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Archive for November, 2016

img_0027_2Sleepers Wake!

The other day I happened to notice in my rear-view mirror a car darting through the traffic, as if the driver were on his way to a fire.  But his was not an emergency vehicle, and so I could only imagine why somebody would take such crazy risks, given the heavy traffic.  Obviously this person had something terribly important to attend to.  Or not.

Eventually the driver worked his way up alongside me, and he missed my car by inches as he veered in front of me.  It was all I  could do to keep my cool, but just barely.  Then, three or four minutes later, the traffic slowed to a crawl, and there he sat, a mere two car-lengths ahead.  He had risked his own life and the safety of everybody else, and all he had to show for it was forty or fifty feet of road.

What struck me about this modern variation on the fable of the tortoise and the hare was the utter futility of it all.  To all appearances the driver seemed to have a sense of purpose, and he’d seized both the wheel of his car and life with intensity.  In fact, however, he’d reduced his life to some sort of video game.  For a few miles he’d ceded control of his life to a primal urge to get ahead.  But I suspect he scarcely realized he’d gained very little on the rest of us.  We had plodded along at the speed limit, and for all his mania he’d gained perhaps twenty or thirty feet of roadway.

img_3896In my post of last week I noted that I was grateful to have the good sense to know that there’s room for improvement in my life.  Even better, I was grateful that the Lord has given me some time to work on this.  And then this Sunday, on the fist Sunday of Advent, Jesus spoke in the gospel about the need to prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Am I right in thinking that Jesus may have meant those words for me?

Jesus warns that we know neither the day nor the hour of his coming, and this creates an air of urgency for those of us who get nervous about that kind of thing.  What exactly is Jesus expecting of us as we prepare?  Ought we to double-down, put our noses to the grindstone and make each and every minute be a peak experience?  Ought we to ratchet up our activity, much as did the crazed driver?  Do we dare waste a minute in idleness when our eternal life seems to be on the line?

Hyperactivity might be one course of action, and I fault no one for coming to that conclusion.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he counseled preparedness.  In Matthew 24 Jesus goes on to note that two men were working in the field, and God took one.  Two women were grinding at the mill, and one was taken and the other left.  What’s important to note is that this wasn’t an issue of who was working harder.  Everybody was busy.  No hands were idle, and al were doing their fair share of the work.

img_3895The issue then is not the amount of work, but rather the sense of purpose that coursed through those four minds.  All were equally busy,  but two of them knew to expect the coming of the Lord.  There was a meaning to even the simplest tasks that they had to do, and their self-awareness made all the difference in the world.

On the First Sunday of Advent Jesus reminds us that “at an hour we do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”  Now it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Jesus is talking about the end of time, or at the very least, about the last moment of our lives.  But knowing what little I do about Jesus, I long ago concluded that Jesus was not the kind of guy who wants to wait and barge into my life at the very end, with a great big “surprise!”  Rather, he really does want to be part of our lives, now.  For those of us who thought this interval was ours to do with as we chose, this can be a little disconcerting.  But as I’ve learned from people who claim to know, to this idea Jesus says “Fat chance!”

I fully expect to run into the Lord Jesus at the end of time, but between now and then I have no plans to run around like a mindless fool.  I hope I don’t ever find myself speeding down the highway of life, oblivious to those I’m passing.  Rather, I think the better course is to get a grip on myself and prepare to meet the Lord more than a few times, and well in advance of my own last day.

img_3921Soon enough we monks will be singing Advent lyrics that urge sleepers to wake.  We might very well be a bit groggy when we sing them at morning prayer, but the point is well-taken.  The words are a spiritual alarm clock.  They are an urgent call to consider what God calls us to do with each and every day that we have ahead of us, beginning with today.

Finally, I live staked my life on the belief that God calls us to be neither wastrels nor workaholics.  These, I think, lead down paths paved with self-delusion.  Rather, God wants something very simple of us.  God calls us to take a moment to consider where we might be meeting the Lord Jesus in the course of our day.  And the thoughtful person knows to expect to find Jesus waiting just around the corner, ready and more than happy to surprise us yet again.

img_3907Notes

+On Thanksgiving Day Prior Brad presided at the Abbey Mass, and following that we all adjourned to the Abbey refectory for dinner.  Through the years Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday in the Abbey, largely due to the fact that we do not have to stay up half the night in church in order to earn the feast day.  Sadly, vigil Masses are not my forte, as I normally get up an hour or two after they conclude.  So Thanksgiving is the feast day made to order for early risers like me.

+On November 26th I witnessed the renewal of vows of my friends Drake and Madeline Dierkhising on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.  Drake and his brother are the third generation of Dierkhising’s to go to school at Saint John’s, and the family roots go back to the beginnings of our neighboring town of Saint Joseph.

img_3911+We continue to have snow at Saint John’s, and in addition many of the last few days have been quite overcast and gray.  The photos of the landscape in today’s post hint at that, and in fact some give the impression that I took them in black and white.  I didn’t.  The first photo shows a woman sleeping over a grave in the central cemetery in the city of Lviv in Ukraine.

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For What Should We Be Thankful?

My friend Joe’s trip to the airport the other day was the stuff of nightmares.  He was headed to Detroit by way of Newark, and it was not pretty.  On the way to the airport his car blew out two tires, and the tire shop which he eventually found charged him $600 for replacements.

From the tire shop he continued to the airport by taxi, but by then he had a little cushion because the flight had been delayed thirty minutes.  Finally on the plane and out on the runway, however, one passenger got sick, and it was back to the terminal to let that guy off.  Then the plane taxied out again, only to develop engine problems.  Back to the terminal they went, yet again, and this time everyone got off.  Then at 3:30 pm they cancelled his 9:50 am flight.  Have a nice day.

That was just the beginning of Joe’s travails that day, but this portion of his tale of woe is enough to make a point.  Life does indeed have its major and minor catastrophes, but it’s important always to maintain a sense of perspective, and there’s no better time for that than Thanksgiving Day.

I’m always amazed to meet people who have no sense of how blessed they are.  All too often their daily thanks tend to be of the sort that goes like this:  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  In short, we reference the lowest common denominator of inconvenience or human suffering, and then are grateful that our lives are not worse than they are.  We might even give thanks that life is good because it’s not terrible.  It’s true that we can be grateful for all that, but isn’t there just a little bit more to our lives?  Sure it could be worse, but is there nothing to excite us on Thanksgiving other than a feast, a day away from the routine, and a surfeit of televised sport?  Of course there is, and happily most of us know that.

This Thanksgiving I will pass up the chance to give thanks for great wealth, power or influence.  These have always eluded my grasp anyway, and to be honest I’ve never spent the bulk of my energy trying to acquire them.  Instead I will rely on the tried and true items for which I tend to be grateful on a fairly regular basis.

First off, I give thanks for life and for parents who cared enough to provide me a home and share their values.  I give thanks for friends, who really are a gift from God and aren’t something you can buy at the store.  I give thanks for enough material goods to keep me going, but not so many that they take over my life and distort my vision of myself and reality.  And then I’ll give thanks for the faith which others have shared so generously with me.  Faith is a pretty intangible thing, but it’s been the key ingredient that’s given me direction when I’ve been lost at sea.  It’s provided the reason to go on in those moments when life can seem pointless.

This year I’ll also give thanks for those simple words of encouragement that have made all the difference in the world to me, since childhood.  Generous people scarcely realize the good they can do when they offer a kind word or point out the talent they see in others.  Often they never know what such a simple gesture can accomplish.  But it happens, and it happens far more than you might imagine.

This Thanksgiving one last-minute addition will make the list, and it’s this:  it’s the awareness that I can and ought to do better, and that I still have some time to do it.

On the day that Joe didn’t go to Detroit, I was at the airport grousing about how it was taking forever for the shuttle to get from the terminal to the car rental facility.  Then I was cranky because people couldn’t get off the bus fast enough.  And then there was the long line at the counter, filled with people who seemed never to have rented a car before.  Could life possibly get any worse than this?  Two hours later I read Joe’s email and realized it could.

On Thanksgiving I’m not going spend time being grateful that my travel experience was not as horrible as Joe’s.  Rather, I plan to be grateful for the ability to put things into perspective.  Besides, I should know better than to pray for a seamless travel experience in life when there are other things of far greater import.

So this Thanksgiving I’ll express gratitude for friends and faith, but I’ll also give thanks for the good sense that lets me rank these things first in my life.  On any given day, they are even more important than an on-time departure and arrival.

Notes

+On November 17th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On November 17th and 18th I attended meetings of the Trustees of Saint John’s Univesity.  Unfortunately, they were cut short by an impending storm, which materialized on the morning of the 18th.  It was our first serious freeze of the winter, and we got all of four inches of snow.

+Beginning on the evening of November 18th, and continuing through to the 19th and 20th, I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, gathered at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, located north of Dallas, TX.

+The topmost photo in today’s post is a glimpse into the garden greenhouse.  There a selection of squash, raised in our garden, prepare for storage in the abbey’s cellars.  My friend Larry Haeg happened to take this beautiful photo, and I am grateful for his willingness to let me make use of such a lovely fall portrait.

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img_0036_2When a House Becomes a Home

A few days ago I blessed the new home of some friends of mine.  All the kids had moved away, and their old home had become simply too large.  For this and a lot of other reasons the time seemed right to downsize, and they had found a lovely spot that was beautifully-suited for two.  Even so, I could only imagine the difficulty of leaving behind an old friend of a home and forming new habits in a new neighborhood.

Moving out of a home in which you’ve lived for twenty or thirty years has to be a wrenching experience.  Family members have made memories there.  Milestones in life have been celebrated or survived there.  And to borrow an image, a home can become a comfortable old shoe.  It  has to be tough to leave behind something that is almost a part of you.

At the other end of the spectrum sit those houses that never have the chance to become homes.  I suppose that in some cases they are the products of our changing attitudes toward housing.  For some people houses are now investments, habitation units, showcases of wealth, or places to be occupied until their usefulness has been sucked dry.  For such houses there’s been neither the time nor the inclination to form a sentimental attachment.

img_0028_2Of the few things I watch on television, my preference runs to those shows about house-hunting.  The situations often have the ring of a game show in which people list the specifications they want in the ideal house and the budget they can afford.  Generally the two are ridiculously out of sync, but it’s the job of the housing brokers to work miracles.  And if they can’t do it, it’s their fault.

Of those shows my favorite by far is The Property Brothers, featuring twins who are eternally sunny and upbeat.  Like all the other shows in this genre, their challenge follows a predictable model:  find the home of their clients’ dreams at a price-point comfortably below budget.  And how hard can this be?   You get an inkling when the camera turns to their poker faces, just as they realize that once again they have morons for clients.

In one imaginary scenario a couple wants a house with 6,000 square feet, five bedrooms and six baths, an open-concept living area, and an oversized kitchen with granite everywhere.  It should sit on two landscaped acres, have no neighbors or traffic, be convenient to schools and shopping, and be a short commute to downtown.  And one more thing:  the budget is $125,000.

img_0037_2I can only imagine what the Property Brothers are thinking when they hear these sorts of demands.  Just once, however, I’d like to see them whisk their clients off to the dream home that combines the amenities and price that the clients deserve:  a huge tent on the outskirts of a refugee camp in Turkey.  Of course the place lacks an easy commute to work, but access to nature more than makes up for that minor inconvenience.  Even better, it falls within the budget.

Granted that this is an extreme example, it’s still not far from the unrealistic dreams that so many people expect to have fulfilled on the spot.  They want a house and not a home.  And better still, they want a house that they can sell for a tidy profit in a few months’ time.

This brings me back to the business of blessing a home.  So what’s the point of blessing a home anyway?  Well, it’s not to ensure that the air-conditioning never breaks down, that the roof never leaks, or that the sceptic tank won’t back up while you’re away on vacation. Nor is it a ritual to cast out the demons who might take possession of your prized appliances.  It’s none of that at all.

img_0024_2When we bless a home we invite the Lord to come and dwell with us, so that our house becomes a home in which love and respect and hospitality are the order of the day.  It’s an invitation to the Lord to sanctify both a structure and the people who have moved in.

The order of blessing that I used for the home of my friends comes from the Book of Blessings, and the ritual is not terribly long.  And it concludes with these words:  “Lord be close to your servants who have moved into this home and ask for your blessing.  Be their shelter when they are at home, their companion when they are away, and their welcome guest when they return.  And at last receive them into the dwelling place you have prepared for them in your Father’s house, where you live for ever and ever.  Amen.”

And what might be the price-point on a home in which the Lord has chosen to dwell?  What would somebody charge for a place like that?  I’m not sure what the Property Brothers would have to say, but I’d put the cost at something just shy of priceless.

img_0032_2Notes

+On November 11th our Brother Damian Rogers passed away after a long struggle with cancer.

+On November 13th I spoke at three services on The Saint John’s Bible at Rockpoint Church in Lake Elmo, MN.  Lake Elmo is a suburb of St. Paul, located just before you would fall into the St. Croix River and swim across to Wisconsin.  The members of the church gave me a wonderful reception and I thoroughly enjoyed the morning there.

That afternoon I attended a memorial service at Assumption Church in St. Paul, for members of the parish who had passed away during the past year.  The monks of Saint John’s founded that parish in the 19th century and served it for many years.  For just as many years a statue of Saint Benedict stood on a side altar to the left of the sanctuary.  But alas, he has worn out his usefulness and will shortly be moved to a new home in the basement of the church.

+The photos in today’s post show Blenheim Palace outside of London.  It’s more than big enough to be a house but not really much of a home.  It has many of the amenities that people look for in a house, including a chapel where the Lord can take up official residence.

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img_3767All Souls’ Day:  A Reflection

One of my all-time favorite hymns comes from 18th-century England, and it compares Jesus to an apple tree.   It’s a carol that we sing at Christmas, but its focus on ripe fruit makes it just as appropriate for All Souls’ Day, and for autumn in particular.  And the first stanza reads thus:

The tree of life my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit and always green.

The trees of nature fruitless be

Compared with Christ the apple tree.

I quote from this hymn because it complements the poignant lines from chapter 3 of the Book of Wisdom.  That too is a bit of poetry that sets an almost melancholy and yet hopeful tone for All Souls’.  “They seemed, in view of the foolish, to be dead, and their passing away was thought an affliction, and their going forth from us, utter destruction.  But they are in peace.”

img_3727What I find so compelling about these words is not just the consolation that they offer to us, the living.  They also express a fundamental connection between us and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord.  We struggle along the road to the Lord, and many of them still journey through purification as they look forward to the full vision of God.  To adapt the words from Wisdom, the followers of Jesus — both living and dead — seem foolish and our lives pointless.  Yet, as disciples of Jesus we pursue with all our being the good, the true and the beautiful.  All are attributes of God, and lives in pursuit of those three things are fruitful beyond words.  The reward for such a life is many times over our feeble investment in faith.

It’s our solidarity with those who have gone before us in faith that we celebrate on All Souls’ Day.  And so we pray for them as they journey through purification, in hopes that they in turn will remember us when they step into the presence of God.

For now, however, we acknowledge something we hold in common.  With them we are fellow travelers on the path to union with God, and we follow in their well-worn steps.  And what draws us on together is the occasional glimpse of God which we are privileged to have.  It’s this inspiration of which the last stanza of the hymn speaks:

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,

It keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be

With Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.

img_3785So we’re left to ponder the image of the apple tree.  Here we are in November, and a very few stubborn apples still cling to what look to be lifeless trees in the abbey orchard.  To the world those trees seem to be dead, but even in their leafless state their branches are noble and their roots capable of renewed life.  Those branches and roots next spring will sprout to life, just as did Jesus at the resurrection.  That is our faith, and it is the hope that we celebrate on All Souls’ Day.

That vision of eternal life is what now animates the souls who have gone before us in faith, and the very same glimpse of the divine sustains us who feebly struggle in their steps.  We pray for them and for ourselves that new life will bud within us, just as it does in the apple tree in spring time.  And come the autumn of our lives, our reward will be fruit on our branches that will be wonderfully abundant.

img_3788Notes

+On November 2nd I celebrated the abbey Mass, and today’s post is an adaptation of the sermon that I gave that day.  To my delight and surprise Fr. Anthony played on the organ an improvisation on Jesus Christ the Apple Tree as an Offertory meditation.

+November 2nd was a busy day for the abbey church.  For noon prayer the monks gathered in the cemetery to pray at the graves of our confreres.  In the church that day we hosted the funeral of the singer Bobby Vee, who was a member of the abbey parish.  Some 1,000 people gathered, and to a selection of his songs the monastic schola added its own music, including the Ultima.  The latter is a wonderfully moving bit of chant which we sing at the cemetery service for the burial of a monk.

Throughout the month of November we remember those for whom we have been asked to pray.  Friends of the abbey send us cards listing their deceased loved ones, and on the way into morning and evening prayer we each take a card and pray for those names.  It makes the remembrance of the dead wonderfully personal.

img_3827+On November 5th I attended the dedication of Gagliardi Field.  Named in honor our famed retired football coach John Gagliardi, it is a covered field that will serve both football practice as well as indoor soccer and winter intramurals.  To say that it is a huge space does not quite do it justice.  It is gigantic, and it is part of a now complete complex that includes a new soccer pitch, baseball stadium and tennis courts.

That afternoon I attended the football game, at which Saint John’s hosted and bested Hamline University, 42-6.

+The pictures in today’s post begin with one taken in the abbey apple orchard.  We’ve had an orchard from the earliest days of the community, and it has been renewed many times over in the course of 160 years.  The next photos show the last lingering colors of autumn at Saint John’s; while the photo at bottom allows a glimpse into the interior of Gagliardi Field.

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