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Archive for December, 2012

Christmas eve Mass 088

Enough Already!

One Christmas ditty you’ll likely not hear from a children’s choir is “Santa Baby, hurry down the chimney tonight.” Perhaps that’s because those innocent voices can’t muster the sultry quality that makes the lyrics come alive. Perhaps it’s because the tune’s gift list doesn’t really match the aspirations of most children. There are no pleas for dolls or toy trucks or computer games, because adult needs are far more practical. In an era of downsizing, the song gets back to the basics, like clothing and transportation. So this year Santa can skip the board games and the heavy books, and just concentrate on fine motorcars and all-natural furs (organic, of course.) This year we’ll make do with these, and Santa can forget the rest.

Christmas eve Mass 039I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t get everything they wanted this Christmas, but like everyone else I did my part to bolster the economy. Of course I didn’t get a fur coat or a limo, but I did get a cell-phone charger for my car, and a great cd of Christmas chant. I also got two books and four boxes of ink cartridges for my pen. The latter was a special treat, since I am one of those fossils who still likes to write with a traditional pen.

Buying things counts a lot for the economy, but it’s at the table where consumers show their stuff. While no one in the monastery kept an official tally, I’m sure that I more than held my own. I certainly ate a respectable amount of chocolate; and I managed to stay in the game in the dessert department. But in cookies I was a real stand-out. And now it’s time to go to the next level for consumers and invest in one of a bewildering array of diet plans.

I’m sure others did their part for the economy too, with equally grim determination. And that brings me to my only complaint about this Christmas. After all the work we did to buy stuff we may or may not have needed, it turns out that it was not enough. In the post-Christmas analysis, the data indicate that we did not buy enough, despite our best efforts. It turns out that retailers were disappointed with our performance. Same-store sales were not up as much as merchants had hoped, and now there will be heck to pay. And I’m sure you are as crest-fallen as I to realize that we let the retailers down. Our idea of “enough” was not enough for them.

Abbot John, preaching at Christmas

Abbot John, preaching at Christmas

As we begin the new year it’s not such a bad idea to take a quick inventory of our lives. Did we accomplish anything of value during the past year? What became our real priorities — the things we actually did, rather than the things we intended to do? What do we have to show for the 365 days that God gave us?

Perhaps one useful guage to determine success in 2012 is the simple word “enough.” What did we get enough of, and where did we fall short of enough? Did we get enough stuff, or did we actually get way too much? Did we eat and drink enough? Did we watch enough television? Did we play enough video games? Did we go to the office enough on weekends?

Then there’s the list of things we seldom get enough of. Did we spend enough time with friends and family? Did we devote enough time to worthwile projects? Did we do enough to help those around us who are in need? Did we do enough to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation?

Since we usually mark the end of the year with revelry, I don’t really want to shackle us with pangs of guilt. Still, the passing of a year is a not so subtle reminder of our mortality, as well as of our fallibility. Was this a year to be proud of? Or was it a year for which I have little to show? And what about next year at this time? Will I be feeling the same regret or delight with the way I used the days that God gave me?

Christmas eve Mass 034One of the cautions that Saint Benedict issues to his monks is to keep death daily before their eyes. He certainly does not intend that we wallow in depression, because he’s more content to remind us that no one has an endless supply of days. Death is a gift that comes to us all, and Benedict urges us to make wise use of every minute that we have between now and the hour of our death. Given that, would we want to live those days in a numb escapism, or would we want to live them with intensity? Benedict would likely be the first to encourage us to get a life if we don’t yet have one already. Life is too short to waste it on junk.

There’s a certain irony about Santa Baby coming down the chimney. We want him to hurry up so that we will have enough, or more than enough. Meanwhile, we sit passively, waiting for him to come and fulfill our dreams. The sad thing is that each year Santa brings us exactly what we ask for, but not nearly enough of what we really need.

As for 2013, the good news is that we won’t have to listen to “Santa Baby” for at least the next 300 days. I also hope that I’ll be better prepared for Santa next year. With luck, I’ll already have enough stuff, and with some hard work I won’t have to ask him this time next year to bring me a life. I figure I’ve got the next 365 days to go out and get one myself.

Chanting the Gospel: Fr. Edward, assisted by Br. Lucian

Chanting the Gospel: Fr. Edward, assisted by Br. Lucian

Various Notes

+Recently Father Edward Vebelun returned to the Abbey after several years spent at our priory in Fujimi, Japan. Once back, he’s wasted little in sitting still. At the vigil Mass for Christmas Father Edward chanted the Gospel, and on Christmas Day he assisted in two parishes near the Abbey.

+On December 26th I mourned the sudden passing of a dear friend. Lynn was beloved by her family and friends, as well as by me and one of my confreres. We were privileged to know her for several years, and our world is poorer for her absence. But happy memories of her will win out in time.

+On December 30th I attended a service of Lessons and Carols at Saint Dunstan’s Church in Saint Louis Park, MN. I went as the guest of two good friends, who are members of the parish. I was also pleasantly surprised by their very accomplished organist — an alumnus of Saint John’s who is also an oblate of the Abbey.

Christmas eve Mass 071+During the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to see Les Miserables. I found it to be wonderfully entertaining and deeply moving — a sentiment shared by most of us in the theatre that afternoon. Virtually the entire audience applauded spontaneously at the end, which should be enough of a recommendation for others to see it.

+The Saint John’s Bible

For the past sixteen years I have been involved with the Saint John’s Bible. Donald Jackson completed the text a year and a half ago, and since then we’ve been able to enjoy the great panorama of pages from this magnificent work. I thought you might appreciate the turning of the pages, as a wonderful Christmas meditation.

I wish you a very happy and holy Christmas season!

Eric Hollas, OSB

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Christmas eve 084Light and Darkness, Bless the Lord! (Daniel 3: 72)
Every Sunday at morning prayer we recite the Song of Daniel — as do Catholic religious and clergy around the world. It’s a piece of poetry that celebrates the prophet Daniel’s deliverance from the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar; and if Daniel’s joy seems to be a little over the top, you can scarcely blame him. Saunas are one thing; but a white-hot furnace is quite another. Even in Minnesota, in the dead of winter, we’ll shy away from that.

Daniel begins his song with praise for the God who has done such great things for him and for his three young friends. But then he gets down to business and invites virtually all of creation to join in his hymn. In a list that roughly approximates the order of creation in Genesis, he summons the angels, and the heavens, and the waters above the heavens. He invites the sun and moon and all of the stars. He calls on the showers and dew, the rivers and the mountains and the hills. Dolphins and all water creatures and the birds of the air get their due, followed by the entire roster of God’s creatures. Thankfully, Daniel must have run out of parchment, or he might have gone on endlessly.

Mary greets Elizabeth

Mary greets Elizabeth

Most of the items on the list seem chosen at random, but there are a few pairings that stick out noticeably. “Fire and heat” immediately precede “cold and chill” and “ice and snow.” “Nights and days” are there as well, as are “light and darkness.” Why in the world would Daniel put these polar opposites together? Could it be that God sees the world differently than do we? Could it be that God ordered all creation as a continuum of good, while we like to force things into rigid contrasts? Is our perspective on life really that different?

One of the running jokes I have with one of my confreres has to do with the proverbial glass that is either half empty or half full. He’s of the school that naturally sees the cloud but can’t imagine any sort of silver lining. So in his eyes the glass is getting half-emptier all the time. I point out that for him things are getting worse and worse, and they have been since the moment of creation. Could life be an endless spiral into the great black hole that will swallow us all someday? Probably.

Reading the Gospel: Mary greets Elizabeth

Reading the Gospel: Mary greets Elizabeth

I, on the other hand, am the inveterate optimist, though I do temper my outlook with some nagging worries. I have been making silk purses out of sows’ ears for most of my life, and I have a drawerful of well-worn rose-colored glasses. For me the glass is half full and getting fuller all the time. And my chief worry is that the glass may not have the capacity to hold all the water that is bound to flow in sooner or later. I’ll admit that this view leaves me vulnerable to the inevitable disappointments that crop up. But this is my prism for interpreting life, and on most days it works well enough.

Christmas eve 028Given the different perspectives on life that we all bring to the table, you can begin to appreciate why December provides such a stark contrast — at least for Christians living in the northern hemisphere. Just as the landscape lies dormant, as if in death, the Advent wreath comes to life with its greens. Just as the days get shorter and darker, the candles gather their force to pierce the darkness. And so, as we reach the darkest day of the year, the fourth candle of Advent flickers to life. All four shine out in the void, as a reminder that there is still more to our story. God’s light is about to waken us and lead us through winter’s gloom.

There are dark days at any time of the year, but these darkest of nights can nurture depression and sadness in some of us. In tandem with the headlines and our own personal setbacks, it’s easy to conclude that evil can and will overwhelm us. It’s then a small step to giving up hope, and that’s when it’s easiest to dismiss much or most of humanity as evil or wrong-headed. And that’s why we light candles. Together those candles remind us that God sees things differently, and so should we. That’s when we need to join with all creation in the Song of Daniel.

Christmas eve 102On Christmas day we turn on all the lights, and we pull out all the stops to celebrate the creativity and goodness of God. And though there will still be lots of days when our glass may seem completely drained, Christmas reminds us that God always returns to replenish us. Our water glasses are works in progress, and on the bleakest of nights God will be there to fill us up again.

Christmas is a reminder that God will never abandon us to the darkness, nor will God ever really be done with us. God insists that we carry the candle out of darkness and into the light of Christmas day. And the really good news is that God will help to carry our candle.

Boat house on Lake Sagatagan

Boat house on Lake Sagatagan

+Abbey Notes

On December 18th the chapter of the Abbey, (those monks in solemn vows), voted to welcome Fr. Michael Peterson and Brother Efrain Rosado into the community. Each begins a period of probation before they can petition for full membership in Saint John’s Abbey.

Father Michael is originally from Morris, MN, and he attended the University of Minnesota at Morris. He then became a monk at Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, SD, and he later attended seminary at the School of Theology at Saint John’s. Sadly, Blue Cloud Abbey closed this last summer due to the declining number of vocations in the community. Father Michael was the youngest member of the community there, and he returns to Saint John’s as a very familiar and welcome face.

Brother Efrain was born in Mexico City, and in college he received his degree in civil engineering. After some time working for the city department of public works, he entered the Abbey of Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. Saint John’s has had a long relationship with that abbey, since our monks founded it in 1948. Brother Efrain later studied at the School of Theology at Saint John’s, and he has now petitioned to transfer his solemn vows to Saint John’s.

Christmas eve 018+On December 19th I concelebrated at the funeral Mass for University alumnus Kevin DeVaan, who died suddenly from a heart attack. I had met Kevin through his service on the Alumni Board of the University, and he seemed to have boundless energy and an army of friends. The services took place in the Abbey church, and his ashes will rest in the columbarium in the Abbey cemetery.

+As the enclosed pictures indicate, we will most definitely celebrate a white Christmas at Saint John’s this year — much to my own delight. The snows came early this winter, but not until one major task had already been completed. That task was the the installation of the Christmas tree in The Great Hall. This is no mean feat, as it involves the careful selection of the tree from the Abbey forest, and its cutting and transport to the center of campus. Then the work begins, as the enclosed video outlines. Once in place, the tree becomes the centerpiece of an array of concerts, receptions and dinners, as well as the goal of gawkers who stand in awe at its majesty.

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14c. AssisiSaint Francis Revisited

Most people think of medieval studies as pretty arcane, and I’m not about to disabuse them of the notion. Still, the discipline has its moments, as I’ve discovered over the years. Likely the highest of all medieval high points is one session among 350+ at the annual medieval congress, held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. On a Saturday night in May, when you would expect most medievalists to be in a library or in a bar, there is one session which for years has been SRO. So packed has it been that on many an occasion the local fire marshal has threatened to shut the place down. That alone would be enough to drive up attendance. But people come in droves anyway, not to defy the authorities, but to listen to three scholars deliver totally fake academic papers.

For marketing reasons the Societas Fontibus Historiae Medii Aevi is better known as the Pseudo Society. It also helps that the latter name is easier for us medievalists to remember. I was not there when the Societas was born, but I’ve always assumed that it began as an effort to give people a break in the middle of a very intense academic experience. To be sure, I’m not inferring that four days of medieval research papers can leave one yawning. Nor would I contend that they are as electric as re-runs of six-hour Fidel Castro speeches. They’re somewhere in between. And the Societas sought to fill this gap with just a touch of comic relief. What results is a roomful of scholars who wished that they too had the nerve to present a pack of lies as if they were the God’s honest truth.

The Francis returning from battle

The young Francis returning from battle

In the course of twenty-five years scholars of the Societas have regaled their audiences with papers both naughty and nice, and you get hints of this in some of the titles. I was not there to hear “On the Medieval Origins of Modern Underwear: Leutard of Chalons and his ‘Bee’VDs.” I’m guessing that it tiptoed perilously close to the edge of unseemly. I also missed “You Can’t Get There from Here: An Eastern Pilgrim’s Guide to Western Europe (c. 1295).” It likely edified the readers (or not, depending on why they couldn’t get there from here.)

But I did hear “Otics: When Semiotics Reaches Maturity.” That one was quite clever, but it left me scratching my head. But of all the papers I have heard through the years, my all-time favorite has been “The Recently-Discovered Lost Account Books of Francis of Assisi.” In the driest of understatement, the author concluded that history has grossly underestimated Francis for his business acumen. Perhaps it was time to give Francis his due as an economic visionary, he mused. We who listened were highly amused; but Francis has yet to get the nod as patron of accountants.

Porziuncula

Porziuncula

Please don’t conclude that medieval studies have been reduced to creative fiction. In fact, extraordinary work continues to apper, including a recent book by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP. In his “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” (Cornell University Press, 2012) he sifts fact from legend, and in the process gives us a Saint Francis that is far more complex and far more human that we could have hoped for.

Francis was in many ways a victim of his own success. As Thompson details, Francis was highly idealistic, but anguish followed as he applied his ideals to lived reality. But from the pens of his many admirers flowed biographies that obscured these interior struggles. In the process they recast Francis, and what emerged was a saint with little self-doubt and replete with the virtues people expected to find in a medieval saint. In short, they domesticated Francis, and he is now an environmental icon and the familiar figure who adorns birdbaths everywhere.

The Fratres Minores — the Lesser Brothers — reflected Francis’ desire to be the least in society. In practice this meant that neither he nor any of his brothers should exercise lordly power over anyone — including their own brothers. Herein arose one of his most painful dilemmas, however.

St. Francis, portrait from life, Abbey of Subiaco

St. Francis, portrait from life, Abbey of Subiaco

Francis prescribed a humility that was hard to take in most circumstances. Quite naturally he hesitated to exercise the authority that should have been his as a founder; and he surprised everyone when he resigned as superior. But then it is almost comical to see him telling his hesitant new superiors what to order him to do.

His travels to the Holy Land brought to a head this conundrum of leadership. While away, his hand-picked successors promulgated rules of which he did not approve. But how do you confront the officials whom you’ve appointed, without resorting to the arbitrary use of your own authority? This issue vexed Francis throughout his entire life as a friar.

Francis went on to formulate a style of leadership that differed markedly from that of Benedict and other medieval religious orders. His superiors would serve limited rather than life terms. His superior would rule by example rather than by stern words. His superior wouuld be a nurturer rather than a disciplinarian.

Assisi at nightAs Thompson sorts out the nuggets of truth from the vast literature on Francis, what emerges is an imaginative and independent personality. I was startled by Thompson’s observation that Francis ate meat and allowed it to his brothers — making them unique among medieval religious orders. But even as he ate meat, Francis still respected his fellow creatures. “Near the end of his life, in a very revealing gesture, he urged his brothers to put out special food for the birds and beasts at Christmas so that in their own way they might rejoice at the birth of the Savior.” (pp. 55-56)

Fr. Augustine Thompson’s book is wonderfully accessible to non-scholars and scholars alike. It well rewards a reading, and I highly recommend you give the book to yourself this Christmas. In your own way you too can then celebrate the birth of the Savior.

Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, ca. 1485, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, ca. 1485, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

+Personal Notes

On December 11th, I and Matt Bierne, a colleague from Saint John’s University, had the oppportunity to visit Immokalee High School and the Guadalupe Center in Florida. The Center was founded to serve the children of migrant workers in the area, and today it serves children from age six weeks through college. It may be unique in the relationship it has set up among the students. It selects, trains and pays high school students to tutor the youngsters — binding the generations together within an academic framework. The younger students learn from and emulate the high school students; while the high school students discover talents and possibilities they had never imagined for themselves. It is an extraordinary program, made possible by some very generous and far-sighted local citizens.

During the past few days I have driven through Florida and Arizona, listening to a steady stream of Christmas music. It’s a little incongruous to look at cactus and palm trees while hearing Johnny Mathis sing “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” And, frankly, in southwest Florida you seldom hear sleighbells ring while the snow glistens. Both would startle the locals.

Abbey church: Advent wreath

Abbey church: Advent wreath

This reminded me once again that much of our Christmas music was written for northern climates. But in one of the great ironies of history, the Holy Family would have felt far more at home in the landscape of Arizona. No deciduous forests for them!

+Newtown, CT

The tragedy in Connecticut shocks and saddens virtually every decent human being. God did not make us to perpetrate such evil — or to have to endure it. There is no way to explain why children die, while parents must anguish. Much will be said and written about this, but one eloquent gesture would be to remember them in silence on December 28th — the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Now it is their feast day too.

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Photo of window with wreathDoomsday is Just Around the Corner, Maybe

Just about the time you thought the Mayan calendar scare had gone away, it popped up again in the most unlikely of places. I’m not referring to the Australian prime minister, who solemnly announced on television last week that “the Mayans were right.” That was meant to be a joke. But I’m curious to know how many took her seriously, and what exactly they propose to do about it.

No, I’m referring to the myriad of Russians who are scared to death that the world will end in a couple of weeks — just as the Mayans have predicted. The hysteria has been sufficiently great that the Russian government has intervened to calm public nerves, which has likely compounded the problem. After all, who has ever believed the Russian/Soviet/Tsarist government authorities?

I have no idea why the hoopla died away in the United States, but hardly anyone discusses this topic anymore. Perhaps we couldn’t sustain the attention needed to span those extra weeks until the end came. Or maybe it was boredom with a topic that just couldn’t compete after a month in the marketplace of the news media.

For my part, I’d like to think that I took the rational approach in dealing with the Mayan prediction. Surely I’m not the only one to ask who put the Mayans in charge of deciding when the world would end. Surely I cannot be the only one who has wondered if the Mayans might have been wrong. After all, if they were so smart, why didn’t they predict the end of their own civilization? They should have seen it coming, you’d think.

Monastic Gazebo edAs bizarre as the Mayan affair may be, the human reaction comes as no surprise. We’ve always had a fascination with powers beyond our control, and to appease them we’ve offered bulls and goats and lambs. To get an edge on the future we’ve read the entrails of animals and divined the flights of birds in the sky. We’ve consulted astrologers and fortune-tellers, read horoscopes and palms, and practiced white and black magic. And we all have our private superstitions, which have an infallibility beyond anything the pope has ever claimed. But behind it all is the nagging fear that we have very little power to change the cosmos or alter the course of destiny. To use the frightening title of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, we are “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” And to buy our way out from under that God we will do most anything — anything except change our inner selves.

IMG_1305copy[1]As much as we might try to appease the gods, it’s never really brought much peace of mind. Historians have written of the age of anxiety — the centuries on either side of Jesus — when people sought to placate the gods, but could never be sure of success. Had they done enough? Had they performed the rituals exactly as prescribed? Had they inadvertently offended the deity? When you consider all that, no wonder people were anxious. And that scenario still drives the scrupulous person today — and not a few of the rest of us as well.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus rejected such an approach, and therein is the import of their message. Both taught that at the end of the day no bull or goat on the altar could do much of anything to appease God. Nor would any magic formula compel God to forgive us and leave us alone. None of that cause-and-effect religious system mattered, because what God wants is a pure heart. All God wants is repentance and a willingness to turn to God. And all we get in return is love.

Breuer ResidenceUltimately the apostles carried that message to the ends of the earth. And the message of repentance and love allayed the anxieties of an awful lot of people who had wondered what they could ever do to appease an irascible and unpredictable God. “Nothing” was the answer. “God saves you for free” was their consoling message. It’s still a challenge to believe that all God wants from us is a pure heart. It’s so much easier to try and strike a bargain with God. It’s so much more rational to make promises that we will keep, if God will only grant our wishes. But God must be chuckling as our proposals come wafting up to heaven. “Who do they think I am?”

Snow in the Church Cloister GardenOn the second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist urges people to make a path for the Lord to enter into their lives. That’s easier said than done, until you realize the futility of negotiating with God. God is not going to cede to us control of the cosmos, no matter what we offer in return. But in the meantime God is willing to love us, and therein is the path to true stability in our lives.

In some respects the Mayan scare comes as a refreshing break from the modern prophets of doom that crop up with boring regularity. Still, even if I did believe that the world was going to end on a set day, I’m not sure what I would do differently — other than try to believe God loves me. In fact, there’s little I would do proactively, though there might be a few things I wouldn’t do. On the outside chance that the Mayans accidentally got it right, I’m tempted not to do my Christmas cards until after their deadline. Other than that, I don’t know.

Emmaus Hall ed+Personal notes

On December 6th I and Dr. Michael Hemesath, president of Saint John’s University, were in Scottsdale, AZ, to attend a reception for friends and alumni of the University. It was a fine evening, with some sixty-five guests in attendance.

On that same day the Abbey church was the scene of the funeral for Officer Thomas Decker, of nearby Cold Spring, MN, who had been killed in the line of duty a few days before. He was a member of Saint Boniface Parish, where our confrere Fr. Cletus Connors serves as pastor. Because of the huge crowds that were expected, Fr. Cletus presided at the funeral Mass in the much larger Abbey church. In addition to the governor and one of our U.S. Senators, some 3,000+ people attended the service.

Quad Tower edOn December 5th His Beatitude Ignatius Hazim IV, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, died at the age of 92. Ten years ago I had the privilege of visiting with the Patriarch at his home in Beirut, and on the wall in my office hangs a wonderful photo of the two of us, taken that day. Through the years the Patriarch was very helpful and supportive of the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, which has now completed projects in Lebanon and Syria. In the course of those projects he visited Saint John’s to receive the Pax Christi Award.

On Saturday December 8th I had the opportunity to go and see the movie “Lincoln.” I found the first half of the film mesmerizing, and I recommend it highly. I cannot say as much for the second half, largely because the power in the theater went out and everyone finally gave up and went home. I am hoping that Lincoln succeeded in abolishing slavery and that the Civil War finally came to an end. But I don’t know for sure, since people have been kind enough not to tell me the ending.

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Christmas at Saint John's

Christmas at Saint John’s

The Humble and the Proud

I’ve wondered over the years what Elizabeth might have thought of her son, John the Baptist.  At first blush he’s not what many Jewish mothers wanted in a son.  He was a rather unconventional guy.  He ate a poor diet, and he definitely was not a clothes horse.  But it was his professional path that might have disappointed Elizabeth, if anything did.  He didn’t become a rabbi, and he didn’t hang around the movers and shakers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  In fact, baptizing fallen-away Jews in some second-rate river may not have been in her plans at all.

John the Baptist.  Stained glass, Emmaus Hall.

John the Baptist. Stained glass, Emmaus Hall.

But far worse than that was John’s deference to Jesus. The gospels quote him as saying he was not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus; and Jesus must increase while he must decrease.  I can just imagine Elizabeth yelling at him from the front porch:  “Your father and I didn’t raise you to be a doormat, you know.”  Or maybe she didn’t.  But it’s nice to speculate.

There’s no getting around the fact that the gospel writers attribute an over-healthy dose of humility to John the Baptist.  Quite possibly they did this deliberately, wanting to make sure that  no one thought of John as a rival to Jesus. Editors get to call the shots, and that may have been their purpose.

But for the sake of argument, I’d like to assume that John really was a self-effacing guy.  He really didn’t mind stepping into the shadows to give the limelight to Jesus.  Perhaps he really didn’t mind being #2.  Perhaps he was the consummate “company man.”

Our society does not look kindly on also-rans and humble types.  Instead, we lionize the successful moguls and the rampaging overachievers.  Only those at the pinnacle of power deserve our unqualified respect; while losers and the quiet ones merely serve in the cast of thousands that flank the great ones.

Before the concert.

Before the concert.

Not surprisingly, humility as a virtue has slipped way down in most popularity polls.  To many it signifies weakness and poor self-image.  It leads to self-destruction, and who wants to hang around such people?  They are useful only to fill in the chorus of yes-men that many corporate suites require.  But as one of the leading figures of Advent, John the Baptist deserves rescue from this judgment, at least in my humble opinion.

One of the challenges of the English language is the ever-shifting meaning of words.  And while some may consider humility as a sign of softness, in fact it had a rather different tone in its original meaning.  Derived from the Latin word for earth — humus — it conjures up earthiness and groundedness.  Far from being out of touch with their own reality, humble people are strong enough to own up both to their strengths as well as to their faults.  It is the ill-informed and clueless people — the ones who live only from strength to strength — who are the oblivious ones.  They are blind to their own reality, while the humble person has in many ways thought things through.

19, relaxed singersWhat also gives a humble person — and John the Baptist — a leg up is their willingness to accept the notion that they are not the be-all and end-all of the entire universe.  Such a notion is anathema to the egomaniacs, and that is their Achilles heel.  The one who imagines no personal flaws is only waiting for the inevitable fall.

Herod and John the Baptist epitomize the two extremes.  Herod’s strength was self-derived, and so it must have occured to him that he could erase John the Baptist with a wave of his hand.  John, on the other hand, drew his strength from outside of himself.  He recognized his debt to God, and from God came his message.  His principles derived from God, and they sustained him on the best of days and on the worst of days.  And that laid the groundwork for his attitude to Jesus.  Jesus was no threat to him, even if Jesus were to lure away some of his disciples.  Jesus was the embodiment of all that John stood for, and the appearance of such a figure did not threaten John in the least.  Here, after all, was one also sent by God.

14, small groupA little bit of humility can be a good thing, and it can go a long way to making our lives full and complete.  In humility we recognize our own limits, and we more readily lean on others for support.   In humility we recognize our strengths, and we realize they are given for the benefit of everyone, and not just for ourselves.  Humility allows us to see people not as threats to our power and influence, but as teammates in the game of life.  Humility lets us see our gifts and realize that they come from God.  What could be more reassuring than to know that the Life-force of the universe has entered into my very soul?

So there you have it.  As we begin Advent and behold John the Baptist walking toward us, I think it might not be so bad to take his advice to heart.  If John must decrease and Jesus must increase, perhaps that’s a good formula for me.  At the end of the season we might just be better-grounded and stronger people for taking that route.  Maybe I should ask for a dollop of humility this Christmas.  It could very well become one of my greatest assets and the key ingredient for a happy life.

29, singers dressed+Personal Note

On November 29-30th I attended the regular fall meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  Then, with two hours for the transition, I switched hats and began a two-day retreat for members of the Order of Malta in Minnesota.  They stayed in the Abbey guesthouse, and in addition to the three conferences that I gave, we visited the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  Within its vast collections it houses the Malta Study Center, the largest repository on the history of the Order of Malta outside of the National Library of Malta.  In the course of the retreat we joined the monks for the liturgy of the hours, and on December 1st I presided at the Abbey Eucharist.

+Christmas at Saint John’s

While we’ve scarcely begun Advent, in at least one area Christmas cannot wait.  By Christmas classes at Saint John’s University will be out and students gone.  So any Christmas celebrations that involve them must begin now.  One of our great traditions is an annual Christmas concert that the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict present on our respective campuses, as well as at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis.  The pictures in today’s post detail some moments during their many practice sessions, as well as at their concert on December 1st.

copper roof+Roof Repair

The roof repair on the east wing of the Quadrangle seemed to take forever, and the noise was the bane of the summer for many monks — myself included.  Though it did not take forever, the seven months it did take certainly seemed that way.  For me it was a special experience, since the workers climbed the stairs up the scaffold, where they had an unobstructed view into my fourth-floor window.  Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving, they dismantled the scaffold, leaving our beautiful brick walls unencumbered.  For now the copper roof looks like a shiny new penny.  Sadly, it will never get the green patina that such roofs used to get.  Today’s air lacks the pollutants that trigger the chemical reaction.  We will have to be satisfied with a shade of deep bronze.

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