Archive for November, 2011

The abbey refectory: Advent Wreath

Sleepers Awake

Three December’s ago I was plodding through the airport in Minneapolis. It was very early in the morning; it was still quite dark; and I and most everyone else looked like we’d just gotten up. And wafting through the concourses was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Wachet Auf Sleepers, Wake!

With our long tradition of choral music, we Minnesotans are more likely than most to recognize that piece of music. Some might even be able to sing along. But better still, many could appreciate the double entendre of the lyrics that morning. It was indeed past time to wake up. But it was also Advent, a time for Christians to wake up, and a time to sing Wachet Auf, the best of Advent hymns.

Advent and Lent are very special seasons in the Christian calendar. Each runs forty days, and each culminates in a feast day of singular importance. But unlike Lent, Advent does not have a strong penitential character. Consistent with that, Saint Benedict does not prescribe any special acts of self-denial during this season. Clearly, something else is called for.

In the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (Mark 13: 33-37), Jesus speaks of the householder who leaves on a journey, and the servants have no idea when he will return. Watch is the operative word of advice here.

Watching and waiting are things we don’t always do well. In an age in which attention deficit syndrome is the norm rather than the exception, most of us have little patience. We want quick and easy answers. We want immediate gratification. We want huge gains on short-term investments. But ironically, in an era when most can expect to live ninety years or more, we are reluctant to take on long-term projects.

The abbey church: Advent Wreath

When Jesus urges the disciples to watch, there are two nuggets that I draw from it. First, life has a way of carrying us along with the flow, and often we have no idea where we are going. Small wonder that ten or twenty years later we wake up and are astonished at what has happened to us. It’s critically important, then, that we have some sense of what we want to do with our lives. If we don’t, we’ll be amazed or deeply disturbed at what we’ve become.

Second, the command to be alert is not meant just for the moment of the master’s return — as if nothing mattered while he was gone. Rather, being alert should be a way of life. In practice it’s easy to go for weeks or even years with no sense of the sacred in our lives. But don’t ever for a minute believe that Jesus was never there. We may have been unaware, but Jesus was there at every step on the way. At every turn we saw his face in our friends and in our family. And we saw him especially in the faces of those who reached out to us for help.

Monastery Calendar

For many of the monks, and myself included, Thanksgiving is the nicest holiday in the year. The campus is silent, except for the birds, and the schedule is more merciful than at Christmas or Easter. By that I refer to the Eucharist on Thanksgiving Day. It takes place at 11:00 am.

On Saturday the mood shifts, and we ready ourselves for Advent. We see this most obviously in the two Advent wreathes — one in the abbey church and the second in the refectory. The first of four candles is lit on Saturday evening, a reminder of the ancient practice that the day begins at the vigil, rather than at dawn. And the two wreathes are symbolic of the parallels between the worship in the church and what happens in the refectory. Both are sacred meals.

This year my own observance of Thanksgiving involved a vow not to get in a car or leave the property for seven days. I succeeded.

A milestone in the life of the community was reached on November 20th, when Abbot John installed Fr. Edward Vebelun as the prior of Holy Trinity Monastery in Fujimi, Japan. Saint John’s assumed direction over this dependent priory after World War II, and in recent years the community has seen solid growth.

Fr. Edward went to Fujimi from Saint John’s in 1999, and he has been tireless, and successful, in learning Japanese. In addition, he has offered sacramental assistance at various parishes throughout Japan. Pictured here is Abbot John bestowing his blessing on Fr. Edward, center. In the photo below the entire community, minus one, gathers for a formal portrait. Missing is Brother John Chrysostom Long, who has spent the fall with us here at Collegeville.

Recommended reading

Current reading at table in the abbey refectory is a short volume by our confrere, Fr. Hilary Thimmesh. The title says it all: Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir. As a very young monk Fr. Hilary served on that committee, and his minutes of its proceedings form the basis for this thoughtful reminiscence.

Through the years we’ve read a range of wonderful and less wonderful books in the refectory. Among those that have received a warm welcome has been Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale University Press, 1997). We read this a few months ago, and besides Duffy’s engaging style as a writer, the book’s very topic lent itself well to the refectory format. Many of the individual lives were “bite-sized”, in that the life of one pope often equalled one meal.

The ruins of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire, England

Professor Duffy has been a favorite of mine ever since he published The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-ca. 1580 (Yale University Press, 1992). This study established his reputation as a meticulous and innovative scholar, one unafraid to tackle conventional thought on the English Reformation.

Duffy’s thesis is succinct. He contends that on the eve of the Reformation popular religous life was vibrant and well-integrated into Englsih culture — perhaps more deeply than anywhere else in Europe. The allegations of corruption and decadence were nothing less than the mantra of a small circle of powerful people intent on justifying its looting of the churches and monasteries. So effective was the propaganda, that ever after it morphed into accepted wisdom in scholarly circles. In other words, writers bought the political propaganda, and it became an unchallenged thesis for generations.

Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, England

While his thesis may be terse, Duffy’s evidence is massive, and fascinating. Duffy’s research outlines a government policy that sought to crush popular piety, but popular resistence endured for decades and even centuries. Ultimately, he posits, it resulted in the long-term weakening of Christianity in England, and the disenchantment of many with government-sponsored religion.

Duffy’s is a brilliant book, and he pitches it to scholars and non-scholars alike. If you have an interest in relgious and English history, this book easily justifies the investment of your time.

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The Abbey Gardens

What do you want for Thanksgiving?

As many stores prepare to open on Thanksgiving Day, a few people wonder whether someday the Christmas season will gobble up this holiday entirely. Will historians a century from now theorize that this annual festival of football and merchandising had its roots in a moment of collective gratitude? Quite possibly.

In recent years I’ve had a bit of unease about this holiday, and not because we shouldn’t give thanks for blessings received. Rightly, we should be grateful to live in liberty, to dwell in a land of immense beauty and wealth, and to have basements and garages bulging with stuff that the pilgrims could only dream of. But what about all those people who don’t share in this bounty? Does God not favor them? Does God like us better?

Last week a friend of mine asked me about the parable of the talents, and he wondered if we’ve been reading it in the wrong way. Had the guy who had ten talents lost five of them, would the master have been just as angry as he was with the guy who had one, risked nothing, and neither gained nor lost anything? My friend thought not, and for a very novel reason.

We’ve tended to equate the talents with money or some sort of personal gifts. But what if we thought of them as challenges? What if God actually blesses us with obstacles that are too much to overcome? What if God lets us encounter challenges that are scarcely more than we can bear? That might help explain why bad things happen to good people.

We’ve all fantasized about a life of comfort and ease, one in which everything is handed to us on a silver platter. Conversely, I know I’m not the only one who’s prayed that tough predicaments will go away. Even Jesus prayed that His cup of suffering would pass. But He accepted His cup, and I suppose His is a good example for us all.

As much as we all might prefer the life of Riley, we know all too well what happens when you never have to work or struggle for anything. Without struggle there is no growth. Without hurdles to overcome, there is no sense of accomplishment. Without mighty effort or even a bit of suffering, we uncover neither our own limits nor our own true gifts. Without the supreme personal test, we never learn to stretch or flourish, despite everything.

It might be helpful, then, to turn that parable on its head. Imagine the servant who received ten talents as a symbol of all those who face frightful circumstances in life, and yet rise dramatically to face the occasion. Imagine the servant with one talent as representative of those who face little or no challenge, and who avoid personal risk at all cost. In which servant is true character to be found?

Saint Paul speaks of fighting the good fight and finishing the race, and by that I understand that he tried to meet every challenge that came his way. He wasted not a minute, not an opportunity, not a difficulty. And Saint Benedict takes the same approach when he speaks of monks enduring in the monastery until death. It is a race of discovery.

It’s in that vein that we might consider our own soul-searching this Thanksgiving. Are we grateful that the past year was easy beyond our wildest dreams? Were we able to coast — and not to grow in the process? Or are we thankful that we faced challenges of every stripe, and with God’s help we at least tried to face them with a grain of nobility? If we did the latter, we can thank God this Thanksgiving for the greatest of gifts: we’ve grown not only in age, but in wisdom.


On November 15th I celebrated the Eucharist for the semi-annual meeting of the members of the Order of Malta in San Francisco. I have included the sermon, Holy, or Holier than Thou?, under Presentations.

On November 19th it snowed six inches at Saint John’s. It was our first snow of the season, and I simply did not have the heart to include a picture of the snow in this posting. After all, I had just returned from San Francisco, and it is Thanksgiving.

On November 17th Dr. Theresa Vann of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library delivered a paper entitled Catholic Pirates: A Revisionist Look at the Hospitallers of Rhodes and Malta. She is the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, and she oversees the vast archives of the Order of Malta on film and in digital form at HMML. She is pictured here with Mr. Charles Farrugia of the National Library of Malta.

In her talk Dr. Vann made an important point in stressing labels as reflections of political attitudes and propaganda. To western Europeans the galleys of the Order of Malta in the Mediterranean carried crusaders. In the eyes of the Turks, they carried Catholic pirates.

Of course that game goes on endlessly. For centuries the Byzantines and Arabs both thought of the Turks as barbarians. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Turks became the powers-that-be, and all who opposed them were terrorists. Needless to say, that sentiment was not shared by the Arabs who joined with Lawrence of Arabia to drive out the Turks in the early twentieth century. As is often noted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Charles Dickens: Pictures from Italy

I thought I knew all of the books of Charles Dickens, and that I had read most of them in high school. But recently I stumbled across one I had not known: Pictures from Italy. It recounts Dickens’ sojourn through Italy in the early 1840’s, and you may be surprised to discover that even then Italy was “ill-governed”, as Dickens commented. But he loved the place, the people and the food. What Englishman wouldn’t!

His description of Holy Week in Rome is particularly interesting, and I close with a long excerpt for the benefit of all those who have been caught in crushing crowds of tourists in the Vatican. In the following passage he describes a ceremony immediatley following the Holy Thursday foot-washing, at which the pope hosts the Thirteen at a dinner in the Vatican.

“As the two large boxes, appropriated to ladies at this sight, were full to the throat, and getting near was hopeless, we posted off, along with a great crowd, to be in time at the Table, where the Pope, in person, waits on those Thirteen; and after a prodigious struggle at the Vatican staircase, and several personal struggles with the Swiss guard, the whole crowd swept into the room. The body of the room was full of male strangers; the crowd immense; the heat very great; and the pressure sometimes frightful. It was at its height, when the stream came pouring in, from the feet-washing; and then were there such shrieks and outcries, that a party of Piedmontese dragoons went to the rescue of the Swiss guard, and helped them to calm the tumult.

“The ladies were partucularly ferocious, in their struggles for places. One lady of my acquaintance was siezed round the waist, in the ladies box, by a strong matron, and hoisted out of her place; and there was another lady (in a back row in the same box) who improved her position by sticking a large pin into the ladies before her.”

May your Thanksgiving table have more decorum!

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Cardinal Richelieu: Bishop or Duke?

Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642): Bishop or Duke?

If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Cardinal Richelieu, Jean-Vincent Blanchard’s recent biography provides just the introduction you didn’t know you needed. In Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France (Walker & Co., 2011), Blanchard details the life of the man who was a fixture on the political stage for nearly twenty-six years. Born Armand-Jean du Plessis, the third son of a provincial noble family of modest means, he was consecrated a bishop at age twenty-two and created a cardinal at thirty-seven. During a brilliant career he accumulated a host of church offices and enormous wealth, and at his death he was abbot of the influential monasteries of Cluny, Citeaux and Premontre. The man must have been a saint, you might conclude. But you’d be ahead of the Vatican on that one.

Richelieu did have a streak of piety, as Blanchard points out, but he rarely if ever showed up at the churches and monasteries from which he drew income. Rather, it was the allure of the political arena that mesmerized him. He clawed his way to the top, and during his years of service to Louis XIII he helped to redraw the map of Europe and give shape to modern France.

Richelieu’s fellow citizens were often ambivalent but never neutral in their feelings for him. He was single-minded in the pursuit of power, and he sent more than a few rivals to the gallows. He waged wars that caused severe hardship to his own people, but he secured the borders of France. And perhaps his greatest legacy was the transformation of the noble classes. At the onset of his career the powerful nobles treated the king as first among equals. By his death France was ready to bow at the feet of the almighty Sun King, Louis XIV.

Well into his narrative Blanchard pauses to wonder how Richelieu could reconcile his priestly vocation with the surgical ruthlessness he demonstrated as chief minister. In fact, there was no inner contradiction at all, writes Blanchard. Richelieu worked in the conviction that the king ruled by God’s will and divine right, and the defense of royal absolutism was his own priestly duty.

Many years ago I was invited to participate in a panel on whether priests and religious should hold public office. The question arose in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s directive that they should not, and feelings on this ran deep in some circles. The organizers asked me to defend the new decree, perhaps because I was the only one they could find who would do so publicly. I remember making a spirited case, but the show of hands by the audience sealed my fate. I consoled myself with a polite round of applause, and with the three other neanderthals in the room I retired to lick my wounds.

The years have helped to clarify the issue, and I remain convinced more than ever of the dangers of blending ministry and politics. It is such an awesome responsibility to serve the spiritual needs of others, with challenges galore. To add political authority to spiritual authority clouds the role of the minister. And when the world needs to hear the prophetic voice, that voice ought not be hobbled by any political baggage.

The Collegeville Institute

Throughout the centuries monasteries have been places for reflection and sanctuary. In them people have sought refuge from political and social squabbles, and in that solace they have found the opportunity to be nourished, to think and to grow. In such places people of similar and differing views can meet in mutual respect, drawn by the shared search for God; and they should expect an unconditional welcome from those who live within the cloister walls.

The need for oases of peace has not receded, despite the passing of the middle ages. At Saint John’s we try to follow Saint Benedict’s maxim to receive all guests as Christ, and as often as not those guests have helped us in our own search for God. It’s in this spirit that for many years we have hosted an annual meeting of the Catholic and Lutheran bishops of Minnesota. As one bishop pointed out in a recent article, they gather to share ideas and not-always-the-same perspectives. But they pray, and we are honored to be a place where they can do so together.

So in a world of non-stop politics, what can we learn? First, the world continues to need places where political intrigue is checked at the door. Sacred spaces ought to be just that. And the same is true for our hearts. While politics may be a noble profession, we can never let that supercede the Lord’s command to love others as He has loved us.

Second, some divisive issues never seem to go away. But I hope we’ve made some progress on the question of combining political and religious authority. I lost on this issue many years ago — big time. But I’d like to reconvene that panel, and as a good sport I would let Cardinal Richelieu sit with my colleagues on the opposing side. I might just win this time.

Cardinal Kasper at Saint John’s

The Collegeville Institute

In the picture above, Cardinal Walter Kasper visits with Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. Clearly, this cardinal is cut from a different bolt of cloth than his seventeenth-century counterpart, and in his former work with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity he had vastly different responsibilities.

Since 1968 the Collegeville Institute has been a familiar presence at Saint John’s. Located on the shore of Lake Watab, opposite the University campus, the Institute describes itself as a “meeting place…where a diverse mix of people from various faith communities, including scholars, writers, professionals, artists and corporate leaders, gather to connect faith to the world and its pressing social issues.”

The Institute complex was designed by campus architect Marcel Breuer, and it bears a striking kinship to his design for the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. The Institute provides housing and offices for visiting Fellows, whose presence has enriched our life at Saint John’s throughout the years.

Among the current Fellows of the Institute is writer Kathleen Norris. In previous stints at Saint John’s she completed work on Dakota, and she then went on to write her widely-revered Cloister Walk. On November 28th at 8:00 pm, in Quad 268 at Saint John’s, she will give a presentation entitled “Got Acedia? Who Cares?”

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Nobody likes getting overdue bills. At best they are an annoyance; and I can scarcely imagine the impact they have on those who are mired hopelessly in debt. But imagine the surprise on Matthew Parker’s face when he opened the long-unpaid bill for the execution of Thomas Cranmer, his predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury. None of Cranmer’s successors would pay up, and with good reason. If you could take the profit out of executing archbishops, your own chances of survival increased. So Parker too refused to settle when he sat on the throne in Canterbury.

Today the original billing for Cranmer’s execution rests in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. It’s bound in a volume of sixteenth-century letters and documents, and I had the opportunity to study it several years ago. It startled me as no bland invoice could ever do. In a neat and meticulous hand, the accountant had listed the cost of Cranmer’s last days in custody. The meals were itemized, and included simple fare like bread, pears and walnuts. But it was the sterile format of the bill that was so arresting. There, in neat columns, were the entries: “Breakfast; lunch; dinner. Breakfast; lunch; dinner. Breakfast; lunch….Firewood” — for burning Thomas Cranmer.

Then, as now, executing people for religious reasons was reprehensible. Nothing can justify it. But what I found particularly poignant was the attempt to reduce Cranmer’s very life to a series of numbers on a page. It failed.

Last week the human population on our planet passed the seven billion mark. It’s easy to get lost in that number, and it’s a challenge to think of people whom we don’t know as anything but a cypher in a ledger. It’s also easy to reduce huge numbers to huge problems. And when decisions have to be made, who gets attention, and who gets neglected?

The Bible recounts another dilemma involving numbers with the story of Lot. Lot bargained with God over the destruction of a city, hoping that if he could find ten just men, then God might spare the rest of the population. You have to give Lot credit for the nerve to negotiate with the Almighty. But you also have to give him credit for his insight. When you look at big numbers you can forget the goodness within any individual — even if there are only ten of them.

Saint Benedict places a great deal of responsibility on the abbot, and he has to be concerned for the health and well-being of the entire community, no matter how big or small it may be. But he is also responsibile for each and every individual in that community as well. He can neglect no one, because each monk is brought to the community by God.

In massive cities and countries it’s very tempting to ignore people — even our neighbors. It’s simpler to reduce them to numbers, or file them away into general categories of race or religion or class. When we reduce people to mobs, we miss the creative genius of God. He made each of us in His image, and each is a gift to the human community.

Monastery notes

As the picture at the top of this post indicates, autumn color has now had its last hurrah in Collegeville. While still relatively young, the red oaks that line the road to the abbey church hint at the glorious canopy that will one day cover the road when the trees reach their maturity.

On Sunday, November 13th, The Saint John’s Boys Choir, The Collegeville Consort, and the Saint John’s Abbey Schola will present a concert of sacred music with readings and images from The Saint John’s Bible. The concert will also include the world premiere of the “Mass of Saint John the Baptist,” composed for three choirs and the monastic community of Saint John’s. It will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church, and the recent completion of The Saint John’s Bible. The concert begins at 3 pm, and will take place in the Great Hall.

The poster that announces the concert features “Life in Community,” an illumination from The Saint John’s Bible by English artist Aidan Hart. It is worth noting that the monks so appreciated Hart’s work that we have commissioned him to create several icons for use both in the abbey church and in the guesthouse.

On November 6th, as part of the “Sunday at the Abbey” series of lectures, we hosted Sister Mary Reuter, OSB, past prioress of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Saint Joseph, MN. She spoke on the topic “Running with Expanding Heart: Meeting God in Everyday Life.”

On November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls, the monks made our annual pilgrimage to the Abbey cemetery, accompanied by friends who have loved ones resting in the expanded cemetery. Below is the cross that presides over the monks’ section of the cemetery. Needless to say, the picture was taken in greener times.

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