Archive for July, 2015

imagePrepare Your Eulogy

If you’ve not paged through The Road to Character, by David Brooks, it’s definitely worth your while.  By now there have been plenty of reviews, and perhaps you’ve read one.  But as an inveterate Brooks fan, let me add to the chorus of appreciation for his latest book.

In it Brooks laments the change in personal ambition that’s taken place over the last fifty years,  For too long now, he notes, increasing numbers of people have spent the bulk of their lives compiling resumés.  To their regret, as they sometimes discover in their twilight years, they should have spent more time on the qualities better-suited for a eulogy.

The root cause of this change in direction is an infatuation with what Brooks calls “The Big Me.”  If, once upon a time, people espoused ideals that tilted toward altruism, that’s simply not the case any longer.  Today “it’s all about me,” and we value others primarily for what they can do for me.

imageHe devotes the bulk of his book to sketches of several gifted individuals who each faced a crisis of character.  Because he’s assembled such a diverse pool of personalities, you wonder what all of these people could possibly have in common.  But the thread that runs through all of them was the dawning awareness that life and civilization and the universe itself was not all about them after all.  In fact, life only began to have meaning when they made room for others in their own lives.  To borrow from the gospels, which Brooks does on more than one occasion, they discovered the nugget of wisdom that Jesus pointed out about those who lose their lives for the sake of others.  Only when they they lose their lives do they begin to regain them.  Only then do they acquire a real sense of purpose.  Only then does life begin to have some semblance of meaning.

If I may be so bold, this is a variation of a theme that I have  hammered away at in retreat conferences for a few years now.  I’ll grant that the point is not unique to me, but my self-interested approach may be a bit on the singular side.  It’s this.  For years I’ve pleaded with people to keep me in mind when they consider end-of-life plans.  “Don’t make me have to tell a pack of lies at your funeral.  For heaven’s sake, and for mine too, give me something to work with.  Think ahead, and give me and your friends some material we can use in your eulogy.”

imageIt strikes me that this is a useful complement to the advice Brooks has to give.  It’s also a chance to leverage self-interest and put it at the service of others.  This is one case in which being considerate of others means doing a big favor for yourself as well.

As a case in point, I cite the eulogy that the abbot has to give on the death of each of our monks.  He usually begins with material that Brooks labels resumé, and he lists the assignments and jobs of the deceased.  What we monks all realize is that these responsibilities were held by monks who went before the deceased, and now that he’s gone we’ll have to find someone else to do them.  So these initial comments of the abbot say little or nothing about the monk whom we remember that day.  It’s not that these things don’t matter;  its just that a resumé does not describe a real human being.

The abbot then shifts to speak about the qualities that this particular monk embodied in his life.  He tries to describe the character and the soul of our confrere, and this is what occasions wistful memories and an occasional chuckle.  This is the description of a real live human being.  This is the monk who loved and prayed and worked and walked alongside us.  This is the man who did some things well and others less well as he joined us in the search for God.

And all the while, as the abbot goes through this exercise, each of us knows that someday our turn will come.  As for me, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve given the abbot enough material for a decent eulogy.  Or will it only be data for a resumé?

imageWhen Brooks points to The Big Me as the root of the problem, it occurs to me that this business has been around for a long time.  Perhaps the first instance of it was the offer that the snake made to Adam and Eve.  Since then a myriad of thoughtful people have reflected on this, including Saint Benedict.   His teaching on the need for humility suggests that The Big Me was alive and well in the sixth century.  More recently I’ve been struck by a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta.  We pray that we be “forgetful of ourselves,” so that we mgiht be clear-eyed to see the needs of the sick and the poor.

The battle with The Big Me rages on within most of us, and as a culture we seem to be losing ground each day.  Given that, it’s helpful to keep one thing in mind.  It wasn’t all that many centuries ago when most people believed that the universe revolved around the sun.  Today we mock them for living in their heliocentric world.  But are we really any smarter for living in an egocentric world?  Only time will tell, and so will our eulogists.  And if we see them heading for the confessional after our funeral, we’ll know we didn’t give them enough to work with.


+On July 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Sheep with a Shepherd, through this link.

+In addition to reading The Pursuit of Character, by David Brooks, I also recently completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2015.)  I enjoy all of McCullough’s work, and I would only fault this book for being too short.  In the Abbey we are reading in the refectory the new encyclical by Pope Francis.

+The summer continues to be lovely at Saint John’s, and in today’s post I have included photos of the gardens inside the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

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imageThe Oblates Retreat

Ever since Saint Anthony ran off to the Egyptian desert at the end of the third century, many people have been fascinated with the monastic life.  Certainly that was true for the practitioners of it, but it was equally the case for those who hiked out to catch a glimpse of these holy men and women.

But when people treked out to the wilderness to talk with Anthony and hundreds of others like him, what did they go out to the desert to see?  Well, not a few went out to satisfy their curiosity.  Others sought spiritual advice.  Still others hoped to get a taste of the holiness of God that had taken root in these holy men and women.  And quite naturally a reckless few went out to join them in the quest for God.

If you fast-forward two hundred and fifty years to Saint Benedict, the interest had not cooled.  If anything, it was more intense, and Benedict noted that in his monastery guests were never wanting.  In fact, by his time guests had become such an important part of the monastic life that he incorporated them into the spiritual experience.  He wrote that monks should welcome guests as they would welcome Christ, just as they welcome Christ in the abbot and in their fellow monks.

imageIn our own day people still visit monasteries, though not quite in the same numbers as they do sports stadia and malls and theme parks.  However, curiosity about all things spiritual has by no means vanished from the face of the earth, despite our fascination with all things commercial.  Maybe it’s precisely because of the latter that people come to monasteries today, as well as for all the reasons that they did in Anthony’s day.

Saint Benedict may have anticipated all of this, but he likely never imagined the birth and growth of oblate programs in the twentieth century.  So it is that he made no provision for people who might want to associate themselves with a particular monastery, and who would promise to live according to the principles of the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Given their circumstances, such people today promise to live according to the Rule, “insofar as their state in life permits.”  However, that means they don’t have to ditch their spouse or abandon their children.  Nor do they have to give up their day jobs to spend all of their time in prayer.  But it does involve a commitment to weave the sacred into their lives.  It entails a life in which they see the face of Christ in their neighbors, and they commit themselves to daily prayer to sustain this vision and way of life.

imageAt Saint John’s Abbey the oblate program has grown significantly in the last few years.  Today some five hundred-thirty oblates are affiliated with the abbey, and this last weekend ninety of them gathered at Collegeville for an annual three-day retreat.

Who are our oblates?  For one, they are a diverse lot.  They come from all walks of life and professions, and they include alumni from our University and prep school as well as people who only discovered Saint John’s much later in life.  And despite the existence of oblate programs that are bound to be located nearer to their homes, our oblates come from all over the place.  In a short space of time on Saturday I chatted with one oblate who had flown in from Santa Rosa, CA; another from San Antonio; and I spied one from Toronto.  Of course the majority of our oblates come from the midwest, but these days geography seems to matter little. Technology allows people to share in our community life in so many ways, and for many the mere awareness of that spiritual communion is enough to sustain them.

imageSo what in the world do people do on a three-day retreat in a monastery?  Well, for those who’ve never done it, it can be a total mystery.  But boring it is not.  Nothing to do?  Definitely not.  The fact of the matter is, most participants find there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it.

The entire retreat schedule entwines around the liturgy of the hours, and our oblates join the monks for the entire schedule of prayer.  And if the addition of ninety voices sounds like it could throw the recitation of the Psalms out of kilter, be assured that it works okay, at least most of the time.  And I have to imagine Saint Benedict’s pleasure at seeing so many joining his monks in the praise of God.

Then there are the conferences.  Monks take turns on this, and two years ago I delivered the talks.  This year Brother David-Paul, the subprior, delivered four conferences.

imageIn between prayer and conferences there are festive and not-so-festive meals, and woven throughout is camaraderie.  A lot of these oblates have gotten to know many other oblates as well as many of the monks.  This is the time to renew those ties, so everyone savors the moments of holy leisure that allow friendships to renew and deepen.

If the time at Saint John’s replenishes the oblates, it also nourishes them for life after the journey home.  After all, the  whole point of being an oblate is to live according to Saint Benedict’s vision, but not to move in with us to do it.  So it is that people wishing to become oblates go through a one-year probation, at the end of which they make their commitment to this way of life.  This year eight people made their oblation, and they did so to Abbot John, in the presence of the monastic community, at evening prayer on Saturday.  In a parallel to the rite of monastic profession, each promised to live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, “insofar as their state in life allowed.”  Then they signed their document on the altar, as oblate director Fr. Michael Peterson looked on.

imageFor two and a half years Fr. Michael has worked with the oblates, and he followed Fr. Don Tauscher as director.  In place is a schedule that includes Advent and Lent days of reflection, as well as monthly meetings both at Saint John’s and elsewhere.  Fr. Michael sees value in a program that creates a connection between the monks and the oblates.  It’s mutually beneficial; and it answers a spiritual need that is as great today as it was in the days of Saint Anthony.

“People look for a spiritual tradition that is ancient and fresh, and practical for life,” he says.  “They want tools to foster their discipleship.”  And after 1,500 years, the Benedictine way of life is still capable of that.


+On July 13th I presided at the Eucharist for the students and faculty of the School of Theology at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, Stretching the Limits of Love, through this link.

+From July 17th through the 19th the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey were here on their annual retreat.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate their gathering.  In the fifth picture Fr. Michael demonstrates his unique way of calling the audience to order.  It’s a bit more elegant that the customary “shut up!”  At bottom is Brother David-Paul, waiting for his turn at the podium.

+On July 18th I presided at the interment of Cheryl Dobberstein, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Mark Dobberstein.  This took place in the abbey cemetery.

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imageMonastic Profession

Last week we experienced a wonderful transition in the abbey.  It began on July 8th when Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian as a novice.  So began his year of discernment, during which he considers a calling to the monastic life and a commitment to our community.

On Saturday the 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and having come to the end of his year of novitiate, Brother Aidan pronounced his first vows.  In that same ceremony Brothers Eric, Isaiah, Lucien and Richard made their solemn vows.  They had completed a year as novices and three years as junior monks, and from this point they take their place as full members of the community.  Among other things this means that they now take part in the monastic chapter meetings, and they get to cast a vote alongside the rest of us.

Most people have never seen any rite of religious profession, which is too bad.  For one thing, it’s filled with symbolism that includes gesture, word and clothing.  But of even deeper significance, it can convey a sense of vitality and hope for the future in any community.

imageIn our case, much of the ritual dates back 1,400 years to the time of Saint Benedict.  So it was that Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian in the monastic habit, in the presence of the community, at morning prayer.  On the 11th the novice and four juniors who were to profess knelt individually before Abbot John, and they read the petition which each had written in his own hand.  Then, again in accord with the Rule of Benedict, each signed his petition on the altar, and together the five petitions rested on the altar through the remainder of the liturgy.

Abbot John then gave to Brother Aidan a copy of the Rule — which was sort of redundant because he had read it many times already.  Following that the abbot clothed the four solemnly-professed monks in the cuculla.  This is a flowing wool garment that we wear over our habit, and it is best-bestowed in July when the weather is at its hottest and most humid.  This time around the weather came very close to ideal for that, but not quite.  Still, visitors never fail to ask why the other monks don’t wear the cuculla in mid-July, and the answer is simple.  The cuculla is best worn in winter when it can do some practical good.  But for the newly-professed it signifies full membership in the community.  There’s always time to be practical later on.

imageAt the end of this liturgy it’s our custom to gather under the bell banner to give the sign of peace to the newly-professed.  On Saturday that was the joyous conclusion to a splended event, and it marked a new stage in the lives of the professed and the community as well.

The admission of new members into the community quite naturally brings growth.  That may be true in terms of numbers, but it’s truer still when it comes to spirit.  Saint Benedict writes that the abbot should seek counsel from all the monks, and not just from among the seniors.  There is wisdom to be had among the young, he writes, and when six people become a part of the community, the pool of wisdom is bound to grow — at least in theory.

On a more tangible level, change is bound to take place with the addition of even one new monk.  Simply put, new people change us and we change them.  And this change comes because Benedictines do not create clones when new people enter.  We welcome them lock, stock and barrel.  We welcome their talents, their personalities, their experience, as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future.

imageSo what have these young men brought to our community?  For one thing, they’ve brought geographic diversity.  Novice Cassian is likely the first in our community to come from Atlanta.  He attended Belmont University in Nashville and later earned a graduate degree in theology from Vanderbilt — yet another first for us.  Brother Aidan lived in Okaland, CA, and he attended the University of California at Santa Cruz.  He also holds an MFA degree.

Our solemnly-professed are a diverse lot as well.  Brother Richard grew up in Sioux City, IA, and he graduated from Saint John’s University.  After that he worked in the theater department at Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict.  Brother Isaiah grew up in a military family, but primarily in Tucson; and he too went to Saint John’s.  After graduation he worked as an accountant for several years at Price Waterhouse in Phoenix before coming to the monastery.  Brother Lucien lived in San Antonio, where he eventually earned an MA in history at the University of Texas.  Finally, Brother Eric grew up in Ohio, attended college at the University of Dayton and earned and MS in engineering at Ohio State University.

imageOn paper their backgrounds and varied interests show that they bring a rich diversity to our community.  But the important point that I always celebrate is the presence of each as an individual in our community.  Each brings character and unique wisdom.  Each is a reminder that God does not call people by group or in herds to the monastery.  Rather God calls individual souls by name, and each is a gift to us.  That’s the hope anyway.

This year the feast of Saint Benedict was a happy day in the life of our community, and for that we senior monks give thanks.  At the very least it gives us pause and a reason to be optimistic for our future.  And it suggests that the Lord is highly likely to call other workers to the vineyard.

But regardless of who comes next, we can rejoice because of this infusion of wisdom.  After all, we need all the wisdom we can get as we continue the daily search for God.


+On July 8th I presided at the abbey eucharist, and you can access the sermon, Putting on the Face of Christ, through this link.

+On July 9th through the 11th we hosted thirty alumni from the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who were here for a reunion and retreat.  Given that each one has spent a year in service at some Benedictine community around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories to share.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  In addition to the profession of vows, we also celebrated the anniversary of profession of monks who made vows twenty-five, fifty, sixty and seventy-five years ago.  Pride of place went to Fathers Magnus and Fintan, who made their vows to Abbot Alcuin, in 1940.

image+The photos in today’s post all come from the celebration on July 11th.  We were also favored by the presence of several hundred guests, who filled the nave of the abbey church.  We were especially delighted to welcome Bishop Donald Kettler, our bishop and good friend of the abbey.  He sat with us in the choir stalls, and I’ve included his picture in this post as well.

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imageConsider the Lilies

If the thought of twenty-four hours of non-stop lambing intrigues you, then Icelandic public television has the channel for you.  I first read about this in a short snippet from The Week, and my initial reaction was amused skepticism.  Who in their right mind would sit there for an entire day watching sheep give birth to the cutest little creatures on God’s green earth?  Surely this story had to be a joke, and so I went to the internet for confirmation.  To my surprise, there it was, not only on the BBC News, but on other respected sites as well.  Sure enough, it was true; except that the bit about the sheep-birthing marathon was only the tip of the iceberg.

imageFirst of all, it turned out that this program was not an isolated one-off.  Apparently it’s only the latest example of a phenomenon called slow TV that has gained popularity in northern Europe, and Norwegian public television seems to be in the vanguard of the movement.  There stations have tested the limits of the modern attention span, with shows that have featured twelve hours of wood-burning and four hours of knitting.  There’s also the program that showed eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream, sixty hours of Psalm-singing, and one hundred hours of non-stop chess.  And for those left pining for an even greater challenge, there were one hundred-thirty hours of a cruise ship sailing up and down the fjords of Norway.  It all leaves me wondering what’s next.  What are the limits of human endurance?

It would be so easy to make light of all this and conclude that there’s really nothing else going on in Scandinavia anyway.  We could even pity them because they don’t have enough shootings or scandals or political hot air to sustain even one decent cable news channel, much less the dozen or more that we enjoy.  No wonder they are reduced to filling the airwaves with such tedium, we might conclude.  But we’d be wrong to do so.

imageIn point of fact, slow TV is a critique of the sometimes shallow character of our information age.  For all the data that we have at our fingertips, it’s tough not to be overwhelmed.  Worse still, it’s often difficult to sort out fact from fiction in the avalanche of information that besieges us every day and hour and minute.  Ironically, the newscasters may tell us that we know more than any generation that has gone before, but in point of fact we are likely less-informed about life than any of our forebears.

I’ve not viewed a single example of slow TV, but it strikes me that it is a variation of the warning to stop and smell the roses.  It’s perhaps a reminder that we should never let events and the currents of the world drive us like lemmings over the cliff.  It may also be a caution about letting others dictate to us the standards by which we live our lives.  In blunt terms, it may very well be an invitation to get a grip on ourselves and figure out what we’re doing to ourselves — or allowing others to do to us.

imageThere’s resonance for all of this in the scriptures, and at the root of it is the invitation to be thoughtful and proactive in shaping the course of our lives.   When Jesus invited people to consider the lilies of the field, he certainly didn’t just mean for us to do so from an aesthetic point of view.  The array of lilies, so beautiful and yet seemingly unimportant, is a reminder of the care of God for each and every person.  Each lily has meaning, just as does each person.  And yet it’s so easy to forget about all that in the rush of activity and the flood of words that threaten to engulf us all.

There’s lots more to say about all this, but for the moment I’m struck by the invitation that Jesus puts to us to behold the sparrows, and to survey the plants of the field.  Given that perspective, Jesus is just the sort of guy who would ask us to consider watching a bit of slow TV as well.  And with that in mind, if I had to choose between ten hours of sheep-sheering and ten hours of mayhem on our freeways, I now realize that this is no choice at all.  I’d have to be crazy to choose the mayhem.


+On June 29th alumnus Brandon Dorsey spoke to the monks about his experience as a Benedictine Volunteer during the past year at Benedictine abbeys in India and Sri Lanka.  Brandon grew up in Pasadena, CA, and he graduated in 2014.

+On the 4th of July the monks gathered for festivities and a cook-out in the monastic garden.

+The gardens around the campus at Saint John’s continue to flourish, as the photos in today’s post attest.  Given all the work that the crew puts into the flowers and trees and shrubs, the least we can do is to stop and enjoy them for a moment — or even longer.

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