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Baptism Begins Our Public Ministry

As rivers flow the Jordan is no Rhine or Amazon or Mississippi.  On rainy days it might qualify as a decent tributary, but even on those days it inspires neither poets nor painters nor boating enthusiasts.

Despite its shortcomings, however, the Jordan does play an extraordinary role in the gospels.  It was beside its waters that John the Baptist preached and baptized.  It was there that he had his first and perhaps only encounter with Jesus.  And it was into the meandering waters of the Jordan that John immersed the head of Jesus.

Last year on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I got to celebrate the Eucharist on a dock that extends out over the shallow waters of the Jordan.  While our small congregation sat on bleachers on dry land, I had to stick close to the altar, lest a misstep plunge me into the Jordan.  I’d already been baptized, so there was no need for another.  But praying out on that dock impressed on me the importance of that place for Jesus.  It was there that he began his public ministry.

C3758ED1-E5AD-4A52-AC17-15FD184DC811The feast of the Baptism of Jesus marks the end of the Christmas season, and in churches of the Latin tradition the decorations come down.  All the same, this action marks a new beginning.  It’s time to get on with the business of ordinary life.  But we do so with a twist.

If the baptism of Jesus inaugurated his public ministry, does our own baptism not do the same for us?  And if it does, what might be the nature of our ministry?  To what kind of life does Jesus call us?

For those who think that public ministry is reserved to the ordained, it’s time to think again.  The witness to Jesus is actually the vocation of the baptized.  To that creative witness Jesus invites us all.

In western culture today the practice of religious faith has become such a private exercise that sometimes one scarcely knows whether or not we’re Christian.  In fairness, part of this is due to our neighbors who share our values if not our baptism.  But all the same, if the nature of our lives remains a cypher or a mystery to our neighbors, then it may be time to evaluate how we are coming across.

Jesus does not ask us to wear our religious conviction on our sleeves.  Nor does he invite us to be Pharisees and dedicate our lives to pointing out the sins of our neighbors. Unfortunately, too many have already signed up for that work, and there’s no need for further volunteers.

Rather, Jesus asks that we rise from the baptismal waters and live with integrity and love.  And he asks us to invite others to share in the new life that he offers.  Our very way of life then should inspire curiosity in our neighbors, and therein begins our public ministry.

A4E68E6C-C251-4B16-9A96-EB87DAB94243To be blunt, in baptism Jesus does not propose that we follow the course of the Jordan as it lazily empties into the Dead Sea.  Rather, like him we need to rise from the waters, step ashore, and as consecrated people begin our public ministry.

NOTES

+On January 6th and 7th I attended a meeting in Cincinnati to discuss the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+On January 12th we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and that evening the monks living on my floor in the monastery gathered to take down our Christmas tree and other decorations.  By nightfall all traces of Christmas had vanished from the monastery.

+On January 13th the new semester for Saint John’s University began, and with it life as we know it returned to normal.

+The photo at top is a wood carving of the Baptism of Christ, ca. 1480, made in Nuremberg, Germany, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Below that is a piece of stained glass made in 1520 for the Cistercian Abbey of Mariawald, located near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the V & A Museum in London.  Below that is an ivory panel carved in the 500s, in either Syria or Egypt, and now in the British Museum.  At bottom is a terracotta by Andrea Della Robbia, ca. 1500, now in the V & A in London.

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Vocation:  A Personal Transformation

In his book The Second Mountain David Brooks offers a helpful distinction between a career and a vocation.  They’re very different, he writes, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that each requires a very different kind of preparation.

When we’re searching for a career, he suggests, we draw up an inventory of our talents.  As best we can we identify those things that we’re good at.  Then we weigh those talents and decide which are likely to get us a decent-paying or satisfying job.  Once we’ve done all that, we dedicate a chunk of time and energy that will prepare us for that career.

A vocation is something entirely different.  It’s not something that we can prepare or study for, and in fact it can seem almost unplanned.  And it can be something as simple as this:  some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of our nature and demanded an active response.

D428367B-BFCB-4184-AB38-459D92FE9568When Brooks muses about vocation, one caveat matters.  Vocation is not confined to a monastic or religious vocation, as we reflexively might think in the Catholic tradition.  Brooks is Jewish, and he thinks of vocation in almost existential terms.  Common to all who search for their vocations is a fundamental set of questions.  What do we want to do with our lives?  To what will we dedicate our lives?  Will we be content to compile what is essentially a résumé of activities — a curriculum vitae?  Or do we want to create a legacy — a legacy of service and love that makes some small difference in the lives of others?

How we come upon a vocation is unique to each of us, and if we’ve been blessed with the discovery of a vocation we know it.  Brooks suggests that it’s the response to some person or event or ideal that has touched us and changed our lives completely.  After that experience we can never be the same because some sort of epiphany has altered the fabric of our being.

Brooks doesn’t use the word “epiphany,” but it’s a useful term, particularly on the day when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany to me suggests a second stage of Christmas.  If the Nativity proclaims Emanuel — God with Us, then Epiphany asks what difference this is going to make in our lives.  If we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, then what if anything do we intend to do about it?  Will the Nativity be the equivalent of a television show which we passively watch and then turn off?  Or will it reach to the core of our being?  That there is a choice to be made is obvious but also uncomfortable — both for Christians in general and even for monks.  At Epiphany the birth of the Lord cries for some visceral response from us.

It’s interesting to see how the characters in the Epiphany story responded to the birth of Jesus.  Forever after Mary pondered all these things in her heart.  She was never the same again.  As for Joseph, the events were equally jolting.  I’ve always believed that all Joseph really wanted was to get married, have some children and grandchildren, and live quietly under the radar.  That’s not what happened.  He went on to play a decisive role, and if at first an angel gave him all sorts of advice, Joseph eventually was on his own.  After all, the decision to settle into safety and security in Nazareth was his decision and his alone.

B6906C70-C563-4964-B6B4-9E6EC72864E2That was their Epiphany, and so today we ask what will be ours.  What is it that might change the course of our lives?  What is that unique experience or who is the person or what is the idea that will help us make sense of our lives?  Will we or can we be open to an epiphany?

Our moments of epiphany can be great or small, but they will certainly come if we keep our eyes and minds open.  As for me, a few days before Christmas I had just such an experience, for which I was totally unprepared.  I was at a gathering of friends of Saint John’s in Florida, and the host couple mentioned to me that the next day they’d be joining a group from Catholic Charities to deliver food baskets to migrant families.  I’d never done that before, and without thinking I invited myself to come along.

To say that the experience was an epiphany for me is an understatement.  That day I walked out of my comfort zone and discovered something profound.  First of all I had no idea that some people in America lived like that.  Whole families lived in two-and-a-half-room cottages.  Unrelated adults shared trailer homes that should have been recycled years ago.  That was the deeply disturbing part of this epiphany.  But there was something that was also puzzling.  Early on I met an elderly woman who was riding herd over seventeen kids.  The moms of these seventeen were at work in the fields, and the kids were running around like free range chickens.  What struck me was the sense of joy that pervaded the scene.  But it was a joy that seemed out of place.  After all, these people were desperately poor, and they should have been sad.  But they weren’t.  They celebrated the gift of life, and joy was etched into their faces.  And to me none of this quite computed.

639C1C6E-59D1-4DBC-B6EC-30202679A94EThere’s two things I took home with me that day.  First, that small epiphany reminded me that all people are the handiwork of God.  Be they poor or rich, migrants or exiles or homeless or comfortable homeowners — all are made in the image of God.  As such each needs to be loved and each deserves reverence and respect.  And this is the commitment that I make as a baptized follower of Jesus Christ.

The second item has to do with my own vocation.  There are days when my life as a monk seems like a job and a career choice that was right for me.  Then there are the days when it seems like a vocation, and those are the days with touches and even streaks of joy.  I and my confreres know the difference, and we know that the vocation days are far more exhilarating.  Those are the days when we feel the hand of God tugging at our sleeves.  Believe me, those are the better days by far.

On the feast of the Epiphany we make an act of faith.  We affirm that God loved the world and sent the incarnate son to be with us.  That son Jesus walks with us every day.  But Epiphany presents us with a challenge.  Will that pilgrimage with the Lord be a job or a good career choice?  Or will it be a pilgrimage that transforms us completely?  If it’s the latter, then our lives will never be the same again.

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NOTES

+New Year’s Eve was the highlight of the social scene in the monastery this past week.  We gathered in one of the recreation rooms in the monastery and played cards and board games, visited, and shared home-made pizza made by several of the monks.

+On Sunday January 5th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered that day.  As noted in the text, I have been deeply indebted to David Brooks for ideas he has shared with his readers through the years.  Through those years I’ve become one of his most enthusiastic fans.

+It seems a little odd to use the Roman numerals MMXX for the new year.  But there you have it.  Happy new year to all my readers, and thanks for the many helpful comments I received during MMXIX.

+The wood-carving in today’s post was made by Master Arnt of Kalkar and Zwolle, in the Lower Rhine, c. 1480.  Today it is housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The photo at bottom shows a clock attached to the wall of a modern municipal building in Worms, Germany.

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Saint Joseph Revisited

There it was — tucked into the middle of the Gospel of Matthew chapter 2.  I had read or heard read that verse hundreds of times, but somehow I had missed it every time.  How could that be?  Like the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the desert, it had been calling out to me.  But I guess I was not ready to hear it until last week.

The passage in question dealt with the Holy Family’s exile into Egypt.  Joseph, Mary and Jesus were returning to Judaea, but along the way Joseph had a change of plan.  “…When he heard that Archelaus was ruling in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there.”  So Joseph adjusted the route and took his family to Galilee, where they settled in a town called Nazareth.

In the Christian tradition Joseph comes off as a supporting actor in a cast of strong-willed or charismatic people.  It’s why artists have consistently portrayed him as an elderly man who quietly devoted his final years in service to Jesus and Mary.  But this verse suggests a determination in Joseph that I’d not considered before.  Joseph thought for himself, and he was was capable of decisive action.  And in this particular case he didn’t need an angel to tell him what to do.  In short order I had to junk my life-long impression of Joseph as the passive actor who stood quietly in the shadows.

E66009F8-F09D-458D-82F3-7FFA51AAD48ESo what have I learned from this?  First, I appreciate the fact that Joseph was an astute man capable of independent thought and decisive action.  He reminds me that God gave us brains and God meant us to use them.  And to those who think that being Christian requires checking an open mind at the door of the Church, Joseph offers a stern rebuke.  God gave us intellect and imagination, as well as the energy to put them into the service of the Lord.

The second lesson has to do with the value of revisiting the sacred texts day after day, week after week, and year after year.  As monks we read the same 150 psalms over and over and over again.  While some might see that as a pointless waste of time, in fact those same 150 psalms have a capacity to nourish that is astounding.

If that’s true for the Psalms, it’s also true for the Scriptures as a whole.  Medieval monks and nuns read big chunks of the Bible year after year, and they read those passages aloud.  In that exercise the text leaps from the page to the eyes, courses through the brain, and as it passes through the lips the ears hear the words as well.  In their experience the reader and the text became one, and it was a total sensory experience.  That said, the ancients would have been the first to admit that it could become familiar food.  But every now and again there was a morsel to savor in a new way.

That experience is not the exclusive preserve of monks and nuns — be they medieval or modern.  Those morsels are available to any who would take and read — or merely listen.  Perhaps the next time we take and eat the food that nourishes our body we should give a thought to the food that nourishes our spirit.  After all, it’s right there for the taking.  Better still, it’s free for the taking.

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NOTES

+On Christmas Eve we prayed vespers in the Great Hall, which is the space where the monks of Saint John’s Abbey prayed for eighty years before moving to the new abbey church in 1960.  The acoustics in that Romanesque space are perfect for our voices, and being there makes the beginning of Christmas a moving experience.

+Christmas Eve Mass at the abbey began with a concert of sacred music, presented by the abbey schola and The Saint John’s Boys Choir.  Mass followed at 10:00 pm, and over eight hundred guests joined us for that service.  As usual, the music was superb and Abbot John’s homily well-crafted and delivered.

+The illustrations in today’s post show a 13th-century altar frontal that originally was in the church of Santa María de Cardet in Cataluña.  Today it is housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.

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Christmas:  A Leap into the Unknown

It’s easy to get carried away with the Christmas spirit.  With an abundance of lights, carols, tinsel and decorated trees, what’s not to like?  All the same, it’s not all that hard to gloss over one key element to which the gospels allude.  We may celebrate Christmas joyously, spurred on by hundreds of years of tradition.  Mary and Joseph saw the birth of their son quite differently, however, and not just because there were no decorations to greet them on their arrival in Bethlehem.

In today’s post I’ve included a late 15th-century painting by an unknown artist from the Netherlands.  It’s entitled The Marriage of the Virgin, and it first caught my eye because it depicts no wedding I’ve ever attended.  Not only do Mary and Joseph look unhappy, they seem almost terrified.  None of this was what they had planned.  In fact, they were only there because divine messengers had told each of them not to fear.  It would all work out, somehow, eventually.

C0598529-DDA5-4260-9320-1B56ED29D8FAFrom our vantage the birth of Jesus comes with a heavy dose of sweetness and light, shaped by commercial interests.  For Joseph and Mary it meant a leap into the unknown. Soon enough they would be exiles in Egypt.  Later still Mary would stand by her crucified son.  While other new parents might nurture high hopes for their newborns, Mary and Joseph hadn’t the slightest idea how this might end.

Christmas is serious business for believers.  It’s more than the accumulated memories of wonderful family traditions.  The birth of Jesus puts in place the cornerstone of our existence.  His presence among us is our North Star and the point of reference for all the major decisions of our lives.

In short, Christmas is for us what it was for Mary and Joseph.  It is our leap into the unknown — our act of faith.  It is our conviction that Jesus really is Emmanuel — God with us.

CD1E5DB1-93A5-464F-8540-CB11016BB609NOTES

+This week I spent several days in Florida, visiting with several supporters of our Immokalee Scholarship program.  On December 17th my friend John and I had lunch with eight of our eleven Immokalee Students from Saint John’s, who were home for their Christmas break.  The photo below shows them gathered for that festive occasion.

+On December 17th the faculty and staff of Saint John’s joined with the monks for our annual Christmas celebration and dinner.  Unfortunately I was unable to attend, but a good time was had by all.

+On December 21st we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere Fr. Chrysostom Kim, who died earlier in the week.  Born in Korea, Fr. Chysostom entered the novitiate at Saint John’s after attending college at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul.  Later he earned a PhD at the University of Chicago and headed the honors program at Saint John’s University through much of his career as a teacher.

+On December 21st I joined my friends Tom and Mary Ann, as we assisted a team from Catholic Charities in the delivery of Christmas food packages and presents for children in a neighborhood housing farm-workers in Immokalee, FL.  The joy on the faces of the residents belied the poor living conditions, and I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.  It was a touching experience, and I count myself lucky to have seen the face of Christ in these people.

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Why Bad People Do Good Things, and Vice Versa

One of the great mysteries of life is why good people sometimes do bad things.  A close second on that list of mysteries is why even bad people can do some good once in a while.  What motivates all these people to break free from their habits and cross the line that separates darkness and light?

One obvious answer is that all of us are both good and bad.  All of us are pilgrims on the journey — out of the starting blocks but still far from the tape at the finish line.  Or as the  Book of Genesis suggests, all of us participate in Jacob’s dream.  Like him we are no longer on the first rung of the ladder, but we’re still far from the top rung that reaches to the threshold of God’s heavenly realm.

7A026362-B877-40D2-A801-ED0033D4F897In fact we are all works in progress.  We are all people of promise, but we still have plenty of rough edges that need sanding.  And so we are excellent examples of good people who sometimes do bad;  while at the same time we’re bad — or incomplete people if you prefer — who still manage to do some good every now and again.

In today’s gospel Jesus speaks to our incompleteness and the defenses we build to protect ourselves from change.  In the eyes of some John the Baptist went too far in his self-denial, and they condemned him.  In the eyes of those same people the behavior of Jesus bordered on self-indulgence, so he too merited a hefty dose of criticism.  Presumably those critics assumed they were on the high moral ground, and that justified their pot shots at both John and Jesus.

Every now and again we are those people, and why we are is anybody’s guess.  All the same, Jesus challenges us to be self-aware — to search out our blind spots and to discover how we might grow in fullness and integrity.  Perhaps then we’ll begin to see that we are neither singularly good nor enslaved to our faults.  We are a blend of both, and in this we are on the same page as practically everybody we know.  Armed with that thought, it can be easier to be a little more patient with our friends and neighbors.  Like us, they too are works in progress.

71018D18-979C-4DC6-BE3D-A652268EB1EANOTES

+On December 12th I joined a number of confreres for a special devotional service that preceded morning prayer.  Together with our Latino confreres we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

+On the afternoon of the 12th the abbey church was the site for the funeral for Kort Plantenberg, a former student in our prep school who later served in the National Guard in Afghanistan.  While there he serviced helicopters.  Sadly he and two colleagues in the Guard died in a helicopter crash in St. Cloud.  In addition to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, several hundred members of the Minnesota National Guard and various police and first-responders were in attendance.  University chaplain Fr. Nick presided at the Mass, while former Prep School President Fr. Jonathan preached the homily.

+On December 13th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon that I delivered that afternoon.  It is a reflection on Matthew 11: 16-19.

+On December 14th I gave a day of reflection to the Minnesota area members of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at the Little Sisters of the Poor in St. Paul.

+Barring some sort of miracle, we are expecting a White Christmas this year.  We are several inches ahead of the average snowfall for this time of year, as the photos in today’s post hint.

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Are We the Less Fortunate?

What was it about John the Baptist that so attracted people?  By most any standard he didn’t have a magnetic personality.  In fact he was just plain strange.  His clothing was unkempt;  his diet was bizarre;  and the gospels are silent about his housing other than that he lived somewhere out in the desert.

Two things about John stand out in my mind.  First, he seemed not to have been in it for himself.  He certainly wasn’t in it for the money.  Nor did he try to con people with promises of social respectability.  On the contrary, in receiving baptism from John people ran the risk of compromising their social position.  Others would whisper and point fingers, identifying them as followers of John, the weirdo of the desert.

039B2AB6-29FB-4F38-8BAB-90785BB0385EThe second notable feature of John has to do with his personal charisma.  Everything about John should have sent people scrambling away from him.  Yet people lingered in droves to hear what he had to say.  Obviously they were curious about this social misfit, and they were also curious because John seemed to speak with authenticity.    Unlike many of the appointed religious leaders, he seemed to be someone who knew God personally.  And he preached not to win mobs of followers and the power that might come from that.  Rather he preached to stir his listeners to the potential for life that was latent within them.

Social standing has been important in every era of human history;  and we are kidding ourselves if we think that we’re untouched by peer pressure and the herd mentality today.  Ironically we’ve created a society that idolizes individual freedom, but we are simultaneously intolerant of any individual who would choose to swim against the current.  But in the process we risk the loss of our integrity, and we pay a heavy price for our indifference to those who are suffering around us.  We pay dearly for sticking with people who are exactly like us, even as it becomes a real stretch for us to reach out in love and friendship to those whose lives seem less fortunate than our own.

The inability to reach out to the poor and the suffering may actually indicate that it’s we who have become the less fortunate.  It’s we who have sold our souls for all sorts of things that don’t really matter.  It’s we who have become insensitive to the possibilities of a full life.

9AD6F7D0-31D9-4AC9-8F85-567CB86F053FIn the end I think that John spoke to an audience that represents people of every era.  On one level people fear that they might miss the boat that sails with the elite on board.  John, however, stirs within us an even deeper fear.  What if by choosing to book passage on the ship of the self-absorbed we actually miss the better boat — the boat that sails to a full and loving life?

NOTES

+On December 2nd I attended the blessing of the Christmas tree in the Great Hall at Saint John’s University.  Once upon a time the tree was one cut from our forest and forced through the main door of the Great Hall.  The video of that yearly struggle is still available on You Tube.  Alas, the fire marshall put a stop to that not so long ago, mainly because if it ever caught fire it could take down the entire Quadrangle with it.  So today it is artificial, but splendid all the same.

+For whatever reason this was the week for an inordinate number of meetings, all of which I was expected to attend.  Oddly enough I enjoyed them, mainly because I learned a lot from my colleagues.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Matthew 3: 1-12, which was the gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.  The photo at top is a stained glass rendition of John the Baptist, and it greets people as they enter the Great Hall.  Below that is a photo of the Christmas tree and then a trio of angels.  At bottom is another stained glass window from the Great Hall, with Saint Benedict front and center.

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Advent:  Not Just for Winter

“It is the hour now for you to wake from sleep.”  (Romans 13: 11)

Every now and again it hits me that the liturgical calendar was made to order for people living in the Northern Hemisphere.  Easter and the resurrection of Jesus align rather nicely with the flourish of new life in springtime.  Advent by contrast gets its oomph from the approach of winter and the longest nights of the year.

Now disconnect those experiences for people living in the Southern Hemisphere and you appreciate the challenge.  How do Australians digest Advent readings that evoke dark days and deep sleep as they’re driving off to the beach for a day in the sun?  I honestly don’t know how they do that, and were it not so far away I’d be willing to go and find out for myself.  But then I’d miss out on the idyllic Advent weather that we have in Minnesota.

3A22527F-F91D-47D4-814E-FA2615F7E295It’s nice that the climate can reinforce the readings of Advent for those of us living in the northern half of the planet.  However, the word of God was meant for people of all ages, living in all sorts of climates, and spread across an array of geographies.  So it is that we cannot relegate to the summertime Isaiah’s invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord” (Is 2:5).  And when Jesus urges his disciples to “stay awake” in Matthew 24: 42 he’s not talking about the urge to nap on a long winter’s day.  No, in both cases the passages encourage readers to get a grip on their lives and make the most of each and every opportunity to live in the light of the Lord — all the year round.

Without pushing it too far, Advent is much more than a segment in the march of the liturgical calendar.  Advent is a not-so-subtle reminder that we can drift away from the Lord in virtually any season or on any day of the week.  It can happen over the course of half a lifetime or in the space of a few minutes on a summer afternoon.  When that does occur we’ve given up on an anchor that can give stability and meaning.  Absent that meaning we wonder about the direction of our lives.  In the process we shut our eyes to those unique chance encounters with Christ.

So what are we to do in response to the call to be alert — always?  Well, first of all it involves a leap of faith.  It also includes an awareness of the principles by which we choose to live.  Are there ideals for which we strive?  Are there boundaries over which we will not step?  These are the qualities that make us noble in the master plan of God, and this is the fruit of the self-awareness to which Jesus invites us.

Of equal importance is the need to be opportunistic.  By that I don’t mean that we take advantage of others every chance we get.  No, this opportunism looks for the encounter with God at every turn.  It requires we be alert not just for a few minutes or for a day, but for all of Advent if necessary.  The good news of the gospel is that the Lord won’t keep us waiting for very long.  Quite possibly around every corner and on the other side of every door we’ll see the face of Christ.

49DF0273-3432-4830-A43E-ED663312B5D9NOTES

+In my first year at Saint John’s the first snow of the winter arrived on Thanksgiving Day.  Ever since then I’ve thought of Thanksgiving as the official start of winter, though I also accept that winter reserves the right to show up whenever it wants.  This year’s first big snow came a few days earlier, and the snows are here for the long haul.  Now every trip by car requires extra time to brush and scrape off the snow.

+While we enjoyed the winter landscape over Thanksgiving in the monastery, the University’s football team flew off to Orange County, CA, where I presume there was no snow.  There it won its playoff game against Chapman University.  By coincidence I spoke at Chapman last year, and it happens to own a copy of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.

+Over Thanksgiving I finished a book that took me a while to get through, and which I found fascinating.  William Dalrymple is a prolific author, with an interest in India.  Several years ago we read in the monastery refectory his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, and we enjoyed it.  I read a review of his newest book in the Wall Street Journal, got it, and then spent weeks of spare time getting through it.  The Anarchy:  The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, details the history of the East India Company.  It’s the story of a corporation that conquered a rich empire, systematically looted it, and left it impoverished.  Appalled by the atrocities, the British government nationalized the company in the 19th century, and so began the British Raj in India.  Dalrymple’s work is a good read, though the flood of unfamiliar Mughal and Indian names left me dizzy now and again.

+At the top of today’s post is a photo of the Advent wreath in the abbey church, and below that is the view we monks see as we process from the cloister into the church for prayer.  The Annunciation (ca. 1490) is by the French artist Jean Hey, and is housed at the Art Institute in Chicago.  Like so much of religious art of the time, the artist made no attempt to portray the scene as it may have looked in the 1st century, and as a result such renditions are often replete with wonderful historical anachronisms.  In this case, Mary prays from a book, even though the artist knew good and well that Jewish sacred texts were scrolls.  Even more curious is the painting of her son Jesus that Mary has hanging over her bed.  Artistically it makes the important statement that Mary’s life points to Jesus.  Please click on the photo for a closer look.  Finally, at bottom is a view into the courtyard of the east cloister walk of the abbey church.  Winter is here to stay.

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