We’ve all come to terms with the fact that it’s a small world, but sometimes it’s eerily so, as two recent instances suggest.
In January a friend whom I’ve known for ages wrote to say that she was attending a seminar in the south of France, in Villefranche sur Mer. At dinner she happened to sit across from a man from Sweden, who was surprised to discover that she was from Minnesota. His natural response at the news? “Oh, my son just graduated from a college in Minnesota. In Collegeville. Saint John’s.” Of course. What Swede doesn’t have a son who’s graduated from Saint John’s recently.
The second instance took place three weeks ago on a flight that had originated on the east coast and had stopped in Minneapolis before heading on to San Francisco. When I came to my seat, I was not a little disconcerted to discover that my seat-mate from the east coast was already engaged in a vigorous monologue on the phone. Tirade would be the better word to describe it, because the tone of his voice betrayed real irritation. So did the volume of his voice. I rolled my eyes and resigned myself to a long and unpleasant flight, and tried to tune the whole thing out. But given that there was nowhere to escape, there really wasn’t much I could do to hide. Worse still, in a few minutes it suddenly dawned on me that I knew the two people he was irate about. I was dumbfounded, and pondered the odds.
I have no idea whether his anger was justified or not, but his exercise of free speech reminded me of two fundamental points that we all might want to keep in mind when we engage in private conversations in public places. First off, you should never be surprised that the innocent person next to you might be the second cousin twice removed to the person you are ranting about. Second, if you’re going to share your conversation with the general public, try and limit yourself to sweet nothings and gratuitous compliments. You never know when or where your words might come back to haunt you.
First-time readers of the Rule of Saint Benedict are always surprised that he deals with the issue of speech at such an early point in his text — as if it were all that important. In fact, he presents his ideas on the “Restraint of Speech” in chapter six, where he quotes from the Book of Proverbs when he writes that “the tongue holds the key to life and death.” And on this Saint Benedict was no fool. The reputation you save may be another’s; but the life you save may be your own.
Saint Benedict certainly was no Trappist monk when it came to taking vows of silence. He didn’t forbid speaking, but he did urge a good deal of caution when monks have to resort to it. Even the holiest of monks can get carried away in a “flood of words,” and once that torrent begins, we all know from personal experience that it’s hard to turn off the spigot. One bit of gossip from our lips, or one snide remark about someone’s character is sometimes all it takes to prime the pump. And then we are off and flowing. Only when it’s too late do we realize it with regret; and I’m sure each one of us wishes we could reach out into the air and grab those words. But like the nasty email that’s been sent in anger and in haste, these are words that are beyond recall. The damage is done, and the repair can take half a lifetime. No wonder Saint Benedict puts this issue way at the front of his Rule.
I got the normal reprieve on my flight to San Francisco when the announcement came to silence the phones. This is truly the moment when silence is golden. But to my own amazement I was unable to let sleeping dogs lie. About an hour into the flight I defied all my personal rules about flying and struck up a conversation with this guy. I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that he was a really fine person. As I had half-expected, we soon discovered that we had several mutual friends; though I judiciously didn’t touch on the objects of his earlier diatribe. Happily for me, he failed to make that connection. Happily for him, I stowed that earlier conversation in the circular file. Throwing good words after bad does no one any good, and I can only hope that someday some kind person will do the same for me.
+On March 10th, 11th and 12th I gave classes in the novitiate at Saint John’s on three aspects of monastic history: The establishment of the Rule of Saint Benedict as the official rule within the 9th-century Carolingian Empire; The monks of Cluny and their reform; and The Cistercians and the 12th-century renewal of monasticism in the west. Now you may think there would not be enough to say about each of these to build a lecture around, but in fact you could do a course on each. Trust me. So it was quite a chore to compress each topic into forty-five minutes.
+On the evening of March 12th I gave a conference on Lent at the Parish of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville. The parish for ages held its services in the lower church of the Abbey, but they have recently expanded its complex across Lake Watab so as to allow Sunday and weekday Masses there. The pictures in today’s blog include the daily Mass chapel, the tabernacle and icon screen, and a very colorful stained glass window.
+On March 14th I gave a talk and participated in three seminars at the annual book collectors’ conference for Friends of the Library at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible, and the library has recently acquired a set of the Heritage Edition. It may come as a surprise that we at Saint John’s have worked with BYU on another project, that one involving HMML. Some years ago they turned over to HMML their efforts in manuscript preservation in Lebanon, thereby greatly facilitating HMML’s own work there. One scholar at BYU continues to provide input and advice to HMML, and it was great to connect with him and many other wonderful people at BYU.
+In case you are looking for a musical meditation this Lent, you could do no better than to listen to this setting of Psalm 51 by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652): Miserere mei, Deus. The choir of King’s College Cambridge performs it in their stunningly beautiful chapel. In this rendition they sing it as part of their Easter liturgy, but it is traditionally sung on Ash Wednesday in many churches.