Archive for May, 2016

IMG_0109_2A Retreat:  It Can Soothe the Soul

This week we monks of Saint John’s Abbey go on our annual retreat.  A lot of people quite naturally wonder why in the world monks would need to go on a retreat, and there’s not a few monks who wonder the same thing.  After all, we already devote big chunks of our daily schedule to prayer.  On top of that, peace, if not silence, pervades the place.  So why would we set aside several days in the pursuit of redundant activities?  Why not do something really different, like take a vacation?

There are plenty of reasons to go on retreat, and not just because canon law prescribes that monasteries have them.  The latter has never been a compelling argument, which is just as well.  When all is said and done, the majority of monks go on retreat not because they have to, but because they know they need to do it for their own good.

The reasons that favor a regular retreat for monks are diverse, but balance seems to top the list in my own case.  I and my confreres strive for balance in our lives, but in practice things tend to slip out of alignment over time.  We aspire for equilibrium in prayer and work and all the rest, but on any given day the default buttons for many of us are set in favor of work.

IMG_0102_2Work is useful and work is good, and Saint Benedict reminds us that we are truly monks when we live by the work of our own hands.  But ask many monks and they’ll admit how this can disrupt the proper balance between work and prayer.  Saint Benedict may have called for “work and prayer,” but for many of us it’s more like “work and prayer and then scurry back to work.”

It may have been true for much of human history, but work as the penalty due to the sin of Adam and Eve isn’t nearly the punishment it used to be.  Most monks, like lots of people, tend to enjoy their work, and therein is the problem.  Because work can be fulfilling, and because we often draw our self-esteem from our work, it can produce lives best-described as “driven.”  “All-consuming” also comes to mind as an apt description.

That, it seems to me, is just one of the good reasons why we all need a retreat now and again.  There are others, of course, and together they argue the need to step back and examine what all of this is doing to us.  Whether we like it or not, a retreat can force us to take stock of our lives.  And if by chance we find our minds wandering back to the office or somewhere else in the course of a retreat conference, then we know there’s need for some adjustment.

IMG_0100_2Most people have never been on a retreat, which is too bad.  It’s too bad because pretty much everybody could benefit from one.  But lots of things stand in the way of doing a retreat, whether short or long.  For one thing, it can be tough to to pause in our daily routines and consider what we’re doing with our lives.  Too many things tug at our sleeves for attention, and the result all too often is a failure to consider where we are headed with our lives.  Nor do we make time to ask ourselves the critical questions.  Is this really what I intended to do with my life?  If not, how can I make the most of the days yet to come?

A challenge that many also confront is the very idea of a retreat.  Perhaps the thought of two or three days in a retreat house is horrifying.  Perhaps it’s just too expensive.  Or perhaps every day seems so full that there’s no chance to pause for some down time.

The fact of the matter is, there is always a moment for retreat, in whatever form works best for us.  Most churches have chapels reserved for prayer and meditation, and the last time I heard, most still don’t charge for a fifteen or thirty-minute visit.  And if a church is beyond your reach, flee to a quiet spot in your home for a few minutes, with no television or radio.  That might be just the solace that calms your nerves and soothes your soul.  It could also provide the chance to come to terms with your day or your life or your work.

In short, a retreat for a few minutes or a few hours or days can be the tonic that brings relief greater than any drug can provide.  It can serve up the moments that allow you to listen to what your heart has been trying to tell you for weeks or even months. It may even give you the chance to hear what God’s been trying to tell you all this time.  And if the message is simply that God loves you and is trying to help out, then a retreat could very well be the moment that soothes your soul and renews your life.


+On May 28th I officiated at a wedding at Saint Patrick’s Church in Scottsdale, AZ.  As near as I can recall, this was the only wedding I’ve ever attended that started ahead of schedule.  While I and the groomsmen visited in the sacristy, the wedding planner popped in to say that the bride was waiting and we needed to get going.  I protested that it was still three minutes to go.  Then I remembered that both bride and groom were accountants.  So we started early, and naturally we finished early.  All was very efficient, and fun.  The next morning I celebrated Mass for forty of the bride’s family and friends.

+As noted in the reflection, today we begin our retreat in the monastery.  Our retreat master this year is retired Abbot Matthew Leavy of Saint Anselm’s Abbey in Manchester, NH.

+The four photos in today’s post all come from the National Gallery in Washington.  The first two depict Saint Jerome, on long-term retreat in the wilderness.  The third is of St. Helena as she meditates on the cross; and the last is of Veronica and the image of Jesus on her veil.

Read Full Post »

IMG_0257_2Too Many Friends?

As a few of us walked out of the church earlier this week, we each added some personal notes about Rose, whose funeral we had just attended.  She was a remarkable woman, and the number and variety of her friends testified to that.  Young and old and people of all sorts counted themselves lucky to have her as a friend, and we were privileged to have been included in her circle.

Then a parable of Jesus popped into my mind.  In the gospel Jesus tells the story of the vineyard owner who had hired workers throughout the day.  By evening the early hires naturally expected to get more than the latecomers, but that’s not the way it worked out.  Everyone got paid the same amount, and not a few felt cheated.  Not so, countered the owner.  But that was little comfort to those who rued the day they’d agreed to work for that guy.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been puzzled by this parable, and I’ve always sided with the early hires and seen this as an issue of injustice.  Clearly those workers deserved something more for their loyalty to the owner, as any fair-minded person would agree.

IMG_0283_2In fairness to Jesus, however, I think he actually hoped we’d see it that way, and from there he wanted us to broaden our horizons.  In fact, as he points out, justice was done here, and people were paid what they’d been promised.  Still, life isn’t always fair, and to make that point Jesus adds the element of generosity.  The mixture of justice and gratuitous generosity creates a dilemma, and if we’re left scratching our heads, then so be it.  If God is both just and generous, then that’s God’s business and not ours.  So it’s best that we admit the conundrum and get over it.

That’s certainly one way to look at this parable, but it’s not the only way.  Thanks to Rose I’d suddenly realized I’d missed something there.  Rose had friendships that went back 50 and 60 years.  She also had friends she’d known for 25, 10 and 3 years.  In that company I was a relative newcomer, since I’d known her for only 11 years.  Yet, remarkably, throughout her life Rose had made room for all of those people, no matter how recently they had shown up.  She had grown from that experience, and so had we.  Whether she knew it or not, Rose had modeled her life on the owner of the vineyard and his expansive view of life.

IMG_0297_2I wish I’d thought of this earlier, because I would have made use of it in my sermon.  Alas, it was too late to reference it that day, but it wasn’t too late to store it away and use it on another occasion.  Like the gospel householder who brings forth from the storehouse old things and new, this is an idea that will see the light on a day further down the pike.

For the moment, however, there’s two things that I take home from this experience.  First, we should never assume that we’ve learned all there is to learn about a particular passage in the Bible.  Just when you think you’ve heard it all, someone comes along with a new and interesting perspective.  That’s as good a reason as any to justify the regular re-reading of the scriptures.  You never know what else there is to learn.  Buried among all the verses is a nugget that can make all the difference in a day, or in a life.

The second lesson is more specific to Rose.  Friendships are among the greatest gifts we’ll ever have, and we need to treasure our friends accordingly.  In that vein, friendship can never be a zero-sum game, so it’s not an especially good idea to put a cap on the number of friends we let into our lives.  Whether they are close friends, good friends or casual friends, all are gifts from God.  Each friend is the face of God, sent to walk with us on our pilgrimage to the Lord.

Who can begrudge the owner of the vineyard for hiring all the workers he could?  Who can begrudge God for reaching out in love to any and everybody?  Who would begrudge Rose from amassing a roomful of friends?  Who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes!

Finally, we are left with one last issue.  Can there be too many workers in the vineyard of the Lord?  I seriously doubt it.  Similarly, can we have too many friends?  Same answer as before.  In any case, from now on I’m standing with the owner of the vineyard when I hear this parable.  Like him, I need all the help and all the friends I can get.


+On May 17th I attended and preached at the funeral of my good friend Rose, at Saint Agnes Church in Naples, FL.  I met Rose and John many years ago, and they have welcomed me as their friend ever since.  Even better, I have become a friend of many of their friends, and for all of that I am grateful.

+On May 21st I gave a day of reflection to the members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, in the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, outside of San Francisco.  It’s a huge hulk of a building, and with the students and staff gone for the summer we felt overwhelmed in its vast hallways.

+The photos in today’s blog all come from the collections at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  It is among my favorite museums in the United States, both because of its strong holdings in medieval art as well as for its generous policy that allows personal photography.

Read Full Post »

IMG_1636Silence Can Be Nourishing.

It had been two years since I last stood next to this particular priest.  Once again we were at the funeral of a mutual friend and, after the greetings were out of the way, I got down to business.  Were we going to have a repeat of the refrain he had given during the homily at the last funeral?  He smiled, and his smile said it all.

At the last funeral a bishop-friend of the family had presided and preached, and he’d done a more than adequate job of it.  But the local pastor was miffed at being sidelined and out of the limelight, so he made up for it at the end of the service.  What began as a simple farewell morphed into a second and even longer sermon.  Worse still, he punctuated each sentence with a dramatic pause, by which he meant to underscore the  importance of his words.  That bit of theater was too much for the cluster of priests stuck in the sanctuary.  Some needed to go, and all knew there was no need for a second homily.  Suddenly inspired, my friend cut through the tension with a stroke of divine inspiration.  Into each silent pause he inserted the one thing we now remember from that liturgy two years ago.  Within earshot of us all (but  unheard by the congregation) came a steady chorus of “sto-o-o-p…sto-o-o-p…sto-o-o-p.”  We all managed to appear stoic, but it was a struggle to contain ourselves.  It was just the right touch.

IMG_1622We live in a time when people seem to think there can never be enough words.  In love with the sound of their own voices, people will drone on, oblivious to the possibility that they have already said everything that was useful to say in the first minute of their discourse.  Politicians blather on in a Niagara of words.  Advertisers cram more words into a commercial than we can absorb.  And worst of all, people talk at each other, all speaking at the same time.  There are simply too many words, and too many people don’t have the self-discipline to stop.

First-time readers of the Rule of Saint Benedict are often surprised that he did not demand a vow of silence from his monks.  Despite the stereotype, monks do speak, but St. Benedict cautions monks about how much they should speak and the quality of their speech.  He quotes Psalm 10, which gets right to the point.  “In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.”  Then he concludes with a bit of wisdom from Proverbs 18:21:  “The tongue holds the key to life and death.”

IMG_1624Custody of the tongue is something that even monks find challenging.  We too can carry on too long in sermons, for example.  At Saint John’s that may explain the periodic reminders from the liturgy committee that “a few well-chosen words usually suffice” for week-day homilies.  In addition, like everybody else we’re prone to gossip, despite Benedict’s explicit ban on that sort of thing.  And we too tell stories at the expense of our brother, which Benedict also frowned upon.  But of course we monks are only human, which is why we have to try and limit the damage via a periodic day of silent reflection and the silence that pervades the night.

Most people, including monks, can’t maintain silence for an entire day.  Still, there are things we each can do to let silence work its magic in our lives.  Given that noise seems all-pervasive, even when we are alone, we can rein in the endless din.  To my own surprise, for example, I discovered that I could drive with the radio off.  Not only was I calmer, but I began to hear the little things that I never noticed before.  I found the same could be true when there was no radio or electrical devices running in my room in the monastery.  That was when I discovered that silence could even be nourishing.

IMG_8779All this may seem pointless and self-absorbed, but Benedict’s caution about too much speaking actually relates back to the first word of his Rule:  “Listen.”  If we’re too busy talking with one another, all at the same time, then we can’t listen.  If noise pervades our every waking moment, we can’t listen.  And if we can’t listen, we’ll never learn.

We live in a world in which the flood of words has become not only normative but the presumed ideal; and Saint Benedict is neither the first nor the last sage to warn us of the results.  Essentially, that flood of words can shape who we are and who we will become.  Just as a small stream and the wind created the Grand Canyon, so can a torrent of words shape us into people we might not want to become.

So the next time you realize the onslaught of words is about to overwhelm you, you might do well to recall that one word of advice from my priest-friend:  “Sto-o-o-p.”  And once you’ve stopped and allowed a toe-hold of tranquility into your life, then comes that second word of advice:  “Listen!”  You may discover that the silence can be nourishing.


+This was a quiet week for me, and  I spent nearly all of it at home at Saint John’s.  Much of the time was spent sitting at my desk, catching up on office work.  So the time was spent well.

+This last week and through the next week we have been hosting twenty recent graduates of Saint John’s University who will be working next year as Benedictine Volunteers at abbeys literally around the world.  This is a combination retreat and a bit of orientation, and it has been a delight to have them join us for prayer and meals in the abbey refectory.

IMG_8783+On Sunday May 15th I attended the unveiling of the Book of Honor of The Saint John’s Bible.  The Book of Honor lists the 1750+ individuals and groups who helped to support the creation of The Saint John’s Bible, and it is a piece of art in its own right.  Calligrapher and artist Diane von Arx, who had done illumination in the Bible, did this work as a solo project, and it is terrific.  Some 160 individuals attended the event, which took place in the Target Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  Since the first folio of the Bible was unveiled there, it was only appropriate to return there.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate folios from the Book of Honor.  Virtually the only outside work in the Book of Honor was my signature on the introductory sheet.  I’ve included that photo, since it is the only time I will ever fit the image of the monk-calligrapher.

Read Full Post »

IMG_1517The Job of Teaching:  Everyone’s Vocation

It was a quick trip from my office to the post office across campus.  I really didn’t need stamps all that urgently, but it was nicer outside than in, and it was an excuse to smell the lilacs and flowering crabapples.

Unfortunately, once at the post office I found myself at the end of a line of people cooling their heels as a freshman mailed a package.  He seemed bewildered by all the options, but the woman at the window was the picture of kindness as she walked him through the process.  “How soon do you want it to get there?  Do you want insurance?  Do you want to track the progress of your package?  Do you want a signature at the other end?”  He took it all in, and with painfully slow deliberation he made each decision.

He seemed self-absorbed and indifferent to the attention that she lavished on him, and I guarantee he was oblivious to the irritation of those of us in line behind him.  “How hard can this be?” we were all thinking.  Finally he finished, but before turning to leave he looked up, smiled, and said in triumph:  “This is the first time I’ve ever mailed a package!”

It took me all of thirty seconds to buy stamps, and by then I had begun to regret my trip to the post office.  Then the light bulb went on.  “Thanks for helping that guy,” I said.  Clearly he had learned something, and he had appreciated her help more than we had imagined.  And her response?  “People watch this sort of thing and always assume I must be furious when I have to explain things over and over and over again.  In fact, I love it.  I just showed this kid how to do something that he’s never done before.  It’s something that the rest of us have taken for granted for years; but for the very first time in his life he’s discovered he can send a package anywhere in the world.  And for a few minutes I got to be his teacher.  What a privilege.  How wonderful is that?!”

IMG_1305Most of us don’t think of ourselves as teachers, and in the conventional sense we aren’t.  We don’t stand in front of a class and lecture.  We don’t give exams and we definitely don’t grade papers.  We don’t dole out knowledge on a silver platter.  But then again, in our own way, we do.

All of us are called to be teachers, and the Christian tradition is emphatic in pushing that point.  The rite of baptism for children, to cite but one example, reminds parents that they are the first and best of teachers to their children.  This is about home-schooling of a very different sort, however, because it is their job to teach their children to play fair and respect others, to share, and to cross the street after looking both ways.  And that’s just the start of it.

Saint Benedict also picks up on this theme when he writes that the monastery is the school of the Lord’s service.  Immediately one thinks of the abbot as the one and only teacher, but in fact virtually every monk has to be a teacher to his brothers.  It is our task to teach one another about the path to Christ.  We teach by word and example as we help one another along the road to maturity and love.  And if any of our brothers shrinks from this duty to teach, then the results will not be pretty.

IMG_1499All of us are tempted to downplay our calling to be teachers to one another.  We absolve ourselves by supposing that teaching is the job of the government or schools or other people.  But in fact the job of teaching is everybody’s vocation.  And it has less to do with teaching things like physics or English and more to do with teaching the basics of what it takes to be a decent and loving human being.

That leads to an important corollary.  If we are all supposed to be good teachers, it’s equally important that we be grateful and life-long students as well.  It’s a mistake to think that the young have nothing to teach, but equally wrong is the assumption that the seniors have nothing to learn.  Saint Benedict is adamant about that too, and he asserts that it is often the young in whom wisdom resides.

Knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of the elderly, and that’s something I remember every time I get stumped by the computer.  Do I go to a senior for help?  Of course not.  For that kind of knowledge I look for the youngest person in the room.

And what are the lessons we might draw from this?  First, it’s important to be patient as we teach life’s vital secrets to the young.  It’s both a duty and a privilege.  But it’s also the prudent thing to do.  If we teach well and wisely, perhaps the young will be just as patient with us when it’s our turn to be the student.


+On May 4th I attended the funeral of Andrea McGough, at Saint Rose of Lima Church in Roseville, MN.  I had been blessed to know Andrea and her husband Larry for ages, and through the years we shared membership in the Order of the Holy Sepulcher.  We monks have a long relationship with Larry and his brothers, who fifty-five years ago built the abbey church.  Coincidentally, Larry and his firm were scheduled to be honored with the Colman Barry Award at Saint John’s, in recognition of their contribution to religion and culture.  Alas, Larry  had to be by Andrea’s side.  May she rest in peace.

+On Thursday the 5th I attended the ground-breaking for Gagliardi Field.  It will be a football practice field, and its inflated dome will provided expanded space for intramurals in the winter.

+On the 6th I got to have lunch with a good friend in New London, MN.  New London is about forty-five minutes southwest of Saint John’s, but if you’re willing to add a few minutes you can visit New Munich and Belgrade along the way.  A wrong turn will take you to Luxembourg and New Prague, however.  By the way, none of these towns quite resembles its respective namesake.

IMG_1610+On May 7th I attended the dedication of our new baseball field, Becker Park.  Sadly, the team lost a doubleheader to Concordia College.  But they’re destined for the playoffs anyway.

+On May 8th the Abbey and University church was the site of commencement exercises for Saint John’s University.  For at least a few days peace will now reign supreme on our campus.

+The first photo in today’s post is of the building that houses the US Post Office on campus.  The others give some inkling of the progress of spring at Saint John’s, but they can’t begin to capture the scents of lilac and crabapple that pervade the air.

Read Full Post »

IMG_1258I Am the Way

By now fans of Downton Abbey have pretty much survived withdrawal and wandered off in search of other stately palaces.  Still, for many the aura lingers, because it’s tough to part with old friends, especially when they are imaginary.

As the series settled into its final weeks, aficionados enjoyed a bonus in the form of a few interviews from several of the actors.  For good measure the producer also threw in a conversation with the historical consultant, whose job was to make sure that the stray iPad or cell phone didn’t show up in a 1920’s drawing room.  My sentiments tended toward him, but the one who piqued my curiosity the most was the guy who played Lord Grantham, the patriarch of the series.  I expected him to be in life what he was in fiction, but he wasn’t.  When asked whether he resented the gradual expansion of the story line to include some of the servants, his response took me by surprise.  I assumed he must have resented the intrusion of lower class people into his exclusive realm.  But he hadn’t.  In fact, he noted, some 75 people lived in that house, and there were 75 individual stories.  Why?  Because all were the centers of their unique universes.  All of them, whether noble or common, thought that the sun rose and set on them individually.  So it only made sense that the writers had begun to make room in the script for everybody.

IMG_1260His comment left me puzzled, until I finally decided that this betrayed both maturity and great self-awareness.  What child doesn’t come into the world with the conviction that everybody is there to serve him or her?  Who isn’t at the absolute ground zero of their own little universe?  Who can’t recall the moment when they first began to realize that there were others out there who had similar or even superior talents?  Who wasn’t shocked to discover that they were not the acme of human evolution?

If people fear the possibility of life on some alien planet, it’s likely because they’ve also had a hard time coming to terms with the existence of their next-door-neighbors.  For most of us it’s tough to share top-billing on the world’s marquee.  But share we must, or we’ll never move beyond the narcissism into which we were born.  Only when we make peace with our neighbors in a much larger world do we begin to discover how truly exciting the world can be.

In the Great Hall at Saint John’s is an expansive image borrowed from the Byzantine tradition.  From the apse Jesus Christ Pantocrator rules everything under his gaze.  He dominates the space, and he pulls into his embrace all who enter.  And in his left hand he displays the gospel text that reads “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

IMG_1261It’s a breathtaking scene, because this Jesus draws us out of ourselves and into something much bigger.  It’s as though he reminds us that if we are ever going to make any difference in the world, then we must come to terms with the reality that we are not the only elephants in the world’s living room.

Our culture esteems rugged individualism and prizes self-fulfillment; and not surprisingly some say Christianity is rather oppressive.  For them Christianity appears to ask too much of people, because it demands a complete surrender of self.  Worse still, some contend that Christianity requires that people check their brains at the door of the church, because once inside there’s no room for imagination or freedom.  Once inside there’s only room for a narrow and stifling doctrine.

I’ll grant that Christianity does at times threaten the conventional notion of self.  I will also accept that Jesus places rather exclusive demands on us when he claims to be the way, the truth and the life.   But to be fair, Jesus has never asked that people turn off their brains in order to become his followers.  Instead, Jesus invites all to live in a world that is far bigger than anything they ever imagined.  For that we need all the brainpower we can muster.

IMG_1263The fact of the matter is, the small worlds in which we choose to live are the small worlds we have created for ourselves.  This was not what Jesus had in mind for us, and for that reason he urges each one of us to break free to see ourselves as part of something much larger than ourselves.

In idealistic terms Jesus invites us to participate in the fulness of his way, his truth, and his life.  More specifically, he gives us two great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor.  On the practical level, we tease this out in the relationships we have with one another.  What we do for the least of people, we do for Christ.  It’s why St. Benedict asks his monks to see Christ in the guest, in the young monks and the abbot, and in virtually everyone.

God did not create the little worlds that hem us in.  We did that all by ourselves.  On the other hand, Jesus invites us to emerge from our shells to embrace the expansive world that awaits us.  For that we will need all the talents and wits that God has put at our disposal.  We’re going to need them most as we get to know all the other elephants in God’s wonderful living room.

Perhaps it’s helpful to frame this challenge in the language of the actor.  It’s a mistake to assume that all of our neighbors are there to be our supporting cast.  In reality, we only begin to grow when we discover that they are our co-stars.  Alone we wither, but together we flourish.  Only then do we discover what Jesus means when he says that he is the way, the truth and the life.


+This was a rather quiet week for me, spent almost entirely at Saint John’s.  At the same time my thoughts were with members of the Order of Malta who went this week to Lourdes on the Order’s annual pilgrimage.  To say the least, I miss them.  On the other hand I don’t really miss the rain and cold that has beset them on this pilgrimage.  There was even hail one afternoon.  Who could imagine such a thing in Lourdes!

+On April 30th I was in St. Paul and took the opportunity to attend Mass at the massive cathedral.  In a few days they will welcome Archbishop Bernard Hebda as the new ordinary of St. Paul.  It should be a grand and happy occasion.

+The photos in today’s post come from the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The structure dates from the 1880s, while Brother Clement Frischauf executed the decorative elements in the 1930s.

Read Full Post »