Archive for June 8th, 2015

imageThe Case for Fraternal Correction

Last week the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat.  By any measure it can be a pleasant week, though there can be some challenges to confront.  Chief among those is work.  It takes iron discipline not to slip away to the office between conferences.  Second on the list of challenges is thinking about slipping off to the office.

It may seem odd that monks would rank work above sitting through spiritual conferences, but that’s because most peope don’t know any monks.  We are products of our culture, and on most monastic productivity scales work outscores most everything else by a long shot.  Like most people, then, that’s where our default settings are.

All the same, we do derive much benefit from speakers who come from outside of the community to deliver retreats.  For one thing, we sometimes learn something.  For another, such people provide a perspective that corrects our sometimes insular views on things.  They also have the advantage of being neutral when it comes to an examination of our own faults.  After all, they generally don’t know us, and they can’t be blamed if they hit the nail on the head when they identify our faults.  How could they have known?  And how can we blame them?

imageThis retreat was slightly different, however, because the refection committee caused a minor stir by posting several signs outside and inside of the monastic dining room.  As long as the retreat director was helping us to re-order our lives, the committee decided to use that as cover to issue a short list of points that fell somewhere between suggestions and demands.  Specifically, table etiquette had slipped markedly, and it was not just a matter of using the cutlery in unacceptable fashion.  No, this had to do with how and how not to go through a buffet.  And because words are not always enough, the committee used illustrations to help those who might not understand the prose.

Nobody likes to stick their neck out and scold a community, so this was a pretty brave thing to do.  Because of that, in true monastic fashion the committee took the precaution of listing the names of all the members in a follow-up email.  And also in true monastic fashion, the warning went out to everybody, rather than to the violators alone.  No sense blaming just the ones who deserve it.

imageSuch an issue normally rates a nod and a chuckle, but Fr. Brad tackled the subject again at Mass the next morning.  He could imagine each monk reading the signs and saying in mock horror:  “Surely it is not I, Lord!”  And of course they’d be right.  It’s always about someone else, or at least it is in my case.

If the truth be told, most of us could not possibly imagine that we’ve ever irritated anyone.  Most of us couldn’t think of a single thing we do that someone else might find obnoxious.  This is why sooner or later all of us deserve to be called clueless.  And we’re cluseless because we put ourselves at the center of our own little universe and imagine we can do no wrong.  Ever.

Saint Benedict was well-aware of the potential for petty conflict and irritation in the monastery.  As an abbot of a small monastery he likely had to staff the complaint department all by himself, but generally he hoped that monks would settle things amicably, among themselves.  “Fraternal correction” was just one method that he hoped might solve problems, long before such issues escalated into agenda items for committees.

imageEven so, it’s worthwhile periodically to do a self-examination of our habits and actions, and try to imagine whether we might be doing things that get on the nerves of others.  One never knows, because in time we can easily morph into the people we once found irritating.  So it was with one confrere whom I heard muttering in the refectory about one of his table-mates:  “That man ought to be in a barn.”  That of coure was years ago, and the offending monk has long since gone to the heavenly banquet, where he likely dines in the barn.  Ironically, the mutterer has gone on to fill his shoes, and now my only hope is that he can take the time to read the pictures.


+From June 1st through the 5th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat, with Fr. Edward Mazich, OSB, as our retreat director.  Fr. Edward is a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.  The first monks to colonize Saint John’s left Saint Vincent in 1856 and within the year had settled in what became Collegeville.

+On June 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass.  It happened to be the feast day of Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions; but we also celebrated the jubilee of ordination of eight of our confreres.  For a transcript of my sermon, please go to Priesthood in the Monastery.  Following the homily Abbot John thanked the jubiliarians for their many years of service, which included two monks who celebated seventy years of ordination, one who celebrated sixty, two who celebrated fifty, and three who observed twenty-five years as priests in the monastery.  Community members then extended their hands as the abbot blessed our eight confreres.

image+In between conferences I did slip away to visit the doctor for an annual physical.  While there I got two shots, which were painless enough.  When the nurse had finished I looked down, expecting to see the usual flesh-toned bandages.  Instead I was wearing two Bugs Bunny Bandaids.  I tried to explain that monks do not wear Bugs Bunny Bandaids, but the nurse waved it off.  They had bought a truck-load of cartoon bandaids, and the kids would wear the Micky Mouse Bandaids but turned up their noses at the Bugs Bunny Bandaids.  So that’s what they were giving out to the adults.  And they did not have any flesh-tone bandages.  They hadn’t been on sale.

+With generous rains and perfect temperatures, the landscape at Saint John’s has been lush and verdant.  The first three photos are from the Scary Mary Garden, which is tended by Fr. Geoffrey; while the last three photos come from the garden in the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

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