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Archive for February 18th, 2013

Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara

Letting Go

Like most everyone else, Pope Benedict’s impending retirement caught me flatfooted.  Of course as a historian I am aware that several popes have resigned;  but I never thought that such a thing would happen in my lifetime.  Shame on me!

I now realize how myopic my attitudes about the papal office had become.  The pope may be infallible when it comes to faith and morals, but no pope ever claimed to be divine.  Every pope knows he will someday meet his maker, just like the rest of us.  But they’ve also known that they can and do wear themselves out, and that no one is indispensable.  Most popes too have been under no illusion that there are more than enough candidates who are only too happy to step into their shoes.  Such paragons of self-sacrifice have always hovered near the papal throne.

Mission Church, interior

Mission Church, interior

While everyone professed to be flabbergasted by Pope Benedict’s decision, no one had a right to be surprised.  After all, the hints have been there for years.  Nor should anyone engage in the condescension that I have picked up between the lines of some of the commentary.  For one thing, medicine can prolong the lives of people well beyond the point of “useful” service.  Modern medicine can keep people alive for years while they are in a coma.  And modern medicine can become an end in itself.  Our ailments and their treatment can easily become the central focus of our lives, if we are not vigilant.

Was Pope Benedict possibly unaware of this?  Even granting him no benefit of the doubt, I suspect the implications of this dawned on him years ago.  In retrospect, his hints were frequent and obvious enough for anyone to pick up on.  But somehow the professional pope-watchers missed it all.  In fact, why should anyone be surprised that Pope Benedict paid attention to his own words on the subject?

Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University

People are astonished at his readiness to walk away from power, and that’s another mistake.  We’ve too often thought of the papal office in terms of authority and the exercise of raw power, forgetting that the pope is a human being, just like the rest of us.  Should we be amazed that Pope Benedict thinks he’s getting up in years?  Why shouldn’t Pope Benedict be allowed to consider retirement?  At the age of eighty-five it’s probably a good idea to give it some thought; and it’s highly likely that he’s thought of it often.  After all, he’s spent many of his waking hours trying to find replacements for his fellow bishops, who all retire at seventy-five.

No, I suspect that Pope Benedict has been thinking about retirement from his first day on the papal throne.  For eight years he did the job out of a sense of duty; and he did it to the best of his ability.  But he also realized that someday duty would demand a different course of action.  That day came.

Pope Benedict deserves a lot of respect for his decision, but I’m not so sure he deserves it just because he’s done this at the age of eighty-five.  Rather, he better deserves our esteem because he’s examined the direction of his life at a critical juncture.  He weighed his life in a balance between ministry and his personal journey of faith.  So I give him credit for knowing when to turn in his two weeks’ notice; but I give him greater credit for knowing what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  Ideas on how to spend retirement are already pouring in.  One writer suggested that Pope Benedict buy a condo in south Florida — preferably one with a nice pool and lanai.  No doubt that could be a great boost for Florida real estate; but the pope is no more likely to do that than he is to sit around in t-shirt and sweatpants, drinking beer and watching European football all afternoon.  No, that’s just not him.

photo (4)It should astonish no one that Pope Benedict has no plans to loll away his remaining years on sunny Mallorca like so many of his fellow Germans.  The reason?  He still has way too much to do.  I have no doubt that his job jar has been filled to overflowing for years; and he should know, because he’s been filling it himself.  He must be incredibly excited at the prospect of dipping his hand into that jar now and again.

If there’s one bit of wisdom I’ve learned from people like Pope Benedict, it’s this:  letting go does not mean giving up.  I have many friends who allege that they are retired, but they are far busier than I.  Walking away from a job did not frighten them, because there were so many interesting things that they’d put off for  years.  And now they are busier than ever and happier than ever.  And in so many ways they’ve enriched their community for it.  But why is it so much easier for some to let go of a job, when it is so threatening for others?

Santa Clara University:     Saint John's Bible Exhibit

Santa Clara University: Saint John’s Bible Exhibit

In his Rule Saint Benedict encourages the abbot to rotate work assignments so that no monk becomes proud or begins to think of himself as indispensable.  Of course not a few communities have suffered when a great cook passed the spatula on to a klutz, but you get the point.  What Saint Benedict meant to teach was something fundamental about the meaning of our lives.  While holding a particular job should be fulfilling, each one of us is far more important than any job we hold.  Each one of us has some terrific gifts and winning qualities, and perhaps we’ve used them well through much of our lives.  But if you’ve done one job well for forty or fifty years, what have you given up in the meantime?  What talents have remained dormant?  What have you failed to discover about your own life? Knowing when to let go is a matter of timing as well as an art.  But it’s a lot less scary if we recall that we’ve been given additional years to acomplish something really important.  I suspect that Pope Benedict can’t wait until 8 pm on February 28th.  He’ll go to bed a happy man, and on March 1st he’ll probably wake up early, because there’s so much he’s eager to get done.  Good for him!  And we should all be ready to do the same when the time is right for us.

photo (6)Notes

+The last week has been quite busy for me, and not entirely free from stress.  On February 9th I flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco, but the check-in did not  bode well.  As I watched the agent tag my bag, I pointed out that he was sending my bag to Puerto Vallarta.  I then asked my neighbor in line if he happened to be going to San Francisco, because his bag had just headed off in that direction, courtesy of my baggage tag attached to it.  He wasn’t; and it took two agents twenty minutes to scour the airport to retrieve and relabel his bag and mine.  Fun.

+On February 12th I delivered a talk at the Bannon Institute at Santa Clara University.  The Institute’s Winter Quarter theme is “Sacred Dialogue: Interpreting and Embodying Sacred Texts Across Traditions.”  My talk was entitled “Texts and Pen: The Legacy of Biblical Art and The Saint John’s Bible.

+On Feburary 15th I delivered the keynote address at a dinner at the cathedral in Los Angeles, celebrating the 900th anniversary of Pope Paschal II’s bull that recognized the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (later known as the Order of Malta.)  Then on February 16th I spoke at a parallel event in San Francisco.

photo (7)+Our alumni of Saint John’s University continue to amaze me with their career choices.  This last week one member of the class of 2008, Joe Mailander, and his high school classmate, Justin Lansing, won a Grammy Award for the best song in the category of children’s music.  Known as The Okee Dokee Brothers, Justin and Joe grew up in Denver.  Joe graduated from Saint John’s, and several friends from Saint John’s contributed to the background music.  They won the award for their album Can you Canoe, but all of their songs are a delight.  After you’ve watched this video, then listen to Brothers.  You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the music, the lyrics, and the lovely Minnesota scenery.

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