Archive for March, 2012

Santiago Compostela

The Ascetic Olympics

There’s something about Lent that brings out the competitive spirit in some people.  They will give up all sorts of things and make sure that everyone knows about it.  Still others take on special projects, and strangely enough these have to be done when everyone else is watching.  So goes the spirit of competitive self-denial; and anyone can do it — which is why it will never become an olympic sport.

Of course this is nothing new in the Christian tradition, nor is it absent in Judaism, for that matter.  Jesus himself cautioned against those who made a public display of their austerity, and he urged those who wanted to make a spectacle of themselves to go and do it quietly, away from the public gaze.  But that never stopped those who were fiercely determined to make a name for themselves in the spiritual arena.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers abound with such stories.  Gathered and written down over several centuries, these often pithy statements detail the wisdom of the monks and nuns of the Egyptian desert, the heartland of Christian monasticism.  They provide fascinating vignettes of remarkably astute people.  But they  mince no words in pointing out spiritual foibles when they encounter them.

I’m not at all sure that fifth-century monks in Egypt really admired the monk who stood for all of Lent, for example.  And while they may have revered the monk who fasted for all of Lent, few cared to imitate him.  Then there is the story of the monk who never bathed, and who longed to be a martyr.  But since the government had stopped persecuting Christians decades earlier, he threw himself into a pit of hungry hyenas, who promptly had nothing to do with him.  That’s always suggested to me that even hyenas have standards; and I suspect that the monks of that day felt pretty much the same way.

One of the more amusing stories that entertained us at evening prayer many years ago involved a monk who spied a group of nuns approaching him on the road.  To avoid sullying his gaze with the sight of women, he threw himself into the ditch and covered his face.  Once they had safely passed, he got up, dusted himself off, and walked on proudly.  But just before he was out of range, the abbess yelled out to him: “If you were a real monk, you  never would have even noticed that we were women.”

A last example comes from Palestine, where St. Simon Stylites lived on a pillar for forty years.  In his day he earned respect as a holy man and sage, and even the emperor sought his  advice.  But he was only one of many pillared ascetics, and here you begin to sniff out the basic flaw in ascetic competition.  If someone is holy because they sit on a pillar for twenty years, then someone up there for twenty-one  years must be even holier.  Or alternatiively, in my estimation, they must be even nuttier. But who am I to judge, especially since I am afraid of heights?

Given all this, you can appreciate why Saint Benedict discouraged his monks from excessive public displays of asceticism.  It is a fine line that separates asceticism from eccentricity; and more than a few monks have become excessively proud of their humility.

So where does that leave us when we consider giving stuff up for Lent?  Well, I think we need to factor in motivation as a key issue.  Were I to give up cigars (which I never have smoked) or merlot (which I don’t particularly enjoy), I would have to question my objectives pretty seriously.  And if I give up something I really like, so that I can go on about it endlessly at cocktail parties, I’m not likely to gain much in the eyes of God either.

But there are solid reasons for asceticism during Lent.  In fact, one of the few and best reasons for giving up champagne or cheesecake or anything else I truly crave is to admit that it is God who is truly supreme in my life.  Saint Benedict urges the monk to prefer nothing to the work of God, and giving up ice cream may very well be the best way for you to say that.

I think that if Saint Benedict ever found out that one of his monks was outside sitting on a pillar, he would put down his book and would go out and shake that pillar until the monk finally came down.  As far as he was concerned, eccentric behavior was not the path to holiness, because it remained eccentric behavior, pure and simple.  And at the end of the day mysogeny was still mysogeny for the desert ascetics, and there was no way to transform it into a virtue.

Real virtue comes in the acknowledgement that God is with us, and that the Divine is present  in our neighbor and in ourselves.  Let nothing, not even a good sauvignon blanc , be preferred to the love of God and neighbor.  And Lent may very well be a good time to show that in your very private acts of asceticism.

Monastery of Saint Martin

Monastery notes

+Today’s post begins with three photographs from the great shrine of Santiago Compostela in northwestern Spain.  In the Middle Ages it became enormously popular, and pilgrims from throughout Europe made the long trek for penitential and other reasons.  Today the baroque facade greets visitors, while the Romanesque sculptures in the interior remain intact and are among the finest in Europe.  My personal favorite has always been a 12th-century stone carving of the prophet Daniel, who smiles down to greet visitors as they pass through the Portico de Gloria.  Unfortunately he was under restoration and behind a screen when I visited there a year ago.

In the 11th and 12th centuries  the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy founded a network of monasteries to serve pilgrims along the entire route to Santiago, and Benedictine monks even staffed the shrine itself.  Eventually the monks in Compostela moved to an adjacent site, where they established the Abbey of Saint Martin.  Today their buildings still stand, but the community did not survive the Napoleonic Wars in Spain.  The Benedictine nuns did survive in a monastery that sits on the other side of the cathedral, and years ago I stayed as their guest when I did dissertation research in Spain.

Another singular feature of the modern shrine is the giant four-foot tall censor that hangs from the ceiling.  A system of pulleys and ropes allow four people to hoist it up and swing it in giant arcs aross the transcept.  It is a thrill to see it in action.

+On Friday March 23rd we celebrated the Mass of Christian burial for our confrere, Fr. Hugh Witzman.  At 84 years he had lived a long and full life, working primarily as a teacher in the art department at Saint John’s University.  He delighted in creating large bronze sculptures, which today adorn churches throughout the upper midewest.  His statue of the Egyptian ascetic Saint Anthony of the Desert presides today in Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University

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Canterbury Cathedral: Martyrdom of Saint Stephen

A couple of years ago I visited the Coptic monastery of Saint Macarios at Wadi Natrun, in the desert outside of Cairo.  I was with a group of pilgrims from the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and we were completing a journey that had begun in Jerusalem.  From there we had gone through Jordan, and on to Cairo via the venerable monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.  At Saint Macarios we entered a monastery founded in 360, where today a flourishing community of monks lives in a mix of ancient and modern buildings.

While I personally prefer to live in more modern structures, it’s always nice to see people making use of the old ones too.  At Saint Macarios the latter category includes two ancient churches and a stone-arched gate that had first welcomed pilgrims and returning monks nearly 1,100 years ago.   Things get lost in Egypt all the time, however, and archeologists count on this to stay in business.  In this instance it was the gate that had gone missing.  But after seven hundred years a monk was digging in the sand recently, and voila, there it was.  Now the gate is back in business, though the monastery has grown up around it and so it no longer serves as the entry point.

Canterbury: gate to the cathedral precincts

At first I thought this was a pretty charming story.  But then the big question popped up in my practical American brain: how in the world do you lose a twelve-foot arch for seven hundred years?  At the very least, this does not reflect well on the stewardship of the abbey maintenance department.  And if it was not those monks’ responsibility, then it certainly casts a shadow over abbey housekeeping.  How can sand and dirt build up to the point where  you haven’t been able to find the front door for seven hundred years?  Maybe the performance appraisals for the housekeepers should have included one of those helpful but often-underutilized questions, such as: “Did you lose anything important during the past year — like the kitchen? Or the front door?  If so, please be specific in your answer.”

I’m sure losing the front gate was not as simple as it sounds.  The sands shift relentlessly in Egypt, and before you know it, things go missing.  After two or three hundred years of this, even great big things can go missing.  And for that reason I’m willing to give the housekeeper-monks at Saint Macarios the benefit of the doubt.  But the novice who found the gate deserves more than a medal.  He should be put in charge of all the stuff they’d prefer not to lose.

Canterbury: the choir screen

Last week a reader in London wrote to say that for the second half of Lent she had given up on all the things she had given up during the first half of Lent.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t take it anymore.  Rather, it was her kids and friends that couldn’t take it anymore.  Her very success had made her one of the crankiest people in her neighborhood, so she decided to go to daily Mass instead.  After only two or three days of this, everyone’s mood improved measurably.  You have to applaud self-awareness such as this, because that’s the real point of Lent.

The fact of the  matter is that the sands of time affect us all, and they affect each of us differently.   They can wear away all the wonderful ideals that we had accumulated over the years.  They can mar our finish or bury us, to such an extent that we become the crusty battleaxes that we assume only exist in television sit-coms.  None of us set out to become such people, but if we don’t check for the bad habits and bad attitudes that often come with time, that’s where we end up.

But Lent can serve as a good spring-cleaning — which in  fact Lent is intended to be.  Like the young monk who dug in the sand at Wadi Natrun and found something really lovely and useful, so our personal exploration of self can often uncover inner qualities that we had long since shelved away.  We can find virtues and gifts that we thought we had lost years ago.

Lent is intended to be our time for personal renewal.  There’s still more than enough time to get started, and who knows what wonderful things we might unearth within ourselves in the next few days?  Perhaps we might even rediscover that Christ is alive in us after all.  What a pleasant surprise that might be!

February 1889: horses pull sleds of firewood across Lake Sagatagan

Notes from Saint John’s

+On March 15th we were entertained by a concert by the Drake University Choir.  Their voices were supported by those of the Saint John’s Boys’ Choir.

+Last week we mourned the passing of our confrere, Fr. Patrick McDarby, who died at the age of 84.  He was a remarkable teacher of English and writing, and he was also a master Latinist.  Fittingly, we celebrated his funeral on the feast of Saint Patrick, his nameday.

+This evening, March 19th, Professor Bernard McGinn of the University of Chicago will deliver a lecture at Saint John’s, entitled “Three Benedictine Mystics.”  The lecture comes in anticipation of the feast of Saint Benedict, which we monks celebrate on March 21st.

Personal notes:

+On March 13th I spoke to the Legatus group of Des Moines, IA, on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.

+Today, March 19th, I will celebrate Mass and speak at the monthly meeting of the Order of Malta in San Francisco.

+Those who travel a lot have their own tales of woe, and they all hint that the glamour went out of travel years ago.  This last week it was my turn to have a hideous experience.  First off, my plane from Minneapolis to San Francisco arrived three and a half hours late.  On arrival in San Francisco, we were greeted in the jetway by six police officers.  It turned out that three passengers had won free trips to the pokey, in recognition of meritorious behavior en route.  Unfortunately for them, the bar would be close in their new accomodations.

For every tale of woe, however, there are lighter moments.  On March 17th I was surprised to discover that the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in San Francisco was assembling outside the building where I was staying.  This was something I could not miss, and I walked the entire length of the assembling paradesters.  It was chaos.  Bands practiced, oblivious to the frenzied preparations around them.  Floats of sheetmetal workers and electrical workers celebrated in their traditional ways.  And twenty bagpipers drove others crazy as they rehearsed individual tunes.  But as far as I was concerned, the prize went to one little three-year-old.  As he beheld all this confusion, at the top of his little lungs he belted out that favorite Saint Patrick’s Day ditty:  “Jingle bells, jingle bells….”

Abbey of Saint Stephen, Caen, France

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The Cathedral of Leon, Spain

“Let your life be like an observance of Lent” — Saint Benedict

If you had one week to live, how would you spend it?  We’ve all read stories of people who’ve gotten the bad news, thrown caution to the wind, and then frantically tried to cram a life-time of living into a few days.

That is the subject of one of my favorite movies: Last Holiday, starring Queen Latifah.  In it she plays Georgia Byrd, a New Orleans sales clerk who had worked hard all her life and had time for little else — or so she thought.  She looked forward to the day when everything would be perfect.  But for now life was a constant grind — a book filled with unrealized dreams.

Christ in Majesty, Cathedral of Leon

Day after day she brushed aside the opportunities that came her way, until one day she got the dreadful news.  She had only weeks to live.  Hit hard by reality, she dropped everything to live the dream she had always put off.

There’s more to the movie than that, but it’s enough to say that her life was transformed.  And that transformation happened just before she learns that her death-sentence was in fact a misdiagnosis.  But by then it was too late to put life back in the box.  She had come to realize a wonderful truth: you need not wait until you are at death’s door to start living.

In his Rule Saint Benedict asks the monks to keep death daily before their eyes, and years ago we stumbled on a very literal way of doing it.  We had converted the attic into additional housing, and as we moved in we still lacked several pieces of furniture.  Little by little we found them, until we were down to one last item: in the television room we had no stand on which to enshrine the sacred box.  We were resigned to making something, when one monk remembered an extra wooden coffin in the carpenter shop.  Sure enough, it worked beautifully, until the day when someone finally had need of it.  But in the meantime, the more television we watched, the more we kept death daily before our eyes.  What good monks we were in those days.

I imagine there are a lot of people who must think that the monastic life is some sort of vale of tears, or at least a trail of tedium.  And Saint Benedict doesn’t help the cause when he writes that a monk’s life should be like a Lenten observance, on top of keeping death daily before our eyes.  To the casual reader this sounds absolutely depressing, and to the average Christian it doesn’t seem like this particular path to God is terribly rewarding.  But looks can be deceiving, especially when your observations are based on one or two sound bytes.

Stained Glass, Cathedral of Leon

You can better appreciate what Benedict means if you look at the larger context of the Rule.  Saint Benedict is dead-set against depression and unhappiness, because his goal is union with God.  And that union should happen here, and not just in the hereafter.  Joy is what he’s after, and the monk should experience that joy now, and not  years later, when he’s dead.  At that point it’s just a little late to be making plans.  And I would submit that this course of action applies to non-monks just as well as it does to monks.

If you’ve been putting off going to your own version of Disneyland, or if you’re waiting to tell your spouse or kids that you love them, don’t put it off until you’re practically dead.  If you do it today, it can be a lot more fun, and you’ll have the strength to enjoy it.  And if you’re not paying attention to life’s challenges each day, then you will likely leave an awful lot of things undone as you commence on your grand departure.

And that goes double for our observance of Lent.  Lent is all about taking an inventory of our lives and where we are going — or not going.  If we choose not to pursue our dreams, then that is sad, both for monks and for everybody else.  Saint Benedict suggests that monks  don’t get many second chances so they must live with awareness and intensity.   They should keep their eyes and their minds open, and they should act as if today may be their last day.  And if that were true for you, how would you want to spend it?

The Abbey Bell Banner, in warmer times

Personal notes

+Three images from the cathedral in Leon, Spain, illustrate this post.   The cathedral had no monastic connection, but it occupies a fond niche in my own memory.  Years ago, as a graduate student, I spent most of a summer in Leon doing research on my dissertation.  The cathedral was by far the coolest building in town, in both senses of the word.  Summers in Spain are hot, but the cathedral’s cool interior provided a wonderful haven each afternoon.  Its stained glass is among the finest Spain.

+On March 7th I and Fr. Bob Koopmann, president of Saint John’s University, attended an alumni and friends picnic in Tucson, AZ.  The University’s baseball team joined us, along with many parents who had flown in to see them win all of their spring training games.  Arizona clearly agreed with the team.

+On March 9th Fr. Bob and I attended a luncheon for alumni and friends of Saint John’s in Scottsdale.  The featured speaker, Joe Mucha, presented plans for the renovation and expansion of the athletic facilities at Saint John’s.  Last week Joe was elected to the Board of Regents — soon to become the Board of Trustees.  He was also elected vice-chair of the Board, and we wasted no time in putting him to work.

+On March 10th I gave a day of reflection for the members of the Order of Malta in the  Seattle area.

+I am in the middle of  Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which for me has been fascinating reading.  Like all of the rest of us, Job’s had his virtues and vices, but his seem to stand out in technicolor.  There is something singularly unattractive about his early years in business, and the author minces no words in describing his faults.  But at the same time Jobs had vision that changed the lives of his colleagues and most of the rest of us.  I found myself speculating on what greater good he might have achieved had he added a smidgeon of humanitarian awareness to his obvious genius.  But perhaps by the end of the book it will peep through.  Appropriately, I am reading an elecronic version of the book.

+During Lent we adapt our reading in the Abbey to suit the season.  At evening prayer we add to the regular reading from Scripture a second reading, which comes from a variety of ancient and modern authors.  At table we turn to spiritual themes.  In the refectory we are listening to “A Community Called Taize: A Story of Prayer, Worship and Reconciliation,” by Jason Santos. This revered Protestant monastery in France always makes for interesting reading, but the tone of the book may be a bit too elementary for many.  It has received mixed reviews from the monks.

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The Abbey cloister courtyard

I am non-essential

Last Tuesday evening I received official word that I am “non-essential.”  This did not come from the Abbot, nor from the president of Saint John’s University.  The edict came, instead, from some nameless face in Life Safety Services, and it reminded me of where the true power resides.

The proclamation warned of a major snowstorm, and almost ten inches of heavy wet snow did materialize.  Were I a more sensitive soul, however, I would have taken the news of my own worthlessness very personally.  But, to my surprise, I was not devastated.  For one thing, I was in very good company, because the entire faculty was deemed non-essential.  Imagine how long college presidents would last if they ever proclaimed the faculty to be irrelevant to the enterprise?  But in this case most of the faculty reacted like sheep in a lush green meadow.  There was nary a bleat of protest, within earshot anyway.

The edict also implied that an elite cabal of staff had long ago been clued in as to their essentiality.  As for the rest of us, if you merely thought you were essential, then you weren’t.  This had to hurt a few of my colleagues.  Were years of professional training merely self-indulgent preening?  Were we little better than obstacles in the way?  I can only hope that the platoons of grief counsellers were considered essential, because some of us needed them that night.

As for the students, news of a snow-day and dangerous roads are like the green flag at the Daytona Speedway.  They were off to their cars in a flash, even if they were not sure of their destinations.  Classes were out, and so were they.  As far as I know students are the only consumers in America who pay for something and then are delighted when they get neither the product nor a refund.  If I were running a business, these are the guys I would want for my customers.

In his Rule Saint Benedict is very cautious about  monks and work.  He certainly discourages overwork, and he’s keen that everyone does his fair share.  But his major concern has to do with pride.  When a monk begins to think that the community simply could not go on without his incredible talents, then it’s time for some adjustment.  He doesn’t want any one monk to live under the illusion that he is indispensible, because no one ever is.  With an attitude like that, you can guess where Benedict might weigh in on hefty CEO salaries.

An approach like this clashes with ideas on efficiency, and Benedict is aware of this.  But his teaching on food-preparation illustrates the trade-off he is willing to make.  All should take their turns in the kitchen; and even if a  monk has training at the Culinary Institute of America, it’s important that he step back into the rotation.  Here Benedict sacrifices one good — consistently great food — for a better good:  mutual dependence.  I for one can appreciate why he does this; but I’m thankful that modern monks have discreetly agreed to treat this precept as “recommendation” rather than “legislation.”

But there is something even more important that Benedict stresses, and this has to do with the intrinsic worth of each and every human being.  God created the world.  God saw the world.  And God saw that the world was good.  This is the foundation of the Jewish and Christian worldview.  It means that every person is a creation of God, and each is a temple of God’s Spirit.  As such, each has intrinsic value over and above any job they can do well or poorly.  That is the baseline for our treatment of others, and it is the thread that weaves through a healthy community.

Given that, I’m willing to admit that there are moments when emergency workers are essential, while I appear not to be.  But at the end of the day, everyone needs to recognize the value of everyone else in a community.  Clearly, for big chunks of the day, I may be non-essential, but my moment of fame eventually comes.  In the meantime, I will give the emergency people their due, because they are teachers too.  After all, both they and Jesus Christ are on the same page.  Both remind us that we are worth saving.

The winter’s harvest

The Abbey forests

The woods have always been an identifying feature of life at Saint John’s.  When the monks arrived in the 1850’s they began to harvest the trees for construction, for furniture and for fuel, but they also began a program of careful management that continues even today.

On August 2nd, 2011, a major storm roared through central Minnesota, felling a very significant number of trees.  This winter the forest managers have been clearing trails and harvesting the damaged trees, and the results have yielded some pretty impressive stacks of logs.

For people like me, who tend to see the forest rather than the trees, this has been a teachable moment.  For one thing, we’ve become aware that if we did absolutely nothing and left our woods alone, they would evolve from the current red-oak mix to a maple and basswood mix.  The red oak is great for the Abbey carpenter shop, while the maple supplies us syrup, and the basswood pollen is beloved by the bees.  So there are benefits at every turn.

Last summer’s storm was not the first major one for the woods.  Even though it toppled roughly 2% of the mature trees, it probably pales in comparison to the storm of 1896.  That one  yielded huge amounts of timber, and it led to the first recorded reforestation project in Minnesota history.

Will we ever run out of wood?  The managers estimate that our forest could sustain an annual harvest of 300,000 board feet, which sounds like an awful lot to me.  Last summer’s storm took out about 150,000 board feet; and in recent years we’ve harvested less than 50,000 per year.  So we’re in no immediate danger.

Where does all that wood go?  The scraps go to fireplaces and the pottery kiln.  But the high-quality wood goes to the Abbey carpentry shop, to be transformed into furniture for the monastery, the University and the Prep School.  But this year there was simply too much of it, and three semi-loads of quality red oak have sailed off to lumber mills in Japan.  There it will become veneer for fine furniture.

One of my favorite books, Monasticon Gallicanum, is loaded with wonderful prints of French monasteries.  I spent a delightful morning last week harvesting pictures of some of my favorite places, and in coming weeks I will pepper my posts with images from this text. In a few cases the monasteries survived the French revolution intact.  But in most cases significant portions of these massive complexes were recycled into local homes, chateaus and walls.

Abbey of St. Medard de Soissons, France

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