Archive for January, 2013

photoJust Do It — But Not Just Yet

A couple of years ago I read a great piece on procrastination in The Week (14 January 2011, to be precise). It was a reprint of an article from The New Yorker; and, for whatever reason, the editors neglected to mention the name of the author. The reflection was fascinating, in part because I have the nagging suspicion that quite a lot of us contend with procrastination, myself included. So two years of mulling over the idea is about the right amount of time before putting pen to paper. And just because I’ve waited this long doesn’t mean I’ve been putting it off.

What stirred me to action was a fresh brush with the ill effects of procrastination in my own life. For upwards of five years and more I’ve complained about how cold my room can be in the winter, and the last few days have been particularly chilly. Now a reasonable person would ask if I had heat in my room, and if so, suggest that I turn it on. But a reasonable person wouldn’t know that my radiator has only two settings: “off” and “full-blast tropical.” I can choose between 62 degrees, which is just about right for sleeping, but my fingers turn blue at the desk. Or I can turn on the heat and know that it will shoot up to a sauna-like 85. I also know that it won’t go off until mid-August, no matter what I do to the thermostat. So to my mind it’s just easier to leave it off and complain about my lot in life. What could be better than to suffer, but not in silence?

Andries Pietersz van Souwen (1549/50-1624), Knight of Malta

Andries Pietersz van Souwen (1549/50-1624), Knight of Malta

Last week I drove with one of my confreres into Saint Cloud, to run some errands. It was a really really cold day (really), and I was going on about how cold my room was, and how I was thinking about getting a space heater. In fact, so serious was I, that I had been considering it for four years.

By now this litany had become a ritual for me, but my confrere showed neither interest nor sympathy. Actually, he must have questioned my sanity. He had just returned from graduate school two weeks earlier, and he too suffered in a frosty room. As we drove by one of those big-box stores, he stopped me in mid-sentence and suggested we go in and get heaters for our rooms. I was dumb-founded. “What? Now? But it’s way too cold today. Let me think about this some more.” Well, he would have none of that, and in we went.

photoIn the aftermath of his decisive action, all of my excuses for not getting a space heater melted away. There was, of course, a huge selection to choose from, and I mumbled that I wasn’t sure which one would be best for my room. “Here”, he said calmly yet firmly. “This is the one you want. Get it.” Then he grabbed the box from the shelf and tossed it into the cart.

My next fear was that they’d be expensive. They weren’t. I had also dreaded the instruction manual, and I feared having to master a forty-eight page booklet in Spanish, French, English and Mandarin. I have no patience for instructions.

If these were normal times, I would have hauled the crate home and set it aside for a week or two, just to get used to it. But these were not normal times. It really was cold, and I’d prepared myself for this day for four years — even if I never thought the day would actually come. Then I threw caution to the wind, ripped open the container, and gingerly eased the heater out of its nest of styrofoam and cardboard. Next, I ignored the instruction manual, plugged it in, and pressed the start button. It worked, and within an hour I had a pleasantly toasty room. It had all been so simple, simple enough for even someone like me.

Saint John the Baptist and the shield of Saint John.

Saint John the Baptist and the shield of Saint John.

This episode has caused me to rethink my tendency to procrastinate, because there are valuable lessons to be learned here. First off, we all pay a heavy price for this sort of behavior; because it often comes back to haunt us. Try and count up all the apologies we’ve had to issue for not doing things on time. Now consider for a minute how much fun it would be to finish everything ahead of schedule — all the time. Imagine the shock on people’s faces. That alone is worth a major change in behavior.

Next we should total up the amount of inconvenience and needless suffering we’ve endured because we push things off. Sure, for a while we can convince ourselves that prudence is the way to go. But more often than not we’re simply avoiding the difficult or the inevitable. Given that, sitting in a cold room seems rather pointless, especially if I could solve the problem in an instant. For such suffering there is no glory, and there’s no one to blame but me.

photoThe last take-away is that it’s never too cold to go out and buy a space heater. In fact, the coldest day is the best day to do it. Who wants to be seen carrying a big heater out of the store in July? People assume you’re too late for last winter, or mindlessly paranoid about next winter. No, by toting it out to the car on the coldest day of the year, I have crafted a new public image. In the face of terrific adversity, I was the one who took action. It was I who was undaunted by the cold, and I did the right — and the sensible — thing.  And I will be forever grateful that my confrere made me do it.

Hendrik van der Veere, Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. 1551.

Hendrik van der Veere, Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. 1551.

Various notes

+Last August I had the opportunity to visit the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, The Netherlands; and the pictures in today’s post come from there. The museum houses sacred art gathered from regional churches, but the buildings themselves are the star attraction for me. In the 16th and 17th centuries Saint Catharine’s served as a monastery/regional headquarters for the Order of Saint John, aka the Knights of Malta. The complex remains largely intact, and the galleries occupy spaces that once served as the dormitory, dining room, and administrative offices of the Order of Malta in Holland. The church remains a parish church today, and all the buildings are in an excellent state of preservation. It is well worth the visit to this lovely oasis, and it is only a short train-ride out of Amsterdam.

+Amish Mafia revisted: I received some wonderful email on my post on the Amish Mafia, and many readers who had seen snippets of the show were equally appalled. One reader mentioned a colony of Amish snow-birds in southwest Florida, which was a real surprise to me. A few brought to my attention several other freak shows, including one on the Hutterites. Frankly, I had not realized that communities of Hutterites still existed. Many of the founders of the Anabaptist groups came out of the Benedictine monasteries, which explains the communal/monastic organization of these groups.

photo+On January 25-27 I gave a three-day retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta. The retreat took place in Jacksonville, FL, and the weather was “not so bad”, as we might say in the dialect of Minnesota.

+On the afternoon of January 23rd the power on campus at Saint John’s went off, exactly twenty-two hours after I had plugged in my new space heater. There’s nothing more useless than an electrical appliance during a power outage. I still can’t believe I let myself get rushed into buying that thing.

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Saint Anthony Abbot, 16th century.  Museo Ciocesano, Venice.

Saint Anthony Abbot, 16th century. Museo Diocesano, Venice.

Is Faith a Freak Show?

For anyone who’s seen Amish Mafia, the January 5th review in The Washington Post summed it up succinctly. “Discovery Channel’s new reality show is really so awful that it doesn’t deserve to be on television.” It went on to claim that the program “turns faith into a freak show,” which it certainly seems to do. The viewing of even one episode is enough to upend your impressions of this peace-loving agrarian folk.

If the series is indeed “reality,” as it purports, then the Amish seem not so pure and innocent after all. The show implies that, left to their own devices, the Amish would quickly slide into a spiral of hard-partying, hard-drinking, hard-fighting mayhem. Compounding this natural tendency to go feral is a governing structure that confers on the church elders a rather benign spiritual authority, but no coercive power. To the community’s relief, then, the Amish Mafia has stepped in to fill the void. And so, while the elders wink and look the other way, the hoodlums use their muscle and intimidation to keep the latent barbarians from going over the edge.

photoBut is this portrait a true reflection of the character of the Amish? I think not, and I’m guessing that most Amish would agree. In any society there are rotten apples, and the Amish are not exempt. But the exceptions, no matter how many, never prove the rule; and I would bet the bank that a few naughty Amish do not represent the entire community.

The fact that the producers of Amish Mafia wagered that there was a market for this sort of drivel says a lot about us. We’re all curious about groups that live apart, and that is doubly so for groups that are religious. We’re especially curious about communities that set high-minded standards for themselves; and truth be told, we take secret delight when they fall from grace. In short, the producers, and their sponsors, knew there would be a ready audience for this kind of junk, and their job is to deliver what we deserve to see.

Museo Diocesano, formerly convent of Sant' Apollonia, Venice.

Museo Diocesano, formerly convent of Sant’ Apollonia, Venice.

There are lots of reasons why we savor the fall of the mighty. For one, it builds up our sagging self-esteem when we discover that others are no better than we. It also takes us off the hook from following through on our own lofty ideals. After all, if others can’t or won’t do the right thing, then why should we? And it eases our own guilt when we can point out that others are far worse than we. Adam was on to something when he blamed Eve, and no doubt he felt a lot better for having done so. And Eve was a quick study when she passed the blame on to the serpent. Surprisingly, the serpent seemed more than willing to take the credit, because he had just seen Adam and Eve make a mockery of their integrity.

Sant' Apollonia, arcade.

Sant’ Apollonia, arcade.

But sin is always more complicated than we like to think, and the miscreants in Amish Mafia are an exceptionally good case in point. We like to think that most sin is victimless, but rarely is it so. In this case, there is the hurt visited upon the friends and family of the do-badders. They have to be absolutely mortified. Then there is the impact on the larger community. All seem tarnished by the antics of a few, whether they should be or not. And finally there is the disillusion that grips those who look to the Amish for a glimmer of hope in a world gone wild. What of them?

I have to take serious issue with the Post‘s contention that Amish Mafia makes a freak show of faith. Ironically, it does quite the opposite, because it demonstrates what can happen when we check our faith at the door. To my way of thinking Amish Mafia is not about faith and how it ruins your life. It’s more precisely about what happens when you abandon a faith-filled life and throw caution to the wind. With little or nothing to anchor you, you had better come up with something equally good. Absent that, you run the risk of slipping below the animals on the nobility scale.

photoThere’s one other minor quibble that I have with the Post‘s review, and it has to do with its allegation that the show is “so awful that it doesn’t deserve to be on television.” Really? Is there such a show? That one I have a very difficult time believing.

Right now you can find pretty much any and everything on television, and each show claims that this is what “reality” is all about. Like the demon who whispers from his perch on our shoulders, the screen arrays the alternatives in glory before us. So far, most of what I’ve seen on television makes a mockery of the alternatives to faith. So far, there’s little that I’ve seen that would entice me to throw off my faith and trade it in to embrace “reality.”

photoVarious Notes

+During the past week I spent several days in Palm Springs, CA, visiting alumni and friends of Saint John’s. That was the easy part. On my return I discovered that the weather had turned decidedly chilly in Minnesota, and to my dismay the windows on my car were frozen shut at the airport parking lot. The day before I had left I had made the fateful choice of a clean car over a filthy car. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the cardinal rule that Minnesota drivers ignore at their peril: never run your car through the car wash late in the afternoon with an impending cold front on the way. Everything will freeze up on you. Happily, the parking attendant smiled knowingly when I had to open the door to pay the fee. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen that.

+On January 18th Fr. Luke Steiner, OSB, passed away peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 82. I recall Fr. Luke best as a teacher of New Testament, and while in seminary I took his course on the Gospel of John. Through the years he taught courses both at Saint John’s and in Jerusalem, and in later years he served as a chaplain to the Poor Claires in Sauk Rapids, MN.

photo+On January 17th we celebrated the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot (ca. 251-356). Variously known as Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, and Anthony of the Desert, he left behind his family’s wealth at the age of eighteen to become a hermit, and still later he ministered to the sick and imprisoned in Alexandria. Shortly after Anthony’s death, Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, wrote his Life of Anthony, which became highly influential in sparking the monastic movement in the West. Today, in Italy especially, he is revered as the patron and protector of animals; and on his feast day farmers bring their animals to Saint Peter’s Square for a blessing. What a mess.

+I am currently reading Bernini: His Life and His Rome, by Franco Mormando (University of Chicago Press, 2011). This is geared for the general reader, and I’ve found the book extremely interesting. It is a must-read for anyone who intends to do a tour of Baroque Rome, as well as for anyone who is the least bit interested in life in Rome in the 17th century.

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Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John's Bible.

Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John’s Bible.

Coping with Ordinary Time

Yesterday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, was the last day of Christmas. That has to be a relief to everybody in the country, and especially to retailers, who had to be worn out by that tired old season. Now they, and we, can gear up for Valentine’s Day and this year’s early arrival of the Easter Bunny. But for those who specialize in being Christian, this is the moment in the liturgical calendar when we get down to the serious business of Ordinary Time.

To some Ordinary Time sounds a bit like time-out, or an interlude between far-more-important milestones. But I contend that Christmas is the real time-out. In a sense it is not real, because it serves as a bookend to something that is far more important in terms of daily life. It’s not Christmas that makes or breaks our character. No, it’s in Ordinary Time when we show who we really are and of what we are made. Now the party’s over and Santa’s no longer watching; and it’s time to get down to the business of life. And the baptism of Jesus says the very same thing for Jesus. It’s time to leave the nest and begin his ministry.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 014One of the first illuminations that Donald Jackson produced for The Saint John’s Bible was the Baptism of Jesus. In it John the Baptist, bathed in a purple wash, seems to be walking into the shadows and off the page. Jesus, by contrast, is a tiny gold figure in the center. He’s small, and yet the intensity of the gold-leaf suggests there is someone very important who is about to step out onto the stage. “He must increase, and I must decrease” are the words of John the Baptist, and the illumination conveys that pefectly.

But there’s something else going on. While somewhat stylized, John the Baptist looks every bit a human being. Jesus, by contrast, is abstract, devoid of facial features. If we believe that Jesus is like us in all things but sin, why does He look faintly reminiscent of a space alien? He certainly looks like no one I know.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 007One challenge that has faced every artist of the sacred is the problem of anthropomorphism. Most successful Christian artists — including Romanesque and Gothic ones — have chosen to distort the sacred figures in one way or another. In Byzantine art it is readily apparent, with the large vacant eyes and long narrow nose and small mouth. All convey one or another spiritual quality, suggesting that such a person has become the home of the Holy Spirit.

And if that was one aim of Donald Jackson, there is another that puts him at one with a long line of artists. He wanted to make Jesus look human, and the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he certainly was. But he did not want Jesus to look too much like any one of us. In short, as much as we in Minnesota might like to imagine Jesus and the Holy Family as Scandinavian, they probably didn’t have blue eyes and blond hair. The more abstract portrait of Jesus suggests that He comes to us in many guises and in many ways; and He will continue to do so, whether we like it or not.

Baptistry tree

Baptistry tree

As much as it is a disappointment to realize that those lovely portraits of Jesus with chestnut brown hair and fair complexion may not be accurate, we need to move beyond them. In fact, for those of us who are of European stock, there is a great corpus of Christian art in which our relatives show up in disproportionate numbers. That’s all nice, but it’s not enough. Jesus shows no ethnic favoritism, nor regional bias. In Him ther is no east or west, slave or free, male or female.

In his illumination of the creation of Adam and Eve, Jackson carries this to its logical conclusion. There Adam and Eve appear as east-African, looking every bit the creatures who have been fashioned in the image of God. I remember quite vividly the day I showed that image to some sixth-graders at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, Los Angeles. One student in particular was absolutely mesmerized by what he saw. And I’ve always guessed that for the first time in his very young life he saw himself in the Bible.

Refectory window

Refectory window

The lesson here for us all is obvious. First, we must accept that there are people other than us and our relatives in the Bible — people other than Scandinavian, that is. But second, we too are in the Bible, along with everybody else. Whether Scandinavian or Peruvian or Egyptian or Thai, all of us are created in God’s image. All of us have a place in the biblical family. All of us are called by God, even if we think God ought to be just a little more discriminating about who He calls.

That, then, is part of the task of Ordinary Time. At the party which is Christmas, it’s pretty easy to let the bells and whistles distract us. Now, in Ordinary Time, it’s the long interlude in which we sleuth out the presence of Christ. And oddly enough, if we open our eyes, we’ll find Him all over the place, and especially in people whom we’ve scarcely considered.

Refectory: reader's stand

Refectory: reader’s stand

Various Notes

+On January 9th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at the Legatus of Phoenix chapter meeting. Happily, there were several members in attendance who had visited the Bible exhibit when it was at the Phoenix Art Museum. One had seen the exhibit seven times, which I found gratifying.

+For table reading in the monastic refectory we have begun a new book, this one by Dom Patrick Barry, OSB, the former abbot of Ampleforth Abbey in England. A Cloister in the World details the origins of the Manquehue apostolic movement — a lay Benedictine group in Chile. Since I’ve only heard the reading for one evening, I’m not in a position to comment on the text, other than to say that Benedictine life has an appeal far beyond the professed monks and nuns.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 016+Today all the Christmas decorations in the monastery come down. Ornaments go into storage, and the trees and greens go into the compost pile. Perhaps in a few years they will come back into the monastery in the form of a new generation of Christmas trees.

+On January 13th the students of Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin the winter term. “Let all guests be received as Christ” is the admonition of Saint Benedict in his Rule, and we strive to treat our students in the same way.

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7 January 2013 024The 13th Step of Humility: Trivial Pursuit

In recent years a great many essayists have mined the Rule of Saint Benedict for its wisdom. But despite the general quality of the advice there, most tend to overlook or ignore chapter 7’s “Steps of Humility.” Perhaps it’s because humility is out of fashion in an era of tooting your own horn. Perhaps it’s because in an egalitarian age in which everyone is already a winner, the idea that someone might be slightly less than a winner is unacceptable.  We are all great, and we all deserve to co-share in the first-place trophy and ribbons. So goes the prevailing theory. But it’s in practice that many good theories break down.

The fact of the matter is, life is filled with a thousand and one little humiliations, and I was reminded of this at the monastery’s New Year’s Eve gathering last week.  Mind you, most of us monks don’t last until midnight in the Central Time Zone. But on the theory that it’s midnight somewhere, we’ll variously ring in the new year with the Maritime Provinces or the Eastern Time Zone and call it quits. But before we adjourn for the night, we’ll visit over refreshments, dine on monk-made pizza, and play various card and board games.

December, Flemish Book of Hours, 15th century

December, Flemish Book of Hours, 15th century

I was happy to be drafted into a group playing the updated version of Trivial Pursuit, on the presumption that I would have a natural advantage here.  After all, I’d been in school virtually forever, and with a PhD in medieval studies I knew trivia that scarcely anyone in the room could match.  Need I say it, but I know where Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried; and I know the Latin name for Regensburg.  I assumed that I would be a priceless asset for any team that would have me.  But I was woefully mistaken.

First off, I quickly discovered that the makers of Trivial Pursuit seem never to have heard of medieval studies.  Instead, they seemed more concerned about topics that no one has any business knowing — like rap and hip-hop.  Those questions left most of us scratching our heads, but not the junior monk in the group.  Without a moment’s hesitation he rattled off the names of rap artists and their collaborators and their killers, as if someone had asked him the names of his parents and siblings.

January.  Flemish Book of Hours, 15th century.

January. Flemish Book of Hours, 15th century.

I also discovered that I was no match for the way-too-many questions on Canadian singers and baseball players.  But the Vancouver-born monk knew them all.  And my exasperation was complete when another monk answered a medical question without a trace of doubt.  What was the primary symptom of a six-word Latin-named disease?  The answer was “sneezing when you step out into sunlight.”  The rest of us were astonished, and a little annoyed.  How could a religious studies major know such a piece of arcana?  Well, it turns out that he has the disease, and he self-diagnosed in a high school biology class.  How in the world can you possibly compete against such insider knowledge?

The evening was entertaining, but slightly less so for me and one other monk at the table.  He’d been in a hermitage for ten years, and questions about pop culture went right by him. He may as well have been a visitor from Mars. As for me, I fared little better. There were no questions on the Sassanid Empire, or on the Abbasids either. There was just this endless parade of questions on things I considered to be truly trivial. In fact, I was able to contribute nothing to our team, except for the two times when “George Carlin” was the correct answer. “Who’s that?” they asked. Hiding my embarrassment, I brushed it off with the comment that he was a seminal figure in the corpus of comedic literature.

photoClearly, Saint Benedict never played Trivial Pursuit. But had he done so, he would have ranked it as the thirteenth step of humility. That’s when a monk discovers that he knows a lot less than he thought. It’s when a monk realizes — perhaps for the first time — that other people know useless stuff too.

It’s actually not a bad lesson to take into the new year. There are moments when we all take ourselves far too seriously. Not surprisingly, there are days when we place ourselves squarely at the epicenter of all creation. But it’s always good to discover that it can be very crowded at the center of the universe. We’re not the only ones who think we know everything. We are not the sole figures in all creation who share omniscience with God.

Christmas eve 132On New Year’s Day I licked my wounds from my terrible humiliation at Trivial Pursuit. And while I emerged with a new-found respect for my confreres and their vast knowledge, I also comforted myself with one insight into the nature of Trivial Pursuit. Of course there were no questions on medieval history, because in no way could any such queries qualify as trivial. They are of earth-shaking import.

I have also comforted myself with a strategy of how best to avenge myself for the humiliation I suffered on New Year’s Eve. When I have the time, I plan to send a registered letter to the American Federaton of Rap Artists. In it I intend to inform them that the makers of Trivial Pursuit have judged their work to be truly trivial. And then I will ask what they intend to do about it.

Virgen of Tenderness, icon by Fr. Nathanael Hauser, OSB

Virgen of Tenderness, icon by Fr. Nathanael Hauser, OSB

Various Notes

+On December 31st I visited Nativity Church in Saint Paul, MN, where I concelebrated the funeral Mass for Raymond Welsh, father and grandfather of two colleagues at Saint John’s University.

+On January 5th I celebrated the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, in memory of my good friend Lynn.

+When I was in high school I had the chance to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and so I naturally jumped at the chance to see the movie after it was released at Christmas.  In a technical sense it was a real tour de force.  I’d not seen a movie in 3-D, and so it was a delight to see birds and dragons fly right up to me, courtesy of the magic glasses.  It was a fun movie, but the plot was a little thin, due to the fact that the book needs to be stretched out for a trilogy of films.  Were Soap Opera Digest to do a brief description, it would read like this:  “Hobbit runs into challenges and problems on way to somewhere.”  It is also a little long on violence, but I hesitate to say that it was gratuitous violence.  If you took the violence out, there wouldn’t be much left.

Fr. Nickolas: hello from Saint Peter's

Fr. Nickolas: hello from Saint Peter’s

+Our confrere Fr. Nickolas Becker returned from his studies in Rome to spend the Christmas holidays with us.  His work there progresses well, and in the middle of it all he manages to squeeze in some pastoral work.  In the picture which he forwarded, he and a group of our students are entering Saint Peter’s Basilica, where they were scheduled to have Mass.

+Postscript:  In case you were wondering, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, is buried at the Abbey of Fontevrault in France.  The Latin name for Regensburg is Ratisbon.  This may be more than you wanted to know.

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