Archive for November, 2012

John the Baptist: The Great Hall

Prepare Ye a Way to the Mall

For logic-choppers like myself, Saturday’s internet ad was a real teaser:  “Last few days of Black Friday Weekend Specials.”  What?  Who wrote this logical conundrum?

Did this start as a one-day sale that had spun out of control?  And since when did Saturday begin to count among the “last few days” of a weekend? Did the  weekend get bigger while I wasn’t looking?  I used to imagine that Saturday was the first day of the weekend; but I’m willing to concede that it could count as the second day of Black Friday weekend.  Still, it’s a big stretch to allow it to be one of the “last few days” of the weekend.  Just how long has this weekend become?  And will the sale go beyond even that?  And who decided all this?

Abbey garden

I can recall a time when this season was a lot simpler.  The clarion call to shop was far less brazen, while the options were a little more manageable.  For me those times were epitomized by The New Yorker Magazine — back when it had a style that seems to have slipped away.

In its heyday, The New Yorker’s bloated post-Thanksgiving issues touted a dazzling array of luxury goods.  The fact that its treasures were financially and geographically beyond the reach of your average monk didn’t matter.  You might not be able to acquire, but at least you could still covet.  And who wouldn’t want a stunningly sleek motorcar or gold watches for both wrists or kilograms of diamonds?  So what if I didn’t really need these things.  It was the thought that counted; and every Advent I gazed in wonder at the tempting spread before me.  It was my own version of Satan’s temptation of Jesus — offering the whole world in return for worship.  But for me, it was structly mental.  All this should be mine, even if it couldn’t actualy be mine.

I long ago realized that my room might be big enough to hold several kilograms of diamonds and a cartload of gold watches, but I really didn’t need them.  Still, the exercise of reviewing the options had become an important annual ritual.  Each Advent the growing avalanche of gift catalogs made me aware of the fundamental choice I had to keep making each day of the year.  Was it going to be simplicity, or was it going to be a total letting go to commercialism?  Which would be my path in life?

In more recent years I’ve come to realize how glitzy and shallow this time of year has become. Certainly there’s an element of nostalgia that warms the heart, but there’s also a side that suggests that this is Mardi Gras gone wild.  It’s become an extended binge of consumption, and it’s as much about getting in on a bargain as it is about not wanting to miss out on a bargain.  One wonders whether people even know what’s in the big boxes that they tote out of the big boxes.  And perhaps in a season of thoughtless overindulgence, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters most is the amassing of goods — so-called.  Never mind that there will be a double-edged hangover.  One must eventually pay for it all, and find a place to put it all.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of grinch, since gift-giving can be an expression of much deeper sentiment.  Still, I’d like to give Saint John the Baptist his annual due.  I know good and well that he’s swimming upstream against a storm surge of products, but I’d like to remind myself that he presents to Christians a vision of an alternative reality.  Even if one is not a believer, there’s something to be said for his message.  In his appeal there’s a little bit of the “wake up and get real” and “get a grip on yourself.”  Actually, there’s quite a lot of that, because that’s the first major point of his message.  “Before it’s too late, consider where you’re going with your life.”  As you stampede through the commercial temples, consider your priorities.  Is this what your life is all about?

“Prepare a path for the Lord” is a not-so-bad reminder that sooner or later we each have to make those ultimate decisions about our character.  Is my purpose in life to be a good consumer? Do I let the trendsetters decide what’s right for me?  Do I really want to abdicate all responsibility for shaping my future?  Will I go with the flow and expect that it’s all going to turn out wonderfully?

Or will I consciously choose some direction for myself?  Will I decide that there is another dimension to me?  Does my own moral fiber matter after all — even if no one else is looking or seems to care?

For better and for worse, John the Baptist is going to nag us about this throughout the Advent season.  Of course he doesn’t have an advertizing manager, but he doesn’t really need one.  All we need do is think of him just once in a while, perhaps when we see an offer that is almost irresistible.  Perhaps when you’re just about to sign for that bucket of diamonds you can catch yourself and recall that you are worth more than an entire diamond mine.  As Jesus reminds us — and as we often forget — are we not worth more than even a sparrow?  I think so.

This year we will buy and give gifts of all sorts.  But if we can add one conscious element to the process, we might be the better for it.  For every tangible gift, present it in an intangible wrapping such as love or respect or affection.  Let that gift reflect the reality of who we are.  We, and the world, might be just a bit better because of it.

Saint Benedict and the snow

+Personal Notes

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I managed to go five days without getting into a car.  While in no way did this constitute any kind of a record for me, it was terrific to stay put at the Abbey.

What do monks do on Thanksgiving?  Well, at Saint John’s we celebrate the Eucharist at 11 am.  This year I was the primary celebrant at the Mass, which means that I had the honor of preaching.  My sense is that the sermon did not spoil the festive meal which followed.

Our Thanksgiving lunch is one every  American would recognize.  Our major differenc from routine is that the pie-makers in the community customarily prepare these delights, which we take with coffee in the lower-level recreation room of the monastery.

Thanksgiving presented quite a contrast in weather, as all Minnesotans realize that it can.  It is on the cusp of seasonal change, and in the morning a clutch of monks went out for a group run, with most wearing light jackets and one of them wearing shorts.  By 2 pm it had become a different world.  I and another monk had planned a walk, and at 1:59 pm we stepped out the door.  One minute later a burst of snowflakes made visibility beautiful but poor, and by 2:15 we were back inside.  By the next day there was a blanket of snow, and the lakes had begun to freeze over.

On Sunday, November 25th, I and two colleagues drove to Duluth to attend the diaconal ordination of Saint John’s University alumnus Tim Egan.  Tim recently retired from his practice as a psychiatrist, and in August I gave a five-day retreat at the Abbey guesthouse for him and his four fellow deacons-to-be from the Diocese of Duluth.  The ordination in the Cathedral in Duluth was a fine afternoon, made even better by the chance to visit with several friends at the reception that followed.

Tabga: courthard

+Benedictine Volunteers: Tabga

For several years Saint John’s Abbey has sponsored a volunteer program for graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Made possible through the generosity of many friends of the Abbey, as well as by our own investment of time and energy, these alumni spend a year at Benedictine communities around the world.  They live and pray with the local community and help with their work in any way they can.

The recent turmoil in the Holy Land has caused us to pray in particular for our two volunteers at Tabga, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  By tradition this is the site of the feeding of the five thousand, and elements of a Byzantine basilica remain, incluidng one lovely floor mosaic.  Today a group of Benedictines from Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem staff the small community, and our two volunteers assist with the flood of pilgrims that visit.  Happily, they have been in no real danger at Tabga, due to its remote location.  But it has been good for us to remember them in prayer.

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Thanksgiving: Thanks for What?

How could this have happened?  This thought gripped most of us monks as we filed into church that Thanksgiving morning.  Somebody had assigned Fr. Arthur to preach at the Mass for Thanksgiving Day, and not a few of the monks wondered aloud at the wisdom of this.  Long ago Fr. Arthur had achieved the status of “senior crank” in the community, and he had held the title unchallenged for years.  Our fears were not groundless.

Collegville landscape

What made it worse was the presence of so many first-time visitors in the congregation.  As a visitor myself, I should not have cared about what those people might think.  But I did.  After all, if Fr. Arthur went out and embarrassed himself, we’d all be tarred with the same brush.  No one would stay behind long enough for me to explain that I too was merely a visitor.  No, if Arthur came off as a crackpot, then none of us monks would be spared the same verdict.  I did not want a churchful of strangers to think that I too was a nut case; so I had as much at stake as the local monks.

Arthur’s opening words of the sermon did not disappoint.  “Today is Thanksgiving.  Thanks for what?” he barked out.  The latter, of course, was a rhetorical question, and his tone made clear that he intended to answer without the help of anybody in the congregation. That’s what we monks were afraid of, and we prepared for ten minutes that would seem like an hour.  And we began to plot our revenge on the monk who had assigned this guy.

But Arthur surprised us.  In fact, he stunned us by putting his cynicism to very good use.  He began by explaining how — in his mind at least — Thanksgiving had become the autumnal counterpart to the 4th of July.  “We gather to thank God that we are such a great people.  We thank God that we are prosperous and powerful and free.  We thank God that we are a city set upon a mountaintop for all the world to admire and emulate.  And we celebrate by eating way too much and watching football.”  These are not bad things, he conceded, “but they’re not what we should be thanking God for today.”

“I know wealthy people who are miserable; and I know poor people who are happy,” he went on.  Neither wealth nor poverty guarantee anythng.  Nor do power or powerlessness.  None of these things matter one whit when it comes to the value of a human being. And to thank the Almighty as if these were the best things that God had to offer is to sell God short.  These are not the gifts that God gives to distinguish between the most favoured and the least favoured.  This is not how God operates, and we shouldn’t give God credit where credit is not due.

“So for what should we be thanking God today?”  Well, it shouldn’t be for the usual things.  He then went on to list several items that I won’t repeat.  But a few I still recall well.  First off, we must thank God for the gift of our own life.  That’s even more important than the privilege of shopping or paying low prices for everything.  We should thank God for challenges.   That’s even more important than having everything in life handed to us on a silver platter.  We should thank God for the chance to make a difference in someone’s life.  That’s even more important than being left to mind my own business and care only about my own life and comfort.

Needless to say, nobody who knew Fr. Arthur expected that sort of thing from him, and least of all on Thanksgiving Day.  To our utter amazement he had put his natural cynicism to good use; and we discovered that the bedrock of his life was a deep faith in God.  God had become the measure of all things in his life, and we had never guessed it.

Sydney in springtime: Jacaranda in bloom

For what should we thank God this Thanksgiving Day?  Well, in the spirit of Fr. Arthur, I don’t plan to spend much time thanking God for prosperity and security and fire-sale prices at the mall.  Nor will I thank God for more abundance than I can handle, and for more opportunities than I can possibly take advantage of.  No, this year I think I will thank God for the really big things.  I will thank God for the chance to live.  I plan to thank God for the challenges that come into my life, even if I don’t always appreciate them.  And I plan to thank God for the chance to make a difference in someone else’s life — even if I don’t always do a good job of it.  These things are what matter to me this Thanksgiving; and the rest of the year I can be grateful for God’s lesser gifts.

None of us expected much from Fr. Arthur that day, and in fact we expected the worst.  We all thought we would sweat bullets that morning.  But we were wrong; and, ironically, once again Fr. Arthur had gotten the better of his confreres.

Fr. Arthur has long since passed away; but if he were here today I’d thank him, along with God.  And I’d thank him specifically for the only Thanksgiving sermon that I’ve ever remembered.

Sydney: view from my room

+A Personal Note: Australia remembered

On Thursday of last week I returned to the United States from a week in Australia.  While the flight seemed like thirteen hours to me, it actually took minus six hours to accomplish.  We left Sydney shortly after noon, and at 6 am the same day, six hours earlier, we arrived in Los Angeles.  Needless to say, the flight did not leave any of us feeling any younger, despite the six hours we had gained.

I’m not in the habit of giving vacation recommendations, but Sydney was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.  And the people are among the most hospitable I’ve ever met.  My room overlooked the Opera house, which deserves its great reputation for design.  The iconic bridge dominates the city, while the harbor’s tentacles create a wonderfully intricate shoreline.  The trains are great, even if the locals complain about their timeliness.  But it was great fun to take the ferry to meet with my hosts from Australian Catholic University.

Australian Catholic University: view from seminar room

I also was reminded of the need to be well-behaved, wherever you may go.  At the Melbourne campus of Australian Catholic University I was surprised to meet a former student of mine from Saint John’s, who now works on the staff of the University.  Later, the plane trip back to the United States provided further evidence of the need to be at your best in public — always.  Three hours into the flight I got up to walk around the plane a bit.  Four rows back were two friends from Saint Cloud, MN.  What are the odds of meeting some neighbors from Minnesota on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles?  I don’t know.  I’m a history major, so I don’t have to know the odds.  But I’ve learned my lessons well.

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Lviv, Ukraine: Central Cemetary

Living with Pretension

I always knew that I’d return to Barchester Towers — to the book, that is. For lots of reasons Anthony Trollope’s portrait of a 19th-century Anglican cathedral town caught my imagination as a high school reader. Back then I devoured history — all of it — and even fictional history. I was also, and remain now, an unabashed Anglophile. But even at that tender age I sensed that there was more than social history in Trollope’s words. Clothes and food and customs may change drastically, but Trollope confirms the old saw that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In a nutshell, as much as we may shrink in horror at the thought, there’s something of each of us in his backwater English provincials.

Barchester was a town where neither big decisions were made nor momentous events happened. To the rest of England Barchester scarcely mattered, save as a dot on the map. Among the political class in London, it figured mainly as an aferthought. One guesses that for the prime minister the right to nominate its bishop was as much a nuisance as a privilege. And in ecclesiastical circles, the throne of Barchester was no great prize — unless of course you didn’t have one. Certainly it was nothing when compared to rich and influential sees like Canterbury or York or Salisbury. To the outside world, then, Barchester was an isolated stopover on the way to nowhere. Of this reality, however, the ciitizens of Barchester were blissfully ignorant.

Not surprisingly, the citizenry entertained a very different view of their town. If Barchester was not quite the epicenter of the universe, it was very nearly so. In such a world everything was important, and even the smallest of social nuances mattered. Theirs was a class-ridden yet competitive society; and if the bishop was undisputed king of the hill, even the lowliest position in the church had something to recommend it. It should come as no surprise, then, that ambition ran as deeply in Barchester as it did in the major capitals of Europe. And it’s very likely that the quest for the least scrap of power was as keen in Barchester as in the salons of London. After all, the lower the stakes, the more intensely rise the flames of ambition.

Given that scenario, people have commonly assumed that Trollope’s primary theme was clerical ambition. While you might conclude that, you might be wrong. Clerical ambition was as absent among 19th-century Anglicans as it has been among Catholic clergy. Sure, there have been a few exceptions, and a few critics, like Saint Peter Damian in the 11th century. That monastic reformer spoke of clerics whose ardor for promotion and honors was “hotter than the breath of Mount Etna.” But the 11th century might have been a minor aberration, never to be repeated. Certainly Trollope had bigger fish to fry than a few well-meaning clerics. No, Trollope is out to skewer us all.

You have to admire Trollope’s deft hand as he crafts one of the great scenes of the book. Mr. Proudie has finally come to Barchester as its bishop, and he and his wife invite the entire clerical establishment to the palace for a grand fete. Naturally, the bishop’s wife figures prominently, and she’s made no secret that she is the real force to be reckoned with in the diocese. A few clerics have acknowledged her, while a few daring souls have already figured how they will displace her as the bishop’s chief advisor. Virtually everyone else at the party has equally good reasons for being there.

The center of attention, however, was neither the bishop nor Mrs. Proudie — who chafed at the mere thought of female competition. The surprise of the evening was Signora Madeline Vicinironi, whose beauty was constrained only by the physical disability that kept her perpetually seated. She had asked for some inconspicuous place, but no bishop worth his salt would let a countess sit anywhere but in a place of honor — and near to him. And so, perched on her sofa, she charmed everyone in the room — everyone, that is, except for Mrs. Proudie.

A slow steam built in Mrs. Proudie, and when it was whispered into her ear that the young lady was no countess at all, it came to a head. Her furor reached a fever pitch when told that her rival was no less than the daughter of a local cleric, and she had married an Italian rake who later abandoned her and their daughter. She was no Vicinironi, nor mother of the last of the family of Tiberias. She was Madeline Vesey Neroni, and that was all. With this delicious bit Mrs. Proudie intended to demolish the reputation of her rival.

Meanwhile, pinched behind the sofa, the brother of Signora Vicinironi began to nudge the sofa out into the room, not realizing that a “fat immovable rector” stood leaning against it. With his little push, and with the momentum supplied by the rector, the sofa went flying across the room, scattering the guests like bowling pins. Worse still, one caster of the sofa clipped the skirt of Mrs. Proudie, leaving key parts of her finery shredded on the floor. In such a state of undress there was no choice but to storm from the room, frustrated and furious.

The story does not end there, but suffice it to say that no one wanted to be seen standing near the signora when Mrs. Proudie returned. As for the ending, you’ll have to read the book for yourself to learn how Trollope milks the scene for all it’s worth. As expected, the evening ends rather badly. All pretensions have evaporated, and no one looks especially good.

It would be nice to imagine that hypocrisy and pretension had died with the 19th century, but a quick glance around humanity suggests otherwise. If anything, personal hype has become more important than ever; and the management of public image has become a major industry.

What this also implies is that we spend an awful lot of energy trying to be who we are not. Sadly, we often ignore our own gifts and talents, preferring to play to the fickle crowd. In the hope of power or influence we sacrifice our sense of decency, and we toss aside our respect not only for others but for ourselves as well. To fit into some social mold, we become the person we never intended to be.

In his Rule Saint Benedict argued first and foremost that we be authentic. No job makes us more important than others. Neither age nor family connections nor power have anything to do with our intrinsic value. Rather, our worth springs from our creation by God. God made us and cherishes us, and it is that belief that should shape our pilgrimage in life. To put anything else before love of God and neighbor, then, is to live a life of pretense.

Personal Notes

+On November 8th I arrived in Sydney, Australia, after a flight that seemed to go on forever. This was the longest flight I’ve ever made, and it’s the furthest I’ve ever been from home. Still, Sydney is worth the trip. It has gorgeous geography, and the many nooks and crannies of the harbor make for a beautiful waterfront.

I am in Sydney and Melbourne to give a public lecture and three days of workshops at the Australia Catholic University. The University recently secured a Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, and it is my privilege to walk the library staff through the entire project. While in Sydney I will also have the opportunity to meet alumni of Saint John’s University.

+In August, while with a group in Lviv, Ukraine, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most interesting cemeteries I’ve ever seen. In the Central Cemetery rest many generations of Poles and Russians and Ukrainians — both Catholic and Orthodox. Juxtaposed against the tombs of the Christians are those of prominent Communist party bosses, and the contrast in symbolism is stark. One wonders what went through the minds of Communist-era mourners as they passed the tombs of believers. And I found myself wondering about the tombs that proclaimed little except service to party and state. In so many ways the cemetery was an odd variation of Barchester Towers. The pictures in today’s post come from that most tranquil spot.

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The Blame Game

Perhaps you were as astonished as I to read about the recent conviction of some seismologists in an Italian court. Their crime was breathtaking in its scope and diabolic if true: they had failed to predict an earthquake that had devastated a hilltown and its neighborhood. The area had a long history of seismic activity, but locals must have assumed that there would be no more tremors ever again. Then came this latest nasty one; and because of scientific neglect scores lay dead and the landscape was in ruins. Someone had to be blamed.

What equally amazed me was the court’s apparent lack of interest in the motive for this crime against humanity. Were these rogue scientists completely indifferent to the sufferings of people? Was this a hate crime? Was this an act of vengeance for their failure to get adequate raises or elegant new Gucci-designed lab coats? We’ll never know until someone offers them immunity for their testimony. Meanwhile, most of us are left to speculate; and the northern Italians now live in terror of where the next crazed scientist might strike.

We may wring our hands and lament this “scientists-gone-mad” story, but jurists on both sides of the Atlantic have already seen the silver lining. They’ve begun to lick their chops, because this case opens unimagined opportunities for justice to be done, and for damages to be collected.

What’s mind-boggling is the wide net that can be cast. What about all those palm readers who promise love and fortune but time after time fail to deliver? What about weather prognosticators who guarantee sun but send hail instead? And what about the clairvoyants who withhold detailed and life-saving information? And then there’s the horoscope industry. The latter just cries out for regulation and enforceable standards. It’s enough to keep a congressional committee in session for decades. But justice must be done, and culpability must be assigned.

Ever since Adam blamed Eve, and Eve fingered the serpent, human beings have always tried to shift responsibility for their mistakes onto others. For one thing, no one wants to look bad in front of other people. Assigning blame to others accomplishes two things, then. It leaves our reputation for perfection intact; and conversely someone else looks bad by comparison. We are to be trusted; while others should not be trusted. We appear to be capable only of good; while the source of evil is found exclusively in our neighbor. What outcome could be better?

There is a down side to this, however. If we don’t deserve any blame for the sins we commit, then we don’t deserve any credit for the good we do. And there’s the rub for many of us. I’m as willing as the next guy to point fingers at the faults of my neighbors. But I also know that I am unlike most of my neighbors — thanks be to God. And when it comes to doling out blame on others, I and the Pharisee in the gospel are of the same mind. He and I are members of the same congregation, and we have zero in common with that miserable publican. The latter was righter than rain when he admitted his failings. But I and the Pharisee deserve a pat on the back for the great things we do.

Abbey church: east door

Dishing out blame all the time is a dangerous thing, and we’d be better off doing it sparingly — if at all. For one thing, others may not deserve the blame we heap on them. God forbid, they might even be innocent. But beyond that, if we engage in an ongoing blame game we can grow blind to our own reality. If we never own up to our own faults, there will never be a shred of a chance for growth or personal conversion.

In the Catholic liturgical tradition we have many opportunities to confess our failings. At the beginning of each Eucharist there is a penitential rite in which we own up to our sins; and among our sacraments is the rite of reconciliation — aka, confession. The goal of these rites is not to impart a deep sense of guilt from which we cannot escape. Nor are they intended to leave us miserable and wretched. Instead they focus us on our own reality. At the end of the day we can blame everyone else for all the troubles in the world. But until we admit our own solidarity with other sinners, we miss entirely the helpng hand which God extends to us. That hand guides us through the rough spots and into a fulness of life that we can never achieve all by ourselves.

Guesthouse garden

As for our friends in Italy, I sympathize with their predicament. If the meterologists and psychics and fortune tellers all admit their guilt, they might wind up in jail. But if they don’t admit it, they might end up in jail anyway — along with paying punitive damages. Perhaps it’s time for them to proclaim their innocence and fly off to Brazil.

Most of us don’t have that option. Wherever we fly, or to whatever place we think we are escaping, we will eventually discover we are still the same person. We’ve brought along with us our gifts, most certainly, but the liabilities have trailed along with us as well. So my advice is that we may as well own up to our own reality once in a while. Let’s stop passing all of the blame onto others, and let’s shoulder just a little bit of it ourselves. Maybe then we can be grateful for the hand that the Lord extends to us each day.

Abbey crypt: the relic chapel

Abbey Notes

+Throughout the month of November the monks of Saint John’s Abbey remember both our departed confreres, as well as people for whom we’ve been asked to pray. The month begins with All Saints Day, which is the occasion on which we honor the vast number of the blessed who don’t have an assigned feast day in the church calendar. On that day we bring out icons and other remembrances of the saints, and we open up the relic chapel, located on the lower level of the Abbey church.

On the feast of All Souls, November 2nd, we make our annual visit to the cemetery for noon prayer. Then, through the last day of November, we pray for the departed friends of the Abbey. In recent years we have invited visitors to the Abbey church to complete a card that lists the names of those for whom we should pray. As we enter the church for Mass or the liturgy of the hours, individual monks take a card from the basket below the crucifix, and we pray by name for the persons inscribed on the card.

Since we began that custom, I for one have appreciated the chance to connect with others who now sleep in Christ. Sometimes I’ve run across the name of someone I know. More often than not it’s someone unfamiliar to me. But each time it’s a reminder of my kinship with others who went before me and did the best they could with the gifts that God had given them.

+On November 1st our confrere Brother Urban Pieper passed away peacefully. He spent most of his life as a gardener, and for ages he managed the production of vegetables and flowers from the Abbey garden. Generations of novices and young monks worked under his direction, and at the end of a hot summer afternoon he would welcome them into the garden house for popcorn and a cool drink. We will miss his smile and his gentle ways.

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