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Archive for October 3rd, 2011

Several years ago a commercial paraded a group of pre-schoolers before the cameras to offer their life’s ambition.  “When I grow up I want to be overworked and underappreciated,” stated one optimistic youngster.  Yet another said that “when I grow up I want to be forced into early retirement.”  These are in the spirit of the deathbed confession of the man who wished he had spent more time at the office, or the other guy who regretted that he had not watched more television when he had the chance.

Sadly, all too often our worst dreams can come true.  Some people are indeed underappreciated for their dedicated work.  Some are forced into early retirement.  Some do watch way too much television, and some do invest too much of themselves in the office.  Whether by choice or by circumstance, these things happen to people.

However life may turn out, there prevails the gnawing suspicion that most people live lives that never seem complete.  This is painfully apparent with the death of a child or a rescue worker or an accident victim.  Even when people sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, there remains the lingering regret that lives have been cut short.  They did not flower into their true potential, and life was definitley unfair for these people.  Even a materialist would rationalize that there was so much shopping to do, and so little time at the mall.  How sad it is when people cannot contribute meaningfully to the gross domestic product.

The death of the young puts into bold relief the aimless lives and poor decisions that the long-lived sometimes make.  When we have all the time in the world, there is no real rush to make the difficult choices.  With the prospect of limitless years before us, it’s easy to put off until tomorrow some of the most important things in life.  We forget that, more often than not, tomorrow never comes.  So ironically, young people who die before their time give prophetic witness.  They put us on the spot — we who blissfully fritter away our days as if there is an endless supply.

In the apse of the Great Hall at Saint John’s is an overpowering Christ in Majesty who challenges anyone who would pause to meditate.  “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” proclaims Jesus the Christ.  It’s not meant to be a cheery slogan to sell another product.  It is a take-it-or-leave-it alternative that orders our life, one way or the other.  If you follow, then it becomes the bedrock of your existence.  If you choose not to, then you have every duty to find some other alternative inspiration to guide your life.

Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian at Yale, once remarked that “If Jesus rose from the dead, then nothing else matters.  If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then nothing else matters.”  For Christians Jesus is the point of reference that determines every moment of our being.  If you take that leap of faith, you can never be the same, as Pelikan pointed out on many an occasion.  When asked why he converted to Orthodoxy so late in life, he responded that “you can only circle the airport for so long.”  Whatever  you choose to do, there are obvious consequences.

To live a life filled with purpose is about as noble a goal as one can set.  In the Benedictine tradition the novice must commit to seek God, and to do so for a lifetime.  But this is only an echo of the baptismal vows that any Christian makes.  Baptism is certainly a rite of initiation into the Church, but it is also a commitment to a way of living that gives meaning to each and every day — including this one.

Monastery notes

In 1958 the monks of Saint John’s began construction of the new Abbey church, designed to accomodate the growing monastic community as well as the student body.  It has since become one of architect Marcel Breuer’s iconic works and a singular piece of American church architecture.  In 2011 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of its consecration, and in October there are several events that will commemorate this great occasion, to which the public is invited.

On October 5th, at 8 pm, in the Centenary Room at Saint John’s University, Bishop Bill Franklin and Dean Tom Fisher will speak on the enduring significance of this church.  Bishop Franklin is a former faculty member in the history department at Saint John’s University.  He went on to become professor at General Seminary in New York and Dean at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.  This year he was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York.  Tom Fisher is dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

Reading in the Refectory

“Reading will always accompany the meals of the Brothers.” (chapter 38, Rule of Saint Benedict.)

For nearly 1,500 years monks and nuns in Benedictine monasteries have listened to public reading during meals, and some might find it curious that at Saint John’s we continue this practice in the 21st century.  In part we do it because the Rule calls for it.  In part we do it to give all of the monks a common text to discuss — or not.  And we do it to vary our daily interaction with one another.

Our routine in the refectory is simple enough.  We take breakfast in silence, because (in my opinion) it is immoral to talk early in the morning.  At lunch we visit with one another, and that meal serves as common recreation for monks who might not have the chance to encounter one another socially during the day.  But at dinner the ancient ritual asserts itself.  The monks gather in silence, and at 6 pm the abbot rings the bell.  Following the meal prayer, the reader opens with a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict, and then he takes up the current book and begins at the point where he had left off the previous evening.

A small committee selects the books, and it is no easy task to find something that most people will either enjoy or tolerate.  We tend to read history, though spiritual texts will take over during Lent.  We generally prefer shorter books, because huge tomes can seem to go on forever.  And we will edit out sections that don’t seem to go well with dining.  That was the case when we read a history of the Mayo brothers and came to a  screeching halt at a chapter that described some of their pioneering work in surgery.

Monks are encouraged to suggest readings for refectory, and the committee has developed a good sense of what sorts of things will go over well.  Years ago we read an immense biography of Lincoln, and while I enjoyed it, I mused that Lincoln would die of old age by the time we finished.  More recently we enjoyed Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, and our memory of William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain influenced the selection of his book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.  This is our current reading in the refectory, and at the mid-point it has had mixed reviews.

Through the centuries the reader’s stand has appeared in all sorts of configurations.  In the photo above is the station in the Abbey refectory at Saint John’s, flanked by two tables.  In the photo at left is a medieval English monastic refectory that was recycled into a parish church at the time of the Reformation.  The refectory itself was quite large, and the intricately carved stone stairway lead to a nook that allowed the reader a panaroma of the room.

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