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IMG_2954A Bridge to Somewhere

Benedictine monasteries have generally had a great sense of place, largely because they root themselves in a spot and stay put for centuries.  I say generally because that’s not always been so in every case.  In the 7th century, for example, the monks of Lindisfarne settled on an island off the coast of England and thought they had the ideal spot, with long-term potential.  That was true enough for a while, until the Vikings discovered how easy it was to raid the place.  Eventually one of the monks posed the question that by then was on everyone’s mind:  “What were we thinking?”  Then prudence won out and they moved to a safer place, inland.

At Saint John’s we’ve been blessed with a scenic place, and thankfully our local Vikings have about all they can handle far away in Minneapolis.  We’re further protected from them by heavy traffic and endless road repair, and so we’ve never had to consider moving.  So it is that we’ve been here for 160 years, and by now several generations of monks have put their stamp on the place, and vice-versa.

IMG_2929“They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands.”  So wrote Saint Benedict in the 6th century, and it holds true today just as it did then.  That said, through the centuries much of their work has been more on the order of administrative, as monks then and now have involved themselves in house-keeping, the sacristy, the scriptorium and the like.  They’ve also taught and done ministry.  Worthy of note is that many of these occupations were individual rather than group activities, and for the most part they didn’t involve hard physical toil.  Today that’s especially the case, as there’s just so little opportunity for that in the era of mechanization.

At Saint John’s in the 19th century monks made the bricks and helped in the construction of the massive quadrangle that still dominates our campus.  Nearly a century later a few monks helped in the construction of the new abbey church.  Still, such manual labor has been the exception rather than the rule in the course of 160 years.

IMG_2940However, we’ve not been idle, and every now and again there have been projects in which monastic hands have played a key role.  Many of the old stone walls on campus were the fruit of monastic effort, for example.  The forests show monastic management, as do the trails that crisscross them.  So too do the footbridges that ford streams and inlets around the lake.  And that brings me to the subject of our most recent enterprise:  the replacement of several bridges that have definitely seen better days.

The main trail from the monastery to Stella Maris Chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan dates back to who-knows-when.  Ages ago the monks put in place several bridges that made hiking both easy and a delight.  But as everybody knows, even bridges have a life span, and so we’ve begun to replace them, one by one.

Last summer several monks and volunteers built a trail-head to mark the entrance to the network of paths through the woods.  This year eight monks, in addition to many volunteers, have joined to construct the first in a series of bridges meant to replace structures in advanced states of decay.  Though not yet finished, the unfolding beauty of this first bridge hints at the potential of the entire project.

IMG_2973This new bridge is built from local materials and, like its predecessor, it is meant to last.  Trees harvested from our woods yielded the massive beams that should hold up for decades.  They in turn have been crafted so that their tongue-and-groove connection fits them together like a giant set of Lincoln Logs.  The results will be sturdy, and this first bridge will grace the woods and please the eye.

There’s something remarkable about people whose toil transforms them into a team.  In an era of rugged individualism it’s nice to see a group work toward a common goal, knowing that there has to be one supervisor, not eight or nine.  The result is the work of a community — not a committee in which subcommittees each get to design their own section.

IMG_2963Happily, I too contributed to this project.  I was very careful to stand back and not get in the way.  I was also wise by not offering any advice for improvement.  St. Benedict would have been delighted by my self-awareness of what I can and cannot do.  He would also be delighted by my appreciation of the talents that my brothers have.  Because they have their talents, and I let them exercise them, it means that I don’t have to do everything myself — save that I need to thank them when they’re done.

The abbot is scheduled to bless this first new bridge in September, and next summer work will begin on a second span.  Depending on funding and the energy of the monks, the project will continue, with one bridge per year.  Such is the pace of monastic toil.  All will get done, in its own good time.  That’s how monks put their stamp upon a place, and vice-versa.

IMG_2952Notes

+The University school year is upon us, and one sign of the changing times was the day-long department workshop that I attended on August 15th.  More obviously, we have seen the onset of the new school year in the arrival of many of our students, including members of the football team.  This week I also saw touches of red on some of the leaves of the trees.  Frightening.

+As today’s post narrates, work continues on the new bridge on the trail to Stella Maris Chapel.  Fr. Lew has directed those efforts, and this week members of the football team lent their expertise by lifting into place the heavy beams.

+This week The Saint John’s Boys Choir began its new season with a choir camp on campus.  Over the years their voices have added immeasurably to the beauty of our liturgy, and we look forward more of same this year.

IMG_0006_2Advice from Ruth

I seldom get an invitation to preside at a wedding, and so I was particularly glad to have that opportunity this last Saturday.  It was a wonderful occasion to be part of this moment in the lives of two lovely young people, and I wish them well as they go forward in their pilgrimage of life.

That said, I was a little taken aback at their choice of a reading from the book of Ruth, chapter 1.  For those not familiar with that text, the essentials of the story are simple.  Naomi, with her husband and two sons, had moved to Moab, east of the Dead Sea.  Her two sons married local (i.e.: non-Jewish) women, and all seemed to be going just fine.  Then Naomi’s husband died, unexpectedly.  Then her two sons also died.  Then one daughter-in-law took off.  That left Naomi and Ruth, her other daughter-in-law, and between them they confronted almost hopeless prospects.

What an inspiring story to tell at a wedding!  And more to the point, it’s a sobering tale for a prospective mother-in-law and bride to chew on.  So what’s a homilist to do with something like that?  Where’s the consolation, and where’s the optimistic message people expect to hear at weddings?

IMG_0019_2Thankfully, there’s a lot more to the story than that, and the bride and groom had chosen this unconventional reading precisely because of one gorgeous nugget nested square in the middle of chapter 1.  Just when Naomi seems bereft of any sort of future, Ruth turns to her to promise her loyalty.  Who knows if she was recalling the good times that they had all enjoyed before this disastrous turn of events; but she still has hope for the future.  “Entreat me not to leave you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge;  your people shall be my people, and your God my God….”

Have there ever been words more beautiful or better-suited to a wedding?  For that matter, what better commitment can one friend make to another, or a monk to a community?  Such words define a pledge to live a noble life, one in which love and commitment transcend any and every challenge that may come along.

Since the bride and groom had chosen this passage for their very special day, I decided to run with it, largely because there was lots to consider.  And there’s food enough for a lifetime of meditation.

IMG_0024_2For starters, Ruth pledges that where Naomi goes, she will go.  This is a reminder to all of us that life is a pilgrimage, not just in terms of geography but in terms of experience as well.  In marriage people pledge to make their pilgrimage together.  One promises not to leave the other behind — in every sense of the phrase.  In sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, they will walk together through life.  They will travel in the hope that their life together will be far richer than had they taken separate paths.

Then Ruth promises that Naomi’s people will be her people. That is a pointed reminder that married people live in a community of family and friends.  All their family and friends are part of the marriage, because the two of them bring to each other what family and friends have invested in them over the years.  In marriage they do not shut people out of their lives.  Rather, they embrace all of their family and friends and bring them with them into this new relationship.  That’s why everybody was invited to the wedding in the first place.  It wasn’t because of the gifts, after all.

IMG_0275_2Finally, Ruth pledges that Naomi’s God will be her God.  That defines this relationship in terms of a consecration in the Lord.  The faith that has brought them to this point was not self-derived.  The seeds of faith were first planted by parents, and then watered and nourished by friends.  That’s what has shaped them as people who now give themselves, one to the other.

Anyway, that’s what I drew from this passage from the Book of Ruth, and that’s the message I tried to preach at this wedding.  Ironically, Ruth’s words were never meant to be used at a wedding, but they are as perfect as anything could be as a guide for two young people as they walk through life, together.  Even better, these words are a good foundation for friendship and life in community.  After all, that’s what Ruth meant them to be.

For those who’ve not read the book of Ruth, the story turns out pretty nicely, because Ruth followed through on all her promises.  And Ruth would encourage us to do likewise.  She would encourage us to be true to one another, in sickness and health, and in joy or sorrow.  She’d be the first to say that if we walk together in the ways of the Lord, our lives will be far richer than if we take separate paths.

IMG_0186_2Notes

+This was a great week for me, and I managed to stay away from the airport for the second week in a row.

+On August 12th I said Mass and gave a talk to the members of the Serra Club of Minneapolis, gathered at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, MN.

+On August 13th I presided at the marriage of Carl and Lezlie, held at the chapel  of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the campus of the University of Saint Thomas, in St. Paul.  My connection to the couple came through Carl’s side of the family.  I had met his parents many years ago when I gave a talk at the University of Minnesota.  After that we became good friends.  I connected with Carl via another route, after he had spent a year of service at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where we’ve sent Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s for the last twelve years.  By contrast, Lezlie and her family attended Holy Name Church in Edina, MN.  Our monks served that parish for over a hundred years, and the family fondly recalls our confrere, Fr. Arnold Weber, who was pastor for many years.

IMG_0175_2+On August 14th I joined our monks in the chapter house as we listened to a presentation by Francesc Gomis Domenech, who has been a Benedictine Volunteer at Saint John’s for the last few months.  Francesc attended The Escalonica Montserrat, the choir school at the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, outside of Barcelona.  Saint John’s has had a long relationship with Montserrat, that stretches back to the days when our community came to the abbey’s assistance at the end of the Spanish Civil War.  Years later the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University microfilmed the medieval manuscripts in the abbey library.  For the last few years members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps have served at Montserrat.  It was wonderful to have a volunteer from Montserrat with us these past few months.

+Since today is the feast of the Assumption of Mary, I have included depictions of Mary’s life.  All are housed at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

IMG_2644A Moment of Transfiguration

The feast of the Transfiguration has never had the popularity in the Latin Church that it enjoys in Orthodoxy.  In the latter there are icons galore that celebrate the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah;  and the liturgy for the feast is anything but ordinary.  Not so in the West, where it slips by with scarcely any notice.  The fact that it takes place on August 6th, when people tend to be on vacation, dooms it to obscurity.

You’d think that the feast would deserve a little more respect.  After all, the occasion is pretty dramatic, as the gospels narrate the moment in which Jesus, in prayer, meets two great figures from the Bible.  As the disciples look on, stupefied, Jesus is transfigured before their very eyes.  It’s a mind-blowing experience for Peter and the others with him.

Generations of preachers have had fun with all this, as if Peter and the disciples beheld aliens from another planet.  They scarcely knew what to say, and so Peter said some pretty inconsequential nonsense about putting up tents to celebrate the occasion.

What in the world is going on here?  Why do the gospel narrators give us this story but scarcely interpret its meaning for us?

IMG_2651For one thing, in this passage we have a fundamental insight into the nature of Jesus.  In him the divine and the human touch.  The sacred and the material somehow blend, and in that meeting we should all find some little measure of hope.  In the Orthodox tradition spiritual writers have stressed that in Jesus the divine became human so that humans might become divine.  The fact that Moses and Elijah and Peter and the others shared in the experience is an important signal to us all.  Each of us has spiritual value in the eyes of God.  God is not distant from us, and the mission of Jesus is to open our eyes and to draw us into the eternal dimension within us.

A second lesson may have to do with the nature of prayer.  There is something wonderfully naive about Peter’s offer to put up tents.  Still, I don’t think Peter meant those tents to be for the exclusive use of Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  I suspect he had every intention of crowding into that tent with them.  He intended to be part of the moment, and he intended to prolong the moment.  He wanted to milk it for all it was worth.

Years ago people were accustomed to greet the elegantly-clad in our midst with the observation that they looked “simply divine.”  That veneer of beauty is not what divinization is all about.  Rather, it’s about the potential within each of us to be open as God reaches into our very souls to touch us.

IMG_2635Secondly, when God reaches into us in prayer the experience of the divine is often very fleeting.  Only for the rare individual is it prolonged, and that’s the point of the Transfiguation.  In an instant the veil between the divine and human was pulled back, and for Peter and the other disciples it was a moment of incredible insight and perhaps even spiritual ecstasy.

As the Gospels make abundantly clear on more than one occasion, Peter and the disciples are the most ordinary of people.  Chances are good that they were even more ordinary than we are.  If a moment of spiritual vision was their privilege, so it is ours as well.  In that vein, Jesus reminds us that we know neither the day nor the hour of the Lord’s coming; but he comes, in an instant and in the twinkling of an eye.

The gospels encourage us to savor those moments and let them bleed into the rest of our lives.  That is the divination to which God invites each of us.  It  is nothing less than a conversation with the Lord in prayer, and translating it into the nooks and crannies of our lives.   In the process not only is the Lord transfigured in our midst, but he transfigures us as well.  We humans grow in the divine and share in the eternal.

IMG_2626Notes

+August tends to be a rather quiet time in the monastery, but there are moments when there’s almost more than we can handle.  On August 4th we had the perfect storm, when three events vied for our presence.  That evening a number of monks attended the opening reception for an exhibit of monastic art at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis.  Simultaneously there was the annual picnic for current and former trustees of Saint John’s University, which took place in Plymouth, MN.  Finally, those who stayed home had to carry the burden of Mass and evening prayer with diminished numbers.  Though I had two photographs in the art exhibit, I chose the picnic.  My reasoning was simple.  Summer in Minnesota does not last forever.

IMG_2642+On August 6th we celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration.  Again, it was a busy day for us, as the Abbey church served many purposes.  The day started with morning prayer.  Then it was set up for a concert by the Minnesota All-State Choir, whose 250 members had been with us all week.  Then the church was transfigured for a wedding, which continued as a dinner in the Great Hall later in the day.  Then came a baptism in the baptistry of the church.  We monks retreated to celebrate the Transfiguration in the chapel of Saint Benedict, in the crypt of the Abbey church.

+On August 7th we hosted a number of our sisters from the Monastery of Saint Benedict for evening prayer and a festive dinner.  It is an annual event that recalls the visit of Saint Scholastica with her brother Benedict.

+The first two photos in today’s post show an icon of the Transfiguration, by iconographer Aidan Hart.  The third photo shows a practice session for the Minnesota All-State Choir.  Next is Jesus as he presides over the impending wedding banquet in the Great Hall.  Finally, I’ve included a picture of a modern rendition of Saint Benedict, which sits in the entrance to the east cloister walk of the Abbey church.  He was the one who reminded us that “guests you will always have with you.”  How wonderfully right he was!

IMG_0092Nobody’s Perfect (in case you hadn’t noticed)

Last week as I returned home through the airport in Minneapolis, I happened to bump into some friends from Duluth.  They were there to see their son off as he and a group of fifty were about to fly to Poland for World Youth Day.  Frankly, they all looked like they’d already been there and back, because they appeared exhausted.  But that was due to a big storm that had hit Duluth three days earlier.  My friends envied their son, because at least in Poland they had electricity.

The thought of going anywhere with fifty people does not excite me in the least.  But there was one thing that I did envy those kids, and that was the chance to hear Pope Francis speak to them.  And speak to them he did, in clear and direct language.

One sermon in particular caught my attention, and the pope’s message was simple enough.  He looked up from his text and urged them to put down their cell phones and tablets.  “Take part in life.  Don’t be couch potatoes!”

I know a few adults who could benefit from that message, and on occasion I’ve been in their number myself.  Thankfully the allure of the cell phone has never sucked me in, but for all sorts of other reasons I too have shrunk back from taking part in life.  And so, like most everyone else, I have to confess regularly both what I have done and what I have failed to do.

IMG_2577Everyone has personal reasons for not taking part in life, but one excuse I hear often enough is the appeal to inadequacy.  “I don’t have any talent.”  “Others do things so much better than I.”  “What difference can I make?”  “I’m not perfect, you know”

It’s definitely true that most of us are not perfect.  But then again, who is?  Be that as it may, personal imperfection is all too often the excuse of choice when it comes to shirking both responsibility and opportunity.  But who gives any of us the right to exempt ourselves from participation in life, just because we’re not perfect?

Jesus frequently reminded his disciples that nothing excuses inaction.  Nothing justifies putting our lives under a basket. Whether we have ten talents or one, we all have to give an account of how we did or didn’t use each and every one of them.  And to take a little license with the text, those to whom anything is given, Jesus expects at least something in return.  In fact, everyone can do at least some little thing.  Anyone and everyone can make even a slight difference in the world.

IMG_2587The other day I passed a tree that never would have made the cut in a garden magazine.  It was gnarled and knotted, and I’m sure its parents were disappointed to see that their little sapling hadn’t grown into the perfect shade tree for which they’d hoped.  But it grew up anyway, and its very warts made it one of the most interesting and striking trees in the garden.  By contrast, the perfect trees nearby merely served as adequate background.

Obviously the same is true for us.  Practically everyone I know has at least one or two imperfections, and that’s why I find them so interesting.  By contract, the few perfect people make me uncomfortable because they highlight my own inadequacies.  But they also remind me of the talents that I have, as well as of the need to use them creatively.  To do anything less would turn me into a couch potato.

IMG_2601In his Rule Saint Benedict urges his disciples to keep death daily before their eyes.  As I’ve written on other occasions, this is not encouragement to sit on the couch and wait for death.  Rather, it’s a wake-up call to discover and use what talents we have, and to do so while we’re still in the land of the living.  In fact, using our talents is the very essence of what it means to be alive.

No one I’ve met has a God-issued vocation to be a couch potato.  Rather, couch potatoes become so because they slowly give up and just get used to it.  But life on a couch or swallowed up in a cell phone is not life.  God made us for better things.  God made us to have life, to have it in abundance, and to make the most of it.  Imperfection can never be an excuse for us to waste God’s gifts by sitting on the couch.

IMG_2608Notes

+On July 30th my good friend Betty Swenson was laid to rest at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord, NH.  Some readers may recall my post of February 22nd, which had as its focus some thoughts on Betty.  I was honored to learn that they read that post at Betty’s gravesite.  I wish I could have been there, but I was definitely there in spirit — and smiling at the mere thought of Betty.

+Among the thousands of people at the World Youth Day in Poland was our Fr. Michael Peterson, who led a group of our students to take part in the event.

+Between July 16th and September 5th there is an exhibit at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, entitled “Benedictine Creativity Inspired by the Spirit.”  It consists of works by several of our monks, included two framed photographs by me.

IMG_2616+This past week Saint John’s University was pleased to host for their annual retreat the 230 members of the marching band from Rosemount High School in Rosemount, MN.  For the entire week they spread across the campus for section practices and gave performances by the entire band in the football stadium.  As in past  years, the sound of music wafted through the campus, and as always they were wonderful guests.

IMG_0007_2Good Listening: Not So Easy

Like any good prophet, Jeremiah was a reluctant servant of the Lord.  And like any good prophet, he protested his unworthiness to preach the word of the Lord to those who needed to hear it.  He didn’t know how to speak well.  He was too young.  He was afraid of how people might react.  He wasn’t exactly sure about what he was to say.

In the last few days the first readings at Mass have come from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, and they present a dilemma that is both ancient and modern.  Jeremiah felt torn between what God might be asking from him and what he himself might prefer to do.  Jeremiah tried to beg off, but in the end none of his objections mattered.  The divine mind had been made up.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;  before you were born I dedicated you;  a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”  What could Jeremiah say in response?  What could any of us say to a commission like that?

In the long run God supplied all the words that Jeremiah needed.  To his own surprise. Jeremiah opened with the simplest of invitations, and God seemed to take it from there. “Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah!”  Then the words flowed freely, and Jeremiah must have marveled at how God had taken possession of him and accomplished great things through him.

IMG_0008_2In his Rule Saint Benedict opens with an invitation that parallels Jeremiah’s words. “Listen” is what Benedict encourages his disciples to do, and he promises that listening will transform their lives.  But of course the big challenge is to dispose ourselves to listen in the first place.

Listening takes a bit of work these days, simply because there is way too much stuff bombarding our ears.  It’s a challenge to sort through it all, especially when the marketers draft appeals that can be tough to resist.  We cannot blame them, of course, because that’s their job.  Whether it’s political posturing or aggressive pitches for products we might not need, the advertising is constant and almost militant.

Neither Jeremiah nor Benedict urges on us a passive listening, however.  It’s easy enough to cede personal responsibility to live good and thoughtful lives when we merely surrender to the flow.  In fact, however, it is our responsibility to sort through the mass of appeals and distinguish between the junk mail and what is truly life-giving.  Then it is critical to realize the consequences of our choices.

IMG_0046_2It’s amazing how little things have changed since someone first told the story of Adam and Eve.  Those two made their choice and then blamed the serpent for false advertising, when in fact they only had themselves to blame.  They had listened to the promise of the serpent, but they’d not listened critically.  They seemed oblivious to any consequences that might follow, and they would have to pay the price for what they’d decided to do with their lives.

That, it seems to me, gets to the core of the listening that both Jeremiah and Benedict urge on us.  This is neither “easy listening” nor “listening as entertainment.”  Instead, this is the sort of listening that determines the direction of our lives.  This listening requires a mulling over of sometimes difficult choices, but that’s the whole point.  It’s all challenging because our very being matters — if not to the marketers, then at least to God.

IMG_0051There’s a wonderful lesson to draw from Jeremiah and Benedict, and it’s this.  They practiced what they preached.  Each listened to the word of the Lord, and each let it percolate in his mind until listening became inspiration, and inspiration led to action.  They were anything but passive listeners, and the experience was transformative.

Like God did with Jeremiah, so God does with us.  From before our birth God has fashioned us and dedicated us.  God destined us to be more than consumers of products or political zealots.  Instead, God created us in the divine image and means us to live noble and thoughtful lives.  All we need do is pause and listen to what God has to put to us.  Then, if we can respond in the affirmative, we open ourselves to the great things God will do with us.  That, it seems to me, is the real reward of a  life well-lived.

IMG_0013Notes

+On July 21st I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s in San Francisco.  It was a wonderful gathering, which was preceded by evening prayer at Grace Cathedral.  In attendance were Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, as well as alumni chaplain Fr. Don Talafous.

On July 21st and 22nd Brother Paul Richards staged a massive rummage sale in Guild Hall at Saint John’s.  He has done this for several years now, and the proceeds benefit the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  In August some twenty recent alumni of Saint John’s University will depart for year-long postings at Benedictine abbeys in Africa, South and Central America, Europe and to one site in the US — Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.

+Through the winter I was remarkably fortunate in that travels generally went smoothly.  Not so this week, when storms at the Minneapolis airport managed to transform a three-hour flight into a European-length adventure.  We boarded in plenty of time, and just as we were ready to push back a big storm came rolling through. There we sat for a while.  And then we sat some more.  Then we taxied out to the runway, only to discover that we no longer had enough fuel to complete the flight.  So back we went to the gate to get more gas.  Then another storm rolled through.  It was three hours, cooped on the plane, before we took off.  Then we went east for forty-five minutes before going west.  Altogether we were on the plane for over seven hours.  Remarkably, people took it all in stride, and no one got irate about it.  But we were more than ready to run off the plane on arrival.

IMG_0058_2+In the last few weeks I’ve heard hints that many did not receive mailings of this blog.  Some readers thought I had given up or lopped them off the mailing list.  In fact, as I discovered this week from one reader in Los Gatos, CA, the blog site WordPress was simply overwhelmed with too much business.  Hopefully they have added capacity.  In the meantime, all those posts are still there in the archive.  In case you missed something and have nothing else to do on a delayed flight, they are waiting to be read.

+The photos in today’s post hark back to a gentler time, when the sound of birds and streams tended to tickle the ears rather than cable television.  I took these two summers ago in a village in the Cotswolds, to the west of London.

IMG_2524Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Kateri Tekakwitha has been part of the landscape at Saint John’s for decades now.  From her pedestal she gazes out over Lake Sagatagan, and from there she proclaims both her faith and the sense that she is completely at home in her wooded environment.  She also performs a vital service to students and visitors who pass by on the trail at her feet.  As Fr. Nick reminded us in his homily on her feast day last Thursday, there’s a ritual that runners observe as they go by.  Carefully they slow down or pause to rub the nose of the dog at her feet, in hopes that there will be no tumbles or turned ankles as they negotiate the trails.

Kateri was born to Algonquin Mohawk parents in New York in 1656.  Smallpox took her family, and at four years of age Kateri woke to find herself an orphan, with a scarred face and diminished eyesight.  The latter explains the dog at her feet, because that pup helped guide her thereafter.  At nineteen a Jesuit missionary baptized her, and she continued to serve the sick until her death in 1680.

The statue that now offers encouragement to cross-country runners at Saint John’s once graced Saint Olaf Church in downtown Minneapolis.  The neighborhood of office buildings and high-rise condos was an unlikely home for her, and when the church burned to the ground in 1956 the pastor generously offered her statue to the monks.  She’s been with us ever since.

IMG_2526Whoever crafted the statue took the liberty of adding the title “saint” long before Pope Benedict made it official in 2012.  No alterations were necessary when the public recognition of her sanctity finally caught up with the reality of it.

To those who might wonder why we monks would welcome her into our midst, I would offer three points for consideration.  First, she reminds us of the people who lived in Minnesota long before the Europeans arrived.  We must respect both the memory and the culture of those who had lived here for such a long time.  Second, along with Saint Francis of Assisi, the Church reveres Kateri as a patron of the environment.  That makes her especially attractive for us, because we’ve carefully tended our forest and land and lakes for 160  years.

Our concern for the environment is by no means a recent thing at Saint John’s, and it predates even the 1890s, when we put in place a reforestation program after storms destroyed a huge stand of timber.  It was the first such effort in Minnesota state history, but it mirrored the efforts that our Benedictine brothers had been doing in Europe for centuries.

IMG_2528Today we continue to rely on the woods for the lumber that we transform into our furniture.  We also draw from the maple trees the sap that becomes syrup.  But of even greater significance, our lands and lakes are an invaluable classroom for our students and guests — which this year included 8,000 schoolchildren who toured the arboretum.  Our nurture of the land draws inspiration from St. Benedict’s concern for the tools of the monastery.  Along with Benedict we see the landscape as a resource that deserves both cultivation and respect.  It’s not something to be used, depleted, and abandoned.  In practice, we cherish our environment because we believe that God created both us and our world.  Both are sacred.

There’s one last element that Kateri adds to our lives as Benedictines.  In most every respect Kateri was the most ordinary of people.  She was neither a political nor military leader.  She had no official status in the Church.  She had few if any financial resources, nor was she a leading figure in her social scene.  The reality is that she was a young woman who suffered serious health issues and who channeled her energy into serving the sick.  In short, she was not a heroic figure.  She was quite ordinary, but she was an example of how God generally prefers to use very ordinary people to do something extraordinary.

IMG_2508Today Saint Kateri Tekakwitha provides a vital service at Saint John’s.  Symbolically she reminds runners and walkers alike that the world can be a confusing and even dangerous place, just as the woods can be.  At the same time, the world and the woods are home to us, and God promises to be with us as we negotiate sharp turns and the stones and sticks that can trip us up along the way.  They are obstacles, true, but they never justify turning back and giving up.

Saint Kateri urges us to run on with confidence, and her pup reminds us that God goes with us to show the way.  We may stumble and we may fall, but God helps us get back on our feet.  That’s how God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary.  To that Saint Benedict would say “Amen!”

Notes

+In my previous post I neglected to mention that on July 9th Bishop Donald Kettler ordained to the diaconate our confrere Brother Efrain Rosado Casanova.  In the months that remain before his ordination as a priest he will be doing CPE (Clinical-Pastoral Education) at the VA Hospital in St. Cloud, as well as assisting at Saint Boniface Parish in Cold Spring.

IMG_2501+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and that included the observance of the anniversary of profession by several monks and the first vows of Brother Cassian.  What I could not have anticipated in last week’s post was the tremendous storm that began as we processed into the church for Mass.  There was thunder and lightning and a torrential rain that lasted the entirety of the liturgy.  The theatrics and the two inches of rain were just amazing, and we actually enjoyed it all.  It also kept the church quite cool, which was unusual for that feast day.

In the course of three days we received over 5.5 inches of rain, which is a lot but normally not overwhelming.  However, there was one unintended consequence.  Workers had just completed a rain garden to catch run-off that would normally flow into the lake.  This pond allows the landscape to filter out any pollutants that the water might take with it into the lake.  Unfortunately, this was more than the new pond could handle, and the dam burst and allowed a torrent of water to flow into the lake.  Next time we’ll be better prepared.

+On July 16 and 17 the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey joined us for their yearly retreat.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate a portion of what you might encounter on the miles of trails at Saint John’s.  At the bottom is the entrance to the system, which was constructed last summer.  Over the next two years we will be repairing and replacing some of the footbridges that have outlived their usefulness.

IMG_2549

IMG_2326The Feast of St. Benedict

Today is the feast of St. Benedict, the patron of western monasticism.  It’s a major feast day at Saint John’s, and for most of the monks it was the day on which they made their first vows.  Today, then, we celebrate with those who professed twenty-five, fifty, sixty and seventy years ago.  We’ll also witness as Brother Cassian professes his first vows.  He’s now completed his year of novitiate, and today he will make promises for three years, in anticipation of the day when he will make his solemn vows.

Contrary to what most people imagine, monks in the Benedictine tradition — including Cistercians and Trappists — do not vow poverty, chastity and obedience.  Those vows surfaced much later and they are identified with orders like the Franciscans and Jesuits.  Since the sixth century, however, we’ve professed three vows which continue to distinguish us within the religious orders of the Church.  “Stability” binds us to a place and to a particular monastic community, and does so for life.  “Conversion to a monastic manner of life” — conversio morum — is a more general concept that embraces many facets.  It encompasses celibacy and simplicity of life, and it assumes a communal life of shared prayer and work.  Finally, “obedience” is what we profess to the abbot, who is our spiritual father.

IMG_2328A year ago when Brother Cassian was clothed as a novice, the abbot asked what he sought.  As novices have done for eons, he answered that he had come to seek God and to do so in the fellowship of this community.  The search for God is a quest we share with all Christians of course, but life in the context of a particular community is what distinguishes the monk’s vocation from that of the married or single person.

In our baptism we all began the search for God, and clearly monks have no monopoly on that.  It’s a universal hunger that should be the hallmark of all people of faith, monks included.  At the same time, the term “search for God” has a rather fuzzy ring to it.  What in the world does it mean?  Does it mean that we take the initiative and hunt for the same experience of God which Moses had on Mount Sinai?  Do we instead look for something transformative, as when God threw Saul to the ground?  Or do we wait for the moment of spiritual ecstasy, such as when the love of God transfixed the heart of Theresa of Avila?

I can say with some measure of assurance that those are not the things that most monks I know are looking for.  Nor have I ever met a monk who has experienced any of that.  Nor have I met any monk who’s been disappointed that none of that ever happened to him.  Are we failures or frauds then?  Not really, because all the while we keep looking for God in all the other places.  And most particularly, we look for God in the ordinary.

IMG_2331The search for God in a typical monastery sounds dull and repetitive, and it’s not the sort of thing a Hollywood producer would make a movie about.  Still, it’s in the very ordinary exchanges in our lives where we start to pick up the hints of God’s activity.  In the goodness and generosity of a very ordinary monk we see God’s hand at work.  In the support and love that we receive from one another we experience God reaching out to us.  And in the common struggle to better our lives we find the inspiration to get out of bed and resume the quest each day.

Monks certainly don’t have the inside track on the search for God.  Others have the same aspiration, though perhaps instead in the context of a married commitment or friendship.  But this monastic regimen is the life we’ve chosen.  We’ve opted to face the challenges and opportunities of life in the context of a particular group of brothers, and we’ve chosen to be with them for a lifetime.

IMG_2372Do we see God all the time?  Certainly not!  On any given day the presence of God doesn’t seem all that obvious.  Yet, God is there in the praying of the liturgy of the hours and the Eucharist.  God’s there in our work and in our recreation and in our service to guests and students and coworkers.  On any given day we might have to squint hard to see God at work, but over a lifetime it gets easier to perceive the hand of God shepherding us along.  It gets easier to pick out those footsteps which God left as he walked beside us.  It’s then that we discover that God has elected to do all of this in the fellowship of our community.

That’s the theory anyway, and that’s some of what we celebrate on the feast of St. Benedict.  The seniors for their part can reflect with astonishment at what God’s managed to do through them through the years.  Meanwhile Brother Cassian today takes up this quest to seek God daily and deeply in this community.  And we pray that the Lord will sustain us all as we continue on this pilgrimage.

IMG_2378Notes

+Last week some fifty monks and sisters joined us in choir, and their numbers added immensely to the quality of our music.  They were here for the annual meeting of the Monastic Institute, hosted by the School of Theology at Saint John’s University.

+On July 8th I presided and preached at the funeral for Mr. Richard Madden, at St. Anselm Church in Ross, CA.  I had known Dick and his wife Joan for many years, primarily through his work in the Order of Malta.  Dick had a professional career that was only outshone by his amazing volunteer work.  For six years he served as the president of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  There was nothing ordinary about Dick, including the trip to the cemetery, which was located some forty-five minutes away in a country churchyard on the Pacific coast.  We were running late, pressed by the promise that the cemetery workers would call it quits at 2:15.  We left at 1:15, but to gain time the driver of our car opted for a short-cut through the mountains.  You have to picture a stretch-limo that included five of us and Dick’s wife Joan, racing up a narrow winding mountain road, hoping to make it in time.  Needless to say, everybody got carsick.  Then came the summit, and with it the really big surprise.  There, blocking the road, was a sign that announced that the road was closed due to an avalanche.  So we had to race back down the mountain from whence we’d just come.  We were good and late to the cemetery, but the cemetery workers had mercy and all went well.  It was a day to remember.

IMG_2400+Today, July 11th, Brother Cassian will pronounce his first vows.  He is likely the first person in our community to come from Atlanta, and he comes complete with a non-Minnesota accent.  He attended Belmont University in Nashville and then did a graduate degree in theology at Vanderbilt University.  Before coming to the monastery he worked at the Dorothy Day House in Duluth, MN.

+The first three photos in today’s post show my favorite doorway at Saint John’s, the entrance to the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium.  In the foreground is a grid of littleleaf linden trees, and the bees were busy a couple of weeks ago with the linden flowers.  In the tympanum of the doorway is a carving of St. Benedict.  Other pictures in this post illustrate the lush summer vegetation in the monastic garden.

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