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Dinner Guests from the Bible

If I could host anybody from the Bible at a dinner party, whom would I invite?  Someone asked me that the other day, and I have to admit I’d not really thought about it before.  But it’s a great question because there’s such a wide range of characters to choose from.  Who would make my A-list, and who would be discreetly omitted?

It’s actually more fun to consider those whom I wouldn’t invite.  For sure Cain wouldn’t get an invitation, nor would Samson.  They’d be too rowdy.  Nor would most of the prophets, simply because so many of them were difficult to live with.  And it’s nothing personal, but I’d turn Herod away at the door simply because his presence could make the other guests just a little nervous.

F495F3EE-FE85-4EAF-BD8D-45A198CD5703My A-list would be surprisingly long.  David and Solomon would make it, most definitely.  Neither was perfect, but as kings they knew how to behave properly at dinners.  Rebecca would be there for her cleverness and Mary Magdalene for the wonderful stories I hope she would tell.  For his conversation Paul would be fascinating if not scintillating.  And Jesus would be at the top of my list.  He’d be there not because of favoritism on my part but based solely on his reputation.

The gospels portray Jesus as accomplished on the banquet circuit, and they provide lots of evidence to back that up.  At Cana, for instance, he helped out with the wine, which spared the hosts a lot of embarrassment.  He was a gracious guest at the home of Zachaeus and an equally gracious host at the Last Supper.  Clearly he had thought about the art of dining and conversation, as many of his parables suggest.

82F04CE0-6386-49FB-9AC1-070395C3E2EEThen there are a few individuals whom I would not have thought to invite, and John the Baptist is one of them.  It’s not because he was a nobody, because today we honor his memory all over the place.  My own monastery is dedicated to him, and the Order of Malta is actually the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — to name but two from a myriad of examples.  Still, I have to believe that John didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.  For one, the Bible makes no mention of any polished manners, and he seems to have had none of the savoir-faire of Jesus.  He didn’t care much about food, as his diet of locust and honey suggests.  Nor did he care much about fine clothes, because he was definitely not known as a snappy dresser.

More to the point, John was the sort of person who readily said what was on his mind.  It’s true that people went miles out of their way and into the desert to hear him, but it wasn’t because of any reputation for glamour.  All of that makes him a rather intriguing figure, but I wonder if people weren’t willing to risk having him at a dinner party.

D319D554-959D-48C1-91CB-17759C9C262EOn the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist steps onto the stage and into the story leading to the Nativity of Jesus.  He’s intriguing, but for reasons that distinguish him from Jesus.  He preached in the wilderness and not in synagogues or in Jerusalem.  He didn’t carry himself like a rabbi, in contrast to Jesus.  And while he too had disciples, he certainly didn’t run around with the smart set.  Yet, like Jesus, he was a powerful preacher.  Like Jesus he didn’t always tell people what they wanted to hear;  but also like Jesus he was not afraid to tell people what they needed to hear.

I sort of hate to admit it, but there’s real value in having someone like John the Baptist sit at our table.  He might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, but without someone to call us out of ourselves, how would we ever become aware of the larger world?  Without someone to awaken us to our potential for growth, how would we ever crawl out of our comfort zone and achieve the things we never thought possible?  Without someone like John the Baptist, how would we ever own up to the mistakes we make?  John, in short, is a mind-expander.  He urges us to examine ourselves and be self-aware.  He points to paths of which we are unaware, and he tells us that the Lord is waiting for us, just ahead.

When all is said and done I suspect that each of us needs someone like John the Baptist.  Such people help us to find our way through life.  They remind us that the path to a full life is one that includes God.  And if that sounds a bit difficult or inconvenient, consider the ultimate reward of a life well lived.

I suppose then that it’s worth the risk to invite John the Baptist to sit at our table.  He may not make our A list, but consider how wonderful it could be to host a guest who only wishes the best for us.

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+As we progress through Advent many of our monks assist with penance services at area parishes.  On December 5th I assisted at the Church of Saint Martin, in Saint Martin, MN.  It’s a parish that the monks of Saint John’s have served since its foundation in 1858, and our confreres Frs. Edward and Julius serve there today.  Located about twenty miles west of Saint John’s, it was the first time I had ever visited the small town of Saint Martin.

+On December 6th I flew to Naples, FL, where I attended a meeting of supporters of our scholarship program that enrolls alumni of Immokalee High School at Saint John’s University.  This spring we will graduate our first two students from Immokalee, and it’s been a wonderful experience.  To say the least, their experience at Saint John’s has been transformative.

+On December 3rd we hosted the members of next year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps at evening prayer.  The 26 soon-to-graduate seniors of Saint John’s University comprise the largest group of Volunteers that we’ve ever sent out, and they will serve in thirteen monasteries in twelve countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

+The first three photos in today’s post are Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, a work of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Italian, ca.  1465-1501.  It is now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, as are the following two photos showing John the Baptist and the Last Supper.  The latter were originally part of an altar panel, and date from ca. 1490, France. At bottom is the cohort of Benedictine Volunteers for next year.  Our confrere Fr. Timothy supplied the photo.

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Wake Up!  (a bit of advice for Advent)

Once a month we monks at Saint John’s set aside a day for reflection.  From rising until dinner we are silent — save for prayer — and the abbot convenes us for a spiritual conference in the chapter house.

Given that we already live in a monastery, it’s fair to ask why in the world we’d need to do this extra stuff.  Aren’t twenty-nine or thirty days a month in church enough already?  Well, the answer is yes, and no.

Monks follow a religious regimen that most people would consider more than adequate.  But for a moment consider where we’re coming from.  Just because we go to church several times a day, and just because we practice all sorts of other rituals, that doesn’t keep us from turning it all into a numbing round of activity.  And therein is the value of an occasional day off to get a grip on ourselves.  Whether we do a lot or a little or nothing, slippping into an unexamined routine can rob life of its intensity.  That’s why we — and anybody — should do this sort of thing.

794354BC-0C9A-472B-9CEC-AB17E8FB850AFrom a seasonal point of view Saturday’s conference had real possibilities.  Advent was to begin the next day, and in the gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus urges people to “be awake.”  It’s just the sort of advice we need to hear once in a while, and it was the theme that Abbot John chose to focus on, in hopes of stirring us on a sleepy Saturday morning.

However, I began to wonder if he was about to fritter the opportunity away with his opening comment.  He reminded us that Saint Benedict says nothing about Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  On the other hand Benedict does say that the lives of monks ought to be like a Lenten observance.  But as for Advent, Benedict says nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  It’s like the season doesn’t even exist, which naturally made me wonder.  Was it because in 6th-century Italy they didn’t have Black Friday or the pre-Christmas shopping season?  Or was it because there were as yet no shopping malls to give meaning to the season of Advent?  We’ll likely never know.  But having mulled over Saint Benedict’s telling omission, I began to wonder why the abbot had roused us out of our reverie on a Saturday morning.  Did he do it just so he could tell us that Advent was unmonastic?

Abbot John did not choose to go in that direction.  But his opening bit did succeed in priming the pump for my own sometimes irreverent thoughts.  And so, once again, last Saturday morning I reaffirmed the value of an Advent observance, even in a Benedictine monastery, and even for me.

7BF6B804-B562-4AE8-A538-B7EA19C19FDEIn the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus makes this point:  “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you like a trap.”  (Luke 21: 34).  Drowsiness is the problem, and the  day to which Jesus refers is the day of the coming of the Lord.  And if we let the complexities of daily life overwhelm us then there may be unintended consequences.  The Lord will come, but we’ll be the last to know that he had been standing right in front of our noses and we hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe that’s why Saint Benedict doesn’t bother to write anything about the season of Advent.  Maybe it’s because he presumes that monks — and all Christians for that matter — should be aware that Advent goes on around us all the time.  Granted, the gospel speaks of the day when we will stand before the Lord at the end of time;  but all the same the Lord isn’t exactly hiding from us right now.

In fact, Jesus is in front of us, in plain sight, each and every day.  For that reason Benedict writes that the monk should see Christ in the guest, in the elderly and sick, in the abbot and in the youngest monks.  And the same applies to everyone else.  Whether it’s in the poor and sick, in the lonely or struggling, or in the person who needs our kind word or smile, the Lord makes cameo appearances all the time.  So it is that the Lord’s advent is present to us every day;  and if once a year we need a season to serve as a reminder to us, then so be it.

That explains the urgency in the words of Jesus.  He’s coming, but not just at the end of time.  Advent is the season when we deliberately rouse ourselves from our routine and admit how incredibly blessed we are.  We have the chance to meet the Lord — today.  Why wouldn’t we want to stay awake for that?

3F972559-CFD9-4B8A-A48C-9899BE27BCE1NOTES

+On November 27th I presided and preached at the Eucharist for members of the San Francisco area Order of Malta, who had gathered for their annual meeting.

+On December 1st we had our monthly day of reflection, and we assembled for a conference written by Abbot John.  Because that morning the abbot was away to preside at the funeral of his aunt, Brother David-Paul was delegated to read the abbot’s conference to the community.

+On December 1st the football team of Saint John’s University ended its season with a loss in the NCAA Division III playoffs.  The game took place in Belton, TX, which is a small town in central Texas.  Oddly enough, I’ve been there a few times.  My grandparents lived near there, and my father was born in nearby Westphalia, TX.

+A few days ago the nation and Saint John’s lost a wonderful scholar and friend.  Dr. James Billington served as the Librarian of Congresss for ages, and he was generous in his energy and expertise in arranging an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Library of Congress.  He also spoke at an event at Saint John’s, and our last encounter took place when he gathered in the office of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis.  In the presence of Pope Francis, the Speaker, Abbot John and a few others, Dr. Billington accepted a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, to mark the occasion of the Pope’s visit.  That set now resides in the Library of Congress.

+At the top of this post is a photo of the Advent wreath in the abbey church.  We also have a second large wreath in the refectory.  Below that are two photos of the abbey chapter house, where we gather for spiritual conferences and meetings.  While it may seem a substantial building, it’s dwarfed by many of its medieval counterparts, as illustrated by the two photos of the chapter house at Canterbury Cathedral.  As you might imagine, I prefer our cushioned seats to the stone benches at Canterbury.

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Is Christ Our King?

Six evenings a week, during dinner, one of the monks reads to the rest of us as we eat.  He opens with a short chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict, during which we sit in silence.  Then he turns to some book, and as he begins to read we begin to eat.  And so it goes, and we usually go through that book cover to cover, no matter how many weeks or months it takes.

As you can imagine, it’s tough to find a book that suits every taste.  Still, every now and again there’s a text that grabs our collective attention, at least for a while.  This fall we read just such a book, one entitled The Pope Who Would Be King.

To me it was fascinating to learn how Pope Pius IX struggled to hold on to the Papal States in the 1860s, even as the Italian nationalist armies closed in on Rome.  For a thousand years popes had ruled a big chunk of central Italy, and they presided not so much as popes but as kings.  They administered justice, tried to keep the peace, and managed an economy.  A few of them even put on armor and led their troops in the field.    Likely the most famous of these was Julius II, who earned the title The Warrior Pope for wearing armor at the siege of Bologna.  And then there were the mixed messages that resulted from being both pope and king.  Just a few days ago Pope Francis spoke of the thief whom the papal executioner beheaded in the 1860s.  Francis recalled the story with regret, but he also noted that that’s the way it was back then.  For better and largely for worse, many in the Church could not imagine an independent pope without an independent papal state to protect him.

57C125FB-C6BB-421C-83D5-131150E5D696Well, the Papal States fell anyway, despite the prayers of Pius IX.  And if he never got over it, popes like John XXIII and John Paul II and Francis have never regretted the loss for a minute.  Who could possibly want the responsibility of governing central Italy?!

I bring all this up as a preamble to a few thoughts I’d like to share on the feast of Christ the King.  To me it’s always seemed oddly out of place to think of Jesus Christ as king.  Granted that there have been many good kings, it’s also true that the word king carries a lot of baggage.  So when I think of kings I recall Henry VIII and Louis XIV and the Russian tsars.  Their royal authority seemed to be all about power and its arbitrary exercise.  And as for the common people and individual rights, those concerns scarcely mattered.  This was the sort of authority that marched young men by the millions into the trenches of World War I, and it was a march from which those same millions never returned.  So for better or for worse, that’s what I think of when I hear the word king.  And king is a word I don’t usually pin on Jesus Christ.

In today’s gospel Jesus goes out of his way to stress that he is no earthly king.  To Pilate he protests that he has not come into this world to take and exercise power.  He has come neither to crush the opposition nor to force people to live by rules he would impose on them.  If he were a king, Jesus told Pilate, he would be a different kind of king and his kingdom would not be of this world.

BAE143F4-491A-4EA6-B1B2-55E2900D5D62If Jesus is king, then what in the world does that mean?  Is it merely longing for the good old days when churches exercised power in contests with secular authority?  Perhaps a few yearn for a return to those days;  but if we are to believe the words in today’s gospel, it cannot be that way for a follower of Jesus.

Obviously there’s a lot more to kingship than the exercise of raw power, and that’s what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Pilate.  The kingship of Jesus is an intangible one.  It’s one that looks forward to the day when Christ will be all in all.  Jesus anticipates the day when he as king will wipe away every tear and clothe each one of us in the dignity for which he created us.  And that is when we will finally set foot into the kingdom of God.

But if that describes the day of resurrection, what might the kingship of Jesus mean for us here and now?  Ought it make any difference when we walk out of this church?  Well, I’d like to offer two points for us to mull over.

First, as king Jesus asks us to take stock of the direction of our lives.  Down what paths have we chosen to walk?  What are our values?  To what or to whom do we orient ourselves?  Do we exploit other people?  Do we live mainly to acquire stuff and push other people around?  Do we live for the moment, with no regard for the feelings of others?  Certainly people choose these options, and I confess that there have been moments when I’ve been in that number.  But unfortunately these are traits of the kingship that Jesus rejects.

8F66A809-EF03-4747-AF09-117F1C74B381For his part Jesus as king offers an alternative model to earthly kingship, and it’s one that has a focus on the needs of others.  As king Jesus begins and ends by asking us to make the most of our talents — wasting neither the opportunity to develop them nor the chance to use them in service to others.  In short, Jesus invites us to share in his nobility, and it’s a nobility not of blood but of service.

Second, when Jesus asks us to clothe ourselves in a nobility of spirit, we must remember one important bit.  His is an invitation and not a command.  Jesus respects our freedom, and he does not determine in advance our success or failure.  Each of us must choose how to live our lives, and so we have the option to make the most of our lives or the option to choose blind alleys and dead ends.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, who as king awaits us with open arms at the end of time.  But life with Jesus also begins now, and he sets before us his invitation to live in a nobility that has little to do with power and everything to do with a service of love to one another.

So today let our prayer be simple and pure.  “Lord you have called each of us to share in your royal priesthood, and you have set us apart for sacred duties.  Be with us always as we try to translate into deeds the words with which you encourage us.  Amen.”

7BEE6903-076A-49E2-B4E1-BE90D460F054NOTES

+On Sunday November 25th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered.  It is based on the gospel for the day, John 18: 33-37.  The book to which I refer is by David Kertzer and entitled The Pope Who Would Be King:  The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018.)

+On November 24th I attended the football game between Saint John’s and Whitworth University, which Saint John’s won 45-24.  Saint John’s now continues into the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.  That game will be in Texas, and I won’t be there.

+On November 24th we celebrated the memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac and his fellow Vietnamese martyrs.  Brother Emmanuel, a Vietnamese Cistercian monk studying with us, read the first text Vietnamese, which I think must be a first in the abbey church.  Then he and three of his confreres sang the meditation Psalm in Vietnamese, which also had to be a first for us.

+Thanksgiving, as usual, was a lovely day and dinner in the abbey refectory was both festive and good.  That afternoon I celebrated by taking a walk and by spending two hours watching and listening to John Rutter music videos.  I am a major fan of English choral music, and I thoroughly enjoy Rutter’s work.  And as for Thanksgiving, I count it as the official start of  the choral Christmas music season.

+The photos in today’s post all show images from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.  Typical of medieval cathedrals, Jesus sits in majesty in the tympanum over the entry, from which perch he greets pilgrims and reminds them that someday he will have the final word.

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Salvation:  A Gift, Not a Commodity

Sometimes it can be a stretch to figure out what Jesus is getting at in some of his teaching.  What’s the issue that bothers him?  What’s behind the testy response that he sometimes gives to people?  Even the apostles had to wonder once in a while, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we have our own questions too.  And so, for example, when Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of God among us” or “within us,” what in the world is he talking about?

In college I read what was for me a mind-expanding book entitled Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety.  In it the English scholar E. R. Dodd outlined what he saw to be a fundamental divide between pagans and Christians in the 3rd century;  and it centered on an issue that ironically still haunts some Christians today.

BA9CC741-4B38-491F-853F-219EBCC7AEF4The anxiety about which Dodd wrote has to do with our relationship with God — or the gods in the case of the pagans.  At the end of the day, after the last bull or lamb or goat has been sacrificed, can we ever be sure that we have appeased the gods?  Have we done the rituals correctly?  Are the gods happy or upset with our performance?  In the pagan world we never really know; and if we worry about those sorts of things, then the anxiety will never end.

This is where Jesus offers us a radically different approach.  At the end of the day it doesn’t really mattter how many bulls we have sacrificed or whether everything has been ritually correct.  That’s because salvation is not a commodity to be bought or earned, but rather it is a gift to be accepted.  Salvation is a gesture of love from a generous God as well as a relationship to be lived.  But it is definitely not the result of some heartless contractual relationship.

That provides the context for Luke 17: 20-25, a passage in which Jesus brushes aside the legalism and says that the kingdom of God is to be found within us.  God’s kingdom is no visible state with magistrates and a legislative code designed to appease a demanding god.  Rather, the kingdom of God rests on the awareness that God loves us and reaches out to us — sometimes even in spite of ourselves.

So it is that Jesus reminds us of a different path to God — one in which God is not some distant observer.  Instead, God loves us and walks with us through the toughest moments of life and in the moments of greatest joy.  Jesus reassures us that God is no fearsome judge, looking to trip us up or catch us unawares when we stumble.  And finally God is not some distant or aloof being.  Rather like a parent or a friend, the Lord beckons us to make a place for him in our hearts.

To my mind, at least, that’s what Jesus intends as he speaks to us of the kingdom of God within us.  That’s how Jesus reassures us that God prefers a pure heart — one in which there’s room for God to live and love.  Make no mistake about this, however.  In such a heart are found the normal anxieties of human life.  But never for a minute should there be a doubt about God’s love for us.  That, I would submit, is the good news of the gospel.  That’s the gospel of the Lord.

C715E218-0F04-4404-9F9D-716B0512DB0CNOTES

+Perhaps the highlight of the week for me was my arrival in New York for a meeting.  As the taxi turned onto the block where the hotel was located, it was clear that something was amiss.  Stretched out ahead of us were a block and a half of fire trucks, and the street was pretty much blocked off.  Thankfully the hotel was at the near end of the block, and so I could get out and cross the street and enter the hotel.  That’s when I realized that all those trucks were there to visit the hotel.  There had been a fire, and it was quite a while before I could check in.  Besides the aroma of smoke, most of the elevators were out for a couple of days.  That made a trip up or down a major expedition.  On Sunday morning it took twenty minutes of waiting to get an elevator down.  I assumed that it was the rush to get to church, since that’s where I was headed.

+I was happy to read in our School of Theology newsletter that our confrere Fr. Dale Launderville has been elected president of the Catholic Biblical Association.  Fr. Dale is dean of the School of Theology at Saint John’s and is a prolific and respected researcher and writer.

+Today’s post is a sermon I delivered this week on Luke 17: 20-25.

+One of the surprises of the Camino to Santiago was the visit that we made to the cathedral in Astorga.  The town itself dates back to Roman times, but obviously the cathedral arrived a bit later.  It is filled with dramatic gilded side chapels, as the third photo indicates.

+Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, and not just because there is no vigil Mass that keeps us up well into the night.  Our normal routine is to gather for Mass at 11 am on Thanksgiving Day, and shortly afterwards we head to the refectory to enjoy the traditional feast.  In advance, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving Day!

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Sometimes God Makes No Sense

We’re so used to the cadence of some gospel passages that we sometimes miss entirely the occasional bits of odd logic that Jesus uses to make a point.  Take for example the two rhetorical questions that he poses in Luke 15: 1-10.  “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  He follows up with the story of a woman who’s lost a coin, turns the house upside-down in search of it, and then hosts a party when she finds it.  What woman wouldn’t do such a thing, he wonders aloud.

I’m neither a shepherd nor a woman, so I cannot speak with absolute certainty about the wisdom of either course of action.  All the same, it strikes me that no sensible shepherd would abandon ninety-nine sheep in the desert.  Losing one sheep may be bad, but to risk losing the rest of the flock for the sake of the one seems absolutely crazy to me.  If it were me I’d cut my losses and move the ninety-nine to safer pastures.

24F84D59-A0C4-4C69-A2C5-FEA897836C31The same goes for the woman and the lost coin.  I could see myself turning the house inside-out to find a sack filled with securities or bundles of currency, but not for a coin.  And as for inviting the neighbors in to celebrate, forget it.  The last thing I’d want to advertise would be my financial carelessness.

In fact, in both of these scenarios Jesus expects his hearers to react with incredulity.  Reasonable people simply don’t behave in these ways, and Jesus knows it.  But that’s his point.

God’s ways are not our ways, and what Jesus is trying to tell us is that out of love for us God will sometimes do what seems to us the irrational.  God will even send the Son to save us, undeserving though we certainly are.  And that point depends upon the absurd logic in the gospel passage.

God loves us more than we’ll ever imagine or deserve, and for that love we ought to be grateful.  In spite of everything, and whether in thick or thin, God promises to stick with us.  And even when it makes no sense to us at all, God will send the Son to fetch us when we stray or are lost.  Such is the nature of unconditional love.

45EEBDCF-75D3-493E-A723-F6485118E132NOTES

+Winter returned rather abruptly this past week and it managed to stretch my trip to the airport on November 7th from the more normal hour and a half to nearly four hours.  The snow amounted to a couple of inches, but it was enough to remind a lot of people that they had forgotten how to drive on ice and snow.  My first big white-knuckle moment came ten miles east of the abbey when I passed a major accident with three semis and a bunch of cars.  They looked like toys, strewn along the sides of the overpass.  It got better after that, but it was incredibly slow.

+On November 8th I spoke at the monthly meeting of Legatus on Long Island, New York.  Preceding the talk I presided and preached at a Mass for the members, held at Saint Joseph’s Church in Garden City, NY.  Today’s post is an amended version of the sermon I gave that evening.

+On Saturday the 10th I attended the final game of the football season, which Saint John’s won handily.  That capped a perfect 10-0 season.  It was cold, and in the second quarter it started to snow — so much so that they had to sweep the snow off the lines on the field.  In a pre-game interview a reporter asked the coach of Thomas More College whether he was ready to play in the cold.  To which he replied:  “We should be fine with that.  Last week we played in Cincinnati where it was 55.”  Somebody must not have told him that it was 17 outside.  I’m sure it had no impact on their ability to play well.

96769FE2-4EFB-4A57-BB8A-298151CA60CD+Also on Saturday I presided at the cemetery service for Saint John’s alumnus Don Coy.  Don lived a long and wonderful life, and we all pardoned the snow as Don’s last act of whimsy in a life well-lived.  The scene was beautiful, since the snow transformed the cemetery.  And when the soldier played taps as the snow fell silently, there was scarcely a dry eye among us.

+November 9th is the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome.  Most people are entirely unaware that it is the cathedral church of Rome — and Saint Peter’s is not.  But no matter.  It’s a great place to visit, and despite the fact that there is much to see, tourists largely bypass it.  What I love most about it, however, is not the huge church but the 13th-century cloister.  Once upon a time a community of Benedictine monks staffed the basilica, and their cloister is a medieval treasure.  The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into that scarcely visited space.

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Who Is My Neighbor?

I’ve always thought of the Ten Commandments as the be all and end all of Old Testament law.  They are clear, concise, and to some extent measurable.  Either you’ve killed somebody, or you haven’t.  Either you’ve stolen or you haven’t.  Either you’ve sacrificed to idols or you haven’t.  And as for the others, there may be some grey area, but for the most part people know where they stand vis-a-vis God, at least as measured by the Ten Commandments.

But when you factor in the Two Great Commandments it’s a whole new ball game.  How do you know if you’ve loved God with your whole heart and soul and mind?  Can you ever be sure if you’ve loved your neighbor quite as much as yourself?  Of course therein is the problem — you can’t be sure.  You can only try, and then you hope for the best.

6EFAD66C-3190-43E6-82B9-983D3B5BEBDBJesus cites the Two Great Commandments as the epitome of the law and the prophets.  He reaches back to Deuteronony 6 and quotes them word for word, and he exalts them — not as yardsticks by which to measure behavior — but as ideals through which we reach out to an infinitely loving God.  And as a necessary corollary we, as deeply flawed people, extend ourselves in love to our equally flawed neighbors.  Clearly it is a legal burden too much for us to bear, but that’s the point.  It’s really meant to be an invitation to share somehow in a communion with God, this side of paradise.

In some respects we can embrace the Two Great Commandments as ideals that are beyond us, and so we do the best we can.  After all, no one expects perfection from us.  But it also strikes me that there’s something here that can really disrupt our lives, and the issue relates to the second of the two commands.  Specifically it has less to do with the command to love and more to do with the definition of neighbor.  Who, exactly, are our neighbors?  Are they the people next door?  Are they the people down the block or across town or in another city altogether?  That’s the crucial question which we all must answer.

As a medieval historian I’ve often speculated on the reaction that the early missionaries elicited from the German villagers when they introduced the command to love one’s neighbor.  Cultural historians suggest that when the missionaries said the word neighbor that their listeners were not at all on the same page.  The preachers likely intended neighbor to mean the stranger or any human being, because in the Christian perspective all are created in the image of God.  In the language of those villagers, however, neighbor meant a person from their village.  Anyone from beyond the limits of the village did not count as neighbor.

FC9357FF-52C7-418E-A03E-ABA90548856CIt was a big cultural leap for these people to expand the boundaries of the word neighbor.  At first it must have been a stretch to accept as neighbor someone from a nearby village.  The next stretch was to include someone from the region and then someone speaking a related language.  Only after a few generations could people comprehend the notion that anyone and everyone whom they might meet is a neighbor.  But once they understood that, then much of the gospel started to make sense.  So it was that they could finally appreciate the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus said that a neighbor could even be someone whom people scorn and despise.

It’s a perennial temptation to shrink the boundaries of who it is that is our neighbor.  It’s much easier to think of our friends as the limit of the word neighbor.  It’s tempting to push out of that circle the stranger or the poor or the people with whom we disagree.  And when we go so far as to demonize such people, then we have dismissed the second Great Commandment as not applicable to us.

Now more than ever we as Christians need to reaffirm with our Jewish neighbors our commitment to the Two Great Commandments.  And more specifically we must live out practically and on a daily basis our belief that all people are created in the image of God.  All people deserve our respect and our love.

But living out such an ideal is not easy.  It takes determination.  Still, Jesus asks us to stretch ourselves.  He asks us to reach beyond ourselves.  And he promises that the Spirit will be with us in those moments when we prefer to close our eyes to our neighbor.

CDC0489A-CD18-49E4-96D3-18BB3E602F51All this can be done, and there are moments when we’ve all done it.  Now more than ever our communities, our nation and the world need people who will try to be a neighbor to all, and we are some of those people.  So let us pray today that God who has begun this good work in us will bring it to completion.

NOTES

+On 30 October I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+At evening prayer on the eve of All Saints we hosted a large number of friends, staff and students.  It’s always wonderful to fill the choir stalls on such an occasion.

+On November 2-4 I gave a retreat to the Allentown, PA, members of the Order of Malta.  Today’s post is the sermon that I preached to them on Sunday, and it is based on Mark 12: 28-34.

+The photos in today’s post are a real mix.  Autumn in central Minnesota went very quickly and it was not one of our best in terms of colors.  But my weekend in Pennsylvania seemed to have coincided with some of the best color there.  The photo at top shows a scene from the grounds of our retreat at Mariawald Retreat Center, outside of Reading.  Further down the page is a photo of the convent, where we took our meals.  The second photo shows some of the last lingering color at Saint John’s, and below that are some ivy vines on a wall outside of the abbey refectory.  At bottom is the great clock in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.  Over the years I’ve taken many photos of time pieces, and I include this one to note the passing of Daylight Savings Time this past weekend..

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The Botafumeiro:  Gratuitous Praise of God

The Camino to Santiago has not yet become a distant memory for me.  I successfully completed it last Tuesday, and for several mornings since then I’ve awakened with a start, wondering how many miles I needed to do before the new day’s end.  It’s definitely not been a nightmare, but it’s demonstrated to me how tight a grip a walk of 75 miles can get on a person.

For a long time I’ve had a mantra that I heard ages ago from somebody I’d like to thank.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  It’s been an incentive for getting up on many a morning when I didn’t want to, and it’s helped me get lots of stuff done through the years.  But never did I find it so useful as on the Camino.  At the end of the first day, after walking nearly twelve miles, I and my colleagues were tired but we also had a sense of achievement.  The next morning those twelve miles had become yesterday’s little triumph;  but for the new day they counted for nothing.  So it was that the relentless grind of the daily walks required a fortitude we had not expected.

D1CE0D52-EC1C-442B-84BD-CCD37064E224That’s why I finished the Camino with a profound respect for all those pilgrims who’ve walked it through the centuries before ours.  It was no stroll in the park, and they faced obstacles we can scarcely imagine.  Centuries ago it took months to walk the Camino, and pilgrims faced bad weather, rugged paths, the occasional bandit and virtually no convenience stores or snack bars.  Only the monastic hostels along the way provided predictability.  And perhaps most startling of all, unlike modern travelers on the Camino, their pilgrimage was not complete when they got to Santiago.  They still had to walk home.

People in our group experienced all sorts of emotions along the way, but there was one moment when the light bulb went on for us all.  We had just spent four and a half hours hiking eleven miles through hilly terrain, and we were tired but pleased when we piled into the van to return to the hotel.  On the way back we passed our starting point for the day, and we gasped in unison.  It had taken less than fifteen minutes to get back, and we were stunned at how simple a job it was for the van.  In the blink of an eye we had retraced our steps, and it made shockingly real the difference a car can make.  Medieval pilgrims would have found it unimaginable.

What I recall most strongly is the sheer repetition of one foot after another, for hours on end.  Perhaps because of that I experienced none of the emotional spikes that many pilgrims bring home.  Perhaps previous trips to Lourdes had dampened my expectations.  Even the eventual sight of the cathedral in Santiago seemed unable to crack my stoic demeanor.  But then one thing broke through.

B510CABC-113C-4658-91CB-0642A656CBC7If it’s not the biggest censer in the world, the botafumeiro in the cathedal has to be a contender.  It stands over five feet tall and hangs on a rope that reaches to the ceiling of the transcept.  Its big moment comes at the end of the Pilgrims’ Mass, and as we gathered in front of the altar to feed the beast I could feel the anticipation.  First, one of the attendants shoveled in three scoops of coals, and three of the priests each spread a full cup of incense over them.  Then six guys pulled on the ropes and hoisted it up.  It was mesmerizing to watch as it hurtled back and forth through the transcepts.  And to his credit, the cathedral canon who was the main celebrant at the Mass had prepared us well.  He reminded us that the custom had begun centuries before, when smelly pilgrims had crowded the cathedral.  Pilgrims are no longer so fragrant, he noted, and so today they continue the custom but for a different reason.  “It’s gratuitous praise of God.”  And it worked.  I got goose-bumps as I witnessed a totally unnecessary ritual that brought joy to everyone in the cathedral.  The 75-mile walk had been worth it after all.

I’m not quite sure what all this will come to mean for me going forward, but two things stand out.  Despite my doubts at the end of the first day’s walk, I’m glad I kept at it every day and finished the Camino — on my feet.  It was worth it to show up and be able to play the game.  But the botafumeiro was the icing on the cake.  It reminded me that life is capable of throwing us some wonderful surprises, and all we have to do is show up for them.

579184D5-CD94-408F-B84C-5AB0ABF57630NOTES

+I count myself fortunate that I never tripped up, stepped into cow pies or got any blisters on the route to Compostela.  In fact, the only mishap was when I stubbed my toe on the bed post.  It still hurts, but I’ll get over it.

+On October 24th Brother Mariano Franco Mendez took his first vows as a monk of Saint John’s Abbey.  Joining us for the occasion were some forty people from the Latino community in nearby Cold Spring, where Brother Mariano helps out regularly.  After the Mass they joined us for a festive dinner in the abbey refectory.

+This week the abbey fire department and members of the Arboretum staff and student volunteers did a planned burn of the prairie that lines the entrance road to Saint John’s.  The burn came as a surprise to people driving by, but the procedure is necessary to keep the restored prairie alive and vital.

+The photos in today’s post show the cathedral at Santiago Compostela.  I took all of them save for that of the botafumeiro as it swung in front of the altar.  I’m the guy at center in red, so this was not a selfie.

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