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What Else Have I Got to Learn?

I thought I had extracted every scrap of meaning from the parable of the sower, but the preparation of a homily on Saturday yielded one unexpected nugget.  Like most people, I’ve been pretty satisfied with the explanation of the parable that Jesus had to offer.  Seed fell on rocky soil, among thorns, on a busy path and on good soil.  The seed is the word of God, and people respond differently.  How they respond determines whether they yield any or a lot of fruit.

Not surprisingly, I have always considered myself to be good soil for the seed, and I suspect the majority of people think the same way about themselves.  However, there’s an inherent disconnect in my reasoning, because there are times when I fall into the temptation to think that most of these people have overrated themselves.  Certainly they are doing the best they can, but many are only fooling themselves when they rate themselves as prime seedbed.

IMG_4994There definitely is a problem when everybody thinks they deserve a pat on the back for being good soil.  After all, this is not children’s sports, where everyone is a winner and there is a trophy for each and every participant.  No, it can’t be that way.  If there are going to be good guys — and I am going to be one of them — then there has to be a surplus of bad guys.  Otherwise, how can we ever feel really good about ourselves?

Last Saturday I noticed something in the words of Jesus that I’d missed before.  Jesus speaks about those who are receptive to the seed, but the distractions of life eventually choke out any fruitful response.  That’s when it dawned on me.  This portion of the parable is not about a select category of poeple — the bad guys.  It’s about everybody.  The riches and pleasures of life distract everyone — even me.

The fact is, in the course of a day we can find ourselves to be any one of the four types of seedbed that Jesus describes.  In my own case it’s not at all difficult to point to the good-soil/bad-soil moments as the day unfolds.  For example, I am a very early-morning person.  I flourish between 4 am and 7 am, and I will complete with enthusiasm anything at the top of my to-do list.  By mid-morning I’m still receptive to opportunities, but they have to jockey for priority among the realities of a busy life.  By late afternoon I usually have become stony ground.  By then I may accept a challenge, but in the next breath I will forget entirely what I had just agreed to do.

IMG_4996I now realize that the trend line of my receptivity to Christ runs counter to the scheduled appearances of Christ in my life.  As a monk and a Christian I believe that I see Jesus in the faces of my neighbors.  However, I’ve also begun to notice that none of my neighbors ever come knocking at my door at 4 am.  Absolutely zero; which is too bad, because I’m all enthusiasm at that hour.  Ironically, however, at 4 pm, when I am at my stoniest, that’s when Jesus comes knocking more frequently, and more forcefully.

The harsh reality is this.  I move through all four of the categories of soil that Jesus mentions, and it’s made me aware that I have a lot more soil preparation to do.  As much as I would prefer to see Christ when I’m full of energy and in the best of moods, then, it doesn’t always work that way.  As often as not Christ prefers to come calling at inconvenient times and in the worst of situations.  He comes when I’m really busy or just after my energy has drained away.  But he comes less frequently when I’m waiting for him impatiently, fully rested.

That brings up an important take-away.  Before Saturday I thought I knew all there was to know about this parable.  Not so, it turns out.  And now I have to wonder what else I have to learn.  What more does Jesus want me to know?  That’s a good question, and I’m willing to give it full consideration — especially if I can tend to it early in the morning.  It also means that, once again, Jesus is not entirely done with me.

IMG_4998Notes

+On 21 September I and several of my colleagues visited the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis.  Saint John’s alumnus Jeb Myers, president of the school, toured us around; and it was inspiring to see the extraordinary work they are doing there.

+On the evening of the 21st Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida spoke at Saint John’s University, as part of the program of the McCarthy Center.

+On 23 September I gave a day of reflection to the area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  I had scheduled this for last February, but my back injury last winter forced the rescheduling to this fall.

+On Saturday September 23rd Saint John’s played St. Thomas in football at Target Field in Minneapolis.  I did not attend, and so I missed being part of the gathering of 37,000 people.  It was a record crowd for a Division III sporting event.  It beat the old record by 20,000, and unfortunately the good guys lost by three points.

+The photos in today’s post show a retable of Mary the Mother of God, by Jaume Serra.  He created this ca. 1370, and today it resides in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.

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Be Careful What You Pray For

I usually don’t pay all that much attention to the lyrics of the hymns we sing.  In some the words are benign, while in others the sentiments can be sweet or inane enough to make me cringe.  As a rule, then, I invest my energy in the music — particularly with hymns that I’ve come to love.

IMG_0002_2This last Sunday, however, the final hymn at the Abbey Eucharist caught my attention.  The gospel passage of the day — from Matthew 18 — had spoken of the importance of forgiveness, and Jesus made his point with the parable of a servant who had begged of his lord forgiveness of a huge debt he could not repay.  Then he turned right around to press a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of that amount.  It was an example of ingratitude at its worst, and it turned on its head that old saw about doing to others as you would have them do unto you.  Needless to say, those familiar with this parable know the grim fate in store for this wicked servant.

The parable calls to mind the Lord’s Prayer, which urges God to forgive us as we forgive others.  That shifts the onus for initiative onto our shoulders;  and now that I think about it, I’m tempted to pray that segment with more caution than I have in the past.  I say that prayer several times a day with my confreres, and it now dawns on me the risk I am taking.  I’m literally asking for it.

Anyway, the hymn in question is entitled Forgive Our Sins, and Ralph Finn’s text opens innocently enough.  Through the first verse I was able to concentrate on the music.  But the second and third verses stopped me in my mental tracks.

 

“How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

In blazing light your cross reveals

the truth we dimly knew:

How small are others’ debts to us,

How great our debt to you!”

 

IMG_0024_2With these words I lost track of the music, and only with the final verse did I regain my bearings.  Still, what I took away was an intriguing thought I’d not considered before.  I am keenly aware of the many wonderful things I do for others, and naturally their frequent instances of ingratitude hurt.  Against my own interests I sometimes clutch tightly to those hurts, because they can be hard to let go.  Worse still, if I’m not careful they can become part of the emotional baggage that I have to carry around.  That baggage can spoil relationships, but it can also spoil me.

It also dawns on me how much I owe God, and I have to confess that I fall short in expressing my gratitude.  All the same, God forgives my ingratitude, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty unforgiving of others.  The fact is, God sets a better example when it comes to forgiveness than I do, and for that I should be even more grateful.

One practical application of this comes to mind, and it’s a bit of advice from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  He writes about a monk who nurses a grudge, and I hope it will not come as a shock to know that this warning was not written solely for my personal benefit.  Benedict points out what happens to me and any other monk who nurtures hurts.  Nurturing such hurts transforms me, and I gradually become someone I never set out to be.

So I return to ponder those words of Ralph Finn as my meditation for the day.

 

How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

It’s something to chew on.  Better still, it’s advice to act upon while there’s still plenty of time to live.  And as for that bit about praying that God will forgive me as I forgive others, I think I’m going to be more careful about what I pray for.

IMG_0005_2Notes

+On September 13th our confrere Fr. Fintan Bromenshenkel passed away, nearly three weeks shy of his 99th birthday.  He was our senior monk.  In his long career he headed the computing center in the University, and later served for several years at our mission in the Bahama Islands.  In his later years he worked in the garden and weeded the gravel path that ran diagonally across the monastic garden.  He was a wonderfully cheerful soul, and we will miss him.

+September 12th was a rather unusual day for one of our alumni.  That day Mark Vande Hei, ’89, blasted off into space, where he will serve for several months at the international space station.  He was a physics major and in ROTC at Saint John’s, and later he earned a graduate degree at Stanford University before teaching at West Point.  In the course of his space travels he will lead a class with our students, which he will conduct from the space station.

+On September 15th-16th we hosted Bishop Steven Lopes, who heads the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  In that capacity he shepherds former Anglican clergy and congregations in North America who have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.  Bishop Lopes and I have been friends for many years, and have worked together as chaplains in the Order of Malta.  Before his ordination he spent time at Saint John’s while he considered a monastic vocation.

+The top photo in today’s post is a tryptic of the crucifixion, done by our deceased confrere Brother Placid.  For the last fifty years it has hung in the Prep School, but some enterprising monks carted it over to the Abbey church for the Feast of the Holy Cross.  The other photos show renditions of the cross in fresco, stained glass and sculpture.  They are all housed at Saint Alban’s, a one-time Benedictine abbey located north of London.

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Jesus:  Nazareth’s Favorite Son?

[On September 4th I preached the following homily at the Abbey Mass.  The text happened to be Luke 4: 16-30, which details the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.]

I find it hard to nail down the real issue in today’s gospel.  One minute the synagogue members in Nazareth seem proud of Jesus, and at the next turn they’re ready to kill him. On a dime they turn on him, and it’s fair to ask “why?”

IMG_7103One possibility strikes me.  Jesus was a home-grown prodigy, and he had all the trappings of a budding success story.  In Capernaum and elsewhere he had already  distinguished himself, and perhaps the people of Nazareth sought to benefit from his growing celebrity and harness him for their own prestige.  Perhaps they sought to domesticate Jesus and turn him to their own advantage.

This may explain the reaction of Jesus, who sensed what they were trying to do to him.   Like others who would later try to make him king, he resisted any effort to transform him into something other than what he was.  He had come to do the will of his Father.  He had come to serve — not to be served.  He had come to the poor and the suffering.  He had not come to be the darling or pet of the leading citizens of Nazareth — nor of anyone else, for that matter.  This may explain their disappointment and anger.

Herein we have a lesson for ourselves.  You and I aren’t Jesus, obviously, but we have talents and God-given energy.  Like Jesus we have a choice to make.  We can subvert our talents and put them in the service of power and wealth and influence.  Or we can turn our lives to anyone and everyone who desperately needs a little bit of what we have to offer.  Symbolically Jesus had to choose between being the favorite son of Nazareth and the son of God.  I think he suggests that we take the second option.

IMG_7099Notes

+On September 6th I hosted two friends who have joined to start a program that makes possible the college education of students from Immokalee, FL, attending Saint John’s.  This was their third year to visit with the students, and this fall there are six of them at Saint John’s.  At bottom is a photo of John and Jack, flanking five of the six students.  (The sixth, Jaime, was away at his student job in the library).  Needless to say, their smiles did not betray the anxiety that they must have felt as Hurricane Irma headed straight for the west coast of Florida, potentially passing through their hometown of Immokalee, inland from Naples.  Happily, their families came through the storms unscathed.

+On September 7th I preached the homily at the funeral of my good friend, Nicky Carpenter, DM.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years, and in addition to a long association with Saint John’s as well as with the Minnesota Orchestra, she was a member of the Order of Malta.  The funeral took place at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Wayzata, MN, and later that afternoon I presided at the interment at the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

The trip between church and cemetery was harrowing, because a terrible bus-truck accident meant that I-94 was closed in one stretch.  The highway department dutifully shunted us off onto a country road and left us pretty much to our own devices.  It took over an hour to go five miles through the countryside.  And so, while I left one hour before the bus with the family had departed from the church, I arrived just as the bus was unloading at the Abbey cemetery.  I knew that the bus had taken a different highway, and en route I sweat bullets, hoping that I would make it in time.

+On 9 September the oil portrait of our confrere, Brother Dietrich Reinhart, was unveiled in the learning commons which now bears his name.  The Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons, attached to Alcuin Library, was recently completed and opened this fall semester.  In addition to some wonderful interior spaces, it has an outdoor patio as well as great vistas of the neighboring science buildings at Saint John’s.  The other photos in today’s post give a sense of that new building.

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Every Day is Labor Day

What’s a monk to do on Labor Day?  Logically it seems like a day when I should go all out and work overtime.  But then again, it’s a national holiday, which suggests I should labor as little as possible.

Faced with this conundrum, I tend to do what I always do on a stray holiday such as this.  I just put together an extra-long to-do list, do about a quarter of it, and end the day frustrated because once again I’ve squandered a golden opportunity to catch up on things.  Assuming that this is what will happen today, once again I will end up promising to do better next time.

Saint Benedict spilled a lot of ink on the importance of work in the monastery, and in his Rule he devoted an entire chapter to the topic.  However, it was a complex issue for him, and for that reason his comments on it pop up all over the place in the Rule.

IMG_7183It’s undeniable that Benedict had a healthy respect for work, even if it was and is an unavoidable part of life.  “They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands,” he wrote, and elsewhere he asked his monks to treat the tools of the monastery with the same respect that they would show to the vessels of the altar.

But work is more complicated than that, and Benedict realized it.  He knew that some monks would grumble about the work assigned to them, while others would flourish and be grateful for the chance to do work that they really enjoyed.  Some would take inordinate pride in their skills, while others would grab for the chance to convert their responsibilities into little fiefdoms.  All of this suggests one fundamental point:  when it comes to work monks then and now share pretty much the same attitudes that pervade the general population.

In addition to that reality, Saint Benedict conceded that work is a necessary part of life in the monastery — and it was so every day.  Whether he and his monks liked it or not, there were no days off — and that went for Sunday as well.  After all, even on the holy days somebody had to prepare and serve the food.  Somebody had to clean the dishes, set the tables, and sweep away the mess.  Others had to tend to the guests and prepare the church for the liturgy.  Somebody else needed to see to emergency repairs so that the buildings wouldn’t burn up or fall to the ground.  Others had to take care of the sick and elderly.  With these sorts of responsibilities there could be no days off, nor could the monks delegate much of this stuff to outside contractors.

IMG_7186In sum, in Benedict’s day every day was Labor Day.  It’s also safe to say that life for his monks paralleled life as it prevailed throughout society.  The same is the case today.  For better and for worse, we all know what would happen if everyone decided — for one whole day — to do absolutely nothing.  For starters, we’d all wonder who would wait on us.

So on this Labor Day the best course for me is to keep in mind the balanced life that Benedict proposed for his monks.  I should do some sacred reading and go to pray with my brothers.  I should take my meals with them and recreate with them.  I should rest.  And I should do some work.  And as I do my work I need to do my very best and at the same time remember two important points.  First, my value as a human, being created in the image of God, rests on a lot of stuff, and not just on the job that I have.  I am more than what I do.  And second, I should always be grateful for all the work that others do.  Without them, I’d have to do absolutely everything myself.  I just don’t have that kind of time.

IMG_7153Notes

+August 28th marked the first day of the new school year at Saint John’s University.  It began, as is customary, with an academic convocation in the Abbey and University church.

+The only official act on my calendar last week was to attend the first football game of the season, at which Saint John’s hosted the College of Saint Scholastica, from Duluth.  It took place on September 2nd, and it was a beautiful day but a lop-sided game.  Saint John’s set a record by winning 98-0.  To be fair, they did not try to run up the score, and practically everyone on the team of 180 players got to play — including two first-year quarterbacks.  It just was not Saint Scholastica’s day.

+Every now and again a piece of work comes up for which there is no mention in The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Such was an instance last week when one of the bells needed repair.  Brother John fearlessly stepped forward to do the work, and in the top three photos in today’s post you can see him perched at the top of the ladder.  You can click on the photos and enlarge them, and the third one of Brother John in the basket gives an idea of just how huge the cross is.

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Jesus, Be Patient with Me!

The quickest way to spread news in a monastery is to tell someone not to tell anyone.  It’s just human nature, and St. Benedict was under no illusion that monks were different from anybody else.  After all, he knew only too well that monks were people too.  So he ordered his monks not to engage in gossip or murmuring of any sort.  Good luck on that one!

In Matthew 16 Jesus warned his disciples to tell no one about about his real identity.  The cynic in me says it was a clever ploy, and it worked.  In short order the disciples took the news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.  But a lot happened between Matthew 16 and the commission to preach to everyone, and therein we see the patience that Jesus showered on his disciples.

IMG_6847The passage from Matthew 16 opens with this simple question that Jesus puts to the disciples.  “Who do people say that I am?”  Here Jesus sounds a bit like a politician concerned about the polls.  Was Jesus insecure about his public image?  Or did he simply want to satisfy his own curiosity?  I can only speculate, but I would suggest that perhaps he meant the question to stir his disciples rather than to find out how his message was going over with the larger population.

The data that the disciples gave to Jesus was a little odd.  Some said that Jesus was John the Baptist.  Others thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  These were ridiculous answers if they were meant literally, because Jews then and now — like Christians — do not believe in reincarnation.  And so I interpret these answers as signs of a struggle over the identity of Jesus.  Clearly many had concluded that Jesus was some sort of prophet in a long line of prophets — and a great one at that.  But just as clearly some thought that Jesus brought a message from God, but he was neither God nor the Son of God.  For them Jesus was an interesting fellow with a compelling message.  But he had no claim on their hearts.

Not so for the disciples, as Peter’s testimony suggests.  It had begun to dawn on them that Jesus had a claim on them, and they could never be the same after meeting him.  They would be very different poeple over time, and in Matthew 16 we see evidence of that spark of understanding.

Perhaps Jesus asked for their silence at this stage because it’s one thing to confess the Lordship of Jesus, and quite another to let Jesus transform one’s life.  Anyone who knows the gospel story can certainly see this distinction take flesh in the lives of the disciples.  The disciples may have had an inkling of the real identity of Jesus, but that didn’t prevent them from running away on the eve of his passion.  Nor did their post-resurrection behavior suggest that they were thoroughly convinced of who Jesus really was.  But still they were curious.

IMG_6851St. Benedict set up his monastery as a place where monks might seek God.  But much like the dog who chases a car but has no plans were he to actually catch it, so monks face the same dilemma.  What do monks do when they unexpectedly find that their search for God gives a glimmer of success?  Well, from my own experience I’ve come to realize that the search for God is more than a mattter of satisfying my curiosity.  Far from it.  The search for God is a lot like playing with fire.  So when I do seem to snatch a fleeting glimpse of God working in my brothers, I know I cannot respond conventionally.  It’s not a matter of calling a pollster to report that Jesus is the Son of God.  It’s deeper than that.  Like the disciples, I too have to let that insight percolate through and transform my life.

Any search for God requires patience and time — perhaps even a lifetime.  But because we live in a culture that demands instant gratification, we’re inclined not to budget time for long-term projects.  And so I tend to be one of those who is willing to give Jesus a day or two to do his work, and if nothing happens then I’m tempted to move on.  But this is short-sighted, to point out the obvious.  The encounter with Jesus needs to stretch out for a lifetime, and thankfully Jesus is willing to invest the time in us.  That explains the patience that Jesus showed to his disciples — and to Peter in particular.  And it explains the patience he shows to me.  Heaven knows how I need him to be patient with me!

IMG_6850Notes

+On August 24th I spoke to a group of about fifty alumni of Saint John’s University, gathered in St. Louis Park, MN.  The subject was our work with First-Generation college students at Saint John’s, and more particularly my own work with a project that has brought students from Immokalee, FL, to Saint John’s.  Happily, this fall we now have six students from Immokalee, and it is gratifying to see them progress, both in age and wisdom.

+On August 25th we monks welcomed the 467 freshmen at Saint John’s to pray evening prayer with us.  Following that, the students broke into smaller groups in order of meet with individual monks and learn something about our lives in the monastery.

+On August 26th I gave a day of reflection for people preparing for the Promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  This took place in Evanston, IL.

+On August 28th — today — the new school year begins at Saint John’s University.  Gone is the tranquility of summer, and in its place is a wonderful sense of energy.

+The images in today’s post show a spectacular retable and frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, made in Castile in Spain, ca. 1396.  It is housed in the Art Institute in Chicago.

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The Church:  A Bit Chaotic at Times

Not surprisingly, we don’t host a lot of little kids at prayer in the Abbey church.  On any given weekday it’s faculty, staff, students and people from the guesthouse who occupy the visitors’ section of the choir.  But children?  Not so many.

But on a Sunday we do get a sprinkling of infants and toddlers, and we know they’re there because they make their presence known.  Few of the toddlers can resist the urge to run free-range up and down the expansive brick-paved aisles.  Still others quickly discover the bouncy accoustics.  Designed to blend the voices of us monks as we chant the Psalms, those same walls amplify the cries and screams of even the littlest tyke.  Because we monks aren’t used to those kinds of noises, we can find it all disconcerting.  But then again those same little voices remind us that we were all kids once, and if we live long enough we could very well revert to that uninhibited state in our dotage.

IMG_7013On Saturday Fr. Anthony preached on the gospel passage from Matthew 19 in which Jesus told the disciples to let the little children approach him.  Naturally I’ve thought of that episode as an encouragement to be as innocent and trusting as a child.  After all,  Jesus taught that a lack of such innocence will bar passage through the gates of heaven.

But Anthony pointed out a variant of this.  Whether we like to admit it or not, kids aren’t always the most focused participants in the liturgy.  His comment immediately brought to mind the only sermon I ever heard preached by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to the gills that Sunday, and I guarantee that no one can now recall the passage from scripture about which he preached.  However, everyone of us remembers the infant who screamed and cried through his entire sermon.  We all squirmed in our pews, and most had to wonder just how long Cardinal O’Connor could go before he lost it.

Finally he conceded defeat, paused, and pointed out the obvious.  “I’m sure everyone can hear that screaming baby.  But I just want you to know that I’ve heard worse comments on my preaching.”  With that the tension melted and the congregation dissolved into hearty laughter.  And that’s all any of us remembers from that Mass.

IMG_7008Obviously Jesus must have noticed that some kids ran around and played and yelled as he tried to preach.  How could he not notice as he taught a crowd of 5,000, outside?  The disciples certainly noticed, and they wanted to shoo the kids away.  But Jesus didn’t; and perhaps that’s because he saw those kids as a metaphor for all the needy and troublesome adults who would someday show up at the church door.  Such people sometimes destroy our peace of mind.  They have needs that make us uncomfortable.  Worse still, they seem to be the sort of sinners who shouldn’t be sitting next to me or even close to me.  After all, on more than one occasion I’ve given thanks to God that I’m not at all like them.

Sometimes I forget that church pews were first installed not to seat the strong but to support the weak and the ill.  They’re the ones who cannot stand through a long liturgy.  Ironically, Jesus came to save those very people.  He came to save those physically and spiritually weak people who’ve come to church in hopes that Jesus will give them rest and healing.  That’s when I recall that if I’m spiritually whole, then I have no business taking up valuable pew space.  It would be better to cede my spot to the spiritually poor and sick.

IMG_6990It’s on those occasions that I remember the words of Jesus about little children.  Little kids sometimes seem over-eager for attention and more than willing to assert their need for help.  Unless I become like a little child and admit my own need for Jesus, then I don’t belong in the pews with all those people who do.

Sometimes a church service — like the Church herself — can be a little too chaotic for my tastes.  But not so for Jesus.  Cardinal O’Connor closed his comments on the untidiness of a screaming child in church with one question that was rhetorical rather than open for discussion.  “Isn’t this what it’s all about?”  As much as I hate to admit it, he was probably right.

Notes

IMG_7038+On August 13th I and many others lost a dear friend, Nicky Carpenter.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years — dating to the time when we sat together on a committee that nominated a new president for Saint John’s University.  She was a fixture on the civic scene in the Twin Cities, serving with special distinction on the board of the Minnesota Orchestra.  As did her mother before her, she sat on the Board of Regents of Saint John’s University, and she later sat on the Board of Overseers of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library while I was director — a service which she continued to render through her last year.  She was an ardent supporter of The Saint John’s Bible, and I was delighted to have introduced her to the Order of Malta.  I was acting as her spiritual guide when she began preparation to take the Promise of Obedience, but sadly her health declined before she could get very far into the process.  She slipped away quietly, and we will all miss her.  She will be laid to rest in the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

+On 18 August I attended the annual summer picnic of the Trustees of Saint John’s University, held in Wayzata, MN.

+This month I begin the seventh year of publishing this blog.  I thoroughly enjoy writing the posts, and that exercise is a highlight of my week.  I hope I’ve not been overly repetitious, but by now readers must have picked up on some recurring themes.  Mainly I’m grateful to the 3,709 people who have subscribed to it, and I thank those who regularly forward posts to their friends.

+Today’s photos show the interior of the Abbey church.  Designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the hard surfaces of the concrete walls and brick floors are especially good at amplifying little voices, and the pews easily convert into playground equipment.  At bottom is the baptistery, where by now thousands of infants have made their debut as church criers.

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Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.

IMG_0021_2Notes

+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.

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