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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.

img_0027_2Sleepers Wake!

The other day I happened to notice in my rear-view mirror a car darting through the traffic, as if the driver were on his way to a fire.  But his was not an emergency vehicle, and so I could only imagine why somebody would take such crazy risks, given the heavy traffic.  Obviously this person had something terribly important to attend to.  Or not.

Eventually the driver worked his way up alongside me, and he missed my car by inches as he veered in front of me.  It was all I  could do to keep my cool, but just barely.  Then, three or four minutes later, the traffic slowed to a crawl, and there he sat, a mere two car-lengths ahead.  He had risked his own life and the safety of everybody else, and all he had to show for it was forty or fifty feet of road.

What struck me about this modern variation on the fable of the tortoise and the hare was the utter futility of it all.  To all appearances the driver seemed to have a sense of purpose, and he’d seized both the wheel of his car and life with intensity.  In fact, however, he’d reduced his life to some sort of video game.  For a few miles he’d ceded control of his life to a primal urge to get ahead.  But I suspect he scarcely realized he’d gained very little on the rest of us.  We had plodded along at the speed limit, and for all his mania he’d gained perhaps twenty or thirty feet of roadway.

img_3896In my post of last week I noted that I was grateful to have the good sense to know that there’s room for improvement in my life.  Even better, I was grateful that the Lord has given me some time to work on this.  And then this Sunday, on the fist Sunday of Advent, Jesus spoke in the gospel about the need to prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Am I right in thinking that Jesus may have meant those words for me?

Jesus warns that we know neither the day nor the hour of his coming, and this creates an air of urgency for those of us who get nervous about that kind of thing.  What exactly is Jesus expecting of us as we prepare?  Ought we to double-down, put our noses to the grindstone and make each and every minute be a peak experience?  Ought we to ratchet up our activity, much as did the crazed driver?  Do we dare waste a minute in idleness when our eternal life seems to be on the line?

Hyperactivity might be one course of action, and I fault no one for coming to that conclusion.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he counseled preparedness.  In Matthew 24 Jesus goes on to note that two men were working in the field, and God took one.  Two women were grinding at the mill, and one was taken and the other left.  What’s important to note is that this wasn’t an issue of who was working harder.  Everybody was busy.  No hands were idle, and al were doing their fair share of the work.

img_3895The issue then is not the amount of work, but rather the sense of purpose that coursed through those four minds.  All were equally busy,  but two of them knew to expect the coming of the Lord.  There was a meaning to even the simplest tasks that they had to do, and their self-awareness made all the difference in the world.

On the First Sunday of Advent Jesus reminds us that “at an hour we do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”  Now it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Jesus is talking about the end of time, or at the very least, about the last moment of our lives.  But knowing what little I do about Jesus, I long ago concluded that Jesus was not the kind of guy who wants to wait and barge into my life at the very end, with a great big “surprise!”  Rather, he really does want to be part of our lives, now.  For those of us who thought this interval was ours to do with as we chose, this can be a little disconcerting.  But as I’ve learned from people who claim to know, to this idea Jesus says “Fat chance!”

I fully expect to run into the Lord Jesus at the end of time, but between now and then I have no plans to run around like a mindless fool.  I hope I don’t ever find myself speeding down the highway of life, oblivious to those I’m passing.  Rather, I think the better course is to get a grip on myself and prepare to meet the Lord more than a few times, and well in advance of my own last day.

img_3921Soon enough we monks will be singing Advent lyrics that urge sleepers to wake.  We might very well be a bit groggy when we sing them at morning prayer, but the point is well-taken.  The words are a spiritual alarm clock.  They are an urgent call to consider what God calls us to do with each and every day that we have ahead of us, beginning with today.

Finally, I live staked my life on the belief that God calls us to be neither wastrels nor workaholics.  These, I think, lead down paths paved with self-delusion.  Rather, God wants something very simple of us.  God calls us to take a moment to consider where we might be meeting the Lord Jesus in the course of our day.  And the thoughtful person knows to expect to find Jesus waiting just around the corner, ready and more than happy to surprise us yet again.

img_3907Notes

+On Thanksgiving Day Prior Brad presided at the Abbey Mass, and following that we all adjourned to the Abbey refectory for dinner.  Through the years Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday in the Abbey, largely due to the fact that we do not have to stay up half the night in church in order to earn the feast day.  Sadly, vigil Masses are not my forte, as I normally get up an hour or two after they conclude.  So Thanksgiving is the feast day made to order for early risers like me.

+On November 26th I witnessed the renewal of vows of my friends Drake and Madeline Dierkhising on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.  Drake and his brother are the third generation of Dierkhising’s to go to school at Saint John’s, and the family roots go back to the beginnings of our neighboring town of Saint Joseph.

img_3911+We continue to have snow at Saint John’s, and in addition many of the last few days have been quite overcast and gray.  The photos of the landscape in today’s post hint at that, and in fact some give the impression that I took them in black and white.  I didn’t.  The first photo shows a woman sleeping over a grave in the central cemetery in the city of Lviv in Ukraine.

For What Should We Be Thankful?

My friend Joe’s trip to the airport the other day was the stuff of nightmares.  He was headed to Detroit by way of Newark, and it was not pretty.  On the way to the airport his car blew out two tires, and the tire shop which he eventually found charged him $600 for replacements.

From the tire shop he continued to the airport by taxi, but by then he had a little cushion because the flight had been delayed thirty minutes.  Finally on the plane and out on the runway, however, one passenger got sick, and it was back to the terminal to let that guy off.  Then the plane taxied out again, only to develop engine problems.  Back to the terminal they went, yet again, and this time everyone got off.  Then at 3:30 pm they cancelled his 9:50 am flight.  Have a nice day.

That was just the beginning of Joe’s travails that day, but this portion of his tale of woe is enough to make a point.  Life does indeed have its major and minor catastrophes, but it’s important always to maintain a sense of perspective, and there’s no better time for that than Thanksgiving Day.

I’m always amazed to meet people who have no sense of how blessed they are.  All too often their daily thanks tend to be of the sort that goes like this:  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  In short, we reference the lowest common denominator of inconvenience or human suffering, and then are grateful that our lives are not worse than they are.  We might even give thanks that life is good because it’s not terrible.  It’s true that we can be grateful for all that, but isn’t there just a little bit more to our lives?  Sure it could be worse, but is there nothing to excite us on Thanksgiving other than a feast, a day away from the routine, and a surfeit of televised sport?  Of course there is, and happily most of us know that.

This Thanksgiving I will pass up the chance to give thanks for great wealth, power or influence.  These have always eluded my grasp anyway, and to be honest I’ve never spent the bulk of my energy trying to acquire them.  Instead I will rely on the tried and true items for which I tend to be grateful on a fairly regular basis.

First off, I give thanks for life and for parents who cared enough to provide me a home and share their values.  I give thanks for friends, who really are a gift from God and aren’t something you can buy at the store.  I give thanks for enough material goods to keep me going, but not so many that they take over my life and distort my vision of myself and reality.  And then I’ll give thanks for the faith which others have shared so generously with me.  Faith is a pretty intangible thing, but it’s been the key ingredient that’s given me direction when I’ve been lost at sea.  It’s provided the reason to go on in those moments when life can seem pointless.

This year I’ll also give thanks for those simple words of encouragement that have made all the difference in the world to me, since childhood.  Generous people scarcely realize the good they can do when they offer a kind word or point out the talent they see in others.  Often they never know what such a simple gesture can accomplish.  But it happens, and it happens far more than you might imagine.

This Thanksgiving one last-minute addition will make the list, and it’s this:  it’s the awareness that I can and ought to do better, and that I still have some time to do it.

On the day that Joe didn’t go to Detroit, I was at the airport grousing about how it was taking forever for the shuttle to get from the terminal to the car rental facility.  Then I was cranky because people couldn’t get off the bus fast enough.  And then there was the long line at the counter, filled with people who seemed never to have rented a car before.  Could life possibly get any worse than this?  Two hours later I read Joe’s email and realized it could.

On Thanksgiving I’m not going spend time being grateful that my travel experience was not as horrible as Joe’s.  Rather, I plan to be grateful for the ability to put things into perspective.  Besides, I should know better than to pray for a seamless travel experience in life when there are other things of far greater import.

So this Thanksgiving I’ll express gratitude for friends and faith, but I’ll also give thanks for the good sense that lets me rank these things first in my life.  On any given day, they are even more important than an on-time departure and arrival.

Notes

+On November 17th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On November 17th and 18th I attended meetings of the Trustees of Saint John’s Univesity.  Unfortunately, they were cut short by an impending storm, which materialized on the morning of the 18th.  It was our first serious freeze of the winter, and we got all of four inches of snow.

+Beginning on the evening of November 18th, and continuing through to the 19th and 20th, I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, gathered at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, located north of Dallas, TX.

+The topmost photo in today’s post is a glimpse into the garden greenhouse.  There a selection of squash, raised in our garden, prepare for storage in the abbey’s cellars.  My friend Larry Haeg happened to take this beautiful photo, and I am grateful for his willingness to let me make use of such a lovely fall portrait.

img_0036_2When a House Becomes a Home

A few days ago I blessed the new home of some friends of mine.  All the kids had moved away, and their old home had become simply too large.  For this and a lot of other reasons the time seemed right to downsize, and they had found a lovely spot that was beautifully-suited for two.  Even so, I could only imagine the difficulty of leaving behind an old friend of a home and forming new habits in a new neighborhood.

Moving out of a home in which you’ve lived for twenty or thirty years has to be a wrenching experience.  Family members have made memories there.  Milestones in life have been celebrated or survived there.  And to borrow an image, a home can become a comfortable old shoe.  It  has to be tough to leave behind something that is almost a part of you.

At the other end of the spectrum sit those houses that never have the chance to become homes.  I suppose that in some cases they are the products of our changing attitudes toward housing.  For some people houses are now investments, habitation units, showcases of wealth, or places to be occupied until their usefulness has been sucked dry.  For such houses there’s been neither the time nor the inclination to form a sentimental attachment.

img_0028_2Of the few things I watch on television, my preference runs to those shows about house-hunting.  The situations often have the ring of a game show in which people list the specifications they want in the ideal house and the budget they can afford.  Generally the two are ridiculously out of sync, but it’s the job of the housing brokers to work miracles.  And if they can’t do it, it’s their fault.

Of those shows my favorite by far is The Property Brothers, featuring twins who are eternally sunny and upbeat.  Like all the other shows in this genre, their challenge follows a predictable model:  find the home of their clients’ dreams at a price-point comfortably below budget.  And how hard can this be?   You get an inkling when the camera turns to their poker faces, just as they realize that once again they have morons for clients.

In one imaginary scenario a couple wants a house with 6,000 square feet, five bedrooms and six baths, an open-concept living area, and an oversized kitchen with granite everywhere.  It should sit on two landscaped acres, have no neighbors or traffic, be convenient to schools and shopping, and be a short commute to downtown.  And one more thing:  the budget is $125,000.

img_0037_2I can only imagine what the Property Brothers are thinking when they hear these sorts of demands.  Just once, however, I’d like to see them whisk their clients off to the dream home that combines the amenities and price that the clients deserve:  a huge tent on the outskirts of a refugee camp in Turkey.  Of course the place lacks an easy commute to work, but access to nature more than makes up for that minor inconvenience.  Even better, it falls within the budget.

Granted that this is an extreme example, it’s still not far from the unrealistic dreams that so many people expect to have fulfilled on the spot.  They want a house and not a home.  And better still, they want a house that they can sell for a tidy profit in a few months’ time.

This brings me back to the business of blessing a home.  So what’s the point of blessing a home anyway?  Well, it’s not to ensure that the air-conditioning never breaks down, that the roof never leaks, or that the sceptic tank won’t back up while you’re away on vacation. Nor is it a ritual to cast out the demons who might take possession of your prized appliances.  It’s none of that at all.

img_0024_2When we bless a home we invite the Lord to come and dwell with us, so that our house becomes a home in which love and respect and hospitality are the order of the day.  It’s an invitation to the Lord to sanctify both a structure and the people who have moved in.

The order of blessing that I used for the home of my friends comes from the Book of Blessings, and the ritual is not terribly long.  And it concludes with these words:  “Lord be close to your servants who have moved into this home and ask for your blessing.  Be their shelter when they are at home, their companion when they are away, and their welcome guest when they return.  And at last receive them into the dwelling place you have prepared for them in your Father’s house, where you live for ever and ever.  Amen.”

And what might be the price-point on a home in which the Lord has chosen to dwell?  What would somebody charge for a place like that?  I’m not sure what the Property Brothers would have to say, but I’d put the cost at something just shy of priceless.

img_0032_2Notes

+On November 11th our Brother Damian Rogers passed away after a long struggle with cancer.

+On November 13th I spoke at three services on The Saint John’s Bible at Rockpoint Church in Lake Elmo, MN.  Lake Elmo is a suburb of St. Paul, located just before you would fall into the St. Croix River and swim across to Wisconsin.  The members of the church gave me a wonderful reception and I thoroughly enjoyed the morning there.

That afternoon I attended a memorial service at Assumption Church in St. Paul, for members of the parish who had passed away during the past year.  The monks of Saint John’s founded that parish in the 19th century and served it for many years.  For just as many years a statue of Saint Benedict stood on a side altar to the left of the sanctuary.  But alas, he has worn out his usefulness and will shortly be moved to a new home in the basement of the church.

+The photos in today’s post show Blenheim Palace outside of London.  It’s more than big enough to be a house but not really much of a home.  It has many of the amenities that people look for in a house, including a chapel where the Lord can take up official residence.

img_3767All Souls’ Day:  A Reflection

One of my all-time favorite hymns comes from 18th-century England, and it compares Jesus to an apple tree.   It’s a carol that we sing at Christmas, but its focus on ripe fruit makes it just as appropriate for All Souls’ Day, and for autumn in particular.  And the first stanza reads thus:

The tree of life my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit and always green.

The trees of nature fruitless be

Compared with Christ the apple tree.

I quote from this hymn because it complements the poignant lines from chapter 3 of the Book of Wisdom.  That too is a bit of poetry that sets an almost melancholy and yet hopeful tone for All Souls’.  “They seemed, in view of the foolish, to be dead, and their passing away was thought an affliction, and their going forth from us, utter destruction.  But they are in peace.”

img_3727What I find so compelling about these words is not just the consolation that they offer to us, the living.  They also express a fundamental connection between us and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord.  We struggle along the road to the Lord, and many of them still journey through purification as they look forward to the full vision of God.  To adapt the words from Wisdom, the followers of Jesus — both living and dead — seem foolish and our lives pointless.  Yet, as disciples of Jesus we pursue with all our being the good, the true and the beautiful.  All are attributes of God, and lives in pursuit of those three things are fruitful beyond words.  The reward for such a life is many times over our feeble investment in faith.

It’s our solidarity with those who have gone before us in faith that we celebrate on All Souls’ Day.  And so we pray for them as they journey through purification, in hopes that they in turn will remember us when they step into the presence of God.

For now, however, we acknowledge something we hold in common.  With them we are fellow travelers on the path to union with God, and we follow in their well-worn steps.  And what draws us on together is the occasional glimpse of God which we are privileged to have.  It’s this inspiration of which the last stanza of the hymn speaks:

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,

It keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be

With Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.

img_3785So we’re left to ponder the image of the apple tree.  Here we are in November, and a very few stubborn apples still cling to what look to be lifeless trees in the abbey orchard.  To the world those trees seem to be dead, but even in their leafless state their branches are noble and their roots capable of renewed life.  Those branches and roots next spring will sprout to life, just as did Jesus at the resurrection.  That is our faith, and it is the hope that we celebrate on All Souls’ Day.

That vision of eternal life is what now animates the souls who have gone before us in faith, and the very same glimpse of the divine sustains us who feebly struggle in their steps.  We pray for them and for ourselves that new life will bud within us, just as it does in the apple tree in spring time.  And come the autumn of our lives, our reward will be fruit on our branches that will be wonderfully abundant.

img_3788Notes

+On November 2nd I celebrated the abbey Mass, and today’s post is an adaptation of the sermon that I gave that day.  To my delight and surprise Fr. Anthony played on the organ an improvisation on Jesus Christ the Apple Tree as an Offertory meditation.

+November 2nd was a busy day for the abbey church.  For noon prayer the monks gathered in the cemetery to pray at the graves of our confreres.  In the church that day we hosted the funeral of the singer Bobby Vee, who was a member of the abbey parish.  Some 1,000 people gathered, and to a selection of his songs the monastic schola added its own music, including the Ultima.  The latter is a wonderfully moving bit of chant which we sing at the cemetery service for the burial of a monk.

Throughout the month of November we remember those for whom we have been asked to pray.  Friends of the abbey send us cards listing their deceased loved ones, and on the way into morning and evening prayer we each take a card and pray for those names.  It makes the remembrance of the dead wonderfully personal.

img_3827+On November 5th I attended the dedication of Gagliardi Field.  Named in honor our famed retired football coach John Gagliardi, it is a covered field that will serve both football practice as well as indoor soccer and winter intramurals.  To say that it is a huge space does not quite do it justice.  It is gigantic, and it is part of a now complete complex that includes a new soccer pitch, baseball stadium and tennis courts.

That afternoon I attended the football game, at which Saint John’s hosted and bested Hamline University, 42-6.

+The pictures in today’s post begin with one taken in the abbey apple orchard.  We’ve had an orchard from the earliest days of the community, and it has been renewed many times over in the course of 160 years.  The next photos show the last lingering colors of autumn at Saint John’s; while the photo at bottom allows a glimpse into the interior of Gagliardi Field.

img_0130Behold, He Speaks Our Language Too

I’ve always been in awe of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes.  The same goes for his invitation to consider the lilies of the field and to remember that we are worth more than sparrows.  Then it suddenly hit me.  Did Jesus always talk like that?  Did he speak in elegant turns of phrase when he was a kid at home with Joseph and Mary?  Did he always declaim like a Shakespearean actor when he was hanging out with the disciples?  Probably not.

I’m not sure why this issue popped into my head, but I know exactly when it did.  Last week, as I was preparing a homily on a text from the gospel of Luke, it all of a sudden hit me.  Some Pharisees had warned Jesus that Herod was out to get him, and Jesus for just a moment let down his guard and called Herod a fox — as in “go tell that fox….”  Thankfully Jesus regained his composure before saying anything salty, and that was that.  Why Luke decided to include this in his text I can’t be sure.  But I’m glad he did.

Whatever else may have been going through the mind of Jesus at the time, there seems to be here a hint of grudging respect for Herod.  Herod was nobody’s idea of a good guy, but Jesus did spot in him a singlemindedness of purpose.  Herod knew what he wanted, and he would stop at nothing to get it.  Herod was a suitable opponent in the eyes of Jesus, even if Herod would never win.

img_0129Jesus was just as singleminded, and that was Luke’s point.  He had come to do the will of his Father, and by now there was no going back.  It meant going up to Jerusalem, where he would get a mixed reception.  He would preach, he would be tested, and he would die.  By now Jesus had accepted the consequences of his mission, as his agony in the garden would later show.  He was committed, and nothing or no one would deter him — including a fox like Herod.

Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus showed a grudging respect for those who were knowledgeable in the ways of the world.  In one parable he spoke of an unethical steward who was not above forgiving those in debt to his master — in hopes of buying grace for himself.  He also cited those who rushed to the seats of honor at banquets.  That was sometimes unwise, but at least they too were willing to risk something (including embarrassment), because the rewards could justify it.  Common to all of these people was the grim determination to claw their way to the top, no matter the price.  That singleminded quest was something that Jesus could admire, even if the goals were unworthy.  So it was that he urged his disciples to be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves — which I’ve always thought to be a rather odd combination.

img_0131What in the world is Jesus thinking here?  It seems to me that what really irks Jesus are wishy-washy people who hesitate to risk anything at all.  The fence-sitters who take no chances go through life with few if any bruises, but they also have little or nothing to show for their minimal investment.  They live on the naive assumption that sitting on the sidelines is always the wisest course, never quite realizing that life is not a spectator sport.

Jesus wants more from anyone who would be his disciple.  Just as his Father asked of him the supreme sacrifice, so he asked his disciples to go to the ends of the earth.  He acted;  they acted;  and he expects us to act as well.  He suffered;  his disciples suffered;  and so his followers should realize that success doesn’t always come delivered on a silver platter.  The achievement of anything of consequence requires risk, but such is the reward of a life well-lived.

And why did Jesus let slip some pedestrian language every now and again?  I think Luke included it just to remind his readers that Jesus speaks our language too.  It’s nice to orate in high-minded phrases, but when push comes to shove, Jesus is more than ready to talk our talk.  He’s ready to be blunt;  he’s capable of using slang;  and he’s more than happy to chatter away in the language of our choosing.  That’s what he came to do.

img_0134Notes

+From 25 through 30 October I participated in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.  As has been the custom, the retreat took place at San Damiano Retreat House in Danville, CA, and I have included several photos of the site in today’s post.  It’s located high on a hill (or small mountain) with amazing views.  It is run by the Franciscans, who are always good hosts.  Coincidentally I discovered from our junior monk, Brother Aidan, that he had once lived and gone to high school in Danville.

This year we used as the focus for our discussions a book by Sherry A. Weddell, entitled Forming Intentional Disciples.  A friend of mine from Minneapolis had recommended it to me, and it turned out to be surprisingly stimulating for discussion.  It has the virtue of being written in clear and energetic language; and it’s not overly long, for those who worry about such things.

img_0133On Sunday the 30th our newest member in the Subpriory, Jon Rewinski, made his promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  Jon and his family now live in Los Angeles, but we first met ages ago when we were both students at Yale.  It’s been nice to renew on the west coast a friendship that began on the east coast.

+I and many others were naturally saddened by the recent earthquake in Umbria in Italy, and especially because it destroyed the basilica of the Abbey of Norcia.  The monastery is on the site where tradition says that Saint Benedict was born, and I have taken groups to visit there twice.  I also count one of the monks as a friend.  On the plus side, the monks had vacated the site after the earthquake in August had weakened the structure.  But this tremor finished off the 14th-century church, and now only the facade remains.  I’m not sure to where the monks will relocate, but at least they are all safe.

img_3580Called to be Pharisees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_3647Notes

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

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