Archive for January, 2015

imageBehold the Rosy-fingered Dawn

I’m no meteorologist, but then again anyone who lives in Minnesota for long enough becomes one anyway, honoris causa.  Experience makes you something of an expert, and it’s why those of us who live in the shadow of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon appreciate the weather report that opens his weekly monologue on our venerable town.  It’s the one element in his oral essay that’s non-fiction.  And it’s a vital part of the story because weather shapes the lives of everyone in Minnesota.  It keeps us from getting bored, and it builds character.

I raise this issue because last week we witnessed a change in the behavior of the monks.  In the summertime, in that space between morning prayer and breakfast, many monks instinctively take the outdoor route from chapel to refectory.  It takes us through the monastery garden and sweeps by the overlook to the lake.  En route we hear birds and see the dew on the grass and savor the moist early-morning air.  It’s an exhilarating wake-up call, and die-hards will continue in this routine  until Thanksgiving.  After that only the crazies will venture out.

imageBut something happened last week.  After weeks of cold we sensed a change in the air.  I first noticed it on Wednesday, when light filtered into the church as the 5 pm Mass began.  Even slightly longer days are enough to stir the blood.  But it was also getting warmer, and on cue the next morning quite a few of us monks instinctively walked out without coats into the bracing 30-degree air.  It was wonderful.  What’s more, already at 7:30 am there was some light, and not just ordinary light.  “Behold the rosy-fingered dawn” came the words from one monk a few steps behind me.  And he was right.  It was gorgeous all the way around, and none of us needed to do any calculations to realize that better times were on the way.

We’re way ahead of the robins, but these glimpses of spring give me hope, and they remind me of two things that stick with me through all these years.  First, colleges in Minnesota have the longest freshmen orientation programs of any in the country.  At Saint John’s it begins when students from places like California and Texas arrive in late August, vaguely aware that it will get chilly sooner or later.  50-degree days soon come, and they wonder  how they will survive.  Then it’s 30, and then 0, and life seems impossible.  Then comes 37 and they’re out in shorts and t-shirts, playing frisbee and catch on a sunny afternoon.  That was the case last Friday, and there was no stopping them.  Orientation was over, and they had become one of us.

imageThat brought to mind one of my students from Scottsdale who years ago asked me to take a picture of him, in shorts and t-shirt, perched on a six-foot pile of snow in a parking lot.  He planned to send it home as proof that all was well — and normal — in Lake Wobegon.

The second point is my appreciation for what monks and everyone else had to go through for centuries before central heat came along.  Ever practical, monks in the 6th century built their churches on an east-west axis.  In southern Europe the cloister would spread out on the north side of the church, where it would enjoy cool shade and protection from the hot winds.  In northern Europe it was the opposite.  There the church shielded the cloister from the cold north winds and reflected the warmth of the sun down into the cloister.  Today we call this discovery passive-solar.  Back then they called it common sense.

Needless to say, the early monks at Saint John’s put our cloister on the south side of the church, where it still stands today.  Who knows how many BTU’s of energy that arrangement has saved.  But for decades it spared literally tons and tons of firewood.  And it eased a lot of aching backs as well, I would imagine.

imageWe’re almost to the point at which few in this country remember the pioneers who braved the heat of the south and the cold of the north to create new lives.  I suspect those entrepreneurs didn’t think of their efforts as extraordinary, because that was what you had to do back then.  Today, of course, we can take their efforts for granted, but we shouldn’t.  Whether in north or south, the weather shaped their character, and people lived wonderful lives because of it, or in spite of it.

I’m under no illusion that winter is gone for good this year in Minnesota.  But the signs of change are in the air and on the horizon.  In fact, the great harbinger of spring — Lent — is just about three weeks away.  I know that Lent is supposed to be penitential, but how can you get down about something that portends rebirth — both in nature and in the spiritual life?  I guess I’ll just have to take it as it comes.  I plan to be stoic on the outside and joyful on the inside.


+On January 25th I spoke at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, CO.  That evening I attended a reception for prospective students and their parents in Denver, hosted by the Admissions Office of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+Last year one of our younger alumni from Saint John’s University, along with his high school classmate from Denver, won a Grammy Award for their work in children’s music.   Known as the Okee Dokee Brothers, they’ve been nominated yet again for a second album.  This week I’ve included a link to a song in the album that won them their first Grammy, Can You Canoe?  Their music may be geared for the very younger set, but they’ve also sung to older audiences across the country, and I occasionally discover that this particular song rattles around in my mind.  Next week I will provide a link to the album that I hope will earn them a repeat of last  year’s honors.

+On January 21st Pope Francis named Fr. Daniel Elias Garcia as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Austin, TX.  As the announcement from the Vatican Information Service duly noted, Bishop-elect Garcia earned an MA in Liturgical Studies at Saint John’s University in 2007; and of course we are delighted that someone who has studied with us would assume such a responsibility in the Church.

Of personal significance is Bishop-elect Garcia’s home-town of Cameron, TX, which scarcely anyone has heard of.  My father grew up just a few miles from Cameron;  my great-grandparents are buried in nearby Westphalia; and my grandparents are buried in even-closer Burlington.  On visits to my grandparents we always went to Cameron, where my father’s cousin owned the local Dairy Queen.  It’s a small world, at least for some of us.


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Old City, Warsaw

Old City, Warsaw

The Pope Speaks, and Sometimes in Silence

On his recent trip through the Philippines there came a moment when Pope Francis found himself speechless.  Standing before an audience that had suffered grievously in last year’s tropical storm, words simply failed him.  These people had lost family members, homes and possessions.  Now, months later, they had scarcely more than their lives and the clothes on their backs.  In the face of such abject poverty there were no words to express the pope’s own grief.  So he stood in silence, trying to absorb the enormity of it all.  And finally the only thing he could offer was the assurance that Jesus still loved them.  Any other words might have cheapened the moment.

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

We’ve come to expect a lot from popes and other religious leaders, but what we’ve wanted from them has varied from time to time.  I recall as a high school student picking up an issue of The Pope Speaks, the official archive of papal pronouncements.  In keeping with the gravitas of the subject matter, the print was dense and there were no pictures.  It had all the appeal of The Congressional Record, and a quick scan of the contents reinforced that impression.  No wonder this journal could sit on the library’s magazine rack for months on end, in mint condition.  This was the official record of the Church, and it was best read with awe and reverence, preferably under the direction of a theologian in good standing.  Suffice it to say that for your average high school student these tomes held zero interest.  That may have been unfortunate, but that’s the way it was.

We’re not that far removed from the day when monarchs and leaders of all sorts were cut from a different bolt of cloth.  Queen Victoria, to cite but one, was notoriously shy and reluctant in the extreme to appear before her people.  In one episode she stubbornly resisted her aides and family, who had urged her to attend the unveiling of a memorial plaque.  She dug in her heels for weeks on end, but finally caved in.  So on the appointed day she was trotted out of the palace and then unveiled the memorial with a speech that stretched on and on for exactly one sentence.  Then she trotted back to the palace and pronounced herself exhausted but satisfied that she had exceeded the limits of duty.  Obviously it’s a long and bumpy road from her to Queen Elizabeth’s concept of duty.

Old City, Warsaw

Old City, Warsaw

We see the same evolution in the papacy during the same 150 years.  This is not the place to recount the history of the popes, but it’s enough to point out that for decades after the fall of the Papal States in 1870 popes simply did not leave Rome.  For better, and mostly for worse, popes made themselves prisoners in the Vatican.  To some they seemed aloof, while to others they had a mystical transcendence that set them apart from the rest of us mere mortals.  So, with the votes counted, these newly-elected popes left off their old selves, and each in turn put on the person of the Oracle on the Tiber.

Fast forward to more recent times and you’ll find bishops of Rome more than willing to step out of their comfort zone, often to the consternation of their handlers in the curia.  And each has  brought talents that have distinguished them individually.  Pope John Paul II travelled widely and spoke to countless groups, as did Benedict and now Francis.  But to my mind each has put his own stamp on his tenure in the office.  Pope John Paul II, in the popular imagiation at least, walked on the world stage and helped to shape international affairs.  Pope Benedict, by contrast, brought a keen intellect and seemed much more at ease in academic circles.  Francis stretches the envelop even further with his love of the pastoral situation.  In Buenos Aires he was at home in the pulpit and in the confessional, and in those venues he continues to shine.

Old city, Warsaw

Old city, Warsaw

That, I think, is one of the many gifts that God seems to have given Pope Francis.  When he speaks it is not to dismiss what previous popes have had to say.  Rather, he believes with all his heart that the teaching of Jesus and the Christian tradition are meant to provide solace and support and meaning to people.  So why not translate it into the language of those who suffer?  Why not translate it into word and deed?

Francis, like his predecessors, believes that the message of Christ is too good to be hidden under a basket.  It’s life-giving and it ought not be stored away in solemn tomes accessible only to the best-educated among us.  Far from being irrelevant, such tomes are incomplete until they flow out into the streets where they can inspire and nourish.

Old city, Warsaw

Old city, Warsaw

Pope Francis has been fond of quoting his namesake, who urged people to “preach always.  If necessary, use words.”  And this weekend in the Philippines, he did exactly that — he preached through his momentary silence.  That, it seems to me, is what the gospel asks of all Christians.  And if we can begin to do that, the Gospel will exist not just as words on a page.  Even better, the gospel will begin to come alive both in our words and in our deeds, and even in our moments of silence.


+I am grateful to all of you who sent messages and offered prayers for my mom during the past week.  Happily, the solution to her problems was something as simple as a pacemaker.  After the procedure and two days in the hospital she returned home, with a lot more energy than she had before.  She is recovering and grateful for your remembrance, as am I.

Malbork Castle, Poland

Malbork Castle, Poland

+In the course of reading this blog readers are familiar with the fact that I am a chaplain in the Order of Malta, as well as in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Those are the most significant of the medieval military orders which have survived to this day, but others flourished in the middle ages and have left stunning monuments to their existence.  Among the most impressive is Malbork Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in Poland in the 13th century.  It remains one of the most amazing fortresses you will ever see, and it is well worth the visit if you ever have the chance.  I once had the opportunity to visit there with a pilgrimage group, and from the many pictures of Malbork Castle I’ve created a small gallery of photos.

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imageThe Chance to Serve: Incentive Enough?

It’s not often that I draw inspiration from the world of professional sports, but now and again there’s a story that touches the heart of even a jaded monk like me.  Here was a respected coach, at the top of his game, and no doubt he pulled down giant bucks for his efforts.  But now he was ready to chuck all the glamour and prestige.  And for what?  For the chance to coach football at his college alma mater.  And he was going to do it for something in the neighborhood of $5 million per year, “plus incentives.”  It was that phrase, “plus incentives,” that caught my eye.

When I entered the monastery ages ago I vaguely recall that $5 million per year seemed like quite a tidy sum.  But then again I remember when I thought that a quarter-million lire in pre-Euro Italy seemed like a lot for dinner for four.  But times change, even in America; and while I wasn’t looking the inflation rate must have done something to salaries.  Anyway, in my innocence I was surprised to learn that these days $5 million is scarcely enough reason to get out of bed in the morning.  Now employers have to offfer some really big carrots if they expect you to come strolling into the office any time before noon.

imageI know these kinds of numbers give heart-burn to some, but they give heart to me.  For one thing, the wording of the contract suggests that at least this one coach isn’t in it for the money.  As the announcement implied, he seemed totally detached from the salary.  It was the “incentives” that had reeled him in and would continue to motivate him.

So I’m left to assume that he has walked away from the world of professional sports for the chance to influence young people at a key moment in their lives.  He also now has the chance to instill the importance of good sportsmanship and to shape a cooperative team spirit.  And at the end of the day he hopes for a pat on the back for a job well done, provided that indeed it has been done well.  Were those the unspecified “incentives” in the contract?

imageBefore I plunge totally into the depths of utter cynicism, let me for a moment say that such aspirations do motivate people, including the vast majority of coaches.  Most people do want to make a difference in the lives of others.  Most people do wish the best for their students and their colleagues and those they mentor.  Most people genuinely care about the fate of their neighbor.  Never for even a minute should we think that we are among the few on this planet who harbor such aspirations for others.

But putting a price tag on others — in this case a coach worth $5 million, plus incentives — is to transform them into commodities.  There’s no arguing that this guy will make a ton of money, and he’s fortunate to have found a profession that pays reasonably well.  But the truth is that he’s worth far more than any numbers that are assigned to him.  He’s somebody’s beloved son or spouse or father.  He’s another person’s dear friend.  And he’s yet another person’s teacher and coach.  And above all else, he’s someone created in God’s image, and he’s blessed with many but not all of the talents in the world.  Still, he’s not the only person in the world so blessed, and from such people we should ask and even expect an awful lot.

imageFor good reason recent popes have preached long and hard against the reduction of  human beings into economic units.  Still earlier, in the 6th century, Saint Benedict cautioned monks that their intrinsic value to the community did not reside in their economic utility.  By that he did not mean to suggest that some monks need not work, just to prove the point.  Rather, they are truly monks when they live by the labor of their own hands.  What he meant to say was that talents are not bestowed to inflate a monk’s ego.  Talents are given, instead, to allow a monk the chance to live in service to others.

That, it seems to me, is an attitude that we should hope to find in ourselves as well as in our neighbors.  Whether we are well or poorly compensated, we nevertheless should expect one important thing from one another.  Work done for the sake of others has a sacred character; while work meant only to benefit oneself has a ring of self-indulgence about it.

To whom much is given, much is expected.  And from all those to whom God has assigned talents, large and small, we should expect an awful lot.  That chance to serve is one of the great blessings that God gives.  Perhaps that is the greatest incentive that any coach, or anybody else for that matter, will ever need.


+On January 5th through the 7th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey met for our annual three-day workshop.  This gathering is not to be confused with our annual retreat that takes place in June.  By contrast, the January meeting features presentations on various topics, some of which can be as prosaic as energy conservation in the monastery.  This year’s primary theme dealt with vocations and how we might create a “vocation culture.”  In a future post I hope to take up this theme.

+I don’t normally use this forum as a chance to ask for prayers for some person or purpose.  But today I make an exception.  Yesterday my mom took an unexpected trip to the hospital, with what looked like a stroke or a heart attack.  Fortunately, it was neither.  Still, an irregular heartbeat and a few other things are symptoms of something.  She’s not out of the woods as yet, but this is a little scary, since my mom has always been the picture of health.

+Given the tragic events in Paris in the last few days, I thought it would be good to feature photos from Saint Eustace, one of my favorite churches in that city.  A late-gothic structure, Saint Eustace sits adjacent to Les Halles, the food market that served Paris for centuries. Inside Saint Eustace is a wonderful sculpture grouping of the workers in the market.


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Be It Resolved:  No Resolutions This Year

“Do monks make New Year’s resolutions?  Do Monks keep their New Year’s resolutions?”  Those were two questions a friend put to me this week, and the answers are short and sweet:  “Yes,” and “About as well as everybody else.”

The more nuanced response is that monks are pretty much like everyone else when it comes to resolutions.  The fact is, deliberate and major changes in the course of our lives don’t come easily, and wishing they were so generally doesn’t make them so.  Like most people, then, monks have aspirations that are ambitious, but it’s in the follow-through where we all show our common humanity.

imageClose to the monastic home, you don’t have to be a great scholar to realize that the Rule of Saint Benedict yields not a clue about how monks in the 6th century celebrated the new year.  And it’s not that Benedict’s monks were oblivous to the passage of time.  They knew their Roman numerals as well as any of their neighbors, and they had at their fingertips an array of dates to match with events.  Whether it was the exact year after the founding of Rome or the regnal year of an emperor, they had more than enough numbers to mark the passage of time and events.  But I don’t think it occurred to them to peg the quality of their own lives to a numeric grid.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nor do I know whether monks back then packaged their lives in segments of years.  But if they did, the divisions of the Church calendar mattered more to them.  Advent initiated the liturgical cycle.  Then came Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  Then came the long stretch of Ordinary Time.  And when it was all over, they went back to Advent and did it all over again.  That rhythm hasn’t changed in centuries, and it was bolstered by its links to the seasons of the year. The parallel between the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the four natural seasons worked brilliantly for centuries, at least in the northern hemisphere.  I suppose it was nobody’s fault in 6th-century Italy that they had no idea there even was a southern hemisphere.  But I suspect the general lack of curiosity about the other hemisphere was mutual.

Nativity.  Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nativity. Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

If the liturgical calendar and the seasons of nature shaped the lives of Benedict’s monks, I would contend that of even greater import was the festal calendar of the Church.  The ordo of feasts and seasons read much like an opera score, and the cycle of special and non-special (ferial) days created something of an emotional joy ride for the monks who lived by it.  No two days were ever alike, despite outward appearances.  And so the days did not blend seamlessly into one long stream of boredom, contrary to popular assumptions.

So where is it that monks concentrate their minds and energy when the need arises to make decisions about their lives?  It occurs to me that this takes place in the liturgy of the hours.  Here we find the kind of deliberate analysis that many people prefer to relegate to New Year’s Day and its resolutions.  In the morning we begin with “Lord, open our lips,” and with that the day is off and running.  In the course of morning prayer there are petitions that spell out our hopes for the day, and we repeat this practice in the other moments of community prayer.  And then at compline there is the “post game-day analysis” — the examination of conscience.  At that hour, monks who are still awake take time to inventory their lives during the past day.  They then express their regret and sorrow for any missteps, and look forward to the chance to try it all over again the next day.  Perhaps the next day will go better, or even repeat what went well the day before.

Presentation in the Temple.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Presentation in the Temple. Notre Dame, Paris.

That, it seems to me, is why monks don’t get terribly worked-up about New Year’s resolutions.  The time-frame is way too long for us.  We much prefer to have a focus that is pegged to a one-day-at-a-time framework.  We live for the moment, just as Saint Benedict advised when he told his monks to “keep death daily before their eyes.”  From that perspective, any program that delays analysis until next December 31st serves no useful purpose.  The press of daily business will leave those resolutions on the shelf, collecting dust.  And soon enough we’ll forget all about those life-changing resolves.

There you have the reasons why my New Year’s resolution will be quite simple this year:  “I will make no New Year’s resolution.”  For one thing, success is guaranteed, instantly, and I can move on to other things.  For another, living for the day is tough enough, and I don’t want to have to think about the entire year.  That’s way too ambitious.

Besides all that, I believe with all my heart that Christ will come again, and perhaps even on the last day of 2015.  But of greater urgency is today: “This is the day the Lord has made.”  Today is the day when I’ll most likely encounter Christ in my brother, in the guest, and in those suffering around me (to say nothing of those who are suffering from me.)  The truth is, today is about all I can handle.

The Holy Innocents.  Notre Dame, Paris.

The Holy Innocents. Notre Dame, Paris.

So at the end of this day I don’t want to look back and wonder where it went.  Nor do I want to console myself with the thought that I’ll do a state-of-the-person analysis next December 31st.  That kind of procrastination is way too tempting.

And if it sounds self-indulgent to live for the day, then you’ve got it all wrong.  Today is a gift from the Lord.  Looking ahead 365 days may just cause us to miss the more regular appearances of the Lord.  But live for the day, and come December 31st you may very well be stunned at what you have accumulated in the course of a year: an abundance of truly great days.


+Among the various items on my plate is membership on the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  Our regular meetings are not all work, and in fact we regularly schedule some opportunity to learn about various student activities.  So it was at our last meeting in December, when we sat in on a rehearsal of several choirs preparing for Christmas concerts at Saint John’s and elsewhere.  Excerpts from that rehearsal provided the material for University President Michael Hemesath’s Christmas and New Year’s greeting, which follows.

+Years ago someone gifted me with a copy of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  It was so fascinating that it gobbled up all of my free-time over that Christmas break.  This year a good friend gave me A. N. Wilson’s recent book, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press, 2014.)  This book in turn has chewed up prodigious amounts of this year’s Christmas holiday.  But there are worse ways to spend a Christmas break.  So if you are even remotely interested in 19th-century English history, or Queen Victoria herself, I highly recommend this book to you.

Flight to Egypt.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Flight to Egypt. Notre Dame, Paris.

+The photos in today’s post come from various sources.  At top is a clock on the façade of an office building in Paris.  I knew immediately that someday it would come in handy, and so it helps to inaugurate this blog into 2015.  The second photo, of the Holy Family, fabricated in Alsace around the year 1500, is housed at the Cluny Museum in Paris.  It’s the only piece of art that I’ve ever seen that depicts Jesus and Joseph having a good time, while Mary serenely looks on approvingly.

As anyone who’s been to Paris knows, it is a trove of all sorts of art.  From various pieces of medieval art in The Louvre Museum I’ve assembled a sampling to create a Christmas Gallery that spans many centuries and several media.

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