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Archive for October 16th, 2017

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The Monastery:  A Sacred World

Guests are never lacking in a monastery, as Saint Benedict noted in his Rule (RB 53.16).  Therefore we might assume there would be a streamlined procedure for receiving them, but efficiency was not in Benedict’s lexicon.  In fact, the welcome accorded to guests included prayer and the greeting of peace, a bow or prostration to show respect, sacred reading, the offer of food, the washing of hands and, later, the washing of feet.  It was labor-intensive, and it explains why subsequent generations of monks and nuns dispensed with key elements, such as the hand and foot-washing.

Still, I find the practice of hand and foot-washing curious.  They were symbols of hospitality.  But did they hint at spiritual cleansing as well?.  Did Benedict want to purify guests for their transition into the sacred precincts of the monastery?

IMG_7414Guests in Benedict’s time could scarcely fail to notice that they were about to enter a world far different from that of their rustic villages.  The monastery was a sacred space, populated by God-seeking people who followed a regimen built around a sacred calendar.  It was also meant to be a place where peace and love prevailed.  That was the theory, at least, but could that have a broader application?  Medieval monastic practice suggests that many thought so, and it explains why monks and nuns sought to expand the sense of the sacred and apply it to all of society.  Many abbeys in the MIddle Ages joined in transforming society through movements like the Peace of God (Pax Dei) and the Truce of God, and these efforts chipped away at pervasive violence, with limits that were both practical and measurable.

The principles were simple enough.  If violence were sinful, then it was doubly so when done on Church land.  Violence on Sundays and during seasons like Lent was equally abhorrent to God.  Worse still was violence done to the clergy or to the defenseless or the poor.  In time these notions took root, and this helps to explain the universal shock that greeted the news of Thomas Becket’s murder in the late 12th century.  He was an archbishop killed inside a cathedral during the Christmas season.  Could there have been a more serious crime?

For centuries the Church encouraged these limits on violence, and gradually European society evolved from the age of warlords to a culture in which all were considered sacred.  Gradually, too, spread the notion that all time and spaces are sacred, because they belong to God.

All of this was far in the future when Benedict wrote his Rule, but the vision for a peaceful society was there.  For him the monastery was the blueprint for the city of God.  Why restrict that vision to the cloister?

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Notes

+On October 10th and 11th I gave presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Montreat Conference Center, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The Presbyterian Church/USA runs the center, and it is tucked into a somewhat remote wooded valley in the western part of the state.  I’d only been to North Carolina once before — to Charlotte — so this was new and lovely territory to me.  I spoke at an annual gathering of Presbyterian clergy.

+The multiplication of natural disasters during the past few weeks have touched the lives of so many, and we are not exempt from the consequences even if we live in Minnesota.  Last week, for example, the president’s office and the office of campus ministry at Saint John’s University received resources from faculty and staff and some alumni, which will be forwarded to support the relief efforts of Catholic Charities in Immokalee, FL.  We currently have six students from Immokalee at Saint John’s, and the recent hurricane severely impacted their hometown.  On another front, the Abbey joined with several other Benedictine monasteries to send support to the Abbey of San Antonio Abad, in Puerto Rico.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that community in 1948.

IMG_7435+In between times I still manage to do casual reading, and I’ve just finished Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is a piece of non-fiction that my sister had recommended to me.  Set in Osage County in northern Oklahoma, author David Grann of The New Yorker tells the gripping story of the Osage tribe, which had been relocated to what was considered worthless land, only to become fabulously wealthy when oil was discovered on its property.  The true story recounts several dozen murders of tribal members and the efforts of the early FBI to solve the case.  For several years my other sister lived on a ranch in Osage County, and so it became familiar territory to me.

+Today’s post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey.

+The fall colors have been late in coming to Minnesota this year, and particularly so on our campus.  During the last few days they have peaked, however, and I am guessing that by next week the maple leaves will have fallen.  That in turn will pave the way for an encore from the oaks.  The photos in today’s post show some of the leaves at their best.

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