imageA Thanksgiving Reflection

Several years ago I had the occasion to attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  It just so happened that Cardinal O’Connor was the celebrant, and I’d never heard him speak before.  By then he had earned a reputation for being gruff and straightforward, and so I was curious to know what might be his next target for some sharp words.

For the life of me I no longer recall the theme of his sermon.  I’m sure he had one, but it’s not what anyone talked about afterward.  What we did remember was the baby who screamed and cried as soon as the cardinal had climbed into the pulpit to preach.  The crying was awful.  Actually, it was worse than awful.  The cries that echoed through the vast expanse of the cathedral were excruciating.  They plucked at everyone’s nerves, and we all sat there paralyzed, wondering when someone would finally do something about it.  And most of all, we wondered what the cardinal would do about it.

imageCardinal O’Connor tried his best to ignore the screaming, but he finally had to throw in the towel.  In mid-sentence he just stopped, looked up from his notes, and glared out across the congregation.  I held my breath, half-expecting him to lash out at the ushers to demand that they do something.  But to our stunned surprise, the cardinal surrendered to the obvious.  “I’m sure by now everyone’s listening to that baby more than to me,” he said.  “But isn’t that child what this is really all about?  And I have to tell you in all honesty, I’ve heard worse comments about my sermons before this.  So let’s just be grateful for the presence of this innocent life in our midst, even if it’s not what we came here to hear.”

His words cut through the tension, and they brought down the house.  Laughter and applause filled the church, and that’s all that I can remember from our hour of worship together that Sunday morning.

imageOn Thanksgiving Day it’s quite natural for us to consider all the things for which we should be grateful.  All the same, I think there is often the temptation to focus on the material and to thank God for a life in which everything seems to be going our way.  We have enough to eat; we have adequate housing; we have people in our lives for whom we care and who care about us.  We are safe; we are educated; and our lives seem reasonably predictable.  In short, we feel content because of a life that is blessedly bourgeois, and for that lack of danger and challenge we give thanks.

That attitude comes awfully close to turning Thanksgiving into a feast that is all about us.  In the tradition of lifting ourselves up by the bootstraps, in the first breath we can thank God for the talents God has give us, and in the next breath pat ourselves on the back for the way we’ve used them so well.  God may have blessed us to start with, but we’ve relied on our own initiative to take it from there.

We can also run the risk of reducing Thanksgiving and our very lives to a material interpretation  We are what we have, and we have because we’ve worked hard and earned it all by ourselves.  But before we congratulate ourselves for our own initiative, it’s important to take a proper inventory of all of our blessings.

For starters, none of us willed ourselves into being.  Our parents gave us life, and they nurtured us.  We live in houses that other people built.  Most of us eat food that other people grew; we wear clothes that other people made; we studied in schools that other people started; and we work in companies that other people got going.

imageBut that’s just the material side of things, and our list of debts to others can never end there.  More than anything else we ought to be grateful that people expect significant things from us.  We should be thankful that people challenge us and ask the best of us.  We should not be stunned that people would expect to see the face of Christ in us.  In short, we should be most thankful that people ask us to keep growing, even though there are plenty of times when we’d rather stop and count our blessings and be done with it.

On Thanksgiving Day there’s lots to be thankful for; but perhaps most of all we should be grateful that people keep reminding us of all that’s left for us to do.  There’s much growth that remains ahead of us.  There’s growth that will stretch and challenge us.

Saint Benedict reminds us that wisdom comes to us from a variety of sources, and sometimes even from the youngest and least-expected people in our midst.  Many years ago, in the middle of a sermon, Cardinal O’Connor had to come to terms with that, and he used the youngest person in the crowd as an occasion to give thanks for the strange ways in which God appears in our lives.  It strikes me that the greatest gift we have from God is the gift of brothers and sisters who nudge us out of complacency; who push us to further growth; who remind us every now and again that God creates us all to be gifts to one another.  There are no greater gifts to be thankful for.


+On Monday November 16 I spoke to about a hundred members of the staff and faculty of Saint John’s University in a talk on “Building Community — One Person at a Time.”  It was sponsored by the Benedictine Institute at Saint John’s.

+Last week I flew to London for a meeting, and fortunately I had some time afterward to visit a few favorite spots.  Among them was Westminster Cathedral, where I attended Mass on Sunday.  The cathedral’s choir of men and boys is over the top great, and it has dozens of cd’s to its credit.  Westminster is also the resting place of Cardinal Basil Hume, the abbot of Ampleforth who later because archbishop.  He was in every respect an extraordinary man.

Westminster Cathedral is a rather odd building, with a nod to the Byzantine and a touch of the modern.  It was built at the turn of the century, and it remains half-completed.  If you want to see a cross-section of what a classical Roman building was like, this is the place to go.  The lower half of the church is faced with colorful marble, while the upper portion is the original red brick.  Among my favorite elements in the building are the Stations of the Cross, done by the revered calligrapher and designer Eric Gill.

IMG_9617Remember Lot’s Wife

For years Fr. Godfrey had a small sign fixed to the top corner of his door in the monastery.  It was an odd spot to put a notice, but its location made the point.  Confreres really didn’t spy it until they had drawn up alongside, and they had to turn their heads to read its spare message:  “Remember Lot’s wife.”

I cite this bit of local monastic humor because last week a reading from the liturgy quoted these words from Jesus.  When Jesus asked his disciples to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32), he knew he did not have to recount the story for them.  As the disciples well knew, his words recalled those few who had fled Sodom on the eve of the town’s destruction.  God spared Lot and his household, but with the pardon came a stern warning:  “Don’t look back!”  But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist, and for glancing back for one last peek she was transformed into a pillar of salt.

The whole episode begs two questions.  First, why in the world did Lot’s wife yield to the temptation to look back?  Second, why would Jesus urge the disciples — and us — to remember her?

IMG_9649Theories abound as to why she looked back, and it never hurts to ask why she defied God and did it anyway.  First, in the interests of full disclosure, simple curiosity would have turned my head as well (just as it did with the sign on Fr. Godfrey’s door.)  Who wouldn’t want to know what punishment befell the citizens of Sodom?  And the fact that God commanded Lot’s family not to look back virtually guaranteed that somebody would.  From experience in the Garden of Eden God knew that this was bound to happen.  God had commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the forbidden fruit, and that pretty much assured that somebody, some day, would reach for it and take a bite. So this was a test that somebody in the Lot party was bound to fail.

But I’ve always thought that the command to Lot was more than a loyalty test.  If that’s all it had been, then Jesus would not have bothered to recall it.  Instead, it has everything to do with how we choose to live our lives; and that’s why Jesus asks us to remember Lot’s wife.

IMG_9639Lot and his family are symbolic of us all.  For all sorts of reasons we remember things; but with memories, both good and bad, come the temptation to live in the past.  We carry those memories as if they were our personal baggage, and they sometimes bog us down.  In the case of Lot’s wife, perhaps she recalled the good old days when she was a big deal in the local social scene.  Perhaps she savored moments that were the best days of her life — or even the worst days of her life.  Now, however, she faced an uncertain future, and she turned her head for one last wistful glance at a life she found hard to leave behind.

Along with her, Lot and the rest of the family were walking into an uncertain future.  Like her they could face the challenge squarely or risk becoming a pillar of salt.  Lot certainly had no idea where God might lead him; but he knew that his past would be a guide to his future.  In spite of his apprehensions, then, he was certain of one thing:  God had walked with him once, and God would continue to walk with him.  And so Lot chose to stride into the future.  Unlike his wife, he did not look back.

Psalm 136 recounts all the great things that God had done for the people of Israel, but the refrain in this litany is a reminder that there is a future.  “For his great love is without end!” is a verse that encourages us to confront with confidence all the uncertainties of life.

IMG_9596That, I would submit, is what Jesus means to suggest when he urges us to “remember Lot’s wife.”  It’s important to recount all that God has done for us, but it’s equally important that we not live in the past.  If we can recall one good thing that the Lord has done for us or through us, that’s also an assurance that God still has some use for us.  God still walks with us.  God is not yet done with us.

It’s far better to walk into the future with confidence rather than stumble because we live in the past.  That’s why Jesus asks us to remember Lot’s wife.  By implication, however, we remember Lot too.  Lot never looked back.  He may have faced an uncertain future, but he knew God walked with him.  God does exactly the same with us.


+On November 13th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible to members of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Minneapolis.

+During the month of November the monks of Saint John’s Abbey recall the deceased family and friends of those who have asked for our prayers.  Those who wish to do this fill out a simple form, complete with the names of the people for whom they ask our prayers.  As is our custom, when we enter the church each monk takes a request from the basket and prays for the people inscribed on it.  Seldom does a monk know the names personally, but every now and again something strikes a chord.  Yesterday at morning prayer I took a card from someone in Daly City, CA, a place I’ve been through many times.  At evening prayer the card came from New York.  It’s a wonderful reminder that the community of believers is always a bit larger than we imagine.

+As some of the photos in today’s post indicate, the leaves are gone.  Now we wait for winter and the snows.

IMG_9197Through the Eye of a Needle

I’m in the middle of a book by one of my favorite authors, Peter Brown.  A historian who teaches at Princeton, his biography of Saint Augustine is one to which I have returned regularly, year after year.  His recent tome will likely share a similar fate with me, and already I regret having bought it in electronic form.  Those don’t sit well on bookshelves.

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-555 AD, is beautifully-written, rich in detail, and a pleasure to read — at least for me.  In it Brown recounts the challenges that confronted Christianity as it moved through the stages from poverty and persecution to tolerance and then into public favor.  Against all odds, there came the day when the state showered its support on the Church and its ministry.  But of even greater import, powerful and quite wealthy individuals began to embrace Christianity.  A natural byproduct, however, was the need to reconcile all of this with the comment of Jesus, that it was “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  At first blush that doesn’t exactly offer the warmest of welcomes to the wealthy.

IMG_9198Like many, I’ve long been fascinated with the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus how he might be saved.  When Jesus told him to give everything away and follow him, “he went away sad, because he was rich.”  Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always seen this as a portrait of someone who had to choose between Jesus and wealth, and Jesus drew the short end of the stick.  As for the young man, he was crestfallen, and readers are left to conclude that once again wealth had done its subversive work.  However attractive might be the words of Jesus, there simply was no choice; and that day the devil chalked up another win in the victory column.

Brown’s text has given me new insight, however, and it salvages the integrity and decency of the young man.  While not commenting on this passage in particular, Brown does describe the difficulty of many wealthy Christians as they considered an ascetic or even monastic life in the late 4th and 5th centuries.  As attractive as the monastery might be, many of these people simply couldn’t drop everything, walk away, and put on the habit of a monk

IMG_9199The reason for this was simple.  Today wealth can be an entirely private affair, in which a person can live in isolation and still have a huge portfolio of stocks and bonds.  Not so in ancient times, when wealth was more social and brought with it all sorts of responsibility.  Running off to the desert might seem like a great idea, but if one left in the lurch a dependent sister, a widowed mother, and a gang of slaves and serfs, then flight could resemble the abandonment of moral responsibility.  In the extreme, embracing the ascetic life could appear to be the height of self-indulgence, because it meant shirking one’s social responsibilities.

This was not true for everyone who went off to the desert, but people of means had to take care of business first.  That explains why Saint Anthony saw to the welfare of his sister before moving into his cave.  And no doubt he was not the only one who had to put his ducks in a row before leaving behind the village and its social nexus.

IMG_9201How does this salvage the reputation of the young man who walked away from Jesus?  Well, it suggests that wealth may have played an entirely different role here.  He may have walked away, but not necessarily for love of money.  Instead, he may have seen no way to untangle himself from the obligations that it imposed on him.  Instinctively he knew he could not turn his back on his associates, as if they scarcely mattered.  As a decent young man, and as one not far from the kingdom of God, it would be the height of irresponsibility to dump the people who depended on him.  And for that he walked away sad.

Coincidentally, this may help in our appreciation of another tough saying of Jesus.  Biblical literalists have struggled with the command to put aside love for brother and sister and father and mother in order to put Jesus first.  To sensitive people this has always seemed heartless, but what if Jesus meant to say something entirely different?

Reading Brown’s books has given me an insight that may get to the heart of what Jesus has to teach.  In itself wealth is not intrinsically evil.  On the other hand, it does burden us with responsibility that can easily strangle us.  It can blind us to our potential to do great things in the name of Jesus.

IMG_9200And the same is true with the tough language Jesus sometimes uses for family.  In fact, we should remember that Jesus loved his mother, but he also knew he had a calling to reach out to all of humanity.  The myopia that often blinds us to all outside the circle of our family and friends also keeps us from seeing Christ throughout the world.  Such parochialism traps us just as surely as can wealth.

And what is my conclusion?  Quite possibly the young man went away sad because he knew how difficult it would be to live in the bigger world of Jesus.  He walked away knowing that wealth brings with it responsibility.  How we choose to use it makes all the difference in the world.  We can let it shackle our lives, or we can use it as one of our many talents and tools.  On that depends the character of our lives and the course of our journey to the Lord.


+Quite by coincidence the book I finished before starting Brown’s just happened to relate to finance.  The book, by Greg Steinmetz and entitled The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, details the life of Jacob Fugger.  Fugger, a 16th-century business mogul from Augsburg in Germany, was banker to the Hapsburgs and found himself on the Catholic side of the Reformation against Luther.  It is an interesting and easy read, though one reviewer (from The Wall Street Journal, I believe) faulted Steinmetz for several errors.  One even the reviewer missed was the observation that Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, thus beginning the Reformation.  Since Wittenberg never had a cathedral, I assume Luther discovered that rather quickly and nailed them instead to the door of the castle church. 

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the subtle fall colors of the restored prairie at the entrance road to Saint John’s.  Yet another sign of autumn are the various stacks of wood, ready for the winter fireplaces in the monastery.

IMG_9576The Feast of All Souls

[The following text is the sermon that I delivered at the Abbey Mass on the feast of All Souls.]

Not for a minute would I ever contend that my experience with the liturgy of the hours is the same as yours.  Still, there are a few things we likely have in common, and we know so because we’ve sat next to one another for weeks, months, years, and in some cases even decades.

For one thing, it’s safe to say that there are moments when together we’re acutely conscious of what we’re about.  That’s especially true when we sing the psalms, because the words and notes grab our attention.  That sensitivity also tends to linger into the first psalm of morning and evening prayer.  As for the second and third psalms, who really knows?  By then a few of us have begun to drift off; and I know I’m not the only one who’s suddenly realized I’ve failed to turn a page or two.  That’s when I know that I’ve relied on my guardian angel to sustain me.

IMG_9580I say this out of an appreciation for the liturgy, and because of that I also realize that not every verse of the psalms is meant to be a peak experience.  In fact, a great deal of our prayer is meant to be the spiritual equivalent of our daily bread, and not every meal is meant to be a banquet.

Still, I’ve consistently noticed that there’s one item in our morning prayer that seems to command undivided attention, and that’s the petition in which we pray for our deceased confreres on the anniversary of their death.  For all sorts of reasons our ears perk up when the reader goes through that list, and it’s not just to pick up on whether he’s mangled somebody’s name.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s moved by the name of a monk who died ninety or a hundred and fifty years ago.  And of course the name of a monk who was a friend touches me even more deeply.  Those names recall good souls who added something to my own life.  And their names remind me that someday my turn will come at morning prayer, once a year, on the anniversary of my own passing.

In a culture that has great difficulty in dealing with death, there’s something delightfully healthy about celebrating the feast of All Souls.  On this day we remember people who lived in our midst.  They contributed something of themselves that continues to speak to us even today; and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways our lives are richer for their walking in our midst.  It’s only appropriate, then, that we celebrate all those souls who have gone before us and now rest in the peace of Christ.

imageBut there’s another reason why we should recall them.  Like us they had moments of struggle in their pilgrimage to the Lord.  Not every day was a peak experience, and not every challenge brought out the best in them.  But they persevered, and like St. Paul they continued to fight the good fight.  And if they’ve now finished their earthly course,  it’s entirely logical that they might still have a few miles to go before they enjoy the fullness of God’s presence.  And so we pray for them, hoping that someday they will pray for us.

Today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom begins with phrases that have always stirred me, because they console wandering pilgrims like myself.  But they also have value as an act of faith.  “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment should touch them.  They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth as utter destruction.  But they are in peace….God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”

imageWe speak of the Church as the communion of the saints, and that communion includes those who have gone before us, those who gather in God’s name this day, and the generations that will find inspiration in this place in decades and centuries to come.  That certainly gives us kinship with those who have gone before us and now continue on their path to God.  But it also gives us an awesome responsibility to those who will follow us in faith.  Coursing through all these generations, past present and future, is a faith in Jesus Christ that sustains us all.  And if we are younger brothers and sisters to generations past, we are also brothers and sisters to those who are yet to come.

And so it is that we remember the souls of our confreres each day on the anniversary of their death.  And on the feast of All Souls we pray for all souls.  All of them have walked before us in faith, and perhaps they only see dimly the God whom we all seek.  May our prayers for them today be a thank-offering for the nourishment they have given us, and may our prayers help usher them into the fullness of the presence of God.


+On 28 October I visited with Chris Heitzing and Jeremy Welters, alumni of Saint John’s University who are serving as Benedictine Volunteers at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.

+31 October was a busy day, for me at least.  I hiked out to the soccer pitch to watch the first half of the game with Saint Olaf College, which our team happened to win 2-0.  Then I attended the second half of the football game against Augsburg College, which we also won.  It was a crisp and cold day — typical of a late autumn afternoon, and perfect for those sorts of events.

image+Later that evening over one hundred guests joined us for the Vigil of All Saints.  In the hour preceding prayer our guests were able to visit the crypt chapels in the abbey church, where some thirty-two side altars house the equivalent of a small gallery of art.  I have compiled a gallery of art from the Crypt Chapels, and you can access it via the link.  After evening prayer we all adjourned to the chapter house for light refreshments.

+After an absence of several days I returned to Saint John’s this week, fully expecting that the leaves and the fall colors would be long gone.  Needless to say, that was not the case.  Only a few yellow leaves of the maples cling to the branches, but the oaks are just coming into their own and present a nice show of red and dark amber.  In addition, there’s been a virtual rain of acorns this fall, which comes as a delight to the squirrels.  The squirrel in today’s post was busy in a tree outside the monastery.  He had way too much to do, so he did not protest or run away when I took his photo.

imageA House of Prayer/An Architectural Treasure

A few years ago I was delighted to host at Saint John’s an abbot whose monastery was in the planning process for both a church as well as a monastery.  He’d never been to Collegeville, and though his community intended to build something in an architectural style very different from our own, he was still curious.  And so, after he had settled into the guesthouse, we met for the tour; and naturally the first stop was the abbey church.  He was bowled over by what he saw, and his spontaneous comment was one of astonishment:  “Good grief, you got it!”

The “it” was the goal of building something of enduring value, and that had certainly been our intention when we built the church fifty-five years ago.  The commission to architect Marcel Breuer had been simple and straightforward:  “Design an architectural monument to the service of God.”  He succeeded beyond our dreams, on many fronts.  But above all he conceived of something that would have lasting architectural merit, as well as something that would endure physically for centuries.  It was the latter especially that captivated the imagination of my abbot-friend.

The steady stream of visitors to the abbey church regularly reminds us of its architectural significance; but we who worship in it several times a day, year in and year out, can get just a little bit used to it.  That’s why two items during the past summer reminded us not to take for granted the handiwork of our predecessors.

imageThe first happened in early June, when the International Committee for the Documentation and Preservation of the Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement made a one-day visit to Saint John’s.  For brevity’s sake they refer to themselves as DOCOMOMO, and I can appreciate why they do so.  Plus, it’s just a lot more fun to say that.  This year they held their meeting in Minneapolis, and delegates from as far afield as France and Brazil came to Saint John’s to see something that very much surprised them.  All marveled as monk tour-guides led them through the dozen or so Breuer buildings that we have on our campus.  I suspect that they marveled as well at the care we continue to bestow on these structures.  After all, a prime directive of DOCOMOMO is the survival of a whole era of significant architecture.  I’m sure they were reassured to see that our buildings were not falling into ruin.

imageThe second item came as something of a surprise, when The Getty Foundation invited us to apply for a grant that would enable us to detail a plan for the long-range preservation of the abbey church.  Such grants are a prized commodity, and in the award of the grant The Getty Foundation noted that ours was the largest concentration of Breuer-designed buildings anywhere on the planet.  Preservation efforts at Saint John’s would benefit Breuer buildings around the world.  In effect, this grant was a recognition of the unique value of the abbey church, as well as a reminder of our responsibility to preserve it for generations to come.  Coincidentally, saving the church just happened to be our intention all along; but this initial grant spurs us to be deliberate about getting this work underway.

On October 24 we celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church, and we begin it every year with a wonderful vigil service the evening before.  In the darkness the candles at the consecration stones remind us that first and foremost the building is a place of prayer, even if it is also an architectural treasure of international significance.  For fifty-five years it has helped to shape our prayer life at Saint John’s; and, God willing, it will continue to nurture it for centuries to come.

imageThose familiar with the Benedictine tradition realize that the contemporary architecture of the abbey church may be breath-takingly unusual, but it is not an anomaly within that tradition.  Benedictines have always sought to put current aesthetic style into the service of practical need, and testimony to this can be seen across the landscape of Europe.  Due to the Reformation and the French Revolution, a huge variety of monastic buildings have survived well beyond the communities that they once served; but today they serve another purpose.  Today those towers and vaults remind people of the presence of God in our midst.  In a throw-away world in which most everything has a short shelf-life, they give prophetic witness to the eternal value of the sacred.

That’s also the case with our abbey church and the bell banner that presents the gospel to the world.  Not by accident is it visible to the tens of thousands of cars that pass by on I-94 in the distance.  For those who take notice, it is a greeting of peace.  But it has an even greater value, because it proclaims that Jesus came for those driving by — and not just for the monks inside.


+From October 20-25 I participated in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, in the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  As has been our practice for several years, we met at San Damiano Retreat House, run by the Franciscan Friars in Danville, CA.  It was a  wonderful retreat, though I confess that I was thoroughly relieved when I finally gave the last of seven conferences that I had to deliver.

imageEach year during the retreat we have a meeting of the chapter of the subpriory, which includes all who have taken the promise of obedience.  At this year’s meeting I was completely surprised by the announcement that last month the Sovereign Council, the governing body of the Order of Malta in Rome, had named me a Conventual Chaplain ad Honorem.  It comes with a wonderful decoration; and true to my own theories on the subject, when one wears such a thing it indicates to those in need that I am one of those people from whom they can expect help.

+In addition to the seven conferences that I delivered, I preached at three of the six Masses.  You can access one of the sermons, The Moral Imperative: Bringing Our Gifts to Maturity, by consulting this link.

IMG_9353Holy Leisure — A Waste of Time?

Like so many people, I grew up nourished by the maxim that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  My parents and teachers reinforced this whenever they could, and perhaps that’s why I internalized it so well.  Anyway, by age thirty I had already compiled an impressive list of tasks accomplished.  But I also knew that this sort of attitude about life brings its special problems.  Specifically, for people like me and others I know, we can never really do enough.  It was nice that we had managed to use most of our time wisely, but ultimately what we’d done in the past mattered little compared to the challenges yet to come.  Before us stretched the years, and the potential to waste any or all of that time was something to fear at all costs.

For years I thought I had been pretty industrious in the use of my time, but then smart phones came along.  Those little machines made me painfully aware of just how many minutes and seconds I had frittered away through the years.  With a smart phone I could put my life on track, and I could wring every opportunity from every minute.  With even modest diligence I could reduce wastage to mere seconds a day.

IMG_9264In a recent essay in The Week, managing editor Carolyn O’Hara describes her own discovery of how much time she had wasted before the advent of the smart phone.  Like me she had learned early on about the inherent sinfulness of boredom and idleness, and she too discovered the exhilaration of filling every waking moment with work.  For a while, then, the smart phone transformed her life.  But then it happened.  Eventually it dawned on her that non-stop business was not the virtue she had once assumed.  In banishing quiet and empty time from her life, she had lost something very important: her creativity.

“Truly empty time is vitally important” she writes.  “When not distracted, our brains are free to wander off on creative tangents, as feelings and thoughts bubble up in the silence; there’s a reason bright ideas and breakthroughs tend to come in the shower or on long walks.”  (16 October, 2015, p. 3.)

IMG_9285It’s amazing how easy it has been for the smart phone to upend our lives.  In fact, most of us have surrendered without much of a fight, on the assumption that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  You see examples of this surrender in restaurants and on the streets, where people prefer to talk with a disembodied voice rather than with the flesh and blood human being in front of them.  And I’ve seen a variant of this in many first-time visitors to the abbey.  On arrival they are struck by the silence, both in the guesthouse and also in the abbey church.  Many of them find the silence intimidating, because they’ve never really experienced silence in their lives.  For them the big test comes especially during the recitation of the psalms at morning and evening prayer.  We monks are accustomed to one full minute of silence between each psalm, but visitors find that one minute to be a novel experience.  For a few it’s almost too much to bear.  Those interludes seem to give new appreciation for the line from the psalm that reads “one day within your courts is like a thousand elsewhere.”  In our choir many discover how infinitely long one minute of silence can seem, and for a few it is just too much.  But if they keep it up, in time they discover how exhilarating it is when time seems to stand still.

IMG_9316Long ago we monks got used to these meditative pauses, and now I assume all of us savor the chance to sit, to be silent, and to indulge in what the world considers to be an idle waste of time.  But idleness it is not.  Nor is it a waste.  With smart phones silenced and the absence of chatter, and with nothing else to do but sit there waiting for the next psalm, we experience the chance to listen to what God has to say.  That’s when we experience the Spirit stirring within us.

When the movie Into the Great Silence made its debut, its portrait of life in a Carthusian monastery drew mixed responses.  I fondly recall one reviewer from The Minneapolis StarTribune, who took umbrage at the absence of a sound track that could have carried the film through the slow parts.  He didn’t go so far as to recommend an orchestral overture to introduce the movie, but he was moving in that direction.  Obviously, however, he missed the point of the movie entirely.  Granted, there was no musical background; and there was indeed a scarcity of words,  But there was more than enough to listen to, because in their silence the monks heard things that most of us miss completely in our day-to-day craziness.  .

IMG_9367The silence and holy leisure that allow us to listen is the point of monastic life, and of Christian life as well.  Jesus often commented on how people had ears to hear but never seemed to hear anything.  Echoing this, Saint Benedict urged his monks to listen, and in fact those are the first words in his Rule.  Clearly he did not intend to banish sound from the monastery; rather, he preferred quality over the the quantity of sound.

Sadly, what makes listening so difficult these days is not the quality of the sound, but the quantity.  Our world is inundated with noise, and smart phones compete furiously for whatever attention they can get.  Not surprisingly, then, despite having ears to hear and more stuff to hear than ever before in human history, we generally miss out on what is truly important.  We fail to pay attention to what really matters.

It’s never too late to make space in our day to be silent and to listen.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it may even be good to silence our smart phones once in a while, just to better hear the ordinary stuff that’s been going on around us.  Who knows what great things we’ve been missing?  And if we run the risk of not hearing as much stuff as before, we might very well have those creative insights that will make for us all he difference in the world.


+On October 14 I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, Did Jesus Have Bad Days? through this link.

+On October 15 I attended a reception for alumni of Saint John’s University, held in Dallas, TX

+On October 16-18 I gave a retreat to the Dallas/Houston area members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  We held the retreat at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, in Lake Dallas, TX.  The members made for a wonderful time, and I look forward to meeting with them again someday.  In my conferences I spoke on the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+I took the photos in today’s post last week.  At the end of the summer the prognosticators had promised an autumn filled with glorious color.  We’ve had some, but not quite as much as what we had expected.

imageSinners Make the Best Saints

Becoming a saint has never been easy.  For one thing, the most viable candidates are way too busy to think about it.  For another, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” formula for becoming a saint.  And finally, contrary to popular opinion, most saints weren’t born saints.

Sainthood happens, but it can be really tough to know when somebody has stepped over the line into the ranks of the holy ones.  It’s also my theory that most saints never set out to become saints, and the reason for this is simple.  Had they known all the difficulties in advance, most would have opted for other careers.

On October 15 we celebrate the feast of Saint Teresa of Ávila, who lived in Spain in the 16th century.  Like many people, I can’t visualize her apart from that sculpture which shows an arrow piercing her heart in a moment of spiritual ecstasy.  The baroque style accents the theatricality of the moment, and it makes for almost operatic drama.  But to be honest, it’s not the sort of thing that inspires me to follow in her steps.  Who needs that sort of thing?  Why would anyone aspire to such a life?

imageIt was only when I began teaching that I finally got around to reading the autobiography of Teresa, and after that I made it required reading in one of my classes.  The edition that I used had that baroque image on the cover, and it was fun to see the reaction of my students as they pored over the cover and then opened the book for the first time.  My guess is that they thought some pious drivel awaited them.  So they braced themselves to read about a benign existence in some monastery, where the biggest challenge was finding enough time to squeeze in even more Our Fathers.  But as they turned the pages, they met someone who brushed aside their expectations.  They learned soon enough that Saint Teresa defied most of the spiritual stereotypes.

Young Teresa started out much like the rest of us.  She had her social ambitions; she had her marital aspirations; and she was a bit of a clothes-horse.  Of course she had to cut back on all of this when she entered the monastery, but not entirely.  The fact is, life in a 16th-century Spanish convent did not overly crimp anyone’s style.  The daily rounds in an unreformed house were pleasant and unchallenging in many ways.  Well-heeled relatives and interesting visitors came and went by the coach-load, and conversation could be engaging.  And if Teresa and her sisters had “given up all to follow Christ,” they were still good negotiators and got quite a lot of creature-comforts in return.

A shortfall common to many saintly biographies is this:  they box their subjects into a set of standard formulae.  They present people who were born to lovely parents, were precocious little tykes, entered a monastery at a young age, reformed it before they were out of novitiate, and died in the flower of innocence.  That was not Teresa’s story, however, and such a bland framework scarcely does justice to the dynamic woman she was.

imageTeresa may have been precocious as a child, but during her first years in the monastery she certainly didn’t stir the pot.  She was more than happy to lead the bourgeois life she found there, and she offered few if any complaints.  But finally came the stirrings that awakened the spiritual urge within her.  Whatever else caused her to be restive, the liturgy of the hours and spiritual reading finally made her comfortable routine seem less than satisfying.

After that there was no living with her.  When Teresa began to push for a more austere life, not a few of her sisters let her know that they preferred that she leave them in peace.  Soon there was conflict, acrimony and disagreements galore; and Teresa finally left to start her own community of Carmelites.  Even so, resentment and harassment followed her.  Some felt threatened by the moral authority that she wielded, and some alleged that it was the devil who whispered in her ear.  Eventually the Inquisition got involved.  So contentious did things become that Teresa even managed to drag King Philip II into the conflict.

Given all this, it would be a serious mistake to assume that Teresa subsisted on a diet of spiritual sweetness and light.  Because she confronted hostility from the outside and self-doubt from within, she had to be resilient and tough as nails.  But through it all her regular companion and consolation was Jesus.  The image of the arrow of God’s love transfixing her heart is particularly apt, then.  On the one hand it suggests the ecstasy of divine love, but with God’s favor comes suffering.  You can almost hear Teresa turning to God to pray:  “Next time, Lord, call somebody else.”

imageBy the end of her autobiography most readers have chucked their preconceptions about Teresa.  They learn that she was, in fact, a real live human being, dealing with other real live human beings.  Each day brought challenge, but each day also brought its unexpected reward.  And through it all Teresa was anything but the picture of conventional saintliness.  She had grit; she was charismatic; and she won some and lost some.  Almost every step of the way, however, she walked with the Lord.

Teresa of Ávila provides a good meditation for modern readers, and what I draw from her is this.  First, saintliness is not something that anyone achieves in a day, nor do the years that serve as a preamble count for naught.  Second, perhaps it’s a good idea to apply the term saint far more generously than we are accustomed to.  After all, Saint Paul addressed entire congregations as saints.  In that spirit, then, perhaps it’s more appropriate to describe as a saint anyone who has taken the first tentative steps on the pilgrimage in search of the Lord.

Finally, if during much of their pilgrimage most people seem to be more sinner than saint, that’s only because God prefers it that way.  In time, with a few more steps, sinners generally make the best saints.


+On October 7, following evening prayer, the monks gathered in the Saint Benedict’s Chapel of the lower church for the blessing of the restored Laukuff Pipe Organ.  Built in 1963 by August Laukuff of Weikersheim, Germany, the restoration was the work of organ-builder and Saint John’s alumnus KC Marrin, as his gift to the abbey.  After 52+ years of use, the organ was in a rather sad state of repair, but thanks to KC’s work it plays wonderfully once again.

+To my confrere Fr. Geoffrey I owe the first two pictures in today’s post.  The third photo illustrates Mary, whose heart is about to be pierced with a sword.  This photo, along with the two following, come from the church of Maria Steinbach in southern Germany.


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