Archive for October 17th, 2011

One of the more arresting illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible is of the Ten Commandments.  Imagined and executed by Thomas Ingmire of San Francisco, it is literally a page filled with letters.  In the center are the Commandments, arrayed in big black block letters.  Above them, the lettering shifts to gold as God speaks to his people.  And on the lower third of the page is a cacophony of letters that make no sense at all.

At first glance the page yields little for us to take away, but a short reflection forces out its nugget of wisdom.  Clearly, the stark lettering communicates the non-negotiable nature of the commandments.  The bold black states unequivocally that the commandments are exactly that.  They are not guidelines or points for further discussion.  They are not suggestions or a collection of good ideas.  They mean what they say — no more and no less.

Ingmire was at first reluctant to take this commission, but ultimately his hesitation produced a stirring affirmation of the true aim of the commandments.  They are stepping-stones on the path to God, and when your eye travels up the page, the golden words assure us of God’s loving care for us.  This experience of God is what the commandments are all about, and following them leads naturally to the experience of God.  Conversely, if you cannot follow them, then you invariably fall into the chaos of the lower portion of the page.  In such chaos nothing in life makes sense.

But Ingmire’s lettering harbors an important warning, and it points to the dangers of religious hypocrisy.  The commandments may lead naturally to the experience of God, but they do not lead inevitably to the experience of God.  The latter is true because of the all-too-human tendency to turn something good into a club to use over the heads of others.

In the hands of zealots, the commandments easily become hoops through which others must jump.  They become the new golden calves or stone idols to which others must pay lip service in order to prove themselves worthy.  They become the yardsticks for measuring others.  In the minds of Pharisees, both ancient and modern, the commandments are reshaped into the same old false gods.  When this occurs, the yoke meant to be easy once again becomes a huge burden.

Paradoxically, what makes the commandments so susceptible to manipulation is their inherent subjectivism.  At first blush they are laws, and short ones at that.  But following them requires at least a little bit of nuanced thought.  Can you really ever honor your father or mother enough?  How much is enough, and how much is not enough?  And how, exactly, do you keep the Lord’s day holy?  And when it comes to human beauty, where exactly is that line that separates appreciation from covetousness?

My favorite conundrum involves this command: “Thou shalt not kill.”  That seems clear enough, and at the end of the day you’ve either killed someone or you haven’t.  But before you award yourself a gold star for compliance, consider this.  If you didn’t kill anyone today, was it due to your devotion to the commandment, or was it the result of sloth?  Have you not killed anyone today simply because you didn’t have the time or the energy, or you were too lazy?  Commandment-following is never as easy as it looks; and for those who want to be judges, the possibilities are endless.

Saint Benedict recognized that monks too can tip-toe into hypocrisy, and there are references to this temptation throughout his Rule.  In the case of wine, for example, it is perilously easy for some monks to condemn as godless those who imbibe.  Benedict confronts this head-on in chapter 40.  “We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess, for wine makes even wise men go astray.” (Sirach 19:2)  Let no one be surprised, then, that even in the sixth century monks disagreed among themselves.

Prayer also can provide occasion for hypocrisy, and monks after all are professionals when it comes to praying.  With eagle eyes we can spot the brother who sings off-key or who is off-pace or who slouches in his choir stall.  And that is hardly the end of it.  Benedict urges monks not to tarry in church when community prayer is over, lest this turn into a contest to see who is holier than whom.  There is a point at which monks — or anyone for that matter — can transform prayer into something diabolic.

What are we to conclude from all of this?  I would suggest that religious life is more art than science.  It is more about the search for God and the love of God, and less about religious account books and judging one’s neighbor.  We also have to admit that there is a certain satisfaction in concluding that I am better than my neighbor — on virtually any scale of measurement.  But ultimately that is a fruitless exercise.  It’s lonely at the top of the ladder of perfection.  If you’ve ever been there, you know how tough it can be with no one else to talk to.

[I am grateful to the staff of HMML at Saint John’s University, for providing the images of Thomas Ingmire’s Ten Commandments, from The Saint John’s Bible.  Used by permission, copyright 2002, Order of Saint Benedict.]

Monastery notes

On Sunday October 23rd the monks of Saint John’s will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the consecration of their own Abbey and University church.  At 3 pm the choir of men and boys from Westminster Cathedral (RC) in London will sing in concert in the church.  It will be a stunning experience, and the public is invited to hear one of the great choirs of the world.

My calendar

On October 19th Donald Jackson, artistic director of The Saint John’s Bible, and Fr. Bob Koopmann, OSB, will appear on The Today Show in New York.  In an interview with Barbara Walters, many years ago, Donald first spoke of his dream to create a great Bible.  Now he’s back to report its completion.  This is one of the rare times when I will ever encourage poeple to watch television!

Later that day we will meet for a small presentation ceremony at The Morgan Library & Museum.  Through the generosity of a St. Paul donor, The Morgan will receive a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  Until now the Vatican Library has been the only institution with such a set.

On October 20-23 I will be in Danville, CA, to give retreat conferences to Members in Obedience of the Order of Malta.

Throughout monastic history the dedication of an abbey church has always been a big deal.  The drawing above depicts the design of the third church at the Abbey of Cluny, and no less a person than Pope Urban II travelled to Burgundy to preside at the consecration.  Until the construction of the new Saint Peter’s in Rome in the sixteenth century, it was the largest church in western Europe.  In fact, it is reported that the nave planned for Saint Peter’s was extended by fifty feet in order to make it longer than Cluny.  After the French Revolution the monastic complex at Cluny became the equivalent of Builder’s Square, as people looted and picked over its stones to build homes and walls.  Today only one transcept still stands.

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