Archive for October, 2015

imageA House of Prayer/An Architectural Treasure

A few years ago I was delighted to host at Saint John’s an abbot whose monastery was in the planning process for both a church as well as a monastery.  He’d never been to Collegeville, and though his community intended to build something in an architectural style very different from our own, he was still curious.  And so, after he had settled into the guesthouse, we met for the tour; and naturally the first stop was the abbey church.  He was bowled over by what he saw, and his spontaneous comment was one of astonishment:  “Good grief, you got it!”

The “it” was the goal of building something of enduring value, and that had certainly been our intention when we built the church fifty-five years ago.  The commission to architect Marcel Breuer had been simple and straightforward:  “Design an architectural monument to the service of God.”  He succeeded beyond our dreams, on many fronts.  But above all he conceived of something that would have lasting architectural merit, as well as something that would endure physically for centuries.  It was the latter especially that captivated the imagination of my abbot-friend.

The steady stream of visitors to the abbey church regularly reminds us of its architectural significance; but we who worship in it several times a day, year in and year out, can get just a little bit used to it.  That’s why two items during the past summer reminded us not to take for granted the handiwork of our predecessors.

imageThe first happened in early June, when the International Committee for the Documentation and Preservation of the Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement made a one-day visit to Saint John’s.  For brevity’s sake they refer to themselves as DOCOMOMO, and I can appreciate why they do so.  Plus, it’s just a lot more fun to say that.  This year they held their meeting in Minneapolis, and delegates from as far afield as France and Brazil came to Saint John’s to see something that very much surprised them.  All marveled as monk tour-guides led them through the dozen or so Breuer buildings that we have on our campus.  I suspect that they marveled as well at the care we continue to bestow on these structures.  After all, a prime directive of DOCOMOMO is the survival of a whole era of significant architecture.  I’m sure they were reassured to see that our buildings were not falling into ruin.

imageThe second item came as something of a surprise, when The Getty Foundation invited us to apply for a grant that would enable us to detail a plan for the long-range preservation of the abbey church.  Such grants are a prized commodity, and in the award of the grant The Getty Foundation noted that ours was the largest concentration of Breuer-designed buildings anywhere on the planet.  Preservation efforts at Saint John’s would benefit Breuer buildings around the world.  In effect, this grant was a recognition of the unique value of the abbey church, as well as a reminder of our responsibility to preserve it for generations to come.  Coincidentally, saving the church just happened to be our intention all along; but this initial grant spurs us to be deliberate about getting this work underway.

On October 24 we celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church, and we begin it every year with a wonderful vigil service the evening before.  In the darkness the candles at the consecration stones remind us that first and foremost the building is a place of prayer, even if it is also an architectural treasure of international significance.  For fifty-five years it has helped to shape our prayer life at Saint John’s; and, God willing, it will continue to nurture it for centuries to come.

imageThose familiar with the Benedictine tradition realize that the contemporary architecture of the abbey church may be breath-takingly unusual, but it is not an anomaly within that tradition.  Benedictines have always sought to put current aesthetic style into the service of practical need, and testimony to this can be seen across the landscape of Europe.  Due to the Reformation and the French Revolution, a huge variety of monastic buildings have survived well beyond the communities that they once served; but today they serve another purpose.  Today those towers and vaults remind people of the presence of God in our midst.  In a throw-away world in which most everything has a short shelf-life, they give prophetic witness to the eternal value of the sacred.

That’s also the case with our abbey church and the bell banner that presents the gospel to the world.  Not by accident is it visible to the tens of thousands of cars that pass by on I-94 in the distance.  For those who take notice, it is a greeting of peace.  But it has an even greater value, because it proclaims that Jesus came for those driving by — and not just for the monks inside.


+From October 20-25 I participated in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, in the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  As has been our practice for several years, we met at San Damiano Retreat House, run by the Franciscan Friars in Danville, CA.  It was a  wonderful retreat, though I confess that I was thoroughly relieved when I finally gave the last of seven conferences that I had to deliver.

imageEach year during the retreat we have a meeting of the chapter of the subpriory, which includes all who have taken the promise of obedience.  At this year’s meeting I was completely surprised by the announcement that last month the Sovereign Council, the governing body of the Order of Malta in Rome, had named me a Conventual Chaplain ad Honorem.  It comes with a wonderful decoration; and true to my own theories on the subject, when one wears such a thing it indicates to those in need that I am one of those people from whom they can expect help.

+In addition to the seven conferences that I delivered, I preached at three of the six Masses.  You can access one of the sermons, The Moral Imperative: Bringing Our Gifts to Maturity, by consulting this link.

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IMG_9353Holy Leisure — A Waste of Time?

Like so many people, I grew up nourished by the maxim that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  My parents and teachers reinforced this whenever they could, and perhaps that’s why I internalized it so well.  Anyway, by age thirty I had already compiled an impressive list of tasks accomplished.  But I also knew that this sort of attitude about life brings its special problems.  Specifically, for people like me and others I know, we can never really do enough.  It was nice that we had managed to use most of our time wisely, but ultimately what we’d done in the past mattered little compared to the challenges yet to come.  Before us stretched the years, and the potential to waste any or all of that time was something to fear at all costs.

For years I thought I had been pretty industrious in the use of my time, but then smart phones came along.  Those little machines made me painfully aware of just how many minutes and seconds I had frittered away through the years.  With a smart phone I could put my life on track, and I could wring every opportunity from every minute.  With even modest diligence I could reduce wastage to mere seconds a day.

IMG_9264In a recent essay in The Week, managing editor Carolyn O’Hara describes her own discovery of how much time she had wasted before the advent of the smart phone.  Like me she had learned early on about the inherent sinfulness of boredom and idleness, and she too discovered the exhilaration of filling every waking moment with work.  For a while, then, the smart phone transformed her life.  But then it happened.  Eventually it dawned on her that non-stop business was not the virtue she had once assumed.  In banishing quiet and empty time from her life, she had lost something very important: her creativity.

“Truly empty time is vitally important” she writes.  “When not distracted, our brains are free to wander off on creative tangents, as feelings and thoughts bubble up in the silence; there’s a reason bright ideas and breakthroughs tend to come in the shower or on long walks.”  (16 October, 2015, p. 3.)

IMG_9285It’s amazing how easy it has been for the smart phone to upend our lives.  In fact, most of us have surrendered without much of a fight, on the assumption that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  You see examples of this surrender in restaurants and on the streets, where people prefer to talk with a disembodied voice rather than with the flesh and blood human being in front of them.  And I’ve seen a variant of this in many first-time visitors to the abbey.  On arrival they are struck by the silence, both in the guesthouse and also in the abbey church.  Many of them find the silence intimidating, because they’ve never really experienced silence in their lives.  For them the big test comes especially during the recitation of the psalms at morning and evening prayer.  We monks are accustomed to one full minute of silence between each psalm, but visitors find that one minute to be a novel experience.  For a few it’s almost too much to bear.  Those interludes seem to give new appreciation for the line from the psalm that reads “one day within your courts is like a thousand elsewhere.”  In our choir many discover how infinitely long one minute of silence can seem, and for a few it is just too much.  But if they keep it up, in time they discover how exhilarating it is when time seems to stand still.

IMG_9316Long ago we monks got used to these meditative pauses, and now I assume all of us savor the chance to sit, to be silent, and to indulge in what the world considers to be an idle waste of time.  But idleness it is not.  Nor is it a waste.  With smart phones silenced and the absence of chatter, and with nothing else to do but sit there waiting for the next psalm, we experience the chance to listen to what God has to say.  That’s when we experience the Spirit stirring within us.

When the movie Into the Great Silence made its debut, its portrait of life in a Carthusian monastery drew mixed responses.  I fondly recall one reviewer from The Minneapolis StarTribune, who took umbrage at the absence of a sound track that could have carried the film through the slow parts.  He didn’t go so far as to recommend an orchestral overture to introduce the movie, but he was moving in that direction.  Obviously, however, he missed the point of the movie entirely.  Granted, there was no musical background; and there was indeed a scarcity of words,  But there was more than enough to listen to, because in their silence the monks heard things that most of us miss completely in our day-to-day craziness.  .

IMG_9367The silence and holy leisure that allow us to listen is the point of monastic life, and of Christian life as well.  Jesus often commented on how people had ears to hear but never seemed to hear anything.  Echoing this, Saint Benedict urged his monks to listen, and in fact those are the first words in his Rule.  Clearly he did not intend to banish sound from the monastery; rather, he preferred quality over the the quantity of sound.

Sadly, what makes listening so difficult these days is not the quality of the sound, but the quantity.  Our world is inundated with noise, and smart phones compete furiously for whatever attention they can get.  Not surprisingly, then, despite having ears to hear and more stuff to hear than ever before in human history, we generally miss out on what is truly important.  We fail to pay attention to what really matters.

It’s never too late to make space in our day to be silent and to listen.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it may even be good to silence our smart phones once in a while, just to better hear the ordinary stuff that’s been going on around us.  Who knows what great things we’ve been missing?  And if we run the risk of not hearing as much stuff as before, we might very well have those creative insights that will make for us all he difference in the world.


+On October 14 I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, Did Jesus Have Bad Days? through this link.

+On October 15 I attended a reception for alumni of Saint John’s University, held in Dallas, TX

+On October 16-18 I gave a retreat to the Dallas/Houston area members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  We held the retreat at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, in Lake Dallas, TX.  The members made for a wonderful time, and I look forward to meeting with them again someday.  In my conferences I spoke on the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+I took the photos in today’s post last week.  At the end of the summer the prognosticators had promised an autumn filled with glorious color.  We’ve had some, but not quite as much as what we had expected.

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imageSinners Make the Best Saints

Becoming a saint has never been easy.  For one thing, the most viable candidates are way too busy to think about it.  For another, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” formula for becoming a saint.  And finally, contrary to popular opinion, most saints weren’t born saints.

Sainthood happens, but it can be really tough to know when somebody has stepped over the line into the ranks of the holy ones.  It’s also my theory that most saints never set out to become saints, and the reason for this is simple.  Had they known all the difficulties in advance, most would have opted for other careers.

On October 15 we celebrate the feast of Saint Teresa of Ávila, who lived in Spain in the 16th century.  Like many people, I can’t visualize her apart from that sculpture which shows an arrow piercing her heart in a moment of spiritual ecstasy.  The baroque style accents the theatricality of the moment, and it makes for almost operatic drama.  But to be honest, it’s not the sort of thing that inspires me to follow in her steps.  Who needs that sort of thing?  Why would anyone aspire to such a life?

imageIt was only when I began teaching that I finally got around to reading the autobiography of Teresa, and after that I made it required reading in one of my classes.  The edition that I used had that baroque image on the cover, and it was fun to see the reaction of my students as they pored over the cover and then opened the book for the first time.  My guess is that they thought some pious drivel awaited them.  So they braced themselves to read about a benign existence in some monastery, where the biggest challenge was finding enough time to squeeze in even more Our Fathers.  But as they turned the pages, they met someone who brushed aside their expectations.  They learned soon enough that Saint Teresa defied most of the spiritual stereotypes.

Young Teresa started out much like the rest of us.  She had her social ambitions; she had her marital aspirations; and she was a bit of a clothes-horse.  Of course she had to cut back on all of this when she entered the monastery, but not entirely.  The fact is, life in a 16th-century Spanish convent did not overly crimp anyone’s style.  The daily rounds in an unreformed house were pleasant and unchallenging in many ways.  Well-heeled relatives and interesting visitors came and went by the coach-load, and conversation could be engaging.  And if Teresa and her sisters had “given up all to follow Christ,” they were still good negotiators and got quite a lot of creature-comforts in return.

A shortfall common to many saintly biographies is this:  they box their subjects into a set of standard formulae.  They present people who were born to lovely parents, were precocious little tykes, entered a monastery at a young age, reformed it before they were out of novitiate, and died in the flower of innocence.  That was not Teresa’s story, however, and such a bland framework scarcely does justice to the dynamic woman she was.

imageTeresa may have been precocious as a child, but during her first years in the monastery she certainly didn’t stir the pot.  She was more than happy to lead the bourgeois life she found there, and she offered few if any complaints.  But finally came the stirrings that awakened the spiritual urge within her.  Whatever else caused her to be restive, the liturgy of the hours and spiritual reading finally made her comfortable routine seem less than satisfying.

After that there was no living with her.  When Teresa began to push for a more austere life, not a few of her sisters let her know that they preferred that she leave them in peace.  Soon there was conflict, acrimony and disagreements galore; and Teresa finally left to start her own community of Carmelites.  Even so, resentment and harassment followed her.  Some felt threatened by the moral authority that she wielded, and some alleged that it was the devil who whispered in her ear.  Eventually the Inquisition got involved.  So contentious did things become that Teresa even managed to drag King Philip II into the conflict.

Given all this, it would be a serious mistake to assume that Teresa subsisted on a diet of spiritual sweetness and light.  Because she confronted hostility from the outside and self-doubt from within, she had to be resilient and tough as nails.  But through it all her regular companion and consolation was Jesus.  The image of the arrow of God’s love transfixing her heart is particularly apt, then.  On the one hand it suggests the ecstasy of divine love, but with God’s favor comes suffering.  You can almost hear Teresa turning to God to pray:  “Next time, Lord, call somebody else.”

imageBy the end of her autobiography most readers have chucked their preconceptions about Teresa.  They learn that she was, in fact, a real live human being, dealing with other real live human beings.  Each day brought challenge, but each day also brought its unexpected reward.  And through it all Teresa was anything but the picture of conventional saintliness.  She had grit; she was charismatic; and she won some and lost some.  Almost every step of the way, however, she walked with the Lord.

Teresa of Ávila provides a good meditation for modern readers, and what I draw from her is this.  First, saintliness is not something that anyone achieves in a day, nor do the years that serve as a preamble count for naught.  Second, perhaps it’s a good idea to apply the term saint far more generously than we are accustomed to.  After all, Saint Paul addressed entire congregations as saints.  In that spirit, then, perhaps it’s more appropriate to describe as a saint anyone who has taken the first tentative steps on the pilgrimage in search of the Lord.

Finally, if during much of their pilgrimage most people seem to be more sinner than saint, that’s only because God prefers it that way.  In time, with a few more steps, sinners generally make the best saints.


+On October 7, following evening prayer, the monks gathered in the Saint Benedict’s Chapel of the lower church for the blessing of the restored Laukuff Pipe Organ.  Built in 1963 by August Laukuff of Weikersheim, Germany, the restoration was the work of organ-builder and Saint John’s alumnus KC Marrin, as his gift to the abbey.  After 52+ years of use, the organ was in a rather sad state of repair, but thanks to KC’s work it plays wonderfully once again.

+To my confrere Fr. Geoffrey I owe the first two pictures in today’s post.  The third photo illustrates Mary, whose heart is about to be pierced with a sword.  This photo, along with the two following, come from the church of Maria Steinbach in southern Germany.

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imageThe Power of Prayer and Hospitality

There can’t be many relationships like the one Saint John’s Abbey has with the Episcopal Church of Minnesota.  Twenty-five years ago the Abbey leased five acres at the far northwest corner of our property, and on it the diocese built a retreat house for Episcopalians and others seeking a quiet respite in the shadow of a Benedictine monastery.  For their part, the people who come to the House of Prayer can take advantage of the activities on our campus, and periodically many join us for morning prayer and vespers.  For our part, we monks gain a sacred enclave at the edge of our land, and we also bank the princely sum of $1 a year in rent.

imageOf course this relationship didn’t start with the construction of the House of Prayer, because its roots extend back into the 19th century.  Back then, when monks served at several mission churches in northern Minnesota, often their nearest neighbors were the Episcopal parishes that were scarcely any bigger.  I’m guessing that things went reasonably well, since in our popular lore there are no tales of animosity.  So well did things go that, by the time of the building of the House of Prayer, the Episcopal bishop periodically stayed with us when he made his parish visitations in the north.

Our connection with the Episcopal Church is not the only one among Christian communities in Minnesota that’s been cordial.  Our ties with many Lutheran churches and colleges have been equally warm.  For nearly thirty years student groups from Saint Olaf College have visited at Saint John’s, and I fondly recall the two courses I taught at Luther Seminary in St. Paul several  years ago.  Yet another sign of amity has been the joint meetings of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran bishops that we’ve hosted annually.

imageFor those who might think that these sorts of connections are a little odd for a Catholic monastery, it’s important to recall that monasteries have for centuries been points of convergence for different cultures and faith traditions.  St. Benedict himself once hosted an Arian Christian warlord, though Benedict’s ulterior motive was to persuade the guy not to burn down the monastery.  Centuries later Charlemagne founded monasteries on the borders of his expanding empire, in hopes that these would knit together the local peoples and cultures.  And that tradition continued even as Christian culture came to shape European society.  It was in that spirit that Dom Jean Mabillon — my favorite monk — gathered the literati of 17th-century Paris on Sunday afternoons at the Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres.  Together they discussed history, theology, and manuscripts; and in time his work gave rise to diplomatics — the discipline of reading Latin paleography.

imageThere is no denying that ecumenical outreach today does not enjoy the intensity that it had thirty years ago.  On the plus side, however, that work yielded the warmer relations between the churches that we take for granted today.  This certainly is the welcome byproduct of those post-World War II efforts.

Meanwhile, at Saint John’s such interaction continues, though it has more of the character of a family gathering. Today both Catholic and Protestant clergy come for retreats, just as they do at other monasteries across the country.  And others come with seasonal predictability, as was the case this weekend with a group of faculty and thirty-eight students from Gustavus Adolphus College.  They’ve come to the guest house for several years now, and it’s a delight to meet them and to visit with one faculty member who has been a friend of mine for ages.

But Sunday truly was a special occasion, and Abbot John and several of us monks trooped down the hill to the Episcopal House of Prayer.  There we joined Episcopal Bishop Brian Prior and director Fr. Ward Bauman, and we celebrated the work of the Episcopal House of Prayer as well as twenty-five years of neighborliness.  Happily, through those years the Episcopalians have never fallen behind on the rent, and as guests they have generally kept to the pace of our recitation in choir.  In turn, they’ve been a continuing inspiration to us — particularly on cold winter mornings.

Such prayer together may seem mundane and pointless, but really it’s not at all.  In a world sundered by hostility and division, gathering together for prayer is a reminder that conflict need not be inevitable.  Perhaps that’s why Benedict urged his monks to pray and to be hospitable.  He apparently knew the power of each, from personal experience.


+During the first part of last week I visited my mother, who lives in Edmund, OK.  The occasion was her 91st birthday, and a good time was had by all.

+On October 1-2 I attended the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On October 3 I presided at the Abbey Mass, and  you can access the sermon, Living in the Name of the Lord, through this link.

+Also on October 3 I had the chance to visit with long-time friend Professor Florence Amamoto of Gustavus Adolphus College. She and a few other faculty members came to Saint John’s on an overnight retreat with a group of students.

+On Sunday October 4 I attended the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Episcopal House of Prayer.  Fr. Ward Bauman, the director, acted as general host, and Episcopal Bishop Brian Prior and Abbot John blessed the newly-restored prairie adjacent to the House of Prayer.  The pictures in today’s post all illustrate the House of Prayer, including the gorgeous ceiling of the oratory.


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