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Archive for January 7th, 2013

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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