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IMG_0981Is “Good Enough” Enough?

It’s easy to breeze through the gospels and miss some of the message behind the words; and that was certainly the case for me with the passage from Mark 5: 1-20.  For years it seems so straightforward.  Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee, and on the other side he met a man possessed by a legion of demons.  He cast them out, sent them into a  herd of swine, and the latter ran headlong into the Sea and drowned.  Word spread, and people filed out of the town to satisfy their curiosity.  Then they encouraged Jesus to hit the road and move on, and he did.  So ends the story — or so at least it seemed to me.

The absurdity of the story finally hit me this time around, and I think that’s exactly what Mark meant for us to take away from our reading.  For one thing, this seems to be the only instance when Jesus teamed up with a herd of pigs to make a point, and it came in the form of an unspoken question:  “How in the world does a Jewish village get comfortable living next door to a herd of pigs?”  Ironically, not a single person thanked Jesus for removing this ritual pollution from their midst.  Equally significant, they may even have sympathized with the owners of the herd.  They’d likely be the first to affirm their dislike of pigs, but they’d also be quick to point out that Jesus shouldn’t go around destroying other people’s livelihood.

IMG_0962The same is true with regard to the possessed man.  Not one person thanked Jesus for the cure he had worked, and no one seemed to appreciate the positive impact this would have on the village.  By implication, Jesus had upset their apple cart, and it would be better for all concerned were Jesus to work his wonders elsewhere.

Then the awful truth of the story hit me:  we are those villagers.  Just as they learned to live alongside a herd of swine, so do we get used to living with alls sorts of abnormal situations.  Just as they adjusted to the demon-possessed man at the edge of the village, so do we learn to live with our own demons.  To put it in modern terms, they and we find it easier to live with disfunction that to deal with disfunction.  So it is that the Jewish community in this gospel story preferred to see Jesus move on and work his wonders elsewhere.  The same, sadly, can be true for us.

It’s amazing what we can get used to in our lives.  When things could be better, we content ourselves with “good enough.”  We satisfy ourselves with the thought that “not so bad” is preferable to taking risks that could bring great benefit.  And when we do that as monks, we fall prey to the temptation that Saint Benedict warns against in his Rule.  It’s all too easy to call “good” the things we like, and “bad” the things we don’t.  Such is a life of self-delusion, and lethargy.

IMG_0965To nobody’s surprise this gospel story ends when the cured man decides to follow Jesus.  Ironically he was the only one in the entire town who’d seen the absurdity of his former way of life and wanted something better.  He’d had a taste of what Jesus could do for him, and he wanted more.

You and I each have our demons, and into every life a little bit of disfunction creeps.  But Jesus offers us a choice.  With the people of that village we can ask Jesus not to tarry and to keep on moving.  Or we can welcome him into our lives.  True, he may lead us into uncharted territory, but it could be exciting territory.  Jesus offers us the choice between “not so bad” and “extraordinary.”  Given those options, perhaps we’d all be better off to cast aside our demons and walk confidently with the Lord, wherever  he might take us.  The choice is ours to make, and choose we will.

[I delivered this reflection at the Abbey Mass today, February 1st.]

IMG_0968Notes

+Last week I went to Chicago and Detroit, and while there I visited two Cristo Rey Jesuit High Schools.  We have begun to enroll students from the Chicago school at Saint John’s, and hope for the same from Detroit.  At the school in Chicago I was delighted to discover that the athletic director is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, while a young Jesuit scholastic on the faculty is an ’08 graduate of Saint John’s.

It might be worth noting that I actually do have a day job, and one of my primary goals is to raise funds to provide scholarships for First Generation college students at Saint John’s.  These are students from families in which neither parent has gone to college.  Pride of place in my efforts to date have gone to a program that we have begun with Immokalee High School, outside of Naples, FL.  This is among the poorest communities in the country, and through the generosity of two donors we now have our first two students from Immokalee.  The students are doing well as freshmen at Saint John’s, and we hope to have a steady stream of additional students in the years to come.  This project will be a life-time’s work for me, and my supervisor has already told me that I can never retire.  But if enough people step up to help in this project, I just might be able to retire — someday, but not too soon!

IMG_1022+On January 30th the monks at Saint John’s held a silent day of reflection.  This was the first in what we intend to be a monthly event for the foreseeable future.  By coincidence we also had the funeral for our deceased confrere Fr. Allen Tarleton.

+On January 31st I visited the Alice R. Rogers Gallery at Saint John’s, which is hosting an exhibit of the art of Sadao Watanabe (1913-96).  Watanabe was a noted Japanese artist who became a Christian and was a good friend of our monks when they lived in Tokyo.  The exhibit, entitled Beauty Given by Grace, features works by Watanabe that derive from themes in the Bible.  Over the years our monks in Japan commissioned several works by him, and we have quite a few of his prints in our collections at Saint John’s.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the exhibit.

+I am normally loath to toot my own horn, since it smacks of pride.  In this case I will, since the director of the Spiritual Life programs at the Abbey Guesthouse asked me to do so.  On March 4-6 I will be giving a Lenten retreat entitled The Challenge of Holy Week.  Space for participants is still available, and for more information you can call 320-363-3929 or email spirlife@osb.org.

IMG_0613King David:  Larger than Life?

In the last few days at our daily Eucharist the readings from I & II Samuel have introduced us to David, one of the seminal personalities of the Bible.  Youngest in a large family, by rights David was destined for obscurity.  He should have lived out his days at the bottom rung of the social heap, with a fixed place in his extended family and tribe.  But of course that’s not what happened.

At our Eucharist last Saturday Fr. William offered an insight that I’d not really considered.  For one thing, I’d never really thought about David in terms of his personality in the biblical narrative.  I’ve thought of him as king and as a military heavyweight; and I had looked at him through the lens of later biblical history and the life of Jesus.  I had not thought of David as a stand-alone person, however.

As Fr. William pointed out, David is one of those rare figures in the Bible whom we can know personally.  We know his likes and dislikes.  We know his friends and enemies.  We know his gifts and talents, and we also know his sins.  In short, we can glimpse into David’s mind and understand something of his thinking.  Unlike most of the prophets who did their duty and stepped back into the shadows, David stuck around for us to meet and get to know.

What’s not to like about the young David?  He tended the sheep and did his chores, and by rights that should have been the end of the story.  But when he killed Goliath, he anticipated the Cinderella story by centuries.  After that a return to the pastures was out of the question.

IMG_0745David could have been cast as the stereotypical hero, but from the pen of the biblical writer we learn what a complicated guy David really was.  For starters, despite temptations to be otherwise, David was loyal to a fault to Saul, the king who tried to have him killed.  Complicating that relationship was David’s love for Jonathan, the king’s son.  They were soul-mates, and on the day when Saul and Jonathan fell in battle David experienced a conflicted mix of relief and profound grief.  He had lost his dearest friend, and he had become king.

Then the story shifts to the impact that power had on David’s life.  David’s story is no nursery tale in which all lived happily ever after, because things didn’t go that way.  He had his share of political and military triumphs, but offsetting those was the moral nadir of the seduction of Bathsheba and the arranged killing of her husband.  David seduced Bathsheba, but power seduced him.

David’s was a complex personality, and we’re fortunate to know as much about him as we do.  To his contemporaries he was charismatic and his presence magnetic.  He achieved great things for the kingdom, but on the flip side he was terribly flawed.  This had to be a disappointment to the intimates who lionized him.

IMG_0854When we look at someone like David we can easily conclude that he is too big a personality for us.  Can there be anything in common that would link us to him?  Certainly he was no saint, but he was larger than life in ways that we are not.  So we might be tempted to conclude, but I think we’d be wrong to go in that direction.  In fact, he is much like each one of us.  From birth to death David is kin to us all, even if he is writ large, in bold lettering.

So what might we draw for meditation from David’s story?  First of all, David may have had his talents, but so do we.  Similarly, if God can raise someone from obscurity to accomplish something important in life, then God reserves the right to do that with us.  So we are in no position to beg off from the obligation to do something useful with our lives. Besides, if we have started off in obscurity, then we are starting where David started.  We may as well continue on his trajectory.

Second, David is a great example of how the mighty can fall.  That’s worth keeping in mind when we consider our own lives.  If we are ever tempted to think we are flawless, it’s good to think again.  Remember that David was surrounded by flatterers, but he managed to see the truth about himself.  It was a key moment in his conversion, and it will be the same for us.

IMG_0837Thirdly, in a culture that idolizes the superstars and moguls, it’s all too easy to sit back and conclude that there is little I can do to make any difference in the world.  David argues otherwise.  Had he stayed with the sheep, the story would have had an entirely different ending.  But God gave him talent, and God gives us talent as well.  And like David, God will walk with us through thick and thin.  God will even pick us up, if necessary.

David lived life on a grand scale.  He touched the lives of others.  He sinned.  He repented, got back up, and started again.  That’s an excellent recipe for our own lives as well.  So it is that the story of David is both a life of one of God’s saints, but it is also a parable for the way we should live.

IMG_0002Notes

+In last week’s post I noted the long lines of dogs and their owners outside of a church in Madrid.  Within hours I heard from two confreres and another reader, who clued me in on the significance of the day.  While we in the United States associate Saint Francis of Assisi with pets, in Europe Saint Anthony of Egypt performs the same function.  So why in the world would a founding figure in the monastic movement become the patron of dogs and other pets?  The association is simple, I now realize.  Anthony fled to the desert, and there he reflected on the beauty and significance of nature.  From there it is a quick jump to love of pets.  And so St. Anthony fulfills that function, and his feast day prompted all those lines of the dogs who cultivate him as their patron.

IMG_0005+When one of my colleagues at Saint John’s reported that his son asked for a stack of banana nut bread baking tins for Christmas, he was puzzled, but supplied them anyway.  His imaginative son, who is a freshman at Saint John’s University, was not baking bread, however.  He was making ice blocks to build an igloo, which turned out to be a huge curiosity item.  Within days social media around the country and sites such as the NBC and ABC online news had picked it up, and the igloo-maker has done interviews with news outlets in markets across the country.  It was a small investment with an enormous return in terms of publicity.  Besides that, the igloo has turned out to be a huge success, especially at night when it is lit up.  It’s yet another instance of our positive outlook on winter in Minnesota.  While other parts of the country shut down at the least sign of cold and snow, in Minnesota we go out and buy baking tins and make igloos.  And the recipe is surprisingly simple.

+While I was in Madrid recently I had the opportunity to go to Toledo for the day.  It has long been a favorite city for me, and the range of medieval architecture is amazing.  In today’s post the first four pictures are of the cathedral, which is massive.  The last two pictures show the recently-built igloo on campus.  The group posing with the ice house are colleagues of mine.  I must have been inside, working, when they took the picture.

IMG_0455The Monastic Witness

Until last week I had been to Valladolid in Spain only once.  What brought me there the first time was research on my doctoral dissertation; and the arrival is the one thing about the visit that stands out in my memory.  As the plane prepared to land, the pilot calmly announced a delay, but it wasn’t due to air traffic, however.  It seems that a flock of sheep had wandered onto the runway, and we circled twice until the guy in the control tower finally located a shepherd who could shoo them off.

Times have changed, and last Friday I arrived on the bullet train which speeds from Madrid at 250+ kpm.  That’s not the only thing that’s changed in the interim, because now English pops up all over the place in Valladolid.  Through the years it has become a vibrant place, but this time I was there to visit something out of its distant past — the Benedictine abbey of San Benito de Valladolid.

IMG_0377The Napoleonic Wars scattered the monks from San Benito in the early 1800s, but two hundred years later much of the abbey’s heritage survives.  The church  now serves a parish congregation, while the monastery itself is a civic building of some sort.  Meanwhile, the magnificently-carved choir stalls and the altar panels, built in the 1520s, reside in the nearby Museo Nacional de Escultura.  They are absolutely stunning pieces of Renaissance design, and they took five years to carve, paint and assemble.  Luckily they never became kindling for war-time bonfires, which was the fate of so much other art in the barbaric times that followed.

I certainly regret the demise of a monastic community that had such a major impact on the life of the Church, but it’s still possible to appreciate the artistic and cultural legacy that it has left behind.  But that is even more so with the spirit of the monks, which still touches me deeply.

So what is their legacy, besides some choir stalls and altar panels?  It’s their spiritual tradition that lingers, despite the fact that most people don’t realize its endurance.  For quite some time San Benito presided over a congregation of monasteries that included the abbey of Montserrat, outside of Barcelona.  Together they had adapted the devotio moderna into the monastic regimen, and this took practical form in silent meditation on the scriptures and a regular examination of conscience with an eye to a daily amendment of life.  The roots of the devotio moderna were in the Low Countries, and what the monks had borrowed, they freely shared.  So it was that the abbot of Montserrat lent his book, The Spiritual Exercises, to Ignatius Loyola when he came as a guest.  It made a big impression on Ignatius, and he ran with the idea and developed a spirituality that thrives to this day.

IMG_0379It has to be poignant for any monk to look at monastic ruins, but I’m long past the day when I wish that all the monasteries had survived.  For one thing, there were too many abbeys, even in the Middle Ages.  Then, when orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans came along, there was need for even fewer of the traditional monasteries.

The Reformation was not at all kind to the Benedictine monasteries either, but it was their near extinction in the early 19th century that I regret most.  Their temporary disappearance diminished the spiritual vitality of the Church.  Even if we didn’t need all of those monasteries, we still needed some.

On my second visit to San Benito I brought yet another perspective that I lacked the first time around.  I now realize that God makes pacts with people through their baptism, and does so as well with the Church and its sacramental life.  But everything else enjoys a life cycle, just as humans have a life cycle.  So it is that religious communities grow and flourish, but they can also wither away for all sorts of reasons.  And they wither especially when they no longer stimulate the spiritual vitality of the monks and nuns who live within them.  Of course it’s sad to see a community die, but in time another sprouts to take its place.

IMG_0388Besides serving their members, monasteries also witness to the world.  Ideally they should offer a vision that is capable of stopping the world in its tracks.  They should remind people of another dimension to their lives — a dimension that so many can scarcely imagine without some outside stimulus.

Viewing what remains of San Benito made that clear to me once again.  The choir stalls in particular stand witness in our own day.  They proclaim that regular prayer and a calling out to God are not some antiquated and useless activity of the 16th century, even if they are uneconomic.  They also cry out that modern society has yet to come up with an alternative and satisfying explanation for the meaning of our lives.  In short, those choir stalls still chant eloquently to the power of God and of the search for God that engaged those monks.  And they invite us to think outside the box.

Those monks have long since passed into a new life with God, but you can still see the visible echo of their witness.  They gathered in those stalls every day, and for several times a day.  For their inspiration I give thanks, and I hope I can make my own paltry contribution to the enduring monastic chorus.

imageNotes

+On January 13th I arrived in Madrid to attend a meeting.  I’ve spent two long stretches in that city — once for a semester on sabbatical and later as the director of our student program in Spain.  Undoubtedly the highlight of this recent trip was the visit to Valladolid, where I was warmly welcomed by Ed Rojo, a ’97 graduate of Saint John’s University.  Ed was born in Brazil, came to Saint John’s for college, and then moved to Spain after graduation.  There he began a wine export business, which he started up with his college roommate.  I would be telling a big fib if I said that this is a story typical of most of our alumni. Ed may very well be the only person in all of Valladolid that sports a Saint John’s University sticker on the back window of his car.

+January 17th must have been Dog Day in the neighborhood in Madrid where I stayed.  People and their dogs lined up for two blocks on either side of a church, where the priest individually blessed every dog that was dragged or carried in front of him.  This went on for upwards of four hours.  For the most part the behavior in line was pretty good.  The dogs seemed to enjoy the chance to meet one another, and the whole thing drew crowds of gawkers.  I was in that number.

image+In case you missed the New Year’s issue of The Economist, it carried an extensive and impressive article on the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  The author had interviewed the director, Fr. Columba, and praised HMML for its tremendous work in digitizing the threatened libraries of Timbuktu.

+The pictures in today’s post include a view of the church and monastery and choir stalls of San Benito de Valladolid, as well as two photos of Dog Day in Madrid.  In the case of the latter pup, I think he was praying for a miracle to cure him of his wrinkles.

IMG_0205Be It Resolved:  Let God Do It

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions yet, and it’s not because I forgot.  My experience has shown the utter futility of such an exercise, and so I hesitate to engage in this sort of thing any more.

Everyone has their own theory for why such resolutions are doomed to failure.  My own theory is that our culture of excess simply doesn’t support a regimen of reform hot on the heels of the holidays.  There’s no denying that in the post-holiday season there’s a few things to regret, and there’s definitely some backsliding to overcome.  But there’s always future excess to consider, and January sales and Valentine’s Day are but two examples of the allure of future diversions.

From another perspective, the timing of such resolutions is a little out of kilter.  It seems to me that the business of self-discipline should precede the celebration rather than follow it.  In the Church calendar both Advent and Lent lead to something bigger than themselves, and so there’s something to really celebrate.  As it shakes out in the secular calendar, however, the run-up to Christmas is a weeks-long marathon of shopping and indulgence, capped by frenzied overindulgence, culminating in surrender to exhaustion.  After all that, few of us have any residual energy to plunge into an intense program designed to turn our lives around.

IMG_0211Even so, this year I did not give up entirely on the idea, and for a while I considered a couple of counter-intuitive resolutions.  Given my own poor track record with resolutions, why not capitalize on my inertia and go for something where failure would be its own reward?  In that spirit I considered putting on a few extra pounds as a goal for the coming year.  But with my luck this could be the year when I finally succeeded at a resolution, and I would regret my success.  But if I failed, that would be terrific.

I also thought it might be interesting to try and arrive at morning prayer even later than I currently do.  Of course success would yield some negatives; but if I failed, it could be interesting.  For one thing, I could learn the first verse of many of the opening hymns that we sing.  Plus, an early entrance would allow me to join in glaring at the late-comers.  This would definitely be worth the effort.

I finally decided that the risks of this strategy were too great, and then it struck me.  Taking a page from Tom Sawyer, I conceived a really attractive resolution:  get someone else to do the heavy lifting.  If I need to lose a few pounds, or if I need to improve my record on tardiness, why not delegate these responsibilities to someone far more competent than I?  Specifically, why not enlist the best person I know?  Why not let God do it?

IMG_0217To be fair to God on this, I owe him the idea.  The other day as I mulled over the parable of the householder who put his servant in charge while he was away, it hit me.  In the parable Jesus sets up a win-win situation.  If the servant does well in something simple, then the householder is more than justified in conferring more responsibility.  Both come out ahead.  Conversely, if the servant botches it, the householder hasn’t lost all that much, and he’s learned a valuable lesson besides.

Then I realized that the parable could work in reverse.  If God is so powerful, then why not give him a shot at showing what he can do for me?  Just out of curiosity, why not give God responsibility for one of my problems and see whether he can do any better than I?  And if God manages it well, well I’m certainly open to delegating even more responsibility to God.  And if God does a really bang-up job, I might even consider giving him total control over my life, but only once he’s proven himself.

If all of this sounds unconventional, I have to say in my defense that I’m not the first to consider it.  Saint Augustine, to cite but one example, was in complete control of his life and hesitated to delegate anything to God.  “Lord save me, but not just yet” was his prayer.  That shows just how difficult it is to turn over to God responsibility for even the puniest of our problems.  But as Augustine later discovered, and as will we, the pay-off can be huge.  Like him we’ll be surprised to learn that God is capable of far more than we expected.

I still have yet to make any resolutions eleven days into the new year, but “Let God do it” is definitely one I will consider.  There’s one caveat that gives me pause, however.  Do I really want God messing around in my life?  Not for a minute do I doubt God’s best intentions.  He will give us exactly what we ask for and more than we ever imagined.  But is that what I really want for 2016?  We’ll see.

IMG_0222Notes

+On 4-6 January we monks of Saint John’s Abbey were engaged in our annual winter workshop.

+On January 6th a big crowd joined in watching the burning of Stick House, a woven creation that has graced the entry road to Saint John’s for the last three years.  It was made of sticks from our forest, and it was designed to last for two seasons.  At the end of that time the plan was to burn it.  But it was so well-built and so popular that they let it stand for an extra year.  Over 100,000 people visited it; but its time had come, and up in smoke it went.  The event drew a couple hundred viewers, and the festive atmosphere was accented by one person who doled out fresh-baked cookies.  The burn lasted for all of eight minutes, and it was great while it lasted.

IMG_0229+On January 9th I flew to Phoenix, where on Sunday the 10th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at All Saint’s Episcopal Church.  That evening I attended an organ recital by Dr. James Gerber, the organist at All Saints.  He is an alumnus of Saint John’s, and it was nice to see him again after several years.

This time around the trip to Phoenix was larger than life.  In the security line in Minneapolis I stood behind Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite writers, who grew up in Minneapolis.  The plane was packed with Clemson and Alabama fans, heading to the national championship football game.  To their credit, all were well behaved.  On arrival in Phoenix, while I waited  for a shuttle, I watched as a wife dropped off her husband and then sped off with his wallet in the back seat of their car.  She didn’t hear his frantic cries, but we did.

IMG_0145Epiphany: A Way of Life

[I delivered the following sermon at the Abbey Mass on the feast of the Epiphany.]

Several years ago I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with some members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Like everybody else, I was moved by the experience of the holy city of Jerusalem and its church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The same was true for the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  But oddly enough, and to my great surprise, it was not those places that struck my imagination most deeply.  That big jolt was reserved for a Coptic church which we visited in the old city of Cairo.

That church had originally been a pagan temple, built years before the birth of Jesus.  Sometime in the 4th century it was recycled into Christian use, and inside was a shrine to the holy family.  Local tradition held that it was to that very neighborhood that the holy family had come to find refuge.  It was in that neighborhood, most likely Jewish, where somebody reached out and offered hospitality to an impoverished and frightened couple and their child.  It was then that it struck me.  If any of the local tradition was true, then I was inside one of the few buildings anywhere that Joseph, Mary and Jesus had lain eyes upon.  Conceivably that building had been part of their experience, and now it was part of mine.  That Coptic church tangibly connected me to the holy family in a way that nothing in Jerusalem did.

IMG_0146On the feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God’s son to the peoples of the world.  Often we cast this feast in a sugary vision of magi visiting a manger in a cave.  It’s a wonderfully tranquil scene, and all seems calm and all seems bright.  It reinforces those words from the Roman Martyrology that affirm that Jesus was born when the whole world was at peace.

As lovely as that scene might be, the adoration of the magi hints at storm clouds on the horizon.  King Herod is anxious about his throne, and the magi are suspicious of his motives.  As for Joseph and Mary, dark rumors disturb their joy, and soon enough they are off to Egypt, with no idea of when or if they will ever return.  So it is that Mary had one more thing to ponder in her heart.  What might her son become someday, if he even lived to become an adult?

IMG_0378_2At Epiphany Jesus makes his first appearance on the world stage.  No longer is his birth a matter for Joseph and Mary and a few shepherds, because the circle is now set to expand.  Soon enough it includes Herod in his palace and draws in sages from a distant land.  Soon enough Jesus then meets those who gave them aid in Egypt.  And in time he touches his disciples, and the crowds that hung on his words, and the leaders who plot out his death.  In short, Mary had good reason to consider the words of Simeon, who prophesied that Jesus would cause the rise and fall of many in Israel.

At Christmas it’s easy to get caught up in the naive imagery of the manger and forget that Jesus came to be about his father’s business.  It’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary and Jesus were political exiles who fled for their lives.  It’s easy to forget that someday Jesus would be a convicted felon and would suffer capital punishment by order of the state.  It’s easy — and convenient — to forget that Jesus puts a fundamental challenge to each of us who hear and read and meditate on his words.  Inherent in the feast of the Epiphany is the challenge that demands some sort of life-changing response from us.

IMG_0379_2Ultimately that’s what I took away from my visit to the Coptic church in Cairo.  2,000 years ago some people in the local Jewish community consciously chose to extend hospitality to three people who sought asylum in a strange land.  Those people likely had no idea who it was they helped, but they reached out anyway, and helped three pe0ple who turned out to be heaven-sent.

So what do we take with us from the feast of the Epiphany?  First is the realization that Jesus made his first appearances as a helpless child, and then he was a political exile and an immigrant.  Only later do we know him as teacher and the one who died for our sins.

Second, Jesus still appears to us, but he does so now in the faces of all sorts of people.  He’s in the faces of the poor child, the immigrants, and the asylum seekers.  He’s also seen in the faces of all those in distress and in those whose lives seem to be going well.  In short, Jesus does this to remind us that all are created in the image of God.  And by all he means all, not some.

IMG_0234_2Finally, what might we as monks take away from the feast of the Epiphany?  Given the Rule of Saint Benedict that we’ve chosen to follow, it seems to me that Epiphany has been designed especially for us.  Saint Benedict teaches that we are privileged to see Christ both in our confreres and especially in our guests.  He also reminds us that we’ll never run out of guests, suggesting that the experience of “God with us” is never-ending.  And so it is that we welcome into our lives our visitors in the guesthouse, our students and colleagues, and all who come to pray with us.

For monks and for all Christians, then, Epiphany is not meant to be seasonal entertainment.  It’s a way of life.  Epiphany is what we ought to experience every day as we rub elbows with the people whom God sends into our lives.  And it’s an experience that we take one step further as we gather around this altar to experience the “Lord with us” in his body and blood.  Let us pray today and every day that we continue to see the Epiphany of Christ, in ways imagined and surprising, both now and forever.  Amen.

IMG_0230_2Notes

+On December 31st, following evening prayer, we monks gathered to usher in the new year.  By tradition I and the monks on my floor in the monastery host the event, which includes card and board games, refreshments, and wonderful conversation.  At 9:00 pm, again by long-standing tradition, Brother Dennis and his helpers bring in pizza which they have made from scratch.  By  midnight the crowd has thinned out considerably, but the new year comes anyway.

+On January 2nd I attended the home basketball game between Saint John’s and Saint Mary’s University (MN).  I’d not been to a basketball game in ages, and it was nice to be there to see the good guys win.

+On January 3rd I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+The photos in today’s post begin with the magi as they progress toward the manger scene in the abbey church (top two.)  Then follow two stained glass windows from the abbey of Reichenau in Germany, which I visited a couple of years ago.  In the final two photos is The Nativity by Petrus Christus, ca. 1450, and The Presentation in the Temple, by the Master of the Prado, ca. 1470.  Both are housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

IMG_0195Christmas:  A Reason to Hope

Christmas has been something of a mixed bag this year, especially if you’ve paid the least bit of attention to the news.  No doubt there have been some bright spots in our own little worlds, but over it all has hung something of a dark cloud.  It bothered me, for instance, that for the first time in 1,900 years there were some Christian communities in Syria that did not celebrate Christmas.  The threat of expanded conflict in the Middle East depresses me as well, though at least there is a perverse consolation in the knowledge that the area doesn’t have a monopoly on war.  To all that add the random terror in places like Paris.  That’s given birth to an anxiety that will take some getting used to.

The chaos around the world made even more striking the announcement of the birth of Jesus, which we chant from The Roman Martyrology.  At Saint John’s we sing that at morning prayer on Christmas day, and it’s something I look forward to year after year.  Actually, we don’t sing it, because a single cantor intones it, as if he were the town crier reading off the big news of the day.  The passage nests the birth of Jesus in human history, and it notes the number of years that had passed since the creation of the world, the flood, the exodus from Egypt, and the founding of the city of Rome.  Then the text notes one oddity as it builds to the announcement of the birth of Jesus.  Solemnly it declares that Jesus was born “when the whole world was at peace.”

IMG_0175These are striking words, because peace has never enjoyed long stretches of popularity in human history.  We pray for it, we work for it, and we even fight for it.  Still, the times of peace are few and far between, which is perhaps why The Roman Martyrology took pains to mention it.

If joy is an overriding theme in the Christmas liturgies, then hope runs a close second.  Naturally we hope and pray that peace will settle over the earth and that justice will prevail.  We pray as well for a variety of other gifts that seem equally unlikely, and by the time it’s all over we might be tempted to wonder if anything substantive ever comes from Christmas — other than the exchange of gifts, of course.

Given the state of international affairs and the difficulties that confront people across the world, is it at all realistic to have hope at Christmas?  Is there any reason to hope that things will ever get better?  Is hope an illusion, and should we resign ourselves to the likelihood that things are just going to get worse?

IMG_0141It’s easy to conclude that the world is going over the cliff, and that there’s little or nothing that you and I can do about it.  But were we to do so, we’d miss entirely the true message of Christmas.

Despite the apparent mess, there’s much to be hopeful for, and we need only start with the bare fact of the birth of Jesus in a stable.  By anybody’s standards he had zero chance to have an impact on the world; but of course he did.  Second, he sent the Holy Spirit to stir among us, and ever since then people have risen to the occasion to perform astonishing acts of generosity and self-sacrifice.  That sort of thing still goes on, though it’s easy to overlook it.  Third, God gave life to you and me, and I’m absolutely convinced that we were not created for the sole purpose of whining that there’s nothing we can do to make the world a better place.  And lastly, God gifts us regularly with the creation of new people who come to lift a hand just when we’re ready to give up.  With great energy, these people sustain our hope, just when we are ready to cash in the chips.

That’s part of why we hope at Christmas.  In the dead of winter, when spring seems to be a distant impossibility, we celebrate the birth of one who broke the chains of death and the grip of depression, and he continues to give us good reason to hope.

At the first Christmas God sent his only-begotten son.  That son Jesus continues to see in us possibilities that we don’t always see in ourselves, and he enlists us in the work of restoring the world to its lost innocence.  Even better, the Lord continues to call to our side others who join in the work of renewing our corner of the world.  For all that — and for more — we give thanks at Christmas.  Because of all that, the Lord gives us plenty of reasons to hope at Christmas.

IMG_0180Notes

+On December 22nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist.

+Our celebration of Christmas was especially nice at Saint John’s.  The music at the Christmas Eve Mass was over-the-top great, and a large congregation filled the main portion of the church and spilled up into the balcony.

We were also blessed to have a white Christmas, though that was due to a residue of snow that had survived several days of warm weather.  However, on the day after Christmas we got a bountiful snowfall, which pictures in today’s post illustrate.  It was the perfect way to celebrate the feast of St. Stephen; and it recalled good King Wenceslaus, who went out on the feast of Stephen to see the snow, deep and crisp and even.

Finally, we monks celebrate Christmas with a simple yet festive meal on Christmas Eve, during which we light the tree in the refectory.  The next day our main meal is at noon, after which many take the opportunity to visit relatives and friends.  For me the highlight of both meals were the Brussels sprouts, which are at the top of the food chain as far as I am concerned.

IMG_0187

imageChristmas: God With Us

As we approach the final days before Christmas, the Magnificat takes on special significance.  We speak of it as Mary’s song, and rightly so it is.  As the opening lines proclaim, God has lifted up someone of no particular significance and elected to accomplish great things through her.  Holy is God’s name; but holy too is the person through whom God works.

Sometimes the focus of the Magnificat can remain so much on Mary that we forget that it is a prayer that has a cosmic dimension to it.  It’s not just the story of one person, because it reminds us that God has mercy on those of each and every generation who fear him.  Through each and all of them God also accomplishes great things.  Holy are they too, in their unique ways, just as Mary was holy.

During the season of Advent we look forward to the coming of Christ at Christmas, but the Magnificat reminds us that the incarnation of Jesus Christ does not exhaust itself on just one day of the year.  Perhaps that’s why we say the Magnificat 365 days of the year, just to remind ourselves of that.  It’s a gentle hint that Mary’s encounter with God took place long before the birth of her son; and like hers, our own encounter with God is an ongoing and even daily experience.

The cosmic dimension of this prayer is clearest when it speaks of the conceit of the proud and the weakness of the downtrodden.  It gives a nod to those who put their trust — metaphorically at least — in horses and chariots, only to discover at the end of the day that true strength is to be found in the name of the Lord.  And whether we take them literally or symbolically, those final words of the Magnificat have a haunting quality about them:  in every generation the Lord fills the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends empty, away.

imageChristmas is both a test and a reminder.  It’s a test of whether gifts and material items exhaust the meaning of the feast, or whether Christmas is more than that.  If Christmas is merely a day to celebrate merchandise, then we will all go away on the 26th, empty.

On the other hand, for those who see Christmas as the celebration of God with us, they will rise on the 26th filled with good things.  Christmas is a reminder that the greatest gift is the awareness that God does not leave us orphans.  God always walks with us, every day, even to the ends of the earth.

Notes

+On December 16th I attended the annual Presidents’ Christmas Dinner, hosted by the presidents of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  It’s held annually at the Town & Country Club in St. Paul, and this year I delivered the invocation at the beginning of the meal.

+The two photos in today’s post show work from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Annunciation, by Juan de Flandres, ca. 1508-1519.  The lower photo is Expectant Madonna with St. Joseph, French, ca. 1450.

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