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Archive for February, 2017

img_5288Worries We Have Always With Us

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear.”  At first blush these words from Matthew 6 all sound well and good, but only up to a point.  They sound like they come from the lips of someone who hasn’t got a care in the world.  We must assume that the speaker has plenty to eat and plenty to wear, and obviously he presumes everyone else does too.  So what’s the point of worrying about all these things?  People should not tie themselves into knots about these cares, and instead they should focus on the bigger picture — whatever that is.

It’s easy to tell people not to worry about having enough to eat if you have more than enough yourself.  It’s easy to tell people not to fret about clothing, especially if you have a storage closet bulging with clothes that you’ve not touched in two or three years.  On the other hand, if you are running short of all these things, then your perspective on this advice is entirely different.  If life is tenuous and you’re hanging on by your fingernails, and if you desperately depend on the charity of others, then this advice can seem pretty silly.  For such people there can be no days off or weekends away in the struggle of life.

Obviously, then, Jesus must be thinking about something else entirely when he suggests people should not worry about all of this stuff.  And we know that Jesus did care, because the gospels tell us so.  Jesus was not callous to the needs of others, and on more than one occasion he dropped everything he was doing to tend to the hunger of the people standing in front of him.  Jesus was not indifferent to the suffering of others, because he tended to the physical needs of a paralytic and the blind and the deaf and those possessed by demons.  Jesus cared, we have to believe, but he also cared about the transcendent value of the people whom he encountered.

img_5256One of the ironies of life is that you need not be poor to obsess with having enough to eat or wear.  Your bank account need not be empty to focus your best energies on the acquisition of more wealth.  And here we begin to grasp what Jesus is talking about.  In and of themselves wealth and food and clothing have importance, and so we put them in the category of “necessities.”  But the consumption of these necessities is not what life is all about.  There’s more to life, and for Jesus that life centers on the kingdom of God.  From our membership in the kingdom of God derives any and all things that have meaning.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.”  That’s the advice that Jesus gives, and it points to the origins of Christian life.  For Christians the very meaning of life derives from God’s act of creation.  God created the world and all in it, and God saw that it was good.  And as good as everything else may be, we have to believe that we too fall into the category of the good.  That goodness is the tie that binds us to one another.

What concerns Jesus is not the piling up of food and clothing, because despite the old adage, it is not clothes that make the man or woman.  Rather, respect for others and the love of neighbor constitute the foundation for Christian life.  That’s what really matters, and without these we are merely consumer units in the national economy.

img_5244Nobility is a seldom-used word today, though perhaps it should be used a little more often.  In its traditional meaning nobility referred to a line of aristocratic people who descended from a few people who possessed some heroic character.  They had accomplished something exceptional, and they had achieved status that they could bequeath to their descendants.  But nobility says little or nothing about their descendants, each of whom may have lived worthwhile or worthless lives.  That’s not the kind of nobility we want to promote; and anyway, it’s too late for most of us to be reborn into such families.

Rather, the kind of nobility to which we should aspire derives from this very teaching of Jesus.  This nobility is a nobility of purpose, a nobility of service, a nobility of concern for the poor and the sick and the disadvantaged.  Above all, it is a nobility that shows in deeds rather than in pedegree.

img_5255This nobility of purpose produces the kind of life that Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6.  It is a nobility that comes from being citizens of the kingdom of God.  And the charter for that nobility rests upon the two great commandments — the love of God and the love of neighbor.

In the context of the love of God and love of neighbor everything falls into place in Christian life.  Nothing can be more important than that, and yet nothing can be unimportant in that light.  Seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be provided.  That’s not some sort of bargain that we drive with God so that we’ll get food and clothing.  Rather, it’s an ideal that yields life a hundredfold.

img_5257Notes

+This was a rather busy week for me, and one highlight that took place on February 22nd was the talk I gave at the Boca Grande, FL, civic library.  I spoke on the legacy of James J. Hill at Saint John’s, which endures most noticeably in the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  Boca Grande is not such an unusual site for such a talk, because Jerome Hill, grandson of the railroad baron, helped in the design of the local Catholic Church in Boca Grande.  A bust of Jerome sits in HMML and greets all who enter.  Another grandchild of James J. Hill, Gertrude Ffolliott, lived with her husband Peter in Boca Grande, and we were friends for many years before their passing.  She too was a friend to HMML.

+On February 24-26 I gave a retreat to members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The gathering took place in Menlo Park, CA.

+On February 22nd the monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial of our confrere, Fr. Magnus Wenninger.  For nearly all of his many years in teaching he taught at Saint Augustine’s College, the high school that Saint John’s founded and staffed in Nassau, Bahamas.  Fr. Magnus was one of the world authorities on polyhedrons, and he wrote extensively on the subject.  Included among his works was one text published by Cambridge University Press.

img_5291+The photos in today’s post show the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pau del Camp in Barcelona.  Founded in the 10th century, it is today a hidden gem that few tourists visit.  It is a tiny place, and at its height it had no more than nine monks.  Today it serves as a parish church, and they are keenly aware of the architectural significance of the place.  When I arrived to visit, the gates were locked, but the parish sectretary graciously let me in when I explained that I had come all the way from Minnesota, just to see this monastery — and the rest of Barcelona, of course.  She gave me twenty minutes, which was just enough.

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img_5162The Price of Perfection

One of my favorite illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible shows the wrinkled face of an elderly woman, staring out from a mirror.  Her face is weathered, and however else she may have acquired that look, she did not get it from an absence of toil or anxiety.  In fact, as the passage from the Book of Wisdom reads, she is the image of eternal light.  Her face shows the result of a lifetime of service to family, to friends, and to those in need.  And in contrast with our conventional notions of physical beauty, hers is the face of eternal beauty.  Hers is the face of perfection.

In Matthew 5:45 Jesus tells his disciples that they must be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect.  That’s a tall order, and to my mind it’s a recipe for disaster.  In fact it brings to mind the sin of Adam and Eve, who in their hubris wanted to be like God.  They reached out for the proverbial apple, in hopes that as gods themselves they would be eternal, perfect, and in no need to report to some higher force.  They would be all-knowing and entirely self-sufficient.  But the price for the bite into the forbidden fruit was the awesome realization of their own fallibility.  Their hopes for personal divinity did not square with the sudden shock of their own imperfection.  They could never be what they aspired to be, because their aspirations were self-delusional.

img_5153We know the price that many athletes pay in their quest for perfection on the playing field.  We are all too familiar with the psychological toll of those unrealistic efforts to achieve lasting physical beauty.  Sometimes more than a few of us come to terms too late with goals that are clearly beyond our reach.  That kind of perfection is both elusive and perhaps even self-destructive, because it seduces us with the notion that we can be who we cannot nor should not be.  That disconnect from our own reality, our gifts, and the unique path down which God calls us can leave us with irreparable harm.

When Jesus asks perfection of us, that perfection has nothing to do with physical beauty or athletic prowess or professional expertise.  Certainly none of these are in and of themselves bad, but Jesus reminds us that they are not what life is all about.  Rather, the beautiful life embraces in its arms family, friends, and neighbors.  It is they to whom we are called to pay attention, and it is they whom we should love, in the same measure that we love ourselves.

Sadly there is an unhealthy disconnect within people of obvious talent who leave a path of destruction as they wander through life.  Like the muggers in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they shove person after person into the ditch, expecting someone else to clean up the mess they’ve made.  God forbid that we should ever become such people, and that is what Jesus cautions.

img_5173It’s interesting that in his Rule Saint Benedict wrote no chapters on quality control or professional development.  It’s not that he didn’t care about such things, because he did.  But his primary concern were the healthy relationships that should exist among the monks.  Love and respect should be the bonds that bring them together and congeal them into a family.  All else is bonus.

So it is with all of us who strive for perfection.  The perfection to which Jesus calls each of us does not preclude ideal physical health or athletic prowess.  Nor does it belittle professional expertise.  But all of these are secondary to our love for one another.  If, come the autumn of our lives, we have no wrinkles to show for our service to our brothers and sisters and to the neighbors whom we stumble across in our meanderings, then something important is missing.  We’ve fallen short of the perfection that God hopes for each of us.

img_5168Notes

+In my last post I neglected to report that a few days ago a water pipe burst in the attic two floors above my office.  From a selfish point of view I was glad that the resulting flood missed me by four offices.  However, it did a lot of damage to offices of several of my colleagues down the hall and to the theology department on the floor above.  It turned out to be a mixed blessing for our office manager, Marie, who had put off the filing of mountains of material.  She was able to abridge all that work by sending everything to the dumpster.  Happily, there were electronic copies of most everything anyway.  She also consoled herself with the news that her son, Ben, a senior at Saint John’s University, had just been signed to play football in Europe with the Stockholm Crusaders.  I see game-day trips to Stockholm in her future.

+On February 18th the 2017 edition of Hymnfest took place in the Abbey church.  The Saint John’s Boys Choir and The National Lutheran Choir were the featured singers.

img_5221+The photos in today’s post show the monastery of Pedralbes, located at the edge of Barcelona.  It was founded in 1326 by Queen Elisenda de Moncada, the young (and third) wife of King Jaume II of Aragon.  He financed the construction of this abbey of Franciscan nuns so that she would have a place to live after his passing.  It is a highly unusual complex, for many reasons.  First off, it is the only three-storey cloister I have ever seen.  Second, because they had all the money in hand to build it, it took only some twenty years to construct.  As a result, it has a unified architectural style.  Best of all, it never suffered the ravages of war, and so all the elements of the original monastery are still in place.  The cloisters are serenely beautiful, and the dormitory (second photo) and the refectory (third photo) appear largely as they were built.  The nuns continued to live in it until the 1980’s, at which point they built a new monastery on the other side of the church.  I don’t blame them a bit, because  the old monastery had to be incredibly cold and impossible to heat in the winter.  Today it is a museum open to the public, while the nuns continue to pray in the adjoining church.  (At right is the screen that separates the nuns’ choir from the main body of the church.)  Pedralbes was a treat that I had not anticipated, and I’d return to see it in a heartbeat.

img_5194

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img_4810Don’t Even Think About It

Perhaps a few too many times I’ve asked members of an audience whether they’ve killed anyone lately.  I admit that it’s an out-from-left-field question, but I enjoy the surprise I see on people’s faces because they rarely see that coming.  But I’m also careful about how I phrase the question, and I never ask for a show of hands.  You just never know when a few will get caught up in the moment, raise their hands enthusiastically, and then realize they’ve just incriminated themselves in front of a group of strangers.

These days I merely presume that no one has committed murder that day.  “And is that because of your deep devotion to the fifth commandment, or because of sloth?  Were you just too lazy to kill anyone this morning?  Or did you decide that the disruption to your schedule would be too much?”

Most people get the point.  It’s certainly one thing to kill someone, and it’s quite another to wish you had but didn’t.  The first might send you to hell, but the second will scarcely make you a saint, no matter the reason for your restraint.  The fact is, the thought does count, and that is the point that Jesus makes in his discourse on the commandments, at least in my opinion.

img_4811In Matthew 5 Jesus asserted that he had come to abolish neither the law nor the prophets.  However, a quick reading of his sermon in that chapter leaves the impression that he actually took the severity of the law and made it one degree tougher.  In one sense he did just that, but there he was merely being consistent in his teaching.

On more than one occasion Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, pointing out the obvious:  their exterior behavior masked an interior corruption.  They may project the image of fervent believers, but in their heart of hearts they are something different altogether.  Alive on the outside and dead on the inside, they have no right to lord it over others who are merely more obvious in their sinning.

So what is Jesus up to when he takes adultery as a for-instance and pushes it to the next level?  Who hasn’t lusted after someone else?  Are people who only think about adultery just as guilty as those who act out on their desires?  Are all equally guilty?  Or as Peter once asked, “Can no one be saved?”

There’s the rub, and I suspect that on more than one occasion Jesus turned to Peter with a delighted “Exactly!”  Jesus maximized the commandments and pushed them to their logical limits, to the point at which all of us are convicted of sin.  None of us can save ourselves because no one can follow the commandments perfectly.  And were we perfect, such adherence to each and every detail of the law is no more effective at pleasing God than a herd of cattle sent up as a burnt offering.  When all is said and done, we are all still sinners.  All of us are in need of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  We cannot save ourselves, and so we look to Jesus as he stretches out his arms to us from the cross.

img_4812Of course Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets.  Had he done so it would give us all permission to slip into personal and communal barbarism.  But Jesus does challenge us with a new commandment — to love one another as God has loved us.  Here too we fall short — sometimes painfully so — but this is the more positive direction that Jesus prescribes for us.

This brings to mind one last element that I often consider in my own life.  Theologians have described God as the good, the true and the beautiful.  Nowhere have I ever read that God is the legally-correct.  God’s never excused himself by relying on some technicality, and I think God must chuckle at all the technicalities that we run by him when we fall short of being good, true and beautiful.  With the patience of a parent, however, God urges us on, with words that may seem tough but in fact are quite hopeful.

So it is that God still says to us “Thou shalt not kill.”  But to it he adds this hearty postscript:  “And don’t even think about it.”  Apparently God expects a lot from us, but he saves us nonetheless.

img_4871Notes

+On February 8th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to twenty-five guests of my good friend Mary Rudden, who lives in San Francisco.  The nucleus of the group consisted of members of her book club, and to my surprise I discovered that most of them are readers of this blog.  I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet them over the luncheon that followed.

+On February 9th I and my confrere Fr. Don Talafous hosted a group of twenty-five alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, at a reception held in the refectory of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  I was grateful for their willingness to brave the storms to attend that evening.

+My travels to and from San Francisco were quite memorable.  The outbound plane from Minneapolis was delayed an hour, and once half of us were on board we all had to get off because of mechanical difficulties.  They eventually brought in a replacement plane, and we arrived hours late.  On the return trip our plane arrived forty-five minutes early.  Thank goodness, because I needed that extra time to drive home.  It turned out that one tire on my car was low.  I stopped to fill it with air, and a few miles later I checked it again.  That’s when I discovered the bolt that was lodged in it.  I got the tire changed and drove home on the spare, but it meant slow speeds on side roads rather than on the interstate.  Off of the interstate you see marvelous things, including the cars driving and parked in the middle of Big Lake in Big Lake, MN, and also on another lake outside of Becker, MN.  They were ice fishing, of course.  I also discovered a town I never knew existed in Minnesota:  Santiago.  Who would have thought.  So it all turned out to be an adventure.

img_4869+As I promised in last week’s post, I am including an example of 12th-century Catalan art that I found rather gruesome, in a detached sort of way.  It is an altar frontal from the church of Sant Quirc de Durro, and it is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The lower two photos show the more benign subject matter of another altar frontal, this one from the church of Sant Andreu de Baltarga, ca. 1200.

 

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img_4830Growing in Age and Wisdom

We can only imagine what went through the minds of Joseph and Mary as they approached the temple to dedicate their son to God.  For any Jewish family this was a momentous occasion, but of course their experience up to that point had been a bit unsettling.  Then the ominous words of Simeon had to inject even more anxiety.  Their child was to be the cause for the rise and fall of many in Israel.  What did this old man see in their son that they did not yet see?  What was happening to them?

As the gospels suggest, the next few years must have been quiet ones.  That may explain the skepticism that greeted Jesus when he began his ministry.  People thought they knew him, and there had seemed nothing unusual about him.  So came the ultimate put-down:  wasn’t he just a carpenter, the son of Mary?  And if nothing good ever came from Nazareth, could someone remarkable come from Nazareth?  “We think not,” was the derisive conclusion of many.

Part of this response to Jesus was due to the circumstances of his upbringing.  If people expected all the good and important things to come from Jerusalem, then nothing of real value could come from out-of-the-way places like Nazareth.  Beyond that, there was nothing to hint that Jesus had the training or the capacity to be a mover or a shaker.  He was a nobody, the son of nobodies, from a no-place town.  This was type-casting at its normal, and small wonder that people tried to box Jesus in with such thoughts — especially in his home town.

img_4829Typecasting is a convenient way to sort people out, and its grip can be iron-clad and last a lifetime.  What makes it so destructive is that we bless some people with unreasonably high expectations and overlook their flaws, even as we dismiss the talents of others.  Common to each extreme is the tendency to take a quick inventory of others that falls short of their true essence.  So it is that we meet people early in life and forever after our assumptions about them go unchallenged.  We never give them a chance to break out of the pigeon-hole to which we’ve assigned them.  Sadly, not a few go on to live up to the expectations people ascribe to them.

So it could have been with Jesus.  He could have grown up to be a simple and unassuming carpenter.  Yet, somewhere along the line, he broke free from the stereotype which others had imposed on him.  He grew in age and wisdom, even as few people watched.  Eventually he had to be about his Father’s business, and the people who thought they knew him were more than a little surprised.  They had not counted on this, and when Jesus did not step back into his assigned role, they were disturbed.

img_4832If people did this to Jesus, it’s good for us to realize that we do this all the time to each other.  We meet so many people, and we often rely on the memory of first impressions to keep track of everybody.  But then we are oblivious to the growth that quietly takes place in them, and we miss the talents that are latent within them.  Happily, some have the fortitude to break out of the mould that others impose on them;  but too many accept it and then live up to expectations.

To no one’s surprise, we often do this to ourselves as well.  Often enough it’s just easier to pursue the path of least resistance and make do with our lives.  We fail to step forward and rise to the occasion.  We fail to accept some of the talents that we’ve been given, and a lot of our potential goes unrealized.  We lose out on life, and others never benefit from what we might bring in service.

img_4778At least two things strike me as the antidote to these tendencies.  The first involves the need to be open to others.  Saint Benedict in his Rule asks the abbot to seek advice from even the youngest in the monastery.  He notes dryly that wisdom can reside in the most unexpected of places — even in the young.  Translated to another level, Benedict suggests we should always be keen to see the potential in others and encourage them to grow into it.  Any other course of action impoverishes us all.

The second suggestion has to do with ourselves.  Growth in wisdom is not restricted to our early years.  We can grow and develop at any age, and we should embrace the challenges that life sends our way, rather than retreat from them.  If Jesus could grow in age and wisdom, then so can we.

Through prayer Jesus learned the will of his Father for him, and he accepted and acted upon it.  That’s why we too pray.  We pray especially because we all have plenty to do, at every age, and the Lord gives us the energy and the drive to grow.  All we need do is ask.

img_4775Notes

+During my recent trip to Barcelona I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite museums in all the world.  I spent almost an entire day in the Museum of Catalan Art, which has a vast collection ranging from Romanesque to modern.  On my first visit years ago the collection of Romanesque frescos especially intrigued me, and it is the largest such collection anywhere.  The genesis of the collection was due to foreign acquisition of such frescoes at the turn of the last century, and as an example of such a purchase you can visit the Fontedueña Apse at the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Alarmed that they were losing their patrimony, officials of the museum visited the many derelict churches in the mountains outside of Barcelona, carefully removed the frescos, and reassembled them in the Museum.  Today they awe visitors with their scale, majesty and striking abstract qualities.  They heavily influenced Picasso when he first viewed them, and today there is a permanent exhibit of Picasso alongside the exhibit of frescos.

img_4782The first three photos in today’s post originally were in the parish church of Santa María in Taüll, and the fourth photo shows an 11th-century fresco from the Monastery of Sant Pere del Burgal.  Below that is a ca. 1200 fresco from the church of Santa María d’Aneu.  In addition to the frescos there is also an extensive number of statues and altar frontals, such as the last photo in today’s post.  It comes from a parish church in the diocese of Urgell and it dates from the 12th century.  The variety of holdings is amazing, and next week I plan to insert pictures of an altar frontal that will knock your socks off.

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