Archive for December 19th, 2011

The Christmas Swallows

Stella Maris Chapel, Saint John’s Abbey

There are two times a year when people flock to church in droves:  at Christmas and at Easter.  It’s an amazing phenomenon, as predictable as the swallows’ return to San Juan Capistrano.  But unlike their feathered counterparts, the Christmas and Easter swallows don’t always return to a universal welcome.  The fact of the matter is, those overcrowded pews at Christmas are the incarnation of the parable of the prodigal son.

For reliable church-goers, who tend to think of the parish church as “theirs”, this sudden influx is a mixed blessing.  Not a few of the regulars are delighted fathers — thrilled to see all these prodigals back.  And they hope against hope that this is the year when they will stay rather than wander off again.

But there are also the older brothers from the parable, those who begrudge the warm welcome given to the absentees.  For the elder brothers in our midst this is a matter of justice, and justice should not always mean a sweet smile and a pat on the back.  They are under no illusion that these swallows are here because of a change of heart.  When Christmas is come and gone, so will be these prodigals, until Easter of course.

While I enjoy throwing stones at sinners as much as the next guy, I have to confess that I find myself on both sides of this issue.  Like the other monks, I am delighted to see the Abbey church filled to overflowing at Christmas.  But at the same time I wonder what these people do during the rest of the year.  That’s when I need to recall that Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son with me in mind — and perhaps He meant it for you as well.

In that parable Jesus stresses two things we all need to practice, on a regular basis.  First, he encourages Christians to be hospitable when it comes to sharing their faith.  This can be a challenge to do gracefully, especially in a culture which tends to privatize religious observance.  But we should not fool ourselves by saying that this authentic hospitality used to be so easy, because it never really was.  And that’s because of the judgementalism to which we and the older brother are prone.  We may feel justified in dismissing the tepid observance of the Christmas swallows.  But when we’re done trashing them, we reflexively turn on those who come as often as we.  They too are unworthy, if the truth be known.  Suddenly you  see where this goes, because hypocrisy has raised its ugly head.

One of the familiar figures of Advent is John the Baptist.  He preached in the desert, and he practiced a water baptism for the repentance of sin.  What’s curious is that he did not preach in the temple precincts, and it was not because they were short on sinners there.  Rather, he preached to those estranged from the temple, and he urged them to return and  be reconciled.  He wanted his converts to become observant Jews and to resume their places in the worshipping commmunity of Israel.

In a few days the Christmas swallows will return to the Abbey church and to churches around the country.  Those of us who are regulars will be tempted to wonder why they’ve come, but our sole business is to welcome them.  The rest we leave to God.

But let’s indulge in speculation for just a moment anyway.  Perhaps they’ve returned because the embers of faith still glow, deep within their hearts.  Perhaps they’ve returned because they still search for God, just as we do.  But perhaps they also come because they know our Christmas would be incomplete without them.  Maybe we need them as much as they need us.  It just may be that when prodigal sons and elder brothers and welcoming parents share crowded pews at Christmas, then our chances of seeing Christ go up enormously.

The Abbey Church of Saint Denis, Paris

The calendar

On December 9th I made a brief foray into southern California, where I spoke at a convocation at Pepperdine University.  Its library recently acquired a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, and I lectured on several illuminations from the Bible.

On December 5th the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Science at a ceremony in Washington, DC.  HMML was one of ten institutions to receive the award, given annually for innovative approaches to public service, community outreach, and for the advancement of global cultural understanding.  Present to receive the award were Executive Director Fr. Columba Stewart and Dr. Getatchew Haile, cataloguer of the Ethiopian collections at HMML.

Many of us were saddened to learn of the passing of Cardinal John Foley on December 11.  For twenty-five years he narrated for American viewers the annual Christmas Mass from Saint Peter’s, and tens of millions knew his mellow voice.  In recent years he did great work as the Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Abbot John, Fr. Bob Koopmann and I are members of the Order, and all of us had had the chance to hear Cardinal Foley speak on several occasions.

Monastic History: Readings

The royal tombs, Saint Denis

I recently completed William C. Jordan’s “A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century,” (Princeton University Press, 2009).  The focus of Professor Jordan’s tour de force centers on two contemporary and very similar abbots:  Richard de Ware of Westminster and Mathieu de Vendome of Saint Denis, outside of Paris.  Both were gifted monks, diplomats and royal administrators, and both led their respective monasteries at crucial times in their histories.  They knew each other and likely counted each other as friends; but while Richard visited Saint Denis in the course of his travels, Mathieu seems never to have repaid the courtesy.  Beyond that, neither monk came from noble families.  Yet they both became prominent as advisors to their respective kings.

In twinning the abbeys of Saint Denis and Westminster, Jordan obviously evokes Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, but the 13th-century drama is of a different piece altogether.  Both abbeys had to defend themselves against rapacious barons who costantly infringed on their lands and rights.  Both had impressive building complexes at the edge of the two capitals.  Both were pantheons for the royal families.  But there were also a few differences.  While Saint Denis was financially more secure, Westminster always seemed to struggle with debt.  And while Westminster secured itself as the locus for royal coronations, Saint Denis never managed to pry that privilege away from the cathedral at Reims.

The royal tombs, Saint Denis

Time has better served Westminster Abbey, and hordes of tourists visit there every year.  Saint Denis, meanwhile, has had a more precarious existence.  At the time of the French Revolution Parisian mobs vandalized the royal tombs, and the government dispersed the monastic community.  To complicate matters, the suburban neighborhood in which the abbey sits is not exactly genteel today, and your average American tourist simply never goes there.  And that is a shame, because the abbey church, begun by the revered Abbot Suger in the 12th century, was the first Gothic-style church in Europe.

Readers looking for a book on monastic spirituality will be disappointed, since Jordan’s research moves in another direction.  In fact, the first half of the book is a narrative drawn from the very extensive archives of both abbeys.  While the pages may be tedious for some, they actually serve as a reminder of significant social change in medieval Europe.  Both France and England may seem lawyer-ridden and highly litigous, but it is a huge improvement over the days when most disputes were settled with knives and hatchets and swords.   The latter era provides lurid grist for Hollywood, but the age of legal disputes allowed for more tranquil daily life for everybody.

The second half of the book yields many interesting insights into the lives of Abbots Richard and Mathieu, and for the novice reader in medieval history it is much easier reading.  While Jordan pitches his book for the amateur and professional historian, the text can be daunting for those approaching the subject for the first time.  Still, for those interested in a glimpse into two great monasteries with gifted and long-lived abbots, Jordan’s story is a challenging and yet rewarding read.

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