Archive for January, 2012

View from the Abbey Retirement Center

When Monks Return from a Journey

Last week as I sat in Terminal 5 at LAX, waiting for a connecting flight to Sacramento, I was startled by a phone call — from a number in Los Angeles, no less.  How in the world could anyone possibly know I was in town, and for only an hour at that?

It turned out to be from Chuck, who was with the baggage department downstairs.  He had called to ask where, by chance, I might be going.  He needed to know, because the luggage tag had fallen off my bag somewhere between Detroit and Los Angeles.  What he failed to mention was that the handle to which the tag was attached had also “fallen off” somewhere.  But that was a surprise to savor later.

I thought that might be the perfect lead-in to a reflection on Saint Benedict’s teaching on “When a monk returns from a journey.”  What better tale of woe than another piece of luggage mangled?  Well, a much better story awaited.

The Chapel, Abbey Retirement Center

Fr. James has recently returned from a journey as well, though his was considerably longer than mine.  For upwards of fifty years he had served in priestly ministry away from the Abbey, and last fall he moved home to retire.

A lot can happen in fifty years, and Fr. James was no longer the energetic man that many of the senior monks remembered.  Nor were we, I suppose.  For the few monks who live alone in pastoral assignments, the trasition back into the monastery can be daunting.  That homecoming entails the loss of independence, particularly when it means turning in the car keys.  They also discover that the monastery to which they have returned is no longer quite like the one they entered decades earlier.  Long-time friends have passed away or moved into the Retirement Center, while fresh but unfamiliar faces are there to greet them.  Even the abbot has become a youngster, by comparison.  All in all, everyone has to adjust a little bit.

With his earnest and sweet disposition, re-entry for Fr. James has been easy in many respects.  But his hearing aid has had a rough time of it, and it has screamed out at the most inopportune moments — like during the chanting of the Psalms.  We’ve been through this before, and we tend to take it in stride.  There are always many smiles around the choir when it does happen.  But I’ve always wondered why no avant-garde composer has ever taken advantage of this.  Why not write a concerto for strings and alto hearing aid, or a chamber piece for piano, hearing aid and two cell phones?  But that’s another story.

Madonna and Child, Abbey Retirement Center Chapel

Wanting to be useful, Fr. James signed up to read at table, likely for the first time in fifty years.  Last Thursday at dinner he picked up Bill Brysen’s Walk through the Woods, which we’ve toiled at for weeks.  In his deeply melodious voice he read slowly and very dramatically, almost poetically.  Unfortunately, it was clear that he did not realize that this book was supposed to be funny.  Pretty soon we were paying no heed to the book, because Fr. James had unintentionally stolen the show.  And we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Friday evening Fr. James resumed his place at the reader’s stand, and to our unbelieving ears he repeated the very same pages from the evening before.  He tripped over the very same long words, and once more he turned Brysen’s humor into a solemn narrative.  It was a real tour de force, like an actor in a play, back by popular demand.  He had us under his spell, and it was one of the most entertaining readings we’d heard in years.

After dinner one of the monks gently broke the news to Fr. James.  To his credit, Fr. James took it well, though he was astonished that he could do such a thing.  And for the rest of us, the good news was two-fold: both Fr. James and we had grown in mutual charity, and we weren’t going to have to listen to that passage a third time.

In his Rule Saint Benedict asks the monks to pray daily for confreres who are away on a journey.   One obvious aim is that the monk be safe, and a second is that the journey be a success.  Equally important, I think, is the hope that after fifty years a monk won’t return home crazy, only to find that his confreres had become impossible to live with while he was gone.

Actually, that’s not such a bad prayer for anyone — be they spouses or friends.  Happily, in the case of Fr. James and us monks, our prayers have been answered.  At least for now.  And that’s why we will pray again tomorrow.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Private Mass chapel, Abbey Church

Monastery notes

On January 28th we celebrated the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas.   Fr. Mark presided at the Eucharist, and his homily began with a bit of wisdom that we all accept:  people enter the monastery for one reason, but stay for another.  And the reasons for remaining evolve as we mature.  That, of course, is the secret to the success of any relationship, marriage included.  If you married someone because they were young and lovely at twenty-one, for example, it might be good to find some other qualities in your spouse for they day when they reach the ripe old age of twenty-two.

Fr. Mark then went on to point out what many don’t realize: Thomas Aquinas was not called to be a Benedictine at Monte Cassino, but his parents likely were.  They were the ones who brought him to the monastery’s school when he was five, and they expected that he would eventually become a monk, and in time the abbot.  His uncle was already the abbot, and in the days of nobility young Thomas could reasonably expect to succeed to that office.

But in the course of his education Thomas discovered that the monastery was not the place for him.  Against the wishes of his parents, he entered an upstart group called the Dominicans, and thus began a career in which Thomas developed as one of the leading intellects of Europe.

What particularly caught Thomas’ imagination was Aristotle and the Arab and Jewish scholars who studied that pagan Greek philosopher.  In the thirteenth century scholasticism had begun to draw the leading Christian minds in the West, much to the dismay of monastic circles.  For a thousand years patristic theology had held sway in both the Orthodox East and the Latin West, and no more so than in Benedictine monasteries.  It was a wisdom tradition, and it relied for its inspiration on the writers of the early Church.  The rational approach of the scholastics seemed to them to destroy the mystery of God.  But even worse, in an age that revered tradition, scholasticism was new.  Doing anything new was enough to get you into a lot of trouble.

Had Thomas remained at Monte Cassino, he likely would have enjoyed a successful career as abbot.  But the odds of becoming Europe’s leading theologian were slim.  The Dominicans had stolen the theological thunder of the monks, and Thomas blossomed in that intellectual environment.

There’s no record as to whether the monks at Monte Cassino were sorry to see Thomas go.  His parents were certainly upset; but it wasn’t their life, and it wasn’t their vocation.  Thomas flourished, however, and today we revere him as a doctor of the Church.

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Abbey of Montserrat

First and Last Impressions

You may have read the story of  the street musician who played in a D.C. Metro station in 2007.  To all appearances he was just another struggling artist, eeking out an existence on tips and an occasional word of encouragement.  That day he played six Bach pieces, as 2,000 people hurried by.  No adults paused to listen, and several children who tried to stop were dragged off unceremoniously by their parents.  At the end of an hour, he packed up his violin, pocketed $32 in tips, and walked off without a hint of applause.

Years ago, when I had the privilege of hearing Joshua Bell play with the Minnesota Orchestra, he got a standing ovation, and not just because Minnesotans are nice, and not just because he was dressed to the nines.  No doubt Bell had gotten the same response in Boston, where he had performed just days before his D.C. Metro concert.  And no doubt he played just as well in Washington.  But no one would pay $100 to hear a guy in a baseball cap and flannel shirt play Bach in a crowded Metro station.  It just wasn’t what you would expect.  No wonder the adults walked on by.

That experiment in Washington points up the conditioning that we all experience as we grow up.  In this instance it was the children who ignored the clothing and the setting, and they realized instinctively that they were hearing something extraordinary.  The adults, by contrast, were swayed by the packaging.  A life-time of advertising and peer pressure had prepared them for this moment.  Like most of us, they looked at the veneer and judged by appearances; and that day Joshua Bell looked every bit the down-on-his-luck street musician.

Obvious issues arise from this experiment, and not least among them is prejudice toward people we scarcely know.  How often do we close ourselves to others, to our own detriment?  How often do we let appearances dictate to us, rather than rely on our personal experience of someone?

Our Lady of Montserrat, in the cloister at Saint John’s Abbey

“First impressions” are yet one more angle to consider.  In the monastery, as in life, we tend to pigeonhole people.  On the basis of one single encounter we consign people to a predetermined future.  “This person will be great,” and “that person will never amount to anything.”  “This woman can do no wrong,” while “that guy is doomed to be an inept failure.”  When we do this to each other, neither person grows.  When communities do this, the negative predictions are often self-fulfilling

One of my favorite parables involves the householder who goes to the storage room and brings forth old things and new.  I’ve always thought that those old and new things are often one and the same.  How surprising it always is when someone whom we thought to be a “no-talent” shines in a new situation.  What a shock it is when a good idea comes from someone we always considered dumber than dirt.  It’s only then when we realize how we constrain one another with straightjackets, and we make people wear them for a lifetime.  And sometimes we even put them on ourselves, and wear them proudly.

Saint Benedict encourages the abbot to seek counsel from everyone, and even from those deemed least wise (i.e.: the young.)  He never wanted any brother to be type-cast for a lifetime, because each brother has a stash of talents that someday might come in handy.

And that’s an encouraging note for us all to consider.  For those who think they can only do one thing in life, they probably need to go back to the storage locker and find out what other talents they have hidden in there.  For those who think they peaked too soon (at thirty?), they should wonder why God gave them all those extra years.  The answer is that God gives us those years to continue our voyage of discovery.  And when we find ourselves passing a world-class musician and fail to stop, then our time for growth may be up.  But then again, if we can become like little children, filled with wonder and curiosity and openness, we might just prepare ourselves to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The choir in the Parliament of Catalonia

Personal Notes

On January 20th I spoke as part of a program at the Hatcher Graduate Library of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.  That evening a long-time friend of the University of Michigan presented a Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library.  Coincidentally, members of the donor’s family had attended the monastery school of Tepeyec, the Abbey in Mexico City founded by monks from Saint John’s.

On January 22nd I celebrated Mass and preached at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, CA.  The following evening I spoke at a service in the Cathedral, marking a week of activities to promote Christian unity.

The Benedictine Volunteer Corps: The Abbey of Montserrat

The Benedictine Volunteer Corps was established several years ago to give recent alumni of Saint John’s University an opportunity to live and work in a Benedictine community somewhere in the world.  The volunteers assist in the work of those monasteries, and today the program supports volunteers in North and South America, Africa and Europe.  All complete the program with a cultural enrichment they never anticipated, and I am happy to say that four of our monks in formation are graduates of this program.

The pictures in this posting all relate to the Abbey of Montserrat, located just a few miles outside of the city of Barcelona.  This year alumnus Andrew Stevens teaches English to the students of the Abbey boyschoir, which is among the most venerable in Europe.

Montserrat was founded around 1025, and over time it developed as the spiritual center of the region of Catalonia.  It has been famous as a pilgrimage destination for centuries, and even today visitors flock to venerate the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat.

Montserrat has a long and distinguished history, and among the highlights was Abbot Garcias de Cisneros (1455-1510), an advocate of the spiritual practice called the devotio moderna.  While Ignatius Loyola visited Montserrat, he read the abbot’s book entitled “Exercises on the Spiritual Life,” and it had a profound impact on the Jesuit founder.  (You didn’t really think that he came up with the title of his own book all by himself, did you?)

During the Spanish Civil War twenty-two monks from the community were executed, a few of them while waiting on a dock in the harbor of Barcelona.  Following the war the monks of Saint John’s gave material assistance to the monks of Montserrat, and today a replica of Our Lady of Montserrat sits in the cloister at Saint John’s — a gift from our confreres in Catalonia.  Even later, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library microfilmed the manuscript collections in the library at Montserrat.

Andrew reports that the view from his room is as breathtaking as these pictures would seem to indicate.  Also included is a picture of his students, on a visit to the chambers of the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona.

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Christ seated in majesty, Abbey recreation room

A Drive through Country Music

I’m not sure when my love of country music first began, but it blossomed on my drive through the Nevada desert in 2003.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of that experience, you should, because the landscape there is hauntingly beautiful.  It can also be desperately lonely, and for miles on end a run up and down the radio dial can yield a grand total of one choice.  This choice invariably will be country, and this is a great blessing.  I have this nagging suspicion that as much as I might like Chopin, country music is a livelier companion on a desert highway.

I was reminded of my respect for country lyrics last Saturday, when I heard a refrain come belting over the airwaves:  “I turned out to be the only hell my momma raised.”  How could you possibly compare that to a current favorite from another genre:  “Baby, baby, baby, …baby. Baby.”  There’s no comparison at all, of course, and they’re not even in the same league.  Just put that baby song alongside this:  “I still miss you, baby, but my aim’s getting better.”

The latter was on a list of top country songs for 2007, and it was a close #8 to some other inspirational ditties:  “If the phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me”; and “I liked you better before I got to know you so well”; and “I’m so miserable without you, it’s like you’re still here”; and “My wife ran off with my best friend, and I sure do miss him.”  Still better is a personal favorite from another vintage:  “You were number one in my life till you number two’d on me.”  And then there’s the song about the woman whose successful husband ran off with a trophy wife.  She sued him, and “now she’s cryin’ those Cadillac tears.”  Can you imagine a pop song that took three sentences to make its point?

Human relationships aren’t the only topic of country, because there’s dogs and hunting, cars, alcoholism, trouble with the law, and unemployment.  If there’s an experience you’ve been through, there’s a song for you.  And therein is the inherent value of country music (besides the catchy beats, which I can count on to keep me awake through long stretches of the desert.)

In case you wonder what this has to do with prayer or the spiritual life, consider this.  All too often we think of religious life as all sweetness and light.  In fact, the truly religious person brings everything to God.  We’re not fooling God if we only pray about the good things and give thanks for how great we are.  God knows better, and so should we.

Saint Benedict, Abbey cloister walk

For centuries the Psalms have been the backbone of Christian prayer, and for still longer in the Jewish tradition.  But for those new to praying the Psalter, those bits of poetry can be off-putting.  Sure, there are moments of love and delight that show through, but there are also the cursing Psalms and those that reflect personal loss and anguish.  Some hesitate to recite them, as if they were unworthy of God.  But three thousand years ago they were an accurate reflection of human experience, and they remain so today.

In his Rule Saint Benedict recommends that his monks recite all 150 psalms in a week.  He’s aware of other traditions that prescribe the entire Psalter in a day, but I suspect he wanted monks to reflect on the words they recite, and let them speak to their own emotional experience.  You can take my word for it that there are sinners and saints in the monastery, just like everywhere else.  And more often than not, the sinners and saints are one and the same.

Some wags have suggested that the Psalms are a window into bronze age spirituality.  That may be, but there is no scientific evidence to suggest that our brains have grown in capacity in the last ten thousand years.  Nor have our emotional drives changed appreciably.  And so it is appropriate that we approach the altar of the Lord with our whole selves, warts and all.  We all bring to God a range of emotional experiences, and like the lyrics of country music, the Psalms speak to them all.

Path to the Guesthouse

Personal notes

We never did get the White  Christmas we had hoped for, and our brown Christmas was quite unlike what we used to know.  Throughout the Christmas season it was wonderfully warm in Minnesota — all the way through January 10th, when we reached a high of 52.  That day people played golf and ran outside in shorts and t-shirts.  Winter returned with a flourish the next day, and so did the snow.

The Crucifixion, by Jerry Bonnet, lobby of Abbey chapter house

Over Christmas two friends sent me the Christmas album of Libera, an English boyschoir whose music I find absolutely ethereal.  I first saw and heard them on the BBC program called Songs of Praise, which visits churches around the United Kingdom.  Unlike most other choirs of boys, this group will make use of orchestral accompaniment, and the result leaves  you breathless.  I recommend each and every one of their albums.  That combination of young voices and orchestra leads me to hope for other innovative partnerships.  In an age of fusion cuisine and jazz fusion, is it too much to pine for the day when the choir of Kings College Cambridge releases its sublime rendition of “I Met All My Wives in Pick-up Trucks”?

On February 24-26 I will deliver a retreat in the Abbey guesthouse entitled “A Path through Holy Week: a Meditation on Seven Days.”  For further informaton please visit the Abbey web site, go to the guesthouse, and look for Retreats.

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The Lake Wobegon Trail: Highway to Excellence?

The Quest for the Ordinary

It has been many years since Garrison Keillor trekked to the studios of Minnesota Public Radio at Saint John’s.  In my first years in the monastery, Keillor was a familiar figure on our campus, and a Prairie Home Companion was a daily event.  Back then the sponsors were a bit more eccentric, but consistent through the years has been the character of Lake Wobegon, the mythic town which neighbors Saint John’s.  Then, as now, all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average.

I used to think that this must be an exceptional place, until I recently recalled its sister-city in New England, Stepford.  In Stepford all the women are lovely, all the children are obedient, and all the men are heavily bruised from pinching themselves all day.  Then the light bulb came on, and I began to wonder if average people are an endangered species in America.  If they aren’t yet, they will be soon.  The overabundance of superlative grandchildren argues that in our lifetime the average kid will go the way of the polar bear.

No business, no institution and no person wants to be thought of as merely average any more.  You need only look at the ubiquitous persuit of excellence to realize where we are headed.  Universities have Centers for Excellence in Everything, and companies have eighteen-point plans to achieve excellence in the mail room.  Excellence is the buzz-word which drives us all,  and it will continue to do so until someone points out that excellence has become the new Gentleman’s C.  Then we will all stampede in pursuit of some new fantasy of self-delusion.

The fact of the matter is, we are a people obsessed with image, and in the pursuit of persona we are subject to the same inflationary spiral that sometimes bedevils the economy.  To cite but one example, there was  a time when a young actress aspired to be a starlet.  Then “star” became de rigueur.  But one glance at the award shows reveals that it is the superstars that radiate above the galaxies of stars.  What’s next?  So far only Dame Edna has staked a claim to Megastar, but you see where this is headed.

Given all this hoopla over excellence, has the Church made a terrible mistake when it begins Ordinary Time on January 10th?  Is it not demeaning to invite an entire population of overachievers to live in ordinary time?  Just hours after Saint Valentine has banished Saint Nicholas from the stores, and when the Easter Bunny is only days away from hopping down the bunny trail, has Christianity once again failed to stir the imagination?

In his Rule for Monasteries, and in his biography by Gregory the Great, it is the ordinary which seems to grab Saint Benedict’s attention.  He doesn’t schedule any big Christmas bashes; and as for Lent, he writes that our entire lives should be a Lenten obsevance.  While he certainly is aware of the cycle of seasons and the liturgical year, it’s the daily grind that transforms us.  It’s the task of seeing Christ in one another, on the weekdays, that is life’s biggest challenge.  It is the monotony of showing up for prayer and work, day in and day out, that is far more taxing.  That’s what really tests the metal of the monk.  It’s on those days when we see any real progress in the spiritual life; while the feasts are merely the bookends in life.

So what should be our resolution for Ordinary Time?  I would contend that it is the ordinary which is most important.  It is in the ordinary that we see the hand of God stirring the pot, whether it be in our neighbor or in the routine of our lives.  To discount these moments in favor of the few super-blowout-days in the year is to miss the greatest gifts God has in store for us.

But what about the pursuit of excellence?  Well, I for one have chosen to exit from the overcrowded highway to excellence.  In 2012 I’ve set my sights on nothing short of eminence.

The Nativity, icon by Aidan Hart, Abbey church

Monastery notes

Today, January 9th, marks the last day of the Christmas season, no matter what the malls may have said last week.  By sunset the trees in the monastery will be down, and the decorations will once again be in storage.  The three magi will have made their visit to the new-born savior, and many of us will begin our atonement for the cakes and candies that modern magi have brought.

On January 2nd, the feast of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazienzen, I celebrated the Abbey Mass.  While Basil in particular was an important influence on Saint Benedict, I opted to preach on the gospel of the day from John 1: 19-28.  You may read that sermon, Who are you? John the Baptist’s Response, in Presentations.

The Epiphany, Abbey church

During the Christmas holidays we began a new book in the Abbey refectory: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  For those  unfamiliar with Bryson’s work, I’m happy to say that you have some wonderful reading ahead of  you.  I had already read this book, and before that I had gone through two others by Bryson:  The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away.  From my perspective his dry wit and spare writing style are nothing short of hilarious at times.  While Saint Benedict discourages laughter in the monastery, one evening the reader choked on his own laughter, and soon most of us yielded to uncontrolled laughter.  At that point the abbot rang the bell, and that was the end of table reading for that evening.  I recommend Bill Bryson highly, but merely for your reading pleasure and not for your spiritual edification.

Years ago someone ruined my Christmas holiday by giving me Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  I spent all of my free-time reading it, only to emerge bleary-eyed for church and for meals.  I spent this Christmas in 18th-century Russia, reading Robert Massie’s new book, Catherine the Great.  I had enjoyed two of his previous books: Peter the Great, and Nicholas & Alexandra, and this book is equally fascinating.  When a German-born empress (Elizabeth) names her German-born nephew (Peter) her heir, and then marries him to a German-born wife (Catherine), you logically assume that you would not be in Russia.  Wrong.  Though Catherine did close several hundred monasteries, that’s as close as this book comes to the topic of monastic spirituality.  But if  you want to be glad you’re alive today, read this terrific book.

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Our Lady of Tenderness, icon by Fr. Nathanael Hauser, OSB

Resolutions for a New Year

The new year got off to an auspicious start for me.  My short list of resolutions had included promptness at prayer, and there I was, walking into the Abbey church at 7 am, just as the bell tolled.  But the world was not ready for this, and neither were my confreres.  The church was dark and the choir stalls were empty, because morning prayer was scheduled to begin at 8:30 am.  I know that now because at 7:02 I read it on the bulletin board.  I realized only then that I should have added “awareness of the schedule” to my list of resolutions.

New Year’s is the one time when we permit ourselves to act utterly ridiculous for a little bit, and it’s also the time when we indulge in those resolutions that we forget about in a day or two.  This is all rather sad, because some of those resolutions can be really useful.  If, for example, I had added “remember all my passwords” to my list a year ago, I would not have had such a bad day last Thursday.  That was the day my cell phone emailed me with the cheery reminder that my data plan was set to expire.  But all would be well if I just keyed in my password and filled in the required information.  How simple is that?

As generally crafted, New Year’s resolutions are a bit of a Trojan horse.  In theory, good things should always happen, if we follow through on them.  But since we generally ignore them, the one really consistent reward we get is guilt.   And so it might be wiser to make resolutions that take into account the likelihood of failure.  Why not capitalize on that tendency and create a win-win scenario?  How about a resolve that reads: “Gain a few pounds”?  If you do gain weight over the next twelve months, at least you can take satisfaction from your successful follow-through.  And if you fail miserably and even lose weight, well, at least you tried.  In that spirit lots of good resolutions come to mind, like “Procrastinate more” or “Be a little less reliable.”

Of course one drawback is that such resolutions don’t fit into a corporate mentality that insists we adopt goals that are measurable.  So perhaps we can go a step in that direction with a commitment to eat fast food at least six times a week.  Or not eat brussels sprouts  — not one, ever.  The latter would set me up for sure-fire failure, since they are my favorite vegetable.

But while we’re at it, might it be even better to formulate these in the language of corporate goals?  How about if I were to adopt sloth as a core value this year?  What harm would that do, especially if you fell far short of success?  Or what about poor hygene as a core value?  Have you ever wondered why corporations and institutions deliberately exclude cleanliness from their core values?  Is it because of its long association with Godliness?  Do they fear offending the agnostics in their ranks?  This year why not adopt personal sloppiness as a core value, just to please the company.  And if you fail, well you can just resign yourself to a life of cleanliness and be a religious martyr at the same time.

New Year’s resolutions are an alien concept to Saint Benedict, I suppose, because his new year began with the First Sunday of Advent.  The liturgical calendar was far more important, but even then the time for introspection was Lent.  Life was to be a Lenten observance, and the central goal was an intense self-awareness.  In the 14th century Thomas a Kempis in his Imitation of Christ proposed a daily examination of conscience, again for the purpose of sharpening one’s sense of progress in the spiritual life.  His was among the first of the self-help manuals in western culture, and like Benedict the goal was not to load people down with guilt because of failure.  Rather, they both sought a vitality that led to greater union with God and love of neighbor.

It’s rather odd that people today will haul all kinds of self-help tomes home from the bookstore but hesitate to engage in regular self-inventory.  Maybe that’s why we are so reluctant to follow through on the resolutions we make.  And it’s ironic, becuase when it comes to an investment portfolio people will glue themselves to the daily financial reports.  And corporations will keep daily if not hourly tabs on their sales.  And so at the end of the day Target can tell you how many tubes of Crest with Extra Whitener they sold that day.  Meanwhile we are too tired or don’t care to see the point of reflecting on our own life that day.  But to paraphrase the gospels, is not your life worth more than one tube of toothpaste?

Monastery notes

On January 1st we celebrated the feast of Mary Mother of God — Theotokos in the Greek tradition.  The members of the community were delighted to see the enthronement of a new icon, painted by our confrere Fr. Nathanael Hauser.  It was carefully placed on a stand at the foot of the abbot’s throne, and even from the back of the church one’s eyes easily caught the figure of Madonna and Child, outlined in gold.  Known as Our Lady of Tenderness, the icon adds a fine touch of solemnity to our path through the Christmas season.

Fr. Jonathan (with saw), Br. Benedict, and fallen maple

Last summer’s storms sent one large sugar maple crashing to the ground near the monastery.  That was a not so subtle hint that we should never take the health of our trees for granted, because they can do great damage when ignored.  In the ensuing weeks the arborists began a careful examination of the trees in the monastic garden.  This last week several trees got severe prunings, but one old maple was deemed too far gone to save.  It had stood with its twin, framing our view of the lake, since they were planted around 1895.  Both were majestic, but one had to go after losing a giant limb last summer.  Sadly, a number of squirrels have lost a good home and an ample source of food.  But we have plenty of other trees for them, and for at least a little while the trunk, measuring four and a half feet in diameter, will provide a great perch from which to view the lake.

In November we observed the fifth anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey guesthouse.  By any measure it has been a great success, exceeding our fondest hopes.  Since its opening over 19,000 guests have spent the night there, while others have come for quiet days of reflection, for spiritual direction, or simply to enjoy the serene beauty of the surroundings.

The Guesthouse patio, with a touch of new snow

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