imageBargains Made with God

The readings for last Thursday’s Mass were a preacher’s nightmare.  In the first, from the Book of Judges chapter 1, Jephthah vowed to sacrifice to God the first person he might see leaving his house, if God would grant him victory over the Ammonites.  Jephthah went on to win a decisive war, but he was shocked to see his daughter — his only child — emerge from the house to greet him on his return.  But a deal was a deal, and after a two-month reprieve, he offered her up to God, just as he had promised.  How inspiring, I thought to myself.  And how might a homilist handle this?

The gospel didn’t offer fare that was much better.  In a parable from the lips of Jesus, Matthew relates how a king sent his servants, and then his son, to invite the neighbors to a wedding feast for his son.  Some neighbors gave pretty lame excuses and beat the servants, while others killed the son.  Enraged, the king slaughtered all the neighbors and burned their cities.  Could such be the kingdom of heaven?  I’d always hoped for something a little more tranquil.

You can imagine my delight when I realized that these challenges would fall to Fr. Hilary, the celebrant for the day.  He is among the monastery’s most thoughtful and eloquent preachers, and I prepared myself for the definitive wisdom that would explain — or explain away — the conundrums in these two passages.  So you can imagine my reaction when he began his  homily with words similar to these:  “Today we rejoice that it is the feast of Saint Bernard, which gives the perfect excuse for not dealing with these two readings.”

imageWell, I could scarcely blame him, since Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is among my favotire monastic saints.  As Fr. Hilary went on to point out, Bernard was a golden-tongued preacher, and his written prose is surpassing in its beauty.  On account of that, monks have revered him through the centuries, and the Church honors him as a doctor of the Church.  But if Bernard was such a great light when it came to preaching, what did he do when these passages came up for Mass?  Humility prevented him from changing the subject to focus on his own sanctity, particularly since he had yet to be canonized.  So I wonder if he didn’t dodge the bullet by preaching instead about the goodness of God, or some other benign topic.

As for me, I was left disappointed, pondering the point of stories like these from the Bible.  The parable from the gospel I can sort of figure out in my own mind, but what can we do with a father who will slay his own daughter just to repay a debt to God?  What kind of God could demand such a payment?  And what kind of twisted logic could someone use to rationalize the killing of an only child, or of any innocent person, for that matter?

imageThere are no good answers to any of these questions, but there are ways to appreciate the larger scope of what God might be trying to tell us in the Book of Judges and in the Bible itself.  First off, the Bible presents the story of God’s people, and it’s definitely a story of growth and development.  So it is that there are practices sanctioned in the time of Moses that would not make the cut by the time Jesus was born.  These included the sacrifice of first-born sons and multiple wives; and I assume that a Jew living a thousand years after Jephthah would have found the sacrifice of his daughter to be an abomination.  So the Bible is the log both of individuals who grew in age and wisdom, and of a people that grew in age and wisdom.

The second lesson that I might draw from this story has to do with the endurance of our deal-making with God.  Of course we don’t offer to sacrifice children or spouses if only God will let us win the lottery, but we’ll instinctively promise anything if God will allow our favorite team to win.  The same with recovery from illness and reversal of ill-fortune.  In our heads we will bargain with God without ever considering the absurdity of it all.  God doesn’t do deals like that with people — or at least not since the earliest books of the Old Testament.

imageBut if God doesn’t negotiate with us, at least not on our terms, what are we to make of these two passages that could bring some measure of understanding?  Common to both readings is the killing of a child, and perhaps that helps to put into perspective the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  In one respect the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense at all.  But on the other hand it showed that God was no longer open to the business of doing deals to get us to behave a little better.  Rather, Jesus was freely given, and from his death and resurrection came life to us all — free of charge.  In one fell swoop God at least tried to remove from our troubled minds the temptation to save ourselves.  Salvation, like love, was and is freely given.  That, it seems to me, is the big take-away from the mystery of the cross and resurrection.  We do not save ourselves, because Jesus does that.  He lifts that burden from our shoulders, and hopefully we can all rise to new and better life because of it.

Accepting that will always remain one of the great challenges in our relationship with God.  I’m convinced that each new generation has to find this out for itself.  And each person has to go through this business of negotiation with God.  People will continue to give up candy or cigarettes or any of life’s other little pleasures, without realizing that God has no real interest in this sort of stuff.  As Jesus reminded his disciples and us, God remains unimpressed with our latest version of bullocks and whole burnt offerings.  God is pretty much satisfied with a pure heart.  And that seems to be it.  No bargaining necessary.


+This was a very quiet week for me, until on Friday the 21st I flew to Orange County, CA, to preside at a Mass of religious profession for Frá Jeffrey Littell, who made his final vows as a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta.  Present to receive the vows was Frá Ludwig Hoffman, the Grand Commander, who had come from Rome for the occasion.  In attendance as well was Bishop Ed Clark, auxiliary of Los Angeles, who is also a chaplain the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The liturgy was as beautiful as it was unhurried.  At two hours it must have been a struggle to keep those cell  phones turned off.  The Mass of profession took place at the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Costa Mesa, CA.  I was also privileged to preach at the Mass, and readers may access  the Sermon at the Rite of Final Profession through this link.

image+This weekend an additional wave of students arrived at Saint John’s University, further relegating to the past the peace and quiet of summer.   Classes will begin within a few days, and even now I still miss those first heady days of the new semester — but only a little.

+The first four photos in today’s post illustrate the Sacred Infirmary, which the Knights of Malta constructed in Valletta, their capital in Malta.  By the standards of the day, the hospital was huge, holding nearly 500 beds for men and a smaller number for women.  The photos dramatically illustrate the primary work of the Order of Malta throughout its history — service to the sick and the poor..

imageSacred Leisure or Wasted Time?

For those who track department store sales figures — (and who doesn’t?) — last week’s reports were not at all reassuring.  It seems that same-store sales at most chains have been flat or trending downward in recent months, and that has some economists worried.  And worry they should, because ours is first and foremost a consumer society.

Financial gurus immediately rushed in with all sorts of explanations, but two in particular seemed quite persuasive.  One pointed out that people have begun to shift their spending to experiences such as meals together and family vacations, and this has come at the expense of trips to the mall.  And a second theory had the ring of common sense about it.  This analyst noted that people have filled their closets with clothes and shoes and knick-knacks, and many have now run out of space for any more stuff.  Until they clear some of this old stuff out, there’s no room for new purchases.  So lack of storage is a partial cause of this shopping log-jam.  And in my eyes at least the solution to that is easy:  we need a crash program to build more and bigger garages and storage sheds in every corner of the country.

imageThis unsettling trend is nothing less than a challenge to our national ethos.  If shopping is no longer the central plank of our national mission statement, then what will become of our consumer society?  If spending time with other people begins to edge out the accumulation of things as our raison d’etre, an entire way of life — to say nothing of a few malls — could vanish.  It’s a frightening prospect.

For a long time I’ve railed against the notion that “we are what we own.”  From the Bible as well as from the Rule of Saint Benedict I’ve derived the theory that God did not plop us on this earth for the sole purpose of amassing material goods.  That said, I’m under no illusion that my words are to blame for these recent commercial trends.  While I appreciate the fact that several people read my blog, there simply aren’t enough of them to turn our economic ship of state onto a different course.  Clearly it’s somebody else’s fault, and I’m not entirely sure who that might be.  But it’s not me.

In a recent address Pope Francis spoke about the need for balance in the routine of our lives, and specifically he stressed the importance of taking time off to spend with friends and family.  He pointed out, among other things, that even God took a day off in the work of creation, and I suppose that if it’s good enough for God, then it’s good enough for us.  “Days of rest, especially Sunday celebrations of Mass and time with family, are important reminders that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is not a ‘slave to work.'”

imagePope Francis could have found no better source of inspiration for this than in the monastic tradition, which has always valued “sacred leisure.”  This is not some euphemism for idleness or laziness, because in fact it sees in leisure the chance to sit back and reflect.  And with that can come insight and creativity.  Not coincidentally, sacred leisure provides the opportunity to renew ourselves and to appreciate one another in an entirely new light.

If time off is necessary, then vacation too has importance, particularly in an overcharged world like ours.  That said, I have to own up to the fact that Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations in his Rule.  To be fair, it’s not that monks in his day had little time for it, or wouldn’t go if they could.  Rather, there simply were no resorts or theme parks available in the early sixth century.  It was also a known fact that leaving the monastery or the security of your village could be a pretty dangerous business.  So the safest course was to stay home and celebrate sacred leisure in security, with people you knew.

imageThat did not mean an endless stretch of monastic tedium, however.  Rather, the cycle of feast days and seasons added texture to the lives of the monks.  Certainly there were long stretches of ordinary days filled with work, but periodically the monks celebrated in both the chapel and in the refectory.  And they also enjoyed the presence of God in their fellow monks and guests.  For Benedict, then, the meaning of a monk was not tied up in his work.  Rather, the monk found meaning in the way he lived a full life, day in and day out.

If Pope Francis has reminded people of the need to spend time in celebration with friends and family, I take heart in statistics that suggest that at least some people are opting for experiences with friends and family, even if it means fewer trips to the mall.  These people have begun to realize that sacred leisure does not mean wasted time.  Rather, this is a decisive moment in the lives of some, when they have decided not to let the pursuit of stuff squeeze them out of their homes, nor let materialism squeeze the life out of  them.  And on a more positive note, perhaps they’ve also come to savor the presence of God in new and unexpected ways.  What a happy surprise to discover God in sacred leisure, spent with friends and family.


+On August 11th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey hosted the clergy of the Diocese of Saint Cloud for vespers, followed by dinner in the Great Hall.

+On August 15th the members of the football team at Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin their regular practices.   They are the first of our students to return, and so ends our summer tranquility.

+On August 16th the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang at the abbey Mass.  This followed their traditonal end-of-summer workshop, and so begins their new season.

+With a nod to Pope Francis, who preferred a “staycation” at his residence at Saint Peter’s rather than go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gondolfo, I managed to stay home for quite a stretch of the summer.  The results were not entirely positive, as the work piled up faster and faster as the summer wore on.  However, I could console myself with memories of escapes that I’ve enjoyed through the years, including a one-day visit to the Cotswolds in England.  I’ve assembled a gallery of photos I took in The Cotswolds, and in this case pictures are almost as good as being there.  The photos in this post are from a small parish church in one of these towns.


imagePerseverance Until Death

On November 27, 1995, I sat down to lunch with Donald Jackson, whose day job at the time was scribe to the Queen of England.  He and I had just spoken at The Newberry Library in Chicago, and we were dining at a restaurant called The Italian Village — which still exists, I believe.

Normally lunch should not count as a big deal, and there’s no reason anyone should remember a particular lunch nearly twenty years later.  To my credit, I can’t recall what I ate that day, save that it was probably Italian.  But I do recall the substance of our conversation.  That day Donald Jackson proposed what eventually would become The Saint John’s Bible.

That lunch no longer matters that much, save for the fact that last week I put a little bit of closure on a venture that began at that meal.  That day, when I told Donald that we at Saint John’s might be interested in his proposal, in my heart of hearts I thought I was crazy for saying it.  But crazy or not, I said it, and I now realize that the Holy Spirit may have made me say it.  And crazy or not, we did go ahead to create The Saint John’s Bible, and the rest is nearly history.

imageEven before we began, we knew we’d need help from all sorts of people — especially from the donors who would make it possible.  Since no one had done this in five hundred years, we had to guess at the cost, and we thought it might take seven years.  On both we were wildly conservative in our estimates, but thank goodness we didn’t know any of that at the time.  We also had no idea whether enough people would step forward to make this possible.  But to recognize them, we decided to create The Book of Honor, and it would list all those donors and their dedications.

Like everything else, creating even The Book of Honor became a bigger deal than we had ever imagined.  Recently, however, calligrapher Diane von Arx, working in collaboration with Donald Jackson, has completed it.  It’s turned out beautifully, and eventually it will go on display alongside the Bible, as testimony to how God uses us mere mortals to transmit the Word of God from generation to generation.  This time around, however, God has reverted to the use of human hands to make the Bible, rather than relying on machines; and the Bible is all the better for it.

Last Thursday I made my mark on The Book of Honor.  For that volume I had composed an introduction that gives a synopsis of the Bible’s creation, and in it I noted those who made interventions that were decisive in bringing it to completion.  Diane had then transcribed it onto vellum, in elegant lettering and illumination; and all that it lacked was my signature.

imageThat morning was as close as I’ll ever come to living out the stereotype of the medieval monk.  I’ve never used a quill pen; and I’ve never written on vellum.  But on that day I had ten minutes to develop the expertise, and in less than ten seconds it was all over.  There was my signature, resting on the vellum.  It wasn’t as elegant as Diane’s script; but I knew from experience that it was still a vast improvement over all those medieval charters on which illiterate nobles and bishops had inscribed their “X.”  At least I knew how to spell my own name, and I’d written it legibly.  And with luck it will still be there when someone reads it a thousand years from  now.  It’s likely my only contribution to civilization, and it chills my spine to think about it.

But the ease of a signature allows one to forget how long and how much work this took.  It also erases the memories of just how important perseverance was for its success.  In his Rule Saint Benedict suggests that monastic life requires “perseverance in the monastery until death.”  At first blush that sounds pretty depressing, like a life sentence in a prison.  But it’s actually a reminder of the importance of hanging in there for the long haul on anything that’s important.  It’s a reminder that most things worth doing are never easy.  Things worth doing well generally take a lot longer than we bargained for.  And that’s as true in monastic life as it is in marriage and friendship.  Perseverance through thick and thin is what brings anything of value to completion — including a Bible that was only supposed to take seven years.

imageOf course perseverance and the long view run counter to the working principles of our era.  The financial markets, for example, lose patience with any company that fails to make a huge profit in its first quarter of business.  Sadly, the same is often true in human relationships, when people are unwilling to give each other the time and space to grow.  And how many of us shrink back from challenges that take extended work and perseverance?  I know that’s why I quit piano lessons after one year.  I reasoned that if I couldn’t play the best of Beethoven after twelve whole months, then what was the point of all that practice?

Here’s what I’ve learned in the interval between November 27th, 1995, and last Thursday.  First, I have no future as a professional scribe.  I can write a fairly neat note card and sign my name adequately enough, but anything beyond that I leave to professionals like Diane.  They do elegant work that my own right hand will never equal.

imageI’ve also become adept at weighing the pro’s and con’s of new projects.  I’ve learned the power of arguments like “we’ve never done that before,” which doesn’t justify any course of action, one way or the other.  It’s just an observation, and that’s all.  I’ve also learned that ten reasons against doing something can be very compelling, but that one very good reason for doing something can scatter the other ten like so many bowling pins.

Most of all, I’ve learned the importance of perseverance.  All things of value take time.  They take energy.  And they often take a huge investment of our character and determination.  These are among the key ingredients to accomplishing anything of value in life.  And so, once again, Saint Benedict is not wide of the mark in his advice to monks, and to others as well.  It does indeed take perseverance until death to get the greatest of things done.


+On August 6th I signed my name in The Book of Honor, the companion volume to The Saint John’s Bible.  That morning I discovered that writing with a quill pen on vellum is not all that hard.  It just sounds hard because few people write that way any more.  The hard part is making the quill pen, which Diane von Arx graciously did for me.  Otherwise, we’d still be sitting there.

+Last week was very quiet at Saint John’s in terms of meetings and the presence of groups.  However, I was delighted to welcome one of my former students and his family, who currently live in Luxembourg.  The next day I welcomed an alumnus from San Jose, CA.

+To Greg Anderson I owe the picture of my hand, signing the page of vellum.  The two photos further down the page show freshmen registration, which has taken place on Friday’s through the second half of the summer.  The initial gathering of students and parents takes place in front of the Humphrey Auditorium, where the statue of Saint Benedict plays host.

imageBe As Generous as Children

If you pay the least bit of attention to the scripture readings Sunday after Sunday, there finally comes the day when you think you’ve heard it all.  That certainly was the case two Sundays ago when I attended a parish church and heard for the umpteenth time the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  Like many people, I long ago assumed that the final word on it had been uttered.  So it was that I settled into the pew and prepared to day-dream my way through the sermon.  But I’m glad I didn’t.

That Sunday the priest took an approach that was entirely new to me.  I had always accepted that this miracle demonstrated above all the power of Jesus.  It also highlighted the ineptitude of the apostles.  Beyond that, the story wasn’t all that flattering to the crowd either.  Did no one among the 5,000 think to remember there’d be no convenience stores out in the wilderness?  Clearly nobody had done the least bit of planning, nor did they have any reason to expect that Jesus would cater the event.

imageThat Sunday the preacher ignored all that and went off in an entirely different direction.  In his telling, it was the boy with the sack lunch who was the critical piece to this gospel account.  As soon as the boy realized the problem, he knew he had a choice to make.  He could offer what little he had, or he could hold on to it.  Logic told him that a few loaves and a couple of fish wouldn’t go very far with this crowd, and he needed no apostles to tell him that.  His own intuition likely whispered in his ear that there was little if anything that he could do to make a serious difference.  He was just a boy, and it wasn’t his problem anyway.  But be that as it may, in all naiveté he came forward and offered what little he had.  Despite the naysayers and scoffers in the crowd, he stepped up.  He may have been the least of the 5,000, but he was the only one who made the move to do something.  And he was the one person on whom Jesus depended to do his miracle.

A few days later I recounted this to my friend Willa, expecting her to say that she’d never considered this slant to the story either.  But not so, and she went on at length to make two other points.  First, what if this was food he’d brought for his family?  It takes a lot of nerve to sacrifice their needs just to help out other people who had made zero preparation for this day.  And then came her second point.  Children can be generous to a fault, while adults can hold on for dear life to what they have.  “Who else in that crowd of 5,000 had also thought to bring food?” she wondered.  “Why didn’t they step up sooner to share what they had?  Why was it just him?”

imagePerhaps there are two miracles in this story, and not just one.  In the first miracle Jesus let the boy turn the hearts of the crowd.  Once the boy had acted, we can only hope that a few others finally stepped forward to share what little they had.  That was a miracle all by itself.  But in his second miracle Jesus took what was at hand, blessed it, and then fed the 5,000.  All were filled, and no one could explain how it had happened.

So what are the takeaways from this umpteenth reading of the miracle of the loaves and fishes?  First of all, we must never sell ourselves short when it comes to the importance of taking the initiative.  We’re all tempted to believe that we can’t make much of a difference.  But if we act, and if we try to do something, we can make all the difference in the world.  Just ask the boy.

Second, Jesus doesn’t always rely on the important people to get things done.  In this miracle, for instance, the apostles did not cut very dynamic figures.  In fact they’re pretty much clueless.  Jesus could see it, and so could the little boy.  As for the crowd of 5,000, it was passive at best; and at worst there may even have been a few who blamed Jesus for getting them into a such fine mess.

imageThe boy seemed to be the only one who realized he could do something, even if it wasn’t much.  Perhaps he thought that if he came forward, it might encourage others to do so as well.  Clearly none of this occured to the apostles.  And not a few in the crowd must have looked at the boy’s gift of bread and fish and rolled their eyes.  But of course Jesus saw in this simple act of generosity the chance to work a great sign.

The last takeaway is a reminder to read the scriptures over and over again.  If Jesus asks us to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven, he’d likely apply the same mathematical formula when it comes to chewing on the Word of God.  We may think we know all there is to know about the gospels, but there’s always the potential for more insight.  And so, when you think you know all there is to know (like me), just turn to your neighbors for confirmation.  They might very well surprise you.


+The last few days have been mild at Saint John’s, and there’s a hint of autumn in the air.  Our first students will begin to arrive on campus in two weeks, and in anticipation of that, summer activities have begun to taper off.  Two very different events bracketed the last week, however.  On Monday a group of high school students from Saint Rita’s Church in Hawaii gave a performance of song and dance in the Great Hall.  On Friday the high school marching band camp ended its week with a spirited performance in Clemens Stadium.  On a more domestic note, the abbey bees gave us eighty-five pounds of honey this last week, with the promise of more to come by fall.

+The newest addition to the landscape was installed last week, with the construction of a structure that marks the entrance to the hiking path that leads to Stella Maris Chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan.  The wooden beams are white pine that had been planted on the Abbey property over a hundred years ago; and in the spirit of the Benedictine tradition, we expect the new trail entrance to last anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty years.

image+The photos in today’s post include the new structure that marks the entrance to the trail going along the lake.  The trail makes its first major stop at the statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, which stands on a hilll overlooking the lake.  At the saint’s feet is a dog, and over the years cross-country runners have polished the dog’s nose as they touch it on races through the woods to the chapel on the other side of the lake.

imagePrepare Your Eulogy

If you’ve not paged through The Road to Character, by David Brooks, it’s definitely worth your while.  By now there have been plenty of reviews, and perhaps you’ve read one.  But as an inveterate Brooks fan, let me add to the chorus of appreciation for his latest book.

In it Brooks laments the change in personal ambition that’s taken place over the last fifty years,  For too long now, he notes, increasing numbers of people have spent the bulk of their lives compiling resumés.  To their regret, as they sometimes discover in their twilight years, they should have spent more time on the qualities better-suited for a eulogy.

The root cause of this change in direction is an infatuation with what Brooks calls “The Big Me.”  If, once upon a time, people espoused ideals that tilted toward altruism, that’s simply not the case any longer.  Today “it’s all about me,” and we value others primarily for what they can do for me.

imageHe devotes the bulk of his book to sketches of several gifted individuals who each faced a crisis of character.  Because he’s assembled such a diverse pool of personalities, you wonder what all of these people could possibly have in common.  But the thread that runs through all of them was the dawning awareness that life and civilization and the universe itself was not all about them after all.  In fact, life only began to have meaning when they made room for others in their own lives.  To borrow from the gospels, which Brooks does on more than one occasion, they discovered the nugget of wisdom that Jesus pointed out about those who lose their lives for the sake of others.  Only when they they lose their lives do they begin to regain them.  Only then do they acquire a real sense of purpose.  Only then does life begin to have some semblance of meaning.

If I may be so bold, this is a variation of a theme that I have  hammered away at in retreat conferences for a few years now.  I’ll grant that the point is not unique to me, but my self-interested approach may be a bit on the singular side.  It’s this.  For years I’ve pleaded with people to keep me in mind when they consider end-of-life plans.  “Don’t make me have to tell a pack of lies at your funeral.  For heaven’s sake, and for mine too, give me something to work with.  Think ahead, and give me and your friends some material we can use in your eulogy.”

imageIt strikes me that this is a useful complement to the advice Brooks has to give.  It’s also a chance to leverage self-interest and put it at the service of others.  This is one case in which being considerate of others means doing a big favor for yourself as well.

As a case in point, I cite the eulogy that the abbot has to give on the death of each of our monks.  He usually begins with material that Brooks labels resumé, and he lists the assignments and jobs of the deceased.  What we monks all realize is that these responsibilities were held by monks who went before the deceased, and now that he’s gone we’ll have to find someone else to do them.  So these initial comments of the abbot say little or nothing about the monk whom we remember that day.  It’s not that these things don’t matter;  its just that a resumé does not describe a real human being.

The abbot then shifts to speak about the qualities that this particular monk embodied in his life.  He tries to describe the character and the soul of our confrere, and this is what occasions wistful memories and an occasional chuckle.  This is the description of a real live human being.  This is the monk who loved and prayed and worked and walked alongside us.  This is the man who did some things well and others less well as he joined us in the search for God.

And all the while, as the abbot goes through this exercise, each of us knows that someday our turn will come.  As for me, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve given the abbot enough material for a decent eulogy.  Or will it only be data for a resumé?

imageWhen Brooks points to The Big Me as the root of the problem, it occurs to me that this business has been around for a long time.  Perhaps the first instance of it was the offer that the snake made to Adam and Eve.  Since then a myriad of thoughtful people have reflected on this, including Saint Benedict.   His teaching on the need for humility suggests that The Big Me was alive and well in the sixth century.  More recently I’ve been struck by a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta.  We pray that we be “forgetful of ourselves,” so that we mgiht be clear-eyed to see the needs of the sick and the poor.

The battle with The Big Me rages on within most of us, and as a culture we seem to be losing ground each day.  Given that, it’s helpful to keep one thing in mind.  It wasn’t all that many centuries ago when most people believed that the universe revolved around the sun.  Today we mock them for living in their heliocentric world.  But are we really any smarter for living in an egocentric world?  Only time will tell, and so will our eulogists.  And if we see them heading for the confessional after our funeral, we’ll know we didn’t give them enough to work with.


+On July 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Sheep with a Shepherd, through this link.

+In addition to reading The Pursuit of Character, by David Brooks, I also recently completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2015.)  I enjoy all of McCullough’s work, and I would only fault this book for being too short.  In the Abbey we are reading in the refectory the new encyclical by Pope Francis.

+The summer continues to be lovely at Saint John’s, and in today’s post I have included photos of the gardens inside the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

imageThe Oblates Retreat

Ever since Saint Anthony ran off to the Egyptian desert at the end of the third century, many people have been fascinated with the monastic life.  Certainly that was true for the practitioners of it, but it was equally the case for those who hiked out to catch a glimpse of these holy men and women.

But when people treked out to the wilderness to talk with Anthony and hundreds of others like him, what did they go out to the desert to see?  Well, not a few went out to satisfy their curiosity.  Others sought spiritual advice.  Still others hoped to get a taste of the holiness of God that had taken root in these holy men and women.  And quite naturally a reckless few went out to join them in the quest for God.

If you fast-forward two hundred and fifty years to Saint Benedict, the interest had not cooled.  If anything, it was more intense, and Benedict noted that in his monastery guests were never wanting.  In fact, by his time guests had become such an important part of the monastic life that he incorporated them into the spiritual experience.  He wrote that monks should welcome guests as they would welcome Christ, just as they welcome Christ in the abbot and in their fellow monks.

imageIn our own day people still visit monasteries, though not quite in the same numbers as they do sports stadia and malls and theme parks.  However, curiosity about all things spiritual has by no means vanished from the face of the earth, despite our fascination with all things commercial.  Maybe it’s precisely because of the latter that people come to monasteries today, as well as for all the reasons that they did in Anthony’s day.

Saint Benedict may have anticipated all of this, but he likely never imagined the birth and growth of oblate programs in the twentieth century.  So it is that he made no provision for people who might want to associate themselves with a particular monastery, and who would promise to live according to the principles of the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Given their circumstances, such people today promise to live according to the Rule, “insofar as their state in life permits.”  However, that means they don’t have to ditch their spouse or abandon their children.  Nor do they have to give up their day jobs to spend all of their time in prayer.  But it does involve a commitment to weave the sacred into their lives.  It entails a life in which they see the face of Christ in their neighbors, and they commit themselves to daily prayer to sustain this vision and way of life.

imageAt Saint John’s Abbey the oblate program has grown significantly in the last few years.  Today some five hundred-thirty oblates are affiliated with the abbey, and this last weekend ninety of them gathered at Collegeville for an annual three-day retreat.

Who are our oblates?  For one, they are a diverse lot.  They come from all walks of life and professions, and they include alumni from our University and prep school as well as people who only discovered Saint John’s much later in life.  And despite the existence of oblate programs that are bound to be located nearer to their homes, our oblates come from all over the place.  In a short space of time on Saturday I chatted with one oblate who had flown in from Santa Rosa, CA; another from San Antonio; and I spied one from Toronto.  Of course the majority of our oblates come from the midwest, but these days geography seems to matter little. Technology allows people to share in our community life in so many ways, and for many the mere awareness of that spiritual communion is enough to sustain them.

imageSo what in the world do people do on a three-day retreat in a monastery?  Well, for those who’ve never done it, it can be a total mystery.  But boring it is not.  Nothing to do?  Definitely not.  The fact of the matter is, most participants find there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it.

The entire retreat schedule entwines around the liturgy of the hours, and our oblates join the monks for the entire schedule of prayer.  And if the addition of ninety voices sounds like it could throw the recitation of the Psalms out of kilter, be assured that it works okay, at least most of the time.  And I have to imagine Saint Benedict’s pleasure at seeing so many joining his monks in the praise of God.

Then there are the conferences.  Monks take turns on this, and two years ago I delivered the talks.  This year Brother David-Paul, the subprior, delivered four conferences.

imageIn between prayer and conferences there are festive and not-so-festive meals, and woven throughout is camaraderie.  A lot of these oblates have gotten to know many other oblates as well as many of the monks.  This is the time to renew those ties, so everyone savors the moments of holy leisure that allow friendships to renew and deepen.

If the time at Saint John’s replenishes the oblates, it also nourishes them for life after the journey home.  After all, the  whole point of being an oblate is to live according to Saint Benedict’s vision, but not to move in with us to do it.  So it is that people wishing to become oblates go through a one-year probation, at the end of which they make their commitment to this way of life.  This year eight people made their oblation, and they did so to Abbot John, in the presence of the monastic community, at evening prayer on Saturday.  In a parallel to the rite of monastic profession, each promised to live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, “insofar as their state in life allowed.”  Then they signed their document on the altar, as oblate director Fr. Michael Peterson looked on.

imageFor two and a half years Fr. Michael has worked with the oblates, and he followed Fr. Don Tauscher as director.  In place is a schedule that includes Advent and Lent days of reflection, as well as monthly meetings both at Saint John’s and elsewhere.  Fr. Michael sees value in a program that creates a connection between the monks and the oblates.  It’s mutually beneficial; and it answers a spiritual need that is as great today as it was in the days of Saint Anthony.

“People look for a spiritual tradition that is ancient and fresh, and practical for life,” he says.  “They want tools to foster their discipleship.”  And after 1,500 years, the Benedictine way of life is still capable of that.


+On July 13th I presided at the Eucharist for the students and faculty of the School of Theology at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, Stretching the Limits of Love, through this link.

+From July 17th through the 19th the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey were here on their annual retreat.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate their gathering.  In the fifth picture Fr. Michael demonstrates his unique way of calling the audience to order.  It’s a bit more elegant that the customary “shut up!”  At bottom is Brother David-Paul, waiting for his turn at the podium.

+On July 18th I presided at the interment of Cheryl Dobberstein, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Mark Dobberstein.  This took place in the abbey cemetery.

imageMonastic Profession

Last week we experienced a wonderful transition in the abbey.  It began on July 8th when Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian as a novice.  So began his year of discernment, during which he considers a calling to the monastic life and a commitment to our community.

On Saturday the 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and having come to the end of his year of novitiate, Brother Aidan pronounced his first vows.  In that same ceremony Brothers Eric, Isaiah, Lucien and Richard made their solemn vows.  They had completed a year as novices and three years as junior monks, and from this point they take their place as full members of the community.  Among other things this means that they now take part in the monastic chapter meetings, and they get to cast a vote alongside the rest of us.

Most people have never seen any rite of religious profession, which is too bad.  For one thing, it’s filled with symbolism that includes gesture, word and clothing.  But of even deeper significance, it can convey a sense of vitality and hope for the future in any community.

imageIn our case, much of the ritual dates back 1,400 years to the time of Saint Benedict.  So it was that Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian in the monastic habit, in the presence of the community, at morning prayer.  On the 11th the novice and four juniors who were to profess knelt individually before Abbot John, and they read the petition which each had written in his own hand.  Then, again in accord with the Rule of Benedict, each signed his petition on the altar, and together the five petitions rested on the altar through the remainder of the liturgy.

Abbot John then gave to Brother Aidan a copy of the Rule — which was sort of redundant because he had read it many times already.  Following that the abbot clothed the four solemnly-professed monks in the cuculla.  This is a flowing wool garment that we wear over our habit, and it is best-bestowed in July when the weather is at its hottest and most humid.  This time around the weather came very close to ideal for that, but not quite.  Still, visitors never fail to ask why the other monks don’t wear the cuculla in mid-July, and the answer is simple.  The cuculla is best worn in winter when it can do some practical good.  But for the newly-professed it signifies full membership in the community.  There’s always time to be practical later on.

imageAt the end of this liturgy it’s our custom to gather under the bell banner to give the sign of peace to the newly-professed.  On Saturday that was the joyous conclusion to a splended event, and it marked a new stage in the lives of the professed and the community as well.

The admission of new members into the community quite naturally brings growth.  That may be true in terms of numbers, but it’s truer still when it comes to spirit.  Saint Benedict writes that the abbot should seek counsel from all the monks, and not just from among the seniors.  There is wisdom to be had among the young, he writes, and when six people become a part of the community, the pool of wisdom is bound to grow — at least in theory.

On a more tangible level, change is bound to take place with the addition of even one new monk.  Simply put, new people change us and we change them.  And this change comes because Benedictines do not create clones when new people enter.  We welcome them lock, stock and barrel.  We welcome their talents, their personalities, their experience, as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future.

imageSo what have these young men brought to our community?  For one thing, they’ve brought geographic diversity.  Novice Cassian is likely the first in our community to come from Atlanta.  He attended Belmont University in Nashville and later earned a graduate degree in theology from Vanderbilt — yet another first for us.  Brother Aidan lived in Okaland, CA, and he attended the University of California at Santa Cruz.  He also holds an MFA degree.

Our solemnly-professed are a diverse lot as well.  Brother Richard grew up in Sioux City, IA, and he graduated from Saint John’s University.  After that he worked in the theater department at Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict.  Brother Isaiah grew up in a military family, but primarily in Tucson; and he too went to Saint John’s.  After graduation he worked as an accountant for several years at Price Waterhouse in Phoenix before coming to the monastery.  Brother Lucien lived in San Antonio, where he eventually earned an MA in history at the University of Texas.  Finally, Brother Eric grew up in Ohio, attended college at the University of Dayton and earned and MS in engineering at Ohio State University.

imageOn paper their backgrounds and varied interests show that they bring a rich diversity to our community.  But the important point that I always celebrate is the presence of each as an individual in our community.  Each brings character and unique wisdom.  Each is a reminder that God does not call people by group or in herds to the monastery.  Rather God calls individual souls by name, and each is a gift to us.  That’s the hope anyway.

This year the feast of Saint Benedict was a happy day in the life of our community, and for that we senior monks give thanks.  At the very least it gives us pause and a reason to be optimistic for our future.  And it suggests that the Lord is highly likely to call other workers to the vineyard.

But regardless of who comes next, we can rejoice because of this infusion of wisdom.  After all, we need all the wisdom we can get as we continue the daily search for God.


+On July 8th I presided at the abbey eucharist, and you can access the sermon, Putting on the Face of Christ, through this link.

+On July 9th through the 11th we hosted thirty alumni from the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who were here for a reunion and retreat.  Given that each one has spent a year in service at some Benedictine community around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories to share.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  In addition to the profession of vows, we also celebrated the anniversary of profession of monks who made vows twenty-five, fifty, sixty and seventy-five years ago.  Pride of place went to Fathers Magnus and Fintan, who made their vows to Abbot Alcuin, in 1940.

image+The photos in today’s post all come from the celebration on July 11th.  We were also favored by the presence of several hundred guests, who filled the nave of the abbey church.  We were especially delighted to welcome Bishop Donald Kettler, our bishop and good friend of the abbey.  He sat with us in the choir stalls, and I’ve included his picture in this post as well.


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