preparation for his entrance as a candidate for the novitiate in April.  At Saint John’s he was a music and theology major, and for one year after graduation he served as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.

+On January 11th I departed Minnesota for Barcelona, where I met with a small group for a tour of the area.  It had nothing to do with the fact that it had become beastly cold in Minnesota, because we had planned this months ago.  The absence of cold and snow in Barcelona was one of those minor inconveniences that we had to endure.  Actually, it was not so bad.  My experience of Barcelona stretches back to graduate school, when I flew there to spend a summer in Spain doing dissertation research.  I had been back twice since then, but ages ago.  It is an amazing city, and if you’ve not been there, it is something to add to your bucket list.

+On January 15th we went to the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat, located about thirty miles outside of Barcelona.  In addition to attending Mass and touring the monastery grounds, we got to spend time with our two Benedictine Volunteers there, Tanner Rayman and Thomas Friebe.  Both are 2016 graduates of Saint John’s University.  Tanner was a biology major and Thomas a music major.  During their year as volunteers they are working with the Escolonia, the boys choir school of the abbey.

img_0171+The first five photos in today’s post show the south portal of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, and construction has continued for over a hundred years.  The design was revolutionary for its time, and even today it is absolutely stunning.  If you think you have seen all that can be seen in church architecture, it’s because you have not seen Sagrada Familia.  They project ten more years of construction, and the building of several more towers, before it is complete.  In the final photo I stand with our two Benedictine Volunteers, Tanner and Thomas, with the medieval wing of Montserrat in the background.  More on that in nexts week’s post.

img_0090_2Save the Dates

The Christmas season is nearly over, save for any residual shouting.  Of course traces of it linger in the shops that haven’t already shifted their focus to Saint Valentine’s Day;  but in the liturgical calendar Christmas began to grind to a halt yesterday with Epiphany, followed by the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which takes place today.  That means tomorrow we turn our attention to the season that the Church labels “Ordinary Time.”  That’s the stretch during which we get on with the business of everyday life, or so you might think.  But that shouldn’t really be the case.

There’s a bit of chant that comes on the feast of Epiphany that hints that there are actually more things to come.  The chant dates back to the early centuries of the Church, and while most parishes long ago dropped it, in monasteries like Saint John’s we continue to sing it as if this were the eighth century.  It’s an excerpt from The Roman Martyrology, and this Epiphany our confrere Fr. Michael Peterson intoned it beautifully, just before the final blessing and dismissal at Mass.

Without the musical notation it has all the charm of end-of-Mass announcements of bake sales, pancake breakfasts, raffles and the schedule of meetings of the parish council.  But sung to the tune of the Easter Exultet, it has a solemnity that stops you in your tracks.  So I will quote the words in full, in the event that you’ve never heard or read them before.

img_0030_2“Know this, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by the grace of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his resurrection, who is our savior.  On the 1st day of March will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the feast of the most sacred Lenten season.  On the 16th day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Holy Passover of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 28th day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 4th day of June, the feast of Pentecost.  On the 18th day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  On the 3rd day of December, the First Sunday of Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever.  Amen.”

There you have the outline of the entire Church year.  At the very least it suggests that the Church calendar is not some random selection of feasts that haphazardly crop up when we need something to lift our spirits.  They are organized to tell a story, in installments, and it all begins on the foundation of Christmas.  Without Christmas none of the rest of it makes much sense.  With Christmas, however, you have a statement of faith that defines a way of life, and you have to make repeat visits to hear and experience the whole story.  In other words, if you’re going to be a Christian, Christmas is not quite enough.  But it is the necessary starting point on a pilgrimage to a full life.

img_0299_2In his sermon on Epiphany our confrere Fr. Ian reinforced this sense of continuity with his reference to the star of Bethlehem that guided both shepherds and magi alike.  Despite our inclination to think of that star in astronomical terms, its real meaning in the Christian story is allegorical.  The star represents light, and for us who are Christians the light of our lives is Christ.  Christ is the reference point for the decisions we make in life.  Christ is the anchor from whom we choose not to drift.  Christ is the foundation on whom we build our home.  In sum, Jesus is more than a sweet child in a manger.  He’s the one who ultimately calls us to follow him in living noble and loving and sometimes even sacrificial lives.  That is the wisdom we adopt for ourselves when we choose to follow Christ our light.

So there you have it.  If you hadn’t heard that Ash Wednesday this year falls on March 1st, you know it now.  So save that date and all the others on the list.  Meanwhile don’t fritter away the next few weeks of Ordinary Time as if they were pointless.  In fact, those weeks and days are gifts from the Lord.  Let’s use them well as we take a breather on the path to Lent.  And if all this is too much “church” for you, then remember, there’s always February 14th, the feast of Saint Valentine.

img_0105_2Notes

+On January 2nd and 3rd I participated in the mid-winter workshop for the monks of Saint John’s.

+From January 4th through the 7th I was in San Francisco with our University president, Michael Hemesath, for meetings with several alumni.  We did not have to wait very long for our first meeting, as we unexpectedly sat with two alumni on the outbound flight.  We met yet another on the return flight.

+On January 7th I attended the celebration in St. Paul of Irene Okner, on her 100th birthday.  On her 90th birthday I was honored to give a blessing, and at the time I  saluted her for an achievement that few others on the planet accomplish.  She had likely achieved immortality, “since statistics show that very few people die after the age of 90.”  We are already making plans for her 110th birthday celebration.

img_0291_2+The photos in today’s post all show works from the National Gallery in Washington.  The first is “The Virgin and Child with Saint John,” Florence, 15th c., by a follower of Andrea del Verrochio.  Second is “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, Siena, ca. 1450.  Next is the “Adoration of the Magi” by Benvenuto di Giovanni, Siena, ca. 1470.  Following that is “The Flight into Egypt,” by Vittore Carpacio, Venice, ca. 1515.  At bottom is “The Madonna and Child,” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Florence, ca. 1450.

 

img_3993Jesus Blesses and Keeps Us

[Today’s post presents the sermon I gave on New Year’s Day in the Abbey church.]

A few years ago the movie Into the Great Silence gave a glimpse into life in a Carthusian monastery.  To the surprise of many, those Carthusians may have been silent, but their world was anything but.  In fact, their silence allowed them to hear the ordinary things that many of us never hear.

That movie also reinforced the stereotype that all monks keep silence.  That may be true for Carthusians, but it’s certainly not the case with Benedictines; and at Saint John’s I dare say we can chatter away with the best of them.  Still, Saint Benedict did give silence a priority in his Rule, and he outlines it in chapter six.  “So important is silence,” he wrote, “that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written:  ‘In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.'”

Right now some of you may be thinking that maybe it’s time for me to be a good monk and sit down and shut up.  I have to admit that I too was tempted by that thought.  And after all the noise of the last year perhaps it would be a good thing to ask Pope Francis to dedicate 2017 as The Year of Silence, starting now.  But then it occurred to me that on the Feast of Mary the Mother of God I should at least say something, and it need not be a “flood of words.”  And so, in the interest of brevity, I offer these few thoughts.

img_2102First of all, I find the blessing from the Book of Numbers chapter 6 really curious.  Remember that Moses was not allowed to look at God lest he die.  To reinforce that, the law of Moses banned the worship of graven images.  And yet the Book of Numbers asks us to imagine the face of God and the eyes of God and the voice and hand of God raised in blessing.  These are the very human and material attributes that the Mosaic Code bent over backward to avoid.  Was this a concession to a people who could not imagine a relationship with an abstract being or some mystical force pervading the universe?

Then we turn to the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, where we continue with the story of the birth of Jesus.  Mary is indeed the mother of Jesus the man, which all of the gospels stress emphatically.  But she is also the mother of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Like Mary, we are left to ponder what all of this might mean.  How could this possibly be, since it runs counter to the ban on graven images in the Ten Commandments?  Has God defied his own laws?

img_2103Whatever else the mystery of the Incarnation may suggest, it does say one thing quite explicitly:  God so loved us that he sent his son to be one of us.  Jesus has not only become like us;  he has become our very brother.  And in the process Jesus becomes the embodiment of what God promises in the Book of Numbers.  In Jesus God blesses us and keeps us.  In Jesus God lets his face shine upon us and is gracious to us. It is Jesus who looks kindly upon us and gives us peace.

So what does this mean to us on a practical level?  For one thing it means that Jesus reaches out to touch us in order to transform us.  In the Orthodox tradition theologians have termed this divinization.  Plainly stated, in Jesus God became human so that humans might become God.  And it’s a transformation that begins here and now, and not someday, later on.  Even now the life of God enters us, and we have life in abundance.  It’s life that we share and celebrate now.

img_2104The Incarnation of Jesus says yet one more thing that we can appreciate.  Jesus did not become the Son of Mary in order to be some abstract life force in the universe.  He does not intend to remain aloof and irrelevant to our lives.  And unlike the Carthusians, Jesus does not take a vow of silence.  Instead he walks with us; he speaks to us; he listens to what we have to say; he stands beside us in good times and in bad.  In short, Jesus reaches out to be one with us.  He reaches out to be our brother.

That, it seems to me, is what the mystery of the Incarnation is all about.  Jesus came to share in our humanity and to share with us his divine life.  He came to transform us so that we might live life to the fullest.  But of course on this feast of Mary the Mother of God I’m not asking you to take my word for it.  Ask Jesus yourself, and you’ll be more than surprised by what he has to say to you.

img_9806Notes

+On December 26th, the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr, I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass.

+On January 1st I was again the main celebrant at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon from that occasion.  In case you think it odd that I preside twice in such a short span of time, the logic is simple.  Because of my travels I am acutely aware that I don’t take my fair share of household duties in the monastery.  So when I’m home I try to squeeze in as much as I can.  But I’ll never catch up, and I have to acknowledge my debt to generous confreres who do so much.  They do far more than I, and I am grateful.

+Every now and again a comment will elicit an interesting response from readers of this blog.  Last week I noted that in the Christmas pageant that preceded the Christmas Eve children’s Mass at the Abbey parish, the staging gave mixed impressions.  To those sitting in the front pews Mary had a baby, while two shepherd beside her held dolls that were clearly lambs.  To those of us in the back pews, however, they all looked like baby dolls, suggesting that Mary had given birth to triplets.  One friend shared the story of his granddaughter who played Mary.  Unfortunately, en route to the manger the head of baby Jesus fell off.  That too was not in the script, and my imagination has run wild with that thought ever since.  Hopefully the trauma did not discourage the little girl from becoming a mother — or an actress.

img_9756+It’s just about time to put away my favorite CD of all time — Holly and the Ivy, by John Rutter and the choir of Clare College at Cambridge.  Over the holidays I’ve listened to it at least twice a day.  I confess that I’ve also listened to it in July.  It never tires!

+The first photo in today’s post is of an icon by Aidan Hart, in the Abbey church.  The next photos are of pieces housed at the V & A in London.  First are three glass windows (ca.1520) crafted for the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Next is a Virgin and Child in limestone, Italian, ca. 1160.  At bottom is a Virgin and Child, also Italian, ca. 1450.

img_4000Generosity:  the Point of Christmas

[I preached this sermon at the Christmas Eve Children’s Mass at Saint John’s.}

Let’s be honest and admit up-front that many people here this evening don’t have their minds on the birth of Jesus.  These same people probably didn’t pay much attention during Advent, and John the Baptist and Isaiah slipped right past them.  And they couldn’t have cared less about these Advent characters because their minds were elsewhere.  Specifically, Santa Claus was the guest of honor in there mental living rooms.

Shortly after Thanksgiving I happened to be walking past a Santa Station in a mall, and there they were, eager and anxious youngsters lined up to see Santa.  I make the distinction between eager and anxious because the eager ones had greed written all over their faces.  They desperately hoped they’d get most of what they’d written on their lists for Santa.

Then there were the anxious little kids who were terrified of meeting Santa.  I felt sorry for the parents who tried to still their cries and screams.  It didn’t make for pretty pictures, and I realized once again one of the fringe benefits of being a monk.

img_3990Of course not all kids react that way, as one of my coworkers assured me about her son.  Her son was neither greedy nor terrified.  Rather, he was curious, in a district attorney sort of way.   When his turn came to meet Santa, he put Santa on the hot seat.  “What happens if Santa gets sick — who takes his place?”  “How come the elves never get any bigger?”  “Why would anyone want to live at the North Pole?”  And on it went until Santa gratefully handed her son back back to her.

I do have a point here, and it’s this.  For the  youngest citizens among us, Santa has grabbed their attention.  And if you are one of these kids, please hear what I have to say.  At Christmas Santa and parents and brothers and sisters will bring you presents, but it’s not because you desperately need all those things.  Rather, those gifts are a sign that they love you.  And so, when you get gifts at Christmas, be sure to thank your mom or dad or brother or sister or Santa.  They give because they love you, and they care about you.

I suppose that also applies to the oldest citizens among us too.  Gifts are tokens of love and appreciation, and sometimes people even have to make personal sacrifices to give them.  Our gratitude and thanks are absolutely the best response we can ever give, and it’s something we should consider doing even when Christmas is long over.

img_3995Generosity is the point of Christmas.  In the Bible we read that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to be one of us.  It’s an act of generosity that we don’t always understand, but it’s one for which we should be grateful for precisely this reason.  In chapter one of Matthew’s gospel we read the genealogy of Jesus, and the point of it is simple.  Jesus may be the son of God, but he is also the son of Mary.  As Matthew tells us, Jesus descends from a long line of Jewish ancestors, stretching back to King David.  And Jesus did not come here to mess around in all of our affairs and give us a whole bunch of rules.  Rather, he’s here to be our brother.  He is one of us, and he’s like us in all things except sin.

What, then, does Christmas mean on a practical level?  It means that God loves us and in Jesus God walks with us.  God doesn’t want to be aloof from our daily problems and the challenges of our lives.  Instead, Jesus came to be part of our lives.  He wants to hear from us, and he wants to speak with us.

So if you’ve never prayed to Jesus as if he were your brother, the time to start is now.  If you’ve never confided in Jesus when you’re going through tough moments, then the time to start is now.  If you’ve never thought that Jesus personally loves you and cares about  you, then the time to start is now.

Jesus was born of Mary in a manger, but not because he had nothing else to do that day.  Rather, he came precisely so that he could get to know each of us.  He came to carry our burdens and to rejoice with us.  He came to be with us in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.  He came to be our savior and our friend.

What greater love could God have for us, and what greater gift could we possibly get at Christmas?  Be sure then to thank God when you next speak with Jesus.  And thank him especially for the gift of his son, our brother.  Amen.

img_3981Notes

+On December 23rd Frantz Soiro spoke to the monks in the chapter house about his current year as a Benedictine Volunteer at a Benedictine abbey in Africa.  Frantz grew up in Newark, NJ, went to Saint Benedict’s Prep there, and graduated from Saint John’s University last May.  He is staying with us in the monastery for a month while he takes a course in preparation for medical school, which he will start at Morehouse in Atlanta this fall.  In late January he returns to Africa for the second half of his stint as a Volunteer.

+On December 24th I was the celebrant at the children’s Mass at the Abbey parish.  It was really a fun experience, and I’m grateful to all those parents who managed to calm their little kids down, finally.  A nativity pageant preceded the Mass, and as I watched from the rear of the church I was taken aback by one unexpected development.  As Mary and Joseph and the shepherds circled the manger and then turned around to face us, Mary was holding a doll.  So also did two of the shepherds.  I turned to the lady beside me and gasped that “Mary had triplets!  I don’t think that’s in the book.”  I couldn’t figure it out until they all processed out and I discovered that the other two dolls were actually lambs.  Thankfully they had not rewritten the Nativity story after all.

img_4009+Because we were celebrating the parish Mass in the Abbey church at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, the monks said evening prayer in the Great Hall, the former Abbey church, also at 5 pm.  I wished I had been there to experience that, since it was the first time we’d celebrated evening prayer there in decades.  But alas, I was busy.

+The pictures in today’s post begin with one of the abbey church, followed by a photo of the abbot’s throne, above which is a painting on canvass that used to hang above the altar in the old abbey church during the Christmas season.  We’d not used it in nearly sixty years, and it fit beautifully in the spot where it was hung.  Brother Clement painted it on canvass in the 1930s.  Next is a photo of a decorated tree in the baptistry, and then follows the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  Last is a photo of the abbey church, facing the great window.

 

img_0211_2Welcome the Savior

“Here’s the deal.  There is a savior; and you’re not the savior.”  This bit of spiritual advice came to me third-hand last week, and it’s the sort of statement-of-the-obvious that most of us could afford to hear now and again.

It’s not that we actually think we’re God that gets us into trouble.  Most of us aren’t that self-deluded.  Rather, the real problem is the assumption that we’ve been delegated to act on God’s behalf.  Why else would God gift us with certain divine qualities, such as omniscience and always being right?  Why else would we make our own that wonderful prayer of the Pharisee:  “I thank God that I am not like the rest of people!”  Ironically, if we say that prayer often enough, it actually comes true.  But that’s a topic for another day, because for now I want to focus on the savior business.

In just a few days we’ll celebrate Christmas, and despite the overemphasis on material gifts, the point of it all is the gift of Jesus as savior.  I know that can sound a bit like a cliché, but I’d also suggest it will remain just a cliché until we finally give up being personal saviors to ourselves and turn that job over to Jesus.  Only then will we discover what a radical difference Jesus can make in our lives.  But until then we are on our own — which is a scary thing when you think about it.

In the Advent readings we’ve met some pretty formidable personalities.  Isaiah and John the Baptist are nothing if they are not forceful and dynamic.  Mary too has a unique role in this narrative, but her charisma is of a very different sort than that of the prophets.  And then there’s Joseph, who’s the unsung silent figure in all of this.

img_0232_2Joseph is the featured personality in the gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent.  That said, you have to conclude that his agent did a lousy job in promoting Joseph’s on-stage presence.  For one thing, Joseph sleeps through his entire scene.  Later on, when he wakes up, he discovers that even then he didn’t get a speaking part.  Never, in any of the gospels, does he get to say a single word.  Despite everything God expects of Joseph, the gospel writers not even once do Joseph the courtesy of citing his reaction to all this.  There’s not so much as a “maybe I’ll do it” or an “okay, I’ll get right on it.”  Nope.  Joseph hears the message and gets straight to business.  And we’re left to wonder what sort of person Joseph really was.  Was he always the strong silent type?  Was he like that as a kid?  Was he the teacher’s dream student in kindergarten?  Was he always so poised and determined to do the right thing?  Did he ever have a moment’s doubt?

Christian tradition has given Joseph the short end of the stick and put him in the supporting cast of the Christmas story.  But we should know better, and we should never dismiss him as unimportant, because in many ways Joseph is the most practical role model that any of us could ever have.  He may have run under the radar.  He may have been quiet and reserved.  On the other hand, he did an awful lot of heavy lifting when called upon to do so.  No doubt even Mary, who gets most of the headlines, relied on Joseph for strength, guidance and support.  After all, like Joseph she had only the sketchiest of notions about God’s plan for her.  She had to lean on somebody’s shoulder, and that shoulder belonged to Joseph.

img_0092_2That makes Joseph a not-so-bad role model for those of us who’ve come to realize that we are not the headliners in life.  Despite not having speaking parts on the international stage or in the leading pulpits on the planet, God still has plans for us. God has work for us to do, even if at times we wonder whether our efforts matter.  In fact, like God did with Joseph, God has assigned to each of us some moments when we can really make a critical difference.  And like Joseph, we need to awaken to the possibilities and seize them.

I believe it was John Calvin who made a useful point that helps us understand the difference between the savior and the saved.  “Believe as if everything depends upon God; and act as if everything depends upon you.”  That’s definitely not an invitation to run the world, or even our little corner of it, as if we were God’s vice-regent.  Rather, it’s a reminder that we have a savior and that savior stands with us when we deal with our assigned tasks.  That’s the real message of Christmas, and it’s great news.

img_0064Notes

+I know I shouldn’t say this, but throughout 2016 I had great good fortune with the airlines.  I made it everywhere I needed to be, pretty much on time and intact.  But last week was different.  For the first time in years my checked bag failed to make a flight connection, and it stayed in Detroit a lot longer than I did.  Fortunately it caught up with me the next day.

Then, later in the week, I landed at noon in Detroit for a 1:10 pm flight, only to discover that it had been rescheduled for 3:30, due to weather.  But the gate agent quietly told me that the 10:30 am flight hand’t left yet, and there were two seats left.  The upshot was that my original flight left two and a half hours late, while I got to New York fifteen minutes ahead of my original schedule.  Even better, my bag made it along with me.  The lesson here?  Be  kind to the people at the airlines.  Like God did with Mary, they too  have the capacity to do great things.

+I was on my way to New York, where it was cold and snowy.  And to top it all off, I was not properly dressed for any of it.  Even so, I made it to my meetings.  I also had time to join two good friends for a foray to the Metropolitan Museum, where I got to see an exhibit entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400:  Every People Under Heaven.  It ends on January 8th, so this was my only chance to see it.  Even better, we got to hear a concert of Byzantine Christmas Music, performed by the Axion Estin Foundation Chanters.

img_0063If you’ve never heard Byzantine chant, you should.  The deep and resonant voices are dramatic, and you can appreciate the reaction of the envoys of the king of the Bulgars when they listened to it in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the early 9th century.  They thought they were standing in heaven itself.  Ironically, the chanters at the Met were perched in the Medieval Sclupture Hall, beneath a mosaic of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist.  That mosaic had once graced an apse in Hagia Sophia, and on earlier trips to the Met I’d never noticed it.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I am hugely sophisticated when it comes to chant.  Despite the grandeur and majesty of Byzantine chant, a little bit goes a long way — at least for me.  Plus, given that it was in Greek, Armenian Arabic and Russian, for all I know they could have easily slipped in some stuff for Lent or Easter.

+The first three photos in today’s post show works of art housed at the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Marriage of the Virgin, by Bernard van Orley, Netherlands, c. 1513.  Next comes The Expectant Madonna with St. Joseph, made in France in the 15th century.  The third image is The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio, Venice, mid-15th century.  The two images at bottom show the balcony and mosaic that originally was located in Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, now housed in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At the bottom of this post is Sandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi, Florence, ca. 1480.

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img_3912Routine:  The Foundation for Change

“When was the last time you did something for the very first time?”  So the greeting card I held in my hand asked, and I took it as a test of my flexibility and spontaneity.  To be perfectly honest, I had never posed that question to myself;  so my response was a forthright “Just now!”  Clearly I had passed that test with flying colors.  Next question, please.

Most people are creatures of habit, and on that score monks get higher marks than most.  After all, Benedictines live by a Rule written nearly 1,500 years ago.  Its wisdom and values have scarcely changed, and when we’ve made alterations to the daily routine, we’ve tended to stick with them for decades or even centuries at a time. Whatever else you may care to say about monks, spur-of-the-moment people we are not.

Still, nothing lasts 1,500 years if you never do anything for the first time.  Even St. Benedict recognized that, and he knew there would be times when monks would have to adapt.  In cold climates, which we enjoy on occasion in Minnesota, Benedict allowed his monks warmer clothing.  When monks did more strenuous manual labor he made provision for more food.  And to the abbot who had a better idea for the organization of the Psalms or the daily schedule, Benedict gave blanket permission to give it his best shot. After all, he meant his Rule to be a guide for living, not a straight-jacket.

img_3967We often think of change as something to resist as much as possible, but some change is unavoidable.  Take, for example, the flow of the seasons.  We’re unable to do a lot about that save to escape to other parts of the country — which itself is a form of change.  In ancient Israel they accepted the inevitability of spring, summer, fall and winter, and they harnessed that seasonal progression to teach something about our relationship with God.  The Hebrews incorporated into their cycle of worship harvest festivals, days of atonement and spring planting; and not surprisingly, early Christians did the same.

Even so, many in our own day are blissfully unaware that the liturgical calendar is linked so intimately to the changing seasons.  Now that we are in Advent we’ve begun the new Church year, and our celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas correlates with days that will slowly grow in length and begin to hint of the coming of spring and the flowering of his ministry.  Advent and the darkest days of winter reinforce one another wonderfully, unless of course you live in the southern  hemisphere.

img_3935What in the world might this suggest about our relationship with God?  At the very least, it seems to me, it hints that it’s not static.  Like the seasons, the course of our lives waxes and wanes.  To take a cue from the vows made at marriage, we all have good times and bad.  We all experience bouts of sickness and health.  Death will us all do part, someday.  But most of all, we each grow with the seasons — sometimes imperceptibly and at other times quite obviously.  We are all on pilgrimage, to cast this process in spiritual language, and experience teaches that we do not walk alone.  We walk alongside our fellow pilgrims, and we also walk with God.

As we change and mature, we tend to feel the pull to pray, and so it is that we pray alone and we pray together.  Prayer brings us into conversation both with God and with one another, and we do so because we all seek the wisdom to choose our next big steps in life.  It’s what comes naturally when we need to figure out the course of our actions.

img_3957I long ago realized how pointless it is to pray that things might never change.  That doesn’t mean I no longer pray for that.  Rather, I just realize it won’t happen, whatever I may have to say about it.  That was the bind that Peter found himself in at the Transfiguration.  He prayed that Jesus would let him build booths for Jesus, for Moses and for Elijah.  He wanted to prolong the moment, to which Jesus responded with the equivalent of “are you kidding me?  I have other stuff to do.”

Jesus is not kidding when he reminds us to wake up and get with the program.  Of course there will be stretches during which the observance of routine will be life-giving.  But we can never let “routine” degenerate into “rut.”  Routine certainly keeps chaos at bay in our lives, but it also prepares us for life’s surprises.  Routine allows us to pick out the voice of the shepherd when he calls us to seize the moment.  Routine is the foundation on which we build fruitful lives, and it prepares us for the occasion when we have to do some very important things — each for the very first time.

img_3948Notes

+On December 10th Bishop Donald Kettler visited the abbey and ordained our confrere Brother Isaiah Frederick as priest.  Fr. Isaiah grew up in Tucson, came to college at Saint John’s University, and for several years worked as an accountant with Price Waterhouse in Phoenix.  Since my work has taken me to Phoenix regularly through the years, I had the opportunity to visit with him there, before he came as a candidate to the monastery.  It is wonderful to have him as a confrere and priest in the abbey.

img_3972+This past week was fairly uneventful, save for one little incident that I could never have anticipated.  I made a brief trip to Portsmouth, NH, to meet with an alumnus of Saint John’s.  I arrived early and had a bit of time to explore the town, which I had never seen before.  I stepped into a gift shop, looked around, and saw pottery which I did not need and the card on which today’s post is based.  In the course of this, the woman working there asked if she could be of help.  So I inquired whether there was a good bookstore in Portsmouth, and she asked what kind of book I had in mind.  I told her non-fiction, biography.  “I have just the store for you.”  She then locked up her own shop and walked me four blocks to the hole-in-the-wall shop she had in mind.  She took me in, introduced me to the owner, and returned to her shop.  I was completely flabbergasted by her act of kindness, so much so that I bought a novel.  The fact that a stranger would extend such hospitality to a visitor to Portsmouth is proof enough of the existence of God.  On the other hand, I left with the distinct impression that this was not one of those things she had just done for the first time.

img_3969+Two years ago I found myself in Vienna during Advent.  Famous for its Christmas markets, the city comes alive with lights and casual outdoor conversation.  It’s cold, which makes it all the more exhilarating.  If you’ve not been there during this season, it’s one more thing to add to your list of things that you’ve never done for the first time.  Today’s photos show the Christmas market in front of the city hall of Vienna.

img_0012_2Advent:  A Luxury We Can Afford

I was surprised when a friend of mine told me the details of a three-day retreat he had gone on recently.  The fact that he’d made a retreat was no big surprise, since lots of people do them these days.  What caught my attention was the place where he went to do this.  He had just spent three days with the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur — the monastery — is quite a distance down the coast from San Francisco, and the place is exceptional both for its beauty as well as for its isolation.  The views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking; and as for its site, it’s best to say that it’s convenient neither to schools nor shopping.  It’s not near anything, and the occasional earthquake or forest fire has left both monks and guests isolated from the outside world.  Still, people keep coming, and reservations are a must.

In general people are familiar with Jesuit retreat programs and their regimen of structured activities.  Unlike them, however, retreats at Benedictine monasteries tend to leave people plenty of time to sort things out for themselves.  There may or may not be conferences to attend, and participants usually have access to one of the monks for spiritual guidance. But the biggest investment of time and energy goes into the round of liturgies that structure the lives of the monks.  In addition, there is encouragement to do some reading and meditation and walking.  And as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once pointed out, walking can be one of the great spiritual therapies in any program of renewal.

img_9825Not everyone is able to trek out to some isolated spot for a retreat these days.  Some simply don’t have the time.  Others may not have the resources to do it.  Still others have obligations from which there is no easy escape — or so they assume.  And therein is my bit of encouragement to anyone who could benefit from time away from the normal routine.  At first glance retreats can seem to be a luxury that most can ill-afford.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  Taking time to assess our lives is something most of us can ill-afford not to do.

On the Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps into the scene, and he pleads with his listeners to consider what they are about.  To translate into modern English, he’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody.  Rather, he challenges people to think about what they are doing with their lives.  Are they good stewards of their time and talent?  Do they care about one another?  Or are they chasing after material fantasies and other such delusions?

There are days when the pursuit of power and wealth and the exploitation of one another may seem what life is all about.  John would argue that these are dead-end activities.  For him what matters most is our creation in the divine image.  That’s what makes us noble, and with that comes the invitation to live wonderfully creative lives.

img_9826That reduces John’s message to its bare bones, and that was the takeaway for people who had hiked out to the desert to hear him.  John encouraged them to make good use of the brains that God had given them, and he urged them to put their brains to the task of producing good fruit.  Such lives reflect the vitality of God.

John was a powerful force in his day, in part because he did not preach in the temple in Jerusalem.  Instead he went to the wilderness along the Jordan River, and there people searched him out.  Ever since then, men and women in the Christian monastic tradition have gone out to the wilderness, and in imitation of John they are willing to share with any and all what they have learned in their spiritual journeys.  Far from wasting their lives, they try and replicate the message that John once proclaimed.  Like John, they try to live with intensity, and not because of any impending doom.  Rather, it’s a tragedy to waste a life that God has given.

img_0103_2Advent is no time for a guilt trip.  Rather it’s a wake-up call to consider what we’re doing with our lives  And in that spirit, if John the Baptist were to offer his recommendations today, this is what he might have to say.  First, it’s impractical for most of us to fly off to the Jordan River in order to repent, but that’s no excuse for doing nothing.  It’s impractical for most people to check into a monastery for a three-day retreat, but that’s no excuse either.  But there are things almost anyone can do.  First off, unless people are illiterate, it is possible to read a little bit of scripture and then pray.  That can be a bit of a retreat.  Attending a concert of sacred music can clear the mind and be something of a retreat.  Stepping out of the daily routine to volunteer in service to others can be a bit of a retreat.

These scarcely exhaust the options, but common to them all is this:  they give some equal time to the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Given the season, the screaming commercialism will always get plenty of air-time.  But stepping out of that noise gives God the chance to whisper into our ears a message whose time has come.  To our surprise, such a moment may not be a luxury after all.  By comparison, all else may be luxuries we can ill-afford.

img_0102_2Notes

+On November 30th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Currently there is a major exhibit of folios from the Bible through early January, and my talk was part of a series of lectures on the topic.  What made this different was the presence of my mother and brothers and sisters.  It was the first time my mother had ever heard me speak, and finally she’s learned something of what I do for a living.  It was especially nice that the museum director introduced her to the audience.  That evening she finally got to decide whether years and years of tuition were worth the investment.

+In the interests of full disclosure, I have never had the chance to visit the community of Benedictine monks at Big Sur, CA.  They belong to a branch of Benedictines that blend in an emphasis on hermit-life, and it was begun by St. Romuauld at Camaldoli in Italy.  Many of our monks have gone on personal retreats at Big Sur, and one of their monks is scheduled to give our community retreat at Saint John’s in June 2017.

+The photos in today’s post present stained glass from three different sites.  The first is of Saint John the Baptist, and it comes from the entrance to the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The next two photos are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and they are 14th-century Austrian glass now housed in the V & A Museum in London.  The two lower panels illustrate the Annunciation, and they were made in the Upper Rhine Valley in the 15th century.  They are now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.