Archive for March, 2018


Sitting at the Table of the Lord

It’s a fact that somebody went to a lot of trouble to set up the Last Supper.  As the gospels make clear, Jesus and his disciples did not just pop into a restaurant, sit down and order off the menu.  No, they were from out-of-town, and somebody needed to find and reserve a room suitable for at least thirteen.  Then someone had to set the table and arrange the room, order decent food and wine, and see to it that the evening went well.

The organizers likely had high hopes, but not everything went according to plan.  It was not a relaxed evening with friends, because tension began to percolate through the room.  It surfaced as a few realized this might be their last meal with Jesus.  One in their number had come into the room with treason in his heart, and he left early.  And for his part, Jesus knew what was about to happen.  This was supposed to be a sacred meal, but it was anything but serene.  So it had to be a big disappointment for those who had worked so hard to make it a success.

6E0BE8B2-38E2-42E4-BA03-75DE9D4E7898I mention this because of all the things that we monks have to do to prepare for Holy Week.  We may make it look easy, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not all peace and serenity.  For one thing, there’s a ton of work that takes place in the sacristy and church.  There’s hours of practice for cantors, choirs and musicians.  There are also rehearsals for the liturgy and sermons to be written.  Then there’s the refectory, where somebody has to plan out several days of special meals.  In short, for a lot of monks Holy Week stretches both patience and charity, and it’s easy for the work to sideline the sacred.

This brings to mind the evening when Mary and Martha hosted Jesus for dinner.  The gospel text suggests that Martha did the heavy lifting at that dinner, while Mary made the most of the chance to visit with Jesus.  The fact that Jesus gave his personal nod to Mary suggests to me that the discussion likely took a turn toward the intense after Jesus went home.  We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fun to speculate.

9865D3CF-F2E4-4853-BE56-0AF7F8AC9BDAI’ve naturally thought of Martha and Mary as polar opposites, representing those who value work more highly than the chance for human interaction.  It’s a nice thought, but I suspect it’s better to accept the fact that both Martha and Mary are resident within each of us, and each of us feels the tension once in a while.  Each of us, for instance, has work that we absolutely must do;  but there are times when our devotion to duty can sap the joy from life.  That, I think, is what concerns Jesus as he warns not only Martha and Mary, but us as well.

Work certainly is part of life, and in the monastery the work of Holy Week can easily sideline what should be a deeply religious experience.  For one thing, work can leave us too exhausted to appreciate what’s really going on.  But attention to detail can also shove aside the religious experience that is the whole point of Holy Week.

Of course this isn’t just about Holy Week.  It’s about life.  Work we will always have with us, but if we allow work to blind us to the joys of life then it’s time to get a grip on ourselves.  That, I think, is at the core of Jesus’ message.  Jesus came to give us life, not to enoucourage us to smother our best energy in the tasks that fill our everyday routines.  Work we have to do, but we should always remember the preference we should give to sitting with the Lord and his friends at the table of life.  It’s ours for the asking, so let’s make sure we make a reservation at that table this Holy Week.


+On 24 March the Arboretum hosted the first of its two-Saturday Maple Syrup festival.  Some 500 people helped to gather sap and learn about making maple syrup.

+On 25 March I attended the Saint John’s Preparatory School’s production of Les Miserables.  The musical was staged at the Paramount Theater in St. Cloud, and the students performed amazingly well.

+In last week’s post I wrote about a box sent from my office to Florida, where I waited fruitlessly for it.  Instead of in Florida, it turned up in New Jersey, and we asked the Post Office to return it to Minnesota.    That was where I left the story last week.  This week we discovered that they forwarded it to Florida anyway, despite the fact that I was no longer there.  The office in Naples alerted us, and once again we asked that they return it to Minnesota.  It arrived in record time — two days — and the contents were a shattered and jumbled mess.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the Palm Sunday liturgy, which began in the Great Hall with the blessing of the palms, and then continued into the abbey church.  As one photo indicates, we are still blessed with the persistence of piles of snow.


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What Should We Do About Jesus?

There’s an ominous tone that starts to bubble up in the liturgical readings of the last days of Lent.  It begins to surface as the gospels shift from an almost exclusive focus on the teaching and ministry of Jesus.  Slowly the curtain opens to reveal the anxiety that grips the religious elite of Jerusalem.  That anxiety then morphs into paranoia and finally into panic, as they wonder what in the world to do about Jesus.

Like many others, I take some little comfort in thinking that evil is identifiable and that we can point our fingers at it.  In my own mind the evil is in the officials standing in the shadows, worried.  That image remains a comfort to me until the awful truth dawns on me.  I could very well be standing there alongside them once in a while.  The fact of the matter is, along with them I too sometimes wonder what I’m supposed to do about Jesus.

8985B3D8-DF16-4E76-BCC0-2255DB78502EEvery time I try to take consolation in the thought that the bad guys in the gospel story were the religious authorities, I need to pinch myself.  The reality of it is, Jesus had no quibble with authority in and of itself.  What did irritate him to no end were those who used religion in order to control other people.  Jesus was absolutely consistent in his condemnation of those who would use the spiritual as leverage over others.

I shudder when I realize that I’ve probably done that myself.  Each time I point out the sins of others in light of my own stellar behavior, then I’ve done it.  Each time I dismiss the good intentions of others, I’ve done it.  Each time I exalt myself at the expense of others, then I’ve done it.  Those are all times when I quietly slip over to join the religious leaders in their collective self-satisfaction.

Like the religious leaders in the gospel, I too sometimes wonder about Jesus.  In my case, however, I wonder what he might be asking of me.  I’m challenged as I try to figure out how well or how poorly I’m following in his steps.

Thankfully there’s something in the story of Lent and Holy Week that is ironically reassuring.  For one thing, in my doubts and in my struggles, I’m in surprisingly good company.  After all, I stand in the company of the brightest religious minds in Jerusalem, who felt threatened by Jesus.  I’m also in the company of Peter, who denied Jesus three times.  And certainly least of it but not the last of it, I’m in the company of the disciples, who all ran away when the chips were down.

Together with them I sometimes wonder what I will do about Jesus.  Then I recall the second reassurance we take from the gospel story.  We may wonder what we should do about Jesus.  But thankfully, Jesus never wonders for a second about what he will do with the likes of us.


+On March 16th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expanded version of the sermon that I delivered that day.

+On March 17th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible to ninety students from St. Olaf College, who spent the day with us at Saint John’s.

+On March 18th I presided at Vespers in the abbey church.

+Last week I wrote about difficulties with my iPad, and my frustration at the Apple Store in Naples, FL.  On Thursday I resolved them with a visit to the Apple Store in Minneapolis.  In addition to the problems that I could list, the analyst found something that truly surprised him, and he traded my old iPad for a brand new one.  He then sent my old one to the Apple labs for an autopsy.  I shed no tears as I said goodbye.

+This was the week for one other challenge.  My office at Saint John’s had sent a box to me while I was in Florida, which was intended to be given as a gift of appreciation to someone.  It was scheduled to arrive in Naples on Monday.  On Tuesday I drove forty-five minutes to pick it up, only to discover that it had not arrived.  Worse still, a search of the US Post Office tracking number turned up nothing — it was nowhere.  On Friday, however, the box turned up in New Jersey.  No explanation was forthcoming as to why it chose to go there.

+This week I finished Candice Millard’s book entitled Hero of the Empire (Doubleday, 2016).  In it she details the exploits of Winston Churchill’s escapades in the Boer War in South Africa at the end of the 19th century.  It’s a great read, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys history as well as adventure.

+In the liturgical calendar for Benedictines there is a trifecta of feasts that have always provided a mid-Lenten time-out in the monastic horarium and table.  On March 17th we enjoy the feast of Saint Patrick.  On March 19th we celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph.  And on March 21 we commemorate Saint Benedict.  The stained glass in today’s post are windows from the Great Hall at Saint John’s, built in 1879 as the abbey church.


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No Need for an Appointment with God

I know it’s not a good idea to attribute human qualities to an iPad.  For one thing, it’s not human.  Nor does it share in the effects of original sin.  And  to my knowledge it’s entirely devoid of human emotions like joy, sadness or depression.  And despite the fact that I really do love my iPad, I know it’s not a healthy relationship for the simple fact that the love is not mutual.  My iPad will always remain entirely aloof from me.

On the other hand my iPad does seem to share a few human traits, and that’s what makes me nervous sometimes.  Every now and again, for instance, I get a notice that my iPad has a bug.  It’s news I ignore at my peril, because that can lead to something far worse.  I also know that my iPad can come down with its version of the flu, just like people.  That seems to be its latest problem, and that’s what has me worried right now.  Lately, it will not charge up unless it feels like it — leaving me to wonder if it will be comatose by the end of the day.  On top of that, it ignores the keyboard at really inconvenient times.  That means I can get a message but can’t respond.  And finally, there are times lately when it’s a challenge to wake it from its sleeping mode.  If it were a teenager, that would be okay.  But it’s not.

F3BFFD73-7D34-4D54-A8EC-F702E3940384Anyway, I took my iPad to see the iPad doctor at the Apple Store in Naples, FL, last week, and my experience there was akin to using the National Health in the UK.  It was spring break, and thousands of kids had flown south to Florida for the chance to visit an Apple Store in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops.  It was exhilarating for them, but it was a nightmare for me.  I was desperate as I got in line to speak to someone about making an appointment to speak with someone about my sick iPad.  But the minimum wait to see the iPad doctor was two hours.  So I left mad — mad at the tech world, and mad especially at my iPad for putting me through all this.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but my experience with the iPad does have the potential for allegorical interpretation.  No doubt about it, my iPad does wonderful things, when it feels like it.  But it also comes with bugs and illnesses that are particular to its talents.  In this case its primary talent is the access it gives me to connect with people all over the world.  But conversely it comes with the ability to deny that access, and that’s when it hurts.  That’s when I feel especially helpless.

084E680C-92A9-4C1F-9CEF-5FA128F6E162Therein might be the angle that Jesus might exploit to turn this into a parable.  As is the case with computers, you and I are blessed with an abundance of apps and capacities and other gifts.  We have the ability to do amazing things.  But we also have bugs that need tending to, lest they grow and get out of control.  We can also have issues with reliability, and our friends and colleagues can share stories of how we have let them down in the course of their lives.  That’s the effect of sin.

No computer is ever perfect, nor will we ever be perfect.  We, like the machines we rely upon, need maintenance;  we need updates;  we need rebooting; and sometimes we need a major overhaul.  All of that requires self-awareness, and it’s better to be self-aware long before the bugs get out of control.

Of course I can’t discuss any of this with my iPad.  But I’m privileged to have other options.  So when I feel the effects of bugs in my life, and when I sense that I’m about to crash, it’s important to seize the opportunity to talk with friends and colleagues, and especially with God.  That’s what they’re there for.  And in the case of God, there’s never a need for an appointment.  And as busy as God might seem to be, there’s never a two-hour wait.


+On March 5th I flew from Minneapolis to Fort Myers, FL.  I was fortunate to get away, just as a major winter storm was about to hit the airport in Minneapolis.  At Saint John’s we had nearly ten inches of snow, and I was sorry to miss the vision of that — but not sorry enough to turn around and try and get back to see it before it melts.

+On March 6th I attended a reception in Naples, FL, that served to introduce our Immokalee Scholarship Program to potential supporters.  Present were Alex and Osbaldo, two of our students from Immokalee.  They each gave fine presentations to the assembled friends of Saint John’s.

+On March 10th I gave a day of reflection to members of the Seattle Area of the Order of Malta.  I’ve been privileged to give this retreat day for several years running, and it takes place at the Catholic student center at the University of Washington.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from the life of Jesus, from an altar retable now housed in the Museum of Catalán Art in Barcelona.  It was made by Jaume Serra for the Monastery of Santa Maria de Sixena, ca. 1370.  From the top the panels depict The Last Supper, The Child Jesus Teaching in the Temple, The Baptism of Jesus, The Crufixion, and The Dormition of Mary.


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Thoughts on The Cleansing of the Temple

I’m glad I wasn’t there when Jesus cleansed the temple.  My bias is toward order and courtesy, and the mere thought of Jesus upending tables and chasing people around makes me wince.

The Gospel of John chapter 2 suggests it was a chaotic scene, and those who were just trying to make an honest living must have been a little put out, to say the least.  I have sympathy for them, and they had every right to ask Jesus why he did what he did.  At least they were polite, according to John.  Jesus, on the other hand, comes off looking not nice.  In Minnesota, where I live, that’s a big no-no.

It’s a bit of a stretch for me to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, until I consider this.  First off, Jesus wasn’t against commerce.  Elsewhere in the gospels he spoke of money rather dispassionately.  He paid his bills, and we know so from the instance when Peter paid the temple tax for the both of them.  So commercial activity in itself was not his target.

C80953FD-BBA8-4067-A731-37B35381F443This case was different, and it had moral nuance.  It was complicated by the fact that the animal-sellers actually provided a service to pilgrims who couldn’t pack birds or lambs or bullocks in their luggage for the trek to Jerusalem.  For their part, the money-changers let pilgrims avoid using the Roman coins that would have polluted the temple.  Despite these good intentions, things had gotten out of hand, and the point Jesus made was that commerce had displaced religious experience as the primary activity at the temple.

A common thread runs through the teaching of Jesus, and it casts light on his actions that day.  God places a higher value on a pure heart, even over the slaughter of animals.  That, in fact, was the point Jesus made in his death on the cross, and it helps to explain why Jesus seemed to lose his cool that day.  He was struggling, and that personal struggle would culminate in his agony in the garden of Gethsemane.  That day, then, Jesus expressed his anguish in deeds that continue to speak powerfully, even today.

As drastic as his actions were, Jesus was not an anarchist.  Rather, he hammered away at the spectacle of a commercial complex that had overwhelmed what should have been a sacred space.  And this is a critique that Jesus levels at us.  By extension Jesus takes to task anyone and everyone who would transform religious experience into a display of power or manipulation of others.  Not coincidentally, that dovetails with his concern with religious officials who load people down with burdens from which they exempt themselves.  Such hypocrisy has nothing to do with the search for God.

F4F2206C-4EA7-4F34-A382-AA29E0A4BB6BWhat Jesus did that day was a one-off in terms of the events of his life, but its symbolic value continues to echo.  In our own lives the spiritual quest can never be reduced to some sort of commercial activity.  In practice this means there’s never a time when we can reduce our relationship with God to a series of legal negotiations.   We may bargain with God on occasion, but we cannot demand pay-back from God for all our wonderful sacrifices.  That’s not what the search for God is about.  That bargaining with God will always be secondary, because getting a glimpse of God at work in our lives is at the heart of our spiritual quest.

That, it seems to me, is a good takeaway for Lent.  Clearly there are moments when I’d prefer to think of God as a merchant or a banker.  It would be so much easier to do business with somebody like that, and not just because I could keep my heart isolated and out of the transaction.  Those transactions would be clean and clear, and at the end I’d know exactly where I stand with God.

This puts a different value on our Lenten sacrifices.  Giving things up for Lent cannot be a business proposition.  Rather, they are an expression of deeper meaning in our lives.  God’s an artist and not a banker, and this explains God’s preference for pure hearts over bullocks or doves slaughtered on an altar.

Striving for a pure heart is not an after-hours job.  The point of it is to get a glimpse of God stirring within us.  So it is that we strive for lives of purpose and beauty.  That’s what makes all of us artists, full-time, no matter what our day jobs might be.


+Today’s post is a reflection on John 2: 13-25, which happened to be the gospel passage for the Third Sunday of Lent.

+In last week’s post I noted that on February 26nd I would preside at the funeral of my friend Jo White.  It all turned out wonderfully, and she would have loved it.  The sisters chapel at the convent of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet in St. Paul was packed, and the liturgy was lovely.  The drive to the cemetery was a bit of an education for me, since I had never heard of the village of Credit River, MN.  Such a place exists, as I discovered after getting lost along the way.  Even my GPS couldn’t figure it out.  But I made it to the cemetery service just in the nick of time.

+This week Daniel Smith of Minneapolis joined our community at Saint John’s Abbey as a monastic associate.  For the next several months he will live and pray with us, and in the process learn more about the monastic life.  During this time he will work as an apprentice in the Saint John’s Pottery.

+On March 1 and 2 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+In today’s post are two pieces from the Wallraff Richards Museum in Cologne.  The first, at top, is a tryptich of the Descent from the Cross, made in the region of Cologne, ca. 1470.  The last two photos show Christ on the Cross between Mary and John, Cologne, ca. 1460.  At the bottom of the image is the family of the unknown donor who had commissioned the work.


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