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img_5162The Price of Perfection

One of my favorite illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible shows the wrinkled face of an elderly woman, staring out from a mirror.  Her face is weathered, and however else she may have acquired that look, she did not get it from an absence of toil or anxiety.  In fact, as the passage from the Book of Wisdom reads, she is the image of eternal light.  Her face shows the result of a lifetime of service to family, to friends, and to those in need.  And in contrast with our conventional notions of physical beauty, hers is the face of eternal beauty.  Hers is the face of perfection.

In Matthew 5:45 Jesus tells his disciples that they must be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect.  That’s a tall order, and to my mind it’s a recipe for disaster.  In fact it brings to mind the sin of Adam and Eve, who in their hubris wanted to be like God.  They reached out for the proverbial apple, in hopes that as gods themselves they would be eternal, perfect, and in no need to report to some higher force.  They would be all-knowing and entirely self-sufficient.  But the price for the bite into the forbidden fruit was the awesome realization of their own fallibility.  Their hopes for personal divinity did not square with the sudden shock of their own imperfection.  They could never be what they aspired to be, because their aspirations were self-delusional.

img_5153We know the price that many athletes pay in their quest for perfection on the playing field.  We are all too familiar with the psychological toll of those unrealistic efforts to achieve lasting physical beauty.  Sometimes more than a few of us come to terms too late with goals that are clearly beyond our reach.  That kind of perfection is both elusive and perhaps even self-destructive, because it seduces us with the notion that we can be who we cannot nor should not be.  That disconnect from our own reality, our gifts, and the unique path down which God calls us can leave us with irreparable harm.

When Jesus asks perfection of us, that perfection has nothing to do with physical beauty or athletic prowess or professional expertise.  Certainly none of these are in and of themselves bad, but Jesus reminds us that they are not what life is all about.  Rather, the beautiful life embraces in its arms family, friends, and neighbors.  It is they to whom we are called to pay attention, and it is they whom we should love, in the same measure that we love ourselves.

Sadly there is an unhealthy disconnect within people of obvious talent who leave a path of destruction as they wander through life.  Like the muggers in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they shove person after person into the ditch, expecting someone else to clean up the mess they’ve made.  God forbid that we should ever become such people, and that is what Jesus cautions.

img_5173It’s interesting that in his Rule Saint Benedict wrote no chapters on quality control or professional development.  It’s not that he didn’t care about such things, because he did.  But his primary concern were the healthy relationships that should exist among the monks.  Love and respect should be the bonds that bring them together and congeal them into a family.  All else is bonus.

So it is with all of us who strive for perfection.  The perfection to which Jesus calls each of us does not preclude ideal physical health or athletic prowess.  Nor does it belittle professional expertise.  But all of these are secondary to our love for one another.  If, come the autumn of our lives, we have no wrinkles to show for our service to our brothers and sisters and to the neighbors whom we stumble across in our meanderings, then something important is missing.  We’ve fallen short of the perfection that God hopes for each of us.

img_5168Notes

+In my last post I neglected to report that a few days ago a water pipe burst in the attic two floors above my office.  From a selfish point of view I was glad that the resulting flood missed me by four offices.  However, it did a lot of damage to offices of several of my colleagues down the hall and to the theology department on the floor above.  It turned out to be a mixed blessing for our office manager, Marie, who had put off the filing of mountains of material.  She was able to abridge all that work by sending everything to the dumpster.  Happily, there were electronic copies of most everything anyway.  She also consoled herself with the news that her son, Ben, a senior at Saint John’s University, had just been signed to play football in Europe with the Stockholm Crusaders.  I see game-day trips to Stockholm in her future.

+On February 18th the 2017 edition of Hymnfest took place in the Abbey church.  The Saint John’s Boys Choir and The National Lutheran Choir were the featured singers.

img_5221+The photos in today’s post show the monastery of Pedralbes, located at the edge of Barcelona.  It was founded in 1326 by Queen Elisenda de Moncada, the young (and third) wife of King Jaume II of Aragon.  He financed the construction of this abbey of Franciscan nuns so that she would have a place to live after his passing.  It is a highly unusual complex, for many reasons.  First off, it is the only three-storey cloister I have ever seen.  Second, because they had all the money in hand to build it, it took only some twenty years to construct.  As a result, it has a unified architectural style.  Best of all, it never suffered the ravages of war, and so all the elements of the original monastery are still in place.  The cloisters are serenely beautiful, and the dormitory (second photo) and the refectory (third photo) appear largely as they were built.  The nuns continued to live in it until the 1980’s, at which point they built a new monastery on the other side of the church.  I don’t blame them a bit, because  the old monastery had to be incredibly cold and impossible to heat in the winter.  Today it is a museum open to the public, while the nuns continue to pray in the adjoining church.  (At right is the screen that separates the nuns’ choir from the main body of the church.)  Pedralbes was a treat that I had not anticipated, and I’d return to see it in a heartbeat.

img_5194

img_4810Don’t Even Think About It

Perhaps a few too many times I’ve asked members of an audience whether they’ve killed anyone lately.  I admit that it’s an out-from-left-field question, but I enjoy the surprise I see on people’s faces because they rarely see that coming.  But I’m also careful about how I phrase the question, and I never ask for a show of hands.  You just never know when a few will get caught up in the moment, raise their hands enthusiastically, and then realize they’ve just incriminated themselves in front of a group of strangers.

These days I merely presume that no one has committed murder that day.  “And is that because of your deep devotion to the fifth commandment, or because of sloth?  Were you just too lazy to kill anyone this morning?  Or did you decide that the disruption to your schedule would be too much?”

Most people get the point.  It’s certainly one thing to kill someone, and it’s quite another to wish you had but didn’t.  The first might send you to hell, but the second will scarcely make you a saint, no matter the reason for your restraint.  The fact is, the thought does count, and that is the point that Jesus makes in his discourse on the commandments, at least in my opinion.

img_4811In Matthew 5 Jesus asserted that he had come to abolish neither the law nor the prophets.  However, a quick reading of his sermon in that chapter leaves the impression that he actually took the severity of the law and made it one degree tougher.  In one sense he did just that, but there he was merely being consistent in his teaching.

On more than one occasion Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, pointing out the obvious:  their exterior behavior masked an interior corruption.  They may project the image of fervent believers, but in their heart of hearts they are something different altogether.  Alive on the outside and dead on the inside, they have no right to lord it over others who are merely more obvious in their sinning.

So what is Jesus up to when he takes adultery as a for-instance and pushes it to the next level?  Who hasn’t lusted after someone else?  Are people who only think about adultery just as guilty as those who act out on their desires?  Are all equally guilty?  Or as Peter once asked, “Can no one be saved?”

There’s the rub, and I suspect that on more than one occasion Jesus turned to Peter with a delighted “Exactly!”  Jesus maximized the commandments and pushed them to their logical limits, to the point at which all of us are convicted of sin.  None of us can save ourselves because no one can follow the commandments perfectly.  And were we perfect, such adherence to each and every detail of the law is no more effective at pleasing God than a herd of cattle sent up as a burnt offering.  When all is said and done, we are all still sinners.  All of us are in need of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  We cannot save ourselves, and so we look to Jesus as he stretches out his arms to us from the cross.

img_4812Of course Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets.  Had he done so it would give us all permission to slip into personal and communal barbarism.  But Jesus does challenge us with a new commandment — to love one another as God has loved us.  Here too we fall short — sometimes painfully so — but this is the more positive direction that Jesus prescribes for us.

This brings to mind one last element that I often consider in my own life.  Theologians have described God as the good, the true and the beautiful.  Nowhere have I ever read that God is the legally-correct.  God’s never excused himself by relying on some technicality, and I think God must chuckle at all the technicalities that we run by him when we fall short of being good, true and beautiful.  With the patience of a parent, however, God urges us on, with words that may seem tough but in fact are quite hopeful.

So it is that God still says to us “Thou shalt not kill.”  But to it he adds this hearty postscript:  “And don’t even think about it.”  Apparently God expects a lot from us, but he saves us nonetheless.

img_4871Notes

+On February 8th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to twenty-five guests of my good friend Mary Rudden, who lives in San Francisco.  The nucleus of the group consisted of members of her book club, and to my surprise I discovered that most of them are readers of this blog.  I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet them over the luncheon that followed.

+On February 9th I and my confrere Fr. Don Talafous hosted a group of twenty-five alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, at a reception held in the refectory of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  I was grateful for their willingness to brave the storms to attend that evening.

+My travels to and from San Francisco were quite memorable.  The outbound plane from Minneapolis was delayed an hour, and once half of us were on board we all had to get off because of mechanical difficulties.  They eventually brought in a replacement plane, and we arrived hours late.  On the return trip our plane arrived forty-five minutes early.  Thank goodness, because I needed that extra time to drive home.  It turned out that one tire on my car was low.  I stopped to fill it with air, and a few miles later I checked it again.  That’s when I discovered the bolt that was lodged in it.  I got the tire changed and drove home on the spare, but it meant slow speeds on side roads rather than on the interstate.  Off of the interstate you see marvelous things, including the cars driving and parked in the middle of Big Lake in Big Lake, MN, and also on another lake outside of Becker, MN.  They were ice fishing, of course.  I also discovered a town I never knew existed in Minnesota:  Santiago.  Who would have thought.  So it all turned out to be an adventure.

img_4869+As I promised in last week’s post, I am including an example of 12th-century Catalan art that I found rather gruesome, in a detached sort of way.  It is an altar frontal from the church of Sant Quirc de Durro, and it is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The lower two photos show the more benign subject matter of another altar frontal, this one from the church of Sant Andreu de Baltarga, ca. 1200.

 

img_4830Growing in Age and Wisdom

We can only imagine what went through the minds of Joseph and Mary as they approached the temple to dedicate their son to God.  For any Jewish family this was a momentous occasion, but of course their experience up to that point had been a bit unsettling.  Then the ominous words of Simeon had to inject even more anxiety.  Their child was to be the cause for the rise and fall of many in Israel.  What did this old man see in their son that they did not yet see?  What was happening to them?

As the gospels suggest, the next few years must have been quiet ones.  That may explain the skepticism that greeted Jesus when he began his ministry.  People thought they knew him, and there had seemed nothing unusual about him.  So came the ultimate put-down:  wasn’t he just a carpenter, the son of Mary?  And if nothing good ever came from Nazareth, could someone remarkable come from Nazareth?  “We think not,” was the derisive conclusion of many.

Part of this response to Jesus was due to the circumstances of his upbringing.  If people expected all the good and important things to come from Jerusalem, then nothing of real value could come from out-of-the-way places like Nazareth.  Beyond that, there was nothing to hint that Jesus had the training or the capacity to be a mover or a shaker.  He was a nobody, the son of nobodies, from a no-place town.  This was type-casting at its normal, and small wonder that people tried to box Jesus in with such thoughts — especially in his home town.

img_4829Typecasting is a convenient way to sort people out, and its grip can be iron-clad and last a lifetime.  What makes it so destructive is that we bless some people with unreasonably high expectations and overlook their flaws, even as we dismiss the talents of others.  Common to each extreme is the tendency to take a quick inventory of others that falls short of their true essence.  So it is that we meet people early in life and forever after our assumptions about them go unchallenged.  We never give them a chance to break out of the pigeon-hole to which we’ve assigned them.  Sadly, not a few go on to live up to the expectations people ascribe to them.

So it could have been with Jesus.  He could have grown up to be a simple and unassuming carpenter.  Yet, somewhere along the line, he broke free from the stereotype which others had imposed on him.  He grew in age and wisdom, even as few people watched.  Eventually he had to be about his Father’s business, and the people who thought they knew him were more than a little surprised.  They had not counted on this, and when Jesus did not step back into his assigned role, they were disturbed.

img_4832If people did this to Jesus, it’s good for us to realize that we do this all the time to each other.  We meet so many people, and we often rely on the memory of first impressions to keep track of everybody.  But then we are oblivious to the growth that quietly takes place in them, and we miss the talents that are latent within them.  Happily, some have the fortitude to break out of the mould that others impose on them;  but too many accept it and then live up to expectations.

To no one’s surprise, we often do this to ourselves as well.  Often enough it’s just easier to pursue the path of least resistance and make do with our lives.  We fail to step forward and rise to the occasion.  We fail to accept some of the talents that we’ve been given, and a lot of our potential goes unrealized.  We lose out on life, and others never benefit from what we might bring in service.

img_4778At least two things strike me as the antidote to these tendencies.  The first involves the need to be open to others.  Saint Benedict in his Rule asks the abbot to seek advice from even the youngest in the monastery.  He notes dryly that wisdom can reside in the most unexpected of places — even in the young.  Translated to another level, Benedict suggests we should always be keen to see the potential in others and encourage them to grow into it.  Any other course of action impoverishes us all.

The second suggestion has to do with ourselves.  Growth in wisdom is not restricted to our early years.  We can grow and develop at any age, and we should embrace the challenges that life sends our way, rather than retreat from them.  If Jesus could grow in age and wisdom, then so can we.

Through prayer Jesus learned the will of his Father for him, and he accepted and acted upon it.  That’s why we too pray.  We pray especially because we all have plenty to do, at every age, and the Lord gives us the energy and the drive to grow.  All we need do is ask.

img_4775Notes

+During my recent trip to Barcelona I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite museums in all the world.  I spent almost an entire day in the Museum of Catalan Art, which has a vast collection ranging from Romanesque to modern.  On my first visit years ago the collection of Romanesque frescos especially intrigued me, and it is the largest such collection anywhere.  The genesis of the collection was due to foreign acquisition of such frescoes at the turn of the last century, and as an example of such a purchase you can visit the Fontedueña Apse at the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Alarmed that they were losing their patrimony, officials of the museum visited the many derelict churches in the mountains outside of Barcelona, carefully removed the frescos, and reassembled them in the Museum.  Today they awe visitors with their scale, majesty and striking abstract qualities.  They heavily influenced Picasso when he first viewed them, and today there is a permanent exhibit of Picasso alongside the exhibit of frescos.

img_4782The first three photos in today’s post originally were in the parish church of Santa María in Taüll, and the fourth photo shows an 11th-century fresco from the Monastery of Sant Pere del Burgal.  Below that is a ca. 1200 fresco from the church of Santa María d’Aneu.  In addition to the frescos there is also an extensive number of statues and altar frontals, such as the last photo in today’s post.  It comes from a parish church in the diocese of Urgell and it dates from the 12th century.  The variety of holdings is amazing, and next week I plan to insert pictures of an altar frontal that will knock your socks off.

img_4113Better to Have Lived and Loved

[I delivered the following sermon on 29 January as guest preacher at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo, ND.]

I feel myself quite privileged to be with you this morning, particularly during a week of the year in which many Christian communities pray for closer ties, if not for some sort of unity in the Lord.  That said, we have to acknowledge that this is one of the few really big things for which we pray where we’ve actually made progress over the years.  We pray for world peace, and yet world peace eludes us.  We pray for an end to hunger and disease around the world and wonder if we ever make any headway.  But when it comes to better relations among churches, we’ve made astonishing progress over the last fifty years.

We could read from a long list of encounters between various leaders of the churches, but none of that matters unless we experience something on a personal level.  In my own case the Episcopal Church has impacted me especially when it comes to music.  It’s no secret that for the last five hundred years the Anglican Communion has had a near-monopoly on all the best hymns in English;  and thankfully it’s shared them with churches far less blessed.  In high school I first discovered the richness of The 1940 Hymnal.  Then at Saint John’s Abbey, where I’ve been a monk for more years than I care to say, The 1982 Hymnal remains the source of first and last resort when we’re in need of a good hymn.  If and when you visit Saint John’s, you’ll discover a copy of that book sitting alongside two other hymnals in our choir stalls.  And if you sing with us you’ll realize how much that musical tradition has contributed to our worship.

img_4328Last year I happened to walk along Park Avenue in New York, and as I passed Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church the sign outside the door caught my eye.  The message was simple, warm, and very familiar to me.  It came from The Rule of Saint Benedict, and it’s something that guides our day in the monastery.  “Let all guests be received as Christ.”  If that’s appropriate for a monastery, it’s even more so for a church.  It’s a reminder that the parish church is not some exclusive club.  And if we see the face of Christ in our guests, then it means that Christ is out there walking in the streets.  He’s not just sitting in our sanctuaries.  That, it seems to me, is both a sobering and yet wonderful thought.

In today’s gospel passage from Matthew we read once again the Beatitudes.  It’s a passage we could all afford to read a little more often, because it’s a job description for what it means to be Christian.  The Beatitudes rely upon the same passage which inspired Saint Benedict’s thoughts on guests, and it’s familiar to us all.  Jesus tells us that what we do for the least of people, we do for him, and the Beatitudes translate that high-minded sentiment into lived reality.  They distinguish Christians as a people set apart.  And if by chance we seem out of step with society, it’s not because we are eccentric.  We’ve elected instead to view all of life from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

img_4292I have to confess that for much of my life I have had some difficulty with the Beatitudes.  The fact is, Jesus has taken some undesirable experiences and turned them upside-down and inside-out.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example.  Who among us really wants to be poor in spirit?  Even if I knew exactly what Jesus meant by that, it still sounds like depression to me.  “Blessed are they who mourn.”  Who wants to spend time mourning?  Wouldn’t we rather be happy 100% of the time?  “Blessed are the meek.”  In my experience people trample all over the meek.  “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Isn’t that something of a lost cause?  “Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  At first glance all of these blessings seem to be thankless tasks, if not curses.  Who really wants a life based on these experiences?

The Beatitudes can seem singularly unattractive, and they are until we realize what our world would be like without the people who practice them.  If then the Beatitudes describe people who go through life as doormats or shrinking violets, consider for a moment the alternative.  What if the Beatitudes read like this:  “Blessed are the warmongers.”  “Blessed are the suspicious and paranoid.”  “Blessed are those who are merciless.” “Blessed are those who never have to mourn — ever!”  “Blessed are those who never endure insult because their lives stand for nothing.”

img_4278You could devise your own additions to this list, but you get the point.  The Beatitudes may seem benign, until you realize what life would be like without them.  Could life on this earth even be possible if no one aspired to such principles?  How long would it be before we descended into chaos?

So the first point I would make is this.  The Beatitudes are a blueprint for a good and purpose-filled life.  They virtually demand that we lead active rather than passive lives.  They presume that we would take charge of our lives and live them with the greatest intensity and thoughtfulness.  Even more, they encourage risk-taking.  Taking chances includes the risk of failure, but that’s the point of stepping up to be counted.

I can’t go through all of the Beatitudes, but for just a moment let’s consider the words of Jesus when he says that they are blessed who mourn.  In popular culture people avoid mourning like the plague.  But consider that a life free of mourning is risk-averse.  Such lives are pointless, Jesus teaches, precisely for this reason.  People who mourn, however, are people who have taken risks.  They have taken chances.  When they had the chance to love others, they chose love.  When they had the chance to help someone in need, they helped.  When they had the chance to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and so on, they did it, regardless of the potential risk.  And they did all this for the sake of the kingdom.

img_4299Only those who never love or never care get spared the mourning.  Meanwhile, those who take chances reap the rewards, much as the folk wisdom reminds us: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

In his Rule Saint Benedict urged his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  Many assume that this is an invitation to depression, but in fact it’s an invitation to live life with intensity.  We have so few days, and why would we choose to be risk-averse and hide our lamps under a basket?  On the contrary, Jesus came to give us life, so that we might have it in abundance.  How we pursue our lives is the creative opportunity — the gift — that God gives to each of us.

The Beatitudes are a recipe for life lived to the fullest.  They are an invitation to live life with passion.  And if by chance there are moments of mourning or setback along the way, then it means we are making progress.  We are making good use of the gifts God has given us.  So let us conclude with this prayer:  “May God, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to a wonderful and happy conclusion.”

img_4340Notes

+On January 24th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On January 27th I drove to Fargo, ND, and on the 28th I preached at Gethsamane Episcopal Cathedral.  That evening I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible.  Fr. Mark Strobel, the dean of the cathedral, received a graduate degree at Saint John’s and remains a periodic and welcome visitor to campus.  He and his fellow church members offered hospitality that was truly Benedictine.

I cannot recall when I last went to Fargo, but it was before the Cohn brothers made the movie to which Fargo lent is name.  Being mere feet from Minnesota, you’d think there would be scant difference between the two; but you’d be wrong.  Fargo manages to flourish in its own culture, perhaps because of the independent spirit of the prairie.  For example, at the 10:30 Mass at the cathedral there was a baptism that almost stole the show.  This was one tough baby, and he remained stoic despite the very cold water and being held by the pastor for three minutes or more.  That befits a youngster who was baptised “Odin.”  Yes, Odin.  I was stunned by that name.  Then Fr. Mark told me it was the second Odin he has baptised at the cathedral.  Further, his son’s swimming coach is named Thor.  So just when I thought the Norse gods had faded from memory, I discovered that they have a home in Fargo.  How charming.

img_4285+Two weeks ago I presented photos of the exterior of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The exterior is certainly monumental, and one wonders whether the interior could be up to the challenge of carrying its own drama.  It does, and it succeeds in a way that just overwhelms.  Visitors cannot quite grasp the immensity of it, and these photos scarcely do it justice.  Throughout the church there are sweeping vistas bathed in light, and nooks and crannies that surprise.  The photo at the bottom is of the choir loft, and were I up there I would be too nervous to sing.

img_4503Pilgrimage to the Mountain

“Let admission to the monastery not be easy.”  So wrote Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries, and ever since then Benedictines have tended to interpret those words in spiritual terms.  Still, there have been exceptions, and so you can’t fault the monks of Montserrat because they took them literally.  Perched half-way up a peak thirty miles west of Barcelona, Montserrat is one tough place to get to.  From the valley far below, there is nothing to indicate that there’s anything up there except craggy rocks.  But then you spy the cable cars dangling high above, and you realize they must be going somewhere.

Benedictines have lived on Montserrat since the 10th century, and in the course of time they have put the difficult terrain to good use.  As they have for centuries, the pilgrims still come.  And if the modes of travel now include train, bus, car, bicycle and cable car, the goal of the journey remains the same.  People still come to venerate the statue of the Black Madonna in the church, and outside on the terrace they gaze out for a spectacular view that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean.

img_4382Secular-minded visitors to Barcelona are startled to read the signs in the middle of the city announcing the trains to Montserrat.  Given that Barcelona is one of the most sophisticated cities anywhere, I too found it a little incongruous.  Hadn’t we left behind the age of pilgrimages in order to indulge in more commercial pursuits?  Why would anyone take a train to some remote spot to see some old statue?  Why would people care to see a spot where a group of fairly average guys are doing their best to find God?  And perhaps the biggest mystery is this:  why would you need several trains a day just to manage all this?

The answers are varied, but the bottom line is this.  For centuries people have trekked up Montserrat.  Most have venerated the Black Madonna and enjoyed the incredible views.  Many have stayed in the extensive guest facilities for a chance to take stock of their lives.  Among them the most famous was the 16th-century visitor Ignatius Loyola, who offered his sword as a token of his conversion.  Suffice it to say that people still do these sorts of things at Montserrat — except for that bit about the sword.

img_4451The ritual that brings most people to Montserrat is the chance to stand in line, patiently, for the chance to venerate the statue of the Madonna.  It sits perched in a niche high above the main altar of the church, and on our recent visit my friends and I were smart to arrive early.  Our wait was minimal, and we enjoyed the added bonus of being seated during the Sunday Mass.  Even though it was the off-season, not everyone was as fortunate.  Some stood through the entire Mass, and after Mass the line to the Virgin stretched out the door of the church and into the square in front.  Timing is everything, even when it comes to a spiritual experience.

All this can suggest that life at Montserrat has always been peaches and cream.  Who knows what adversity the monks may have faced in the Middle Ages, but modern times have provided the greatest tests.  In the early 19th century Napoleon’s armies twice assaulted the monastery, and the place was closed for a few years.  Then it sprang to life, only to contend with a new wave of social unrest during the Spanish civil war.  In that horrible conflict twenty-two monks were executed for their faith.  Even after the war the monks did not enjoy complete tranquility, because despite Vatican II the Franco regime ordered that everyone in Catalonia — monks included — pray in Spanish.  Only in that context can you appreciate the gesture King Juan Carlos made at the death of Franco.  Shortly after his accession to power he came to Catalonia, and his first stop was at Montserrat.  There he spoke in the forbidden Catalan and soon thereafter permitted the use of Catalán in the liturgy.

img_4443Despite being a great symbol of Catalan culture, the monks of Montserrat pursue their lives with neither fanfare nor a sense of self-importance.  They’re tending to the thousands of pilgrims and people on retreat.  They’re busy with the Escalonia — possibly the oldest choir school in Europe.   They’re preoccupied with the need to keep the place in good repair so that it doesn’t slide down the side of the mountain.  And they are also seeing to the daily round of prayer that binds the whole place together.

I left Montserrat with one important lesson.  Monks today contend with the stereotype that we waste our lives in withdrawal from society in silence and isolation.  We console ourselves with the thought that this stereotype — popular outside of the monastery — has never really held sway inside the monastery.  Even Saint Benedict acknowledged this point when he wrote in the 6th century that “guests are never wanting” at a monastery.  The meaning of that?  Guests you will always have with you, and in the face of the guest you have the chance to catch a glimpse of God.

For that reason the monastic life is not meant to be self-serving.  We monks may do our best to see God in our brothers, but we also know how graced we are to see Christ in pilgrims, in our students, in people who come on retreat, and even in those who come merely to gawk.

All that is the Lord’s work, and it’s why society will never outgrow the need for a place set apart, at the edge of society.  It’s why we do what we do at Saint John’s, and it’s why nobody will be canceling the trains to Montserrat any time soon.  The market for that service is there, even in the off-season.

img_4457Notes

+On January 20th my tour to Barcelona came to an end, and the next morning we packed up our memories and headed home.  Chief among the experiences that I savor was our visit to the abbey of Montserrat, where we toured and had the chance to visit with the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s who are living there this year.

I have to count two site visits as nice discoveries for me.  The first is evidence of the self-imposed blinders that I wear when it comes to things monastic.  I tend to be oblivious to some of the other religious orders, so I was completely unaware of the Poor Clare abbey of Pedralbes, at the edge of Barcelona.  I had not planned to visit there, but the guide said “Do it!”   So I did it.  Queen Elisenda founded it in the late 1320’s, in anticipation of widowhood, and it is pretty much intact today.  Complete with three-level cloister, dormitory, refectory, chapter house and church, it is an amazing survivor of the centuries.  I will share photos of that in a future post.

Also on my list of little surprises is Sant Pau, a 9th-century Benedictine house.  Its romanesque cloister and church are tucked away in an immigrant neighborhood near the center of Barcelona.  It was designed to house only four or five monks, and it’s a real gem.

img_4400Finally, I spent the better part of a day in the Museum of Catalan Art.  It’s famous for its large collection of romanesque frescos rescued from dilapidated churches in the Pyrenees, and I took enough photos to clog my camera.

+I always know when it’s time to come home.  The first signal is that moment when I’d like to take most of my clothes out to be burned.  Helping things along this time was the decline in the weather.  It turned cold, and it rained on the last day.  As a result, the only thing I had to declare at customs was the bad cold I had acquired.

The flight home confirmed that the good times were over.  I was fortunate to sit behind a toddler whose two settings were “screaming at an ear-splitting pitch” and “not screaming.”  Her parents must have known to expect this, and the sound-canceling ear phones made their reading a serene experience.  I would say they were the envy of everyone within ear-shot, but that might be a fib bordering on mortal sin.

+Needless to say, the photos in today’s post give some inkling of what  you would see on a visit to Montserrat.

img_4385

img_4111Friendship:  God’s Graced Moment

At first blush it seemed we had little in common.  Professor Conrad Rawski was a senior scholar of medieval Italian literature, a retired dean of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and widely-respected for his multi-volume translation and commentary on Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae.  I, on the other hand, was a youngster in the medieval world, a student of Spanish history, and in no way destined for the kind of scholarly status that he had achieved.  Yet, despite the odds, we became good friends, and I still cherish the privilege of having known such a lovely human being.

I first met Conrad via the U.S. Mail.  At the time I was director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s, and we routinely served scholars from all over the place and on all topics relating to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  One day an inquiry arrived from Conrad, and despite my ignorance both of his work and who he might be, I decided to answer the letter myself rather than pass it on to one of my colleagues.

So it began as an old-fashioned, pre-email exchange, and as the correspondence stretched out, so did the topics of discussion.  For one thing, he and his wife Helen lived in Chagrin Falls, and that was something I could scarcely resist.  In my second letter I had the temerity to ask whether Chagrin was a noun or an adjective, and whether Falls was a verb or a noun.  It was just the sort of whimsy that intrigued Conrad, and that silly bit fueled a conversation that went on for years.

img_4116Eventually I got to meet Conrad, after he had arranged an invitation for me to speak at the Rowfant Club, one of the oldest book-collecting clubs in the country.  The Club had its home in a stately old mansion on storied Euclid Avenue in Celeveland;  but because Conrad was by then too frail to attend, I only met him the next day.  Then, for the first time, I got to shake the hand that had written so many fine letters and had authored so many scholarly texts.

It turned out that we actually did have something in common, which came as a great surprise to me.  Conrad had grown up in Vienna, but that wasn’t what we shared.  What did bind us, however, was a Benedictine thread that ran through both of our lives.  Conrad had attended the Schottenstift, a monastery in the center of Vienna founded in 1155.  Visitors to Vienna even today can step into their church and listen to the monks at prayer, as people have done for centuries.  Anyway, the Benedictine monks of the Schotten had befriended Conrad, and as the prospect of war loomed after the Nazi Anschluss, the monks had helped to spirit Conrad out of the country.  He eventually found refuge in the U.S., earned a doctorate, and compiled a distinguished career at Case Western.

img_4138It was only later, in his retirement, that I was privileged to step into Conrad’s diminishing circle of friends.  And it was quite possible that I was one of the last of the guests for whom Conrad prepared his favorite treat — Wiener schnitzel.

Eventually Conrad slipped away, and his wife Helen called to share the sad news.  She later wrote to say how much our correspondence had meant to Conrad, and then she asked whether our library would be interested in having some of his most prized possessions — books that had once belonged to his father and which Conrad had taken with him when he left Austria decades earlier.  “Gladly!  We’d be honored to give them a home,” I responded — trying not to sound too eager.

A few weeks ago Helen once again contacted me, this time about the one remaining volume that she had saved as her personal memento of Conrad.  It was a 1492 edition of Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae, and it was the volume that had inspired Conrad’s translation and commentary.  It was time for her to downsize, and once again she thought of Conrad’s love of the Benedictine tradition.  Would we want it?

img_4115Last week I paged through that text for the first time in many years — and not in Chagrin Falls but in the special collections department at Saint John’s.  Of course it was a great example of early printing, but for me it had long since acquired an added value.  The Benedictine thread that wove through both Conrad and me had brought this book from Vienna to Collegeville, and now it was also a symbol of a cherished friendship.

Sometimes we can only marvel at the twists and turns that bring people together in friendship.  Certainly one can make the case that accidents sometimes bridge the divides, but sometimes just a little bit of the credit belongs to God’s providence.  That, I think, is what friendship really is.  It is just one more of the many gifts of God that grace our lives.  For that providence we really ought to give thanks every now and again.

img_4154Notes

+On January 9th Jordan Berns, a 2014 alumnus of Saint John’s University, came to the abbey as a monastic associate, in preparation for his entrance as a candidate for the novitiate in April.  At Saint John’s he was a music and theology major, and for one year after graduation he served as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.

+On January 11th I departed Minnesota for Barcelona, where I met with a small group for a tour of the area.  It had nothing to do with the fact that it had become beastly cold in Minnesota, because we had planned this months ago.  The absence of cold and snow in Barcelona was one of those minor inconveniences that we had to endure.  Actually, it was not so bad.  My experience of Barcelona stretches back to graduate school, when I flew there to spend a summer in Spain doing dissertation research.  I had been back twice since then, but ages ago.  It is an amazing city, and if you’ve not been there, it is something to add to your bucket list.

+On January 15th we went to the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat, located about thirty miles outside of Barcelona.  In addition to attending Mass and touring the monastery grounds, we got to spend time with our two Benedictine Volunteers there, Tanner Rayman and Thomas Friebe.  Both are 2016 graduates of Saint John’s University.  Tanner was a biology major and Thomas a music major.  During their year as volunteers they are working with the Escolonia, the boys choir school of the abbey.

img_0171+The first five photos in today’s post show the south portal of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, and construction has continued for over a hundred years.  The design was revolutionary for its time, and even today it is absolutely stunning.  If you think you have seen all that can be seen in church architecture, it’s because you have not seen Sagrada Familia.  They project ten more years of construction, and the building of several more towers, before it is complete.  In the final photo I stand with our two Benedictine Volunteers, Tanner and Thomas, with the medieval wing of Montserrat in the background.  More on that in nexts week’s post.

img_0090_2Save the Dates

The Christmas season is nearly over, save for any residual shouting.  Of course traces of it linger in the shops that haven’t already shifted their focus to Saint Valentine’s Day;  but in the liturgical calendar Christmas began to grind to a halt yesterday with Epiphany, followed by the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which takes place today.  That means tomorrow we turn our attention to the season that the Church labels “Ordinary Time.”  That’s the stretch during which we get on with the business of everyday life, or so you might think.  But that shouldn’t really be the case.

There’s a bit of chant that comes on the feast of Epiphany that hints that there are actually more things to come.  The chant dates back to the early centuries of the Church, and while most parishes long ago dropped it, in monasteries like Saint John’s we continue to sing it as if this were the eighth century.  It’s an excerpt from The Roman Martyrology, and this Epiphany our confrere Fr. Michael Peterson intoned it beautifully, just before the final blessing and dismissal at Mass.

Without the musical notation it has all the charm of end-of-Mass announcements of bake sales, pancake breakfasts, raffles and the schedule of meetings of the parish council.  But sung to the tune of the Easter Exultet, it has a solemnity that stops you in your tracks.  So I will quote the words in full, in the event that you’ve never heard or read them before.

img_0030_2“Know this, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by the grace of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his resurrection, who is our savior.  On the 1st day of March will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the feast of the most sacred Lenten season.  On the 16th day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Holy Passover of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 28th day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 4th day of June, the feast of Pentecost.  On the 18th day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  On the 3rd day of December, the First Sunday of Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever.  Amen.”

There you have the outline of the entire Church year.  At the very least it suggests that the Church calendar is not some random selection of feasts that haphazardly crop up when we need something to lift our spirits.  They are organized to tell a story, in installments, and it all begins on the foundation of Christmas.  Without Christmas none of the rest of it makes much sense.  With Christmas, however, you have a statement of faith that defines a way of life, and you have to make repeat visits to hear and experience the whole story.  In other words, if you’re going to be a Christian, Christmas is not quite enough.  But it is the necessary starting point on a pilgrimage to a full life.

img_0299_2In his sermon on Epiphany our confrere Fr. Ian reinforced this sense of continuity with his reference to the star of Bethlehem that guided both shepherds and magi alike.  Despite our inclination to think of that star in astronomical terms, its real meaning in the Christian story is allegorical.  The star represents light, and for us who are Christians the light of our lives is Christ.  Christ is the reference point for the decisions we make in life.  Christ is the anchor from whom we choose not to drift.  Christ is the foundation on whom we build our home.  In sum, Jesus is more than a sweet child in a manger.  He’s the one who ultimately calls us to follow him in living noble and loving and sometimes even sacrificial lives.  That is the wisdom we adopt for ourselves when we choose to follow Christ our light.

So there you have it.  If you hadn’t heard that Ash Wednesday this year falls on March 1st, you know it now.  So save that date and all the others on the list.  Meanwhile don’t fritter away the next few weeks of Ordinary Time as if they were pointless.  In fact, those weeks and days are gifts from the Lord.  Let’s use them well as we take a breather on the path to Lent.  And if all this is too much “church” for you, then remember, there’s always February 14th, the feast of Saint Valentine.

img_0105_2Notes

+On January 2nd and 3rd I participated in the mid-winter workshop for the monks of Saint John’s.

+From January 4th through the 7th I was in San Francisco with our University president, Michael Hemesath, for meetings with several alumni.  We did not have to wait very long for our first meeting, as we unexpectedly sat with two alumni on the outbound flight.  We met yet another on the return flight.

+On January 7th I attended the celebration in St. Paul of Irene Okner, on her 100th birthday.  On her 90th birthday I was honored to give a blessing, and at the time I  saluted her for an achievement that few others on the planet accomplish.  She had likely achieved immortality, “since statistics show that very few people die after the age of 90.”  We are already making plans for her 110th birthday celebration.

img_0291_2+The photos in today’s post all show works from the National Gallery in Washington.  The first is “The Virgin and Child with Saint John,” Florence, 15th c., by a follower of Andrea del Verrochio.  Second is “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, Siena, ca. 1450.  Next is the “Adoration of the Magi” by Benvenuto di Giovanni, Siena, ca. 1470.  Following that is “The Flight into Egypt,” by Vittore Carpacio, Venice, ca. 1515.  At bottom is “The Madonna and Child,” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Florence, ca. 1450.