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Musings on Our Lady of Sorrows

I know I’m not the only one whose image of Mary can be a little skewed now and then. I imagine that in her near-perfect life there were no stumbles, no pain, no suffering. The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows reminds me otherwise.

I profess that Mary was indeed the Mother of the Messiah, but that did not mean that her life was smooth sailing. There were moments of confusion and instances of anxiety when she saw her son publicly challenged and even humiliated. But certainly most painful of all was the day she stood at the foot of the cross and watched her son executed like a common criminal. That was when she came face to face with the mystery that we all have to confront: why do the good suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people?

In Mary’s experience we can find solace for ourselves. Throughout her life — and especially in the toughest of times — Mary could pray in thanksgiving that the Lord had done great things for her. That may be Mary’s most important bit of encouragement for us. Like Mary we experience life with its ups and downs. Through it all, however, we nourish ourselves on the thought that the Lord does great things for us as well.

But there’s one more point to be made. The Lord not only did great things for Mary but through Mary. That, I think, may be a great take-away from the feast of our Lady of Sorrows. Like Mary we encounter suffering and occasional confusion about what God expects of us. Like Mary, though, we ought to find refuge in the thought that the Lord chooses us to do great things as well.

NOTES

+On September 15th I presided at the abbey Mass, on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Today’s post is a revision of the sermon that I delivered that day.

+On September 16th Fr. Kilian celebrated his 100th birthday. For most of his life he claimed to suffer ill health, even as he was a noted theologian and prolific writer. He is a good example for all of us to use our God-given time wisely, because you know neither the day nor the hour of the Lord’s coming!

+On September 18th I presided at a memorial service for my friend Janie Amundson. The service took place in the chapel of Our Lady of the Apostles in Emmaus Hall at Saint John’s. That chapel serves the students of the School of Theology, and it’s among my favorite places on campus.

+Also on September 18th I gave a talk on the tradition of service in the Order of Malta. The audience was a group of provisional members beginning their orientation process in the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+September 18-19 were very special days for the abbey, as we blessed and formally inaugurated the expanded Holtkamp-Pasi organ. At vespers on the 18th Abbot John blessed the organ, and that was followed by a concert by Fr. Bob Koopmann and Dr. Kim Kasling. On Sunday afternoon the 19th, four young alumni — all of whom were organ students of Dr. Kasling — gave a recital lasting a little over an hour. The two top photos in today’s post show the large audience at the Sunday afternoon concert, and at bottom are the four performers. At left is Jonathan Gregoire, who is now the organist at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, TX. To his right is Anne Phillips, organist at Peace Lutheran Church in Plymouth, MN; and to her right is Brother Jacob Berns of Saint John’s Abbey. At right is Lee Treml, director of worship at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Brighton, MN. The expanded organ has been an aspiration for us monks for decades, and its completion is a wonderful milestone in the abbey’s history.

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Living in the Grey Areas

There are those who prefer their religious issues to be clear-cut and their answers a crisp either/or. Once upon a time I too preferred to live that way, but somewhere along the way I changed. The change came slowly, after years of reciting the Psalms and reading the Wisdom literature of the Bible. There I found areas of grey and what seem to be contradictions, and they forced me to think. That has not been all bad, I hasten to add. Even better, I’m still thinking.

I mention this because in last Sunday’s liturgy we read from the letter of James. Specifically, it was that passage that says unequivocally that “faith without works is dead.” Frankly, I have no trouble with that. But then I immediately recalled Paul’s comment in Romans that the Christian is saved by faith. Or to put it as Luther did, we are saved ”by faith alone.” I have no trouble with that either. So is there something wrong with me?

To be honest, I can live with both because I’ve come to realize that Paul and James were not trying to pick a fight with each other. They were not opposed to one another when it came to the centrality of faith. Rather, they were writing from different perspectives about rather nuanced issues.

Oddly enough, to Saint Augustine I credit my embrace of what seem like opposing views. ”Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as if everything depended on you.” In short, he counselled an approach that was both/and rather than either/or. Put that way, that’s when I realised I could have my cake and eat it too, on any number of issues.

So how do I tease all this out in my own life? Like Paul and Luther and James I believe that it is the Lord Jesus who saves me — I cannot save myself. At the same time, I can find no verse in Paul where he says that believers in Jesus can forget about the two Great Commandments and the Beatitudes. In fact, Jesus went to a lot of trouble to pound those points home to his disciples. Presumably he expected them to pass those on to us as well. I have to belive that Paul, Luther and James were pretty much on the same page when it came to reconciling faith and living out the Beatitudes.

The crunch for all of us comes in the answer each Christian must give to a critical question. “Who do I say that Jesus is?” If I confess in faith that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, then I can’t just sit back and expect Jesus to live the Beatitudes for me. On the contrary, Jesus expects my faith in him to seep through into every corner of my life. If he is Lord, then my life will reflect the Great Commandments and the Beatitudes. If there is no trace of them in my life, however, then my faith in Jesus is merely a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. It is in fact not faith but façade.

That may not please those who love to argue in synagogues or churches, but it works for me. At the very least it gives me lots to talk about when I sit down for a good chat with the Lord.

NOTES

+Given that I had been scheduled to be in Lourdes last week, my early return meant that I began the week with a blank calendar. It did not stay that way, however.

+On September 7th I participated in the monthly meeting of the Regent’s Council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. I mention this because the next day one of our members —who was a dear friend to all of us — passed away unexpectedly. Julie Condon was loved by all who knew her, and I will miss her dearly.

+On September 9th I and a colleague from Saint John’s visited the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. There we met with an alumnus of Saint John’s who works as a volunteer staff member. We also met Alberto, who is new on the faculty there. Alberto graduated from Cristo Rey Minneapolis and then came to Saint John’s for college. He graduated in 2019. After Saint John’s he received an MA at Notre Dame, and he is now teaching at his high school alma mater. It was great to meet him and hear his story.

+On September 11th we hosted commencement exercises for the class of ‘20 at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict. In May 2020, at the height of covid, we had to postpone the ceremony. It was great to attend to that event, at long last.

+We have definitely moved from summer into early autumn in Minnesota. The rains in August have rejuvenated the landscape, and so the grounds look lush and green once again. The enclosed photos from the monastic garden show a glimpse into the last hurrah of the season.

The Pilgrimage to Elsewhere

It wasn’t supposed to turn out the way it did. A week ago I boarded a plane to Paris, and from there I planned to take a train to Lourdes. At that venerable shrine I would join members of the Order of Malta for a much-delayed pilgrimage. But it was not to be.

From the start things seemed to progress from the foreboding to the grim. Last summer the French government unveiled a health pass that would be necessary to enter museums and restaurants as well as board trains. I applied, but it never came. With impeccable timing, on the eve of the flight the rail system sent a gentle reminder that I should have the pass in order to board the train to Lourdes. I found wiggle room in the word should, and a friend told me not to worry. That’s when I started to worry.

The drive to the airport stirred my anxiety even more. I got stuck in an hour-long jam that chewed up my cushion of time, and I got to the airport just in time to board the flight. Once seated, it hit me. Was this the right thing to do? How would all this end?

After the take-off it went from bad to worse. It wasn’t long before one flight attendant began to regale some of us with stories of how she had been denied entry into all sorts of places because she didn’t have the pass. Later still another attendant asked me if I had read about the decision of the EU to impose new travel restrictions. My mind went racing, as did my blood pressure. On the verge of a panic attack I turned for solace to a third attendant, who urged me to hope for the best.

I got zero rest on the flight. Ever the optimist, in Paris I checked my email once more, hoping against hope that the pass had come through. Instead I found a note from the train people stating that the pass was now mandatory. I despaired. I could not get to Lourdes, or so I thought, and should I test positive for covid I could not board the flight home. I would be stranded for who knows how long and who knows where. I have never felt so trapped in my life. That’s when I decided to take decisive action. I went through passport control, collected my baggage, and promptly booked a return flight that would leave four days after my arrival.

Then, out of the blue, it all took a turn for the better. I checked into a hotel in nearby Roissy-en-France, and there I hid out until the day of departure. But that afternoon I spied the small park across the street — a street that few tourists ever bother to cross. With nothing to lose, and consoled with the thought that a nice walk might calm my nerves, I crossed the street. On the other side, in the park, I discovered an alternate universe. There a few people pushed baby carriages; others gazed on as their kids played; some read under the lush canopy of chestnut trees; and a few munched quietly on picnic lunches. Who would guess that three miles away was one of the busiest airports in the world?

Then came the moment of revelation. The park opened on to a lovely village, where I knew there was a local pharmacy. Could the pharmacist save me the long ordeal of a covid test at the airport? I found it after only a few minutes, and in it was the pharmacist sent by God. We chatted for a bit before I asked my big question, and his smile and gentle words calmed my frayed nerves. Out came the answer. “Yes!” He could give me the tast and the certificate that I needed. “No,” it would not be good to do it that day. The certificate was valid for 72 hours. “If you take the test too early and your plane is late, they won’t let you on. Better to take it as late as possible.” He was speaking in “Franglais,” of course, but it was music to my ears. At last here was someone who spoke with authority.

On the third day I retraced my steps to the pharmacy, passing through village streets that by now had become familiar to me. The pharmacist greeted me as an old friend, and we spoke for a bit about our favorite regions in France. (We both settled on Normandy.) Then he filled out the paperwork and led me to the lab behind the shop, where his wife waited to give me the test.

“It’s a little rustic,” he said, as he noticed my wide smile. I immediately recognized it as one of those wooden stalls one sees in the traditional Christmas markets, except that it wasn’t stuffed with candy and sausages and ornaments. Rustic it certainly was, and it was a delight to sit inside looking out at the backyard of their home. It was the loveliest and most serene covid test I’ve ever had.

Soon came the verdict. With an almost reverential air the pharmacist presented the certificate, which had a great big NEGATIF at the top. “It’s beautiful!” He smiled as he said this, because he knew it was my ticket home. Then we both laughed and I offered my profuse thanks. And that was it — twenty minutes, max.

The whole experience taught me two things. For one, I had every right to be super anxious, though perhaps my fears had run away with me. Nothing had gone as planned, but I had gained an inkling of what refugees must endure. The uncertainty was wrenching, but no one was shooting at me. And I had the luxury of a list of people I could call if things got really desperate. Refugees have no such luck.

I also have to admit my disappointment at not making it to Lourdes. That hurt; but then again I was blessed in ways I’d not expected. I’d gotten a dose of profound tranquility in a small village I never would have seen otherwise. Even better, I met Christ working in a pharmacy. It’s exactly what Saint Benedict told us to expect.

There’s one last bit to the story. On landing in Minneapolis, five days after I had left, I opened my email and there was another missive from the French health pass people. Due to high volume they were unable to process my request, it solemnly declared. But with new procedures in place, I was welcome to apply again. I smiled. I needed no pass to be at home.

NOTES

+The majority of my energy during the past week was taken up with getting to and getting back from France. I was sorely disappointed to miss the pilgrimage to Lourdes by the Western Association of the Order of Malta; but I consoled myself with memories of easier travel days. One of my favorite places in all the world is a village outside of Lourdes, which we visit every year as part of the pilgrimage. Saint Savin is a medieval Benedictine monastery, overlooking a dramatic pass through the mountains from France to Spain. The photos in today’s post were taken several years ago, and they still have the power to inspire me.

+This marked the first full week of classes at Saint John’s University and Saint John’s Preparatory School. One event more than any signaled hopes for a more traditional year. On Saturday the 4th the University hosted a large football crowd in Clemens Stadium. It was a great game, and Saint John’s won only in the final seconds when the other team fumbled away what would have been the winning touchdown — on the one-yard line.

Do People See Christ in Us?

In Matthew 24: 42-51 we have a gospel passage that allows us to go in two different directions. On the one hand we can focus on hypocrisy, and it helps to recall yesterday’s message that Pope Francis delivered in his Wednesday audience. Hypocrisy in the Church is “particularly detestable”, he said, and he infers that it might earn its practitioners a spot in one of the lowest circles of hell.

On the other hand, this gospel urges us to be alert to the coming of Christ. Paying attention, however, is a daily if not hourly challenge for the best of us. We can blame it on cell phones and the like, but I wonder if the grinding routine of life is the one thing that dulls our senses more than anything. In the monotony of routine we can let ourselves go and we scarcely notice it. In the process we slowly morph into the sort of people we swore we’d never be. Eventually, after a long stretch of this, there is a growing disconnect between who we think we are and what our actions actually show us to be. In that disconnect we’ve entered into hypocrisy via the back door.

Sell-awareness is something Saint Benedict expects of us monks. So when he asks us to keep death daily before our eyes he’s concerned about two things. Neither should we squander our lives nor should we ever miss a chance to make the most of the time we’ve been given. In both cases we can let ourselves drift absent-mindedly into hypocrisy. But life as a Christian requires a string of daily decisions, and that in turn requires a lot of attention on our part. It is the Lord who calls us to see him in our brothers and sisters, in hopes that in turn they might see Christ in us. Every minute is a good time to be alert to the opportunity.

NOTES

+On August 26th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is what I hope is an improved version of what I said that day.

+This week the first-year students arrived at Saint John’s University, and it was fun to meet parents and students as the latter moved in. As Fr. Nick pointed out in his sermon on the feast of Saint Monica, there were plenty of motherly tears that day, and they were likely a mix of tears of joy at seeing their sons grow up and tears of apprehension as they begin to let go. On Friday August 27th we hosted the first-year students at evening prayer, as is our custom at the beginning of every school year. The abbot welcomed them and issued an open invitation to join us at prayer during their years at Saint John’s. Afterwards the students broke into about twenty groups and met for half an hour with individual monks to learn about our life at Saint John’s Abbey. I was among the monks who met with a group of students. It’s a custom that we’ve followed for many years now.

+There was a certain irony about the weather in Minnesota on Saturday the 28th. During the last three weeks I have ridden out a tropical storm in southwest Florida and a hurricane on Long Island, with minimal discomfort. On Saturday a major storm came roaring through central Minnesota, and the alarms sent us to shelter. In the course of it the power went off, “for a while.” Ultimately there was no damage. But it proved once again that you don’t need to leave home for excitement.

Am I Listening?

It’s not often that a scripture reading upends me, but the first reading for a Mass last week did just that. It began innocently enough, with a phrase that is standard issue. “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” But then came the words that gave me pause. “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,’ he said, ‘whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph…shall belong to the Lord. I shall offer him up as a burnt offering.’” (Judges 11: 29 ff.)

Yikes! What am I supposed to make of a passage like that? And since the Spirit of the Lord was invoked, should I infer that all this was God’s idea?

I find this passage a real puzzler, and even now I wonder about the answer. Did God really inspire Jephthah to propose this deal? And if not, is Jephthah’s proposal just one more instance in which someone should have been more careful about what he asked for?

The fact is, Jephthah did defeat the Ammonites, and he did come home in triumph. However, the first person out of the door to greet him was his daughter — his only child. The passage then ends on this chilling note: Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed.”

For millennia people have negotiated deals with God, and they still do. In return for God’s favor they have promised all sorts of things, and I know so because I’ve done it myself, more than once.

In the case of the Israelites there is good news, because soon after this they abandoned human sacrifice, once and for all. But they found it hard to leave off negotiations with God. We know that because prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah hammered away at this. Each of them pointed out God’s preference for inner conversion rather than for the slaughter of bullocks and goats and birds when it came to dealing with God. Not surprisingly it was also a central theme in the preaching of Jesus, and the last time I checked it was still a key part of Christian life.

So what might we draw from this passage in the book of Judges? My first conjecture is this: the Spirit of the Lord may have come upon Jephthah, but after that the Spirit does not feature in the story. In fact, Jephthah likely never gave God a chance to get much of a word in edgewise. Furthermore, Jephthah may have thought he was doing the right thing, but human sacrifice was not where God intended to lead the chosen people.

Second, many of us are still inclined to make deals that we think God can scarcely refuse. But just as was the case with Jephthah, some of the consequences of those bargains can turn around and bite us. So we all need to be careful about what we promise to do in return for special favors from God.

Thirdly, the pages of Judges and the other historical books of the Bible are chock-a-block with tough-to-stomach stories, but we shouldn’t blame God for what God’s people did. Most of them confirm that the Lord walked with the Israelites, but we should remember that these people were still a long way off from the promised land — both literally and metaphorically. They were a work in progress, and hundreds of years later God was still hard at it with the chosen people.

As for me, I am well aware that I also am a work in progress. I’ve also come to realize that any deals I do with God had better include plenty of input from God. Bargaining — aka prayer — must always be a conversation. It takes two to haggle and two to drive a mutually beneficial bargain. That has to be the starting point of any relationship with God.

It’s important that we make a place for God at the head of the table when we pray. That’s why Jesus taught us to ask that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And since I presume that the part about “on earth” applies to me, I try to give God plenty of leeway to clue me in on the divine plan. Both of us need to speak, and I know in advance that God listens. One question still remains: am I listening?

NOTES

+The highlight of the last week was a trip with lots of unintended consequences. On Wednesday August 18th I flew to New York for a series of meetings, which culminated in a weekend in Sag Harbor. Of course I had not read the weather forecast, and so little did I expect that Hurricane Henri was bearing down on Long Island. Sag Harbor was in the path of the impending storm, and there was little to do but secure everything and wait for it to pass. Almost miraculously the center of the storm shifted to the east and spared us the heaviest winds and torrential rains. But we still had our share. It was the first hurricane I had ever sat out, and I think one is probably enough. Coming on the heels of the tropical storm I experienced in Florida two weeks earlier, I think I’ve had enough of exotic weather patterns, at least for now.

+The first three photos in today’s post are glass panels that once adorned a home in Norwich, England. Today they are in the V & A Museum in London. Such decorative elements illustrating the yearly agricultural cycle were widely used in items ranging from books of hours to windows and frescoes in churches and homes. These date from ca. 1450. At bottom is a photo of the waters off of Montauk, NY, very near to where the eye of Hurricane Henri passed. I took the photo during the calm before the storm, I hasten to add.

For What Should I Pray?

I was a little surprised the other day when I realized I have been writing this blog for ten years. More precisely, today’s post is #524 in a Monday morning series stretching back to August of 2011. How did that happen? What’s kept me going?

When I wrote my first post I wondered how long I could sustain this. Would I make it through to Christmas and then give up? Could I possibly make it through to the next August? Frankly I had my doubts, and so did a few people who cautioned me about this sort of thing. Why would I want to take this on when I already had plenty of stuff to do? And did the world really need another blog?

I threw caution to the wind and did it anyway. Now, ten years later, I could not imagine a Sunday morning without putting the final touches on the prose and the photos. There were moments, of course, when it was a chore. All the same, however, I began to look forward to it and relished sitting quietly at my desk. It gave me the chance to focus and to share my thoughts with myself. It also let me share my thoughts with others who might find them useful. Those conversations have spurred me on.

I’m currently reading a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner entitled The Lord is my Shepherd. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while and its time had come at last, I decided. It’s a reflection on Psalm 23, and one short passage struck me as appropriate for this occasion. “Prayers that begin ‘Thank You for…’ strike me as more authentically religious than prayers that begin ‘Please give me…’. In our society, we have tended to confuse God with Santa Claus and to believe that prayer means making an inventory of everything we would like to have but don’t have, and persuading God that we deserve it.”

With that in mind, for what should I pray as I being year eleven? First, I thank You Lord for getting me past the first Christmas. Second, I thank You Lord for not repeating myself too often in the course of 524 posts. Third, I thank You Lord for readers who have encouraged me along the way. Finally, I thank You Lord in advance for however long you choose to sustain me.

That, I think, is enough for one prayer. After all, Saint Benedict encourages monks to keep their prayers short and to the point. So I’ll stop now, before I begin to petition for some of the things I don’t currently have and very likely don’t really need.

NOTES

+This has been a rather unusual week. On August 10th I had surgery to remove a small patch of malignant cells from my scalp. The surgery was successful, for which I was grateful. But I left the doctor’s office with a large bandage on my head. For three days I wore a baseball hat, in church, in the refectory, and everywhere else I went. As I told confreres who bothered to ask, I preferred to look irreverent than odd. By Friday I graduated down to a large Bandaid, and I no longer needed the hat.

+On August 13th I flew to Fort Myers, FL, where I visited with alumni and friends of Saint John’s over the weekend. One highlight occurred on Friday evening, when I had dinner at the home of one of our current students. This fall Elias is a senior at Saint John’s University, and he lives with his family in Immokalee, FL. Joining us was another Saint John’s student, Gabriel, who will be a junior at Saint John’s. The photo below only hints at what a lovely evening we had. I was honored to be their guest.

+The photo at top is a copy of the statue of the Black Madonna at the Abbey of Montserrat, located outside of Barcelona. Their monks sent this to us in gratitude for the assistance we offered after the Spanish Civil War. Now that the renovation of our monastery is complete, it sits once again in a place of honor. The second photo shows a flower that I found quite lovely and distinctive, growing in the butterfly garden of a home I visited in Estero, FL. Alas, some of the neighbors preferred more conventional flowers and lawn, but the butterflies eventually won the day.

Ruts of Our Own Digging

Last week I gave a day of reflection for our novice, Brother Travis. Some may wonder why monks might need a day like that, but like everyone else we monks sometimes get so caught up in routine that we forget what we are about. So time-out to recalibrate our lives is important, and not just for novices. Seniors like myself probably benefit even more from a day like that.

Our day consisted of two sessions in which we discussed a book by Abbot Christopher Jamison of Worth Abbey in England. Worth was in the news several years ago when the monks welcomed five men to live and pray with them for a few weeks. That in itself is no big deal, but letting the BBC film and air the proceedings was a bit unusual. Out of it came Abbot Christopher’s book, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life. In it he explores issues like silence and humility and other things that monks contend with regularly. These were just some of the things that challenged their five guests. How the guests wove those issues into their stay at Worth Abbey was grist for the BBC’s mill.

Late that afternoon I celebrated Mass for all the monks in formation, and the first reading for that day tells one of my favorite stories. Taken from the Book of Numbers 13, it describes the fear that paralyzed the Israelites as they came face to face with the occupants of the promised land. They had survived slavery and plagues in Egypt, and then they beheld marvels like the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian armies. They had seen and experienced all sorts of great wonders. Now they had to deal with people living in a few inconsequential towns, and they were scared to death. “All the people we saw there are huge, veritable giants,” reported the scouts. “We felt like mere grasshoppers…We cannot attack these people; they are too strong for us.”

The Book of Numbers recounts God’s frustration, but personally I have to smile at all this. The Israelites had just defied the most powerful nation in their part of the world and gotten away with it. Now a collection of small towns and villages were enough to send them scurrying away like mice.

Of course there are times when we all are Israelites, and I’m certainly no exception. Life has challenges, and to avoid them we often resort to the old familiar excuses. “We’ve never done that before. It’s too hard. What if we fail?” Then comes the paralysis and the self-pity of people who find themselves stuck in ruts of their own digging.

Recently a friend of mine shared a snippet that’s inspired me once again to trust that God will be with me, even when the task seems well nigh impossible. These words of wisdom come from Frances Hodgson Burnett, an English-born writer best-known for Little Lord Fauntleroy. “At first, people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done. Then they begin to hope it can be done. Then they see that it can be done. Then it is done, and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”

There’s a touch of irony here, and perhaps even hints of sarcasm. But Hodgson’s words are worth pondering, even if you might not be a monk.

NOTES

+August 3rd was a busy day for me. First on the schedule was an hour with Brother Felix, one of our junior monks. I meet weekly with him to practice his English. Later I took part in a zoom conference with the regent’s council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. Then late in the afternoon I sat in on the weekly meeting of the Senior Council of the abbey.

+On Wednesday the 4th I met with Brother Travis, as noted above. The day concluded with Mass for the monks in formation.

+On Thursday the 5th I took part in the weekly zoom meeting of the formation committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On August 6th I flew to St. Louis for a quick visit with friends. I cannot recall when I last went to St. Louis, but I had a short but enjoyable time. The capstone was a baseball game between St. Louis and Kansas City, as the photos at bottom illustrate. Like my visit to St. Louis, I cannot recall when I last attended a baseball game.

+In recent posts I have shown some of the art that is on display in the renovated monastery. At top is a figure of Holy Mother Church at prayer. It sits in a niche down the hall from my room. Below that is one of several large vases with arrangements of fresh flowers, on display in the St. Louis Museum of Art. They were stunning, and I admire the skill of the person who arranged them.

How Much Is Enough Joy?

Hardy was a one-of-a-kind. He easily ranked among the top 1% of the optimists in the world, and he seemed to have boundless energy to match. Rooms lit up when he entered, though he probably never realized it. All the same, despite his boundless energy, there came an end. Last week I presided as we placed Hardy’s ashes in the columbarium in the abbey cemetery. There he has as company our deceased monks, many of whom he knew well. And there one day I will be his neighbor.

Normally in my blog I don’t reflect on deceased friends, mainly out of deference to their privacy. But Hardy was so off-the-wall energetic that I know he wouldn’t mind if I shared a few snippets from his pilgrimage in this world.

Hardy graduated from Saint John’s University in 1965, and for more than 50+ of his years he taught math at Bellarmine High School in San Jose, CA. He loved the Jesuits there, but his reverence for the Benedictine tradition showed as well — in particular during the math exams he administered. While students pored over problems, he played Gregorian chant as background music. He must have figured that it would either calm them or help their concentration. Whichever the reason, the practice was one of many quirks that earned him a revered spot in the memory of many a Bellarmine student. After all, who does that sort of thing today?

Hardy was a fitness fanatic for all of his life, and one way of showing it was his preferred method of getting to work. On most work days he bicycled to school, perhaps because it was faster than by car. He also spent most of every August cycling through France. En route home to California he would stop in Minnesota, and he would always pedal the ninety miles from Minneapolis to Saint John’s. This he continued to do into his mid-70s, and his last trip came three months before his passing.

Several years ago I invited Hardy to speak at a gathering of our alumni in San Francisco, and as expected he waxed eloquent about his love for Saint John’s. But true to Hardy, he showed it in another one-of-a-kind gesture. As he began his speech he reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and extracted from it a small piece of paper. It was the lunch ticket he’d gotten when he made his first visit to Saint John’s as a junior in high school. He’d never cashed it in. Instead he’d carried it for decades, and it saddens me to know that we still owe Hardy a free lunch at Saint John’s.

Hardy’s final moment came while doing what he loved best — getting exercise. They found him slumped over his stationary bike, the victim of a heart attack. And the style of his passing raises an important dilemma that we all might ponder. Do we want to be remembered at our vibrant best? Or do we want to fade away, even as we squeeze out the last drop of what life has to offer?

I was lucky to hear from Hardy regularly through the years, and he always had the same sign-off at the end of each letter. Just above his signature came this one imperative: “Much joy!” Much joy pretty much describes the baggage that Hardy carried with him through life. Much joy is what he gave to others. When I consider all the burdens I could choose to tote around as I pedal through life, it’s actually not so bad an option. I could do worse.

NOTES

+On July 30th I presided at the cemetery service for Hardy Reyerson. His ashes now rest in the columbarium at Saint John’s Abbey.

+On July 30-31 we hosted a great many visitors to the abbey gardens. It was the first time we’d ever offered tours through the abbey grounds, and our thanks go to Br. Paul Richards and many volunteers for conceiving and executing the event.

+On Sunday August 1st we celebrated the anniversary of monastic vows made by seven of our confreres sixty years ago. The actual celebration should have taken place last year, but the coronavirus caused it to be moved a year.

+The renovation of the monastery has allowed us the chance to rotate some of the art that hangs throughout the halls and rooms. At the top of today’s post is a painting by our confrere Fr. Jerome Tupa. It hangs in the first-floor common room in the monastery and adds a wonderful note of color. The following three photos show a wonderful carving of Jesus and the apostles, done by an unknown African artist. For years it has hung in the Abbot’s office, but now it hangs in a hall where we all can enjoy it.

The Blessing of the Monastery

It was the morning of 25 July, 1846, and Fr. Boniface Wimmer and a small band of volunteers had just celebrated Mass with the archbishop of Munich. Later that day they left Munich for America to found a monastery. Everyone thought young Fr. Boniface was crazy, and perhaps he was. But Fr. Boniface didn’t know that, nor did he have a shred of self-doubt. He was confident of success, and succeed he did. And from that venture eventually arose yet one more product of his fertile ambitions — Saint John’s Abbey.

On Sunday July 25th Abbot John recounted this story as he concluded the blessing of the renovated monastery at Saint John’s. It had taken a year and a half to complete, and while we never thought we were crazy for doing it, we did have our doubts about its completion. Deadlines came and went, and six months past due we still hadn’t moved back in. But now we have, and it’s been worth the wait.

This Sunday guests joined us monks in the blessing of the monastery and the open house that followed. Touring a big crowd through the cloister was something we hadn’t done in 66 years, so it definitely counted as a rare occasion.

The festivities began with Fr. Bob Koopmann at the organ console, demonstrating the sound of the new pipes that had been installed during the last year. Then followed the prayers of blessing. Afterwards, with Abbot John and Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud taking the lead, we processed into the common room of the monastery. From there we broke into small group tours of monastic cells, guest rooms, the abbot’s office and all the other spaces that make for a monastery today. Then we returned to the church for vespers, and we concluded the day with dinner in the Great Hall. It was there that Abbot John recalled Boniface Wimmer’s journey of exactly 175 years earlier. What a fitting day to recount that story.

For all the non-monks the tour of a cloister was something new, and it prompted one curious question from one of my dinner companions. “Why would you have a women’s restroom in the cloister? I thought non-monks weren’t supposed to enter the cloister.” “Well, you’re right about that,” I replied. “But for one day only a monk’s restroom morphed into an honorary women’s restroom. We thought somebody might need it.” I then explained that once we gathered in the church for vespers the monastery resumed its cloister status — “probably for another 66 years.”

At the end of the day I sat down and reflected on what a great day it had been. For one thing, I had never imagined how much a change of environment could impact my life. But it has — enormously. Often, when leaders get up to thank people, it can seem rather pro forma and hollow. Not this time around. When the abbot went through the list of people to whom thanks were due, our gratitude was heartfelt.

That’s when I realized that moments of gratitude should not be so few and far between. We all owe so much to so many, and it’s not such a horrible thing to thank them just a little more often. So thanks to all who make my own life so fruitful and blessed. I owe you big time, each and every day!

NOTES

+On July 21st I attended the funeral service for my friend Mary Frey, held at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, MN. Afterward I presided at the cemetery service.

+On July 22nd I participated via zoom in the meeting of the Formation Committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+Also on July 22nd I presided at the community Mass for Saint John’s Abbey.

+On July 24th I attended a memorial celebration for John Stencel, who was an alumnus of Saint John’s University. The event took place at the family farm in Waldorf, MN, where he grew up. Until a few days ago I had never heard of Waldorf, nor had I ever visited that part of Minnesota. Waldorf is located near Mankato, MN, which I had never visited either. The drive through southern Minnesota took me through miles and miles and miles of forests of tall corn and short soybeans. While I was sad for John’s passing, I thoroughly enjoyed the two-and-a-half-hour drive to get to the celebration.

+These days the plantings in the cloister gardens on either side of the church are particularly showy, as the top three photos in today’s post suggest. These are views from the pews, and they serve as a needed distraction when a sermon gets a little long in the tooth. At bottom are the hydrangeas in the Quadrangle courtyard.

Who Owns Whom?

After twenty-five years in one spot in the monastery, I finally moved last week. I wasn’t the only monk who did so, and in the course of three weeks most of us will relocate back into a building that’s served us since the 1950s.

During the past year and a half the main wing of the monastery has undergone extensive renovation. To be fair, however, so have many of us; and like many of my confreres I’ve learned a great deal from the experience. For one thing, we all tired of living in exile, scattered across the campus. The proof of that came when the signal to return finally came. It came too late, because the frenzy had already begun; and it’s a rush that will stretch out for three weeks and more.

As for me, I got to move two weeks earlier than I had expected. When offered the chance, I grabbed for it because I thought I was more than ready. For weeks I had culled books and all sorts of other items which would not be going with me. So, on the morning of the first of the five days it took to resettle, I thought I was in excellent shape. Not so! Not so! By day five my energy was completely spent.

I’m not going to tote up all the take-aways from this, but the experience did highlight one fundamental struggle that monks share with most people on the planet. In the course of my life I have accumulated all sorts of stuff, and much of it falls into the category of clutter. Saint Benedict cautions about the price monks pay for private property, and it’s not just a matter of the aches and pains when it comes time to move. It really boils down to something more elemental. Do I own all the stuff in my room, or does that stuff own me? By the end of the move I had my doubts about who owned whom.

The entire business also gave me a newfound empathy for anybody who’s ever made the decision to downsize. In my case the experience forced me to come to terms with whatever shred of a legacy I leave behind. In the sparest of terms, do I want to be recalled as the guy who owned all this stuff, or do I wish to be remembered for something greater? I suppose that in the phrasing of the question I’ve tipped my hand.

In the process I’m reminded of my baptism, in which God calls me — and all Christians — to sacred duties. On the list of duties is the invitation to be a good steward of whatever talents and relationships and things that come my way in life. Keeping all that in healthy balance is a huge challenge, but it’s also what makes my life an ongoing work of art. What greater vocation can there be?

NOTES

+On July 12th I began a week’s service as reader at evening prayer.

+On July 12th I began the move from my old room in the Quadrangle, where I had lived for twenty-five years, and into my new room. Likely the most dramatic change is the window that looks down onto the cloister garden and comes with a panorama of the architecture at Saint John’s. As the photo at top suggests, it is nicer than the skylight view that I did not particularly enjoy in my former room.

+On July 16th I presided at the burial service of Saint John’s University alumnus Doug St. Onge. Among his many activities, Doug served in the Minnesota legislature, and for three terms he represented his home town of Bemidji. The service took place in the abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

+On July 17th I participated in a memorial celebration of my friend Bob White, who passed away last December. Bob’s wife Jo was the spark-plug that led to the creation of The Saint John’s Bible, and together they had a huge impact on my life. The event took place at the University Club in St. Paul.

+In recent years we have begun to vary our landscape by introducing plantings that accent the lawns at Saint John’s. The second photo above shows a hillside overlooking the lake that used to be lawn. The lawn was dangerous to maintain, and it’s amazing that no one ever got hurt mowing it. Meanwhile, the flowers make for a wonderful display. The bottom two photos show scenes from the wetlands at Saint John’s, which continue to get a stream of visitors even during the pandemic.