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Archive for February, 2015

imageWas That Today?

Several months ago someone sent me a cartoon of two dinosaurs, smoking and chatting away as they stood on the beach.  Suddenly one spies a big ship sailing off, and poking from the deck and portholes are the heads of giraffes, horses, peacocks and two of every other kind of animal.  It’s just then that the awful truth dawns on them.  One turns to the other and in alarm asks:  “Rats.  Was that today?”

Actually, he used another expletive, though I forget which one.  But the point doesn’t depend on the naughty word in question.  These two dinosaurs were so caught up in their own little world that they’d completely forgotten about their tickets for Noah’s Ark.  Here it was, the biggest thing to happen in weeks, and they were lolling around on the beach, smoking.  Coincidentally, this may very well be the first documented instance that links smoking to mortality.

imageIt’s easy to smirk at the forgetfulness of those dinosaurs.  But how often do we do the same thing?  I bring this up because the opening reading for the liturgy of the first Sunday of Lent tells the story of God’s covenant with Noah.  Noah and the animals who remembered to keep their reservations on the ark had just survived the flood of the millenium.  Now God has promised not to do that again.  And so, what emerges is a covenant between God and people, and it would last for all time.

There are not a few of us who prefer to see this covenant as a contractual relationship between God and the entire human race as a species, or at the very least a bargain between God and a political entity like Holland or Canada.  But as near as I understand the current iteration of God’s job description, that contract binds God to each and every individual.  God loves us all, each and every one of us.  After all, we are created in the divine image.  Why wouldn’t God love us?

Still, like the dinosaurs, we forget.  How can anyone of us expect to remember our relationship with God for a lifetime?  In an era in which our attention span has slipped to less than twenty seconds, how are we supposed to remember the deal that somebody struck on our behalf at baptism?

imageI’m not sure I have the answer to that, but I would suggest that short-term projects may be the solution to long-term memory loss.  That’s where Lent comes in.  Lent is only forty days long.  I’ll grant that to some it might seem like an eternity.  But, compared to having a spouse or raising kids or doing college, it’s not all that long.  For many of us, forty days is doable.

So if some of us have the capacity to remember to do something for forty days, what might we do?  And why would we do it?  That’s the genius of picking some Lenten project.  It’s not too late, for instance, to commit ourselves to a daily reading from scripture.  It’s not too late to commit to morning prayer, a meditative rosary, or some other practice that won’t chew up the entire day.  And the point of all this?  The point is not to keep God happy.  God long ago gave up on animal sacrifices and the other chips we’ve used to curry divine favor.  Rather, we do it to remind ourselves regularly of God’s love for us.  That’s the point of God’s promise to Noah.  The sign in the sky is not a signal of a cease-fire from divine wrath.  Rather, it’s the promise of God’s love for each and every one of us.

imageIn his Rule Saint Benedict asks his monks to make of their lives a Lenten observance.  But for most monks that takes way too much long-term concentration.  So Benedict breaks the year down and asks each monk to do one project for Lent.  And even if forty days sounds like an awful lot, it’s something I can almost wrap my mind around.

So this Lent we shouldn’t get left behind, absent-mindedly smoking with the dinosaurs.  On Holy Thursday we shouldn’t be startled and have to ask “rats — was that Lent?  Where did it all go?”

imageNotes

+On February 17th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the University of Portland.  The next day, in the sacrificial spirit of Ash Wednesday, I acidentally offered up my cell phone somewhere in the Portland International Airport.  To my utter amazement, I did not die.

+On February 20th the Order of Malta celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the Order’s mother church in Malta, Saint John’s Co-cathedral.  It was built between 1573 and 1578, and it is gorgeous down to the least detail.  It earned World Heritage designation because of the inlay marble tombs that today form the floor.  Enclosed you will find a gallery of this magnificant church.  Adjacent to the cathedral is the palace of the grand masters of the Order of Malta.  Today the palace serves as the seat of the parliament and the offices of the president and prime minister.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the palace.

image+Also on February 20th, some 1,300 people gathered in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome for the Mass and opening of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God, Frá Andrew Bertie.  Frá Andrew is the first Grand Master of the Order of Malta to begin this formal process; and coincidentally he would become the first canonized saint to hold a degree from Saint John’s University.  In 2004 we hosted Frá Andrew at Saint John’s, and during his visit the University bestowed on him an honorary doctorate.  One highlight of Frá Andrew’s three-day visit to Saint John’s was the Mass said by Abbot John, attended by Frá Andrew and other guests, and a few of us monks.  That day we celebrated the feast of Blessed Frá Gerard, the early 12th-century founder of the Order of Malta.

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imageReading Aloud:  Not Just for Little Kids Anymore

It can be a stretch to pay attention at morning prayer, but concentration can yield dividends now and again.  So it was last month when, in my early-morning fog, I distinctly heard the prayer leader ask God to assist “women-bearing children.”  What?!  What’s that about?  Then I realized that he meant “women bearing children.”  What a difference a hyphen and a slight inflection of the voice can make.

An instance like that isn’t all that rare, and one of the treats of Advent for a few of us is the prayer that opens with “Shirley, you are not far from us.”  Of course the reader means us to hear something with an alternate spelling, and minus the comma.  But I no longer care what the reader intends us to hear.  I hear “Shirley,” and I look forward to Shirley showing up every Advent.

I bring this up because monasteries are among the last bastians of public reading in the western world.  Once upon a time, in the  neolithic era before radio, it was common for families to gather together as someone read.  A few parents still read to young children, and they do so not just for education’s sake.  In contrast to the screaming inanity on television, there’s something warm and endearing about the human voice reading a story.  And there’s the unexpected benefit that prompted medieval monks to read aloud, even when they read alone.  Seeing the words on the page, forming the words on their lips, and hearing the words with their ears, they become one with the words they read.  The words pass via the senses, through the brain and into the soul.  This was how monks “chewed” on the word of God, and it also explains why they remembered so much of the Bible, effortlessly.image

That said, not all readers are created equal, and Saint Benedict cautioned that not just anybody should pick up the book and read to the brothers. Then, as now, there are some monks who struggle through public reading.  There’s also the occasional monk who emotes just a little too much for some people’s tastes.  Still others have been known to read in accents that are foreign both to these shores and to their own up-bringing.  And then there are those who just can’t resist a little editorial inflection.  It’s every monk’s temptation to read the chapter-heading from Benedict’s Rule that goes: “What kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  In pretended innocence it comes out “what kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  But the reader fools no one.

Every now and again you have the combination of a good reader and a great text that leaves monks wanting for more.  That happened these past few days as we marched through the Book of Esther at morning prayer.  For those who don’t know that story, Esther is not one of those pious bits of the Bible that lets a monk drift back to sleep.  No, this is high drama, involving King Artaxerxes, his close advisor Haman, a Jew named Mordecai, and the latter’s adopted daughter, Esther.

imageThis is a story of vengeance, love, palace intrigue and all the other stuff that makes for a great movie.  But this had to be a miniseries, spread over the course of a week.  Ask any monk and he’ll tell you that it’s not the morning reading that keeps him coming back for more.  But in the case of Esther, the deft editorial eye of the arranger left us hanging each day, and not a few kept coming back just to hear the next installment.

On day one Mordecai introduces Esther to Artaxerxes, who’s doing a national search to expand his harem to provide greater variety.  But Esther so enchants the king that he gives her the queen’s crown.  You know immediately that this story has legs, because the Bible doesn’t do Cinderella stories.  It’s never a matter of living happily ever after, because there’s always bad things coming down the pike.

In the next installment Haman concocts a plan to exterminate all the Jews in the empire.  And for the sheer pleasure of it, he’s built a scaffold in the courtyard of his home.  That’s reserved for Mordecai, of course.

imageI certainly would not want to betray the surprise ending, and I’ll leave it to you to guess how Queen Esther’s dinner party ends.  Her only guests are the king and his minister Haman.  The evening so pleases the king that he offers Esther whatever she might wish.  Needless to say, she doesn’t ask for that pearl necklace she’d seen in the shop window earlier in the day.  No, these people play for keeps, and no one wants to see a nice scaffold go to waste.

There’s much more to the story, and the successive readings created a dramatic tension that left us wanting more.  Strangely, even though all of us had heard the Book of Esther many times, we wanted to hear it again — like children who beg to hear their favorite story.

I’m not sure what the take-away is from this, but there’s two lessons I would draw.  First, the Bible warrants reading and rereading, and reading yet again.  There’s so many passages that bear a reread, and they nourish us with new insights every time.

imageA second suggestion has to do with Lent, which begins in two days.  If you want a taste of a bygone experience that monks still practice, read from the Bible each day of Lent.  Select a chapter each day, and read it in a soft but audible voice.  Let your eyes see the words on the page; let your lips translate the words into sound; and let your ears carry the sound to your inner soul.  In doing so you crowd out the noise from the world, even as  you and the words become one.

This may feel a little goofy at first, but  you’ll get over it soon enough.  In the process you’ll discover why our ancesters enjoyed it and why little kids love it so much.   You’ll also discover that this kind of reading isn’t just for little kids.  And in these days of Lent you may even discover the Lord speaking to you in ways you scarcely imagined.

Notes

+Occasionally I have the opportunity to contribute a piece of my writing to venues other than this blog.  Wonders in Our Native Place appeared in the February 2015 issue of Give Us This Day, published by The Liturgical Press.  It’s a reflection on Mark 6: 1-6.

image+I don’t often have the occasion to attend a baptism, but on February 13th I took pictures for Tim and Emily Enright, as my confrere Fr. Don Talafous baptised their daughter.  Tim is an alumnus of Saint John’s University;  he and Emily were married in the abbey church;  and his father’s funeral was in the abbey church.  Tim and his family have just relocated from his posting in the American embassy in Nigeria.  But once settled in their new home in Virginia there was never a question that they would fly to Saint John’s for the baptism of their first child.  In the abbey church, of course.

+On February 14th I crashed the celebration of the Chinese New Year at Saint John’s University.  The dinner was so well-attended that it spilled over into an adjacent room.  But he Great Hall was the scene of the most colorful activity, as the pictures in today’s post attest.

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imageJesus Will See You Now

Every now and again there’s a gospel passage that points strongly to the humanity of Jesus.  Of course chapter one of the gospel of Matthew is quite explicit about this, given that he traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham.  In other passages Jesus was thirsty, as he clearly said on the cross.  He was hungry, and so he ate with his disciples.  And he was tired; and so, during a raging storm, he slept in the back of the boat — much to the chagrin of his disciples.

But then in Mark 1: 29-39, the gospel for this last Sunday, Jesus had a distinctly modern problem.  In short, Jesus had too much on his plate, and he really needed a consultant on time management.

Consider that Jesus had just arrived at Simon Peter’s house and he’d scarcely settled in before they shoved Peter’s sick mother-in-law in front of him.  What was he supposed to do?  He was a guest after all, and he could hardly refuse to heal her.  Otherwise he would look ungrateful for their hospitality.

Later that evening the whole town must have appeared at the door, bringing the sick and the demon-possessed.  Who knows how late that went?  Then, before dawn, Jesus slipped out to pray, but he got no peace there either.  The disciples tracked him down and gave him the schedule for the day:  “Everyone’s looking for you.”  No rest for the wicked, nor for Jesus either.

imageTo his credit Jesus did the disciples one better.  He intended to preach in all the villages in Galilee, he said, because that’s what he’d come to do.  The disciples may have been delighted, but Jesus once again showed poor judgement when it came to time-management.  Who could handle all of that?

We’re used to the thought that Jesus emptied himself on the cross.  But in fact, the emptying began long before.  It began at the wedding feast of Cana, where he worked his first miracle.  From that day on, I’ve always assumed, nobody gave him a minute’s peace.  On the other hand, Jesus seemed to have thrown himself into this frenzy with complete abandon.

It’s a stretch for us to think of Jesus as pooped or even frustrated.  Yet there were such days, such as when he chased the money-changers from the temple.  Unless he was faking it, he really was a little miffed that day.  And there had to be other days like it.

imageI think it helps us all when we realize that Jesus had his tough days, precisely because we have them too.  These are the days when we can feel completely overwhelmed by responsibility.  We wonder where we’ll find the energy to do it all; and we realize we may have bitten off more than we can chew.  Jesus must have had such days as well.  But if he shared in our anxieties, we’d be well-advised to do as he did in such a situation.  He escaped for a moment and prayed.

One assumption that many of us make is that Jesus is too busy running the universe to pay attention to us.  At the very least, Jesus has way too much on his mind to tend to our puny problems.  And what could Jesus possibly do for us anyway?  And so we don’t pray, because what’s the point?  Besides, we’re way too busy to pray anyway.

But there’s a certain irony here, when we conclude that we are way too busy to pray.  At just such a moment Jesus, the consummate busy guy, reserves time to see us.  In fact, Jesus loves to barge into our lives to surprise us with words of strength and consolation.

So the next time we’re frantic with stuff to do, let’s pause for a moment to catch our collective breath.  And if by chance some voice whispers in our ears that Jesus will see us now, it may be a good idea to clear our calendar and go on in.

imageNotes

+On February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation, I presided at Mass at the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University.  You can access my sermon through this link, Letting Go.

+On February 5th I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, held at The Chazen Museum on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Through March 15th the Museum has an exhibit of sixty original folios from The Saint John’s Bible, and it is well worth the extra effort to see it.  The Museum staff was very warm in receiving us, but the catering staff  was taken off guard by our arrival.  Unfortunately they had the wrong date on their calendar, and so on our arrival the warm food that we had expected was still in the freezer.  However, they did drag out some chips and pretzels and soda.  In true biblical fashion, one big bowl of chips fed forty-five.  The photos in today’s post all come from The Chazen.

+During the past week we hosted at Saint John’s Donald Jackson, the scribe of The Saint John’s Bible.

image+Since autumn we have been enjoying on the monastery table the squash that the monk-gardeners harvested from our garden.  They stored in the cellar 4,000 pounds of butternut, acorn, spaghetti, buttercup and Hubbard squash, and I am sorry to say that as of today we are down to our last 1,000 pounds.  The pickled squash has been the surprise treat for many of us.

+On February 7th we hosted a group of students from Saint John’s University, who joined us for a retreat day in the monastery.  Last fall fourteen students banded together for the year to live a Benedictine experience in their residence hall.  They meet regularly for evening prayer, and periodically Brother Aelred hosts them for discussions on spiritual topics.

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imageGive Mr. Mouth a Rest

As a priest I’m naturally on the lookout for good bits for a sermon.  So it should come as no surprise that I’ll crib any and all ideas, and I’ll even give credit to the source when I absolutely have to.  So it was that I recently listened eagerly to a parish priest revered for the quality of his sermons.  And that day he did not disappoint.

He began his sermon by quoting advice he’d gotten from his second-grade teacher.  For an entire year that nun had drummed into her students the message for which they have remembered her:  “God gave us two ears to hear, but only one mouth to speak.”

I don’t know whether that warning was meant to cow her students into submission, or whether she only wanted to give them the benefit of her own experience.  It may have been a little of both; but regardless, it’s what this priest recalls about her umpteen years later.

imageActually, it’s not such a bad aphorism to carry around, and for me it ranks with my personal favorite which I appropriated long ago from the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.  Every time she was about to trash somebody, she reached inside for self-regulation:  “Give Mr. Mouth a rest.”  Who knows how much grief it spared her, but I know it’s been invaluable to me.  When I can remember in time, I trot it out of mothballs when my mouth threatens to get out way ahead of my brain.  I’m just glad I don’t have to pay royalties for all the times I’ve invoked it.

Speech is a great gift, and by and large our ability to speak well puts us a cut above most of the animals.  Speech allows us to encourage and help one another, to teach one another, and to express love and support for one another.  But there’s also a dark side, as Adam discovered when he told God that whopper about the woman making him do it.  From there it’s only gotten worse.

imagePeople usually associate silence with monasteries, but I can tell you that if you want silence go to a Carthusian monastery.  It’s so quiet there that they even made a movie about it, called — appropriately enough — Into the Great Silence.  As for Benedictine houses, you’ll find some good stretches of quiet, depending more or less on the customs of the local community.  But we do speak, and Saint Benedict expected us to do so.

All the same, Benedict had a lot of ambivalence about speaking.  For one thing, there could be too much of it.  For another, speaking always has the potential to be destructive.  For that reason he cautioned his monks that the tongue holds the key to life and death.  Of course he didn’t for a minute believe that a few words could kill someone literally.  But he also knew the power of gossip to destroy a reputation and the peace of mind of a fellow monk.

imageWe think of Benedict as a man of balance, and I suspect that in his attitude toward speech you have yet another instance of striving for the golden mean.  After all, he may have encouraged silence, but he also prescribed these words which begin every day for every monk:  “Oh Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”  And these words come from the lips of a man named Benedict, which in Latin means to speak well.  So it is that he encouraged holy speech, even as he feared that speaking could veer off in another direction.  No doubt he knew from personal experience that even in a monastery the tongue can race way ahead of the brain.

As for that bit of advice from the nun, had Benedict known it he would have lifted it and made the most of it.  After all, two ears and one tongue is just about the right proportion for Benedict.  But then again, in an act of holy zeal, he might have teased it out even further.  I can just imagine him saying that God gave us two ears for hearing the word of God, two eyes to see what needs to be done, two hands to go and do it, and one mouth to call it all blessed.  And he’d end with the observation that God also gives us one brain to make sure that Mr. Mouth gets his proper rest.

imageNotes

+On January 27th I spoke on design in The Saint John’s Bible in two art classes at George Fox University, located near Portland, OR.  That evening I addressed a much larger audience on that topic.

+On Sunday February 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and  you can access the text at this link, Does God Demand Anxiety?

+On January 31st Fr. Geoffrey Fecht and a group of friends of the Abbey began a two-week journey to Africa.  Among other excursions, they will visit with members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps who are serving at two abbeys in Africa.

+Since today is the Feast of the Presentation, I have included in this post a painting of the Presentation by Giovanni Bellini, housed in a gallery in Venice.  The gospel for the Mass of the day recounts the story of Simeon who rejoiced to live long enough to see the Savior.  It is a story of “letting go,” and so I have included photos of 17th-century tombs of various professors at the University of Bologna.

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