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Who Do You Want to Be?

Yesterday the new year dawned quietly, and as usual most of us scarcely saw it coming. I’m referring, of course, to the 1st Sunday of Advent and the onset of a new liturgical year.

To be fair, that day is easy to overlook, given the competition with Thanksgiving and Black Friday. The latter hijack our attention, due in part to the lucrative corporate sponsorships that Advent lacks entirely. Advent may have drawn the short stick, but should it take a back seat to its wildly popular competitors? I think not, for one simple reason. Both Black Friday and Advent are really all about the sort of people we want to be.

Those with good memories recall the glory days of The New Yorker Magazine, when successive autumn issues bulged ever fatter with ads for luxury goods. Those treasures were beautifully-crafted, and the ads dazzled my imagination and tickled the acquisitions gene in me. I wanted most everything on those pages, even though I knew I couldn’t afford them. Worse than that, save for the jewelry I had no room to store more things. But I could look, even though I knew I could not have.

Eventually I realized that the desire to acquire need not be restricted to luxury items. There’s lots of stuff I wanted — and still want. But one day I woke up to my kinship with the early Christian ascetics. Their temptations in the desert seem strange to modern readers, but in fact their trials are similar in many ways to my own. They and I imagine that some form of glitz will give our lives meaning that is otherwise absent.

Since that day I’ve had plenty of time to ponder the options, and it’s why today I offer a quiet plea to give Advent a chance. In Advent we don’t have to go to a mall or remember our passwords to get into a web site. Unlike those, we don’t need to go out to meet Jesus, because Jesus comes to us. Even more important, Jesus comes to free us from our burdens, not add to them. He promises that his yoke will be easy and our burdens light. That means that there is no need to tie up our identity in the need to tote more and more stuff around. We are more than what we own.

That brings me to the last point. Jesus loves us for who we are — people created in the image of God. We have intrinsic value as sacred people. All else is window-dressing.

I should say one last thing about Black Friday: sooner or later there will be a price to pay for all that stuff. Perhaps that is why we sometimes have difficulty accepting Jesus when he comes into our lives. He rouses our suspicions because he never sends a bill. He is all gift. And the gift he gives is life in abundance — life that will see us through both good times and bad. Is that a good deal, or what?! The choice is ours to make, but make it we must and will. Who do you want to be?

NOTES

+On November 23rd I met with Novice Travis for a class on monastic history. Later that day I attended the meeting of the senior council of the abbey.

+On November 25th the community gathered for Thanksgiving Day. In the morning we celebrated the Eucharist, followed by a festive meal in the refectory. I must confess that it is my favorite feast day in our calendar. Rather than a vigil service that runs late into the evening, our Eucharist is in the morning. I am a morning person, for better and for worse.

+On November 26th a number of monks hiked for three miles through the woods. I did not participate, because it was just a little too chilly for my bones. The previous night Lake Sagatagan froze, and as of now it is still frozen — as smooth as glass. It is perfect for skating, as long as there is no snow to mess it up. On Sunday I took these photos of Lake Sagatagan, which is located behind the monastery. The ice is still too thin for skating, but the surface is perfectly smooth.

For What Should We Give Thanks?

“For faith, for family, for friends, for food. These are but some of the things for which we give thanks.” That’s become a favorite meal prayer when I’m tapped to bless the food at table. It’s pretty generic, I have to admit, save for the fact that if any one of these four went missing, life would be hugely different for us. Faith, family, friends and food shape the course of our lives. We ought never take any one of them for granted, especially when there’s an occasional glitch or two somewhere.

There’s certainly lots more for which we should be thankful, and every now and again I’m reminded of that when something special pops up right in front of me. I call these ”graced moments” — moments when God’s finger seems to tap me on the shoulder. Those happen to all of us, but sometimes we fail to notice.

A couple of days ago one such graced moment came my way — via an email, of all things. Someone I’ve not met wrote to say that every Monday during the pandemic she printed out a copy of my blog to share with her elderly mother. In time her mom came to look forward to each new installment, and after reading it she shared that post with her friends in the retirement home. They became a great consolation to her — as well as to many others.

This week that mom passed away at the age of 96. Her daughter wrote to share the news, and also to thank me for the comfort and inspiration I had unknowingly given to her mom. She thought I should know that.

That gave me pause to consider what dividends small acts of kindness can pay. Apparently my words had provided graced moments for her mom, and the message from the daughter in turn was a graced moment for me. On top of that, I came to realize that through these months there had been a communion of spirit between me and her mom. The very thought touched me deeply, and it gave me pause to consider how God makes use of each of us. Believe it or not, God relies on us to get a lot of stuff done, whether it be important or less important, and whether we know it or not.

Frankly, I freely admit that I don’t write these posts to win friends and influence people. Nor am I shy to say that as often as not I write for myself. However, if by chance what I write has any value to someone else, then so be it. It’s a nice bonus, but it’s not necessary.

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving, and we have an official day for it because there are too many days in the year when we forget to do it. The fact of the matter is, we should give thanks every day of the year, and not just for the big stuff. As often as not it’s the little things that count. They are the mustard seeds that grow into shrubs. They are the grains of wheat that fall to the ground and someday form the loaves that sustain us.

Little kindnesses done by us and for us may seem inconsequential. For most of us, however, they really do matter. Those graced moments make all the difference in the world. For graced moments great and small we give thanks this Thanksgiving.

NOTES

+On November 16th I participated in a six-hour meeting that welcomed the new director of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible. Despite the fact that I don’t relish such long meetings, I did find that planning session to be wonderfully productive.

+Also on November 16th I took part in the weekly meeting of the Senior Council of the monastery.

+On November 18th I attended the day-long board retreat at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA. After nearly a year and a half of holding such meetings via zoom, it was great to be together, in person, once again.

+On October 19-23 I participated in a retreat for the members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. This does not constitute news, since I mentioned it in my post of October 25th. However, on October 20th we held our conferences at Christ Cathedral, which serves the Diocese of Orange, CA. It is the renovated Chrystal Cathedral, built under the leadership of Rev. Robert Schuller. After the diocese purchased the property and the buildings, they transformed it into what is truly a spectacular worship space. It is worth going out of your way to see it if you are in southern California. The photos give only a hint at how amazing the space is. I regret that I could not make use of the photos in an earlier post, but the crucifix above the altar does seem appropriate for the feast of Christ the King, which we celebrated this last Sunday.

We Are Not Tourist Traps

Somewhere recently I ran across an article about a woman who has devoted a lot of her energy to the Camino to Santiago Compostela in Spain. In the last thirty years that pilgrimage route has regained some of its popularity, but all the same she bemoaned some of the commercialism that has come with it. She concluded with a thought worth writing down: ”There are so many tourist traps in the world; but sacred routes, there are very few of those.”

Those who have visited the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome know that as a tourist trap it has not been at all successful. Despite being the cathedral of the bishop of Rome, it gets only a fraction of the number of visitors that its crosstown rival gets. Yet, there’s something wonderfully inviting about it. It’s as if the colonnades that line the nave do far more than hold up the roof and frame the sanctuary. Visually they turn the gaze toward the altar; and then they funnel visitors into an awesome and sacred space where they just might have an encounter with God.

Saint John Lateran was built to gather the entire Christian population of 4th-century Rome. On the one hand the building was a bold statement that Christianity was legal after centuries of persecution. However, its site outside the city walls also served to remind everybody that Christianity was not yet socially acceptable among the aristocratic classes. That would be a long time in coming, and it would come only after Christians had overcome the stigma of the cross.

Dedicated to John the Baptist, Saint John Lateran is a massive and impressive building. Still, it was created to be a sacred space — a temple in which a person would encounter the Spirit of God. It’s in that vein that St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth, reminding them that each was created and called to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. Not for a minute should we conclude, then, that Saint Paul meant this only for the Corinthians. He posed that challenge to us as well.

Just as the colonnades of Saint John Lateran gently usher people forward to an encounter with Christ, so all of us were created to do the same with our own lives. God did not create us to be the equivalent of tourist traps or sideshow entertainment; nor does God make junk. We were meant to be temples of the Holy Spirit. We are sacred people, and in baptism we were commissioned to welcome others into an experience of God. Let us pray that our words, our actions and our love invite people to meet Christ, whose temples we are.

NOTES

+On November 11th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is an elaboration of the homily I offered that day. It was the feast of Saint John Lateran, which is the cathedral of the diocese of Rome; and the homily draws on the second reading of the day — taken from II Corinthians 3: 9c-11, 16-17. Saint John Lateran is one of the top two of my favorite churches in Rome, partly because it retains the dimensions and style of the original church built by the Emperor Constantine. What makes it especially attractive to me is the medieval cloister, which for centuries housed a community of Benedictine monks who served the pilgrims who came to worship. For the record, my favorite Roman church is Santa Sabina, which is just a short walk on the Aventine from Sant Anselmo, the Benedictine headquarters.

+This week was the last hurrah for autumn foliage at Saint John’s. While the maples did not offer much visual delight this fall, the oaks finally came through with lovely shades of rust and red and yellow. Today’s post presents the last of the autumn landscapes that I will offer this season. By week’s end we had experienced our first dusting of snow, and now we wait for the full blast of winter.

A Glimpse into a Graced Moment

I had no inkling that something was amiss until the guy sitting next to me didn’t come back. He couldn’t go far, of course, because we were on a plane. But it was the third time I had stood aside to let him file down the aisle for a bathroom break. On the third trip he never returned.

What I did not know — nor did he at the time — was that he was having a “heart event.” Still, I figured something was wrong when the flight attendant called out for any doctor that might be on the plane. I was reassured when one woman quickly filed to the front to help out. Then there was a second. Then came a whole line of doctors — nine in all. Who knew that we were on our way to a medical conference? If somebody was going to be sick on a plane, this was the flight to be on.

I mention all this not just because it was a curiosity and that I had never experienced a medical emergency quite like this one. Rather, what struck me was the speed with which so many people came forward to help, without needing to be asked twice. For all I knew there may have been nine more doctors on the plane. Perhaps they had concluded that eighteen helpers were nine too many. Yet, without a moment’s hesitation all these people came forward, even if they ran the risk of having their own travel plans upset.

The rest of the flight went calmly, and on landing the flight attendant asked that we let the ill passenger file out first. Not one single person got up to take advantage of the empty aisle. No one charged for the overhead bins. All were calm. All stayed seated without squirming. All seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of our fellow passenger. All of us waited patiently until the all-clear signal came.

What did not surprise me on that morning flight was the sight of people who were eager to help. What did give me pause was the thought that this was a graced moment, and I had been privileged to witness it. At a time when we’ve become numbed by the news of unruly plane passengers, we are ready to assume that that’s the way it’s going to be from here on out. This flight and thousands like it each day prove otherwise. The skies are still crowded with civilized and kind people.

On my way out I couldn’t resist a tongue-in-cheek compliment to the lead flight attendant. ”Your service today was amazing. You had nine doctors on board, standing by while one guy had a heart attack. You also had a priest sitting next to the guy. What more could he possibly want!” In answer she roared with laughter. “Thank God we had no need of your services today,” was her goodbye to me. But I was able and willing to help, as we say in the exit row.

NOTES

+On November 1st we celebrated the feast of All Saints. What makes our observance so special are the reliquaries of the saints, which we bring from the relic chapel to adorn the sanctuary of the abbey church. It’s a reminder both of the debt we owe to all those who have gone before us in faith and also of our own call to follow in their steps.

+On November 2nd we celebrated the feast of All Souls with two special observances. After morning prayer we paused for a moment of song and prayer at the special altar set up to mark el día de los muertos. Later in the morning we met in the abbey cemetery to pray noon prayer in memory of our deceased confreres and all the dead for whom we have been asked to pray. Photos in today’s post show glimpses of a newer area of the cemetery — meant to accommodate alumni and friends of Saint John’s. On the previous Saturday I had presided at the burial service of alumnus Joel Montpetit.

+On November 3rd I had to scrape the frost off of the windows of my car — the first such event of the season. This won’t be the last time I’ll have to do it, alas.

Faith: A Two-Edged Sword

Who among us doesn’t blanch at the the thought of something alien and alive within our bodies? Diseases like cancer or bacterial infection or a virus send us rushing to the doctor for help because they threaten not only our self-determination but our very lives. Can faith act in the same way?

In Luke 13 Jesus presents what I think are two useful but quite distinct perspectives on the gift of faith. Of the two, the image of the mustard seed is the more positive. As a symbol of faith, the mustard seed suggests that you and I have the potential to accomplish something significant. That potential is a gift latent within us. With nurture, however, we — like the mustard seed — can sprout and flourish.

The image of leaven in the dough seems a bit more ominous. All by itself the dough can become bread — but when it comes out of the oven it sits there, still unleavened. On the other hand, who really knows what exactly the injection of yeast is going to do? That yeast can shape the dough in unexpected ways. Might the gift of faith do the same with us? Perhaps that explains why we occasionally anguish over what God calls us to do with our lives. Faith can do that.

The gift of faith is a two-edged sword. As we absorb and mull it over, we come to realize its power to transform us. Much like the mustard seed, through the faith which percolates within us we can achieve things we never imagined possible. Yet, like yeast in dough, faith can also turn our lives upside-down. That points to the inherent risk in any act of faith we make. It requires that we embrace what God asks of us, despite the challenges.

Dare we ask from God the gift of faith? If so, we need to be ready for an occasionally wild ride. The journey of faith brings with it all kinds of detours and potholes, along with a few good stretches of coasting. Be forewarned that we should expect the unexpected. Let us pray, then, that God make strong that faith in us, no matter the outcome.

NOTES

+On October 26th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a variation of my homily on Luke 13: 18-21.

+Also on October 26th I participated in the weekly meeting of the senior council of the abbey. Following Mass I attended the bi-weekly dinner/gathering of the Johnnie Brothers group of college students with whom I and one colleague meet.

+On October 27th I met with Novice Travis as part of a series of classes in monastic history.

+On October 30th Abbot John conferred on Brother David-Paul the office of lector. It is part of his preparation for the priesthood. Before beginning seminary studies Brother David-Paul taught art in the University, and to my knowledge he holds the record as the only monk who is the son of a faculty member in the University.

+Also on October 30th a number of monks drove to nearby Little Falls to attend the funeral of the grandfather of Novice Travis. This took place at a United Church of Christ church, and the visit led to a couple of amusing incidents. When the monks entered the church in their habits, the funeral director assumed they were the choir, which of course they were not. After the service many of the members of the church were surprised to see how animated was the conversation between their pastor and some of the monks. What they were surprised to learn was that their pastor — while he was indeed quite Protestant — had earned a masters degree in theology at Saint John’s. Several of the monks knew him well from classes.

+On October 30th we had our annual Halloween party in the monastery. It came complete with pumpkin-carving and costume competitions. To my surprise, I won second place in the costume contest.

Life: A Matter of Urgency

“Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You must also be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Luke 12: 39-40)

This passage from the gospel according to Saint Luke is an apt description of how we should live the Christian life. There is a sense of intensity about it, as if no single moment of life can be wasted. Immediacy and urgency are the tones Jesus suggests. Anything less leads to a life pockmarked with squandered opportunities.

As Christians we have as our goal eternal life. It’s what we aspire to reach when we profess our baptismal vows. It’s what we partake of when we receive Jesus in his body and blood in the Eucharist; and it’s what we continually pray for — particularly when we repeat that ancient prayer ”Come Lord Jesus” — Maranatha!

In this parable, however, Jesus issues what I think is a word of caution. If life eternal with him is what we prepare for, we must live neither totally in the future and certainly not in the past. Rather Jesus asks us to be very attentive to life in the present. We need to be alert to the fact that Jesus comes into our lives in unexpected ways, in the here and now.

Jesus conjures up the image of a thief coming in the night, but that’s only one example of how Jesus can and does intrude into our lives. Just as surreptitiously, Jesus sidles up to us in the poor and the suffering. He comes to us in the lonely and in those with only a few days left of life among us. He comes to us in the child who looks for wisdom and guidance, and in the friend who needs support at a critical moment. These are just some of the disguises which Jesus puts on as he surprises us as a thief in the night.

To be ready for any and all such occasions, we pray and meditate on the word of God daily. For the strength to respond to Christ as he appears in others we steel ourselves with this Eucharist.

Our faith and our actions are two sides of the same coin. May God make strong our faith, and may the Lord continue to give us the energy to use our hands to do his work in the world.

NOTES

+On October 18th I flew to Orange County to participate in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta, as well as to be part of the annual meeting and investiture of new members in the Western Association of the Order of Malta. While we stayed put in a hotel in Anaheim, we used that as a base for travel to several sites where activities were scheduled.

+On October 20th members of the Subpriory went to Christ Cathedral, the cathedral of the Diocese of Orange. I had once visited it in its incarnation as the Crystal Cathedral built by Rev. Robert Schuller. Not so many years ago the Diocese of Orange purchased the site and its buildings, and the repurposing of the church produced a stunning structure. Today’s post is a variation of the sermon that I preached there that day.

+On October 21st we gathered at Holy Family Church, where we held a penance service and vigil for provisional members who would be invested the next day. One look at the well-worn and small church suggests why the diocese desperately needed a larger and more appropriate facility.

+On October 22nd we travelled to Saint Michael’s Abbey, where he held our investiture service. I had visited the Norbertines at their former property, and they dedicated their new abbey in the mountains last May. It is a stunning structure, and the photos in today’s post hint at that. I also had a reminder of home in two particulars. In the sacristy of the abbey church they have a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, and each day they turn to another page for meditation. It was a splendid afternoon, and I was delighted to have the chance to visit with long-time friend Abbot Eugene. After the investiture ceremony there was still one more surprise. The librarian came up to introduce himself, and he noted that he is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, where as a student he had worked at HMML. Among HMML’s many collections are extensive microfilm and digital holdings of the archives of the Order of Malta.

+I would be remiss were I not to make one comment on the hotel where we stayed. It sat across the street from Disneyland, and from my sixth-floor room I looked directly into the roller coaster. Every fifty seconds a new burst of screams came my way as the coaster came roaring down. I admit that at first I felt a little out of place walking through the hotel in my monastic habit. However, I finally realized that I need not feel strange. On more than one occasion I took the initiative to complement people on their “nice ears!”

Gratitude for the Work of Others

Every now and again I run into someone who’s genuinely surprised to find I’m a monk and I’m not locked up in some cloister, reading and praying every minute of every waking hour. I quickly assure them that such monks do indeed exist, but the majority of them live in cloisters in Hollywood. For the rest of us, however, reality is much different. Even Saint Benedict — cloistered in his 6th-century monastery on top of Monte Cassino — knew what real life was all about. His own monks travelled. They went out to buy and sell things that the community needed for survival. Plus, they knew what was going on in the “real world” from the many guests who came calling.

I mention all this as a preamble to a recent experience we’ve had in our community. It reminded us of our continued interaction with the “real world” and our reliance on the work of others. This has to do with the renovation of our monastery. After a year and a half scattered across campus, we finally moved back in late June; and when we did so we were quite aware that a few things remained undone.

Among things left undone were medicine cabinets that have still not been installed in some of the monks’ rooms. And after several months of doing without, none of us have doors on clothes closets. Obviously this is not critical, because we can get by without medicine cabinets and closet doors. But there were two items that were nowhere to be found in the entire building: washers and dryers. None. Zero. When not a few of us pointed this out, we were reassured that they were on the way. They’d been ordered only a year earlier, and without a doubt it was in the realm of the possible that they might already be on a ship bound from South Korea.

Three weeks ago the project manager let slip that they were coming the next day. By evening word had spread like wildfire, and frankly I was surprised at how many people shared my enthusiasm for doing laundry. But our hopes were both rewarded and crushed when the shipment did come in as promised. There they were: sleek new washing machines. Missing, however, were half of the dryers. So there would be no laundry for the third floor of the monastery — my floor — until our ship comes in.

Since then one more dryer has come, but what is that among so many? Anyway, what we do have on hand at least allows us to do laundry without leaving the building. For that I and my brothers on the third floor are grateful.

The experience has given me a few insights to mull over. Lack of a sufficient number of washers and dryers down the hall is pretty much a first-world problem. I still remember the time when I stood by in disbelief as the sisters at a monastery in Portugal did their laundry alongside the river that bisected their property. I asked if they wouldn’t prefer machines to do that basic task. “Why?” was their surprised response. I was tempted to ask what they do when the river freezes over in winter, but then I thought better of it. After all, we were in Portugal.

More to the point, this was a reminder that neither monks nor anyone else live without the support of many others. Whether they be farmers or doctors or the people who make the things that we don’t make, we rely on them for survival. Just as it is in the monastery, so it is everywhere else. We all depend on the work and creativity of many hands, and those hands are not always our own.

For what others do that makes our lives possible, we must give thanks. For a better perspective on life and for a healthy dose of humility that comes at no additional cost, we should also be grateful.

NOTES

+On October 12th the community gathered for the funeral of our confrere Brother Andrew Goltz. Brother Andrew lived a long life, filled with creativity. He was the last surviving member of the team that crafted the great stained glass window in the abbey church. For much of his life he worked in the library, where he specialized in book restoration and bookbinding. I recall the many times I gazed in awe as he patiently worked on huge puzzles during his years in the health center. He was a one-of-a-kind, and may he rest in peace.

+On the evening of October 12th I and one staff colleague met with our group of Johnnie Brothers. We began meeting biweekly last year, and the same group will continue to gather as long as they so desire. It’s an opportunity to discuss issues of personal importance, outside of their normal circle of friends.

+On October 15th I completed the transcription of a talk I had given to the community on September 28th. That evening I had spoken from notes, which is my preferred way of doing such things. But since the abbot wanted the talk in print for the sake of those who were not present, I finally devoted much of two days to putting it down on paper. I was glad to be done.

+During the past few days I have looked for samples of fall color, and on Sunday morning, the 17th, the light and the colors were sufficient to snare a few examples. What is peculiar about this year is the fact that many flowers are still in bloom, even as there is at least some fall color to set them off. Photos in today’s post are the result of my search, before the sun became too strong.

Jesus: Deus ex Machina?

For years I’ve been a fan of the cartoon strip Dilbert. Some say I must be a cynic to like Dilbert, and I have no doubt about my own tendencies in that direction. All the same, however, I also think of myself as a part-time realist. So I appreciate Dilbert’s healthy slant on the business world in particular and the human condition in general.

Through the years I’ve clipped and saved a pile of those cartoons, but I find myself returning to one in particular because it illustrates well the disconnect from reality that can beset us all — myself included.

This particular cartoon has four frames, and it’s a power-point presentation by the CEO to a group of employees who are stunned by what he has to say. In short, it’s his strategic business plan to save the company from financial ruin and dissolution.

Frame one is an overhead view of the headquarters building and the parking lot behind it. The next frame shows an asteroid hurtling through space, headed for a collision with earth. Frame three captures the moment when the asteroid makes a direct hit on the empty parking lot; and in the last frame a geyser of oil gushes up from the parking lot. I’ve always imagined there should have been a fifth frame in which the boss asks the wide-eyed employees if there are any questions.

Dilbert’s illogical business solution to an impossible problem is a modern example of a literary device pioneered by the ancient Greeks. Today we call it deus ex machinagod from a machine — and it describes some totally off-the-wall divine act that comes out of the blue to derail the story line from its inevitable conclusion. Of course Greek audiences then and modern audiences today see the disconnect here — a disconnect between reality and fantasy. But sometimes that serves the point of the drama, and sometimes it’s the disconnect we confront in our daily lives.

Rightly you may ask what this has to do with today’s reading from the gospel, and to that I would offer this. In Mark 10: 17-30 we have a great example of deus ex machina. In this instance, however, Mark turns this literary device on its head. Jesus here is the deus ex machina, both literally and allegorically. But the solution he offers, despite its apparent illogic, is in fact redemptive.

Consider the young man who comes to question Jesus about how he might be saved. The young man has observed the commandments to the letter. He’s done nothing to offend God. We might also assume that he’s done much that is positive. He’s tithed. He’s gone to temple at the expected prayer times and on the holy days. He’s kept kosher and washed dishes and hands as requiired. He’s done everything right. So why does he not feel right about things? Why do we sense that he’s missing the key ingredient that will calm him? Why is there no peace in his life? What’s wrong with this poor guy?

At just this point Jesus offers advice that seems to make no sense at all. The young man had lived a conventional and almost perfect ilfe, and Jesus seems to suggest that he throw it all away. He must abandon wealth and leave father and mother and siblings for the sake of the gospel. How’s that supposed to be redemptive?

In this deus ex machina is the wisdom that saves. In fact, the action of leaving family and wealth to follow the gospel can be just as mechincal as following the letter of the law. Both alternatives suggest — falsely, I would contend — that we can save ourselves. It suggests that if we follow the right formula then redemption can be self-derived. What I think Jesus suggests instead is that we thoroughly blend into our lives his gospel message. There ought not be some disconnect between the commandments and the message of Jesus. We should embrace both, and in the embrace of both we find true meaning in our lives.

This last week, in of all places a board meeting, I saw another cartoon with yet another instance of deus ex machina. This time it showed a scientist and his colleague standing at a chalk board, poring over a string of mathematical calculations. The calculations were impressive, but they didn’t produce the conclusion that he needed to reach.

Then the light bulb went on, and he added the one key step that suddenly made it all work perfectly. Between steps four and five he added words that made it all work: ”Step 4b: A miracle happens.”

As deus ex machina it’s a perfect example of illogic. It’s the kind of illogic that will get an accountant or a rocket scientist fired. But as a parable of Christian life it explains precisely what we must do to be saved. Into the ordinariness of our lives we must let God enter to work miracles in us.

On paper you and I can construct the resumé of a perfect life. We can live uprightly and respectably; we can observe the commandments; we can work hard and share our goods with the poor and the suffering; we can help those who need our help and have very successful careers. But at the end of the day, or at retirement, or at virtually any moment in our lives the question about the meaning of our lives can be as puzzling to us as it was to the young man. It can gnaw at us as it did him. It’s precisely at that moment when the illogic of Jesus can suddently become quite logical.

Contrary to prevailing notions, Jesus does not present us with a lot of either/or choices in life. Rather, Jesus asks us to fold into our very ordinary lives his teaching. He asks that we let his teaching seep into our actions and decisions. He asks that we be alert to all the possibilities in our lives. He asks that we let his teaching be the leaven that makes our lives full and meaningful.

Also contrary to popular belief, the deus ex machina that is Jesus does not derail us from our lives. Instead, Jesus is the miracle that transforms us. He is the one who transforms the detals of our lives into something that is beautiful and extraordinary.

In a few moments we will pray as Jesus transforms bread and wine into his body and blood. He gives it to us so that we in turn might be transformed into the hands that do his work and the voices that preach his word. In the process Jesus asks that we do more than merely survive. In fact, Jesus calls us that we may thrive.

NOTES

+On October 6th I flew to San Francisco to attend a meeting of the board of trustees at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, which took place on the 7th. On the 8th I flew back to Minnesota, so that was a fairly quick trip.

+On October 9th we hosted a large crowd for homecoming at Saint John’s University, and that evening I attended a dinner that welcomed new honorees into the Hall of Honor for athletes at Saint John’s. The youngest inductee was a member of the class of 2009, and the oldest hailed from the class of 1928.

+On October 10th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass. Today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered that day.

+The fall colors seem to be stalled out at the moment, and so I have not presented any photos of the landscape in this post. To compensate I am including photos of the Abbey of Saint Denis, in suburban Paris. Its namesake, Saint Denis, was a 3rd-century bishop of Paris, martyred for his faith. We celebrated his feast day on October 9th. Abbot Suger rebuilt the abbey church in the 12th century and it was the first gothic church. Its flying buttresses allowed expansive glass windows that even today are the glory of the abbey church, as the photos in today’s post hint. In time the abbey church came to serve as the burial site for the French royal family.

Take Your Own Medicine First

At the end of every meeting of the senior council of the monastery, the abbot asks if there is any new business. With the abbot absent from a recent meeting, it fell to the prior to ask that question. That’s when I volunteered my suggestion. Our weekly community meetings have morphed into glorified business meetings, I offered. It was time to inject a bit of spiritual and pastoral discussion, I then suggested. Actually, my tone was a little more passionate than that, but I’ll save that for another post.

How was I to know that the abbot had been thinking the same thing? So five days later his email caught me flat-footed. Would I deliver a conference to the community? Would I focus on the challenges and opportunities of monastic life today? “Take all the time you need,” he wrote. What he actually meant was ”take forty-five minutes.”

Yikes! I’d never delivered a conference like this to our community, and I was not convinced that this was the topic to start with. To be fair, I’d given such a talk at other monasteries, but in each case I had caught a flight home and avoided the reviews. This time there would be no escape. I’d have to stay and deal with the feedback. After all, I live with these people.

I spent three weeks stewing about all this, and I agonized over what to say and what was best left unsaid. Finally, I sat down with a confrere whose good judgement I value, and he helped me make sense of what I wanted to say. By the end of our conversation I had sorted my comments into three sections: sacred time, sacred space, and sacred people. My thesis was succinct: any plan for change in our monastic life should emphasize these priorities.

On the evening of the talk I was nervous as I approached the podium. That’s why I opened with one caveat, for the sake of self-protection. ”What I say tonight is not about you. It’s about us — about you and me. All of us have room to grow and change, and that’s why God has given most of us an abundance of years to get this done.”

Despite my unease, things seemed to go well enough. Because I spoke from notes, my eyes were not glued to the page; so I could survey the faces in the room. I detected no hostility. Some faces were bright and attentive, though a few were struggling at the end of a long day. But as I am fond of saying, ”the only thing better than perfect is done.” When it was over I quietly thanked God for getting me through one more of life’s little tests.

I always search for some take-away in an experience like this, and this time the take-away was pretty obvious. Be careful what you ask for, because there’s always the chance you’ll get it. In this instance, I expected that others would address these topics, but certainly not me. But there was one more point to heed. If I offer suggestions for improvement to others, then I had better be ready to take my own medicine first. It’s yet another time to apply that old saw: ”physician, heal thyself.”

NOTES

+On September 27th I attended the dinner and said the blessing for the annual Clemens Lecture in economics at Saint John’s University. This year’s speaker was Professor Douglass Irwin, professor of economics at Dartmouth College.

+Tuesday September 28th was a busy day, beginning with a flu shot that I and the other monks got after morning prayer. At 3:30 I attended the meeting of the senior council of the monastery, and at 5:00 I presided at the abbey Mass. The senior council is a small group of monks who, along with the abbot, serve as the equivalent of the board of directors of the abbey. Following Mass the monks proceeded to the Great Hall, where we met the students from the School of Theology/Seminary at a pleasant reception. At 7:00 came evening prayer, and at 7:35 we convened in the chapter house. There I spoke to the monks on the challenges and opportunities of monastic life today.

+On October 2nd I attended class reunions of Saint John’s University, and I gave a presentation to members of the class of 1970. They were one year late in celebration of their 50th anniversary of graduation, but better late than never. The 2nd also happened to be the day for reunions of alumni of Saint John’s Preparatory School.

+Through the entire week I read the scripture passage at morning prayer. That was the easiest chore of the week.

+Despite the continued rain — 2.7 inches this last week, on top of significant rainfall over the last month — we still have some nice fall color. I was able to take two long walks in the woods during this past week, and today’s photos are a sampling of what I enjoyed.

Let the Light Shine In

Part of the human condition includes the need to dismiss opinions that differ from our own. I say that without fear of contradiction, because I do it all the time.

That explains why I found two readings in Sunday’s liturgy so intriguing. In the Book of Numbers chapter 11, aides to Moses warn him that two people are prophesying, and they’re doing so without authorization from Moses. Horror of horrors!

The Gospel of Mark chapter 9 recalls a similar instance in the ministry of Jesus. One disciple had seen someone casting out demons in the name of Jesus. ”We tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Both Moses and Jesus brushed aside these alarmists voices, because they knew narrow-mindedness when they saw it. Neither of them would allow their disciples to turn a message of hope into an issue of authority and control. Power is not what they had come to seize or enforce.

In a culture in which we delight in taking issue with our neighbors over the least little thing, it’s important to keep our minds open. It’s important to let in some light, even if it’s only a sliver of a ray. But of course that’s easier said than done, and that’s what makes our vigilance so vital. And why is it important to be alert to this? Do I really want to find myself on the losing side of an idea better than my own? Do I really want to find myself blocking the work of the Spirit?

Saint Benedict offers a bit of advice I need to heed more and more these days. In chapter three of his Rule he urges the abbot to take counsel from the brothers — all of them. In particular, however, he points out that wisdom can often be found in the young. In Benedict’s day such advice was seriously out of step with prevailing notions. In his day the social default buttons assumed the presence of wisdom in the seniors and its absence in the young. Benedict knew better, however. Experience had taught him that the Spirit stirs wherever the Spirit wills, and it’s pointless to resist.

I turn to Benedict’s advice whenever I can, mainly because it’s actually in my best interests to do so. Like many, I’m tempted to dismiss out of hand ideas different from my own. Through sad experience, however, I’ve learned I really can’t afford to do so. After all, do I really want to impoverish my life by ignoring the wisdom that my neighbor has to offer?

Might there be wisdom in my neighbor? Might I even get a glimpse of the Spirit of God working in my neighbor? It’s entirely possible. Naturally, I shudder at the thought.

NOTES

+On September 20th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at HMML. On the agenda was the announcement of two new projects that the Center will undertake to digitize various archives of the Order of Malta housed in Italy.

+On September 21st I attended the weekly meeting of the Senior Council of the monastery.

+Thursdays I usually reserve for meetings, and on Thursday the 23rd I attended the vocations committee of the monastery. That group considers applications for admission into candidacy and later for novitiate. That afternoon I took part in a meeting of the formation committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On September 25th I presided at a burial service in the abbey cemetery. That afternoon I attended a football game, which Saint John’s hosted and won against Bethel University. In the evening I attended the annual dinner of the Saint John’s University Alumni Association.

+On Sunday September 26th I began my week as the reader at morning prayer.

+Normally I would not present photos that feature a lawn, but this is a special lawn. For a year and a half the lawn behind the monastery had been a construction zone. It was a mess. The plan was to seed the lawn in early summer, but because of the drought it was considered a waste of time and resources. Finally, at the end of August, we seeded the lawn. It is gloriously soft and green.