Who’s Your Boss?

Bill’s answer was not what I had expected. He had mentioned that for years he’d given up alcohol for Lent, and his conversation partner asked whether he’d done it for penance. “No,” Bill shot back. “I did it to see who’s boss.”

There’s so much out there competing for our attention, and every now and again it’s good to do an inventory of what presses our buttons. What obsesses us? What one topic dominates our mental living room? What are the things that we think we have under control but which in fact have distorted our behavior through the years?

From that perspective it may be helpful to recall the forty-day sojourn of Jesus in the desert. He fasted; he prayed; and he underwent a series of what we might term “temptations.” Was this about penance? Not really. This was in fact a test of will. Much like the moments when Jesus cast out demons, this was a contest about power. Who was the boss here? Was it Jesus or Satan? In each and every case Jesus showed himself to be the master of the situation.

In summer it’s natural to assume that we can let down our guard and relax when it comes to matters of character. On reflection, however, there’s probably no better time to calibrate moral integrity and see what or who is boss in our lives. Might it be the cell phone or alcohol or television? Might it be the need to dominate or demean others? Might it be some bad habit that has quietly distorted our lives?

Any time of the year can provide moments when it’s good to take stock of ourselves. There’s lots of value in the exercise, and Jesus would be the first to say so. As he grew in age and wisdom he needed such moments to discover whose will he had come to do. Was it Satan’s, or was it his Father’s? He wasn’t entirely sure until he had tested it.

Summer provides the leisure to discover a lot about ourselves. What Bill did every Lent may have looked a lot like penance, but in fact it was more. Doing any kind of penance provides an opportunity for greater self-awareness, not least of which is knowing who or what is boss in our lives. Might that be useful information someday?


+The source of inspiration for today’s post is a memoir by Saint John’s alumnus Bill Sexton. I wrote to tell Bill that I read it during Lent because the title, I Believe, misled me into thinking it was a spiritual exercise. In the course of reading I discovered that was not his purpose, but I finished it anyway.

+During the week of June 7th I was the reader at evening prayer at Saint John’s.

+From June 7th through the 9th I gave a retreat via zoom to the Benedictine monks of Mary Mother of the Church Abbey in Richmond, VA.

+On June 13th I attended the memorial service for Saint John’s alumnus Steve Lisle, which took place in Stillwater, MN.

+While we have been lacking in rain lately, the monastic garden still looks lush and beautiful. Today’s photos show the current state of what we refer to as The Scary Mary Garden, which Fr. Geoffrey has cultivated for years.

Is a Retreat All That Necessary?

Last week our community was on retreat, and those unfamiliar with monastic life might wonder why we monks make a yearly retreat. We live in a monastery, after all. Isn’t every day a retreat? What could we possibly do that’s different from what we normally do?

Several years ago I gave a retreat to the monks of Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Cleveland. At the time I distinctly recall how odd it seemed that the entire community packed up and drove to a retreat house out in the country. Was that really necessary?

Despite what many may think, monks are a lot like other people. We get distracted, and when we try to sit through stretches of meditation the inevitable happens — we think about all kinds of stuff that absolutely must be done, right now. Then, for “just a bit”, we slip away to do some of those absolutely vital things. That’s why I now appreciate the initiative that the monks of Saint Andrew’s have taken. Like us they too think about little tasks in the office. Unlike us, however, when they are on retreat they are twenty miles away from the office.

Another challenge that I always confront in a retreat involves mental concentration. Do I recall everything that the retreat-master said in the course of eight conferences? Absolutely not. Do I remember even 10% of what I heard? Nope. Does that mean I did a bad job of listening? Not at all. In fact, what I always hope to get from a retreat are a few nuggets of advice that can make some difference in my life. By contrast, the last thing I want is a complete overhaul of my life. Who’s got time for that?

So what were my nuggets from five days of listening to Fr. Patrick, our retreat director? First, Fr. Patrick offered a comment that I think touched many of us. “What we do daily, we do dully. “Dully” was not a word I’d heard before, and if it’s not in the dictionary it should be. It’s a reminder that actions done day in and day out are actions that can easily become rote. We do them without thinking, and they lose the power to impact our lives. The antidote is to pour some intensity into those small activities. Let them matter.

The second take-away has to do with the Lord’s command to “pray always.” “Pray at all times,” Fr. Patrick suggested. “If we don’t pray at specific times [however], we can never begin to think about praying at all times.” To pray always is easier said than done. But if we commit ourselves to habitual prayer at habitual moments in our day or week, it becomes much easier to think about praying always.

Lastly, many tend to think of a retreat as some sort of personal luxury that is neither practical nor cost-effective. I would argue that it is no luxury at all. Setting aside personal time for reflection is absolutely necessary if we are to live lives that matter. However, if you don’t have the time to drive twenty miles for a three-day stay at a retreat house, don’t despair. You can always do it at home. That’s what I and my confreres did last week.


+From May 31st through June 4th I and my confreres at Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat under the direction of Fr. Patrick Caveglia, who is a Benedictine monk from Conception Abbey, located near Kansas City, MO. We have had a long relationship with the monks of Conception, and many have studied with us at Saint John’s. Coincidentally many of the frescoes in their monastery were painted by the same German monk who painted ours.

+On June 2-4 I participated in a zoom retreat with members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes, which includes members of the Order of Malta who live on the east coast. Thankfully the schedules of the two retreats meshed pretty well.

+On June 3rd I participated in a meeting of the Formation Committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta. That too was a zoom meeting, and it was a little odd to end one meeting based in California and switch to a retreat that was taking place in New York/Washington, even while I was on retreat in Minnesota.

+Since I’ve written about retreats in today’s post, I thought I would take the opportunity to offer a plug for our guesthouse at Saint John’s, which hosts guests on retreat as well as other visitors. Most rooms have inspiring views of Lake Sagatagan as well as of the forest. At bottom are Father Cyril and Brother John Chrysostom, who along with Brother Isidore share a job description that is rare in the hospitality industry: “receive all guests as Christ.”

These Were Godly People

“Yet these also were godly people, whose virtues have not been forgotten. Their wealth remains in their families; their heritage with their descendants.” (Book of Sirach, 44.)

I find these words from the Book of Sirach to be hauntingly beautiful, and useful for all sorts of occasions. More often than not we look to them for consolation at funerals; and on Memorial Day weekend they seem particularly poignant. All the same, however, they are not just for the dead, because they remind us who live that we have to make a choice with our lives.

This is also the graduation season, when we send off seniors from our University and the Prep School. I find the words of Sirach to be equally fitting for occasions such as these. While we justifiably focus on these rites of passage in the lives of our students, we also ought to recall the privilege we had while they were here. We were given the chance to help them grow in age and wisdom.

David Brooks writes about the choice you and I have — to build a resumé or a legacy. They’re vastly different things and well worth thoughtful meditation. A good resumé can get us a job or a promotion or a nice citation and a bowl of ice cream at our retirement. But a good legacy suggests that we’ve somehow touched the lives of people. It suggests that in some little way we’ve nourished wisdom in our students, our colleagues and our guests.

The good and the bad news is that the Lord never lets us retire from the work of building a legacy. There’s always more to do, and its value never fades.

So today we bid farewell to many of our students. But let us pray that while here they got a glimpse of Christ within us. That could very well be the most important baggage they take with them.


+On May 29th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a variation of the sermon that I delivered that morning. Normally we celebrate the Eucharist at 5 pm, but because of our Prep School graduation that afternoon we moved our liturgy to the morning.

+On May 29th the seniors of Saint John’s Preparatory School graduated. Joining us for that event was Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud, who presided at the Mass for the graduates that afternoon.

+On May 26th I participated in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+On May 30th the incoming members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps completed a two-week retreat at the abbey in preparation for their various assignments, which begin in mid-summer. All graduated from Saint John’s University two weeks ago. For their retreat they joined us in the liturgy of the hours and Mass in the church, and for meals in the refectory. We thoroughly enjoyed the chance to visit with them, and we joined Abbot John as we raised our hands in blessing them at the end of the Eucharist on Sunday.

+Just before the graduation ceremonies for our Prep students, I happened to stumble on the seniors as they stood for their class photo in the Great Hall. The photo at bottom shows a memorial that stands in the middle of the campus at Saint John’s. It reminds all who pass by of the alumni who have served and continue to serve our country.

How the Spirit Works

I’m not sure I would have handled the first Pentecost all that well. I’m risk-averse; I thrive on routine; and big surprises throw me for a loop. Needless to say, those were the results of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles that day. Nothing was ever the same for them after that.

In retrospect I realize that the Spirit’s work that day was the logical follow-up to the preaching of Jesus. Without it, and left to their own devices, the disciples likely would have gone back to Galilee to fish or farm. But those were not to be. The Holy Spirit rather dramatically had turned their lives upside-down.

Stirring people into action is the job description of the Holy Spirit. Ideas and inspiration and risk-taking naturally follow. Along with those often comes the discovery of talents — be they life-changing or modest. Such is the impact of the Spirit upon us.

I’ve come to realize that once I got the knack of seeing the Spirit at work in others, I began to discover that the Spirit is pretty busy — all around us. This last weekend, for example, I was fortunate to see yet another example, and once again I appreciated just how subtle the work of the Spirit can be. It happened at a memorial service for a long-time friend of mine, and toward the end of it his care-giver approached the podium to make a few remarks. She noted that during my friend’s final weeks he grew increasingly worried and anxious about all sorts of things. By that point there was little he could do about it, and any appeal to logic was pointless. Then she quietly offered the words that soon became a mantra between them. “It’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be good.” She had no idea how many times a day she had reassured him of that, but her words were more effective than any medicine. No doubt he deeply appreciated both her words and especially her presence.

All too often we assume that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are dramatic, as if they came from Hollywood central casting. It’s nice to think that, but in most cases that’s not how the Spirit does it. Granted, the Bible does offer plenty of episodes in which God did over-the-top grand gestures. Still, we should never forget that God once chose to send an important message through a gentle breeze. For all I know that may even have been God’s preferred way of doing things.

That, I like to believe, is how the Spirit prefers to work within us. More often than not the Spirit deals gently with us poor fragile creatures; and I’m particularly grateful that God seems to work that way with me. I’m definitely no Moses or Saint Paul. On the other hand, I am capable of toting around a simple message that sooner or later others might desperately need to hear. “It’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be good.” That’s a job I am capable of doing, and the words are easy to remember.


+With graduation at Saint John’s University on May 16th behind us, this was a very quiet week on campus. However, it almost immediately turned hot and humid. Coincidentally, on May 20th I flew to Phoenix, AZ, where it was merely hot.

+On May 17th we achieved a milestone of sorts when we rescinded the need to wear masks in the monastery and in church. We also restored our processions into church for some of our liturgies. It’s wonderful to be able to return to these and other ritual activities. All the same, throughout a year of pandemic we held Mass and prayed the liturgy of the hours every day save one. For that we remain very grateful.

+On May 22nd I attended a memorial service in Mesa, AZ, for my long-time friend Steve Lisle. My post today owes its inspiration to Steve’s care-giver.

+This week Brother Jeremy posted a notice that the work of planting trees this spring has ended. Some 80 monks, students, faculty, staff, neighbors, alumni and others planted over 1,800 native trees in the Abbey Aboretum. Planting is complete for this year, but there will be other opportunities for work throughout the summer.

+The landscape at Saint John’s has begun to mature for the summer, and one of my favorite places remains the courtyard of the Quadrangle. As is the case with the Spirit, a panoramic view can be nice, but the beauty is often in the details. In the rush we tend to walk right by and leave the most beautiful nooks and crannies unnoticed.

Pity the Task of the Commencement Speaker

This is the season of advice-giving on an industrial scale. To be specific, this is the time of year when college commencements muster together massive numbers of people, who for an hour or two sit through ceremonies that they’d never watch on cable. Each segment of the audience is there for a particular purpose, but the objects of all the attention — namely the graduates — have other things on their minds. They didn’t put on those strange outfits just to hear one last lecture before they are turned loose on the world.

I attended our commencement exercises at Saint John’s this last Sunday, and they brought back bits and pieces of one of the few commencement addresses I remember. Actually, I don’t recall much of Garrison Keillor’s speech to our graduates many years ago, save for one introductory comment. He admitted up front that he knew the seniors had other things on their minds, and so he intended to speak to their parents. The parents likely wondered what kind of a return they were about to get on their investment, and he was there to tell them it was worth it. He was right in his intuition, because the parents did listen. He was clever as well. The students listened too, because they were nervous about what he might say to their parents.

Our commencement brought back memories of my own college graduation from Princeton, about which I remember few details. Most of that day is murky, but what I do remember was this. The setting was beautiful; there was a slight mist in the air; and my parents were proud. I can recall neither the main speaker nor what he or she said, though one student speaker still occupies a revered spot in my mental living room. He was required to speak in Latin. Thankfully the program carried a transcript in Latin, for those of us who couldn’t believe what we were hearing. It came complete with notes on when to clap, when to cheer and when to boo. That, for better or for worse, was the most vivid take-away of the day.

In anticipation of our own graduation at Saint John’s, I listened to a few addresses that YouTube provides. Most of what I watched was delivered by celebrities who read the scripts that were set before them. Some were inspiring, but for every gem there were plenty of speeches that were bland, vapid, and even insulting to the intelligence of the graduates. So many struggled to find novel ways of saying “follow your dream;” “go against the flow;” “don’t be afraid to fail and fail again.” Those sentiments must make accounting teachers everywhere cringe. For me, however, that latter comment was amusing, as it brought to mind my very first piano lesson. It also happened to be one of my last piano lessons. That inaugural session at the keyboard generated the blindingly quick insight that I was preparing for a long-term experience in failure. Even then I knew I wanted something better out of life.

With all due respect, I have to admit that a great many commencement addresses are well-crafted, well-reasoned, and among the most well-delivered speeches you’ll ever hear. They are not meant to be remembered for the ages. They are meant rather to uplift for the moment. The best of the speakers will readily admit that if their speech was the most important take-away from four years of college, then the students got robbed. If, on the other hand, they confirm the value of hard work and the importance of knowledge, good judgment and a dollop of creativity, then the four years are among the best investments in life.

So my graduation cap goes off to all the commencement speakers who take their jobs seriously. I’m glad that I’ll never have to stand in their shoes. Give me a pulpit anytime.


+On May 11th I attended the last dinner of the school year for the Johnnie Brothers group that I have been part of through the last semester. We will resume our bi-weekly gatherings in the fall.

+On May 13th I participated in a zoom meeting of the Formation Committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On May 16th I attended graduation at Saint John’s University, and for the occasion I was the guest of one of our School of Theology graduates and good friend who happens to be a priest from Hong Kong. Our Brother Jacob that day received his MA in Theology, with a concentration in church music. The day began with Mass in the abbey church, presided over by Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud. The graduation speaker was Saint John’s alumnus General Paul Nakasone, who is director of the National Security Agency and oversees cyber security for the U.S. Army. He was the only one present who came with a security detail, and his words naturally commanded interest because of the times. His comments about his own career were well-taken. When he came to Saint John’s as a student, the field of cyber security scarcely concerned anyone. So you never know where your career might lead.

Lord, Open My Lips, and My Eyes as Well

It would be amusing if it weren’t so deadly serious. Cornelius was a Roman, a centurion in the army, and likely a Jewish sympathizer but not a circumcised Jew. He probably didn’t keep kosher, and there were plenty of other strikes against him as well. For all that and more, he was the sort of person whom strict Jews would avoid like the plague. Not surprisingly, there were early Christians who shared such views. So when Peter crossed the threshold into the house of Cornelius there’s no doubt that his stomach churned. He’d never done such a thing before, and he knew he’d get a lot of heat for doing it. But he also knew that the Spirit compelled him to do it.

I don’t know why we have such a hard time admitting that God works through people whom we don’t approve of. Sadly, we all indulge in those judgments, and I’m not even going to try to list some of the reasons we rely on to justify this. All the same, whether we admit it or not, we are prone to a metaphorical blindness that won’t admit the possibility that God works through people whom we don’t like.

We are certainly not the first people to dismiss others for no good reason, and Jesus was not the first person to be on the receiving end of wagging fingers and sharp tongues. As the gospels record, there were plenty of people who couldn’t believe for a minute that any good could come from Nazareth. God couldn’t possibly make good use of anyone from that town. With that in the back of his mind, Peter met with Cornelius and his household, and he knew he would face the music when he went home.

It should come as no surprise, then, that metaphorical blindness grips us today, just as it did when Jesus walked among us. Yet, despite it all, God still works wonders all around us, even when we don’t approve of what God is doing. That said, it is obviously our loss, and it should cause us to wonder what else we’re missing in life.

In the Liturgy of the Hours we begin morning prayer with these words: “Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” It might not hurt were we to append an additional plea, just to help us make the most of the day. “Lord, while you’re at it, open my mind to your goodness around me, and my eyes to see you working among those whom I least expect.”


+Today’s post is a reflection on Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48. That happened to be the first reading for the Mass of Sunday of the 6th week of Easter.

+On May 3-7 I participated in a retreat for incoming members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. The retreat took place at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, AZ. Not that long ago the Center built a new parish church, and it has some of the most striking stained glass that I have seen. The photos in today’s post illustrate some of its glass. In addition, the Center has a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, which is on display in the church. The photo at bottom illustrates that.

+We monks at Saint John’s have begun to prepare for our move back into the renovated monastery by cleaning it up from all the construction activities. Groups of monks have graciously volunteered to do the cleaning, and will continue to do so until the job is done. Our plan is to move back into the facility in July.

Life: the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Every now and again there’s a passage from Scripture that really gives me pause, as in: “Did I read that right?” Acts 9: 26-31 is a case in point.

The passage opens with Paul’s return to Jerusalem after his conversion on the road to Damascus. The disciples were deeply suspicious, and rightfully so; and at first they wouldn’t even see him. They eventually overcame their doubts, and then the scene shifts to Paul’s debates with the Hellenists. They were Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians who had their own serious issues with Paul. So mistrustful were they that they even tried to kill him. The passage then concludes with this rather benign statement: “The church throughout all Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.” Really? How nice, except for the fact that that wasn’t quite the case.

The Acts of the Apostles are the story of how the Church came into being. It was a time of excitement and promise; it was a time of angst and deep disagreement. That wonderful line from Dickens sums it up nicely, at least to my way of thinking. “They were the best of times; they were the worst of times.” They were in fact the most formative years in the life of the Christian community.

Whenever the Church goes through creative tensions it can be hugely distressing to many if not most believers. Yet, without facing squarely the questions and challenges that crop up regularly, the Church runs the risk of morphing into a fossil. Ironically, it survives the worst of times because of the Holy Spirit. That was Jesus’ parting gift to his disciples.

Lest we think that doubts and challenges are only for the Church or for other people, we should remember one basic truth. They are part of the experience of anyone who grows up and matures into a responsible and loving human being. Who doesn’t recall, for example, the difficulties of their teen years and young adulthood? Who hasn’t experienced moments of doubt or conflict with spouses or friends or colleagues — to say nothing of those whom we might call “enemies?” And while we’re at it, who in their right mind would contend that the last year has been a time of unrelieved joy?

Troubles and challenge we will always have with us. Still, we slog through them all with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was the Lord’s gift to his disciples, and the Spirit remains his gift to us today. Amazingly, the disciples faced down all sorts of dilemmas and yet managed to survive and even flourish. I can’t help but think we should expect the same for ourselves.


+On April 29th I gave a presentation via Zoom to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.

+On April 30th I hosted a dinner for our students at Saint John’s who are from Immokalee, FL. It was our last gathering before final exams and their departure for the summer. We used the occasion to salute the two students who will graduate from Saint John’s this May, as well as one who graduated last year but had no commencement ceremony.

+During the past few days volunteers that included monks as well as students and others have assisted in planting oak seedlings. It’s part of an ongoing effort to restore the balance in our forest. From time immemorial we relied on the squirrels to do that work, but in the course of the last few decades the deer have stymied all their efforts. Now we have to supplement the work of the squirrels, and Brother Jeremy has led the volunteers in this noble effort.

+This weekend I said Mass for a group of friends with whom I meet once a year, and today’s post is a variation of the thoughts I offered that day.

+On May 3rd I began a five-day retreat with candidates preparing to make the promise of Obedience in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. It is taking place at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, AZ. Today’s photos show the landscape Arizona, and for me they recall the desert landscape of the Holy Land.

Do We Manipulate, or Do We Welcome?

In today’s readings there’s a common thread that links the first martyr, Stephen, and Jesus. Both of them showed an independent spirit and would not let themselves be tamed by anyone.

In the case of Stephen, the officials in Jerusalem got a glimpse of someone who would not be domesticated. He would not soften his message to make them happy, nor would he bend to their control. And so the only course of action was to smother and then destroy this free spirit.

The same was true with Jesus. Oddly enough, when people chased after Jesus to make him king, they too intended to domesticate someone. Were Jesus king they could mould him into a familiar role. They could make him tell them what they wanted to hear and transform his actions into inspiring and yet harmless ritual.

There are moments when we try to do to one another what people tried to do with Stephen and Jesus. We too try to control and manipulate other people. We too try to bend others to our will. In the process we smother their spirit and ignore the good they have to offer us.

So it is that we must regularly examine our relationships with one another. We need to ask whether we try to manipulate others and take advantage of them in ways that harm them. Or, alternatively, do we accept others as gifts from the Lord — gifts meant to challenge and enrich our lives in ways that surprise us?

Above all, let us pray that we look at others in the way Saint Benedict encourages us. May we always see in others the face of Christ — as people worthy of all the respect and support at our disposal.


+On 19 April I presided at the Mass at Saint John’s Abbey, and today’s post is a variation of the homily I delivered that day. It is based on Acts 6: 8-15, and the gospel of John 6: 22-29.

+On 20 April I met for dinner with the student group at Saint John’s that I am part of, called “Johnnie Brothers.” It was the second time this spring when we tried to grill burgers and brats. On the earlier occasion we had to use umbrellas to protect ourselves and the grill from torrential rain. This time around we had sun, and it was much warmer.

+On 21 April I flew to Fort Myers, FL, to visit alumni and friends of Saint John’s University. Fort Myers was my last destination before the coronavirus struck in March 2020, and so it was great to be back after over a year of absence. Being late in the season, however, it turned out to be rather warm and steamy. On the plus side, many snow birds had already returned to the north, and so the traffic was not nearly as horrific as it can be at the height of the season.

+On April 25 I and a good friend drove to Immokalee FL, where we had lunch with one of our students, who is doing a one-month online course from home. This fall we will welcome to Saint John’s four new students from Immokalee.

+Last week we marked the Third Week of Easter, which serves as a reminder that Easter is not meant to be a one-day event. At top is a painting by our confrere Fr. Nathaniel, and below that is a photo showing how it hangs over the Abbot’s seat in the sanctuary. At bottom is a photo of Lake Sagatagan, taken from my favorite vantage overlooking a Lourdes grotto in the abbey garden.

What Does It Mean to be Christian?

I’ve always appreciated the Acts of the Apostles as the testing-lab of the early Church. With nothing to go on except for the legacy of Jewish tradition, the incomplete teaching of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were left to figure out what comes next. Would they keep or reject Jewish dietary law? Would they keep or dispense with circumcision? Would they continue to go to the temple or synagogue, or find some other alternative? These were only starters for a process that eventually gave birth to the Church.

Today’s passage from Acts 4 outlines one proposal that sounded better in theory than it turned out to be in practice. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own.” For reasons too many to be listed here, the sharing of property was an idea whose time came and went, and it must have been discontinued fairly quickly.

Be that as it may, if we only see this as a matter of material goods, then we miss something very important. Then as now our needs are more than just material. Then as now we need respect, we need love, and we need consideration of the needs of others. All this is implied when verse 32 describes a community that was of one heart and mind.

So it is that we aren’t off the hook if all we do is make sure that our neighbors don’t starve or live in abject poverty. That’s only the beginning of our obligations to one another. Of even greater importance are the love and mutual respect that we owe to one another. That experiment, unlike the experiment of shared goods, has never fallen out from the list of Christian imperatives. Then as now they remain part of the essence of what it means to be Christian.


+On April 13th I attended the Outdoor University Advisory Council meeting at Saint John’s. This group concerns itself with the management of our forests and the educational programs that serve both our students and the general public.

+On April 13th I presided at the Abbey Mass. Today’s post is a transcript of the sermon that I delivered that day.

On April 14th I flew to Newark, NJ, to visit with alumni of Saint John’s. It was my first visit to the east coast in a year and a half, and it coincided with the onset of many flowering trees in northern New Jersey. New Jersey tends to get a bum rap from people who only see the industrial zones around the harbor area. In fact, it is extraordinarily beautiful and completely deserves the title “The Garden State.” I learned all this during my college years in New Jersey, and it was reinforced by the landscape I enjoyed this last weekend. Besides the scenic views, New Jersey still makes room for farms, as is evidenced by the sheep farm that I visited while there. The sheep were busy with lambing, but a lone alpaca had plenty of time to accommodate photographers. In particular, the alpaca grazed serenely, secure in the knowledge that it was the least likely of the animals to be eaten.

+On April 18th I met our three Benedictine Volunteers for dinner in Newark. They are spending the year teaching at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark.

The Sacred and the Occasionally Profane

A monastery makes for an odd construction site, especially when both monks and workers must coexist. Still, that’s been the case at Saint John’s Abbey for the last year; and the experience has been interesting, to say the least.

For years we’ve needed to renovate the newer wing of our monastery. Designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, it has housed most of our monks since it was built in 1954. As you might imagine, while the times have changed, the building had not. For starters, as of last spring it still had the original single-pane windows. It also featured a vintage heating system, wiring that never anticipated the electric typewriter, and sound insulation that naively assumed that the monks would not make a peep as they walked or pushed carts down the brick hallways. Needless to say, it was long overdue for overhaul.

After years of discussion we finally set January of 2020 as the starting date. To begin with, it took over a month to move everybody and everything out of the building, and the monks relocated into three buildings across the campus. We knew that for the next year it would be inconvenient, but how inconvenient we scarcely imagined. Then, barely out of the building, covid came along. For that we were not prepared, but it was too late to turn back. We had to forge ahead, no matter the inconvenience.

In the last year we‘ve seen and learned a lot, but this experience has taught us to be patient with one another, especially as we’ve had to negotiate an obstacle course to get to church. We’ve regularly had construction on campus, for instance, but never did we have to process right through the middle of it, several times a day. Now, for thirteen months, four times a day we have accessed the church via an ever-shifting route through the first floor of the monastery. Complicating that has been the narrowness of the passage, and social distancing has required one-way traffic and a no-passing zone. Not surprisingly the slower among us have tested the patience of the more fleet of foot who’ve trailed behind.

All the while the brigades of painters, electricians, plumbers and other construction workers have thoughtfully toned down their conversation both in color as well as volume as we‘ve filed through. At first they must have thought us a rather curious lot, and we them. We looked strangely out of place in our black habits, trying carefully not to brush up against dust and fresh paint. But like us, they too dressed appropriately for their work. Obviously such encounters were neither the time nor place to visit and discuss the contrast; and we all went about our business, trying not to interfere in the work of the other.

After thirteen months I can say with authority that we will be glad when it’s all over. It’s still far from finished, but it will be a terrific day when we finally move back in July. Meanwhile, despite everything, I think we’re all glad that we did it. On the one hand our timing could not have been worse, but postponing it until covid was over was never in the cards. After all, we were already out of the building, and no one really wanted to move everything back with nothing to show for all that work. Better to have it over and done with.

Things could have gone better and things could have gone much worse. For one thing, the project has taken longer than we had planned. Then there have been the days when it‘s really tried the patience of us all. To our credit, however, we’ve taken most of it in stride, due in part to our gratitude for the mild winter we enjoyed. As we are accustomed to saying in Minnesota about most anything, “we’ve seen worse.” It certainly could have been.

In a rather odd way I think we’ve gleaned some good insights from all this. For one thing I think we’ve discovered that we can be more tolerant than we had thought. That was particularly true on the days when the music of jackhammers blended with morning prayer. On those days our petitions for the health and safety — as well as the speed — of the construction workers were especially fervent.

Finally, I confess a fascination with the mix of the symbolically sacred and profane. Our black habits and their work clothes couldn’t contrast more dramatically. Our respective outfits reminded us of the very different worlds from which we all come. Even better, we monks took home an important lesson in humility. I think most of us monks have always assumed that we were the only people up and running at that early hour. However, no matter how early some of us got to church for morning prayer, the construction workers were always there to greet us. It was a nice lesson in humility, for which we need to acknowledge our debt.


+This was a rather quiet week for me in terms of meetings. Part of this was due to the overlap of three zoom meetings scheduled at the same time. I could only go to one. It’s a great strategy for efficiency.

+Likely the highlight of my week was my annual physical. Many of the monks go to this particular doctor and he is revered among us for the care and patience he shows. At the end of the appointment I thanked him and mentioned that we monks pray for him and all the doctors who do such great work. He asked about the other doctors, to which the Holy Spirit provided a quick retort. “Oh, we don’t pray for those doctors. That’s when we pray for their patients.”

+On April 7th our seminary alumnus Fr. Dan Felton was named bishop of the Diocese of Duluth, MN. Bishop-elect Felton graduated from our School of Theology/Seminary in 1981, and following ordination he has been a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, WI. We wish him well as he takes up his new ministry and residence as our neighbor in Minnesota.

+Readers might wonder why after a year I finally made mention of the renovation of the monastery, given that it has been so disruptive of our daily routine. Last week the prior announced room assignments, signaling that we should prepare ourselves to move back into the building in July. The rooms and especially the views will make the entire project worthwhile. I have posted the view from my new room just above “NOTES”. After ages living in a loft room with virtually no view except of the sky, this will be a great gift.