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The Sacred and the Occasionally Profane

A monastery makes for an odd construction site, especially when both monks and workers must coexist. Still, that’s been the case at Saint John’s Abbey for the last year; and the experience has been interesting, to say the least.

For years we’ve needed to renovate the newer wing of our monastery. Designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, it has housed most of our monks since it was built in 1954. As you might imagine, while the times have changed, the building had not. For starters, as of last spring it still had the original single-pane windows. It also featured a vintage heating system, wiring that never anticipated the electric typewriter, and sound insulation that naively assumed that the monks would not make a peep as they walked or pushed carts down the brick hallways. Needless to say, it was long overdue for overhaul.

After years of discussion we finally set January of 2020 as the starting date. To begin with, it took over a month to move everybody and everything out of the building, and the monks relocated into three buildings across the campus. We knew that for the next year it would be inconvenient, but how inconvenient we scarcely imagined. Then, barely out of the building, covid came along. For that we were not prepared, but it was too late to turn back. We had to forge ahead, no matter the inconvenience.

In the last year we‘ve seen and learned a lot, but this experience has taught us to be patient with one another, especially as we’ve had to negotiate an obstacle course to get to church. We’ve regularly had construction on campus, for instance, but never did we have to process right through the middle of it, several times a day. Now, for thirteen months, four times a day we have accessed the church via an ever-shifting route through the first floor of the monastery. Complicating that has been the narrowness of the passage, and social distancing has required one-way traffic and a no-passing zone. Not surprisingly the slower among us have tested the patience of the more fleet of foot who’ve trailed behind.

All the while the brigades of painters, electricians, plumbers and other construction workers have thoughtfully toned down their conversation both in color as well as volume as we‘ve filed through. At first they must have thought us a rather curious lot, and we them. We looked strangely out of place in our black habits, trying carefully not to brush up against dust and fresh paint. But like us, they too dressed appropriately for their work. Obviously such encounters were neither the time nor place to visit and discuss the contrast; and we all went about our business, trying not to interfere in the work of the other.

After thirteen months I can say with authority that we will be glad when it’s all over. It’s still far from finished, but it will be a terrific day when we finally move back in July. Meanwhile, despite everything, I think we’re all glad that we did it. On the one hand our timing could not have been worse, but postponing it until covid was over was never in the cards. After all, we were already out of the building, and no one really wanted to move everything back with nothing to show for all that work. Better to have it over and done with.

Things could have gone better and things could have gone much worse. For one thing, the project has taken longer than we had planned. Then there have been the days when it‘s really tried the patience of us all. To our credit, however, we’ve taken most of it in stride, due in part to our gratitude for the mild winter we enjoyed. As we are accustomed to saying in Minnesota about most anything, “we’ve seen worse.” It certainly could have been.

In a rather odd way I think we’ve gleaned some good insights from all this. For one thing I think we’ve discovered that we can be more tolerant than we had thought. That was particularly true on the days when the music of jackhammers blended with morning prayer. On those days our petitions for the health and safety — as well as the speed — of the construction workers were especially fervent.

Finally, I confess a fascination with the mix of the symbolically sacred and profane. Our black habits and their work clothes couldn’t contrast more dramatically. Our respective outfits reminded us of the very different worlds from which we all come. Even better, we monks took home an important lesson in humility. I think most of us monks have always assumed that we were the only people up and running at that early hour. However, no matter how early some of us got to church for morning prayer, the construction workers were always there to greet us. It was a nice lesson in humility, for which we need to acknowledge our debt.

NOTES

+This was a rather quiet week for me in terms of meetings. Part of this was due to the overlap of three zoom meetings scheduled at the same time. I could only go to one. It’s a great strategy for efficiency.

+Likely the highlight of my week was my annual physical. Many of the monks go to this particular doctor and he is revered among us for the care and patience he shows. At the end of the appointment I thanked him and mentioned that we monks pray for him and all the doctors who do such great work. He asked about the other doctors, to which the Holy Spirit provided a quick retort. “Oh, we don’t pray for those doctors. That’s when we pray for their patients.”

+On April 7th our seminary alumnus Fr. Dan Felton was named bishop of the Diocese of Duluth, MN. Bishop-elect Felton graduated from our School of Theology/Seminary in 1981, and following ordination he has been a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, WI. We wish him well as he takes up his new ministry and residence as our neighbor in Minnesota.

+Readers might wonder why after a year I finally made mention of the renovation of the monastery, given that it has been so disruptive of our daily routine. Last week the prior announced room assignments, signaling that we should prepare ourselves to move back into the building in July. The rooms and especially the views will make the entire project worthwhile. I have posted the view from my new room just above “NOTES”. After ages living in a loft room with virtually no view except of the sky, this will be a great gift.

Let Us Give Ourselves Permission to Speak Freely

It’s a bit of a jump from Easter to Pentecost in the space of a day. Still, that’s what we’ve done with the reading from chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles. In this passage Peter stands up in the streets of Jerusalem to proclaim the risen Lord, and absent is the hesitation and doubt that had been undercurrents in his discipleship.

What made all the difference, of course, was his experience of the risen Lord. In one way that changed everything, because he had seen with his own eyes, heard with his own ears, and touched the Lord with his own hands. That experience had given him a sense of direction, even if it didn’t remove the quirkiness in his personality. When it came to the latter he was the same Simon Peter as before.

In the controlled situation of standing at a pulpit in the ritual of liturgical prayer, it’s easy to proclaim the risen Lord in tried and true formulae. Much harder is it to preach the risen Lord in words and actions once we leave here after the final blessing. Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus asked of Peter and asks of us. At Easter the Lord does not work a personality change in us, and we remain who we are, warts and all. But all the same the Lord works marvels in us, marvels that spark a new way of living.

In the aftermath of Easter let our lives speak of what the Lord does for us. And let us give ourselves permission to speak freely of the Lord, especially after we leave this moment of formal prayer. Because of Easter the lives that we thought were strictly our own now belong to the Lord. That’s how the Lord transforms us at Easter.

NOTES

+On March 29th the ice on Lake Sagatagan rather suddenly broke up and turned to open water. It had had the consistency of a snow cone in the morning, but temperatures in the 70s and strong winds suddenly broke it all up early in the afternoon.

+At our chapter meeting on March 30th I was elected for a three-year term to the Senior Council of the monastery. That is a group that meets weekly with the abbot to offer deliberation and counsel.

+On March 31st I met for dinner with students from the University’s Immokalee Scholarship program.

+On April 1st we began our observance of the Triduum in the monastery. We were delighted at the rather large attendance of students and visitors who joined us for these services.

+On April 5th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is a transcript of the sermon I delivered.

+The photo at top is an ice luminary, which served as part of the Luminaries Walk across Lake Sagatagan in February. Next is the processional cross which precedes our processions into the abbey church. It has seen limited use during the pandemic, since we’ve had few processions during this time. At bottom is the great window on the north face of the church.

Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego: Symbol of the Church

The story of Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego in the Book of Daniel is among the most dramatic in the Old Testament. The subject of song, art and cinema, it’s almost larger than life. But that in itself makes it its own worst enemy in terms of its literal value to us. Who for a minute would believe that three men could be chatting away with an angel inside a white-hot furnace and survive? And what’s the point of the story?

Despite that, I think the story has a lot to chew on, and there’s plenty of take-aways. For one thing, even if we cannot imagine that we’ll ever be thrown into a furnace, we’ve all been in situations in which our feet have been held to the fire. Who hasn’t been in a bind or been backed into a corner in which each alternative is excruciating and there seems to be no way out?

It’s the symbolic potential of the story that yields the practical value, and I’d like to focus on two nuggets for meditation. The first has to do with the presence of God in our midst.

The vision of three men in a furnace talking with an angel immediately calls to mind the promise that Jesus Christ will be with us, always, in the best and in the worst of moments. It’s explicit in his promise that where two or three gather in the name of the Lord, the Lord will be there in their midst. Obviously Christ is with us when we are alone, but Jesus stands with us and holds us to himself when we gather in prayer, when we gather in work, when we gather to rejoice and when we gather to mourn. The story of Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego is God’s promise that no matter how desperate the situation may be, the Lord will be with us to comfort and guide us.

The second take-away has to do with our need to support one another. In the first grade I was taught from a small book with the title Jesus and I. In retrospect I now see the point it was trying to make. The book instilled in my young mind the fact that faith builds upon a relationship with Jesus. It grows from that foundation and flourishes as we nourish it with prayer and the sacraments. But in the years since I’ve come to appreciate another key ingredient to my life with Christ. That ingredient is my neighbor. Love of God is rooted in love of neighbor, and vice versa. The Church is more than me, and together with my neighbors we become entwined in a community that is life-giving and nourishing.

Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego stand as a reminder of our need to support and draw support from one another. That’s true whether it be in the Church as the body of Christ or in any local community. Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego were not three guys completely oblivious to the presence of one another as they stood in a white-hot furnace. In fact they encouraged one another. They drew strength from one another. Their communion with the angel makes them a powerful symbol of the Church and of our need to rely on one another as members of that community.

In the Church there is room for hermits, but most of us rely on our communion with one another to grow and develop. Together with our neighbor we become the face of Christ and the hands of Christ to the people whom we serve. And sometimes — like every day — we need to be thoughtful of one another and supportive of one another. Perhaps that’s why we should pray that we be mindful of the needs of others. In praying for the needs of others we hope that Christ will continue to be mindful of us and our needs as well. For we are his servants and the sheep of his flock. He will tend to us, tenderly, in good times and bad.

NOTES

+On March 22nd I returned to Minnesota from my trip to California. It was my first time away from Saint John’s in nearly thirteen months, and I was surprised to discover how tired I was on my return. Clearly I have lost my travel stamina, and it’s time to go into training if I am to take another trip.

+On March 23rd I took part in the board meeting of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA. It was held via zoom.

+Also on March 23rd I participated in the Johnnie Brothers group meeting, which takes place every other week. It is a group of nine first-year students at Saint John’s University.

+On March 24th I said Mass — via zoom — for the San Francisco area members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta. Today’s post is an adaptation of the sermon that I delivered that day.

+On Sunday March 28th we celebrated Palm Sunday, which begins Holy Week. The top photo shows a Palmesel — a Palm Donkey — which was used in Palm Sunday processions in German towns and villages in the Middle Ages. This one is housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne. The next three photos show the site of several zoom Masses that I have said during the course of the pandemic. They have taken place in Saint Francis Chapel, which is located in a quiet nook on the campus at Saint John’s University. At bottom is a photo of the congregation for the Mass, which happens to be my iPad. It shows me taking a photo of me taking a photo. As odd as it may seem, it works well enough.

Saint Joseph: Forgetful of Himself

Last month I was part of a meeting to plan an orientation for new members in the Order of Malta. At one point the chair was detailing the talks that were to be given, and I found the topic of one of them to be particularly daunting. This was going to be really tough for the person who was stuck with delivering it. So at a pause in the discussion I asked the question I’d been mulling over. “Ann, who’s going to give this talk?” Her response? “You are!” I was stunned and didn’t quite know what to say. But in a flash of inspiration I borrowed a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta. “Oh, I was just being forgetful of myself once again.”

That phrase was never meant to serve as an excuse for a poor memory. In fact it’s meant to encourage us to be mindful of the needs of others before moving ourselves to the top of the priority list. In an ego-driven culture such as ours it deserves more attention than it gets, for one simple reason. It deals squarely with our motives for our service to the sick and the poor. Do we do it for ourselves, or do we do it for them?

The feast of Saint Joseph is a perfect moment for us to meditate on why we serve. Saint Joseph, I think, is the poster-child for this issue, because he seemed forgetful of himself as he served. Whether he deserves the reputation or not is impossible for us to conclude. But the Gospels portray him as a man of duty; a man of quiet and unassuming service; a man who did not push himself into the limelight. In no way can we conclude that he was oblivious to the challenges that he faced, however. Rightly we should conclude that along with Mary he pondered in his heart what all this might mean. With Mary there were moments when they had to look each other in the eyes and wonder where all this was going. How would this end up? And what did their son mean when he bluntly told them he must be about his father’s business?

You can’t help but empathize with Joseph as he searched for his son and as he caught sight of him talking with the elders in the temple. Pride mixed with alarm certainly welled up in his heart. There was likely confusion too. But there was also the dawning realization that this boy Jesus was destined for uniqueness.

Perhaps Joseph’s greatest gift was his willingness to let go of Jesus. Maybe that day in the temple was not yet the moment to let go completely. Still, in a culture in which parents set the course for their children, Joseph knew that someday he was going to have to let go of Jesus. Jesus was meant for something that Joseph did not fully understand, nor did Mary. But to his credit Joseph didn’t try to rein Jesus in.

Like every parent Joseph knew that sooner or later he would have to stand aside, however hard it might be. He had protected and raised this boy, but he couldn’t be there to tell him what to do forever. At some point Jesus would strike out on his own, and Joseph would have to let him go. At some point Joseph knew he had to be forgetful of himself, and he had to nurture Jesus out of pure love rather than from a desire to control Jesus’ destiny.

That brings us back to forgetfulness of ourselves as we serve. I think that being of service to the sick and the poor requires tremendous self-discipline. Like any parents who want the best for their children, it’s natural for us to want to change the lives of the people we help. It’s natural to want to attach strings to the help we give. But to give a helping hand to the sick and the poor with no strings attached is really difficult. Yet, that is precisely what Jesus asks us to do when he invites us to do for them what we would do for him.

When God willed us into being we also got the gift of free will. That means that God neither predestines us nor predetermines our response. All the same, however, God offers a nurturing love. That love is precisely what Jesus invites us to share when we serve.

I have often cited the words of Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, who addressed this conundrum in a few spare words. “We serve people, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.” He was speaking about the work of Catholic Charities, but those words apply to members of the Order of Malta, and in fact to anyone who is a caregiver to others in need.

I think that on this feast day Saint Joseph reinforces those words of advice with the power of his actions. And we draw from this one clear conclusion: we must strive to serve as Joseph served. And then, after we’ve done what Jesus calls us to do, we need to stand back and let Jesus take it from there. After all, we aren’t the only ones whom Jesus calls. As Jesus calls us, he also calls the sick and the poor to be his servants. Together we are sisters and brothers in the Lord.

NOTES

+On March 19th I gave a day of reflection to members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. It took place at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, and it marked my first visit to San Francisco in over a year. So it was great to see old and new friends after all that time. I gave two conferences, and in addition I preached at the Mass, at which Archbishop Cordileone presided. The gospel for the feast of Saint Joseph was Luke 2: 41-51a, and the post for my blog this week is a transcript of the sermon I delivered.

+On March 20th I gave a zoom conference on the history and development of the Order of Malta, and I delivered it to new members entering the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo. For those who have no clue to what Our Lady of Philermo refers, it was in fact the name of a Byzantine icon which the Knights of Malta venerated during their two hundred years on Rhodes. When the Turks finally drove them from the island, they took the icon with them to Malta. After being driven out of Malta by Napoleon in 1798 the icon disappeared, only to reappear in Montenegro, where it now resides in the national museum. It’s a long story!

+For centuries the third week of March has provided a reprieve from the usual Lenten observance. On the 17th comes the feast of Saint Patrick; on the 19th the feast of Saint Joseph; and on the 21st comes the feast of Saint Benedict. In recognition of the feast of Saint Benedict, I have enclosed photos of the abbey of Norcia in the town in Umbria where Benedict was born. Alas, a few years ago an earthquake completely destroyed the monastery, and so the monks have moved outside of the town.

Jesus and the Law

The law plays a huge role in the ministry of Jesus, and it may even be safe to say that it is a subtext of every pronouncement that he made. Still, as the gospel passage from Matthew 5: 17-19 suggests, when it came to matters of the law there were some people for whom Jesus could do no right. But then there were those who honestly questioned whether Jesus really did mean to do away with the law. To them it seemed that Jesus chipped away at it with his subtle and not so subtle critiques. But in fact when Jesus denied that he had come to abolish the law, he meant it.

Our own attitude toward the law can be as tricky as it was for the Israelites of Jesus’ day. Like them, we have our own Pharisees, and sometimes they are us. We use the law as a weapon against one another even as we recognize its value in keeping our society and our Church civil. In all of our arguments and debates, however, it’s always important to recall that Jesus really did reverence the law. That’s why he did not hesitate to add one more statute to our already thick law books. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

NOTES

+Last week I had a rather full calendar, in addition to the stuff I do in my day job. On March 9th I and a fellow staff member at Saint John’s University participated in our regular dinner-meeting of Johnnie Brothers, a gathering of nine first-year students.

+On March 10th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is an adaptation of the message I delivered that day.

+On March 11th I flew to Los Angeles, and it was my first trip away from Saint John’s in a year and five days. I was surprised to find the airports in Minneapolis and Los Angeles crowded, but things were orderly and people were patient, which was reassuring. Ironically, shortly after arrival in Los Angeles I participated in a zoom meeting of members of the Order of Malta, who just happened to be in California.

+On March 12th I gave a talk to incoming members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta. This too was via zoom.

+Lest anyone whether I flew to California solely for zoom meetings with people from California, on March 13th I met in person with a small group of members In Obedience of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. We met in Pasadena, where I gave two talks and said Mass. I will do a repeat presentation for members in San Francisco next weekend.

+During Lent the character of the decorations in the abbey church changes rather dramatically. Reflecting the spare winter landscape and the tone of Lent, for decoration we rely on bare tree branches rather flowers.

365 Days: But Who’s Counting?

March 6th came and went without any of the intensity of feeling I had expected. Like most everyone, I’ve not gone very far in the last year, but a year ago March 6th would have seemed a major milestone. For 365 days in a row I have not spent a single night away from the abbey, and last March I would have thought that an impossibility. To be perfectly honest, a year ago I’d have classified that thought as a nightmare.

I remember well the first week of this marathon of going nowhere. I had just returned from a trip and was slowly absorbing the news that we would be staying put for a while. As I sat at evening prayer, staring at the walls of the abbey church, I wondered how long this could go on. A month would be intolerable, I thought. Since then I have described to friends what was going through my mind at the time. It was like living in a minimum security prison, which of course that’s what many people think life in a monastery is like anyway. To be fair, it’s what I had signed on for when I made the Benedictine vow of stability at profession. At the time, however, I didn’t think anyone would hold me to that vow until retirement. Who knew!

After living with that depressing thought for a month I decided I had to change my views or go crazy. That’s when I resolved to think of it as an unexpected sabbatical for which I had not applied. Then my life changed, and I venture to say that joy started to seep in here and there.

So what happened in the course of 365 days? For one, I started to take daily naps and discovered that I would not die nor would my work suffer. With nowhere to go, I went through a check-list of medical appointments; and when I had to schedule return visits I came up with a snappy response about my calendar. No longer did I agonize about finding a few free hours sometime in the next couple of months. Instead it was “How about August? What about September? Is September good for the doctor? And I’m totally free in October too. Pick something nice and I’ll be there.” I finally stopped saying that, mainly because it dawned on me that everybody else was saying it too.

For sure the highlight of the trips to see doctors was cataract surgery. That gave me nearly 20/20 vision for the first time since high school. Meanwhile my blood pressure had gone down, unnoticed by me. An hour before surgery the nurse read off my blood pressure and I gasped. Alarmed, the nurse asked what was wrong. All I could say was that it had not been that low since I first started taking it. Mind you, in one hour someone was going to stick needles in my eyes, while I was awake. Big deal.

In 365 days I’ve made little tweaks to my life that I had never envisioned. For one, I decided to stop writing letters on a keyboard and now use a pen instead. People seem to appreciate it, and I am conscious that while I’m writing to them I’m thinking of them alone. On another front I’ve made it to most of the community prayer slots, and I’ve served in the refectory more times than I can recall. I’ve also gotten to know much better my confreres in the monastery. Overall, I’ve begun to realize that the qualities that make for a good eulogy have much higher value than the items for a good resumé. Not too late have I learned that.

This is not to deny the presence of challenge. There’s been challenge for most everyone on the planet. Still, time out from ordinary time has let me heed a bit of advice that I have dished out regularly for years but never felt much need of for myself. It’s simple enough. “Challenge tends to bring out what is noble and best in people. Without challenge there can be no growth; and a life without challenge is really no life at all.”

That’s just some of what I learned in 365 days. By now there are glimmers of hope on the horizon, and like everyone I welcome them. Will I abandon my newly-discovered wisdom? Shame on me if I do. In fact, if I continue to embrace it, the best in life is yet to come.

NOTES

+Last week I was the reader at morning prayer.

+On March 2nd I took part in the monthly zoom meeting of the Regent’s Council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.

+On March 6th I celebrated one year of going nowhere by taking a seven-mile walk. It happened to be a balmy 41 degrees, and all sorts of people were out walking and running. The more daring among them were in t-shirt and shorts.

+At evening prayer on Saturday March 6th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey began a two-week trial run of a revised morning and evening prayer. The last time we did this was 40+ years ago, so it was time to make some adjustments. Overshadowing several minor changes is a rebalance of morning and evening prayer — lengthening the former and shortening the latter. We also plan to consolidate some of the choir books so that it is less confusing for visitors — and for monks! We had intended to begin this process a year ago, but we delayed its implementation because covid was enough change for the moment.

+On March 7th temperatures reached into the high 50s, and I went down to the lake to see whether spring had made any inroads. As the photos in today’s post suggest, many students decided it had. That includes the couple strolling on the lake, one of whom was in sandals.

+Much to my surprise, this weekend I realized that this is post #501 in my blog. I can’t imagine how that crept up on me, nor do I know how I came up with that much to say, once a week, for 501 consecutive weeks. Thanks for reading it!

God Loves the Least of People — and Us Too!

It’s awful when bad things happen to good people. But for not a few of us it’s even worse when good things happen to bad people. That’s the story of the prophet Jonah.

Jonah deeply resented the people of Nineveh for their sinful ways. But when God sent him to preach conversion to them, he was aghast. What if they did convert?! Then they too would be saved! So Jonah ran away, only to be fetched by a whale, which coughed him up on the beach and thereby returned him to his duty. So goes the story in the Book of Jonah.

As the passage from Jonah 3 makes clear, Jonah’s worst fears were realized. The Ninevites got the message and repented, and God forgave and spared them. Jonah for his part must have been chagrined.

Whatever lessons we might draw from this, one thing seems clear to me. The fact that sinful people sometimes pull their lives together ought never be cause for regret on our part. Rather, at the very least it should give us all hope. If God can forgive those penitents, then perhaps God might forgive even us, on the rare occasions when we can admit our sins. And if God can love even the least of people, then it’s entirely possible that God loves us as well.

NOTES

+On February 23rd I attended my first meeting of Johnnie Brothers. I and a fellow staff member at Saint John’s University met with a group of nine first-year students for what will be biweekly meetings. Meant to give students the opportunity to talk about how their lives are going, many of these groups continue on for the entire four years of their college life.

+On February 24th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is a transcript of the homily that I delivered.

+On February 25 I participated in the Luminaries Walk across Lake Sagatagan. Organized by the Outdoor University program, the staff had placed 100 luminaries on the lake, stretching from the student beach on the north side to Stella Maris Chapel on the south shore of the lake. It was the perfect evening for it. There was no wind, no clouds to block the nearly-full moon, and it was not all that cold. What was especially imaginative were the luminaries that held the candles that lit our way. Instead of paper bags, the luminaries were hollow blocks of ice, which cost nothing and will simply melt away when it warms up. The event went on for three nights and ended on Sunday evening when Fr. Nick, the University chaplain, said Mass for students gathered on the lake. For those who might be skeptical about the strength of the ice, it is now about two feet thick and capable of supporting trucks. The photos in today’s post give an inkling of how awesome the event was.

+On February 26-28 I participated in the orientation of provisional members of the Order of Malta of the Western Association. Of course it was a zoom meeting, which made the logistics simple if not as ideal as an in-person gathering. I gave one of the talks on the 27th.

+Last summer my ancient-of-days iPad had a near-death experience, and ever since then it has been living on borrowed time. The time was up a few days ago, and so I got a new iPad last week. To set it up I reserved the entire day of February 26th, knowing that this one-hour exercise usually ends up needing that kind of time. Sure enough, it took nearly six hours. The last step involved the connection to the cellular provider, which should have taken scarcely any time at all. I and my colleague from IT Services spent nearly two hours trying to figure it out, but to no avail. The highlight came when we found out that we had to enter a 32-number identity code. We roared with frustrated laughter, and then despaired when it didn’t work. We gave up, and I steeled myself for a trip to the AT&T store to beg for mercy. I then set aside the iPad and ignored it, while I turned to other stuff to do. Fifteen minutes later I glanced at it, only to be stunned that it had decided to cooperate after all and was up and running. I left the exercise with two take-aways. You can finally conquer these machines if you budget way more time than you ever imagined it would take. Second, I was in awe of Chris, the tech guy who helped me. I was impressed by his technical expertise, but even more so by his patience. He had the patience of Job, which I do not have.

God is a Terrible Negotiator

Almost three weeks ago we celebrated the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. Liturgicallay that’s not the official end of the Christmas season, but it does mark a critical moment in the life of Jesus. On that day Joseph and Mary came to the temple to offer Jesus to the priests. The priests in turn accepted the child on behalf of God. That was the Jewish custom of course, but it also recognized basic human reality. Someday all parents must give their children away. They must let go and watch as the kids pursue the kind of lives to which they feel called.

There’s a painting of this moment by the 15th-century artist Giovanni Bellini that’s long fascinated me. In it he captures the poignancy of this ritual as Mary hands Jesus over to the priest. On her face there’s a bit of foreboding, while the priest looks pretty solemn as he reaches for the child. Meanwhile Jesus seems totally detached from the scene. But woven through it all are hints of tension, because we don’t know exactly where we are in the ceremony. Is Mary handing over the child? Or is the priest handing the child back to her? Whichever it is, there seem to be signs of resignation on Mary’s face. As her firm grip on her son suggests, she doesn’t want to give him up just yet. Perhaps she has a premonition of what’s to come, when after the crucifixion she once again holds her son in her arms. What she sees for her son is what no parent would want for a child.

Regardless of that drama just below the surface, offer Jesus up is what Mary and Joseph have to do. It’s part of the covenant that they have made with God. In return for the gift of this child, they offer Jesus back to God. God, in the person of the priest, accepts and consecrates the child and then returns Jesus to the arms of his mother. But the expression on Mary’s face also says that Jesus is no longer entirely hers.

There’s an obvious parallel between the presentation of Jesus in the temple and our own baptism. Like Jesus, we didn’t have much say when our parents presented us at the font. In an act of consecration our parents for a moment literally handed us over to God, in hopes that God would bless us and walk with us. They prayed that we would amount to something, live happy and full lives, and be a force for good in the world. Deep within their hearts they hoped that tragedy and discord and unhappiness would stay far from us. But they also knew that sooner or later they would have to let go and watch as we sorted out our lives for ourselves.

On Ash Wednesday we marked the beginning of Lent with ashes on our heads. Certainly that’s a ritual with religious significance, but within it is a heavy dose of reality therapy. It really is true that, whether we like it or not, from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. That return to the earth is inevitable. And whether we find that thought shocking or just sobering, it’s a wake-up call. If for some it is an invitation to despair, we as Christians believe that it’s an invitation to do something wonderful with our lives.

Today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis makes reference to a covenant between Noah and God. God on one side vows never again to wipe human life from the face of the earth. Rather, through the terms of the covenant each person will have the chance to be saved. All will have the opportunity to walk with God and to make the most of the life that God has given us. The choice is ours to make. We can be wildly creative with God’s gifts, or we can turn the other way and retreat into an escapism of opportunities squandered.

If Lent is a wake-up to our mortality, it also reminds us that it might finally be time to make and seal our own covenant with God. Through our earliest years our parents and others crafted the terms of that covenant for us. But Ash Wednesday invites us to step forward and negotiate the terms for ourselves. That’s why it issues the clarion call: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Only we can provide the answer for ourselves.

Of course all this really depends on whether we even want to bargain with God. If so, would we take it seriously, and for what would we ask? I’ve met people who would gladly sell their souls if just once the Vikings would win the Superbowl. Others will gladly trade their lives in the sole pursuit of power and wealth and bales and bales of stuff. But would we be willing to dedicate ourselves to walking on God’s paths in return for a life well-lived?

I think not a few of us — myself included — are a little afraid to negotiate with God. My fear has always been that God would ask way too much of me. What if God asked something outlandish or too hard or impossible or something I’d never want to do in a million years? Then one day the awesome truth dawned on me. All God asks of me is my entire life. As on the feast of the Presentation and at baptism, all God wants is that I hand over my life for consecration to something sacred. All I need do in my covenant with God is to hand over everything, including my life itself.

If all that sounds too demanding or even frightening, it’s important to remember one other thing. God is a terrible negotiator. God makes ridiculous deals and gives away the store in the covenant with us. Simply put, I might give my life to God, but God turns right around and gives it all right back to me. Life then is yours and mine to do with as we see fit, in accord with the terms of the covenants we have made.

During Lent God makes us an offer we ought not refuse. God asks us to recognize how precious a gift our lives really are. God then asks us to use our lives prudently — to make the most of every talent and to squeeze the best out of every opportunity that comes our way.

So I would encourage you to renegotiate your covenant with God this Lent. Do it in the knowledge that God will give back to you everything you thought you had negotiated away. And if you’ve not done so before, make your own covenant with God. Be grateful for what your parents and others have done on your behalf, but recognize that now is your time to act. And do so assured that when you consecrate your life to God, God gives it all back to you — with value added.

NOTES

+On February 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On February 21st, Sunday, I again presided at the Abbey Mass. My sermon was based primarily on the feast of the Presentation, which I had mulled over for nearly two weeks. I have no idea why it struck me so forcefully this time around, but that’s the business of the Holy Spirit. To it I added a reflection on the story of Noah’s covenant with God after the flood, which is found in Genesis 9.

+Last week I served as prayer leader, which meant that I had to be there for morning, noon and evening prayer for the entire week. For the first time in years I did not need a substitute for a single service. I owe that to the covid pandemic, which meant that I had nothing else to do anyway except go to prayer.

+Ever since the severe cold came a few days ago, the bells of the Abbey church have been turned off, lest the clapping mechanism crack them. Thankfully things have warmed up, and by the end of this last week we were able to ring the bells once again.

+On 21 February the incoming members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps joined us for Sunday vespers. Following graduation from Saint John’s University this May they will go off to assignments at Benedictine abbeys around the world for a year of service. Some twenty-two graduating seniors have been selected for this opportunity for the next year.

+The painting of the Presentation by Giovanni Bellini, at the top of today’s post, dates from ca. 1459 and is housed in the Galleria Querini Stampalia in Venice. The stained glass illustrating scenes from the life of Jesus was made for the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, outside of Cologne. At bottom, from the same set of glass, is a panel showing the mother and daughters of the family that donated the window to the abbey. The window was crafted ca. 1520-30 and is housed in the V & A Museum in London.

Envy: A Deadly Sin

Cain’s murder of Abel and the Pharisees’ confrontation with Jesus seem to be two stories with nothing in common. One involves a murder and the other a dispute about authority; but as different as they might seem, envy is the thread that weaves them together. Woven through both stories is resentment of the good that another person does.

Why would any one of us resent the success of our neighbor? Why would any of us envy the good that others do, especially when all of us stand to benefit from their efforts?

At one point or another envy tugs at each of us, and we entertain it despite the fact that it is so self-destructive. Perhaps Jesus acknowledged as much in this gospel passage from Mark when he chose not to dignify the questions of the Pharisees with an answer. Whatever the Pharisees thought they might accomplish by trying to undercut the authority of Jesus, it was their own authority that lay in tatters by the end of the story. Envy had seized and paralyzed them.

Despite what we may think, when other people do good it does not come at our expense. Doing good is not a zero sum game in which someone else wins while we’re left holding the short stick. In fact the good that others do can and ought to have quite the opposite effect on us. Their efforts should act as inspiration to our own efforts.

There is a prayer of consecration that reads thus: “May God who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion.” But perhaps there is a corollary that we might add to it: “And may God who has begun such good work in my neighbor bring it to fulfillment in me.”

Notes

+Like much of the country, Minnesota has entertained cold weather during the last few days, and it came home to roost last Monday when my car stubbornly refused to start. It was going to be my fourth trip to Minneapolis since March 6th, but it was not to be.

+On February 11th I participated in the online meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA. While I do not miss the challenge of travel these days, a remote board meeting is just not the same.

+On February 12th we lost our power when some poor soul in the nearby city of St. Cloud crashed into a power pole. Given how cold it was, it inspired everyone to conserve as much heat as possible, lest the outage might drag on for hours. Thankfully it lasted only an hour, but it was a good warning about how fragile our normal routine can be.

+On February 13th at vespers I began my week as prayer leader for the liturgy of the hours. In normal times, with a heavy travel schedule, showing up for each session would be a scheduling nightmare. The pandemic has made it possible for me to attend everything — without resorting to a substitute to fill in for my absence.

+On February 15th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered. It is based on the two readings for the day — Genesis 4: 1-15, 25; and Mark 8: 11-13.

+On February 10th we celebrated the feast of Saint Scholastica, whose twin brother Benedict wrote the Rule that we follow today. The photo at top is a fresco at the Abbey of Subiaco, and it recalls Benedict’s visit with his sister the night before she died. He planned to leave early, but her prayers resulted in a storm that prevented his departure. Their facial expressions illustrate their respective reactions. The next photo is a modern icon that hangs down the hall from my room in the monastery. At bottom is a photo from a trail in our woods, suggesting that winter can still provide visual warmth despite the temperature.

Paranoia: Not That Many Are Out to Get Us

There’s no doubt that King Herod had a wide streak of paranoia running through him. Everywhere he turned he saw existential danger, and so he resorted to fortress-palaces and pre-emptive strikes to preserve both his power and his very life.

I’ve always thought of paranoia as one of the most self-indulgent of human emotions. It relies on the belief that everyone is out to get us and therefore most everyone knows who we are. Certainly there are a few cases in which that might be true; but the fact is, most paranoids are not the center of any universe, no matter how small it might be. Most of them fade away, forgotten and alone, with scarcely anyone to lament their passing. And if Herod is unusual because we remember him, it’s not so strange that scarcely anyone has missed him.

I have no explanation for why anyone would let paranoia drive their behavior, but I readily admit its power to destroy us. So if we’re ever tempted to indulge in it, it’s good to be realistic. The fact is, most people have no idea who in the world we really are, and fewer still have the time or the desire to get us. Still, if there is one person of whom we should be genuinely paranoid, it’s the Lord Jesus Christ. He knows us; he’s out to get us; and even worse, he never gives up. May we not shrink in terror when he reaches out to grab us by the hand.

NOTES

+On February 2nd I participated in the online meeting of the Council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. It’s a monthly gathering.

+On February 4th I took part in the online meeting of the Formation Committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta. Unlike the meeting above, it tends to be weekly.

+On February 5th I participated in an in-person orientation to prepare moderators for a program at Saint John’s University called Johnny Brothers. Begun nearly thirty years ago under the title Men’s Sprituality Groups, the program consists of groups of ten students who meet biweekly, with two moderators from among the faculty and staff of Saint John’s University. I’ve long wanted to be part of this program, but my travel schedule simply did not allow it. Groups meet regularly through the course of one year, and the more successful groups among them have continued through the entire four years of college.

+On February 5th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is an edited transcript of the homily I delivered that day. It was based on Mark 6: 14-29.

+On February 2nd we celebrated the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Also celebrated as Candlemas Day, it is the day on which candles meant to be used in the coming year in church are blessed. The photo at top shows a collection of candles made in the abbey candle shop that were blessed that day. The second photo shows the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple, rendered in stained glass for the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald outside of Cologne. It was made ca. 1520-30 and is housed today in the V & A Museum in London. At bottom is a 14th-century rendition of the Presentation, now housed at the Museum of Catalán Art in Barcelona.