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Archive for March, 2017

IMG_0413The Man Born Blind

It’s a question that sounds almost bizarre to modern ears.  Sitting near Jesus was a man who had been born blind, and someone posed to Jesus what seemed a rather innocent query.  “Who had sinned, the man or his parents?”  “Neither,” was all Jesus had to say about it, and that was that.

It’s hard to imagine a modern equivalent to that scene; but if it had to be, I would conjure up the image of a doctor who pauses in the middle of the examination of a child who is seriously ill.  “Is there a history of mortal sin in this child’s family?”  I leave it to the reader to come up with a suitable response.

John chapter 5 is the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent.  It’s a long passage, filled with all sorts of diversions, and it’s clear that John is trying to kill several birds with one stone.  He begins with the potential link between sin and illness, and we have to assume there were still people around who believed in a direct connection between moral culpability and disease.  To our scientific mind-set such causality seems absurd, but on another plane we still deal with the question, but from the other side of the coin.  When the ancients noticed that bad things happened to good people, they simply revised their estimate about the relative goodness of the person involved.  All evil had to have a cause, and people must somehow deserve what the cosmos sends their way.

IMG_0424Even today we struggle with the very same issue of the suffering of the innocent.  Like the ancients, we’ve come up with no satisfying answer, but at least we don’t lay the blame for disease on moral turpitude.

Anyway, Jesus brushed off the issue of sin and disease, but many among his listeners proved unable to give it a rest.  Like a dog with a bone, they finally branded the formerly blind man a sinner, and for good measure they labeled Jesus a sinner too, because he had cured on the sabbath.  That set things up for a wonderful conclusion to the story.

There’s some terrific irony here, which John picks up on and exploits to the fullest.  The episode had opened with a man who had been born blind.  He’d never seen a thing in his life, and it was even a while before he finally got to see Jesus, who had cured him.  But finally he saw Jesus standing before him.  But by then he saw him not only physically but also spiritually.  There stood the man who had counted him among the saved, despite being a sinner.

IMG_0426By contrast, the audience of religious professionals had eyes that let them see physically, but spiritually they had become blind.  On an allegorical level the scene has been upended by this turn of events.  The blind man sees and the sighted people are blind, and this recalls the words of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels.  “They have eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear” — all this despite the fact that they were experts in the scriptures and the law.  Clearly they had missed something along the way.

I’m not entirely sure how this might apply to each one of us today, but there is a take-home that can be of some benefit.  At the very least, we should not aspire to be people with eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear.  We need to be open as best we can to the reality around us.  That means, first of all, that we admit our solidarity with both the blind man and the scribes and Pharisees.  We are all sinners, no matter what excuses we make for ourselves.  Certainly each of us has gifts and talents, and there are moments when we use them well.  But at times we also fail, and it’s not healthy to deny it.  The admission of our failings means that Jesus comes for us too, and not just for everybody else.

IMG_0427It’s equally important that we avoid becoming people who have eyes but cannot see.  Sadly, on a moral level we are often the last to know that a little blindness clouds our vision now and again.  And so the need is acute that we compensate for this through regular prayer, sacred reading and service to the people around us.  All of these activities draw us into communion with our brothers and sisters in the Church and remind us that together we are pilgrims on the way to the Lord.  As pilgrims then, it’s always good to rely on the eyes and ears of our neighbor to supplement our sometimes faulty vision.

This is the point of Christian life, and it’s the message of Lent in particular.  We don’t pray and read in order to ingest material that will bolster our preconceived notions.  We pray and read and serve regularly so that we can listen to what the Lord has to say to us each day.  And having listened to the will of the Lord, we then set out with confidence to do his work.

IMG_0437Notes

+The last week was very quiet for me, and I left the campus only twice.  One of those excursions was a visit to the doctor to find out the results of my recent MRI.  I read the report but could make neither heads nor tails of it.  The good news is that I do not need surgery this time around.  The bad news is that someday I will.  The challenge is to put as much distance between today and that day as I can.  Meanwhile the pain in my back has gone way down.  I’m also hoping that this is the last medical report I will give for a good long while.  During a visit with some friends this week someone noted that during the first twenty minutes the conversation turned on our respective medical conditions.  We all laughed, and then we changed the subject.

+This week Fr. Benedict Fischer of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota arrived, and he will stay with us for nearly three weeks, doing research on his doctoral dissertation.  A few years ago he lived with us for four years while he studied for the priesthood in our School of Theology and Seminary, and it is great to have him back.  He is doing his degree at Louvain in Belgium.

+This last weekend the Abbey Guesthouse hosted a three-day Lenten retreat, given by our confrere Fr. Joseph.  It was a wonderful group that included friends of the abbey and alumni of the University, some of whom I knew.  Their presence swelled the attendance at the liturgy of the hours.

IMG_0348+The photos in today’s post show sculpture housed at the Museo Nacional de Escultura, in Valladolid.  Most pieces in this amazing museum are from religious houses in the area of Valladolid, and the museum itself is the former Colegio de San Gregorio.  At top is The Burial of Christ, by Juan de Juni, ca. 1540, polychrome wood.  Next is a tabernacle from León, ca. 1575, polychrome wood.  The following two panels are by Pierre Picard, ca. 1560, polychrome wood.   The last piece is a Calvary by Pompeo Leoni, ca. 1605, polychrome wood.  At bottom is the courtyard of the Museum.

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IMG_2053A Phobia We Can Live Without

Last week I reached into my big bag of fears and took out two of my favorite phobias.  Claustrophobia is one I share with many people, but it has a special irony for me because I’ve chosen to live in a cloister.  If claustrophobia bothers me, then I have to bear some of the responsibility, even if I have no idea how I came by that phobia.

My fear of hypodermic needles is a different matter altogether, and I trace that back directly to our childhood nurse Rose.  To be fair, it wasn’t Rose the nurse who terrified me and my two sisters.  Rather, it was her long blunt needles.  They seemed ideally calibrated to take core samples from the earth, and even the hint of a visit to her office sent shivers down our spines.

Anyway, last week I faced a double-whammy of phobias when I had to visit a clinic for an MRI and a cortisone shot in my lower back.  It was my first time for each, and dire warnings had prepared me for the worst.  I’d always dreaded this moment, and I can only hope that my obvious anxiety mitigated my dramatic plea to the doctor for a tranquilizer.  Mercifully he obliged, but even then I knew it wouldn’t be enough to calm me.  And it wasn’t.

IMG_2054I trembled every step of the way as the nurse led me down the hall.  My mind went into overdrive, and in a last-ditch effort I tried to console myself with the thought that I’d wedged myself into airline seats that had to be smaller than this machine.  But even that dark humor failed to work.  Then the door swung open, and for a moment I stared in stunned silence at the machine that was about to eat me.

“What?!  Do you mean to tell me that you got me all worked up for THAT?  That’s nothing!”  I meant my mock outrage to disguise my relief, because in front of me was not the coffin-like tube I had expected to rest in for twenty minutes.  Instead there was a bright and airy contraption, well-lit and comfortable.  It even came complete with head phones and Sirius Radio for my easy-listening entertainment.  I chose soft jazz, climbed on, settled in and dozed off.  It truly was nothing.

Then came the ordeal of the cortisone shot.  That too turned out to be a bust.  There was no pain to speak of, and the worst of it was the anxiety of waiting for the pain that never came.  That’s when I began to realize what I had done to myself.  I had worked myself into a tizzy, and all I had to show for it was a totally unnecessary spike in my blood pressure.  Even worse, two treasured phobias of mine had turned out to be paper tigers, and I had embarrassed myself by the silly fuss I had made.

IMG_2056I’m not a professional psychologist, and so I’m in no position to explain the grip that phobias can have on us.  Still, as an amateur human being with plenty of phobias to my name, I will venture this.  Common to all phobias is the fear of losing control of ourselves in the face of something much bigger than ourselves.  Whether fanciful or quite real, these fears threaten our autonomy and perhaps even our existence.  Quite rightly we sit up and take notice.

Saint Benedict does not have a section in his Rule on phobias, but he does address one situation in which a monk risks losing his autonomy in the face of something much larger than himself.  In chapter 68 he writes of that moment when the abbot might ask impossible things of a monk.  A monk in this predicament rightly feels helpless — damned if he tries and fails, and damned if he fails to try.  He runs the risk of disappointing the abbot by his own failure, even as he is sure of his own inability to do the task at hand.  In short, he’s lost control of his life to forces beyond him.

Saint Benedict doesn’t offer a lot of practical remedies for this situation.  He doesn’t encourage the monk to protest wildly, nor does he suggest that someone act as an arbiter between monk and abbot.  However, he does encourage the monk to submit in love to the command of his abbot and hope that somehow it will all turn out well.

It occurs to me that Saint Benedict may have taken this approach because he is thinking about the larger issues of life.  On any given day there are things that a monk will find challenging, but life itself is the challenge.  Life itself can seem insurmountable, unless of course the monk submits to it in love.

IMG_2055Not surprisingly, we all find ourselves in the same pickle when it comes to God.  There are days when God seems to demand the impossible of us.  And when Jesus asks us to be perfect as his Heavenly Father is perfect, that too is a recipe for failure.  In the face of such a command, who is not bound to fail?  In the shadow of the majesty of God, who doesn’t fear being overwhelmed and forgotten?  How could God possibly take notice of a single poor soul?

On the day when God appears to ask too much of us, that is the day when we must plunge ahead in love.  On the day when we imagine ourselves as nothing in contrast to God, that’s the moment to recall that God so loved each of us that he sent Jesus for our salvation.  On the day when we think God’s hand reaches out to smother us, remember that God reaches out for the sole purpose of gathering us into the palm of his hand.

Not for a minute would I suggest that it’s easy to toss away our phobias.  I’m sure that claustrophobia is lurking in the shadows, waiting for its next chance to scare the daylights out of me.  And as for hypodermic needles, these we will always have with us.  But to be afraid of God?  That’s a phobia we can live without.

IMG_2057Notes

+Last week was a time of missed opportunities.  I had planned to attend  a talk by Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough ’92, who spoke at Saint John’s on March 14th.  For the last four years Denis has been the chief of staff at the White House.  Then on March 16th I had registered to attend an alumni reception at the new US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.  I was able to attend neither of these events, much to my disappointment.

+On March 15th I spent the afternoon getting an MRI and a cortisone shot in my back.  Happily, I am making good progress with my back, and I look forward to the day when I can ditch the walker that currently allows me to get around.  The pain is down considerably.  What I have come to appreciate most these past three weeks is the enormous amount of work that people have put in to make our campus accessible.  I had no idea how complicated it could be to get through doors until I had a walker in tow.

+On March 18th retired Bishop John McRaith of the Diocese of Owensboro, KY, passed away.  Bishop McRaith was an alumnus of our Prep School.

+The photos in today’s post show the panels of the Troyes Altarpiece, ca. 1525, now housed at the V & A in London.  It is made of limestone, painted and gilded.

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IMG_0021_2The Small Things:  Where God Works Best

It was my first morning as chaplain on a cruise ship.  How I got that plum job is a story for another time; but in return for a daily Mass, Sunday services for the crew, and availability to one and all, I got passage from San Francisco to Alaska and back.  The gorgeous scenery was merely a free extra, as were moments of quiet time.

I was seated in a cafe, sipping coffee and trying to compose a sermon for the Mass I would say later that morning.  Despite the hour, the place was surprisingly full, and when one white-haired gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly welcomed him.  I could figure out a sermon later, I hoped.

So began a friendship that has developed in the course of over ten years.  Soon enough I and my friends John and Rose Lyden were on a first-name basis, and an encounter that began at sea took root on land.  Later I did a two-week stint at their home parish in Bridgehampton, NY, and still later I witnessed the renewal of wedding vows by them and nine other couples on the occasion of their 50th anniversary.  Last May I had the honor and the sad duty to preach at Rose’s funeral.  In the course of all that I recognized that in some way I had become part of the family.

Gradually John and Rose learned about my life as a monk at Saint John’s, and they also learned about my work at Saint John’s University.  It was after their first visit to Saint John’s that John stunned me with a question.  He knew we had done great work in partnership with St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.  Graduates from that inner-city school had come to Saint John’s for college, and the results have been extraordinary.  For his part John had worked with an organization to improve graduation rates at Immokalee High School, situated at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from nearby Naples, FL.  Many there were now ready for college, and he wondered if Saint John’s might be the right place for some of them.  The light bulb went on in my head, and my quick response was “Yes!”  John would help to make their education at Saint John’s possible, if we would extend to these guys the same sort of moral support we have given to the guys from Newark.

IMG_0023_2This year, two years into the project, we have four guys from Immokalee at Saint John’s.  This fall and next we expect to add two more per year.   Our goal then is to have eight students at any given time, with two students in each class.  We hope to see each graduate within four years, with little or no debt to encumber them as they embark on their post-college careers.  Considering the challenges of life in Immokalee — a community of migrants that struggles mightily — this is nothing short of a God-send.  It’s the chance for these young men to shape lives in which poverty will no longer be the major factor.  They can be who they choose to be.

John is nothing if not persistent and high-energy, and as we began the project he enlisted the partnership of his college classmate from Brown University, Jack Marshall.  The goal was to support a rotation of eight students and in time to have those eight scholarships fully endowed.  Obviously we need the help of others to make it happen, but ours is a noble objective.  We hope to shape the lives of some promising young men and to give them the chance for a future beyond anything they might have imagined.

IMG_0149_2Not a few people thought we were crazy.  Could a kid from Florida find happiness in Minnesota?  I pointed out that for decades Saint John’s has hosted students from the Bahamas, and none has ever died of the cold.  Of course there would be cultural differences between Immokalee and Collegeville.  But would they be insurmountable?

Last fall, a month into the school year, Osbaldo, a freshman from Immokalee, stepped out of his dorm room and ran into some of his floor mates.  He had just cut his own hair, and some asked if he might cut theirs.  Later a freshman who had graduated from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles asked if he might cut his hair too.  Osbaldo hesitated, then said he was self-taught and had never cut black hair before.  “Go for it,” replied the Angelino.  A month later he was back at Osbaldo’s door.  “I have an interview for an internship tomorrow.  Can you cut my hair again?”

There you have completely non-scientific proof that such a crazy idea just might work.  Anytime a Latino from Immokalee, FL, cuts the hair of a guy from Los Angeles in a dorm room in Collegeville, MN, something good must be happening.  It may be community; it may be friendship; but whatever it is, it isn’t bad.  In fact, it may just be a bit of the magic that Saint John’s can work.

Saint Benedict in his Rule wasted no time writing about transformative experiences on top of a mountain.  For him most anything of value takes place slowly and deliberately, and generally in the most ordinary of times and places. So it was that I was blessed to be having coffee one morning off the coast of California.  I thought I had sat down to write a sermon, but God had other plans.  Because I welcomed another person to sit at my table, I ended up knowing two and then three terrific people.  Then one thing led to another.  What came of it all was the chance for a few kids from Florida to come to work their own magic and to create new lives for themselves at Saint John’s.

IMG_0170_2Notes

+On March 11 St. Martin’s Voices, a choir of ten from the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, joined us for evening prayer.  They sang two psalms as well as the Salve Regina, and we listened in awe to the beauty of their voices.  Saint John’s has had a long relationship with St. Martin’s, and this was not the first visit of their choir to Saint John’s.  A set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible sits on permanent display in their educational center, and they’ve hosted an exhibit of the Bible.  More recently the former vicar of St. Martin’s, Bishop Nicholas Holtam of Salisbury, joined us at Westminster Cathedral in London when Cardinal Vincent Nichols invested our scribe Donald Jackson as a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.

+About two weeks ago Brother Walter led a group that fixed 1,100 taps to maple trees in one section of the forest.  For the sap to flow well it must climb above freezing in the day and go below freezing at night.  Since then we have had rollercoaster weather.  Twice we we’ve gone into the 60s, and on the 12th it snowed.  Who knows whether the sap will flow today.

IMG_0120+I have much improved since I pulled something in my back a few days ago.  I have stayed at home, save for trips to the doctor, and later this week I will have an MRI, which I dread.  This is an irony worthy of Dante, in that someone who lives in a cloister should be claustrophobic.  But I will survive.

+There is a postscript to the story of the cruise worth sharing.  At that first Mass cheers erupted from the back of the room when I introduced myself.  “What’s that about,” I thought to myself.  They came from two alumni from Saint John’s — one from Atlanta and the other from Danville, CA.  We’ve been friends ever since.

+In today’s post I have a variety of images from two museums.  At top are two stained glass windows, each from the 16th century.  The first is French glass, and the second Italian.  Both are from the Civic Museum in Bologna, Italy.  Below them is an ivory image of the Arrest of Jesus, made ca. 1320, in Paris.  Following that is a Crucifixion by Leonard Limosin, made in Limoges ca. 1552. At bottom is Christ in Blessing, Byzantine, 10-11th c.  The bottom three pieces are housed in the Louvre in Paris.

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Lent:  A img_5240Time of Renewal

How the hotel staff managed to miss the signs of decay is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps because they used the employee entrance in the rear they simply never noticed.  Meanwhile, the obvious stared at every incoming guest.  Some must not have cared and registered anyway, while others saw it as fair warning and walked on by.

What was the issue?  Through the ravages of time the Princesa Sofia Hotel had morphed into the Princesa So.  Worse, its treasured fifth star had begun to plummet comet-like down the facade, and two others had definitely lost their luster.  Most definitely this was not good advertising, but it certainly was truth in advertising.  It suggested to guests that what they saw on the outside was what they should expect to find on the inside.  Caveat emptor!

This may be an odd segue into Lent, but it does point out a seldom-appreciated reality that we all face as we make adjustments in our lives.  The view we have of ourselves by its very nature is going to differ from the perspectives others have of us.  From the inside looking out, we see ourselves as people of good intentions, highly principled, hard-working, and wonderful to be around day or night.

img_0079_2That said, no one should be surprised to discover that many of the people around us do not share that view.  From their position on the outside looking in at us, they see someone with gifts and foibles, with strengths and weaknesses.  For better and for worse, our wiser friends hesitate to share these insights with us, while we wave off the views of our harsher critics as gratuitous and mean-spirited.  That explains why so many of us conclude that there’s no need for us to change.  We’re fine, just the way we are.

Once such an attitude is entrenched, growth and improvement are much harder to come by.  We slip into ruts from which we cannot escape so easily, and we end up missing so much that life has to offer.

Ash Wednesday has its somber side with the reminder that we came from the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return.  But that’s not meant to depress or paralyze us.  Rather, it’s meant to be a clarion call to make the most of what God gives us — be it years, talents, and the capacity for growth.  That sometimes can involve the need to step back and appreciate what others might see in us.  But above all, it requires us to pause and inventory what God has invested in us and how well we are or are not using it.

img_0069_2In his chapter on Lent in the monastery Saint Benedict wrote that the life of a monk should be a Lenten observance.  Of course monks in the 6th century had no patience for that, nor can modern monks be convinced of that either.  But Benedict anticipated this, and so he prescribed some minor and distinctly non-showy things that monks could add as a Lenten supplement.  On a general level he suggested “refusing to indulge evil habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.”  He offered this not so that he could make life in the monastery drudgery, but so that monks could begin to anticipate the joys of Easter.

It occurs to me that one point of all this is the need to avoid the ruts that so easily stifle our personal growth.  Tweaking a schedule or shaking up a day can be disruptive, but it’s also a way to get a fresh perspective on our lives.  That in turn can give us the insight to change and to grow and to experience Easter — not just once a year — but every day.

My thoughts return to the staff of the Princesa Sofia.  In their use of the employee entrance they never had to confront the most obvious signal of the slow decay that was happening inside the hotel.  They got used to what was inside and learned to live with it.  Perhaps it never dawned on them that it didn’t have to go on like that.  It could be different, and both the hotel and they could flourish.

Lent invites us to break free from our customary ways of doing things.  As a time of renewal Lent encourages us to discover the possibilities in life that we’ve ignored all too often.  It’s a reminder that the point of Christian life is not the sobering reality of the cross on Good Friday.  Rather, we look beyond the cross to the resurrrection on Easter Sunday.  That resurrection is something we can celebrate every day of our lives.

img_0071_2Notes

+This was not the best of weeks for me.  Last weekend I pulled something in my back, which made getting around extremely difficult.  Then on Ash Wednesday I woke up, got out of bed, stood, took a step and fell down.  That had to be a fluke, I thought, but after another try I fell again.  Thankfully it is a pinched nerve that’s causing this, and I will recover, but only after six weeks of therapy.  The doctor advised me to eliminate airports and travel from my immediate plans, and that’s led to a complete rewrite of my calendar for the next two months.  (Actually, I have torn it up.). In the meantime, it is a little strange to have to rely on a walker to get around the monastery.  This too will pass, however.  So that is my Lenten observance.

+Readers of my notes are accustomed to seeing weekly travel reports, but there’ll be none of that for a while.   Thankfully I do other stuff too, including reading.  A couple of weeks ago I finished a book by Cambridge professor Mary Beard, on the history of the Roman Empire.  Entitled SPQR, it is easily accessible to the non-history reader, and it lingered on The New York Times Best Sellers list for weeks.  She gives an insightful overview while at the same time pointing out the cultural legacy of the Romans 2,000 years later.  For example, the political and social boundaries that the Romans set in Europe largely endure to this day.  We observe the month of July in honor of Julius Caesar, and August in memory of Augustus Caesar.  On something as benign as the moment when a new day begins we still follow the Roman custom of midnight.  Does it have to be that way?  In Jewish tradition the new day begins at sunset of the evening before.  This is a book I highly recommend.

img_5241+On March 2nd our confrere Fr. Bryan Hayes passed away at the age of 97.  To say the least, he led a varied life, and it’s worth noting a few bits.  He was born in Clarksville, TN, and he grew up with a fondness for music.  Before coming to the monastery he already was an accomplished composer, with some of his works played at Carnegie Hall.  Later he studied under Aaron Copeland, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and while studying in Italy he met and kissed the hands of the mystic Padre Pio.  That sparked his conversion to Catholicism.  At Saint John’s he taught French, but we will best remember him for the hundreds of hymns he composed.  We sing many of them, and they are among our favorites.  But there are hundreds yet to learn.  I would be remiss were I not to mention that we all considered him to be a “character.”

+I discovered the Princesa Sofia as I walked the streets of Barcelona one afternoon.  As the photo at bottom indicates, eventually someone told the manager about the sign, and he must have gone out and taken a look.  The place seems to be going through a complete overhaul.  One of the favorite Lenten disciplines in former centuries was the giving of alms, and Saint Martin of Tour was venerated for cutting his cloak in half to share with a beggar.  The next three images come from the cathedral of Utrecht in Holland.

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