Archive for July, 2016

IMG_0007_2Good Listening: Not So Easy

Like any good prophet, Jeremiah was a reluctant servant of the Lord.  And like any good prophet, he protested his unworthiness to preach the word of the Lord to those who needed to hear it.  He didn’t know how to speak well.  He was too young.  He was afraid of how people might react.  He wasn’t exactly sure about what he was to say.

In the last few days the first readings at Mass have come from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, and they present a dilemma that is both ancient and modern.  Jeremiah felt torn between what God might be asking from him and what he himself might prefer to do.  Jeremiah tried to beg off, but in the end none of his objections mattered.  The divine mind had been made up.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;  before you were born I dedicated you;  a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”  What could Jeremiah say in response?  What could any of us say to a commission like that?

In the long run God supplied all the words that Jeremiah needed.  To his own surprise. Jeremiah opened with the simplest of invitations, and God seemed to take it from there. “Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah!”  Then the words flowed freely, and Jeremiah must have marveled at how God had taken possession of him and accomplished great things through him.

IMG_0008_2In his Rule Saint Benedict opens with an invitation that parallels Jeremiah’s words. “Listen” is what Benedict encourages his disciples to do, and he promises that listening will transform their lives.  But of course the big challenge is to dispose ourselves to listen in the first place.

Listening takes a bit of work these days, simply because there is way too much stuff bombarding our ears.  It’s a challenge to sort through it all, especially when the marketers draft appeals that can be tough to resist.  We cannot blame them, of course, because that’s their job.  Whether it’s political posturing or aggressive pitches for products we might not need, the advertising is constant and almost militant.

Neither Jeremiah nor Benedict urges on us a passive listening, however.  It’s easy enough to cede personal responsibility to live good and thoughtful lives when we merely surrender to the flow.  In fact, however, it is our responsibility to sort through the mass of appeals and distinguish between the junk mail and what is truly life-giving.  Then it is critical to realize the consequences of our choices.

IMG_0046_2It’s amazing how little things have changed since someone first told the story of Adam and Eve.  Those two made their choice and then blamed the serpent for false advertising, when in fact they only had themselves to blame.  They had listened to the promise of the serpent, but they’d not listened critically.  They seemed oblivious to any consequences that might follow, and they would have to pay the price for what they’d decided to do with their lives.

That, it seems to me, gets to the core of the listening that both Jeremiah and Benedict urge on us.  This is neither “easy listening” nor “listening as entertainment.”  Instead, this is the sort of listening that determines the direction of our lives.  This listening requires a mulling over of sometimes difficult choices, but that’s the whole point.  It’s all challenging because our very being matters — if not to the marketers, then at least to God.

IMG_0051There’s a wonderful lesson to draw from Jeremiah and Benedict, and it’s this.  They practiced what they preached.  Each listened to the word of the Lord, and each let it percolate in his mind until listening became inspiration, and inspiration led to action.  They were anything but passive listeners, and the experience was transformative.

Like God did with Jeremiah, so God does with us.  From before our birth God has fashioned us and dedicated us.  God destined us to be more than consumers of products or political zealots.  Instead, God created us in the divine image and means us to live noble and thoughtful lives.  All we need do is pause and listen to what God has to put to us.  Then, if we can respond in the affirmative, we open ourselves to the great things God will do with us.  That, it seems to me, is the real reward of a  life well-lived.


+On July 21st I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s in San Francisco.  It was a wonderful gathering, which was preceded by evening prayer at Grace Cathedral.  In attendance were Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, as well as alumni chaplain Fr. Don Talafous.

On July 21st and 22nd Brother Paul Richards staged a massive rummage sale in Guild Hall at Saint John’s.  He has done this for several years now, and the proceeds benefit the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  In August some twenty recent alumni of Saint John’s University will depart for year-long postings at Benedictine abbeys in Africa, South and Central America, Europe and to one site in the US — Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.

+Through the winter I was remarkably fortunate in that travels generally went smoothly.  Not so this week, when storms at the Minneapolis airport managed to transform a three-hour flight into a European-length adventure.  We boarded in plenty of time, and just as we were ready to push back a big storm came rolling through. There we sat for a while.  And then we sat some more.  Then we taxied out to the runway, only to discover that we no longer had enough fuel to complete the flight.  So back we went to the gate to get more gas.  Then another storm rolled through.  It was three hours, cooped on the plane, before we took off.  Then we went east for forty-five minutes before going west.  Altogether we were on the plane for over seven hours.  Remarkably, people took it all in stride, and no one got irate about it.  But we were more than ready to run off the plane on arrival.

IMG_0058_2+In the last few weeks I’ve heard hints that many did not receive mailings of this blog.  Some readers thought I had given up or lopped them off the mailing list.  In fact, as I discovered this week from one reader in Los Gatos, CA, the blog site WordPress was simply overwhelmed with too much business.  Hopefully they have added capacity.  In the meantime, all those posts are still there in the archive.  In case you missed something and have nothing else to do on a delayed flight, they are waiting to be read.

+The photos in today’s post hark back to a gentler time, when the sound of birds and streams tended to tickle the ears rather than cable television.  I took these two summers ago in a village in the Cotswolds, to the west of London.

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IMG_2524Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Kateri Tekakwitha has been part of the landscape at Saint John’s for decades now.  From her pedestal she gazes out over Lake Sagatagan, and from there she proclaims both her faith and the sense that she is completely at home in her wooded environment.  She also performs a vital service to students and visitors who pass by on the trail at her feet.  As Fr. Nick reminded us in his homily on her feast day last Thursday, there’s a ritual that runners observe as they go by.  Carefully they slow down or pause to rub the nose of the dog at her feet, in hopes that there will be no tumbles or turned ankles as they negotiate the trails.

Kateri was born to Algonquin Mohawk parents in New York in 1656.  Smallpox took her family, and at four years of age Kateri woke to find herself an orphan, with a scarred face and diminished eyesight.  The latter explains the dog at her feet, because that pup helped guide her thereafter.  At nineteen a Jesuit missionary baptized her, and she continued to serve the sick until her death in 1680.

The statue that now offers encouragement to cross-country runners at Saint John’s once graced Saint Olaf Church in downtown Minneapolis.  The neighborhood of office buildings and high-rise condos was an unlikely home for her, and when the church burned to the ground in 1956 the pastor generously offered her statue to the monks.  She’s been with us ever since.

IMG_2526Whoever crafted the statue took the liberty of adding the title “saint” long before Pope Benedict made it official in 2012.  No alterations were necessary when the public recognition of her sanctity finally caught up with the reality of it.

To those who might wonder why we monks would welcome her into our midst, I would offer three points for consideration.  First, she reminds us of the people who lived in Minnesota long before the Europeans arrived.  We must respect both the memory and the culture of those who had lived here for such a long time.  Second, along with Saint Francis of Assisi, the Church reveres Kateri as a patron of the environment.  That makes her especially attractive for us, because we’ve carefully tended our forest and land and lakes for 160  years.

Our concern for the environment is by no means a recent thing at Saint John’s, and it predates even the 1890s, when we put in place a reforestation program after storms destroyed a huge stand of timber.  It was the first such effort in Minnesota state history, but it mirrored the efforts that our Benedictine brothers had been doing in Europe for centuries.

IMG_2528Today we continue to rely on the woods for the lumber that we transform into our furniture.  We also draw from the maple trees the sap that becomes syrup.  But of even greater significance, our lands and lakes are an invaluable classroom for our students and guests — which this year included 8,000 schoolchildren who toured the arboretum.  Our nurture of the land draws inspiration from St. Benedict’s concern for the tools of the monastery.  Along with Benedict we see the landscape as a resource that deserves both cultivation and respect.  It’s not something to be used, depleted, and abandoned.  In practice, we cherish our environment because we believe that God created both us and our world.  Both are sacred.

There’s one last element that Kateri adds to our lives as Benedictines.  In most every respect Kateri was the most ordinary of people.  She was neither a political nor military leader.  She had no official status in the Church.  She had few if any financial resources, nor was she a leading figure in her social scene.  The reality is that she was a young woman who suffered serious health issues and who channeled her energy into serving the sick.  In short, she was not a heroic figure.  She was quite ordinary, but she was an example of how God generally prefers to use very ordinary people to do something extraordinary.

IMG_2508Today Saint Kateri Tekakwitha provides a vital service at Saint John’s.  Symbolically she reminds runners and walkers alike that the world can be a confusing and even dangerous place, just as the woods can be.  At the same time, the world and the woods are home to us, and God promises to be with us as we negotiate sharp turns and the stones and sticks that can trip us up along the way.  They are obstacles, true, but they never justify turning back and giving up.

Saint Kateri urges us to run on with confidence, and her pup reminds us that God goes with us to show the way.  We may stumble and we may fall, but God helps us get back on our feet.  That’s how God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary.  To that Saint Benedict would say “Amen!”


+In my previous post I neglected to mention that on July 9th Bishop Donald Kettler ordained to the diaconate our confrere Brother Efrain Rosado Casanova.  In the months that remain before his ordination as a priest he will be doing CPE (Clinical-Pastoral Education) at the VA Hospital in St. Cloud, as well as assisting at Saint Boniface Parish in Cold Spring.

IMG_2501+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and that included the observance of the anniversary of profession by several monks and the first vows of Brother Cassian.  What I could not have anticipated in last week’s post was the tremendous storm that began as we processed into the church for Mass.  There was thunder and lightning and a torrential rain that lasted the entirety of the liturgy.  The theatrics and the two inches of rain were just amazing, and we actually enjoyed it all.  It also kept the church quite cool, which was unusual for that feast day.

In the course of three days we received over 5.5 inches of rain, which is a lot but normally not overwhelming.  However, there was one unintended consequence.  Workers had just completed a rain garden to catch run-off that would normally flow into the lake.  This pond allows the landscape to filter out any pollutants that the water might take with it into the lake.  Unfortunately, this was more than the new pond could handle, and the dam burst and allowed a torrent of water to flow into the lake.  Next time we’ll be better prepared.

+On July 16 and 17 the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey joined us for their yearly retreat.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate a portion of what you might encounter on the miles of trails at Saint John’s.  At the bottom is the entrance to the system, which was constructed last summer.  Over the next two years we will be repairing and replacing some of the footbridges that have outlived their usefulness.


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IMG_2326The Feast of St. Benedict

Today is the feast of St. Benedict, the patron of western monasticism.  It’s a major feast day at Saint John’s, and for most of the monks it was the day on which they made their first vows.  Today, then, we celebrate with those who professed twenty-five, fifty, sixty and seventy years ago.  We’ll also witness as Brother Cassian professes his first vows.  He’s now completed his year of novitiate, and today he will make promises for three years, in anticipation of the day when he will make his solemn vows.

Contrary to what most people imagine, monks in the Benedictine tradition — including Cistercians and Trappists — do not vow poverty, chastity and obedience.  Those vows surfaced much later and they are identified with orders like the Franciscans and Jesuits.  Since the sixth century, however, we’ve professed three vows which continue to distinguish us within the religious orders of the Church.  “Stability” binds us to a place and to a particular monastic community, and does so for life.  “Conversion to a monastic manner of life” — conversio morum — is a more general concept that embraces many facets.  It encompasses celibacy and simplicity of life, and it assumes a communal life of shared prayer and work.  Finally, “obedience” is what we profess to the abbot, who is our spiritual father.

IMG_2328A year ago when Brother Cassian was clothed as a novice, the abbot asked what he sought.  As novices have done for eons, he answered that he had come to seek God and to do so in the fellowship of this community.  The search for God is a quest we share with all Christians of course, but life in the context of a particular community is what distinguishes the monk’s vocation from that of the married or single person.

In our baptism we all began the search for God, and clearly monks have no monopoly on that.  It’s a universal hunger that should be the hallmark of all people of faith, monks included.  At the same time, the term “search for God” has a rather fuzzy ring to it.  What in the world does it mean?  Does it mean that we take the initiative and hunt for the same experience of God which Moses had on Mount Sinai?  Do we instead look for something transformative, as when God threw Saul to the ground?  Or do we wait for the moment of spiritual ecstasy, such as when the love of God transfixed the heart of Theresa of Avila?

I can say with some measure of assurance that those are not the things that most monks I know are looking for.  Nor have I ever met a monk who has experienced any of that.  Nor have I met any monk who’s been disappointed that none of that ever happened to him.  Are we failures or frauds then?  Not really, because all the while we keep looking for God in all the other places.  And most particularly, we look for God in the ordinary.

IMG_2331The search for God in a typical monastery sounds dull and repetitive, and it’s not the sort of thing a Hollywood producer would make a movie about.  Still, it’s in the very ordinary exchanges in our lives where we start to pick up the hints of God’s activity.  In the goodness and generosity of a very ordinary monk we see God’s hand at work.  In the support and love that we receive from one another we experience God reaching out to us.  And in the common struggle to better our lives we find the inspiration to get out of bed and resume the quest each day.

Monks certainly don’t have the inside track on the search for God.  Others have the same aspiration, though perhaps instead in the context of a married commitment or friendship.  But this monastic regimen is the life we’ve chosen.  We’ve opted to face the challenges and opportunities of life in the context of a particular group of brothers, and we’ve chosen to be with them for a lifetime.

IMG_2372Do we see God all the time?  Certainly not!  On any given day the presence of God doesn’t seem all that obvious.  Yet, God is there in the praying of the liturgy of the hours and the Eucharist.  God’s there in our work and in our recreation and in our service to guests and students and coworkers.  On any given day we might have to squint hard to see God at work, but over a lifetime it gets easier to perceive the hand of God shepherding us along.  It gets easier to pick out those footsteps which God left as he walked beside us.  It’s then that we discover that God has elected to do all of this in the fellowship of our community.

That’s the theory anyway, and that’s some of what we celebrate on the feast of St. Benedict.  The seniors for their part can reflect with astonishment at what God’s managed to do through them through the years.  Meanwhile Brother Cassian today takes up this quest to seek God daily and deeply in this community.  And we pray that the Lord will sustain us all as we continue on this pilgrimage.


+Last week some fifty monks and sisters joined us in choir, and their numbers added immensely to the quality of our music.  They were here for the annual meeting of the Monastic Institute, hosted by the School of Theology at Saint John’s University.

+On July 8th I presided and preached at the funeral for Mr. Richard Madden, at St. Anselm Church in Ross, CA.  I had known Dick and his wife Joan for many years, primarily through his work in the Order of Malta.  Dick had a professional career that was only outshone by his amazing volunteer work.  For six years he served as the president of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  There was nothing ordinary about Dick, including the trip to the cemetery, which was located some forty-five minutes away in a country churchyard on the Pacific coast.  We were running late, pressed by the promise that the cemetery workers would call it quits at 2:15.  We left at 1:15, but to gain time the driver of our car opted for a short-cut through the mountains.  You have to picture a stretch-limo that included five of us and Dick’s wife Joan, racing up a narrow winding mountain road, hoping to make it in time.  Needless to say, everybody got carsick.  Then came the summit, and with it the really big surprise.  There, blocking the road, was a sign that announced that the road was closed due to an avalanche.  So we had to race back down the mountain from whence we’d just come.  We were good and late to the cemetery, but the cemetery workers had mercy and all went well.  It was a day to remember.

IMG_2400+Today, July 11th, Brother Cassian will pronounce his first vows.  He is likely the first person in our community to come from Atlanta, and he comes complete with a non-Minnesota accent.  He attended Belmont University in Nashville and then did a graduate degree in theology at Vanderbilt University.  Before coming to the monastery he worked at the Dorothy Day House in Duluth, MN.

+The first three photos in today’s post show my favorite doorway at Saint John’s, the entrance to the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium.  In the foreground is a grid of littleleaf linden trees, and the bees were busy a couple of weeks ago with the linden flowers.  In the tympanum of the doorway is a carving of St. Benedict.  Other pictures in this post illustrate the lush summer vegetation in the monastic garden.

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IMG_2413Appointing a Prior

Last Friday at vespers Abbot John performed a ritual that’s happened at regular intervals in our 160-year history.  At the end of the recitation of the Psalms and the reading from scripture he went to the altar, and from there he called Fr. Brad from his place in the choir.  Then, in the presence of the monks and our guests, he blessed Fr. Brad as prior.  Thus blessed, the new prior and abbot returned to their stalls.  We then finished vespers and processed out, just as we’ve done daily for the last 160 years.

It was all quite simple and brief, and the matter-of-fact nature of the ritual belies the ambivalence that St. Benedict harbored about the office of prior.  In his Rule he sets out what by any measure is a rather spare job description for the #2 man in the monastery.  “The prior for his part is to carry out respectfully what his abbot assigns him, and do nothing contrary to the abbot’s wishes or arrangements.”

IMG_2337This formula seems to suggest that the office of prior is integral to the fabric  of the monastery, but in fact it’s taken out of context.  Preceding these words is a lengthy discourse on why it would be better not to have a prior at all.  That, it seems to me, reveals Benedict’s true thoughts on the matter.  But in a concession to the needs of a larger community in which the abbot needs administrative help, he concedes the option of appointing a prior.  But he’d rather not have one, and he doesn’t mind saying so.

Who knows all the reasons Benedict had in mind when he expressed his hesitation, but he had lots of history to draw from.  In the rough and tumble of monastic life in his day, for example, stories circulated of priors who were completely out of control.  St. Benedict knew of priors who had defied their abbots and set themselves up as the less-than-loyal opposition.  He also knew of others who lorded it over the monks in their charge.  These officials embodied the opposite of what Jesus had in mind when he encouraged his disciples to serve rather than be served.  Like the Lord, Benedict insisted that leadership should be intertwined with service at every turn.

IMG_2300Since Benedict’s time monastic custom and church law have hemmed in the office of prior, and modern monks have devised their own subtle ways of dealing with over-ardent priors.  That’s important because priors are human beings after all, and they bring to the office the talents and the foibles that they’ve developed through the years.  Among them might be the inclination to act in ways that don’t always boost the spirit of the community.  Through the centuries not a few priors saw their appointment as the big chance to correct the boat-load of faults that previous abbots and priors had tolerated within the community.  Many also succumbed to the normal inclination to reward friends and flatterers and to distance themselves from the troublesome.  Not surprisingly a prior could also take pride in his authority, in the belief that it came directly from God.  These temptations scarcely exhaust the list, and priors who succumb to them add to the abbot’s burdens rather than ease them.  That explains Benedict’s almost dread of priors, who can be “puffed up by the evil spirit of pride and think of themselves as second abbots.”

IMG_2311The responsibilities of the prior at Saint John’s don’t leave much opportunity for self-exaltation.  For one thing, the prior oversees the daily upkeep and smooth running of the house.  He’s responsible for the care of the sick and retired monks, and the more senior monks fall under his gaze as well.  Then there are thankless chores like making sure that cars get assigned to monks when they need them.  He also has to find enough monks who can help with pastoral assistance in nearby parishes.  Basically the prior must do all the stuff that the abbot can’t do, and it’s a ton of busy-work which no monk in his right mind would want to take on. And as an added complication, it’s a job that depends on the good will of all the monks.  Any show of pride or appeal to power is utterly self-defeating.

IMG_2323So would the monastery be better off without a prior?  Probably not, and here’s why.  First, someone would still have to do all of those jobs.  Second, with any authority, great or small, comes the temptation to abuse it, as St. Benedict himself grudgingly admitted.  So it was that he also warned of abbots and procurators who got carried away with their self-importance.  But he may as well have included the novices and everybody else while he was at it.  And what was his admonition to the abbot?  “Let him recognize that his goal must be profit for the monks, not preeminence for himself.”  He could have addressed those words to the rest of us too and saved himself the extra trouble.

It strikes me that virtually anyone in responsibility would do well to take to heart Benedict’s simple advice.  They are excellent words for business types, for political types, and even for church types.  They are also not all that off base for parents, civil servants, artisans, and health care professionals.  In short, respect for the needs of the people we serve is the bedrock of servant leadership, and for Benedict profit for the monks is the glue that holds the community together.  By extension his advice might even help rebuild the fabric of modern society.  But we’ll never know unless we try it out sometime.  Preferably, we should start with ourselves and see how it works out.


+On June 27th Michael Hemesath, president of Saint John’s University, hosted an ice-cream social in the monastic garden, in honor of the monks.  Faculty and staff from the University attended, along with many of the monks.

+On July 1st Abbot John blessed Fr. Brad as the new prior of Saint John’s Abbey.  The blessing took place at vespers in the abbey church.

+On July 2nd I attended the wedding of the daughter and son-in-law of good friends of mine.  It took place at St. Joseph’s Church in West St. Paul, MN.  The groom plays hockey in the NHL, which explains why in the world someone would schedule a wedding on the 4th of July weekend.  It’s about the only free weekend in the NHL between spring playoffs and fall training.

IMG_2387+Today, being the 4th of July, the monks will have a picnic in the monastic garden, overlooking the lake.  The weather looks to be stunning, as it has been for several days.

+The first photo in today’s post shows a barn on a neighbor’s farm adjacent to the lands of the abbey.  I’ve always enjoyed the sight of it and thought it would be an appropriate way to greet Independence Day.  Other photos in today’s post show the gorgeous landscape of the campus in mid-summer.


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