Archive for December 2nd, 2013

imageLead Us Not into Temptation.  We Know the Way Ourselves

Just for the heck of it, I leafed through the pile of inserts that came with the Thanksgiving issue of our local newspaper.  Of course we who are connoisseurs of marketing already know what to expect.  Literally overnight a predictable and not-so-subtle shift has taken place.  On the previous Sunday you could find dozens of bargains on vitamins, toothpaste, detergent and the like.  But come Thanksgiving  you will search in vain for discount coupons for things that you really need.  The Lord only knows where all those products go for six weeks, but in the world of advertising they no longer exist.

Taking their place is a dizzying array of electronics, novelty clothes, and other unnecessaries that visually scream at us.  They so rivet our attention that it has to be counter-productive for the merchants.  There’s just too much; and like Moses who could not stare at the face of God and live, my eyes cannot behold all those products and decide.

Good advertising is in some ways the product of the devil’s own workshop.  The facts of the matter are simple.  If you covet anything in those pages, you are damned.  And if you dismiss it all with a derisive wave of the hand, you are damned.  I may be indifferent to all that stuff in the stores; but unlike all those covetous people, my condescension has led me into the sin of pride.  That, of course, is the express route to the gates of hell.

imageThrough the years I’ve come to terms with this moral dilemma.  In my youth I devoured the pre-Christmas issues of The New Yorker, because I longed to own any of the items pictured on any of the pages.  Back then The New Yorker featured great stuff, and I wanted it all.  But The New Yorker has changed, and so have I.  Some years ago I owned up to my weakness and dealt with it.  And I owe my conversion experience to a prayer on a greeting card that read:  “And lead us not into temptation; we already know the way ourselves.”  I already knew where to find the entry ramp onto the highway into temptation.  So I stopped looking at the ads in the post-Thanksgiving issues of The New Yorker.

Of course one ought not get tangled up in your own thoughts too much.  That can lead to narcissism and the notion that I may be the only person in the world.  In fact, there are lots of other people out there, and I’ve discovered that not a few of them face personal dilemmas of their own.  We all confront choices, but the best of us try to be conscious when we make our choices.

imageIf there were no such thing as Advent, it would be a good idea to make it up.  Its value is enormous, which is why it’s a shame we run herd-like to the malls at this time of year.  Precisely at a time of year that calls for some introspection, we rush in the opposite direction.  The leaves have fallen, and the beginnings of a winter landscape remind us of the least common denominators of human life.  What’s necessary to sustain life?  What’s necessary to promote life?  What’s necessary to make me and my neighbor flourish in our lives?

It’s a little surprising that Saint Benedict doesn’t make reference to Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  He gives pride of place to another season when he advises that the life of a monk should be a Lenten observance.  Of course that’s an invitation to live in intensity rather than misery; but it contains at least a kernel of the spirit of Advent.

In the Prologue to the Rule, Benedict writes that “the labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you drifted through the sloth of disobedience.”  The him is Jesus Christ, and as far as I’m concerned the other key word here is drift.

imageDrift is the operative word because few of us have the presence of mind to get up and announce that henceforth we’ve decided to abandon Christ and head straight to hell  in a handbasket.  No, most of us are a lot less deliberate in our choices.  Instead, we mindlessly meander from day to day, not conscious of any direction in our lives.  But then we wake up to find we’ve drifted off course, sometimes by quite a lot.  And all too often we wonder how this drift has come to pass.  Well, as often as not we were asleep at the wheel.  We let marketing or peer pressure or sloth determine the decisions.  We took the path of least resistance, and now, at the end of the day, we discover what wonderful opportunities we’ve missed.

Advent is not a season for big-time penance.  That’s for Lent.  Advent is not a time to look back, take inventory, and repent for the poor decisions we’ve made up to this point.  That’s for Lent.  Advent, rather, is a time for looking to the future.  It’s a time to ask where we intend to go.  It’s a time to ask what we hope to find at the end of our journey.  It’s a time to begin making all those little and not-so-little course corrections that seem to make all the difference in the world.

imageThis is practical wisdom for any who would want to live life consciously.  But for Christians it’s a reminder that we are heading to Jesus, and that Jesus comes into our lives not just at the end of time, but daily.  For that reason Benedict quotes these words from Psalm 94:  “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.”

In the spare landscape of early winter in Minnesota one most definitely hears the voice of God calling.  But I have no doubt that God calls in the hearts of people wherever they are.  And God calls us to live with a sense of purpose, with an idea of where we’d like to be headed with our lives, and what’s really important in our lives.

Some religious traditions speak of this as enlightenment.  I like to think of it as the common sense that God tries to instill into each of us.  Whatever you may want to call it, Advent is a good time to give it a try.  So don’t be distracted by the tinsel, because there’s lots for us to consider this Advent.


+During the past week I did not walk through a single metal detector or airport portal.  The airlines did not miss me, and I certainly did not miss them.

+Thanksgiving was its usual warm celebration in the monastery.  Following Mass at 11 am, we adjourned to the refectory, where we dined on the fare typical of the day.  Topping my own list of favorite dishes was the squash that had come from our garden.

This year I had the forethought to volunteer to be one of the servers, with special attention to the bread detail.  Just before lunch I helped to load trays of rolls into the oven, and then filled a big wicker laundry basket with the finished product.  I must have looked rather quaint, dressed in a long white apron over my habit, toting the big basket from monk to monk in the refectory.

image+The Thanksgiving holiday marks a transition on several fronts.  Winter is now here to stay, and the lakes at Saint John’s are frozen solid.  You can see people out on them ice fishing, and at least one monk has already ventured out to skate on the glassy surface.  But impending snow threatens to ruin the ice as far as skating goes.

Thanksgiving also ushers in the preparations for Advent.  The Advent wreaths have now appeared, and the huge tree has appeared in the Great Hall.

+November 30th marked the last day of our All Souls observance.  During October friends of the Abbey sent in prayer requests for loved ones who have passed, and at each service throughout November individual monks have selected an individual request from the baskets.  It’s a touching way for us to remember our solidarity with deceased friends and relatives from across the country.

image+During Advent my tastes in music shift decisively to choral music, and it’s a shame to limit it to the handful of days following Christmas.  Given the commercial competition out there, you can’t start too early.  In the next few posts I will make reference to several videos, including Donkey Rider by John Rutter.  It’s among my favorites, and this performance at a concert in the basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi is very good.  But you must listen to a few seconds of Italian to get to it, and it is definitely worth the short wait.

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