Archive for July, 2017


Gardening as a Vocation

It dawned on me the other day how barren the gospels are when it comes to wintertime imagery.  As near as I can recall, Jesus never told a single parable about shoveling snow or about the Samaritan whose cart slid off the icy road and into the ditch.  Did Jesus not care about believers who would one day live in Minnesota or Switzerland?  Or did winter leave Jesus cold, and he preferred not to deal with it?  We’ll likely never know until we meet him in the kingdom of heaven, where wintry landscapes await those who love to ski and skate.

Summer is Jesus’ strong suit, however, and it explains why we have a lot of readings in the liturgy about farmers and gardeners at this time of year.  Just recently, in fact, we’ve heard about the seed that has fallen on good soil, on rock-strewn soil, or on the beaten path.  We’ve also conjured up the image of the field in which weeds threaten to choke out the stalks of grain.  All of it raises the question of what a farmer should do when faced with such labor-intensive challenges.

IMG_1922Some gardeners today instinctively reach for the herbicides, firm in the conviction that chemistry can solve most any problem.  Of course there can be a price to pay for this, but a clean and bounteous garden seems to justify it.

That may be well and good in the modern garden, but it can cause us to miss some of the nuance in the parables.  The fact is, many of us live in a binary world of our own making.  It’s a world in which divisions into good and evil, black and white, and flowers and weeds make it so much easier to explain away our own reality.  So it is that  the field with neat rows of grain with nary a weed in sight is not only the ideal, but it should be within the easy reach of anyone.  This kind of perfection is achievable and in fact expected of all.  But as an experienced farmer or gardener can testify, real life isn’t like that at all.

There are practical consequences that follow from this binary world-view, and my own myopia is a prime example.  I  can readily appreciate the image of a garden with flowers and weeds, and in that garden I’m always one of the prized plants.  Furthermore, I’m more than willing to point out the weeds around me who need to be pulled and tossed on the compost heap.

IMG_2042The same holds true for the seed that falls to the ground.  In my own mind there’s not a shred of doubt that I’m the fertile soil.  In fact, I give thanks regularly that I’m not like those stony-hearted people in whom the word of God takes no root.  If only they would respond as I have responded, then they and the world would be much better.

My exercise in self-delusion sails right by an obvious point contained in these parables.  These parables aren’t about other people, because they’re really about us.  In fact, on any given day I’m the entire garden — weeds and flowers and all.  There are in me blossoms to be cultivated, weeds to be pulled, and soil to be fertilized and watered.  Still other plants in me need pruning but not uprooting.  Like any garden, then, I am a work in progress, and I need cultivating on a daily basis if there is to be a good harvest.

IMG_2040That’s also the case when it comes to my receptivity to the seed that falls on my soil.  There are moments when I eagerly accept the word of God, but there are situations when I’m as resistent as granite pavement.  But I only fool myself when I presume that I’m always good soil — a flawless and fertile seed bed for all that the Lord showers upon me.

As any gardener can tell us, running a garden is no easy business.  There are flowers to nurture and weeds to pull, and it all requires vigilance and hard work.  That’s the point of these parables, and that’s the challenge of the monastic vocation and of the Christian vocation.  That’s why Jesus doesn’t con us with glossy images of the lush garden that requires little or no work.  Rather, Jesus reminds us of the care and watering and pruning and weeding that every successful garden requires.  That, by the way, is not meant as a recipe for discouragement.  Rather, as any gardener can testify, that’s the plan for creating a work of art.


+I’m not in the least hesitant to admit that this post grew out of a conversation that I had with Fr. Lew after he preached on this topic two Sundays ago.  Any good gardener borrows seeds and cuttings and rootstock from other gardens, so I’m grateful for the ideas I’ve borrowed from him.

+I am no stranger to gardening, but it has been many years since I hung up my pruning sheers.  Years ago I built three expansive flower beds in the back of Emmaus Hall at Saint John’s.  The maintenance person regularly had mowed the lawn almost to the ground in hopes that the summer sun would scald it and reduce the work.  Its restoration and the flower beds that I put in were a work of sheer joy that I enjoyed for several years, until my time became too limited.  Today the beds are grassed in, but many of the trees that I planted have matured into fine specimens.  In future posts I hope to share photos of those trees.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from The Cloisters Museum in New York.  The Cloisters Museum houses the medieval art collections of the Metropolitan Museum, and they are encased in architectural elements that were purchased in Europe and carted off to New York ages ago.  It’s an island of tranquility overlooking the Hudson River, and I first visited The Cloisters when I was in college.  The gardens there recreate medieval counterparts, where weeding for the monks must have been a real chore — and a delight.


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Preaching Through Deeds

Even monks have limits when it comes to sermons and hours spent in church.  Not surprisingly the onset of the dog days of August tends to trigger that sentiment, likely because the abbey church can really warm up uncomfortably by then.  So I was not surprised that one of my confreres whispered a word of advice as I stood ready to enter the church last week to preside.  “Word has it that there’s a plenary indulgence for short homilies these days.”

I knew that he didn’t mean it as a threat.  Rather, it was an expression of wishful thinking, by someone who would have been even happier had I dispensed with the sermon altogether.  But coincidentally I shared his sentiment, even though I knew that the business about a plenary indulgence was a big fat lie.  However, in anticipation of a cranky audience, I had prepared a shorter-than-average homily, in full awareness that I had to deliver at least something.  And these were the words I offered about Moses that afternoon.

IMG_6670“I’m not sure I’d care to be in Moses’ sandals as he stood before the people of Israel.  Time and again he had to preface his remarks with this simple statement:  ‘God spoke to me the other day, and he wants you to do the following.’  No doubt many eyes in the crowd rolled, and still later many of the prophets paid with their lives for speaking such words.

“Thankfully, God hasn’t been so direct with me, and I assume that’s been true for you as well.  However, grateful though we may be that we don’t have to speak formally on God’s behalf, we may actually be stuck with a much tougher assignment.  It’s true that God has spared us from the task of passing on divine messages that have been dictated to us, but as Christians we actually face a greater challenge.   If we’re exempt from speaking on God’s behalf in words, it’s actually worse than we have imagined.  I fear that God expects us to speak to our neighbor in deeds.”

That was it.  Did my words do any good for my confreres?  Who knows.  But my short homily was at least a nice gesture.  I just hope that someone in that hot church appreciated my kind deed.


+On July 20th I presided at the Abbey Mass, in the overheated Abbey church.

+On July 22th I presided at the wedding of Ben and Sara Ivory, alumni who now live in Chicago.  The wedding took place in the overheated and by then humid Abbey church.  All the same, it went well and it was something of a destination wedding.  Participants flew in from Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and Spain, as well as from New Ulm, MN.  In fact, I think I was the only local resident to attend the ceremony.

+This last week we hosted five Augustinian novices for a week-long retreat.  This too had the character of a destination event, since they came from Sri Lanka, Mexico, Canada and the United States.  They stayed in the guesthouse and joined us for prayer, and on their last evening they joined us for dinner in the Abbey refectory.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the lush garden that is in the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  Right now the hydrangeas are simply extraordinary.



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There’s a Choir Stall for You!

This past week guests swelled the ranks in our choir stalls.  In fact, on several occasions the guests outnumbered the monks, and it’s not because our community is small.  It’s not.  Rather, there were just so many of them.  One evening 350 Lutheran church musicians joined us at Evening Prayer.  Then, for two days, 85 oblates of the abbey prayed Morning and Evening Prayer with us during their annual retreat.  It’s great to have any and all of them with us, but it can seem overwhelming at times.  And that’s okay.

Saint Benedict envisioned the presence of guests, and lots of them; but he scarcely imagined that they would join us for prayer.  In his day most guests visited and prayed in the church, and perhaps a few lingered to listen as the monks chanted the psalms.  But that was it.  The Latin and the musical notation put participation beyond the reach of guests.  That’s not so today.

IMG_6695Nothing better illustrates the change than one activity in the orientation of freshmen at Saint John’s University.  Last August 463 freshmen filed into our church to join us for Evening Prayer.  The abbot welcomed them and spoke for a few moments about the monastic community.  Later, after prayer, small groups of students met to visit with individual monks.  But the main business at hand was the recitation of Evening Prayer.  Doutless for many of the students it was a new and strange ritual.  But it was also their chance to take part in something beyond the reach of guests in Saint Benedict’s day.

English became the language of the liturgy at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and after that visitors began to join us for prayer in greater numbers.  Still later they began to sit in the section of the choir stalls adjacent to the stalls used by the monks.  There a monk is ready to guide them through the choir books.  Most guests fall easily into the rhythm of the psalms and hymns; but if on occasion there is a discordant note from the visitors’ section, adjustment to the pace of recitation comes quickly.

IMG_6688I can only imagine that in those first years the presence of guests was distracting for a few confreres, but the dynamic is rather different today.  Guests now are an important part of our daily prayer.  The presence of faculty, staff, students and other visitors bolsters our spirits, and we feel their absence keenly during the holidays.

Last August the abbot invited the freshmen to join us for prayer in the course of their four years at Saint John’s.  Are we disappointed that all 463 have not joined us regularly since then?  Not at all.  But on those rare occasions when guests truly are absent, our prayer seems strangely incomplete.

Next month the abbot will once again issue the invitation to the freshmen who have gathered with us for Evening Prayer.  Some will take him up on his invitation in the course of four years.  Some won’t.  But as is the case with all guests to the monastery today, there is a stall waiting for them to join us!


+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict with a Mass in the morning followed by lunch with several hundred guests who were here as six monks renewed their vows on the anniversary of their profession.

+On July 12th we hosted 350 members of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, who joined us for Evening Prayer.

+On July 14-15 we hosted 85 Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, who were here for their annual retreat.  Fr. Bob Koopmann gave the retreat conferences.

+On July 16th we hosted 50 Abbey volunteers who joined us for Mass and lunch.  They are friends of the Abbey who help us out with all sorts of day-to-day activities.

+The photos in today’s post show the Abbot’s Courtyard, leading to the entrance to the monastery.  The gate, wall and gardens were put in place in 1988.


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What’s In a Name?

On Saturday at morning prayer Abbot John invested Jordan as a novice.  To no one’s particular surprise Jordan chose to take a monastic name — Brother Jacob.  Coincidentally, three hours later the first reading at Mass told the unflattering story of how Jacob had connived to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, leaving his older twin Esau holding the bag.  Was this some sort of omen?

For centuries monks and nuns have taken religious names to mark these moments of transition, and we’re not the only ones to do this.  Popes are the most obvious examples, and on occasion monarchs do so as well.  In a twist on this, many adopt the surname of a spouse in a wedding ceremony.  All have their individual reasons for doing so, but common to most is the desire to note the passage into a new chapter of life.

IMG_0126_2Until the 1960s monks at Saint John’s Abbey, like most other monks and nuns in the Catholic tradition, were expected to take a new name that was unique in the community.  In smaller communities this posed no problem, but in larger communities this sometimes triggered the law of unintended consequences.  This was particularly acute at the Monastery of Saint Benedict, our sister-community down the road.  With over a thousand sisters requiring unique identification, latecomers could get stuck with some truly gawd-awful names.  I will forever recall the morning when we noted the passing of Sisters Domatilla Volkerstorffer and Theofrida Berling.  It must have come as quite a shock when the prioress bestowed those names on the two unsuspecting young women.  It had to be particularly tough on Miss Volkerstorffer, who had to be hoping for something simple like Linda or Joyce.  What a moniker to have to carry around for the next seventy years!

Needless to say, the stones in the convent cemetery carry a nearly complete inventory of seldom-used Saxon and other Teutonic names.  Small wonder that when given the chance to return to baptismal names, many did so with undisguised relief.

IMG_0056Today monks at Saint John’s can choose to change or not to change their names.  When I arrived there were eight monks named Michael, and I decided not to be the ninth of anything.  So I took Eric, and not because of any particular devotion to Saint Eric.  In fact, I had to look him up to see if there was such a person.  I adopted it for the simple reason that it wasn’t bizarre;  and just as importantly, I wouldn’t have to share it with anyone.  That plan worked well until a second Eric arrived many years later;  but we’ve managed well enough with a Brother Eric and a Father Eric.

I have to confess that I secretly hoped Jordon would have kept his name.  The last monk with that name — Father Jordan — passed away several years ago.  So the name was available and it was unique.  But my reasons for this arose primarily from my arcane sense of humor.  I’ve long been fond of that Advent hymn that begins “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry…”. That Jordan’s bank is only a short mental leap to those venerable English institutions by the name of Barclay’s Bank and Lloyd’s Bank.  I always wanted to meet Barclay or Lloyd, just to ask them about their banks.  And I would have even settled for a chat with Bob of the fictional Bob’s Bank in Lake Wobegon.  But I know that will never be.  However, I could know Jordan of Jordan’s Bank.

IMG_0045Just to be clear about this, I’m not the only one to indulge in such thoughts.  To cite but one other example, it’s helpful to know that we have a number of monks with hyphenated names, á la Pope John-Paul.  One confrere voiced the hope that the new novice might consider the name Brother Michael-Jordan.  That apparently didn’t make it past the first round of cuts.

Brother Jacob hasn’t tipped his hand as to why he took that name, but I suspect he was nonplussed to hear that reading on Jacob on the day of his clothing in the habit.  So what does that story portend about Brother Jacob?  Will he pattern his life on that of his namesake, who connived to get his brother’s birthright and tricked his father out of a blessing that should have gone to his brother?  Or does this suggest that Brother Jacob has come to the monastery to seek God and will strive for that vision, no matter the personal cost?  Who knows.  But if he’s come with high hopes and a dollop of the flaws that all of us have, then he’s come to the right place.  We’re just the sort of people to welcome him on our flawed and meandering pilgrimage to the Lord.


+On the 4th of July the monks celebrated Independence Day with a cookout in the garden of the monastery.  I also chose that day for a hike of 10.7 miles.  To my recollection it’s the longest I’ve ever walked, and coming on the heels of my back injury this winter it was a major triumph.  Needless to say, I was tired at the end of it, though not sore.  Some soreness did pop up for the next two days, but overall this was a great personal accomplishment on the road to my own recovery.  The doctor had advised me that walking would be good. and he’s given his blessing to an abbreviated walk of the Camino to Santiago Compostela in the fall of 2018.  So I may as well get used to such walks now if I am going to have any chance to do it next year.

+On July 8th Abbot John clothed Brother Jacob as a novice at morning prayer.

+On July 11th we will celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and for that reason I have resorted to photos from the Abbey of Subiaco outside of Rome for today’s post.  Saint Benedict began his monastic life there; and while the frescos are a bit faded, they are authentic and illustrate the life of Benedict.


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God’s Never Done With Us

During the last few days we’ve forged our way through the story of Abraham in the readings for the weekday Masses.  Abraham was an intriguing fellow with a one-of-a-kind relationship with God, but all the same I’m thankful that I don’t have to walk in his sandals.  Actually, there’s the rub.  God asked Abraham to leave his homeland and extended family and take up what was essentially a nomadic life.  Worse still, there was no precise destination around which to focus his travels.  His was a life not well-suited for a monk who takes a vow of stability.  Granted, many monks do travel on occasion, but thankfully my plane ticket always carries a reminder of where I ultimately belong at the end of a trip.  Not so for Abraham.

With that as background, I had to preside at last Saturday’s Mass.  That day the lectionary happened to pair two readings that seemed to have little in common.  The first told the story of the hospitality that Abraham extended to three strangers.  He seemed to have gone all out to make their pause a pleasant one, and in the course of the visit one of the guests told Abraham that he and Sarah should expect the birth of a son within the next year.  To say the least, that came as a bit of a surprise, since both were in their 90s at the time.

IMG_6577The gospel reading for that day came from Matthew 8, and it recalls the story of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant.  It’s a striking exchange, and not least because the words of the centurion have been immortalized by their inclusion in the communion rite of the liturgy.  In brief, the centurion reminded Jesus that he could heal his servant, and there was no need for a house call.  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  Say but the word, and my servant will be healed.”

A quick scan of these readings suggests they have little or nothing in common.  However, a homilist can’t just give up on finding a coherent thread to connect them and then move on to a reflection on the lovely weather we’ve been having.  And so the following homily is what I shared with the community on Saturday.

“Today’s readings present two radically different approaches to God’s ability to work in us.  On the one hand Abraham cannot be faulted for his commitment to the covenant, but all the same we can fault him for thinking that God was done with him.   Beyond child-bearing years and ready for their eternal rest, neither Abraham nor Sarah could imagine that God could have further use for either of them.

IMG_6580“The centurion, on the other hand, had absolute confidence that Jesus had further plans for him.  He hoped those plans included the cure of his servant, but he knew that Jesus would scarcely stop with that.

“We who commit ourselves to a covenant with the Lord in baptism and religious life sometimes assume we’ve reached the end of the line with what God expects of us.  We may be senior in years.  We may be in ill health.  We may be up to our eyeballs in work.  We may think we’ve exhausted the limits of our talent.  But just as was the case with Abraham, none of that is much of an excuse with God.  Just as God had further plans for Abraham and Sarah and the centurion, so God has further plans for us.  Let us, in this Eucharist, pray for open eyes and an open mind to recognize God’s hopes for us.  And let us pray for the strength to accomplish the great things to which God still calls us.”


+On July 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On July 1st we received David Franco-Mendez and Joe Eichorn as candidates in the monastery.  David is from Mexico City, and his introduction to Benedictine life took place at the Abbey of Tepeyac, where he completed the novitiate and for a time was in simple vows.  Joe is from Louisiana and for a time was a monk in simple vows at Saint Joseph’s Abbey.  He later came to Saint John’s to pursue an MA in theology, and this past year he served as a faculty resident in one of the college residence halls.  Because David and Joe completed the novitiate in other Benedictine communities, they do not have to repeat that process.  However, they must still complete a year of transition following a three-month candidacy, after which they can petition for admission into simple vows.

On July 8th Abbot John will receive Jordan Berns as a novice in our community.  Jordan is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and after that he served as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.  He then worked as organist and music minister in his home parish in Perham, MN.  As you might expect, we are delighted to welcome these three young men into our community.

+This last weekend was the first in several weekends when we did not host major groups on campus.  It was nice to have something of a break, though it was short-lived.  This morning the annual Monastic Institute begins, with Benedictines and others joining us for this annual conference on the monastic life.  Their presence will fill up the choir stalls, and their voices will augment our own wonderfully.

+The landscape at Saint John’s continues to be lush and colorful this summer, as the photos in today’s post hint.


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