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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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Corpus Christi:  A Reflection

[The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on the Feast of Corpus Christi at Saint John’s Abbey, 18 June 2017.]

In my idle moments I’ve sometimes wondered what we’ll do to keep ourselves busy for all eternity in the kingdom of the Lord.  Fortunately I’m not blessed with the ambition to be on the entertainment committee — the committee charged with keeping people happy and satisfied.  That’s akin to the job that Moses had for forty years in the desert, and I don’t think he found it all that fulfilling.

However, there’s one thing I know I would like to do in heaven, given half the chance.  That’s the chance to interview a few people who’ve played starring roles in the human story.  Certainly high on my list would be Moses who, if truth be told, is one of the reasons we are all here today.  Had Moses heard about the burning bush and simply rushed on by because he had deadlines to meet, then that would have been the end of the story.  But curiosity made him pause, and his curiosity has made all the difference for him and for us.

IMG_6428It was never easy for Moses.  First of all, he promised freedom to all who would follow him;  but on more than one occasion people seemed less than enthusiastic about following.  When faced with challenge and risk, they conjured up fond memories of a simpler life of slavery in Egypt.  More than once they complained about the food, about the indecisive leadership, and about the hazards of a hostile environment and people.  To put it simply, they preferred the devil whom they did know to the devils they were sure they would meet in the wilderness.  And for Moses, who had spoken with God and had lived to tell the tale, it had to be exasperating.  These people he tried to lead had defied him at every turn, and he must have believed they deserved whatever punishment the Lord had sent their way.  Conversely, Moses must have marveled at the mercy God showered on a people that scarcely deserved mercy.  In short, Moses must have grown impatient both with his people and perhaps even with God.

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses speaks to his people as their wanderings are just about over.  It’s been forty years, and they stand on the brink of the promised land.  And in one of his last big sermons Moses reminds everyone of what’s happened to them in the course of forty years in the desert.  For one thing, most of those who had left Egypt had long since died.  And Moses knew that even he would not cross into the promised land.  It was an entirely new people that stood before him.  Before him stood the children and grandchildren of the pioneers who had taken those hesitant steps out of Egypt.  For forty years the desert experience had shaped them, and manna had nourished them.  Perhaps the change had come upon them so slowly that they had scarcely noticed;  but they who were once no people had now become the people of God.

IMG_6414Now they stood at the threshold of the promised land.  Could they sustain the covenant — the commitment they had made with God at Mount Sinai?  Only time would tell.  But of one thing they could be sure.  God would walk with them.  God would nourish them.  God would never desert them.  God would continue to transform each and every one of them.

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi — the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  In our opening prayer we spoke of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood, and it’s truly right to speak of it as a mystery.  It’s mystery in part because the Eucharist is bigger than anything we can imagine.  The First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of it as a participation in the body and blood of Christ.  It is Jesus Christ with us, and we believe his presence is real and not metaphorical.  And so we reverence the body and blood of Christ as we keep vigil in prayer before it.  But we also take and eat, just as the Lord Jesus commanded us.  And in that eating we become one with the Lord.

IMG_6454In a few minutes we will once again call down God’s blessing and pray for the transformation of our gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  And then we will take and eat, and Jesus will once again become food for our journey.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve received and fed on the body and blood of Christ in the course of my life.  What I can say with surety is that the degrees of intensity of the experience have varied.  Sometimes I’ve been blessed to realize the enormity of what I was doing.  At other times it’s been an almost unconscious experience.  But every now and again I feel blessed with the insight of what God continues to do to and with me on my pilgrimage of life.  By now my pilgrimage has been longer than the forty years in the desert, and yet I’m also keenly aware that my pilgrimage is far from over.  God continues to pull me — and you — along, just as God led those Hebrews wandering in the desert.

In a few moments we will stand to repeat the Nicene Creed.  Much like the Hebrews did before Moses, so we must decide whether we will continue to uphold our part in the covenant.  Will we walk with God or wander off now and again?  Simple curiosity might justify the journey.  The emptiness of alternative paths might argue in favor of the wisdom of walking with God.  But we have to decide.

IMG_6405Should we decide to walk with God, our pilgrimage becomes a statement of faith.  It is our belief that God walks with us and gives us food for the journey.  The Lord sustains us in good times and in bad.  And just as the Lord has already done great things for us, so will the Lord continue to do great things through us.  This is our faith.  May God make strong that faith in us.

Notes

+On June 17th I and my confrere Brother Neal drove to Onamia, MN, to attend the diaconate ordination of Brother Alex Juguilon, OSC.  Alex is a member of the Crosier community there, and he did his seminary studies at Saint John’s.  Despite the fact that their priory is only 65 miles away, and I’ve known several members of their community through the years, this was my first visit.  It was definitely worth the trip.

+On Sunday June 18th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and the sermon that I delivered serves as today’s post.  Some months ago I decided that I just did not have the time — nor the imagination — to write a second reflection for my blog.  So on the occasion when I’ve prepared a sermon, it now does double duty.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from the monastic garden, behind the monastery.  It is particularly lush and green this year, and at the moment the ladyslippers are in bloom.  They are the state flower of Minnesota, and we are fortunate to have them scattered around the property.   On another note, I do not aspire to be a wildlife photographer, but I could scarcely resist the turkey who strolled by me in the course of taking these pictures.  Most mornings and evenings we see turkeys cutting through the garden, and they seem reasonably tolerant of our presence.

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The Spirit Stirs in Us

It isn’t often that the weekday Mass readings keep you coming back for more, but five successive passages from the Book of Tobit last week did just that.  This sequence told the story of Tobia, who lived in the Jewish community in exile in Nineveh in Assyria.  A righteous man, Tobia still managed to stir up all sorts of trouble for himself.  But the worst of it was almost comical.  As he napped one afternoon beneath a tree, droppings from some birds perched above fell onto his eyes, and they left him with cataracts.  How he slept through a bunch of bird droppings is beyond me, but clearly he was a much sounder sleeper than I.

As a last resort he sent his son Tobit off to a distant land for some healing ointment, and along the way Tobit visited the household of their kinsman Raguel.  The text suggests they had never met, but that didn’t stop Tobit from asking for Raguel’s daughter — sight unseen — in marriage.  The latter had had seven husbands, each of whom had died before the consummation of the marriage.  These were not good odds, and I’m a little surprised that Tobit didn’t withdraw his request once Raguel had briefed him on her history.  But things worked out anyway, and Tobit returned to Nineveh with the ointment and his new wife following up behind.

IMG_0370Altogether it’s a nice, feel-good, story.  And if I weren’t living in the 21st century I might be willing to overlook one little item.  As the text suggests, Sarah married eight men, and she had absolutely zero say in any of it.  In each case her father Raguel did all the bargaining, and presumably she’d never even laid eyes on any of her suitors prior to the wedding night.  In fact, in the case of her eighth and most successful marriage, I’m left with the impression that Raguel must have surprised his daughter with the unexpected news.  “Hey, Sarah.  Come on out and meet husband #8.  He’s our closest relative, so I have no right to refuse him.”  The latter sentence is his, by the way, not mine.

It probably wasn’t quite as crass as that, but that was the gist of it.  As for Sarah, it was all a total surprise, and I’m left to ponder what she thought of the idea of moving to Nineveh.

My point in bringing this up is rather obvious, or at least it is to me.  Once upon a time there were things that people in the Bible did that were perfectly acceptable, but we frown upon them today.  Today the Catholic marriage rite inquires whether both parties have come freely to the marriage.  And in the Catholic tradition a six-month’s marriage prep insures that the two have at least met each other before the wedding day and gauged the odds of compatibility.  They even go so far as to ask if the bride is old enough to get married.

IMG_0372Anyway, this episode demonstrates how the Bible outlines the slow progression of people as they come to terms with the revelation of the divine will.  Once upon a time arranged marriages were the norm, but today they scarcely qualify as sacramental.  Once upon a time, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Christians practiced circumcision and kept Jewish dietary laws.  But by the end of the Acts of the Apostles they did not.  And the key ingredient that explains all this is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the Spirit the Christian community grew in age and wisdom, and it’s safe to say that we as individuals do so as well.

The feast of Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the Spirit the Church lives and moves and has its being.  In baptism the priest or deacon breathed the Holy Spirt upon us, and so we should never be surprised that the Spirit stirs in us every now and again, just as the Spirit does in the Church.  Through and in the Spirit we grow, we change, and we become repositories of the wisdom of God.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Tobias, but it is that same Spirit that stirs in us and in the Church.  It’s an exciting concept to consider, but it’s even more exciting to yield to the Spirit who pulls us forward in remarkable and surprising ways.

IMG_0371Notes

+On May 8th I spoke at a reception for donors to Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.  What made it particularly poignant for me was the student speaker, who in fact was the headliner.  Alex will be a junior at Saint John’s this fall, and he is a graduate of Immokalee High School in Florida.  Two friends of mine have set up a scholarship to fund students from Immokalee who come to Saint John’s, and on that evening Alex gave a superb presentation.

+On May 11th I attended and gave a short tribute at a luncheon at Saint John’s that honored a dear friend of Saint John’s, Jo White.  We’ve termed Jo “the mother of The Saint John’s Bible,” because she has inspired the project and championed it through the years as no one else has.  Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath bestowed on Jo the President’s Medal, in recognition of her extraordinary devotion to Saint John’s.

+Last week we welcomed seven monks who will be living with us for about two months as they participate in a course of English as a Second Language.  They’ve come from as far afield as India, Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, Arkansas and Alabama.  I realize that the latter two do not qualify as foreign lands, but they are still a long way off.  Along with three monks from Vietnam and one from Korea who are studying theology with us, the number of Asian monks has reached the point that the monastic refectory now stocks chopsticks.  For those of us who are on diets — like me — they are remarkably effective.

IMG_0373+The photo at the top in today’s post is of the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid, Spain.  The photos below illustrate four depictions of the evangelists, and they are housed in the Museo.  They are all by early 16th-century sculptor Felipe Vigarny.

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Retreat, or Run Away!

Monty Python aficionados like me fondly recall the scene in which the enemy was about to overwhelm a group of knights.  As the battle tilted against them, they rallied around the one cry that had begun to run through everyone’s mind already.  “Run away!  Run away!”  It was a lot less elegant than the more dignified “Retreat!”  But it made the point with somewhat greater urgency.

This past week we monks at Saint John’s were on retreat.  We do a five-day retreat annually, in part because canon law requires it of monks and other religious.  But even if the regulations did not demand it, we’d still need to do it.  I realize that quite a few people think that monks have already run away from the realities of life, and they must think of a monastic retreat as a complete waste of time.  But in fact the opposite is true, on both counts.  We monks are not blissfully ignorant of the problems of life, because they are part of the baggage we bring with us when we enter the cloister.  Our problems don’t go away when we put on the habit; and like everyone else, we have to deal with them.

IMG_6325This year’s retreat had some unusual quirks. The monk originally slated to lead it got elected Abbot Primate last fall  and had to move to Rome.  Abbot Gregory of Conception Abbey in Missouri had studied with us for four years, and we had looked forward to having him with us.  However, his new job upended all his plans, and we had to come up with a substitute.  I’m not saying for a minute that he got himself elected abbot primate just to avoid being with us, or because he was unprepared.  But I did entertain the thought — or the thought entertained me.

In Abbot Gregory’s stead came Fr. Michael Fish, a Camaldolese Benedictine from the monastery at Big Sur in California.  Big Sur sits in majesty, looking out over the Pacific, and I’ve been told that the view is stunning.  It’s also remote, which is appropriate for a community that lives a more hermit-like regimen than we.

IMG_6338California Highway 1 provides virtually the only access to the place, and in his first conference to us Fr. Michael explained how important that highway is for his community.  Three months ago the heavy rains started a landslide that blocked the highway, and the hillside is still sliding.  For three months now no one has gotten in or out of the monastery, and Michael has not been home for those three months.  In fact, Michael was with us only because he had left the monastery three days before the slide had begun. Otherwise, he noted, he’d be stuck on that mountain and we’d be looking for yet another retreat director.

So we had our retreat, and it went well.  And despite the doubts that people might harbor about our need for a retreat, it is indeed a vital thing to do.   And the reasons we should do one are the same reasons everyone should do a retreat.  Like lots of people we monks can find our solace in all sorts of escapes.  Like everyone, there are moments when we are tempted to run away from life.  So, for example, we can find solace and meaning in our work, but if that becomes the primary element of our lives then we discover that we’ve run away from life.  Like most people we too seek refuge in all sort of other things, large and small; and when we’ve indulged them too much we eventually discover how empty they can be.  In short, monks like everybody else need to face their temptations and deal with them.  We need to accept the goodness of life that the Lord offers to us.

IMG_6363And what was the one nugget of wisdom that I took away from this retreat?  It was this.  I have tended to read the story of the prodigal son and identify with either or both of the brothers.  I have empathized with both of them, and only to a lesser extent could I appreciate the role of the father.  But I never realized what was at stake for the father until Michael pointed out that the father — who represents God — is not some aloof persona, devoid of emotion.  In fact, the father daily searches the horizon for the return of his son.  After all, the son is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.  The son has taken part of the father with him, and the father aches to have his son back.

And the lesson for us?  Just as we sometimes ache for the experience of God, so God aches for us.  As Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  Could it be that God feels the same way about us?

IMG_6326Notes

+During the week of May 29th we had our annual abbey retreat at Saint John’s.

+From June 1-4 we hosted the 25th annual meeting of the Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities.  Among our guests were Abbot Primate-Emeritus Notker Wolf of the abbey of St. Otilien in Germany, Abbot-President Elias Lorenzo of Saint Mary’s Abbey in New Jersey, and Archabbot Douglass Nowicki of Saint Vincent in Latrobe, PA.

+This last weekend I gave conferences to the members of the Order of Malta’s Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes.  The retreat took place in Malvern, PA, located outside of Philadelphia.  The biggest surprise for me had to do with a book I had used to prepare one of my conferences.  It was on the history of the Order of Malta in the 17th century, published in 2011, at what I thought was the high price of $85.  Some curious soul in the group looked it up in Amazon and discovered that it now costs a whopping $465.  That’s when I realized that it was the most expensive item in my suitcase.

+The photos in today’s post show the chapter house at Saint John’s.  It is attached to the Abbey church, and it is where we have our retreat conferences.  Among the photos is one that shows a view of the grounds and lake, looking through a side door.  I try and sit with this view, just in case the conferences need some supplement.  The photo at bottom shows the view of Lake Sagatagan, in the backyard of the monastery.  It may not be the Pacific, but at least there is no landslide.

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