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Archive for April, 2015

imageOff to Lourdes

The forecast for Lourdes last Saturday was decidedly not the best.  The Weather Channel predicted thunderstorms, floods and avalanches, which is a combination I’ve not experienced before.  In Lourdes I’ve stood with other pilgrims in torrential rains.  I’ve seen high waters in the river and viewed the damage after floods have swept through the precincts of the shrine.  But avalanches would be a new one to me.

With that kind of a welcome, you have to wonder why somebody would go on pilgrimage to such an inhospitable place.  What draws people who will put up with weather that can include rains and snow and heat and cold?

Perhaps the more fundamental question has to do with why people go on pilgrimage at all, to any destination.  Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to stay home and relax and watch the entire proceedings on the internet?  Well, to answer the question adequately, you really have to be there.

I’ve been to Lourdes eight times, and this week I’m there again.  It’s never a place I’d go to alone, and in fact each time I’ve come with a large troop of members of the Order of Malta from the west coast.  Together with volunteers and some forty-five sick pilgrims, we number around 325.  But in Lourdes we will meet up with other groups of the Order, from the east coast, Europe, and elsewhere.  Eventually our numbers might swell to 4,000.  Together, for a week, we will pray, enjoy each other’s company, and very often experience a spiritual transformation.

imageOn the eve of my first visit to Lourdes I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing.  Benedictines are not predisposed to bouts of religious enthusiasm, and frankly I feared that it all might be too much.  But I quickly put aside that anxiety, because one realizes that at Lourdes you confront the fragility of life and the ultimate meaning of life.  Only a few people go to Lourdes for physical healing; but most go for spiritual healing.  And that healing is not likely to take exterior expression, because it happens deep within one’s soul.

Yet another surprise that awaited me that first time was the extent of spiritual healing that takes place.  Many who for years have suffered serious illness come seeking peace.  They are there to come to terms with what life has dished out to them.  But to the surprise of many, the vast majority of people who have experienced miracles came not expecting to see any miracles at all — and least of all miracles that happened to them.  After all, they arrived in good health, and they only allowed for the possibility that the healing of others might touch them.  But God’s healing power eventually sucks them in as well.  In short, they arrived thinking they were well, only to discover their common humanity with the physically sick.  And along with those who arrived sick, they find some measure of healing.  Those are the real miracles of Lourdes.

imageIt’s a stretch to duplicate that experience while watching on the internet.  And yet that does not exhaust the benefits of an international shrine like Lourdes.  At Lourdes Pentecost happens.  At the first Pentecost the Holy Spirit overwhelmed the apostles, so that when they spoke, all heard in their own language and understood.  At Lourdes God speaks in all languages, because Christians have gathered from the ends of the earth.  The languages divide them, but faith unites them.  It’s then, perhaps for the first time, that many realize how varied are the people in God’s Church.  The Church is bigger and more varied than any one town or region, but all are one in their common quest for God.

People go to Lourdes to experience the healing power of God, and in the course of a few days they discover that God generally works in mysterious ways.  They discover God working through Mary, the mother of Jesus.  They discover that God works through their fellow pilgrims, no matter their language or country of origin.  And last but not least, and in what may be the biggest surprise of all, individual pilgrims discover that God works through them.

The tourist brochures point out that Lourdes is in the south of France.  That’s enough to lure most anyone.  And the chestnut trees in bloom and the moments of glorious sunshine will make anyone forget about the threat of storms and floods and avalanches.  But these are not the reasons why people go to Lourdes.  At Lourdes God touches people, and that’s the big take-home from the experience.  And it’s only then that they begin to realize that this is the one mystery that can be duplicated in the comfort of one’s home.

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+On April 24th I attended Saint John’s Day, an annual celebration to express our gratitude to the supporters of Saint John’s University.  This year the University honored alumnus Fr. Don Talafous (’48) with the Presidential Medal and Citation, for his decades of service.  For many years he taught theology and served as University chaplain, and currently serves as University Alumni Chaplain.

+Saturday April 25th was a very busy day in the Abbey, and particularly so in the church.  In the morning, at the community Eucharist, celebrant Fr. Brad Jenniges received into full communion in the Catholic Church oblate candidate Emily Stamps.  In the afternoon Fr. Anthony presided at a wedding, and in the evening there was a concert by the boys choir.  In between times we rushed in to say evening prayer, and somehow it all fit in.

+Also on Saturday we hosted the annual visit of students from Saint Olaf College.  This year 100+ students came, and Brother David-Paul spoke to them about the monastic life and the architecture of the abbey church.  He is particularly suited for this role, since he is an alumnus of Saint Olaf.  These visits have gone on for over twenty years, and it is always a pleasure to host them.

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imageMusings on Spring Fever

Spring fever made its ugly appearance at Saint John’s last week, and it was especially virulent.  Many of us were totally unprepared for the idyllic weather, while the early spring flowers and a dusting of spruce pollen reminded those with allergies that winter’s truce was over. By week’s end I had lost all ambition to do anything.  Since I no longer work in the classroom, I at least had the option to run and hide for a day or two.  But it still left me deeply sympathetic to the plight of my colleagues and their students.  How do they manage to stay in the battle when the urge to do nothing is overwhelming?

In his Rule Saint Benedict makes not a single comment about the beauty of springtime.  I can’t imagine that he was oblivious to it, nor was spring absent from the Umbrian landscape where he lived.  The fact is, much of Italy is lovely all year long, but the spring blossoms still act as a wake-up call, even at Monte Cassino.  Even so, Benedict makes no mention of any of it, save for a passing reference to lengthening days.

Lest we give up on Benedict entirely, it’s important to remember that he does comment on the comings and goings of the seasons, via the liturgical calendar.  After the doldrums of Lent, there is an abrupt change of tone with the Easter season.  On Holy Saturday morning it’s all lamentations, but by evening he’s flipped on the switch and alleluias pervade the air.  Liturgically it’s the equivalent of waking up from a deep slumber, and you run the risk of a serious overdose of joy.

imageThere’s a certain irony that comes with Easter and spring fever, and it hasn’t been lost on me during the past week.  Through much of the school  year I scarcely glance at the University’s events calendar.  There’s always plenty going on, but as much as I would like to take part in some of it, who’s got the time?  Now, with a lighter personal schedule, I no longer have the energy or the ambition.  This may be what the Bible has in mind when it reads that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

But the irony does not stop here.  Just when many of us lose the drive to do much of anything, the entries on the events calendar multiply drastically.  All of a sudden, there’s way too much good stuff from which to choose, just at the point when you’d like to sit it all out.  From out of the wood-work comes an overabundance of senior oboe, organ and voice recitals.  There’s way too many honors thesis defenses.  And then there are spring sports, like baseball, and events like the Mom Prom, sponsored annually by the campus council of the Knights of Columbus.  What’s a person to choose from?

Thankfully, I did not cash it all in and give up on life this last weekend.  I’ll admit to skipping the Mom Prom, but I did sit still long enough to take in a concert in the Great Hall, delivered by a visiting high school choir from Bililngs, MT.  I also dragged myself to our new baseball park to see Saint John’s best Carleton in the first of a doubleheader.  Later I took a long hike, and en route I paid a call on our four new colonies of bees.  And I swept by the maple sugar shack, now quiet and closed for the season, after processing 350+ gallons of syrup this spring.

I also caught myself regretting the all-too-quick passage of time.image  What sparked that was a scan of the various senior thesis defenses coming up in the next few days.  Most titles were beyond my skill set, including “The Induced Heart Rate Response to Fish Kairomes in Daphnia Pulex.”  But in the case of the latter, it was the name of the author that caught my eye.  Four years ago I had interviewed this guy when he came as a high school senior to apply for a Trustee Scholarship.  Four years had passed and I’ve not seen him since;  but it’s nice to speculate that his experience at Saint John’s has turned out well.

Through the years I’ve reminded myself that if I don’t show up, I don’t get to play the game.  I’ve meant that to be an incentive to do my duty and make an appearance, even when I’d rather be somewhere else.  But it’s a reminder, too, that good things will still happen, whether I’m there or not.  So I may as well make the effort, and I might just reap the reward.

Spring fever is the seductive temptation to skip out on all sorts of things.  But it’s also insidious, because it frames life in either/or propositions.  Either I sit back and enjoy the beauties of spring, or I put my nose to the grindstone and make the most of every opportunity.  But Saint Benedict, ever the believer in moderation and balance, would likely pose the options differently.  “Why not just go ahead and do a little of both?”  I wish I had thought of that sooner.  But it’s never too late.

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+On April 17th Abbot John, University President Michael Hemesath and calligrapher Donald Jackson presented the seventh volume of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to Pope Francis in Rome.  This completes the delivery of the set that has been contributed to the Vatican Library; and through the years we were privileged to present individual volumes to Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.

+On April 14th I gave a presentation to the chaplains of the American Association of the Order of Malta, at a meeting in New York City.

+On April 15th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN.

+On April 16th and 17th I taught classes in monastic history to the novices of the monastery.

+On April 18th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access Service to the Poor of the Church, via this link.

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imageThe Sharing of Goods

The historian in me has always loved The Acts of the Apostles.  It’s the vivid narrative of how the disciples came to terms with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But it’s also the story of how they teased out the logical implications of that act of faith.  In short, it’s the story of how the Church came into being.

As detailed as the Acts might seem at first glance, it is in fact a bare-bones account of how the disciples moved from one conclusion to the next.  If you asked them their goal at the beginning of the story, I suspect they would have confessed their ignorance.  Certainly they weren’t sitting around discussing a constitution for the Church on the day when Mary Magdelene burst into the room with news of the resurrection.  For one thing, they didn’t even believe her.  For another, they were probably more concerned about getting over the loss of Jesus and how to get on with their lives. That scene was only the first in a series of tense confrontations that dragged the disciples out of their comfort zone and into an entirely new mindset.  And what was happening here?  From the perspective of faith we’d say that the Holy Spirit had begun to transform a group of pretty average people into the nucleus of a Church.

imageSaint Luke, to whom we attribute The Acts of the Apostles, went on to itemize a series of experiences that led to agonizing decisions, from which there was no turning back.  The whole process rested on the  conviction that Jesus was the messiah, and that he  was truly risen.  From there it was all a matter of logic.  Slowly, and painfully, they ventured beyond their roots in Judaism, and the trend line in Acts is obvious.

At some point they decided it was okay to welcome Gentiles directly into their midst.  Still later they decided that baptism, but not circumcision, was the necessary rite of initiation.  Then they dispensed with most Jewish dietary restrictions.  At another point they ceased going to the temple to pray.  Slowly came  a more proactive attitude toward Roman authority and Greek culture.  By the time it was all over this was no longer an ethnic sect tethered to Judaism.  This was the community of believers in the saving power of Jesus Christ, and they were citizens of the world.

But not every idea on the table had the ring of permanence.  Acts 4 relates one issue that got a good airing but eventually bit the dust.  “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they held everything in common.”  This experiment falls into the category of all those things that “seemed like a good idea at the time;” but the fact is, Christian communism turned out rather poorly.  Not everybody bought into it wholeheartedly, and soon enough the leaders realized that this was one noble experiment that went down a black hole.  And so it quietly slipped from usage and from view, and Luke never returned to the subject again.  Here was yet another decision from which there was no turning back.

imageWhen I take off my historian’s hat and put on my monk’s cowl I feel a little disappointed that this idea of shared property turned out to be such a flop.  After all, most religious orders in the Church haven’t quite given up on this ideal, even if the mainstream of Christianity has moved beyond it.  We monks still treasure some sense of kinship with the early Christian community in Jerusalem, even if others in the Church might not do so to the same degree.

But in religious life, and in the Benedictine tradition itself, we too have shared the early hesitaton about shared goods and ideals of poverty.  Saint Benedict himself preached neither equality of possessions nor destitution.  Rather, monks were individuals, and individuals have different needs.  So he taught that monks should have what they need, but no more.  And those who need less should not feel superior to those whose needs are greater.

At the same time, Benedict’s emphasis on hospitality is the nice corrective to pegging self-worth to the scale of one’s possessions.   His injunction to treat all guests as Christ is capable of broad application, and so through history monks have fed and housed guests, whether rich or poor.  They’ve educated guests who through the centuries have come in the guise of students.  And they’ve prayed with and for guests, who’ve come as pilgrims and soul-searchers.  But at no point have we judged the worth of guests based solely on how much or how little they had.

imageLiving in community and sharing our goods are as challenging for monks in the 21st century as they were for Christians in Jerusalem in the years after the Ascension of Jesus.  In the Acts the early Christians finally solved the dilemma and left behind shared goods as a way of life; and instead they fixed their gaze on the needs of the needy. I think modern monks aspire to the same values.

A focus on the risen Lord ultimately gives the monk — and each Christian — the standard by which we shape our lives.  I’m reminded here of the insight that historian Jaroslav Pelikan often repeated to his students.  “If Jesus died and rose from the dead, then nothing else matters.  If Jesus didn’t die and rise from the dead, then nothing else matters.”  That, I think, is what the disciples eventually concluded, and it’s not such a bad conviction by which to live.

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+On April 8th eight monks from Saint John’s, including Abbot John and myself, attended the funeral of Fr. Mark Ostendorf at the Cathedral of Saint Mary in St. Cloud, MN.  Fr. Mark grew up in our parish in Freeport, MN, and then went on to attend our prep school before graduating from Saint John’s University.  Later still he was ordained a priest for the diocese of Saint Cloud.

+On April 10th I spoke to the board of directors of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.  The meeting took place in Chicago, IL.

+In the recent issue of The Abbey Banner, I presented an article entitled The Garden of the Lord, which you can access here.  The magazine is a regular publication of Saint John’s Abbey.

+Among the less-visited spots in Rome is the church of Santa Presseda, which contains some of the oldest mosaics in the city.  It is well worth the visit, and you will not be hemmed in by the crowds.

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imageProofread Your Fine Print

For years I’ve wanted to see this particular edition of the Bible, but who knew that Holy Thursday would provide the occasion?  The said Bible was printed in London in 1631, and there was little to distinguish it from all the other editions of The King James Version, save for one glaring omission.  In his rush to publish, Robert Barker may have cut a few corners a little too closely.  We’ll never know whether the shoddy proofreading was due to budget cuts or poor execution, but the results have not lost their power to startle.  Nested in the fine print of Exodus chapter twenty, there is a line that should have a “not,” but it does not.  And a critically important “not” it was, as surprised and delighted readers discovered when they first stumbled onto the seventh commandment.  There it was in all its glory:  “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  Who could have imagined!

That little variant in the text may explain why this edition became a run-away best-seller.  It may also have inspired not a few people to pick up their Bibles to find out what else they may have missed in earlier readings.  In any case, the king’s agents burned as many copies as they could find, which has fueled a steady price rise ever since.  Meanwhile, the king also levied a big fat fine on Barker, ensuring that he would reap no financial gain from his happy fault.

imageThis may seem an odd prologue to a reflection on Easter, but it reminds us of the importance of reading the fine print in any human endeavor.  As often as not, the devil is in the details, and when it came to this particular Bible, the omission of one three-letter word earned the book its monicker for all time:  The Wicked Bible.

On Wednesday of Holy Week chapter twenty-six from the gospel of Saint Matthew provided good grist for my thoughts on the fine print in any of our endeavors.  Who knows when it first entered the mind of Judas to betray Jesus, but at some point he decided to approach the chief priests to see if he could do a deal.  “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

Several things struck me about this, and not the least of them was the sheer audacity of the man.  There’s egomania in Judas, with the thought that he controlled Jesus and could turn him over at will.  It’s as if Jesus were some commodity or intellectual property.  Then there’s the self-delusion that allowed Judas to believe that he wielded all the levers of power.  “If people want to deal with Jesus, they’ll have to deal with me first, and they’ll have to do it on my terms.  But the good news is that we can do business together.”

imageTo think of this as a form of prayer may seem a little odd, but in some respects it’s not unlike many of our prayers.  It is in fact the obverse of the prayer that Jesus uttered in the Garden only a few hours later.  “Not my will, but thy will be done,” he agonized.  The contrast may be as stark as can be, but it is prayer.  The difference?  Judas bargained for power and control;  Jesus bargained for the strength to surrender.

The irony of these two prayers shouldn’t be lost on us in the aftermath of Easter.  Judas prayed to be master of the moment, but what he thought was a good deal turned out to be a bust.  He sought to capitalize on a difficult situation, but he ended up losing everything.  Jesus, by contrast, surrendered himself completely.  But in losing his life he gained it.  And into his new life he gathers us all.

When Jesus called Judas to be his disciple, I just can’t imagine that Judas intended to have it end the way it did.  Who knows when it began to go off track?  Who knows when the urge to control all the details asserted itself?  But it happened; and what had begun as a promising discipleship ended in tragedy.

imageThe lesson for us, it seems to me, is this.  All of us begin relationships with the best of intentions.  Whether it is in our commitment to a spouse, to a friend or to God, we plunge in with high expectation.  But all such relationships require work, and any neglect is never benign.  Our lives require that we make regular course correction, or they will suffer from unplanned course correction.  All of us need to re-examine our motives;  all of us need to proofread our contracts with God and with one another, just to make sure that key words have neither slipped out nor been wedged in.  Such little changes can seem innocent enough at first, but over a lifetime they have the power to transform.

So it was with Judas, whose life as a disciple veered off course at some point.  So it was with Jesus, who grew in age and wisdom.  With Judas the prayer morphed into the self-serving demand to the high priests: “What can you do for me?”  And with Jesus it morphed into the conformity of his will to that of the Father.

As we enter Easter week the same is true for us.  The resurrection has the capacity to wipe our slate clean and to orient our lives to God.  But if it’s going to work, we must pay attention to those little changes in our own text that can redirect our lives, one way or the other.  Like Judas, we can gain a few pieces of silver and think we’ve won life’s grand prize;  or with Jesus we can appear to lose our lives entirely, and yet gain everything.

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+This was a crazy week for me, and I spent the first part of it recovering from the flu as well as allergies.  On Tuesday I finally managed to get my car towed from the airport garage in Minneapolis, back to Saint John’s, where I now await the verdict of the automotive physicians.

+On April 2nd I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at the Dunham Bible Museum on the campus of Houston Baptist University, located (appropriately enough) in Houston, TX.  It was through their courtesy that I was at last able to see and photograph The Wicked Bible.

+On April 4th the monastic community, joined by a large gathering of friends, celebrated the Easter vigil.  Lasting two hours and forty-five minutes, the music was flawless and beautiful, and the entire service flowed wonderfully.  We were blessed by the absence of anyone from the Environimental Protection Agency, since the clouds of incense qualified us to be a major industrial polluter.

+The top photo in today’s post is of an icon by Aidan Hart, which is on display in the Abbey church during the Easter season.  Two come from the interior of the church, while two show the promise of spring outdoors.  And the Ten Commandments speak for themselves.

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