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Archive for January, 2018

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The Challenge of Belief

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me what it is that Catholics find hardest to believe.  To him as an outsider there seemed so much that we accept on faith, and so much of it seems to strain credulity.  What is it that Catholics find most difficult to accept?

I thought for a moment, and I offered this qualifier.  People find belief a challenge, not because the proposition seems preposterous, but for fear of the impact it could have on their lives.  And then I listed some things that the general run of the population seems to accept, just to point out that Catholics aren’t the only ones who go out on a limb in their willingness to believe.

529E4D22-AD2A-4820-A3BE-373A95E0C3B8First off, people seem willing to believe most anything they read on the internet.  Despite the fact that there’s so much junk, mistakes, outright lies and the like, people still believe and quote stuff from the internet as if it’s the gospel.

Then there’s the lottery.  On any given day millions of people will plunk down hard-earned money, in the absurd belief that they have a chance to win the lottery.  Mathematically there is indeed a chance to win the powerball jackpot, but the surer bet would be to invest the money in a business or put it in a bank.  But human behavior defies logic, and that’s the way it is.

As for religion, the great majority of Americans say they believe in God.  However, that profession of faith seems automatic, said with the same detachment as when they say the sun will come up in the morning and that an apple will fall to the ground.  “God does exist,” they respond to pollsters, “and what’s the next question?”

Ironically, I think what we Catholics can find hardest to believe is the notion that God has something in mind for us to do.  And I’m left to wonder why it is so difficult to believe that God has created each of us in the divine image; that God touches our lives; that God has something uniquely special for us to do.  In that respect our response echos Mary’s astonishment at the message from the angel.  “Who am I that God should have such plans for me?”

8811F8D3-04A2-4F2E-A61A-942101DD17BAThis skepticism about God’s plans for us has practical implications.  First, it lets us off the hook from taking any initiative.  It lets God be God, but it reserves to us the right to run our own lives.  At most God gets an hour a week, but the rest of the week belongs to us.  After all, what could God possibly want from us anyway?

Secondly, if God had something important for us to do, God would tell us up front.  We’d have gotten a formal announcement by now, leaving us in no doubt about the divine plan for us.  But God seems not to do that.

This brings us full circle in the issue of faith.  Why is it so easy to profess our belief in God in the Creed, but in the next breath it’s so difficult to confess that God has something in mind for us to do with our lives?  Can it really be true that we are not important?  Can we excuse ourselves because God has not yelled some personal invitation into our right ear?

A few years ago I was struck by an advertising blitz that urged people to get the Mercedes that they deserved.  I smiled, because I wasn’t all that sure that I deserved a Mercedes in the first place.  But I also knew there was a catch.  All I had to do to get the Mercedes I deserved was to give the Mercedes people the money they thought they deserved.  It was as simple as that.

God doesn’t work that way.  God is not trying to sell us something.  Rather, God merely wants us to open our eyes to our potential.  God wants us to make the most of our talents. God wants to awaken within us the possibility that there is something really important for us to do.  And the task of self-discovery is too important to reserve to one hour a week.  Self-discovery is a daily business, done systematically throughout our lives.

Given all that, why is it so hard to believe that God has blessed us in so many ways?  Why is it so tough to believe that God has something uniquely important for us to do?  We’ll never know, unless we put our minds to it, today and every day.

8E2BBFA2-6B6E-4252-A1C7-686B588EEC1BNOTES

+Today’s post is an excerpt from a sermon that I gave at Saint John’s Abbey on 14 January 2018.  Is it fair to recycle a sermon or essay into this blog?  There’s a part of me that says each post on my blog should be unique.  Then there’s the practical side in me that says there are only so many hours in a day and days in a week.  So if it was good enough for one audience, perhaps it might be of use to another.  And it has saved me a lot of work every now and again!

+On 26 January I presided at the Abbey Eucharist.

+There are always way too many things going on at Saint John’s, and I cannot take advantage of all the things I would like to.  This week, for example, I would have enjoyed going to the lecture by Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents our district in Congress.  His visit was sponsored by the McCarthy Center at Saint John’s, and Congressman Emmer’s remarks were entitled “An Assessment of the Trump Administration at the End of the First Year.”  I’m sure it was a lively evening, and I was sorry to miss it.

+On 28 January our confrere, Fr. Bob Koopmann, gave a piano recital in the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s.

+The photos in today’s post are from the church of St. Stephen in Mainz, Germany.  Founded in 990 by the Emperor Otto III, it has gone through many changes over the centuries.  Most notable today are the stunning glass windows by Marc Chagall, which alone are enough to merit a trip to the church.  I also found the arrangement of the pipes for the organ to be stunning.  The bluish tint is the result of the light from the stained glade.  Click on the photos to enlarge them.

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The Wisdom of the Ancients

For as long as I can remember, history has fascinated me.  Perhaps because I grew up in a part of the country where even a late 19th-century building was a rarity, I envied places where tangible traces of history abounded.  But none were at hand, and so reading was the next best thing.

My earliest recollection of a history book that I personally chose to read was one on Aztec history and architecture.  The mere thought of discovering a lost city in some jungle stirred my imagination, and it probably explains my later receptivity to Indiana Jones movies.  Not everything about Aztec culture was riveting, of course, and that’s especially true for human sacrifice.  However, their accomplishments in urban planning were amazing, and a culture that was the first to make use of “zero” can’t be all bad.  On the one hand the latter didn’t inspire me to become a mathematician, but it did give me a useful term for understanding some people.

My dreams of becoming a Central-American archeologist never materialized, which is just as well.  Even now I’ve never visited one of their jungles, not least because I don’t do well with mosquitos and humidity.  Those weren’t the primary reasons for landing on medieval history, but they were considerations nonetheless.

7FD42978-1559-4BE5-87C9-41E59A1490BFThis brings me to the point.  Last week I was in Germany and managed to squirrel away some time for a side trip to Cologne.  I’d been there once before, twenty-five years ago, and I’d always wanted to return.  It never happened, until last week.

Cologne today is a shadow of its medieval self, thanks to the bombs that rained down in World War II.  Despite being next to a prime target — the railway station — bombers skillfully spared the gothic cathedral, but the ancient Romanesque churches weren’t so lucky.  Most of them have been rebuilt, however, and the chance to wander their aisles let me commune with long-dead citizens about whom I know a lot more now that I did twenty-five years ago.

For what do I admire these people most?  Certainly I admire them for their vision.   They may have lacked the presence of mind to begin a pharmaceutical industry or invent television sit-coms, but they had vision, in spades.  Specifically, they had the vision to build things that would last.  And endure those noble structures did, until the wars of the 20th century knocked them down.

I also admire them for their community spirit, to which some 15th-century statues testify.  Several figures of the prophets once perched in the medieval city hall, and to all and sundry they offered words of advice.  “The common good is to be preferred over personal good.”  “He who dies for the community shall live forever.”  I can’t imagine anyone proposing that for a government building today;  but there you have it:  naïveté in all its innocence.

Most of all I admire them for their faith.  They weren’t perfect, but they did their best, against the odds.  For centuries they read the Word of God and heard it preached, and it took centuries for them to internalize answers to questions like “Who is my neighbor?”  It was tough to get beyond the notion that neighborliness ended at the edge of the village, but they did.

24E1C3B5-97C8-4CC9-9F4A-CAF738F94AB8Would I want to go back in time and live in the 12th century?  Not a chance.  I may be a historian, but I’m not a hopeless romantic.  That said, I do love their Romanesque churches, much as I treasure their architectural descendents on the campus of Saint John’s.  But I also have a practical streak, and I happen to like indoor plumbing and central heat.  Long ago I realized that living in Northern Europe in the 12th century is much like living in a cabin in the north woods.  Year round.  For a life-time.  No thanks.

Beyond that, I appreciate the challenges that they faced, but I appreciate even more the wisdom that they bequeathed to us.  Today we have challenges that they could scarcely imagine, but they have wisdom that’s still useful — even to us.  Yet another of those 15th-century statues comes with this bit of sage advice for all citizens:  “First seek the kingdom of God and his justice.”  I — and we —could do worse.

6474AD53-85BE-4331-AC68-3B5953EAEC83NOTES

+As today’s post indicates, the major event of the past week was a trip to Frankfurt, with a side venture to Cologne.  The latter trip shattered my myths about the faultless reliability of German trains, alas.  My train left Frankfurt twenty minutes late, and at Koblenz — the half-way point — it stopped because of difficult weather further ahead.  The conductor announced a one-hour delay, and that morphed into two hours, then three, then four.  At that point they announced that, due to severe weather, no trains were going to Cologne.  Our train was cancelled, and so I had no option but to find another train and go back to Frankfurt.  What did I do for four and a half hours on a train parked in the Koblenz station?  Crossword puzzles.  Don’t leave home without them.

+From January 18-21 organ-builder Martin Pasi visited Saint John’s to begin work on the expansion and completion of the organ in the Abbey church.  On the 20th he joined the monks in the refectory for lunch.

+The photos in today’s post omit the obvious symbol of Cologne — the cathedral — simply because that will come in a future post.  For now I am content with a sampling of some of the Romanesque churches that sprinkle the core of the city.  At top is St. Maria im Capitol, followed by Great St. Martin and Saint Caecilia.  Today Saint Caecilia houses the Museum Schnütgen, which is a vast collection of medieval art.  In the collection are eight statues of prophets that used to stand in the medieval town hall, including the photo of one of them, holding a scroll which reads:  “No one shall gossip outside the Council.”  At bottom is the interior of St. Caecilia, which comprises one of the many galleries in the Museum.

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A Career in Hypocrisy?

”When I grow up, I want to be an accomplished and respected hypocrite.”

I’ve not checked with many five-year-olds, but among the few with whom I’ve discussed career plans, becoming a hypocrite is an aspiration that I’ve yet to hear.  I’m tempted to conclude that no one at age five wants to grow up to become a hypocrite, and perhaps at that age they’re just too innocent to imagine it.  Yet, it happens anyway.

Hypocrites begin life meaning well enough.  Like others they have good insights.  They have the best of intentions.  But along the way something happens.  Perhaps it’s the weight of responsibility or the lure of power and influence.  Whatever it is that makes us jaded or cynical, like a thief in the night hypocrisy reaches out to snatch us.  Once in its grasp, it’s really hard to pry ourselves free.

2FE87E19-B1C5-44D1-8A5D-A975FF65B501In chapter one of his gospel Saint Mark doesn’t use the word hypocrite to define who Jesus is not, but clearly hypocrisy was the one thing that distinguished him from the scribes.  Jesus spoke with authority, and not like the scribes.  And when he did teach, he didn’t rely on the power of office.  Instead he taught as one who seemed to know God intimately.  He practiced what he preached, and not for love of gain.  Not surprisingly then, his words packed a punch that stopped people in their tracks.

The drift into hypocrisy can happen to any and all of us, at any time of life.  It can happen as we’re standing in a pulpit.  It can happen as we exercise even the smallest shred of responsibility.  It can happen in a monastery, in an office or in a home.  And it happens when we believe that power of any sort makes us better than others.

Saint Benedict in his Rule warned monks not to be kingdom-builders.  It’s good advice for monks, but it’s also good advice for anyone, because kingdom-building is a temptation for most of us.  And it’s certainly not the exclusive preserve of the high-born and powerful.  But it’s insidious, because for so many it’s the first step down the path to hypocrisy.

Jesus came to serve rather than to be served, and that may be the best antidote to hypocrisy that’s available to us.  Certainly Saint Benedict echos that suggestion; and if it’s good enough for monks, then there’s wisdom there for everyone.

As for me, I’ve not been five years old for some time now, but I still aspire to achieve an age when hypocrisy is beyond my reach.  That’s perhaps why Benedict’s wisdom is still a valuable commodity for me.  For the foreseeable future I will still need all the wisdom I can get.

7D49F8C7-85AF-47DB-A273-0AE60872393ENOTES

+On January 9-11 I attended the annual workshop that we schedule in the monastery.

+On January 10th I preached at the Abbey Mass.  Today’s post is a variation of what I preached that day.

+On Sunday the 14th I again presided at the Abbey Mass.  Someday I will harvest from those comments and you’ll see them reappear in this blog.  But not this time around!

+During the past week several trees were taken down in the monastic garden, due to age and disease.  The garden was planted in the 1920’s, and just about now the rows of spruce trees that form the perimeter have reached their life expectancy.  The ones that have not died or been toppled in storms are in their final years, and we are in the process of replanting the entire lot of them.

+On January 14th Brother Joe Schneeweiss left for Rome, where he will become the director of the library at the Collegio di Sant Anselmo.  Sant Anselmo is the international college of the Benedictines, and the abbot primate lives there.  Joe will be on loan to them for several years.

950E2D35-A5E5-4F82-A4C4-88F296D97CFC+This last week Brother Benedict Vuong Tran, O.Cist., arrived at Saint John’s to begin four years of seminary studies.  Brother Benedict is from an abbey in Vietnam, and he joins three other Cistercians from that country who are studying with us.  The Cistercians are an 11th-century off-shoot of the Benedictines.  The Trappists, in turn, are a 17th-century reform movement of the Cistercians.  We’re all relatives in following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

+On 14 January my guardian angel worked overtime.  That afternoon I drove to Minneapolis to catch an early morning flight the next day, and like everyone else I scoffed at the four inches of snow that we were getting.  Along the way I passed twelve accidents and narrowly missed a multi-car pile-up as it was unfolding right before me.  It was a harrowing experience.

+On a cold winter’s day it is always a comfort to recall warmer places, and the photos in today’s post are ones I took at the medieval abbey of San Miniato in Florence.  It has wonderful mosaics and beautiful architectural lines, and my favorite element is the stunning pulpit that sits on the wall that divides the choir from the nave.  San Miniato occupies a lovely perch overlooking the city of Florence.

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God Is In the Traffic

I have no idea how many sermons I’ve given, but by now I have a pretty good idea of those themes I like to tackle and the ones I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.  In the latter category I put famines, wherever in the world they might be.  It’s not that I lack empathy, because I don’t.  However, most congregations I preach to in central Minnesota are singularly ill-equipped to plunk down money for an expensive ticket to Nairobi, solve the hunger problem there, and be back by the end of the week.

The same holds true for peace in the Middle East or Afghanistan.  Most monks I know — and I’m in that category — wouldn’t know where to begin, even if the abbot gave us permission.  So for that reason I prefer not to preach about things ordinary people can’t do much about anyway.  All it does is make some people feel guilty because they can’t do anything to help;  while others feel depressed because they can’t do anything to help.  It’s better to preach about things that people can actually do, rather than harangue them about things they can’t.

2C8DCA84-25D4-4AC2-BDA1-77485DA7700DSo it was that the words of Pope Francis on New Year’s Day were a delight to me.  Instead of pie-in-the-sky civilization-changing deeds, the pope spoke about stuff that almost anybody can do to make the world a better place.  Specifically, he spoke about driving a car.  Driving can set the tone for the health of a community, and whether people are considerate when they’re behind the wheel or whether they’re hell on wheels does matter.  Ask your typical Romans trying to get across the street, and they’ll tell you so.

Driving is something that touches nearly all of us.  Many drivers are thoughtful and generous.  Some should be locked up.  Still others shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.  Regardless of where we fit on the chart, time spent at the wheel gives us the chance to have at least some impact on our neighbors.  For better as well as for worse, every time we get behind the wheel we can make or ruin someone’s day.  It really is that simple.

Pope Francis didn’t mean to single out driving as the toughest challenge facing the world.  Anyone who’s read even a few of his sermons knows that he hammers away at war and hunger too.  But driving is a convenient example of how we can make a difference in the lives of others, virtually anywhere and at any time.

I thought the pope’s comments provided good fodder for those of us wondering what we might do to make the world a better place in 2018.  The good news is that we don’t have to fly 6,000 miles to accomplish something worthwhile.  Someday there may be the chance for that, but for now the really great news is that there’s plenty to do near at hand.  We need only open our eyes and see who’s standing in front of us.  There is our opportunity.  There stands Christ.

8A156C27-D60C-49C5-A981-0484066980F0I can’t help but think about the streets of Rome and what a harrowing experience it can be to cross them.  It’s a bit like what wildebeest confront when crossing a river full of crocodiles.  So I’m left wondering whether Pope Francis inadvertently got his listeners all stirred up on New Year’s Day in Saint Peter’s Square.  Just behind them roared a maelstrom of traffic, which each had to cross.  I’m guessing that more than a few prayed that the drivers of Rome were listening to the pope on the radio.

That’s when they — and we — begin to appreciate how important are the so-called little things in life.  They’re far more important than we might think, because in them we encounter the chance to do the serious work of the Lord.  Even in the traffic we find the presence of God.

NOTES

+New Year’s Day came and went quietly in the monastery.

+On January 2nd I flew to New York for a series of visits with alumni of Saint John’s.  It was not the best week to be there, and the national news was not reticent about reporting it.  It was bitterly cold, and the big snow day saw the city grind to a halt.  I was surprised to note that the cars ground the fallen snow into the consistency of mashed potatoes, and it was really slippery.

+The storm gave me some time out to visit two of my favorite places in the world — the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum.  I last visited The Morgan when a dear friend of Saint John’s presented an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to The Morgan’s permanent collection.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At top is a limewood sculpture of the Adoration of the Magi, made in Swabia in Germany, ca. 1515-20.  Next is a stained glass of the Nativity, made in 1444 for a church in Boppard-am-Rhein in Germany.  Next is a Madonna and Child, made in Siena ca. 1440.  At bottom is a bicycle I saw in New York.  It was actually worse than it looks, and I can only pray that the drivers were kind and merciful to this poor cyclist.

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Christmas:  An Everyday Feast

“The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance.”

So wrote Saint Benedict in chapter 49 of his Rule, and I confess up front that I’ve always had problems with this.  For one thing, it conjures up a way of life that is monochromatic.  It seems cheerless.  It appears to be an endless cycle of drudgery, day in and day out.  It also makes Lent the sole season of the church year, with gray chosen as the liturgical color.  Given all that, what about the other seasons of the year?  And specifically, what happened to Christmas?

I don’t want to get too detailed about this, but Saint Benedict lived on the eve of a critical transition in the liturgical practice of Western monasteries.  Whatever Christians may have done elsewhere, the celebration of great feasts in the monastery was not yet what it was to become.  Saint Gregory the Great provides good insight into this when he writes of an instance when a visitor called on Benedict in his hermitage.  The visitor was astonished to discover that the holy man had no idea that it was the Easter season.

DFABBC6E-6B2C-42B5-8F01-6C179961DC3FI can’t fault Benedict for the simplicity that marked his years as a hermit.  You can’t do much when your processions are one person long, and a cave scarcely provides the setting for an elaborate liturgy.  However, his move to Monte Cassino provided both the community and the liturgical space that started the ball rolling.  In time the observance of an elaborate liturgy that included Christmas became the thread that set the tone for their lives.

So how do we monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrate Christmas?  For one thing, Saint Benedict would wonder where all those decorated trees came from, but at least he would appreciate their contrast with the darkness of the season.  Beyond that, our Christmas Eve liturgy is solemn, and the Christmas Day feast in the refectory is distinctive, both for its menu and its ritual.  It’s both a joyful and strenuous regimen, and more than a few of us close the feast with a nap.

Certainly Benedict did not legislate for this, but there’s another point to consider.  Benedict may have characterized the life of a monk as a Lenten observance, but it is a way of life that makes vivid the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.  At every turn monks should see the face of Christ — in the abbot, in the novice, in the sick or elderly, and especially in the guest.  Perhaps for this reason Benedict did not see the need to restrict the celebration of the Incarnation to one particular day.  In fact, in the monastery we should strive to celebrate that feast every day.

This being January 1st — yet one more day which Benedict did not observe — it’s a traditional time to make resolutions for the new year.  No doubt most monks will set one or the other personal goals, but one goal for us all is to live the Incarnation every day.  Even though our lives may have the character of a Lenten observance, one bit should pervade it all.  The Lord still comes, just as he did at Bethlehem.  The only difference is that he now comes every day.

522D7BA7-EC9C-4D68-950A-45D3E6E92718NOTES

+On December 26th I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I saw a special exhibit of 17th-century cityscape paintings, primarily of Venice and Rome.  Most of the canvasses were monumental in size, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people rushed out afterwards to buy plane tickets to Italy.

+The next day the weather became far more severe, and the cold has become a cruel jailer.  I did not venture out of doors for several days, but on New Year’s Eve I finally caved in and drove to St. Cloud to buy a new battery for my watch.  It had died four days earlier, and it was a little odd wandering around without knowing the time.  In a monastery monks can rely on the bells for time — in theory — but when it gets very cold we turn off our bells to avoid cracking them.  That was the case for our bells this week, and so for a few days my life was timeless.

+On December 31st we monks celebrated the eve of 2018 with our traditional gathering, which includes various games, visiting with one another, and pizza made by our Brother Dennis.  A few hardy souls stayed up to greet the new year;  but as is my custom, I brought in the new year in solidarity with the people living two time zones to the east of Minnesota.

+To all who read my blog I thank you for your occasional messages and comments.  I continue to enjoy writing this, and it’s an important part of my routine.  But it’s always encouraging to know that faithful readers continue and new readers subscribe to it.  Thank you, and I wish you all a happy New Year!

+The early 16th-century stained glass in today’s post originally came from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the Victoria & Albert in London.

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