Archive for January, 2014

imageThrones of Power

According to the modern inscription beside the stone chair, the ritual was simple.  Once the curial cardinals had selected one of their own to be pope, they then escorted the bishop-of-Rome-elect to this particular chair.  After a moment’s pause they seated him, seeming to remind him of the awesome responsibility to which he had just acceded.  Only that’s not what this was really about.

Please don’t assume that the point was to give the guy a moment for rest as he gathered his strength to assume the throne of Saint Peter.  Rather, in this case the chair itself was supposed to do all the talking.  This was no ordinary chair.

imageIn fact, it was an ancient Roman seat that had been especially recycled for the occasion.  It was nothing less than a throne from an imperial-era Roman latrine, refitted with a solid seat.  And the symbolism allowed the cardinals one last hopeful smirk as they installed their former colleague as supreme pontiff.  The ritual was intended to recall to their minds one poetic and yet less-than-elegant passage from scripture.  “From the dust he lifts up the lowly; from the dung-heap he raises the poor.”  They could only hope that this would temper the zeal of the new pope as he grabbed for the reins of power.

On one level this served to caution the new pope.  As pope he may stand among the most powerful on earth, but he still had to go to the bathroom like everyone else.  It also reminded him that whatever fantasies of self-importance he might entertain, he was still mortal.  He had come from the dust and would someday return to the dust.

And if all that failed to register with the newly-elect, then at least it consoled many of the cardinals who were present.  Not a few in the room had been more than willing to take a shot at sitting on this throne.  They had lost out this time around, but this guy would not last forever.  Someday he’d be gone and they’d be back.  As the pundits have pointed out for centuries, “popes may come and go; but the curia remains forever.”  That is an article of faith that has endured through the centuries.

imageToday this piece of furniture sits in the cloister of the basilica of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral of the bishop of Rome.  Though this seat no longer performs the function for which it was first designed, nor the secondary role for which it was refitted in the Middle Ages, it’s still worth the small price of admission to see.  For one thing, it recalls the days when not a few candidates for the papal throne were ruthless beyond belief.  It also reminds the contemporary chicken-little in our midst that unsavory characters are not unique to the 21st-century Church.  The Church has in fact been going to the dogs ever since we started baptizing people.  Such people will always be with us as long as we keep welcoming ordinary people into the Church.  After all, popes have always taught that the Church is the gathering of the imperfect who are seeking God, not a conclave of the perfect.  The latter gathering is to be found only in heaven, or in splinter groups of the eccentric.

imageIf people find this lust for power overly shocking, it’s because they’ve not been reading their Bible.  Just the example of James and John suffices to make the point.  Jesus had not even ascended into heaven, and yet their mother was already lobbying for the prime seats of power at the conference table.  Nor did it help that Jesus often used language that was ambiguous.  The “keys of the kingdom” and the “power to bind and to loose” sound pretty attractive to the ambitious sorts.  But it doesn’t always occur to people, then or now, that power brings with it a huge burden of service.  “To whom much is given, much is expected;” and to their credit each of the twelve apostles, save one, came to realize this.  But the temptation to snatch for ecclesial power has never abated, because the Prince of Darkness is still a very busy, and ambitious, guy.

Not surprisingly, Saint Benedict was acutely aware of the allure of power, and he used several images to hem in the job description for the abbot.  Monarch, however, was not one of them.  Instead, the abbot was a shepherd of souls.  He was a wise physician, suggesting that whatever power he had was not intended for his personal pleasure.  And if none of this worked to sober up the power-hungry abbot, then the fear of judgement day was Benedict’s final resort.  The abbot would share a fate in direct proportion to the quality of the community that he was supposed to lead.  No wonder that sane men shrank from that burden.

imageBut of course Benedict knew that the allure of power comes whispering into the ears of every monk.  He expresses particular concern for the prior, who might try to become an alternate source of authority within the community.  And as any monk can tell you, each one of us is capable of setting up our own little kingdom.  Each of us can succumb to the flattering thought that our talents are unique, and that they are indispensable to the welfare of the community.  Obviously there’s an element of truth to this.  We all have talents, and they add immeasurably to the life of the community.  But there will come a day when we’ll need to rely on others to take up that burden.  No one, in short, is indispensable, as Saint Benedict reminds us.

imageIn a few days Pope Francis will create a new group of cardinals, and a lot of ink has been spilt on this already.  As he does so, it’s important to remember that Pope Francis is no fool.  He’s keenly aware of the history of the Church and more particularly that of the college of cardinals.  He knows the tales of selfless service as well as the stories of chicanery, and he’s determined to reinforce the tendency toward the former.  He emphasizes the role of the cardinal as a tireless servant of the Church, and the Church is nothing less than the people of God.  Whether in the curia or in the pastoral field, cardinals should above all else bring people to an encounter with Jesus Christ.  Anything less is merely loud gongs and clanging symbols.  For that reason he is interested in creating servants who will be there for all the people of God, rather than princelings who will gather select followers into their personal fiefdom.

imageBut before we who are not cardinals get too smug about this, we should realize that these aspirations apply to us as well.  It matters not who we are.  Talents given to each of us are talents meant for the service of all.  Gifts and abilities are not given to build our own private kingdoms.  Rather, we should use them for the greater honor and glory of God.

As Christians, whether we be cardinals or otherwise, our lives should point to Christ and radiate the joy and the strength of life in Christ.  Our hands should be the hands of Christ.  Our actions should be the actions of Christ in service to others.  After all, if they don’t point to Christ, then to what enduring values do they really point?  The job description is ours to compose.    Given that it is our own lives that we are to describe, we might be well-advised to write wisely.


+On January 20th I spoke at a luncheon-meeeting of the Serra Club of Saint Paul.  In my talk I described the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, which is sponsored by Saint John’s Abbey.  In its 11th year, the program sends recent graduates of Saint John’s University for a year of service at Benedictine monasteries around the world.

+On January 21st I and Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, hosted an evening reception for friends and alumni in Scottsdale, AZ.

+In the aftermath of last week’s posting on Saint Anthony Abbot, I received many good comments from readers.  One individual was kind enough to forward a link to a video that provided footage of the stalls of animals in Saint Peter’s Square.  No fancy vestments or Sistine Chapel Choir here!

image+All of the photos in today’s post come from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome.  The first shows the cloister, which houses a veritable museum of fragments from tombs, altars and other artifacts that span the history of the basilica.  Included is the refashioned latrine chair, which is the second picture above.  The third picture is of the pope’s chair in the apse of the basilica.  What follows are a few of tombs of the many popes, cardinals, bishops and other ecclesiastics who are buried or commemorated in the basilica.  Were it not for the incredibly spacious interior, it would be overwhelmed by the added constructions during the past 1,700 years.  The church was first built by the Emperor Constantine and has been the cathedral of the bishop of Rome ever since.  That invariably surprises those who assume that Saint Peter’s is the seat of the popes.  I took these photos while I was in Rome for a meeting in early December.

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imageA Farm in the City

I was rather charmed by the news from Vatican City on January 17th, the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot.  While the talking heads sat around waiting for announcements about papal appointments and doctrinal dicta, people had gathered in Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate something not even remotely connected to the interests of the reporters.  This Saint Anthony is the patron and protector of animals, and an ecumenical menagerie had gathered in the Bernini Colonnade, creating for six hours what one announcer termed a “farm in the city.”

No description can ever be complete, but I assume that there was more there than the customary cavalcade of horses.  The Vatican announcement included on the guest list an array of cows, goats, rabbits, sheep and chickens.  I’m guessing that they also welcomed ducks and llamas; but I can only wonder whether the pigs were invited.  My sense is that under the benevolent gaze of Pope Francis no domestic animal was deliberately excluded.  But given Vatican politics, who’s to say for sure?

imageYou can imagine what fun it was for the children of Rome to wander through this farm in the middle of town.   By contrast, I’m not so sure that pious pilgrims who had saved for years for this were entirely edified.  After all, some of us already see stuff like this at state fairs across America.  Imagine shelling out money for a pilgrimage to Rome, and then have to step gingerly between cow pies as you enter Saint Peter’s.  On the other hand, that’s what it must have been like during the Middle Ages.

That said, it was not the animals alone that stirred my imagination.  It was also the patron of the animals who piqued my curiosity.  How in the world does a 4th-century Egyptian monk become the occasion for an annual assembly of farm animals at the Vatican?  Good question, and I’m not sure I’ve got an adequate answer.

imageGiven that it was the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot, you could probably make a better case for a congress of monks and nuns in the square, rather than animals. After all, that might be more appropriate, considering Anthony’s personal history.  In the course of his 100+ years he witnessed the remaking of the Mediterranean world.  In a time of religious persecution Anthony had turned his back on the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert.  Later he returned to society, planning to be a martyr for his faith.  But alas, he was too late.  In his absence Egypt had become largely Christian, and even the emperor in Rome had converted.  Lacking someone to put him to death for his faith, Anthony instead turned to serving prisoners and the poor.

Saint Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria, recounts this in his biography of Anthony.  His text took off in popularity, and it circulated widely in the east and the west.  For centuries it inspired men and women to leave all and to embrace the monastic way of life.  Not surprisingly, Anthony ever since has been revered as one of the founders of the monastic movement.  From there it’s an easy jump across 1,700 years to a herd of farm animals who have gathered in Rome in his memory.  And if you can figure out the thread of logic that connects those two points, be sure and write.

imageWhat really intrigues me, however, is a cultural and spiritual influence that  has almost entirely evaporated in the west.  In my years of museum and church visits, I’ve noticed pieces of western art that have centered on a great many eastern holy men and women.  But if you took a poll of average American Christians today, most would not have a clue about the identity of saints like Anthony of Egypt, Dorothea of Gaza, Mary of Egypt and Catherine of Alexandria.  Yet, not five hundred years ago these figures were staples of the religious and spiritual landscape of western Europeans.  As an abundance of western art testifies, these easterners at one time captivated the imaginations of Europeans, even if these saints had never set foot on the soil of Europe.  Clearly that is no longer the case.

I, along with many, regret the demise of the ties that once bound east and west together in spiritual vitality.  Of course this awareness of the east had its roots in the Bible.  It was reinforced by the adventures of people like Egeria, who travelled from Spain to Egypt and the Holy Land in the late  4th century.  Her diary sparked a veritable industry based on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Though the number of pilgrims has waxed and waned through the centuries, it still goes on.  But for medieval pilgrims who retraced her steps to Egypt, to the Holy Land and to places like Syria, it was like a visit to Oz.  These sites were the heartland of Christianity, and the saints there were larger than life.  No wonder that Europeans latched onto them for physical protection and spiritual inspiration.

imageNot so today.  We scarcely know who these people were, and it’s our loss.  It’s also our loss that we’ve let slip the links with the places where they lived and died.  It’s led to a spiritual disorientation on our part, and it no longer surprises me when people think that the Bible was written in English, and that it foretells events that would be fulfilled in places like Kansas centuries later.  With a tip of the hat to the wonderful people of Kansas, the Bible was not written specifically with them in mind, nor even about our entire country.  It was about all of God’s people.

Given all that, it’s important that we never lose sight of our debt to the eastern churches and their fascinating saints.  It’s important that we appreciate the efforts of Popes Benedict and Francis, as well as so many others, to work to solve the various crises in Syria and in the Middle East.  And it’s important that we cherish the spiritual gifts that we can receive from our brothers and sisters in the East.  If it takes a gathering of cows and goats and chickens in Saint Peter’s Square to start the ball rolling, then all the better.

On January 17th it was not the first time that God has used animals to communicate something important.  This time the message may be more important than ever.  Given our bent toward a materialistic worldview, Saints Anthony and Dorothea and Catherine may very well have some spiritual insights that can save us from ourselves.


+On January 14th I was in New York and met with Ambassador Robert Shafer, the ambassador of the Order of Malta at the United Nations.

+On January 15th fire pretty much destroyed the paint shop at Saint John’s .  It was a spectacular event, which began in the attic of the shop while the monks were at evening prayer.  The blaze ruined a lot of furniture that had been produced in the abbey woodworking shop, as well as the lids of two pianos from the music department.  The latter had suffered water damage last summer.  But the fire damage was not the finishing work they had had in mind.  The building itself was constructed of brick in 1912 and stood in what we term the “industrial zone” of campus.  Fortunately no one was injured.  The fire departments from nearby Saint Joseph and Avon helped our own fire crew, but it was too late to save the building.    For the photographs I owe a debt to Brother Nick Moe.

image+Over the holidays I completed A. Scott Berg’s recent biography of Woodrow Wilson, entitled Wilson.  I found it engaging, though the first chapters that narrate his years at Princeton and the later chapters on World War I were particularly interesting.  The text dealing with his illness while in the White House describes something that could not possibly happen today: his wife Edith pretty much shielded the president from prying eyes and ran the government herself.  I also found one of Wilson’s statements from his years as president of Princeton particularly apt:  “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

image+During my brief time in New York I was able to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was easy to discover instances of western art that touched on eastern saints and sites.  At the top of this post is a 16th-century panel of Saint Anthony Abbot, flanked by Saints Roch and Lucy.  The 15th-century English stained glass includes windows that depict Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria; while the bust/reliquary presents Saint Catherine once again.  Finally, the Spanish carving from ca. 1500 shows the flight into Egypt.

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imageThe Last Day of Christmas

On Sunday we celebrated the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist.  That feast obviously has deep religious significance in the life of Jesus, but it also serves an important liturgical function.  If you take your cues from the malls,  you might conclude that Christmas is all but over on December 26th, but that would be a big mistake.  In fact, at least in the Catholic tradition, the season ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year fell on January 12th.

If you want an easy way to distinguish monastic culture from the commercial world, look no further than the celebration of Christmas.  Long before monks even think about that season, stores have been decked out in Christmas attire for weeks and sometimes even months.  We’ve all seen stores offering Christmas stuff in July, and I know for a fact that these are not post-Christmas sales.  Apparently you can never be too early when it comes to Christmas — or so it seems in some quarters.

imageAll of this is a far cry from the monastic time frame.  Simple wreaths will show up on the 1st Sunday of Advent, but nothing even remotely festive appears until Christmas Eve.  By secular standards we’re ridiculously late.

But the contrast doesn’t end there.  By December 26th the stores are desperate to get the last of the Christmas merchandise moving.  Out it must all go, and with it go all the decorations as well.  I assume that Saint Valentine must be knocking on the door, while the Easter Bunny is thumping impatiently on the loading dock.

Not so in the monastery.  Since we only put up the decorations on the 24th, we’re not about to pack it all away after only two days.  It all stays up through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, after which it’s toast.  By Monday we’re full-throttle back into the liturgical non-season known as Ordinary Time.  What joy.

I  mention all this not to begin a reflection on the liturgical year, but rather as an issue of things and the meaning of things.  Since most of us have a tough time deciding when it’s time to let go of things, it strikes me as wonderfully convenient to have a particular day that puts limits on the useful life of things.  So it is that up through Vespers on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, all those Christmas things are wonderfully useful.  But by the time we process out from Vespers, those same items have become trash.  And by the next day it’s long gone.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a holiday like that for the entire nation?  I know I could use it for my room.

imageLast week I was lamenting to a colleague the mess in my office and in my room, but he cut me short with a suggestion.  Some time ago he had read a book entitled Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui.  He quickly assured me that feng shui wasn’t anything athletic, and that it would change my whole approach to clutter.  I promised to give it a try.

I’ve not yet finished the book, so perhaps it has still more magic to work on me.  But for now, a few things already have struck me.  First of all, whatever feng shui may be in its fullest articulation, some of it sounds suspiciously like common sense.  On the other hand it’s taking me a bit to shift into unfamiliar terminology.  Up to now the junk in my room has merely gotten on my nerves.  I now understand that that junk is in fact clutter.  And it’s not bugging the heck out of me.  Instead, it’s sending out negative energy, which is adding to the clutter in my mind.

I know that further ecumenical dialog is needed here, but given Saint Benedict’s teaching on things there may be the potential for a meeting of minds.  First of all, Benedict doesn’t see things as intrinsically evil.  In fact, the shared tools of the monastery should be treated as if they were the vessels of the altar.  But when it comes to individual ownership, Benedict shows his true colors.  In theory monks are not to own any private property.  In practice, however, that’s never really worked out.  Instead, Benedict allows that some monks will need more and some less.  But all should be given what is necessary to do their work well and to meet the needs of each day.  Here, however, Benedict goes against the flow of modern culture, because he clearly praises the monk who can get by on less.

imageWhere Benedict might be on common ground with the enthusiasts of feng shui is on the issue of mental clutter.  Property may not be evil, but it can easily play tricks on the mind of the monk.  The few possessions can easily become the great treasure that needs protecting.  In such a case, no wonder a monk might be distracted from the search for God.  So it is that Benedict saw the link between things and the mind.  And whether you call it negative energy, the influence of the devil, or simply driving you crazy, it’s there.

Anyway, my irritation at the junk that cluttered my room finally got the better of me.  Two days before the end of the Christmas season I carted off magazines and papers and many items that had no business being in my room.  For the sake of argument I now assume that the feng shui is flowing a lot better in my room.  I also know that I have a lot less clutter in my mind and a lot more peace of mind.  Now I’ll need all of that as I face the rigors of Ordinary Time.


+On January 5th I flew south and was able to spend two days with my mother and brothers and sisters in Edmond, OK, before going to Dallas for a series of meetings.

image+On January 7th I had the opportunity to visit the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.  Founded by monks who had fled Hungary after the revolt in 1956, they conduct a highly-regarded prep school in Irving, TX, only a short bit from the airport.  I was welcomed by Abbot Peter Verhalen, O.Cist., who gave me a great tour of the monastery and the school.  The enclosed pictures illustrate their church, which reflects the spare lines of the Cistercian monastic tradition.  For those unfamiliar with the Cistercians, they are an early 12th-century reform movement following the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Still later the Trappists emerged as a reform group of the Cistercians.  The Cistercians were quite deliberate in their emphasis on artistic simplicity, as a comparison with the images from churches in Munich (above) make abundantly clear.

image+On January 8th I had dinner with and spoke to a gathering of alumni of Saint John’s University who live in the Dallas area.

+On January 12th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and you may see the text, The Baptism of the Lord, in Presentations.

+This last week we welcomed as our guest in the monastery Fr. Roger Akhrass, a Syrian Orthodox monk from Lebanon.  He will be with us for the winter/spring semester as he pursues research at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.

image+After a rather lengthy cold snap (understatement), the temperatures finally climbed up to 30 late in the week.  That warming trend in no way threatened those who enjoy the pleasures of ice-fishing, since the lake ice is estimated to be nearly two feet thick.  But it did allow us to ring the abbey bells once again.  When it gets too cold we’ve had to leave off ringing them, since we’ve cracked more than one in recent years.  It was great to hear them again.

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imageEpiphany: It’s in the Stars

When the new year hits, most people I know craft resolutions that promise to reshape their destiny.  I’ve done it as well, despite knowing that by mid-January those life-changing resolves will be but a distant memory.

This year I decided to turn to astrology instead.  For one thing, if the movements of the stars and planets determine everything, then how can my own feeble actions thwart such forces?  This may very well explain why all new year’s resolutions ultimately fail.  So this year I’ve decided to give the stars a chance.  If they ordain it all, then who am I to go against the flow?

I surveyed the qualifications of several astrologers, and I immediately drew one shocking conclusion.  If the zodiac rules everything, then we should expect that all astrologers should be on the same page.  But they’re not.  In fact, they’re all over the zodiacal charts, and you are left to choose which predictions best determine the future you most want.

In that spirit, I narrowed my guides to two:  Susan Miller from The Washington Post, and an unnamed writer from The Onion.  The Post is an obvious choice, since it can be fairly accurate, when it chooses to be so.  I selected The Onion in  the spirit of modern journalism.  If you’re reporting a story, it’s always important to present an opposing view, no matter how off-the-wall the source may be.  The Onion itself is that opposing version of reality.  Its editors do it better than anyone; and best of all, they’re honest about their intentions.

imageMiller offered a year-ahead overview, which I thought could be a huge help to me as I step into 2014.  Her analysis for Virgo, my sign, was really encouraging.  “You’ll have the ability to make new friends in the first half of 2014.”  But then my paranoia asserted itself, and I wondered whether all those friendships might dissolve come July.

Equally fuzzy was her crystal-clear advice on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.  “Getting involved with social media will also benefit you now in ways you have not imagined.”  Since I write a blog, which I guess counts as social media, that sounded pretty good.  But then I began to wonder about those promised “benefits.”  Might they be wonderful, or might they be horrible?  Both have happened to people on Twitter, and we know some of the horror stories.  So I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what benefits come my way.

I finally realized what an exact science astrology is when I read this bit:  “The full moon weekend of July 12-13 may be divine or just the opposite — all will hinge on how things have been going all along.”  Needless to say, this was music to my ears.  I had been hoping to hear that.

imageAs of today, The Onion hasn’t offered any forecast for 2014, and so I settled for its prognosis for Virgo for the week of December 10th.  Its assessment was short and sweet and a real help to me.  “Nobody understands the excruciating pain you’re going through.  [So true.]  Although having to listen to you drone on and on about it is torture of a whole different kind.”  That last bit of insight was especially helpful.  If my friends can only think of their own pain while I share my tale of personal woes, then what good are they to me?  Thanks to The Onion I’m entering 2014 and expecting a lot less of people.  And as a bonus, this may help to explain why I might have no friends after July, as Miller seems to hint.

This sort of speculation may seem a bit irreverent, coming as it does from a monk.  Still, the astral sciences do figure in the gospels, and they are at the heart of Saint Matthew’s narrative of the Epiphany.  Whether one interprets magi to mean astrologers, fortune-tellers, or wise men, they nevertheless followed a star.  And when they discussed their mission with King Herod, he too wanted to know where that star was leading them.  All the while, Matthew writes as if following stars was the most natural thing in the world.  There’s no hint of judgment in his tone, despite the total absence of any record that Jesus, Mary or Joseph ever consulted palm readers or divined the skies.

imageAnalysts of ancient Roman culture have written about the grip that fate seemed to hold over the human imagination.  From the human perspective, unnamed forces controlled and guided life, and not unnaturally this engendered huge anxiety.  To what fate were people headed?  What would be their ultimate destiny?

By contrast, Jesus wasted no time on such despair and resignation.  That mechanical view of human existence was entirely alien to him, as it was to most of Jewish thought.  No, creation was intensely personal, and everyone had the possibility to live good and decent lives.  Better still, you had a responsibility to live such lives.  If not by choice, how could one possibly enter into loving relationships with God and neighbor?

It’s that religious conviction that causes me to enjoy astrology as benign entertainment, but nothing more.  When push comes to shove, I can blame the stars or anything else when things go right or wrong in my life.  But sooner or later my own responsibility kicks in.  So it is that I cannot put my life in the hands of fate.  I have to make some decisions.  I have to give life my best shot.  I have to be the one who makes the most of the talents and opportunities that God plops in front of me.

imageRather ironically, near the end of her reading for Virgo, Susan Miller suggest this very thing.  Perhaps because she has no desire to be pinned down exactly, she offers a bit of advice that undercuts the determinism that astrology seems to prescribe for us.  “In terms of fun and love, you have such a happy outlook, but it will be up to you to push back from your computer to go out and take full advantage.”

There you have it, straight from the seer’s pen, and I will write Amen to that.  And I would encourage you to do the same.

So as soon as you finish reading this post — and not until you’ve read every scrap of it, of course — push back from your computer and seize life.  Greet 2014 with optimism and determination, and live each day to the fullest.  After all, it’s what Jesus would want you to do.  He came that all might have life, and to have it in abundance.  He’d be keenly disappointed if all we did was to sit around, bewailing our fate.   His news is good news, and it doesn’t come from the stars.  Rather, it’s all a gift from God.


+On December 30th I concelebrated at a funeral that took place at Saint Patrick’s Church in Edina, MN.  It was a large and wonderful event, and no doubt the deceased was delighted that the Christmas decorations were still in place.  Christmas was her favorite day.

+This week I had the opportunity to visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  It’s a great museum, with many outstanding collections — including one of the best Asian collections in the country.  Their items from medieval Europe are not so many, but adjacent to this text are two that I found particularly lovely.  The first is a Nativity by Fra Angelico, painted on a poplar panel, ca. 1425-30.  The second is the central panel of a tryptic by Bernardo Daddi, painted ca. 1312.  Both are timely for the Christmas season.

image+On December 31st the monks gathered to celebrate the coming of the new year.  We are not nearly as ambitious as some revelers; and given that many monks retire early, we push the schedule ahead.  This  year, as in the past, several monks together prepared home-made pizzas, which arrived at 9 pm.  Meanwhile, monks enjoyed conversation, card and board games, and each other’s company.  Like many of my confreres, my body clock seems to be in tune with the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  So at 10 pm we declared it to be midnight and celebrated the new year.  Then I went to bed, assured that the die-hards would represent us when the new year came at midnight, Central Time.

+Not surprisingly, artists for thousands of years have incorporated the signs of the zodiac into their work.  The enclosed photos show a fresco on the ceiling outside of the former office of the abbot.   They were painted by Brother Clement, a monk of the Benedictine archabbey of Beuron in Germany.

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