Archive for November, 2017


Who Stole My Sundays?

It was a nightly ritual in their household.  Jake gave the signal when he walked to the door and stared through his dark brown eyes.  Finally someone came to throw the tennis ball far into the darkness outside.  Then out he bolted, eyes fixed on the ball.  Only after he had pounced on the ball did he do his duty, and at last it was time for bed.

I think that was the first serious lesson I ever learned from a dog.  For Jake there was no physiological connection between throwing that ball and doing his business.  Nor was it a feature at any other time of day when he needed to relieve himself.  Only at bedtime was it part of his routine, and it seemed that for Jake it was the last joyous affirmation of a day well-lived.  That day I learned from Jake the importance of ritual, even in the lives of some of our animal friends.

IMG_0020_2In a few days comes the First Sunday of Advent.  For some it will occasion little or no response;  for others it may elicit memories of religious obligations that were more onerous than life-giving.  For still others it will resurrect thoughts of a more innocent age, before Black Friday side-tracked it into a seasonal frenzy of consumerism.  But for the lucky ones, Advent will be a time of renewal that reminds us of an inner transcendence that we all share.

Jesus often spoke about the importance of the sabbath, and in well-chosen words he reminded anyone who would listen that they were not made for the sabbath.  Rather, the sabbath was made for them, and it was meant to recall our intrinsic value as people made in God’s image.  We need not be pawns of marketers or slaves to unrelenting schedules.  There’s more to life than mindless activity, because there is in fact purpose to our lives.

A recent column by David Brooks reinforced this point for me when he quoted the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel.  “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build,” he wrote.  “It is made of soul, joy and reticence.”  Brooks paraphrased Heschel when he concluded that “we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living.”

IMG_0024_2I find it interesting that in our march toward a more secular worldview we’ve managed to repurpose the point of Advent and decorate it in the trappings of merchandise.  We’ve supplemented it with what some have labeled the nightly liturgy of the talking heads.  Even as our eyes are glued to the televised politicos, we hold cell phones as if they were life-support, and in effect we make of ourselves appendages of technology.  Ironically, we’ve come to believe that all these things are here to serve us, when in fact it’s become the other way around.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the first time in the human experience that this has happened.  It’s merely the modern iteration of the eternal quest to achieve sanity and to attain the inner peace that makes life worth living.  Not surprisingly, our sabbath and Advent observances are part of that ritual effort to transcend the mundane.

I’m not about to advocate that we take these religious observances to some extreme.  But what I do suggest is that we take them for what they are worth.  And therein I draw one more lesson from Jake.  Jake didn’t need to chase tennis balls all day long to find meaning in life.  Once a day was enough to affirm the value of his life in a routine of eating, chasing squirrels and barking at the UPS people.  Life was good for Jake, and life can and ought to be good for us, no matter the tedium and challenge that fills the spaces between successive Sundays and Advents.

IMG_0022_2This Sunday I’ve resolved to set aside one activity and elevate it as a symbol of the transcendent value of my life.  I was made for God, and not for online shopping or the cell-phone or rush-hour traffic.  Sure, these are struggles with which we must contend, but they are not the ultimate good in and of themselves.  They are no more than the means to a greater good.

Finally, when the last Sunday of Advent dawns, I hope I don’t find myself wondering what happened to all those Sundays.  Nor do I want to be asking “Who stole my Sundays?”  For better or for worse, if I have nothing to show for my efforts, I hope I’ll have the honesty to say that I’ve given all my Sundays away.  If, on the contrary, I’ve made something of them, then I’ll have the joy of singing with the saints:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice!”


+Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was serenely quiet at Saint John’s over the holidays.  Now the rush to the end of the term has begun, and the starting gun has signaled to our students the opening of the camping season in the library.

+In a recent post I presented a photo of a fresco of Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, on the walls of the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  I noted that it was the first time I’d seen such an image, and one of my confreres graciously pointed out that it is in fact a common image in Italy, Spain and the Latin countries in the Americas.  There it is referenced as La Divina Pastora.  My previous encounters with similar images have been in manuscript art, and from one of my files I have retrieved a stone carving of that scene.  It is entitled the Madonna of Mercy, done in the first half of the 15th century in Tuscany.  It is housed in the Fondazione Salvatore Romano in Florence.  The photo is at the bottom of today’s post.

+The stained glass in today’s post all come from a rose window in the church of Saint Eustace in Paris.


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Wisdom:  The Icing on the Cake

Writing a sermon doesn’t come easily for me.  Sometimes that’s due to a text that doesn’t give preachers a lot to work with.  On other occasions the text can be a tough sell, such as when Jesus constructs a logical conundrum or when one of the cursing Psalms pops up.  But I suppose that’s why I’ve always thought of sermon-preparation and delivery as an art form — and a demanding one at that.  That’s why I try to pay attention to the reviews from the pews.  They come in real time, whether as a snore or a smile.

Last week I had the good fortune to work with a passage from the Book of Wisdom, chapter 7.  The book itself is nested in my favorite portion of the Bible, the wisdom books that include the Psalms and Proverbs.  As a monk I see that wisdom literature streaming through the entirety of The Rule of Saint Benedict, but on a macro level it’s always seemed to me to be the necessary spark of inpsiration for a life well-lived.  Sure, we need the Ten Commandments; but they merely provide the least common denominator, below which we slip into barbarism.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is the icing on the cake.  A life filled with wisdom is the highest art form that exists.  A life without wisdom is existence, in its minimal form.

What follows is the sermon on Wisdom 7 that I prepared for the Abbey Mass recently.  The writing came in one sitting, which in itself was a bit of a miracle.  Even better, fewer people than usual fell asleep, which was nice reassurance.


“For she is the refulgence of eternal light,

the spotless mirror of God,

the image of his goodness”. (Wisdom 7: 22b)

My favorite image in The Saint John’s Bible is an illumination of this passage from the Book of Wisdom.  To illustrate it Donald Jackson borrowed the wrinkled face of an elderly woman — a face uniquely serene and beautiful.  She reminds us of the power of God to show himself in the least likely of people.

This is a vision that Saint Benedict also conveys when he urges us monks to be aware of the face of Christ looking out to us from the sick and the poor, the young, the abbot, and above all from the stranger.

All of this runs counter to the spirit of the times.  Today we tend to pay greater attention to bombast and pretension, to the flashy and the glitzy.  But the words of Wisdom remind us of the shallowness of such veneer.  They remind us that wisdom is a spirit that is “intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain.”  Wisdom is nuanced, to say the least.  What wisdom is not is a bull in a china shop.  Let us pray that to each of us the Lord will grant a full measure of this holy and life-giving wisdom.



+On November 16th I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On November 16-17 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 14th the monastic chapter voted to approve a proposal to expand and complete the pipe organ in the Abbey and University church.  Walter Holtkamp was the designer and builder of the current organ, which has been in place in the Abbey church since its construction in 1959-60.  However, budget constraints at the time meant that the organ design had to be scaled back considerably.  In authorizing this initiative, the Abbey will contract with Pasi Organ Builders, a leading international firm headed by Martin Pasi, a native of Austria now living in the United States.  If all goes according to plan, and the fund-raising continues to be successful, we should see the dedication of the organ in two years, and it will be one of the premier organs in the country.  To say the least, we are excited about the prospect.

+In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving week, today’s photos show some of the produce from the monastery garden this year.  Once upon a time the monks grew most of the produce that fed the community and the school, and we still have three large storage cellars from that era.  The crop of squash shown in the photos in this post is stored in a ca. 1890 cellar, pictured at the top of the post.  I’m always amazed at the variety of the squash, which includes some squash that only a mother could love.  Gardener-monks estimate that they brought in three tons of produce this summer, and the rest of us monks continue to be grateful for their effort.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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Remembering 31 October 1517

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses, and there’s no denying that they achieved a significance that he scarcely imagined.  Meant to be an academic exercise, they in fact became the spark that lit a fire that became a conflagration.

This year marked the 500th anniversary of that act, and people were not entirely sure how to mark the occasion.  Some celebrated;  some noted it with regret;  while a few dismissed its significance altogether.  Not surprisingly, some lionized Luther, though one op-ed piece in The Minneapolis Star Tribune went over the top when it gave the theologian credit for having ushered in the scientific revolution, modern capitalism, and constitutional democracy.  Luther, no doubt, would have been as surprised as I by this list.

What did not surprise me in the least was the brevity of the celebration.  By November 1st we’d all gone back to our cell phones and our hourly doses of politics, which is kind of sad.  It’s sad because we scarcely took the time to ponder the change that’s taken place to heal some of the wounds that have divided western Christians for so long.

IMG_2382I grew up in a part of the country where Catholics constituted 3% of the population, Episcopalians 2%, and Lutherans 1%.  I’m rather embarrassed now to admit that many of our fellow citizens thought that we three churches were going to hell together, but that’s not an unfair characterization.  As a result, we Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans became good neighbors to each other, long before it became fashionable.

I expected to find uniformly warm relations between Catholics and Lutherans when I moved to Minnesota, but I was surprised to find pockets of mistrust.  Still running around were some Catholics and Lutherans who were absolutely convinced that it was a big sin to step into each others’ churches.  Had I been naive to assume so much overlap between the two churches?  Perhaps.  But I was equally convinced that the differences were no longer canyon-sized, as a few believed.

A lot has happened in Minnesota and elsewhere to heal some of the rifts that opened in 1517, and most of it has occurred in the last fifty or sixty years.  So it’s important to realize what some Christian communities have accomplished in that time, even if it doesn’t make the evening news.  It’s a tribute to the vision and hard work of countless individuals, some of whom took a little heat as they labored to make our religious landscape a little more Christian.

Lots of people deserve recognition for their efforts, but for the moment I want to cite the monks of Saint John’s who forged our own particular contribution.  Since the 1940s they have accomplished things that certainly would have raised the eyebrows of our 19th-century confreres, but the latter had their mission and we have ours.

IMG_2388The litany of achievement is long, and I can’t include each and every detail.  Still, it’s worth noting that for decades we have welcomed Lutheran and other pastors who have come to teach and preach from our pulpit in the Abbey church.  Second, this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Collegeville Institute, which invites visiting scholars for a semester or year-long resdence to pursue research on ecumenical topics.  On another front, individual monks and faculty at Saint John’s University have participated in Vatican-sponsored dialogues with Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Orthodox churches.  We’ve leased land to the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, which has allowed it to build the Episcopal House of Prayer, a retreat center on the Abbey grounds.  And daily we welcome all sorts of individuals and church groups to join us in praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the Abbey church.

As for me, I’ve ridden on the coat tails of all this work, and I’ve been privileged to speak and preach in many churches where I would have been unwelcome a hundred years ago.  These continue to be gratifying experiences, as I learn from others and they learn from me.

In that regard, I will always recall when, many years ago, I spoke at a Lutheran church in Minneapolis.  One listener asked whether I thought that Lutherans and Catholics would ever become one Church.  Of course the assumption running through the minds of many was that the Catholics would be the footdraggers, and it would never happen.  My answer came swiftly, supplied by the Holy Spirit.  “Yes, I do think we will unite, and I can tell you exactly when.  Catholics and Lutherans will unite exactly one month after the ELCA and the Missouri Synod Lutherans unite.”  Appreciative laughter erupted.

IMG_2353The task of reaching out in faith to one another is never done, which is a good thing.  It means that you and I have lots of important work left to do.  On the other hand, it’s important to be grateful for the efforts of those who have gone before us in faith and reached out to their brothers and sisters in Christ.

October 31st was as good a day as any to make note of all that.  On the one hand, we can regret many of the things that happened after 1517.  On the other hand, there is cause for genuine celebration for what people have done in the last two generations.  It’s a sign that the Holy Spirit has been at work in our midst — quietly and patiently.  For that reason I have no doubt that, come 31 October 2117, we’ll have even more to show for the work of the Holy Spirit among us.


+This past week I flew to Arizona.  Due to my back troubles last winter, I’d not been there in nearly a year, and my absence coincided with a week of cold weather at home.  One highlight of the trip was a stop at the mission of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  It was built in the 1790s, and the major surprise to me was a fresco of what the docent termed Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, located in the dome above the nave.  Nicknamed the White Dove, the mission stands out dramatically on the desert landscape.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate the mission, founded by the Jesuits and now staffed by Franciscans.  You can click on the photos to enlarge them, and in particular it’s worth taking a look at the fresco of Mary with the sheep.

+In recognition of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library has staged an exhibit of 16th-century books relating to the Reformation.  Among them is the very first book that the monks of Saint John’s entered into the holdings of the University library.  It has the accession number “1”, and it is a German translation of the Bible, printed in Cologne in 1572.  It was among the books that the monks brought with them when they came to Minnesota in 1856.

+On 11 November our football team bested Concordia in a game hosted at Saint John’s.  One observer wryly noted that in commemoration of the Reformation Saint John’s outscored every Lutheran opponent on the schedule this season.  To which I would add that we aspired to do the same with every Catholic opponent as well.  So there was nothing personal or confessional about this.


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Take a Chance on a Life Well-lived

[What follows is a sermon I delivered at the Abbey Mass on the Feast of All Saints]

Ordinarily the readings from the Scriptures are meant to be good news as we walk on our pilgrimage to the Lord.  They encourage us in the best and in the worst of times, and they remind us of the heavenly banquet that awaits us.

But then again there are passages that can scare us to death rather than offer assurance, and today’s readings from the Book of Revelation (7: 2-4, 9-14), and the Gospel of St. Matthew (5: 1-12), have the potential to do that.

The words from Revelation conjure up a vision of 144,000 elect who will sit in the company of the saints.  It sounds like a lot, and it was meant to sound like a lot.  It certainly wasn’t the biggest number that the writer could think of, but that wasn’t the point.  It had symbolic value, and it signaled the immensity of God’s generosity and hospitality.  More people than you and I will ever know, or can ever imagine knowing, will enjoy communion with the Lord.

IMG_7543Even so, there are those who have taken that number literally.  In New Testament times there seemed nothing to worry about, but by the Middle Ages, with tens of millions of Christians, the literalists among us grew nervous.  They concluded that the odds of getting into heaven were getting slimmer with each new baptism.  If only 144,000 would be saved, could there be any chance of salvation?  This began to generate a lot of anxiety about God’s generosity, and that anxiety was never meant to be.

As for the Beatitudes, which the gospel of St. Matthew recounts for us, there is also a rather dark tone.  It’s nice to know that the poor in spirit and the needy and those who mourn will find welcome in the kingdom of heaven.  It’s a comfort that the persecuted and the reviled will find reward that is proportionate to what they suffered.  But do all of us have to endure these things to qualify for a seat at the heavenly banquet?  I for one don’t find that prospect all that appealing.

Thankfully I long ago realized that the Beatitudes don’t demand that suffering be the price we pay for entry into eternal life.  And they make that clear after a careful reading.

IMG_7584Take, for example, the point that Jesus makes about those who mourn.  It’s easy to conclude that Jesus wants us to suffer or be doormats as the price we pay to know him.  But while the words of Jesus may seem to suggest that, in fact he is asking us to be bold.  He’s asking that we not be afraid to take some big risks in our lives.  Consider that the people who mourn do so to mourn the loss of something or someone important to them.  Something that they valued.  Something in which they’d invested.  Something for which they risked their lives.

That’s the point Jesus wishes to make in the Beatitudes.  He does not want us to go through life minimizing risks so as to avoid the day when we might have to mourn.  When we avoid all risk, when we avoid any possible discomfort, we also miss out on the rewards that come with the risk.  We miss out on the rewards that make life worth living.

In the Beatitudes Jesus invites us to take big risks in life.  He asks us to consider doing the right thing despite the possibility of failure or rebuke.  We should strive for a sense of purpose in our lives, even if there may be days when we might fail.  We may have to mourn, but we’ll also celebrate a life in Christ.

In the Beatitudes Jesus asks us to take the risk of a life well-lived.  Life is a gift, and it’s too precious a gift to live it on the sidelines, for fear of getting hurt.  Life is what Jesus came to give us, and he came so that we might have it in abundance.



+On November 1st, the feast of All Saints, I presided at the Abbey Mass.  The post for today is the text of the sermon that I delivered.

+On November 2nd we celebrated the feast of All Souls.  By long custom we monks gathered for noon prayer in the Abbey cemetery.

+On the evening of November 2nd I spoke to a gathering of alumni of Saint John’s University, convened in Moorhead, MN.  The occasion for the talk was an exhibit of folios from The Saint John’s Bible, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.  (For the record, the Center is pronounced as it is written:  yemkomst.)  For those unacquainted with Minnesota geography, Moorhead is located on the Red River, a stone’s throw from Fargo on the other side.  So I extended a particularly warm welcome to those alumni and friends who had driven all the way from North Dakota to join us.

+Normally there is one prior per monastery, and that’s certainly the case at Saint John’s.  Saint Benedict wrote about the need for a prior, especially when there is too much for the abbot to contend with.  Normally the prior does all those things that the abbot either cannot or does not want to do.  On 4 November priors from sixteen monasteries joined us for a four-day meeting on the job of the prior.

+Early on the morning of November 4th we had about five inches of snow.  I thought it was wonderful, but I didn’t need to drive in it.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the beauty of the day, and at the bottom you can see winter’s version of the photo that normallly appears on the masthead of this blog.




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