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Preaching Through Deeds

Even monks have limits when it comes to sermons and hours spent in church.  Not surprisingly the onset of the dog days of August tends to trigger that sentiment, likely because the abbey church can really warm up uncomfortably by then.  So I was not surprised that one of my confreres whispered a word of advice as I stood ready to enter the church last week to preside.  “Word has it that there’s a plenary indulgence for short homilies these days.”

I knew that he didn’t mean it as a threat.  Rather, it was an expression of wishful thinking, by someone who would have been even happier had I dispensed with the sermon altogether.  But coincidentally I shared his sentiment, even though I knew that the business about a plenary indulgence was a big fat lie.  However, in anticipation of a cranky audience, I had prepared a shorter-than-average homily, in full awareness that I had to deliver at least something.  And these were the words I offered about Moses that afternoon.

IMG_6670“I’m not sure I’d care to be in Moses’ sandals as he stood before the people of Israel.  Time and again he had to preface his remarks with this simple statement:  ‘God spoke to me the other day, and he wants you to do the following.’  No doubt many eyes in the crowd rolled, and still later many of the prophets paid with their lives for speaking such words.

“Thankfully, God hasn’t been so direct with me, and I assume that’s been true for you as well.  However, grateful though we may be that we don’t have to speak formally on God’s behalf, we may actually be stuck with a much tougher assignment.  It’s true that God has spared us from the task of passing on divine messages that have been dictated to us, but as Christians we actually face a greater challenge.   If we’re exempt from speaking on God’s behalf in words, it’s actually worse than we have imagined.  I fear that God expects us to speak to our neighbor in deeds.”

That was it.  Did my words do any good for my confreres?  Who knows.  But my short homily was at least a nice gesture.  I just hope that someone in that hot church appreciated my kind deed.

IMG_6644Notes

+On July 20th I presided at the Abbey Mass, in the overheated Abbey church.

+On July 22th I presided at the wedding of Ben and Sara Ivory, alumni who now live in Chicago.  The wedding took place in the overheated and by then humid Abbey church.  All the same, it went well and it was something of a destination wedding.  Participants flew in from Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and Spain, as well as from New Ulm, MN.  In fact, I think I was the only local resident to attend the ceremony.

+This last week we hosted five Augustinian novices for a week-long retreat.  This too had the character of a destination event, since they came from Sri Lanka, Mexico, Canada and the United States.  They stayed in the guesthouse and joined us for prayer, and on their last evening they joined us for dinner in the Abbey refectory.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the lush garden that is in the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  Right now the hydrangeas are simply extraordinary.

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There’s a Choir Stall for You!

This past week guests swelled the ranks in our choir stalls.  In fact, on several occasions the guests outnumbered the monks, and it’s not because our community is small.  It’s not.  Rather, there were just so many of them.  One evening 350 Lutheran church musicians joined us at Evening Prayer.  Then, for two days, 85 oblates of the abbey prayed Morning and Evening Prayer with us during their annual retreat.  It’s great to have any and all of them with us, but it can seem overwhelming at times.  And that’s okay.

Saint Benedict envisioned the presence of guests, and lots of them; but he scarcely imagined that they would join us for prayer.  In his day most guests visited and prayed in the church, and perhaps a few lingered to listen as the monks chanted the psalms.  But that was it.  The Latin and the musical notation put participation beyond the reach of guests.  That’s not so today.

IMG_6695Nothing better illustrates the change than one activity in the orientation of freshmen at Saint John’s University.  Last August 463 freshmen filed into our church to join us for Evening Prayer.  The abbot welcomed them and spoke for a few moments about the monastic community.  Later, after prayer, small groups of students met to visit with individual monks.  But the main business at hand was the recitation of Evening Prayer.  Doutless for many of the students it was a new and strange ritual.  But it was also their chance to take part in something beyond the reach of guests in Saint Benedict’s day.

English became the language of the liturgy at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and after that visitors began to join us for prayer in greater numbers.  Still later they began to sit in the section of the choir stalls adjacent to the stalls used by the monks.  There a monk is ready to guide them through the choir books.  Most guests fall easily into the rhythm of the psalms and hymns; but if on occasion there is a discordant note from the visitors’ section, adjustment to the pace of recitation comes quickly.

IMG_6688I can only imagine that in those first years the presence of guests was distracting for a few confreres, but the dynamic is rather different today.  Guests now are an important part of our daily prayer.  The presence of faculty, staff, students and other visitors bolsters our spirits, and we feel their absence keenly during the holidays.

Last August the abbot invited the freshmen to join us for prayer in the course of their four years at Saint John’s.  Are we disappointed that all 463 have not joined us regularly since then?  Not at all.  But on those rare occasions when guests truly are absent, our prayer seems strangely incomplete.

Next month the abbot will once again issue the invitation to the freshmen who have gathered with us for Evening Prayer.  Some will take him up on his invitation in the course of four years.  Some won’t.  But as is the case with all guests to the monastery today, there is a stall waiting for them to join us!

IMG_6702Notes

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict with a Mass in the morning followed by lunch with several hundred guests who were here as six monks renewed their vows on the anniversary of their profession.

+On July 12th we hosted 350 members of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, who joined us for Evening Prayer.

+On July 14-15 we hosted 85 Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, who were here for their annual retreat.  Fr. Bob Koopmann gave the retreat conferences.

+On July 16th we hosted 50 Abbey volunteers who joined us for Mass and lunch.  They are friends of the Abbey who help us out with all sorts of day-to-day activities.

+The photos in today’s post show the Abbot’s Courtyard, leading to the entrance to the monastery.  The gate, wall and gardens were put in place in 1988.

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What’s In a Name?

On Saturday at morning prayer Abbot John invested Jordan as a novice.  To no one’s particular surprise Jordan chose to take a monastic name — Brother Jacob.  Coincidentally, three hours later the first reading at Mass told the unflattering story of how Jacob had connived to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, leaving his older twin Esau holding the bag.  Was this some sort of omen?

For centuries monks and nuns have taken religious names to mark these moments of transition, and we’re not the only ones to do this.  Popes are the most obvious examples, and on occasion monarchs do so as well.  In a twist on this, many adopt the surname of a spouse in a wedding ceremony.  All have their individual reasons for doing so, but common to most is the desire to note the passage into a new chapter of life.

IMG_0126_2Until the 1960s monks at Saint John’s Abbey, like most other monks and nuns in the Catholic tradition, were expected to take a new name that was unique in the community.  In smaller communities this posed no problem, but in larger communities this sometimes triggered the law of unintended consequences.  This was particularly acute at the Monastery of Saint Benedict, our sister-community down the road.  With over a thousand sisters requiring unique identification, latecomers could get stuck with some truly gawd-awful names.  I will forever recall the morning when we noted the passing of Sisters Domatilla Volkerstorffer and Theofrida Berling.  It must have come as quite a shock when the prioress bestowed those names on the two unsuspecting young women.  It had to be particularly tough on Miss Volkerstorffer, who had to be hoping for something simple like Linda or Joyce.  What a moniker to have to carry around for the next seventy years!

Needless to say, the stones in the convent cemetery carry a nearly complete inventory of seldom-used Saxon and other Teutonic names.  Small wonder that when given the chance to return to baptismal names, many did so with undisguised relief.

IMG_0056Today monks at Saint John’s can choose to change or not to change their names.  When I arrived there were eight monks named Michael, and I decided not to be the ninth of anything.  So I took Eric, and not because of any particular devotion to Saint Eric.  In fact, I had to look him up to see if there was such a person.  I adopted it for the simple reason that it wasn’t bizarre;  and just as importantly, I wouldn’t have to share it with anyone.  That plan worked well until a second Eric arrived many years later;  but we’ve managed well enough with a Brother Eric and a Father Eric.

I have to confess that I secretly hoped Jordon would have kept his name.  The last monk with that name — Father Jordan — passed away several years ago.  So the name was available and it was unique.  But my reasons for this arose primarily from my arcane sense of humor.  I’ve long been fond of that Advent hymn that begins “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry…”. That Jordan’s bank is only a short mental leap to those venerable English institutions by the name of Barclay’s Bank and Lloyd’s Bank.  I always wanted to meet Barclay or Lloyd, just to ask them about their banks.  And I would have even settled for a chat with Bob of the fictional Bob’s Bank in Lake Wobegon.  But I know that will never be.  However, I could know Jordan of Jordan’s Bank.

IMG_0045Just to be clear about this, I’m not the only one to indulge in such thoughts.  To cite but one other example, it’s helpful to know that we have a number of monks with hyphenated names, á la Pope John-Paul.  One confrere voiced the hope that the new novice might consider the name Brother Michael-Jordan.  That apparently didn’t make it past the first round of cuts.

Brother Jacob hasn’t tipped his hand as to why he took that name, but I suspect he was nonplussed to hear that reading on Jacob on the day of his clothing in the habit.  So what does that story portend about Brother Jacob?  Will he pattern his life on that of his namesake, who connived to get his brother’s birthright and tricked his father out of a blessing that should have gone to his brother?  Or does this suggest that Brother Jacob has come to the monastery to seek God and will strive for that vision, no matter the personal cost?  Who knows.  But if he’s come with high hopes and a dollop of the flaws that all of us have, then he’s come to the right place.  We’re just the sort of people to welcome him on our flawed and meandering pilgrimage to the Lord.

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+On the 4th of July the monks celebrated Independence Day with a cookout in the garden of the monastery.  I also chose that day for a hike of 10.7 miles.  To my recollection it’s the longest I’ve ever walked, and coming on the heels of my back injury this winter it was a major triumph.  Needless to say, I was tired at the end of it, though not sore.  Some soreness did pop up for the next two days, but overall this was a great personal accomplishment on the road to my own recovery.  The doctor had advised me that walking would be good. and he’s given his blessing to an abbreviated walk of the Camino to Santiago Compostela in the fall of 2018.  So I may as well get used to such walks now if I am going to have any chance to do it next year.

+On July 8th Abbot John clothed Brother Jacob as a novice at morning prayer.

+On July 11th we will celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and for that reason I have resorted to photos from the Abbey of Subiaco outside of Rome for today’s post.  Saint Benedict began his monastic life there; and while the frescos are a bit faded, they are authentic and illustrate the life of Benedict.

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God’s Never Done With Us

During the last few days we’ve forged our way through the story of Abraham in the readings for the weekday Masses.  Abraham was an intriguing fellow with a one-of-a-kind relationship with God, but all the same I’m thankful that I don’t have to walk in his sandals.  Actually, there’s the rub.  God asked Abraham to leave his homeland and extended family and take up what was essentially a nomadic life.  Worse still, there was no precise destination around which to focus his travels.  His was a life not well-suited for a monk who takes a vow of stability.  Granted, many monks do travel on occasion, but thankfully my plane ticket always carries a reminder of where I ultimately belong at the end of a trip.  Not so for Abraham.

With that as background, I had to preside at last Saturday’s Mass.  That day the lectionary happened to pair two readings that seemed to have little in common.  The first told the story of the hospitality that Abraham extended to three strangers.  He seemed to have gone all out to make their pause a pleasant one, and in the course of the visit one of the guests told Abraham that he and Sarah should expect the birth of a son within the next year.  To say the least, that came as a bit of a surprise, since both were in their 90s at the time.

IMG_6577The gospel reading for that day came from Matthew 8, and it recalls the story of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant.  It’s a striking exchange, and not least because the words of the centurion have been immortalized by their inclusion in the communion rite of the liturgy.  In brief, the centurion reminded Jesus that he could heal his servant, and there was no need for a house call.  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  Say but the word, and my servant will be healed.”

A quick scan of these readings suggests they have little or nothing in common.  However, a homilist can’t just give up on finding a coherent thread to connect them and then move on to a reflection on the lovely weather we’ve been having.  And so the following homily is what I shared with the community on Saturday.

“Today’s readings present two radically different approaches to God’s ability to work in us.  On the one hand Abraham cannot be faulted for his commitment to the covenant, but all the same we can fault him for thinking that God was done with him.   Beyond child-bearing years and ready for their eternal rest, neither Abraham nor Sarah could imagine that God could have further use for either of them.

IMG_6580“The centurion, on the other hand, had absolute confidence that Jesus had further plans for him.  He hoped those plans included the cure of his servant, but he knew that Jesus would scarcely stop with that.

“We who commit ourselves to a covenant with the Lord in baptism and religious life sometimes assume we’ve reached the end of the line with what God expects of us.  We may be senior in years.  We may be in ill health.  We may be up to our eyeballs in work.  We may think we’ve exhausted the limits of our talent.  But just as was the case with Abraham, none of that is much of an excuse with God.  Just as God had further plans for Abraham and Sarah and the centurion, so God has further plans for us.  Let us, in this Eucharist, pray for open eyes and an open mind to recognize God’s hopes for us.  And let us pray for the strength to accomplish the great things to which God still calls us.”

IMG_6594Notes

+On July 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On July 1st we received David Franco-Mendez and Joe Eichorn as candidates in the monastery.  David is from Mexico City, and his introduction to Benedictine life took place at the Abbey of Tepeyac, where he completed the novitiate and for a time was in simple vows.  Joe is from Louisiana and for a time was a monk in simple vows at Saint Joseph’s Abbey.  He later came to Saint John’s to pursue an MA in theology, and this past year he served as a faculty resident in one of the college residence halls.  Because David and Joe completed the novitiate in other Benedictine communities, they do not have to repeat that process.  However, they must still complete a year of transition following a three-month candidacy, after which they can petition for admission into simple vows.

On July 8th Abbot John will receive Jordan Berns as a novice in our community.  Jordan is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and after that he served as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.  He then worked as organist and music minister in his home parish in Perham, MN.  As you might expect, we are delighted to welcome these three young men into our community.

+This last weekend was the first in several weekends when we did not host major groups on campus.  It was nice to have something of a break, though it was short-lived.  This morning the annual Monastic Institute begins, with Benedictines and others joining us for this annual conference on the monastic life.  Their presence will fill up the choir stalls, and their voices will augment our own wonderfully.

+The landscape at Saint John’s continues to be lush and colorful this summer, as the photos in today’s post hint.

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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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Corpus Christi:  A Reflection

[The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on the Feast of Corpus Christi at Saint John’s Abbey, 18 June 2017.]

In my idle moments I’ve sometimes wondered what we’ll do to keep ourselves busy for all eternity in the kingdom of the Lord.  Fortunately I’m not blessed with the ambition to be on the entertainment committee — the committee charged with keeping people happy and satisfied.  That’s akin to the job that Moses had for forty years in the desert, and I don’t think he found it all that fulfilling.

However, there’s one thing I know I would like to do in heaven, given half the chance.  That’s the chance to interview a few people who’ve played starring roles in the human story.  Certainly high on my list would be Moses who, if truth be told, is one of the reasons we are all here today.  Had Moses heard about the burning bush and simply rushed on by because he had deadlines to meet, then that would have been the end of the story.  But curiosity made him pause, and his curiosity has made all the difference for him and for us.

IMG_6428It was never easy for Moses.  First of all, he promised freedom to all who would follow him;  but on more than one occasion people seemed less than enthusiastic about following.  When faced with challenge and risk, they conjured up fond memories of a simpler life of slavery in Egypt.  More than once they complained about the food, about the indecisive leadership, and about the hazards of a hostile environment and people.  To put it simply, they preferred the devil whom they did know to the devils they were sure they would meet in the wilderness.  And for Moses, who had spoken with God and had lived to tell the tale, it had to be exasperating.  These people he tried to lead had defied him at every turn, and he must have believed they deserved whatever punishment the Lord had sent their way.  Conversely, Moses must have marveled at the mercy God showered on a people that scarcely deserved mercy.  In short, Moses must have grown impatient both with his people and perhaps even with God.

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses speaks to his people as their wanderings are just about over.  It’s been forty years, and they stand on the brink of the promised land.  And in one of his last big sermons Moses reminds everyone of what’s happened to them in the course of forty years in the desert.  For one thing, most of those who had left Egypt had long since died.  And Moses knew that even he would not cross into the promised land.  It was an entirely new people that stood before him.  Before him stood the children and grandchildren of the pioneers who had taken those hesitant steps out of Egypt.  For forty years the desert experience had shaped them, and manna had nourished them.  Perhaps the change had come upon them so slowly that they had scarcely noticed;  but they who were once no people had now become the people of God.

IMG_6414Now they stood at the threshold of the promised land.  Could they sustain the covenant — the commitment they had made with God at Mount Sinai?  Only time would tell.  But of one thing they could be sure.  God would walk with them.  God would nourish them.  God would never desert them.  God would continue to transform each and every one of them.

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi — the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  In our opening prayer we spoke of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood, and it’s truly right to speak of it as a mystery.  It’s mystery in part because the Eucharist is bigger than anything we can imagine.  The First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of it as a participation in the body and blood of Christ.  It is Jesus Christ with us, and we believe his presence is real and not metaphorical.  And so we reverence the body and blood of Christ as we keep vigil in prayer before it.  But we also take and eat, just as the Lord Jesus commanded us.  And in that eating we become one with the Lord.

IMG_6454In a few minutes we will once again call down God’s blessing and pray for the transformation of our gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  And then we will take and eat, and Jesus will once again become food for our journey.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve received and fed on the body and blood of Christ in the course of my life.  What I can say with surety is that the degrees of intensity of the experience have varied.  Sometimes I’ve been blessed to realize the enormity of what I was doing.  At other times it’s been an almost unconscious experience.  But every now and again I feel blessed with the insight of what God continues to do to and with me on my pilgrimage of life.  By now my pilgrimage has been longer than the forty years in the desert, and yet I’m also keenly aware that my pilgrimage is far from over.  God continues to pull me — and you — along, just as God led those Hebrews wandering in the desert.

In a few moments we will stand to repeat the Nicene Creed.  Much like the Hebrews did before Moses, so we must decide whether we will continue to uphold our part in the covenant.  Will we walk with God or wander off now and again?  Simple curiosity might justify the journey.  The emptiness of alternative paths might argue in favor of the wisdom of walking with God.  But we have to decide.

IMG_6405Should we decide to walk with God, our pilgrimage becomes a statement of faith.  It is our belief that God walks with us and gives us food for the journey.  The Lord sustains us in good times and in bad.  And just as the Lord has already done great things for us, so will the Lord continue to do great things through us.  This is our faith.  May God make strong that faith in us.

Notes

+On June 17th I and my confrere Brother Neal drove to Onamia, MN, to attend the diaconate ordination of Brother Alex Juguilon, OSC.  Alex is a member of the Crosier community there, and he did his seminary studies at Saint John’s.  Despite the fact that their priory is only 65 miles away, and I’ve known several members of their community through the years, this was my first visit.  It was definitely worth the trip.

+On Sunday June 18th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and the sermon that I delivered serves as today’s post.  Some months ago I decided that I just did not have the time — nor the imagination — to write a second reflection for my blog.  So on the occasion when I’ve prepared a sermon, it now does double duty.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from the monastic garden, behind the monastery.  It is particularly lush and green this year, and at the moment the ladyslippers are in bloom.  They are the state flower of Minnesota, and we are fortunate to have them scattered around the property.   On another note, I do not aspire to be a wildlife photographer, but I could scarcely resist the turkey who strolled by me in the course of taking these pictures.  Most mornings and evenings we see turkeys cutting through the garden, and they seem reasonably tolerant of our presence.

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The Spirit Stirs in Us

It isn’t often that the weekday Mass readings keep you coming back for more, but five successive passages from the Book of Tobit last week did just that.  This sequence told the story of Tobia, who lived in the Jewish community in exile in Nineveh in Assyria.  A righteous man, Tobia still managed to stir up all sorts of trouble for himself.  But the worst of it was almost comical.  As he napped one afternoon beneath a tree, droppings from some birds perched above fell onto his eyes, and they left him with cataracts.  How he slept through a bunch of bird droppings is beyond me, but clearly he was a much sounder sleeper than I.

As a last resort he sent his son Tobit off to a distant land for some healing ointment, and along the way Tobit visited the household of their kinsman Raguel.  The text suggests they had never met, but that didn’t stop Tobit from asking for Raguel’s daughter — sight unseen — in marriage.  The latter had had seven husbands, each of whom had died before the consummation of the marriage.  These were not good odds, and I’m a little surprised that Tobit didn’t withdraw his request once Raguel had briefed him on her history.  But things worked out anyway, and Tobit returned to Nineveh with the ointment and his new wife following up behind.

IMG_0370Altogether it’s a nice, feel-good, story.  And if I weren’t living in the 21st century I might be willing to overlook one little item.  As the text suggests, Sarah married eight men, and she had absolutely zero say in any of it.  In each case her father Raguel did all the bargaining, and presumably she’d never even laid eyes on any of her suitors prior to the wedding night.  In fact, in the case of her eighth and most successful marriage, I’m left with the impression that Raguel must have surprised his daughter with the unexpected news.  “Hey, Sarah.  Come on out and meet husband #8.  He’s our closest relative, so I have no right to refuse him.”  The latter sentence is his, by the way, not mine.

It probably wasn’t quite as crass as that, but that was the gist of it.  As for Sarah, it was all a total surprise, and I’m left to ponder what she thought of the idea of moving to Nineveh.

My point in bringing this up is rather obvious, or at least it is to me.  Once upon a time there were things that people in the Bible did that were perfectly acceptable, but we frown upon them today.  Today the Catholic marriage rite inquires whether both parties have come freely to the marriage.  And in the Catholic tradition a six-month’s marriage prep insures that the two have at least met each other before the wedding day and gauged the odds of compatibility.  They even go so far as to ask if the bride is old enough to get married.

IMG_0372Anyway, this episode demonstrates how the Bible outlines the slow progression of people as they come to terms with the revelation of the divine will.  Once upon a time arranged marriages were the norm, but today they scarcely qualify as sacramental.  Once upon a time, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Christians practiced circumcision and kept Jewish dietary laws.  But by the end of the Acts of the Apostles they did not.  And the key ingredient that explains all this is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the Spirit the Christian community grew in age and wisdom, and it’s safe to say that we as individuals do so as well.

The feast of Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the Spirit the Church lives and moves and has its being.  In baptism the priest or deacon breathed the Holy Spirt upon us, and so we should never be surprised that the Spirit stirs in us every now and again, just as the Spirit does in the Church.  Through and in the Spirit we grow, we change, and we become repositories of the wisdom of God.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Tobias, but it is that same Spirit that stirs in us and in the Church.  It’s an exciting concept to consider, but it’s even more exciting to yield to the Spirit who pulls us forward in remarkable and surprising ways.

IMG_0371Notes

+On May 8th I spoke at a reception for donors to Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.  What made it particularly poignant for me was the student speaker, who in fact was the headliner.  Alex will be a junior at Saint John’s this fall, and he is a graduate of Immokalee High School in Florida.  Two friends of mine have set up a scholarship to fund students from Immokalee who come to Saint John’s, and on that evening Alex gave a superb presentation.

+On May 11th I attended and gave a short tribute at a luncheon at Saint John’s that honored a dear friend of Saint John’s, Jo White.  We’ve termed Jo “the mother of The Saint John’s Bible,” because she has inspired the project and championed it through the years as no one else has.  Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath bestowed on Jo the President’s Medal, in recognition of her extraordinary devotion to Saint John’s.

+Last week we welcomed seven monks who will be living with us for about two months as they participate in a course of English as a Second Language.  They’ve come from as far afield as India, Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, Arkansas and Alabama.  I realize that the latter two do not qualify as foreign lands, but they are still a long way off.  Along with three monks from Vietnam and one from Korea who are studying theology with us, the number of Asian monks has reached the point that the monastic refectory now stocks chopsticks.  For those of us who are on diets — like me — they are remarkably effective.

IMG_0373+The photo at the top in today’s post is of the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid, Spain.  The photos below illustrate four depictions of the evangelists, and they are housed in the Museo.  They are all by early 16th-century sculptor Felipe Vigarny.