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Archive for February, 2018

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Change Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

On Ash Wednesday I heard some words of advice that I never expected in a Lenten sermon.  “If going without meat turns you into a bear when you’re with others, then for heaven’s sake go out and eat a cheeseburger.”

Taken out of context, words like these can get a preacher into a lot of trouble.  They remind me of the counsel that Martin Luther once gave to his colleague Philip Melanchthon, when the latter hesitated to follow through on one particularly difficult issue.  “Sin boldly!” was Luther’s advice, and clearly he did not mean for Melanchthon to violate the ten commandments.  Luther’s critics had a field day anyway.

Lenten penance always presents something of a conundrum.  Do we do it to please God?  To impress others?  To whip ourselves into the best spiritual shape of our lives?  In the process we always run the risk of crossing over the line that separates personal discipline from public display.  And when we cross that line we lose every shred of benefit that might come from our exercise.

54CCF159-0B87-491A-90A1-EE708804FDC0Saint Benedict encouraged his monks to think of the monastic life as a continuous Lenten observance.  By now I’ve been around long enough to know that he did not counsel a life-time of fasting and self-denial, because elsewhere he cautioned about any unusual Lenten display.  The point was not to compete to be named the most holy and self-denying monk in all of monastic history.  In fact, Benedict preferred that monks not even be able to notice what their neighbors were doing for Lent.

It’s not that Benedict wants us to do little or nothing for Lent.  Rather, he discourages overt spiritual competition among us.  He discourages public displays that would suggest superiority to our neighbor.  In short, he prefers an interior discipline that changes hearts rather than public shows that rend garments.  In this he is on the same page as Jesus.

4807FEA4-B842-496F-A2ED-1DF6599592DBSo what’s the point of a Lenten observance for Benedict?  Clearly, Benedict counsels a different sort of path to God — one that abandons rugged ways and self-denial that would establish our reputation as stars in the spiritual firmament.  Instead, his is an asceticism of doing what our neighbors are doing.  In joining together in a communal exercise we admit that we are neither better nor worse than our fellow monks.  We acknowledge once again the commitment we’ve made to seek God with our brothers in community, rather than pursue careers as lone wolves.

Lent is a time of community, whether it be in a monastery or in a parish church.  It’s not a time to engage in self-denial that transforms us into people who are hard to get along with.  It’s not a time to sequester ourselves from human contact, on the pretext that we know best.  Rather, Lent is a season in which we realize that we make the forty-day trek through the wilderness, together.  Like the Hebrews wandering for forty years in the desert, we too search for God, together.  And we do it because without neighbors close at hand, it’s awfully hard to see the face of Christ in others.

So we might be well-advised to paraphrase the words of Peter, when the Lord asked him if he too would leave, just as had so many others who had found his words too hard to take.  “Lord, without our neighbors and confreres, to whom would we go?”

2A747F19-A0D8-42A9-8455-A8336356900ENOTES

+On February 22nd I again had a class in monastic history with the novices.  This time I spoke about Pope Gregory the Great and the mission of Saint Augustine to England.

+In a sign that the times are about to change, on February 24th taps were added to stands of maple trees in the abbey forest.  The season begins when day-time temperatures climb above freezing and drop below freezing at night.  That forces the sap up and down, and the taps divert a bit of that flow into the process that will make syrup.  It also signals the onset of spring.

+On February 21st my dear friend Jo White passed away after a long illness.  I knew Jo for ages, and she was a driving force in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible.  Today, 26 February, I will preside at her funeral in St. Paul.  Several monks and colleagues from Saint John’s will attend.

+This has not been a good winter for snow — meaning, we’ve not had nearly enough.  But this week the weather made up for it with two storms that left us with nearly a foot of new snow.  The photos in today’s post show the results of the first snow.  I did not go out to get additional photos after the second snow, becuase I thought the additional six inches were gratuitous.  To enlarge the photos, simply click on them.

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Falling Down, and Getting Up

After evening prayer on Ash Wednesday we monks gathered in the chapter house to hear Abbot John deliver a conference to us.  Normally we meet there on Tuesdays, and in that room we discuss everything from the sublime to the ridiculously mundane.  But Ash Wednesday is different, both for the day and for the topic.

As near as I can recall, this was Abbot John’s 17th Ash Wednesday conference to us.  And for those who can’t quite imagine what a conference is, it’s pretty much like a sermon that’s gotten out of control.  There’s no seven-minute limit with conferences, and they usually run 20-25 minutes.

After sixteen earlier conferences on the subject of Lent, I wondered what in the world the abbot could possibly say that we’d not already heard.  And as much as the abbot might want to rely on our collective short-term memory and recycle some previous material, he dares not.  We can count on at least one or two of our confreres to remember, and they’ll remind us.  So the pressure is on to come up with something fresh and original, or he’ll hear about it afterward.

9CCAFA7E-0FD5-4E81-BF59-7A0C2938C2DBDespite our expectations, we still cut the abbot some slack.  He’d be negligent not to recall for us Saint Benedict’s description of the monastic life as a Lenten observance.  He’d be remiss not to cite Benedict’s encouragement to make do with less food and drink, to restrain ourselves from excessive speaking, and to compensate with extra prayer and meditation.  It just wouldn’t be a Lenten conference without these old saws, and on this occasion Abbot John once again delivered.

He also repeated Benedict’s caution that we not let our Lenten observance inflate us with pride.  I’m particularly susceptible to this, and not just during Lent, and for one big reason.  I long ago conceded that I’ll never be as good a monk as many of my confreres.  But I’ve also convinced myself that I’m at least better than the worst monk in our community.  My favorite prayer has long been one that the Pharisees would have said with gusto:  “There but for the grace of God — and my own initiative — go I.”  That’s not necessarily a bad prayer, except when it’s said with a dollop of pride.

With all those niceties out of the way, Abbot John got to the central focus of his conference:  baptism and the baptismal font at Easter.  For starters he cautioned that we should never think of our baptism as some sort of personal achievement.  Baptism is not a membership badge indicating that we have chosen Jesus, with the implication that Jesus ought to be grateful for what we’ve done.  On the contrary, in baptism Jesus has chosen us, and not the other way around.  The business of baptism is God reaching out to us, and we feebly responding.

0304DEB6-6461-4A7F-B31C-1EDCEF7C62EEAbbot John said a lot more in the course of 25 minutes, obviously, but for me the most vivid image was his reference to the Olympic skater Scott Hamilton.  Hamilton once estimated that he had fallen down 41,600 times in the course of  his career.  He also estimated that he got back up 41,600 times.  That’s astonishing, and it reminds me that I’ve done the same thing in my life — metaphorically, if not literally.

I’m guessing that the Scott Hamilton bit was likely the biggest take-away for many of the monks gathered in the chapter house on Ash Wednesday evening.  As for me, I was away from the Abbey, but I was fortunate to get a copy of the abbot’s address via email.  And I count myself fortunate because this is exactly the sort of stuff I need to mull over.

This is not my 17th Lent as a monk, but after seventeen Lents and more, I’m sorely tempted to join the chorus of people who say that Lent is boring.  Like them I sometimes wonder what more I could possibly learn from one more Lent.  The answer?  A lot.

The image of Scott Hamilton falling down and getting back up 41,600 times is powerful.  I can’t imagine that he ever came to enjoy it, nor did getting back up become any easier with experience.  But for him the struggle must have become a moral imperative.

So this Lent I’ve decided to meditate on the fact that I keep falling down, and I do it fairly often.  But all the same, I take comfort in the thought that the Lord never seems to tire of reaching out to help me get back up.  Praised be Jesus Christ, and thanks be to God!

AFAA9F5E-BCB1-4542-865C-2C5D50FB4D67NOTES

+On 13 February I flew to Miami, where I and a colleague met with several alumni of Saint John’s University.  Two days later we drove across Alligator Alley to Naples, where we had scheduled more visits and two events.  To my great disappointment, I did not see a single alligator along the way.

+On Ash Wednesday I and my colleague attended Mass at Saint William’s Church in Naples.  It was notable primarily because the power went off ten minutes before Mass.  We proceeded anyway, and candlelight and the strong voices of the readers managed to prevail in the packed church.   As for me, I was disappointed when the  power came back on.  But not everyone shared my sentiment.

+On February 15th I attended a reception that featured Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough, who served as chief of staff in the White House during President Obama’s second term.  The next day I attended the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast, where Denis again spoke.  Women now attend, but for some reason they still call it the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast.  It meets for twelve Fridays every winter, and always includes some distinguished speaker — many of whom are women.  This week some three hundred attended to hear Denis speak.

+The first three photos in today’s post show a panel now housed in the Wallraff Richards Museum in Cologne.  It’s by the Master of the Heisterbach Altar, made ca. 1450 in Cologne.  The bottom two photos show the chapter house at Saint John’s Abbey.  It adjoins the church, on the east side.

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Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.

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Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.

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Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.

9780A5CF-AD21-49AF-8413-B6CB2F6717D5NOTES

+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.

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We All Croak, So Live With Purpose

Last week my friend Kathleen Norris sent me the link to an app with the intriguing name of WeCroak.  For those who don’t know Kathleen, she’s a writer and poet, and she’s a friend to many monks in our community.  But despite living in Hawaii, I know for a fact that she’s not a biologist.  So I assumed, rightly, that WeCroak is not about frogs.  What it is about, however, is death; and it promises to send five messages a day to encourage us to stop and think about death.  And it does so on the premise that the truest path to happiness is to consider our mortality.

If you’ve never thought about your own death, then it’s probably time that you did.  You can never start too soon, and it’s something we monks try to do on a regular basis.  And we do that because Saint Benedict in his Rule urges us to keep death daily before our eyes.  It’s important to know, however, that Benedict is not trying to depress us or to throw us into a panic.  Rather, all he wants to do is remind us that our days on God’s green earth are numbered, and we should make good use of each and every moment of each and every day.  Anything less is to waste both our time and our lives, and these are two of the greatest gifts that God gives us.

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You and I can certainly choose to live as if there is no tomorrow.  We can also choose to live as if we’ll never run out of days.  But in fact our days are finite, and each day invites a response that is open and creative.  And so we should ask ourselves how we will use this day.  Will we have anything to show for it when we climb into bed tonight?  Will our lives matter to anyone this day?  These are just three of the questions that we can put to ourselves, and you will have your own variations on this theme.  But there’s always one thing to remember:  the unexamined life runs the risk of meaning little or nothing when it’s over.

In today’s readings we have two stark alternatives for shaping our lives.  The first reading, from chapter seven of the Book of Job, opens on this rather depressing note:  “Is not our life on earth a drudgery?”  And then Job goes on to point out that “my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;  they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; and I shall not see happiness again.”

There’s a lot more to the story of Job than this, and it remains one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned.  The good news is that Job’s life ends much differently than this, but these words suggest how illness and suffering and wasted days can all drain life of its positive meaning.  But life need not be that way.

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Today’s gospel passage from Mark chapter one provides an option that is clearly more hopeful than Job’s.  Mark recounts how the sick and the suffering came to Jesus for physical healing;  but the physically healthy came too — for spiritual healing.  To both the sick and the healthy Jesus gave a message of hope, and he reminded each and every listener that life does have meaning and purpose.  Such a life will not be without illness, nor will any of us escape death.  But Jesus urges all of us to live by hope — confident that our lives can and do have meaning, not only now, but in eternity.

I confess that I’ve not yet forked over the 99 cents that it takes to download WeCroak, but I’ll probably do so before the end of the day.  And I’ll do so for two reasons.  First, I hope it will give me timely reminders not to bury myself all day in useless trivia.  I hope it will remind me to look up from my iPad and pay attention to what’s going on around me.  And I hope it will remind me to be part of that scene.

But I’ll also do it to reinforce my Benedictine and Christian calling to keep death daily before my eyes.  That will underscore Benedict’s reminder that our days are limited, and each and every moment is something to seize and to treasure.  Any other response is to waste God’s greatest gifts.

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I don’t know that I have any good advice on how you can turn up the intensity in your life.  I do know it’s not a matter of being louder or more aggressive.  Nor is it a matter of taking reckless chances with our lives.  But it’s dawned on me that — at least for me — it’s good to inject a little bit of heart into what I say and do today.  Perhaps if I give a little bit of my soul to others, I will also make better use of my time and talent.

But above all it’s critical that you and I as Christians live deliberately, with intensity, with considered purpose.  Only then will we realize that the words of the Psalmist should be ours as well.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice.”  Knowing that our days are in short supply and that one day we too will croak, why would we not want to make the most of what we’ve got?  Why would we not grab hold of today and give of our heart?  This is the life to which God calls us.  Let us be glad and rejoice.  Amen.

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NOTES

+On January 29th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices.  It is the first of several classes that I will be having with them over the next few weeks.

+On February 1st I hosted Chorbishop sharbel Maroun on his visit to Saint John’s.  Abouna sharbel, as he prefers to be called, is the Maronite-rite bishop, resident at Saint Maron’s Church in Minneapolis, and he brought as his guests two priests and a deacon.  They were particularly interested in seeing the Bible Gallery as well as the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  HMML has done considerable work in Lebanon over the years, and by chance several texts in Syriac were on display in the library when we were there. For the record, Abouna sharbel prefers to spell his name in lower-case letters, out of respect for Saint Sharbel.

+On February 3rd our confrere Fr. Eugene passed away at the age of 86.  He served for much of his professed life in various parishes which the monastery has served.

+On February 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon which I preached.  Later that day, following vespers, the younger monks on the formation floor of the monastery hosted our annual Super Bowl dinner of chile and brats, and diehards watched the game.

+I took the photo at the top of today’s post in Vienna several years ago, and it’s one of the nicest clocks I’ve ever seen.  It reminds me of how elegant and imaginative clocks could be in the pre-digital era.  The next three photos are late 15th-century stained glass roundels depicting the life of Christ.  They are housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The fourth photo is a wood carving of Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child, made in the von Carben workshop in Cologne, ca. 1510.  It too is housed in the Schuntzen Museum.  That museum has incorporated the Romanesque church of Saint Cecilia in Cologne, and at bottom is a tympanum which once greeeted visitors as they entered the church.  It dates from ca. 1160.

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