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Archive for September, 2017

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What Else Have I Got to Learn?

I thought I had extracted every scrap of meaning from the parable of the sower, but the preparation of a homily on Saturday yielded one unexpected nugget.  Like most people, I’ve been pretty satisfied with the explanation of the parable that Jesus had to offer.  Seed fell on rocky soil, among thorns, on a busy path and on good soil.  The seed is the word of God, and people respond differently.  How they respond determines whether they yield any or a lot of fruit.

Not surprisingly, I have always considered myself to be good soil for the seed, and I suspect the majority of people think the same way about themselves.  However, there’s an inherent disconnect in my reasoning, because there are times when I fall into the temptation to think that most of these people have overrated themselves.  Certainly they are doing the best they can, but many are only fooling themselves when they rate themselves as prime seedbed.

IMG_4994There definitely is a problem when everybody thinks they deserve a pat on the back for being good soil.  After all, this is not children’s sports, where everyone is a winner and there is a trophy for each and every participant.  No, it can’t be that way.  If there are going to be good guys — and I am going to be one of them — then there has to be a surplus of bad guys.  Otherwise, how can we ever feel really good about ourselves?

Last Saturday I noticed something in the words of Jesus that I’d missed before.  Jesus speaks about those who are receptive to the seed, but the distractions of life eventually choke out any fruitful response.  That’s when it dawned on me.  This portion of the parable is not about a select category of poeple — the bad guys.  It’s about everybody.  The riches and pleasures of life distract everyone — even me.

The fact is, in the course of a day we can find ourselves to be any one of the four types of seedbed that Jesus describes.  In my own case it’s not at all difficult to point to the good-soil/bad-soil moments as the day unfolds.  For example, I am a very early-morning person.  I flourish between 4 am and 7 am, and I will complete with enthusiasm anything at the top of my to-do list.  By mid-morning I’m still receptive to opportunities, but they have to jockey for priority among the realities of a busy life.  By late afternoon I usually have become stony ground.  By then I may accept a challenge, but in the next breath I will forget entirely what I had just agreed to do.

IMG_4996I now realize that the trend line of my receptivity to Christ runs counter to the scheduled appearances of Christ in my life.  As a monk and a Christian I believe that I see Jesus in the faces of my neighbors.  However, I’ve also begun to notice that none of my neighbors ever come knocking at my door at 4 am.  Absolutely zero; which is too bad, because I’m all enthusiasm at that hour.  Ironically, however, at 4 pm, when I am at my stoniest, that’s when Jesus comes knocking more frequently, and more forcefully.

The harsh reality is this.  I move through all four of the categories of soil that Jesus mentions, and it’s made me aware that I have a lot more soil preparation to do.  As much as I would prefer to see Christ when I’m full of energy and in the best of moods, then, it doesn’t always work that way.  As often as not Christ prefers to come calling at inconvenient times and in the worst of situations.  He comes when I’m really busy or just after my energy has drained away.  But he comes less frequently when I’m waiting for him impatiently, fully rested.

That brings up an important take-away.  Before Saturday I thought I knew all there was to know about this parable.  Not so, it turns out.  And now I have to wonder what else I have to learn.  What more does Jesus want me to know?  That’s a good question, and I’m willing to give it full consideration — especially if I can tend to it early in the morning.  It also means that, once again, Jesus is not entirely done with me.

IMG_4998Notes

+On 21 September I and several of my colleagues visited the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis.  Saint John’s alumnus Jeb Myers, president of the school, toured us around; and it was inspiring to see the extraordinary work they are doing there.

+On the evening of the 21st Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida spoke at Saint John’s University, as part of the program of the McCarthy Center.

+On 23 September I gave a day of reflection to the area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  I had scheduled this for last February, but my back injury last winter forced the rescheduling to this fall.

+On Saturday September 23rd Saint John’s played St. Thomas in football at Target Field in Minneapolis.  I did not attend, and so I missed being part of the gathering of 37,000 people.  It was a record crowd for a Division III sporting event.  It beat the old record by 20,000, and unfortunately the good guys lost by three points.

+The photos in today’s post show a retable of Mary the Mother of God, by Jaume Serra.  He created this ca. 1370, and today it resides in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.

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Be Careful What You Pray For

I usually don’t pay all that much attention to the lyrics of the hymns we sing.  In some the words are benign, while in others the sentiments can be sweet or inane enough to make me cringe.  As a rule, then, I invest my energy in the music — particularly with hymns that I’ve come to love.

IMG_0002_2This last Sunday, however, the final hymn at the Abbey Eucharist caught my attention.  The gospel passage of the day — from Matthew 18 — had spoken of the importance of forgiveness, and Jesus made his point with the parable of a servant who had begged of his lord forgiveness of a huge debt he could not repay.  Then he turned right around to press a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of that amount.  It was an example of ingratitude at its worst, and it turned on its head that old saw about doing to others as you would have them do unto you.  Needless to say, those familiar with this parable know the grim fate in store for this wicked servant.

The parable calls to mind the Lord’s Prayer, which urges God to forgive us as we forgive others.  That shifts the onus for initiative onto our shoulders;  and now that I think about it, I’m tempted to pray that segment with more caution than I have in the past.  I say that prayer several times a day with my confreres, and it now dawns on me the risk I am taking.  I’m literally asking for it.

Anyway, the hymn in question is entitled Forgive Our Sins, and Ralph Finn’s text opens innocently enough.  Through the first verse I was able to concentrate on the music.  But the second and third verses stopped me in my mental tracks.

 

“How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

In blazing light your cross reveals

the truth we dimly knew:

How small are others’ debts to us,

How great our debt to you!”

 

IMG_0024_2With these words I lost track of the music, and only with the final verse did I regain my bearings.  Still, what I took away was an intriguing thought I’d not considered before.  I am keenly aware of the many wonderful things I do for others, and naturally their frequent instances of ingratitude hurt.  Against my own interests I sometimes clutch tightly to those hurts, because they can be hard to let go.  Worse still, if I’m not careful they can become part of the emotional baggage that I have to carry around.  That baggage can spoil relationships, but it can also spoil me.

It also dawns on me how much I owe God, and I have to confess that I fall short in expressing my gratitude.  All the same, God forgives my ingratitude, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty unforgiving of others.  The fact is, God sets a better example when it comes to forgiveness than I do, and for that I should be even more grateful.

One practical application of this comes to mind, and it’s a bit of advice from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  He writes about a monk who nurses a grudge, and I hope it will not come as a shock to know that this warning was not written solely for my personal benefit.  Benedict points out what happens to me and any other monk who nurtures hurts.  Nurturing such hurts transforms me, and I gradually become someone I never set out to be.

So I return to ponder those words of Ralph Finn as my meditation for the day.

 

How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

It’s something to chew on.  Better still, it’s advice to act upon while there’s still plenty of time to live.  And as for that bit about praying that God will forgive me as I forgive others, I think I’m going to be more careful about what I pray for.

IMG_0005_2Notes

+On September 13th our confrere Fr. Fintan Bromenshenkel passed away, nearly three weeks shy of his 99th birthday.  He was our senior monk.  In his long career he headed the computing center in the University, and later served for several years at our mission in the Bahama Islands.  In his later years he worked in the garden and weeded the gravel path that ran diagonally across the monastic garden.  He was a wonderfully cheerful soul, and we will miss him.

+September 12th was a rather unusual day for one of our alumni.  That day Mark Vande Hei, ’89, blasted off into space, where he will serve for several months at the international space station.  He was a physics major and in ROTC at Saint John’s, and later he earned a graduate degree at Stanford University before teaching at West Point.  In the course of his space travels he will lead a class with our students, which he will conduct from the space station.

+On September 15th-16th we hosted Bishop Steven Lopes, who heads the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  In that capacity he shepherds former Anglican clergy and congregations in North America who have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.  Bishop Lopes and I have been friends for many years, and have worked together as chaplains in the Order of Malta.  Before his ordination he spent time at Saint John’s while he considered a monastic vocation.

+The top photo in today’s post is a tryptic of the crucifixion, done by our deceased confrere Brother Placid.  For the last fifty years it has hung in the Prep School, but some enterprising monks carted it over to the Abbey church for the Feast of the Holy Cross.  The other photos show renditions of the cross in fresco, stained glass and sculpture.  They are all housed at Saint Alban’s, a one-time Benedictine abbey located north of London.

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Jesus:  Nazareth’s Favorite Son?

[On September 4th I preached the following homily at the Abbey Mass.  The text happened to be Luke 4: 16-30, which details the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.]

I find it hard to nail down the real issue in today’s gospel.  One minute the synagogue members in Nazareth seem proud of Jesus, and at the next turn they’re ready to kill him. On a dime they turn on him, and it’s fair to ask “why?”

IMG_7103One possibility strikes me.  Jesus was a home-grown prodigy, and he had all the trappings of a budding success story.  In Capernaum and elsewhere he had already  distinguished himself, and perhaps the people of Nazareth sought to benefit from his growing celebrity and harness him for their own prestige.  Perhaps they sought to domesticate Jesus and turn him to their own advantage.

This may explain the reaction of Jesus, who sensed what they were trying to do to him.   Like others who would later try to make him king, he resisted any effort to transform him into something other than what he was.  He had come to do the will of his Father.  He had come to serve — not to be served.  He had come to the poor and the suffering.  He had not come to be the darling or pet of the leading citizens of Nazareth — nor of anyone else, for that matter.  This may explain their disappointment and anger.

Herein we have a lesson for ourselves.  You and I aren’t Jesus, obviously, but we have talents and God-given energy.  Like Jesus we have a choice to make.  We can subvert our talents and put them in the service of power and wealth and influence.  Or we can turn our lives to anyone and everyone who desperately needs a little bit of what we have to offer.  Symbolically Jesus had to choose between being the favorite son of Nazareth and the son of God.  I think he suggests that we take the second option.

IMG_7099Notes

+On September 6th I hosted two friends who have joined to start a program that makes possible the college education of students from Immokalee, FL, attending Saint John’s.  This was their third year to visit with the students, and this fall there are six of them at Saint John’s.  At bottom is a photo of John and Jack, flanking five of the six students.  (The sixth, Jaime, was away at his student job in the library).  Needless to say, their smiles did not betray the anxiety that they must have felt as Hurricane Irma headed straight for the west coast of Florida, potentially passing through their hometown of Immokalee, inland from Naples.  Happily, their families came through the storms unscathed.

+On September 7th I preached the homily at the funeral of my good friend, Nicky Carpenter, DM.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years, and in addition to a long association with Saint John’s as well as with the Minnesota Orchestra, she was a member of the Order of Malta.  The funeral took place at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Wayzata, MN, and later that afternoon I presided at the interment at the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

The trip between church and cemetery was harrowing, because a terrible bus-truck accident meant that I-94 was closed in one stretch.  The highway department dutifully shunted us off onto a country road and left us pretty much to our own devices.  It took over an hour to go five miles through the countryside.  And so, while I left one hour before the bus with the family had departed from the church, I arrived just as the bus was unloading at the Abbey cemetery.  I knew that the bus had taken a different highway, and en route I sweat bullets, hoping that I would make it in time.

+On 9 September the oil portrait of our confrere, Brother Dietrich Reinhart, was unveiled in the learning commons which now bears his name.  The Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons, attached to Alcuin Library, was recently completed and opened this fall semester.  In addition to some wonderful interior spaces, it has an outdoor patio as well as great vistas of the neighboring science buildings at Saint John’s.  The other photos in today’s post give a sense of that new building.

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Every Day is Labor Day

What’s a monk to do on Labor Day?  Logically it seems like a day when I should go all out and work overtime.  But then again, it’s a national holiday, which suggests I should labor as little as possible.

Faced with this conundrum, I tend to do what I always do on a stray holiday such as this.  I just put together an extra-long to-do list, do about a quarter of it, and end the day frustrated because once again I’ve squandered a golden opportunity to catch up on things.  Assuming that this is what will happen today, once again I will end up promising to do better next time.

Saint Benedict spilled a lot of ink on the importance of work in the monastery, and in his Rule he devoted an entire chapter to the topic.  However, it was a complex issue for him, and for that reason his comments on it pop up all over the place in the Rule.

IMG_7183It’s undeniable that Benedict had a healthy respect for work, even if it was and is an unavoidable part of life.  “They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands,” he wrote, and elsewhere he asked his monks to treat the tools of the monastery with the same respect that they would show to the vessels of the altar.

But work is more complicated than that, and Benedict realized it.  He knew that some monks would grumble about the work assigned to them, while others would flourish and be grateful for the chance to do work that they really enjoyed.  Some would take inordinate pride in their skills, while others would grab for the chance to convert their responsibilities into little fiefdoms.  All of this suggests one fundamental point:  when it comes to work monks then and now share pretty much the same attitudes that pervade the general population.

In addition to that reality, Saint Benedict conceded that work is a necessary part of life in the monastery — and it was so every day.  Whether he and his monks liked it or not, there were no days off — and that went for Sunday as well.  After all, even on the holy days somebody had to prepare and serve the food.  Somebody had to clean the dishes, set the tables, and sweep away the mess.  Others had to tend to the guests and prepare the church for the liturgy.  Somebody else needed to see to emergency repairs so that the buildings wouldn’t burn up or fall to the ground.  Others had to take care of the sick and elderly.  With these sorts of responsibilities there could be no days off, nor could the monks delegate much of this stuff to outside contractors.

IMG_7186In sum, in Benedict’s day every day was Labor Day.  It’s also safe to say that life for his monks paralleled life as it prevailed throughout society.  The same is the case today.  For better and for worse, we all know what would happen if everyone decided — for one whole day — to do absolutely nothing.  For starters, we’d all wonder who would wait on us.

So on this Labor Day the best course for me is to keep in mind the balanced life that Benedict proposed for his monks.  I should do some sacred reading and go to pray with my brothers.  I should take my meals with them and recreate with them.  I should rest.  And I should do some work.  And as I do my work I need to do my very best and at the same time remember two important points.  First, my value as a human, being created in the image of God, rests on a lot of stuff, and not just on the job that I have.  I am more than what I do.  And second, I should always be grateful for all the work that others do.  Without them, I’d have to do absolutely everything myself.  I just don’t have that kind of time.

IMG_7153Notes

+August 28th marked the first day of the new school year at Saint John’s University.  It began, as is customary, with an academic convocation in the Abbey and University church.

+The only official act on my calendar last week was to attend the first football game of the season, at which Saint John’s hosted the College of Saint Scholastica, from Duluth.  It took place on September 2nd, and it was a beautiful day but a lop-sided game.  Saint John’s set a record by winning 98-0.  To be fair, they did not try to run up the score, and practically everyone on the team of 180 players got to play — including two first-year quarterbacks.  It just was not Saint Scholastica’s day.

+Every now and again a piece of work comes up for which there is no mention in The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Such was an instance last week when one of the bells needed repair.  Brother John fearlessly stepped forward to do the work, and in the top three photos in today’s post you can see him perched at the top of the ladder.  You can click on the photos and enlarge them, and the third one of Brother John in the basket gives an idea of just how huge the cross is.

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