Archive for February, 2016

IMG_0548Behold the Lowly Shrub

Several years ago I travelled to the Holy Land with a group of members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  It was a great pilgrimage, and I was especially thrilled that we were able to visit Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.  Saint Catherine’s has been there almost forever, and most everything about the place touches both the heart and the imagination.  For starters, to visitors the high walls that enclose the monks can seem forbidding, but they are curiously inviting too.  That day they suggested that we were about to enter an extraordinary place; and on that day the walls did not disappoint.

Saint Catherine’s impacts people in different ways, and naturally my reactions weren’t those of most others in our group.  What dazzled me in particular were the icons.  Among them are perhaps the oldest in the Christian world.  To my surprise, however, they impressed me less as historical artifacts and more as windows into the sacred.  The same was true for the venerable church that enshrined them.  Used to electric lighting as I was, the oil lamps that hung throughout the space were quite exotic.   And they were doubly so, because for centuries they have witnessed the daily prayers of the monks.

IMG_0537If there was a disappointment that day it was the bush that grew in the spot where tradition says God spoke with Moses.  Of course I can appreciate the encounter with the sacred that Moses had experienced.  After all, that has forever fixed Mount Sinai in our collective imagination.  I can also appreciate shrubs and trees as much as the next guy, and that day I did give that bush credit for clinging to life in such a desolate landscape.  Still, the prospect of that bush left me indifferent, and I was surprised as I reflected on my own reaction.

All of this came rushing to consciousness this weekend because on the 3rd Sunday of Lent we read the account of Moses on Mount Sinai, as told in Exodus 3.  It was this latest reading that for some reason forced me to revise my earlier view about that lowly shrub.

For all of recorded history people have demanded extravagant signs from God, generally for the purpose of making the leap of faith a little less risky.  If only God would do the uniquely spectacular, then I would cast aside my hesitation.  Belief would then be easy.  In fact, belief would come with a guarantee.  Is that really so much to ask?

Two things, at least, make this impractical from God’s point of view.  First, if we forced God to jump through our hoops with larger-than-life signs, then that would change the fundamental relationship with God.  In short order God would become a colleague with whom we do deals, and God would no longer be the mysterious author of our lives.  And beyond that, this would demand too much of God.  God respects our freedoms — our freedom to love, our freedom to hope, our freedom to believe.  Take those freedoms away and we are no longer the people whom God created in the divine image.  Despite our frailties, God loves us as we were first created.

IMG_0539Beyond that God prefers to reach out to us in more prosaic ways rather than through blockbuster signs and wonders.  Coincidentally, this fits naturally with our normal inclinations.  Of course we share with the Romans a love of bread and the circus; but like them we too grow bored and fall back on the elemental urge to love and be loved.  Not surprisingly, God reaches out to meet us at least halfway when it comes to love.

Given all that, if we ever wish that God would craft a special approach to us, it’s important to realize that God does this all the time.  So it is that God reaches out through those around us who take joy in the gift of life.  God touches us in the innocence of the child and in the person who will soon pass on but for now is concerned to make every minute count. God inspires us in the panorama of creation.  And finally, God touches our souls through prayer and in the liturgy and in the reading of his word.

IMG_0543It would be a mistake to conclude that the encounter on Mount Sinai was enough to sustain Moses for a lifetime.  It wasn’t, and for forty years in the desert Moses had to look for God in the more mundane affairs of life.  Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson we have to learn from Moses.  Peak experiences are wonderful, but they are no way to live.  Eventually Moses had to climb back down from Mount Sinai and get on with the business of life.

Many years later I now have to give a lot more credit to that shrub that clings to life on the slopes of Mount Sinai.  It might have been a royal treat to see that shrub all ablaze and left intact, as Moses got to see it.  But when all is said and done, that’s a poor symbol for the lives that most of us have to lead; and God reserves that kind of spectacle for only the few.

In that shrub I beheld the ordinary, and years ago I was disappointed.  I now understand my reaction, and it helps explain why I had zero desire to live the rest of my life on Mount Sinai.  And perhaps that might be one of the lessons to draw from our Lenten wanderings.  Peak experiences can be wonderful, but the business of life begins when we descend from the mountain to behold the reality of the divine in all of God’s creation.


+On February 24th I had class in monastic history, with our novice.

+On February 25-26 I participated in the winter meetings of the Board of  Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On February 26th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrated the Mass of Christian burial for our confrere Fr. Thomas Thole.  Fr. Tom was a remarkable individual who taught in the University for many years.  He was especially revered by the many international students to whom he was an advisor and mentor.  In the new University Learning Commons, currently under construction, there will be the Fr. Thomas Thole Technology Center, made possible by the generosity of many of his grateful students.

+On February 27-28 our confrere Fr. Lew gave a retreat at the Abbey guesthouse, in conjunction with the Arboretum.  With an emphasis on the chance to ski and to enjoy the winter landscape, it all seemed like a great idea when it was scheduled last fall.  But a high of 61 degrees on Saturday helped to finish off a lot of the snow, and the retreat had to morph into something slightly different.

+The pictures in today’s post come from the new cathedral in Madrid.  When I was there on sabbatical many years ago it was far from being completed.  Still, every Sunday for a semester I concelebrated Mass in Spanish in the unfinished cathedral.  I have to say I like it better now.

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IMG_0025_2We Know Neither the Day Nor the Hour

I met Elizabeth Swenson nearly thirty years ago.  Known to her friends as Betty, she lived in Washington, where she’d spent a career in the office of a senator from New England.  She was perfectly suited to those more refined days in the nation’s capital, and her trademark red-framed glasses said “welcome” to anyone who caught her eye.

In her volunteer work she was involved with an organization called The American Friends of Caterbury Cathedral.  While there was a fund-raising side to the mission, their heart had its focus on the Benedictine character of the Anglican tradition.  To that end they organized pilgrimages to sites both in England and on the continent, and that’s why Betty first reached out to me.  Perhaps a real live Benedictine along for the ride might add value to the experience.

I never quite knew what I added to the mix, but what I received still resounds in my imagination.  For starters, I experienced Canterbury Cathedral for the first time as a monk rather than as a tourist.  Compline in the crypt of the cathedral was a goose-bump experience, for example.  Hours earlier the ushers had escorted everyone out, and there we twenty were, with the vast and silent expanse of the cathedral all to ourselves.  It was awesome to climb the steps that led from the crypt up into the nave, where the only light came from the stained glass — lit dimly from the outside.  For four nights we had this routine, and it gave me a glimpse into the days when this was a working monastery.  For nine hundred years the monks had prayed by candlelight.  People like Lanfranc and St. Anselm and Thomas Becket had walked those very precincts, doing the daily things that we all must do.

IMG_0024Other moments were less dramatic, but common to each was the transformation of the ordinary into something special.  Because of Betty I got to spend my fortieth birthday deep in a forest in Burgundy at the abbey of Pierre-qui-Vire.  We prayed late in the evening — by candlelight — with the nuns of Bec in Normandy;  and we tromped through the ruins of the romanesque abbey of Jumieges.  We listened spellbound as the monks of Chevetogne recorded a CD of their Byzantine chant, and we groaned along with them when a NATO jet swooped low and ruined the entire session.  Oh well.

The latter moment reminded us that we all had to make room for the unexpected, and at this Betty was a true Benedictine.  None of us will forget the lunch under the trees at a restaurant in Luxembourg.  It was all lovely until a big bird in the tree let loose and the bomb landed in the hair of an English lady.  Betty graciously soothed her and then moved us all to table across the courtyard.  There it happened again — same lady, different bird.  What were the odds?

IMG_9821One of Betty’s finest moments came at the venerable abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  Before the pilgrimage she had visited an island off the coast of Scotland, where she had purchased a bottle of an expensive single malt.  She had cradled that bottle every step of the pilgrimage, intending to share it back home in Washington.  As we stood on the steps of the guesthouse, she held aloft her prize, for all to admire.  Then it gently eased through her fingers and shattered on the pavement below.  In stunned silence she froze, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  She laughed, because that’s what Betty did best.

In later years The Friends of Canterbury Cathedral morphed into The Friends of Benedict, and Betty and her colleagues hosted a yearly “Benedictine Experience” at the Episcopal House of Prayer at Saint John’s.  It was a treat to see her, and as time rolled by I came to appreciate what a singular impact this stately lady had had on my life.  She wasn’t a nun, but certainly she was a true Benedictine, and as a Benedictine Betty gave me glimpses into the monastic way of life that have made all the difference in the world.

IMG_9820A few days ago Betty passed away, unexpectedly.  Like all the rest of us, she knew neither the day nor the hour, but to her credit she savored each and every thing that came her way on the pilgrimage of life.  Like any true follower of Saint Benedict, she lived with intensity, and perhaps because of that even the little things counted for a lot.  They were gifts too.

Every now and again God sends such people into our lives.  God means them to be teachers of wisdom to us, and it’s important that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear.  After all, they are speaking on the Lord’s behalf.  Betty was that sort of person for me, and I’m absolutely certain that she did the same for many others.  For the gift of God that she was, I give thanks.  And for all the other surprises that God continues to send into my life, I also give thanks.


+For more than a week I have been dogged by a cold, and last week it was especially ferocious.  For that reason I had to leave off class with our novice on Tuesday, in hopes that I could spare my throat and recover for two talks I had to give later in the week.  By week’s end I was not cured, but it was a lot better.

+On February 17th-18th I attended a series of events and gave two talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Mt. Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh, NY.  As speaker I was hosted by the Catholic and Dominican Center.  The college occupies a gorgeous perch overlooking an expansive bend in the Hudson River, and I was quickly reminded that Dr. Mary Hinton, who is president of our sister College of Saint Benedict, had been vice-president there.

IMG_9817+The first two pictures in today’s blog show a tower in Trier, Germany, with a wonderfully appropriate inscription below the clock.  The clock may remind us of the time, but as the inscription says, we know not the hour of the Lord’s coming.  The next four pieces of stained glass actually come from one window that today resides in the V & A Museum in London.  It was made for a church in Troyes in France, ca. 1170.  The first two panels depict the temptation of Jesus.  Particularly charming is the scene in which the devil carries Jesus to the brow of the hill and is ready to throw him off.  The third photo depicts the feeding of the five thousand, while the last shows St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) as he is being drafted as bishop of Myra.

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IMG_9894Forty Days — Are They Enough?

To begin Lent with the gospel story from Luke 4 that recounts the story of Jesus fasting in the desert seems at first glance to be entirely appropriate.  In one swipe the forty days that Jesus spent there recall the forty years that the Hebrews wandered in the desert.  By extension both of those narratives are symbolic of the lifelong pilgrimage that all of us make.  Sometimes we know where we’re going, and sometimes not.  But like the Hebrews and Jesus, we need time to figure ourselves out, and we are never the same people by the end of the journey.  We are purified and wiser people.

The appearance of the devil in the mix, however, is jarring.  He’s brazen and almost overconfident in offering three temptations to Jesus, but he thinks he knows his target well.  He too knew that Jesus was growing in age and wisdom.  He also knew that Jesus had not yet come to terms with the Father’s will for him.  Over that issue Jesus will later sweat bullets when he prayed that the cup might pass from him.

IMG_9950What Jesus demonstrates in his response to the devil is his own growing awareness that he had not come to do magic feats that would bedazzle people into believing.  He would not force people into unquestioned loyalty, because belief is a free act of faith.  He had not come to  overwhelm people with his power; rather he came to whisper into their souls and to show himself in the faces of their neighbors.

At the conclusion of this passage Saint Luke notes that the devil left Jesus, “for a while.”  In fact, he disappears into some of the possessed people that Jesus will encounter.  But he planned a comeback, and he reserved his finest effort for when he revisited Jesus in the Garden.  There he tried to persuade Jesus that it didn’t have to end this way.  In fact, everything could be so different.

Two things strike me about this passage.  First of all, never for a minute does Jesus try to muscle his way into our lives.  Jesus never commandeers our free will.  He loves us, and as a loving messiah he never drags us kicking and screaming to salvation.  Rather he teases us with little signs and small epiphanies.  These remind us that there is another dimension to our lives that can be easy to miss.  But even if we miss it, it’s still there.

IMG_9949The second point is this.  While I’ve not asked our colleagues in the animal world, it strikes me that we human beings may be the only creatures who search for meaning and a mission.  Every now and again we question why we are here, and to the extent we can formulate any sort of answer that touches on eternity, we’ve begun to have a glimpse into the divine.

Lent is a reminder that life is a journey and a voyage of discovery.  We reach back to the Hebrews in the desert and recall the point of their wanderings.  They were not out there for forty years because all the men were too proud to ask directions.  They were there because that’s how long it took for them to come to terms with their mission as God’s chosen people.

IMG_9933The sojourn of Jesus in the desert wasn’t quite as dramatic as all that, but when his forty days were up he was ready to begin his public ministry.  And his ministry was not a matter of dragooning his apostles and us into following him.   Rather, it was a matter of invitation, as he asked people to open their eyes and ears to what was going on around them.

That’s the point of our forty-day journey of Lent.  If along the way questions turn up that trouble us or things that stir our doubts, it’s good to realize that that’s the point of the journey.  Out of doubt comes faith.  Out of questions come insights.  Out of struggle comes wisdom.  That’s maybe why some of us need forty days to figure out some of this.  And if you happen to need a few more days to discover the plan that Jesus has for your life, I’m sure he’ll give you an extension.


+On February 10th I again taught a class in monastic history to our novice.

+On February 11th I attended a meeting in San Jose, CA, to help in the planning of the vigil and investiture services of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, which will take place in June.  The vigil will be at the Mission Santa Clara, which is on the campus of Santa Clara University.  The investiture will be at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral.  Later that evening I had dinner with an alumnus of Saint John’s who has been on the faculty  of Bellarmine Jesuit High School in San Jose, for fifty years.  (Not a typo.)

IMG_9912+Last week Fr. Geoffrey and Abbot John began a trip to Cuba, with a group of friends of the Abbey.  Escorting that trip is an alumna of our Prep School who is now a specialist in Latin American history.  She teaches at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and has become a noted expert on Cuba and its culture.

+From childhood I grew to enjoy the stations of the cross and in recent years have grown fascinated with the artistic expressions of this devotion.  The stations were meant to be a mental pilgrimage, aimed specifically at those who could not go to Jerusalem.  In today’s post I have pictures from a set at Westminster Cathedral in London, and they were made by the noted sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill.  It is among my favorite sets.

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IMG_1005Ash Wednesday:  Time for Intensity

“Like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your nation.  By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”

Pope Francis spoke this message to a group of Latin-American immigrants at a gathering in Philadelphia last fall.  I recall at the time how warm and personal his words seemed, and to his listeners they provided more than just comfort.  They were a reassurance that they were gifted people.  Even better, they had an important mission to fulfill in their adopted homeland.  They could and would make a difference.

Something else struck me, however.  Pope Francis may have shaped his message for immigrants, but those words applied to all sorts of other people as well.  Specifically, they describe to a T what happens when a person comes to the monastery.  A novice might feel overwhelmed by what he encounters when he walks in the door, but I suspect he never imagines the impact he can have on the community.  The newcomer causes all of us to mull over once again why we are here.   He provides a wake-up call, just in case we need waking up.  That, in my humble opinion, is one of the chief benefits to having a novice in our midst.  He begins his search for God with us, and we in turn have to adjust and grow in response to the talent he brings into our midst.  We all get to renew ourselves, and none of us is ever the same again.

IMG_0988In a couple of days we begin the season of Lent, and I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday, though not for any morbid reason.  To recall that we are dust and to dust we shall return can be off-putting, but it can also be an energizing wake-up call.  In the spirit of Saint Benedict, who taught his monks to keep death daily before their eyes, Ash Wednesday is a not-so-subtle reminder that our days on this earth are a finite resource.  Given that, we would be well-advised to wring out the maximum good from each and every day, rather than fritter the day away.  It’s a useful warning, since the last time I heard, none of us is likely to get any sizable extension for our time on earth.

People approach Lent differently, though I feel sorry for those who let the season slip by as if there could be nothing more important in life than television, texting or shopping.  For those who take it seriously, however, Ash Wednesday provides the chance to recalibrate their lives, if only for a few weeks.

IMG_0983How then might we adjust our routine in order to squeeze the most out of Lent?  Saint Benedict offers some nuggets of advice, though for starters it’s important to know that he was no fan of ostentatious self-denial.  In fact, he discouraged it because of the potential to breed spiritual competition.  What he did encourage was simple, and he included added spiritual reading and perhaps a few small sacrifices that would fly under the radar.  He was not especially interested in giving up stuff in the hopes of finding God through deprivation.  Rather, one finds God by looking for him actively, and he finds God as often as not in the faces of other people.  So the wise monk uses all his talents in service, because in his neighbor he will likely find the goal of his spiritual quest.

If the words of Pope Francis resonate for immigrants and for monks, then they likely apply to everyone else as well.  Like immigrants, each and every one of us brings a set of gifts to the table.  If we fail to use our gifts in service to others, then both everyone else and we are poorer for it.  Conversely, when we share our gifts and talents, and encourage others do so as well, we are far more likely to see Christ showing through.

IMG_0990Ash Wednesday can be depressing; but if we harness it to its full potential it serves as an invitation to live with greater intensity.  Time is short; there is much to do; and we immigrants ought not be dawdling.  God has given to us gifts of all sorts; but topping them are life, talents, and the chance to encounter Christ incarnate in all sorts of people.  What mission could possibly be more important?

There’s lots to pray for this Lent, but we could do worse than to pray that we all be good immigrants.  May we remember we have gifts, and that our mission is to use them in service to our fellow immigrants.  May we learn from one another.  May we have the insight to see the face of Christ in their faces, and may they see the face of Christ in us.  And if by chance this turns out to be the formula for a good Lenten experience, then perhaps we might extend it into Ordinary Time, and beyond.


+On February 2nd I gave the first in a series of classes in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.

+The last week was crazy-busy for me, largely because of the convergence of several projects that came due at about the same time.  First, I had to write the post for my blog, which got done.  Then my turn to write a post for another blog came due, and I finished that.  I also had a reflection due for Give Us This Day, a monthly booklet published by the Liturgical Press (done.)  After that I had an article on The Rule of Saint Benedict for The Abbey Banner, which is the newsletter for the Abbey (not done yet.)  Lastly, I worked for several days on a  twenty-page brochure, which is nearly done, but overdue.  Many other things did not get done either, but they will, in time.  But thanks to the chance to hide away and hunker down at my desk, I finished the most pressing items that were on my plate last week.  Now I get to start all over.

IMG_1011+By February we begin to weary of winter and the snow, but the landscape still has its charms, as the photos in today’s post may suggest to winter aficionados.  If you enlarge the last photo you can see people ice-fishing on Lake Sagatagan, behind the abbey.  For the record, I went ice-fishing one time and one time only, during my first year at Saint John’s.  I was a quick study, and the most important lesson I drew is that there is no fish on earth worth all that trouble.

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IMG_0981Is “Good Enough” Enough?

It’s easy to breeze through the gospels and miss some of the message behind the words; and that was certainly the case for me with the passage from Mark 5: 1-20.  For years it seems so straightforward.  Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee, and on the other side he met a man possessed by a legion of demons.  He cast them out, sent them into a  herd of swine, and the latter ran headlong into the Sea and drowned.  Word spread, and people filed out of the town to satisfy their curiosity.  Then they encouraged Jesus to hit the road and move on, and he did.  So ends the story — or so at least it seemed to me.

The absurdity of the story finally hit me this time around, and I think that’s exactly what Mark meant for us to take away from our reading.  For one thing, this seems to be the only instance when Jesus teamed up with a herd of pigs to make a point, and it came in the form of an unspoken question:  “How in the world does a Jewish village get comfortable living next door to a herd of pigs?”  Ironically, not a single person thanked Jesus for removing this ritual pollution from their midst.  Equally significant, they may even have sympathized with the owners of the herd.  They’d likely be the first to affirm their dislike of pigs, but they’d also be quick to point out that Jesus shouldn’t go around destroying other people’s livelihood.

IMG_0962The same is true with regard to the possessed man.  Not one person thanked Jesus for the cure he had worked, and no one seemed to appreciate the positive impact this would have on the village.  By implication, Jesus had upset their apple cart, and it would be better for all concerned were Jesus to work his wonders elsewhere.

Then the awful truth of the story hit me:  we are those villagers.  Just as they learned to live alongside a herd of swine, so do we get used to living with alls sorts of abnormal situations.  Just as they adjusted to the demon-possessed man at the edge of the village, so do we learn to live with our own demons.  To put it in modern terms, they and we find it easier to live with disfunction that to deal with disfunction.  So it is that the Jewish community in this gospel story preferred to see Jesus move on and work his wonders elsewhere.  The same, sadly, can be true for us.

It’s amazing what we can get used to in our lives.  When things could be better, we content ourselves with “good enough.”  We satisfy ourselves with the thought that “not so bad” is preferable to taking risks that could bring great benefit.  And when we do that as monks, we fall prey to the temptation that Saint Benedict warns against in his Rule.  It’s all too easy to call “good” the things we like, and “bad” the things we don’t.  Such is a life of self-delusion, and lethargy.

IMG_0965To nobody’s surprise this gospel story ends when the cured man decides to follow Jesus.  Ironically he was the only one in the entire town who’d seen the absurdity of his former way of life and wanted something better.  He’d had a taste of what Jesus could do for him, and he wanted more.

You and I each have our demons, and into every life a little bit of disfunction creeps.  But Jesus offers us a choice.  With the people of that village we can ask Jesus not to tarry and to keep on moving.  Or we can welcome him into our lives.  True, he may lead us into uncharted territory, but it could be exciting territory.  Jesus offers us the choice between “not so bad” and “extraordinary.”  Given those options, perhaps we’d all be better off to cast aside our demons and walk confidently with the Lord, wherever  he might take us.  The choice is ours to make, and choose we will.

[I delivered this reflection at the Abbey Mass today, February 1st.]


+Last week I went to Chicago and Detroit, and while there I visited two Cristo Rey Jesuit High Schools.  We have begun to enroll students from the Chicago school at Saint John’s, and hope for the same from Detroit.  At the school in Chicago I was delighted to discover that the athletic director is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, while a young Jesuit scholastic on the faculty is an ’08 graduate of Saint John’s.

It might be worth noting that I actually do have a day job, and one of my primary goals is to raise funds to provide scholarships for First Generation college students at Saint John’s.  These are students from families in which neither parent has gone to college.  Pride of place in my efforts to date have gone to a program that we have begun with Immokalee High School, outside of Naples, FL.  This is among the poorest communities in the country, and through the generosity of two donors we now have our first two students from Immokalee.  The students are doing well as freshmen at Saint John’s, and we hope to have a steady stream of additional students in the years to come.  This project will be a life-time’s work for me, and my supervisor has already told me that I can never retire.  But if enough people step up to help in this project, I just might be able to retire — someday, but not too soon!

IMG_1022+On January 30th the monks at Saint John’s held a silent day of reflection.  This was the first in what we intend to be a monthly event for the foreseeable future.  By coincidence we also had the funeral for our deceased confrere Fr. Allen Tarleton.

+On January 31st I visited the Alice R. Rogers Gallery at Saint John’s, which is hosting an exhibit of the art of Sadao Watanabe (1913-96).  Watanabe was a noted Japanese artist who became a Christian and was a good friend of our monks when they lived in Tokyo.  The exhibit, entitled Beauty Given by Grace, features works by Watanabe that derive from themes in the Bible.  Over the years our monks in Japan commissioned several works by him, and we have quite a few of his prints in our collections at Saint John’s.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the exhibit.

+I am normally loath to toot my own horn, since it smacks of pride.  In this case I will, since the director of the Spiritual Life programs at the Abbey Guesthouse asked me to do so.  On March 4-6 I will be giving a Lenten retreat entitled The Challenge of Holy Week.  Space for participants is still available, and for more information you can call 320-363-3929 or email spirlife@osb.org.

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