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Archive for May, 2015

imageThe Pilgrimage to Santiago

For the last three weeks I’ve followed the travels of a friend who is making the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela.  Santiago sits in the far northwestern corner of Spain, and pilgrims have been going there since the 9th century.  They’ve gone primarily to venerate the relics of the Apostle James, which are enshrined in the venerable 12th-century cathedral.  But as often as not it’s the trip itself that has drawn pilgrims by the tens of thousands;  and the tide shows no sign of letting up as we’ve entered the new century.

Several years ago the Spanish government caved into the popularity of this pilgrimage route and repaired and repaved the dangerous pathway that runs across the north of the country.  In the middle ages the road was much longer, with four trailheads that began in the middle of France.  Once in Spain the routes converged, only to split into northern and southern routes.  Today scarcely anyone has the time to begin the journey in France, which is just as well since there likely is no road to follow.  And today everyone takes the southerly route via León, which is still a challenge despite any modern amenities.  Whether by foot or bike, the trip requires a major investment of time and energy, but at least it’s not dangerous like it was in the middle ages.

imageI confess that I’ve only done this pilgrimage by coach, so I’ve never had the blisters and aching knees that those who are truly pilgrims continue to enjoy.  Nonetheless, I’ve been able to hear enough stories from bonafide pilgrims to appreciate what they go through en route.

First off, one naturally asks why anyone in their right mind would want to do this.  Why take off weeks from a job or abandon a comfortable home just to tromp through crummy weather and a rugged and often lonely landscape?  Well, there’s one reason I long ago crossed off the list.  People do not make the trek to Santiago because they have nothing else to do.  People who are addicted to the recliner in the den are the least likely candidates to do this.  People who are chronically bored rank a close second.  People who wonder what to do to fill up their day rank third.  In short, almost all the people who walk to Santiago do so for a reason, and the non-adventurous need not apply.

imageThose reasons vary, of course.  Some do it because they are at a crossroads in their lives and have to sort things out or do some serious soul-searching.  Others go because they have lost someone dear to them.  Still others go to mend fences or come to terms with broken relationships.  And others do it for the sheer joy of testing their limits by walking several hundred miles.  Can they do it without taking a week off at the spa?

A second important lesson about this pilgrimage is that one never travels alone.  People may take their first cautious steps out onto the road, thinking they don’t know a soul.  But within a mile or two people tend to link up and travel together.  En route they share their stories, and soon enough therapy and camaraderie blur together.  People begin to support one another;  and as is the case with life, they sometimes move on to join new clusters of pilgrims, only to rejoin friends they had made a hundred miles earlier.

imagePretty soon a pattern emerges, and the parallels to normal life start to emerge.  Of course absent from all this walking is the busyness that crowds the daily routine at home.  Shorn of trips to the mall and time spent at the office or in front of the television, the pilgrimage route tends to reduce life to its bare-boned basics.  What the pilgrim soon confronts is the endless horizon, but in getting there each step counts for something.

Pilgrimage to anywhere is a metaphor for life in general and Christian life in particular.  The nice thing about Santiago is that there’s a clear destination and a decently-marked trail to get there.  One also has roughly some idea of how long it will take until arrival.

Unlike the road to Santiago, normal life isn’t quite so tidy.  There are all sorts of uncertainties about destination and duration, and there may be lots of detours along the way.  But in common with Santiago, how one gets there is all-important.  Each step along the way counts for something.

imageVeterans of the road to Santiago all comment on the renewed appreciation for life that they’ve come home with.  They’ve learned to savor the little things, which is one lesson that comes from miles and miles through endless fields and forests and mountains.  And most of all, they come home with a renewed respect for their fellow travelers.  On the road to Santiago there are no strangers, because everyone eventually becomes a fellow pilgrim, and together they walk the road with the Lord.

In a few days my friend will reach Sahagún, which is the site of a once-great Benedictine abbey.  It was in Sahagún where I learned my last and best lesson from the pilgrimage.  It was there that I met a  young German woman who had decided to start her pilgrimage in Seville, far in the south of Spain.  Nobody does the pilgrimage from Seville, because there is no hiking path from Seville.  My first thought was that she must be crazy.  Then I recalled the parable of the wedding banquet, when the host went out to the byways and invited any and all into the feast.  That’s when I realized that this woman may have been eccentric, but she was a metaphor for the Church.  Whether we start in Seville or Arles or in Barcelona, it is the Lord who will gather us in.  And many other surprises will await us as well.

imageNotes

+On May 18th and 19th I attended the annual retreat of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, held at Saint John’s.

+On May 23rd Saint John’s Preparatory School held its graduation exercises in the abbey church.

+The pictures in today’s post were taken by Michael Becker, who photographed the recent ordination of Fr. Nick Kleespie as priest and Brother Lew Grobe as deacon, with Bishop Donald Kettler presiding.  On May 24th Fr. Nick celebrated the Eucharist at his home parish in Morris, MN.

+Santiago Compostela was likely the most popular medieval shrine in Europe, after Rome itself.  But it held no monopoly on pilgrimage, and many local and regional pilgrimage destinations emerged to entice visitors from near and far.  In the gallery on the Cathedral of Chartres you will see samples of the sculpture and stained glass that dazzled visitors from France and beyond.

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imagePearls of Wisdom

A few weeks ago the president of Saint John’s University posed to me and several of my colleagues a very simple question.  “What do you know now that you wish someone had told you at twenty-two?”  It’s the sort of thing for which everyone has an answer, and to no one’s surprise it prompted a lot of replies.  And even though the president had asked us not to give it much thought, clearly there was wisdom in the nuggets that came pouring in.

The fact that wisdom came back at all was reassuring, since it need not have been that way.  To cite but one example of the latter, I wish someone had told me to buy stock in Apple when I was twenty-two.  Of course it didn’t exist back then, but eventually it would have changed my life, for sure.  The same would hold for buying real estate on the Florida coasts.  I’m now on in years to the point at which I could have cashed in on a fortune, even with the paltry sum I could have invested at age twenty-two.

imageTo everyone’s credit, however, there were no self-serving bits like these, and it speaks to their altruism.  To no one’s surprise, most contributions were thoughtful, and they were of the sort that could benefit any and all twenty-two-year-olds, provided they were willing to listen.  The latter isn’t always the case, as many of us can attest from our personal experience.  But the probability of people listening to our ideas was not something the president had asked us to factor in.

I won’t itemize what my colleagues had to offer, but I will say that I had a tough time deciding between two of my own long-time favorites.  One adage has served me well for ages, and it really could have come in handy when I was twenty-two.  “The only thing better than perfect is done” was the best thing I learned in graduate school, and I’ve used it ever since to ward off procrastination.  It’s stood the test of time, at least most of the time.

But I finally went with a more noble sentiment that would have helped me a lot in my early years.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  Now at first blush that sounds terribly self-centered, but I don’t mean it that way.  It can sound like I’m driven by a fiercely competitive spirit, but that’s not me.  It can sound like the desire to manipulate people is topmost in my mind, but I hope that’s not me either.  And it can sound like I’m the person who likes the front row in synagogues and banquets, but that’s definitely not me.  Since the first grade I’ve preferred the third seat in the third row, since it’s the ideal hiding place for someone like me who used to be terminally shy.  No, this aphorism is about something else entirely.

image“If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  It can sound crass and opportunistic, but in fact it’s been a great prod to get me in gear and to show up at events and places where I’d rather not be.  It’s a reminder that if I don’t participate in discussions, then I lose the right to complain about decisions that don’t go my way.  It’s also a reminder that if I’m peeved that no one has asked for my wisdom for days, it may be because I’ve stayed in my room all that time.

These are compelling reasons for adopting this motto, but it still hasn’t touched the most important rationale.  That has to do with talents that are ignored or underused.  If I absent myself from human interaciton, then I end up hiding my talents under a bushel.  Now I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I have a ton of talents, but what few I do have are wasted if I don’t trot them out every once in a while.  Talents that are seldom used tend to atrophy, and eventually they are of no use to the owner.  Not surprisingly, they’re of even lesser value to the people around me, and they’re the ones who need them most.

imageThat, it seems to me, is the whole point of living in community.  Life in community, whether in a monastery or in a church or in a family, isn’t just a matter of shared goods.  It also involves shared talents, shared points of view, and especially shared lives.  It’s the latter in particular that makes life in the monastery potentially wonderful.

That was my contribution to the president’s request, and I’m curious about why he had asked for this.  He certainly didn’t mean to share it with his one-year-old twins, since they would have paid zero attention.  And I doubt that he needed it for personal use, since he has more than enough wisdom already.  Perhaps he meant it for our own benefit.  Perhaps he wanted us to realize how far we’ve each come since age twenty-two.

imageNow that I’ve had a chance to mull all this over, I’m glad that no one told me about Apple or Florida real estate when I was twenty-two.  It would not have been enough, because I would have been upset not to know about Facebook and Google and all the other stuff that would have made me even richer.  And even had Apple and Florida been enough, it likely would have ruined my life anyway.  After all, stock tips and insider information are no substitute for wisdom and all the other things that really matter in life.

In some respects it may be a fruitless exercise to tell a twenty-two-year-old something that only comes with age and grace.  After all, back then I knew amost everything there was to know.  Nowadays, I know a lot less, but I’m blessed to know a little bit about what really matters in life.  And these are pearls of great price, without a doubt.

imageNotes:

+On May 17th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and via the link you can access my sermon: The Feast of the Ascension:  Let’s Be Moving On.

+Last week twelve graduating seniors of Saint John’s University began a two-week retreat at the Abbey.  This fall  they will each begin one-year terms as members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  In the course of the year they will spread to Benedictine abbeys across the world.

+Last week the rains came in abundance to central Minnesota, and on Saturday night we received over two inches.  It was a welcome relief for us, as well as for the neighboring farmers.  It also boosted the spring flowers, and it provided continued encouragement to the monks who are avid gardeners.

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imageThe Price of Springtime

Many years ago — once upon a time, to be precise — one of my students introduced me to the wit and wisdom of Cheech and Chong.  For someone steeped in the lore of Lake Wobegon and Olie and Lena jokes, these two Angelinos were a bit jarring.  But humor is humor, even if it doesn’t come packaged in a Minnesota accent.

What won me over to them was an album in which they recast several children’s stories, and they transplanted them squarely into the middle of East Los Angeles.  My favorite, hands down, was their fractured version of The Three Little Pigs.  To sum up in brief, mama pig had just slammed the front door on the three little pigs, and she went off to rouse papa pig from his early morning torpor.  “The three little pigs have gone off to school.  What shall we do?”  After a pregnant pause, the duo answered in unison, with a rousing “Let’s move!”  And so they did, leaving no phone number or forwarding address.

For years I thought this was a charming and much better rendition of the version I had heard as a child.  And for almost as long I continued to think of it as just another nice story, until some friends of mine up and did the exact same thing to their kids.  Both of their kids had finished college, and in time each had meandered back to the ancestral manse in suburban Chicago.  And there they stayed, and stayed, and stayed.  And who wouldn’t.  With doting and accommodating parents, it was a little piece of paradise.

imageBut the kids had badly misjudged all that affection, and their strategic error was to be away from home for a few months — at the same time.  Then, like mama and papa pig á la Cheech and Chong, the parents seized the initiative and decamped to a one-bedroom condo just off Michigan Avenue.  Of course they would always be welcome for dinner, they assured their kids.  They also encouraged them to stop by for coffee whenever they might be in the neighborhood.  Then they all lived happily ever after, which actually is the most accurate part of this largely true story.

I bring all this up because this is the season of college commencement, and yesterday we graduated our seniors at Saint John’s University.  No doubt it was a joyous occasion for our seniors, and for spoken and unspoken reasons it was a joy for their parents as well.  But lurking in the imagination of more than a few parents was a fear shared by millions each year at this time.  What if their pride-and-joy comes home and stays and stays and stays?  Had it been a mistake not to sell the house and move into an efficiency apartment earlier?  Well, now they will find out.

imageA glance out the window at this time of year shows the renewal that is the very essence of springtime, and with it comes obvious change.  Those graduations and weddings and movings that are typical of this time of year bring changes in our human relationships as well.  Such upheaval can be exhilerating for some and wrenching for others, and for most of us there’s a little of both.  Parents naturally have to be thrilled to see their kids grow up and begin to strike out on their own;  but any good parent feels the anxiety that comes from letting go.

In May and June all this activity seems to accelerate.  All sorts of people and events crowd into the scene, and these test and stretch family ties and friendships.  Along with that, people mature in unexpected ways, and coming to terms with that can be a challenge.  With it comes the uncertainty of how all these new relationships will shake out.  Will there be room for everybody in the new order of things?

imageThere are many ways to respond to this seasonal upheaval, but sooner or later everyone has to deal with it, including monks in a monastery.  In our own community in the past month we’ve welcomed the ordination of one monk as a priest and another as a deacon.  We’ve accepted the applications of our two novices to take their first vows, as well as those of four junior monks who will pronounce their final vows in a few weeks.  And while this may seem like undiluted good news, it comes with a price for us all.  In the case of each and every one of these young monks we have to stand back, let go a little, and allow them to grow into our peers.  It sounds easy, but I imagine that it’s very much like a parent letting go and allowing a son or daughter to mature into the person they always hoped to see someday.

All that takes both work as well as an act of faith that somehow it will turn out well.  It means letting go so that the Holy Spirit can continue the work, and to do it in new and surprising ways.  It means standing back to allow the growth that springtime brings.

Naturally there’s anxiety about the future, but it’s a lot better than trying to keep things exactly the way they have always been.  That, it seems to me, is the goal of commencement.  And it’s the goal of any worthwhile human endeavor.

imageNotes

+Two weeks ago, on the eve of my pilgrimage to Lourdes, I noted that the weather forecast had included torrential rain, floods, and avalanches.  Well, the weather people struck out on two of them.  There was scarcely any rain, and if there were avalanches, I didn’t see them.  Ironically, it was unexpectedly warm, and all that heat and sunshine caused the snow in the mountains to melt quickly.  In turn that caused the Gave River to roar through the town of Lourdes, flooding the grotto and the sacred baths.  No one got hurt, but it did leave more than a few pilgrims disappointed.  For a gallery of photos from this pilgrimage to Lourdes, please visit Lourdes: May 2015.

+On May 10th we celebrated commencement at Saint John’s University.  Preceding the event I attended the President’s Luncheon, which included a few students and their families, a few trustees and officials of the University, Abbot John, and Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud.  Sadly, rain did fall on our academic parade, but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of graduating seniors and their parents.   Because of the rain the graduates lined up in the Great Hall before proceeding to the abbey church, where friends and relatives awaited.  The pictures in today’s post were taken in the Great Hall as the seniors gathered for their moment in the sun.

image

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imageLetter from Lourdes

For those whose European tour includes seven cities in seven days, a week in Lourdes must seem like a  huge waste of time.  Why would anyone want to spend a week here?  What could possibly fill up all that time?  What’s there to see that couldn’t be seen in a day?

The last question is the easiest, because the truth is that everything of value in Lourdes can be seen in just a few hours.  That still leaves plenty of time to drive the one hundred kilometers to Toulouse for dinner.  Of course it’s also possible to stretch out a stay by visiting the 250+ shops here, but I personally don’t recommend that.  The shopkeepers are friendly to a fault, but only a handful sell stuff I’d ever consider dragging home.  It’s no secret that people don’t come to Lourdes for the shopping, unless they are serious collectors of religious kitsch.  Of the latter there is a veritable bonanza here.

Then there’s the question of how to fill up all the time if one does stay for a week.  The casual tourists can’t imagine how we do it until they’re here.  Once here they discover that Lourdes is a bee hive of activity, with processions going here and there, and other groups gathereed for prayer, for visits to the sacred spring of the grotto, for stations of the cross and for a host of other acitivities.

imageThis week our own group of members of the Order of Malta joined with some 3,500 other members, volunteers, and sick people (malades.)  In small and large groups we scurried through the town and into the precincts of the shrine, where we wiled away hours of time.  Without meaning to diminish our efforts, I’d summarize by saying we do a lot of hurry-up and wait, which is necessary when groups are so large, and when they come from all sorts of language groups.  Rushing things only leads to chaos and fights, both of which I’ve seen here, by the way.

Sunday in Lourdes is scarcely a typical day, but it illustrates how the logistics for Mass alone can chew up all kinds of time.  In brief, from door to church to door, it took us three hours and forty-five minutes yesterday.  This involved 325 people, with carts for the sick, meeting at our hotel garage at 8:00 am.  Our goal was to process the four blocks to the  underground basilica, find our assigned places, and be ready for Mass when it started at 9:30.  It’s important to keep in mind that 25,000 other people are trying to do the exact same thing, at exactly the same time.  I’m not kidding on this one, and it creates a logistical nightmare that the French volunteers handle with poise, serenity, and at times an iron fist.  The Mass itself lasted one hundred minutes, beginning with an entrance procession of 250 priests, various bishops and four cardinals.  My guess is that many of these priests had not been in a procession for years, and it showed in ragged lines and distracted gazes.  But once again the French handled this well, and they showed no mercy to the priests who strayed from the fold.

imageThen there were the myriad prayers, hymns and pauses.  The petitions were in French, Italian, German, Dutch, Polish, English and Arabic, while the offertory procession must have taken all of ten minutes.  I almost felt sorry for the cardinal who had to bend down and take each and every ciborium, but then I came to my senses.  That’s the price he pays for wearing all that red.

Eventually the Mass ended, and the clergy then processed to the grotto at the other end of the shrine, where we sang the Regina Coeli.  Then we processed back to the basilica, shed our vestments and stampeded to the bathroom.

At one session the grand master of the Order of Malta reminded the first-timers in our group that all pilgrimages are a blend of experiences.  He recalled the Canterbury Tales, with its mix of the sacred and the profane, just to make the point that at Lourdes you have a bit of both.  So it is that there’s laughter and tears, awed silence and minor irritation;  but somehow they flow into a wonderul experience of the holy.

imageOne leaves Lourdes with all sorts of memories, and three stand out for me from this pilgrimage.  First, I recall sitting in a meeting of chaplains and leaning over to comment to my neighbor on what an electrifying meeting it was.  He nearly burst out laughing, which would have broken the funereal tone in the room.  The second is my recollection of 25,000 people singing together as one on Sunday.  It’s a modern-day Pentecost and a goose-bump experience.  And finally, there was the ceremony at which the grand master handed out medals to first-time pilgrims.  When he welcomed a group of sixteen Catholics who had come from Iraq, the hall burst into an applause that lasted two minutes.  It was a moment of loving solidarity in a shared faith.

In sum, that’s what people get for hanging around for a week in Lourdes.  It can’t be hurried, but it can be savored in the moment and for a lifetime.  It’s definitely worth the hurry-up and wait.

imageNotes

+On May 2nd Bishop Donald Kettler visited Saint John’s Abbey and ordained Br. Nickolas Kleespie to the priesthood and Br. Lew Grobe as deacon.

+In the course of our Lourdes pilgrimage our group had an afternoon outing to the neaby abbey of Saint Savin.  From Carolingian times it was a Benedictine abbey, and it remained so until it was closed in the French revolution.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate Saint Savin.

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