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Archive for April, 2018

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To Lourdes Once More

Why would anyone want to go to Lourdes for a tenth time?  Since I’ll be going this week as a chaplain in the Order of Malta’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, and since I’ve done so nine times already, I guess I’m one who will have to cough up an answer by pilgrimage’s end.

I remember well my first pilgrimage to Lourdes.  It seems so long ago, and by now nine pilgrimages have blurred into one, simply because the routine has scarcely changed through the years.  Each year some 350 of us from the Western Association arrive and join three or four thousand other Malta members from around the world.  Together, as members and volunteers and the sick, we gather to pray and process and dine and do other pilgrim things for a week.  Then we pack up and go home.  Fifty-one weeks later many return to do it all over again.  And if ten times seems like a lot, it’s small potatoes compared to the 25 or 30 trips that some have made.

A8EC2DBF-607B-42C6-A1E1-3F25CFF218DBPeople go to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons — and for no good reason at all.  What stands out from my own first pilgrimage was my hesitation.  Being of a more stoic temperament, and working from the vantage point of a medieval historian, I entertained a lot of personal caution.  Would this be too devotional for my tastes?  Would all the religious trappings leave me cold?  Might it all prove to be some form of escapism from the real challenges that people face?  These may seem like strange questions to come from a monk, but those were mine.

Those fears were tucked into the baggage that I took to Lourdes, but by the end of my first pilgrimage I realized how wide-of-the-mark my apprehensions had been.  Lourdes, it turned out, was no place for religious or emotional escapism.  Nor was Lourdes in the business of promising physical healing.  Unexplained healings do occur now and again, but spiritual healing is what Lourdes is about.  So people arrive expecting all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all.  But people go home touched intimately by the spiritual healing that takes place.

E2A5FA47-C7B7-4C50-AC56-6AF33D08E09EI’m under no illusion that this week’s visit to Lourdes will replicate my first.  It will be more like the next eight of them.  It will reflect my hard-won opennesss to seeing Christ in the sick and the poor.  It will reflect my appreciation for Christ working through the hands of the members of the Order and the volunteers.

I already know why I’m going to Lourdes for a tenth time, because my early skepticism opened my eyes to things I’d not seen so clearly before.  People come to Lourdes gifted with all sorts of talents and burdened with foibles.  People also come with ailments that range from the physical to the spiritual.  But everybody leaves Lourdes a little better than when they came.  They leave with a little or a lot of growth behind them.  They’ve experienced something that is sacramental in its widest sense, because they’ve seen the Lord at work all around them.

That’s not what I expected to see when I first went to Lourdes;  but it’s what I’ve been privileged to see every time since.

2170FD2F-70D3-4B73-BEAA-B81933FA83B0NOTES

+Last week was rather quiet until I arrived in Paris on Saturday the 28th.  The charter flight that most in our group took leaves from Los Angeles, and it has the virtue of landing near Lourdes.  But it adds two days to the trip if I go to Los Angeles to meet it.  So I go from Minneapolis to Paris directly.  And I go a bit early so as to be alert when the group arrives.

+On Sunday the 29th I joined a quarter of the population of Paris and its entire inventory of tourists for a visit to the Louvre.  I’ve never seen such mobs in a museum before, and one hopeful note was the thought that at least in Paris a museum can be bigger than even the NFL.  There’s a glimmer of hope there, somewhere.

The galleries were jammed, and one moment of triumph came when our small party glimpsed the Mona Lisa, who gazed at us over the heads of several hundred gawkers.  One in our group even got a picture — using his telephoto lens.

Museum-going these days is not what it used to be, and not for the better.  The Louvre is massive, and it’s easy to get lost and a challenge to locate a particular piece of art.  Complicating the scene are the herds of people whose eyes are glued to their cell phones.  Two things eventually dawned on me.  One, these herds went where their apps told them to go.  Second, most weren’t looking directly at the art.  For all they knew they could have been in a train station or out on a street.  But at least they got to check off the Louvre from their to-do lists.

As for me, I had taken my camera along, but the place was just too crowded to take good photos.  However, I added two bits to my personal storehouse of wisdom.  Visit the Louvre in the off-season, when the crowds thin out.  Second, try and look directly at the art.  Sometimes it can be even more interesting than a cell phone.

+The first three photos in today’s post are exterior shots of the Louvre.  It’s always good to remember that it was built to be a royal palace, but when the French ran out of kings they turned it into a museum.  Among the more neglected galleries are the medieval, which is fine by me.  Above is a 13th-century stone fragment of Saint Matthew writing his gospel, under the direction of an angel.  It used to be in the cathedral of Chartres.  Below is the tomb of Philip Pot (1428-1493), grand seneschal of Burgundy.  It once stood in a chapel at the Abbey of Citeaux.  I had that sculpture all to myself.

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Jesus:  A Surprisingly Good Shepherd

I’m not an expert when it comes to animal husbandry.  I appreciate it, of course, and I’m grateful for the toil that so many invest in it.  However, despite my general ignorance on the subject, something in Sunday’s gospel struck me as a little odd.

In John 10 Jesus describes himself as a good shepherd, and like a good shepherd he’s ready to lay down his life for his sheep.  That’s the part that bothers me.  To my way of thinking the really good shepherd never gets killed in the first place.  The really good shepherd may lose a few sheep along the way, but if I were a sheep I would give a superior rating to any shepherd still alive at the end of the day.  In fact, the last thing I want to see is a dead shepherd at the front of the flock.

005FDE11-E7FC-4054-81EC-413DB781AFFAOne obvious consequence of a dead shepherd is the need to do a national search and conduct interviews to find a new shepherd.  My preference would be the applicant who wouldn’t fall victim to wolves or poachers.  Even if I were dumb as a sheep, I’m still smart enough to know that if the shepherd goes, we all go.  Is that logical, or what?

I feel the very same about any shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep to find one lost sheep.  If I were one of the 99 I’d fire that shepherd in a minute.  After all, if one of the sheep is dense enough to wander off, then the shepherd should cut his losses.  He should also show a little gratitude to the 99 who were loyal enough to stick around and make the shepherd’s job a lot easier.

That’s when I begin to appreciate what Jesus is up to when he tells us these stories.  Jesus knows that his audience is not stupid, and he intends to impress upon each and every one of his disciples the love he has for them.  The fact is, he’ll never abandon a single one of them.  He may seem to go off to search for the one lost sheep, but all the while he holds the other 99 by the wool of their necks.  He’ll not lose a single sheep, including the dummies who show poor judgement now and again.

Given that, I’m happy to have Jesus as my good shepherd.  It’s in that light that his death on the cross begins to make some sense.  Jesus did lay down his life for his sheep, but Good Friday was not the end of the story.  With Easter the story of his loving care for us resumes.  That’s when we realize that we are his sheep, whom he loves.

Jesus is no hireling who abandons us.  He is a surprisingly good shepherd, which has to be a comfort to all of us sheep who tend to wander off every now and again.

915CC3D5-638F-4F54-9352-ED7D2A7E9179NOTES

+On April 16th I said Mass for the San Francisco area members of the Order of Malta.  We met at Saint Dominic’s Church, where I had witnessed a wedding several years ago.

+On April 17th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, ID. They have begun a year-long program with The Saint John’s Bible.

+On April 21 I gave a session as part of a retreat day for provisional members of the Order of Malta, who will be invested in June.  This took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

+This last week was a mixed bag when it came to travel.  My worst day in many years was on the 16th, when I flew from San Francisco to Boise via Salt Lake City.  Nothing went right, until the very end.  My flight, scheduled to leave at 4:15 pm, left San Francisco four hours late.  They had rescheduled my connecting flight to one leaving at 10:20, and so when we landed at 9:50 I felt pretty good.  But because there was no gate available, we sat on the runway for forty minutes.  Thankfully the connection was running late too.  It was now to leave at 11:00 pm, but no one was surprised when we left at 11:50.

The car rental desk in Boise was scheduled to close at midnight, and you can imagine my elation when the lady at the desk had wanted an extra hour and fifteen minutes — just for me.  Then, to her surprise, she could not find my reservation.  A neighbor at another desk explained that at midnight Alamo had merged with Enterprise, and now I was renting from Enterprise.  I got to the hotel at 1:30 am.

+On Wednesday I flew to Los Angeles and discovered that the place was teeming with pollen.  Since in Minnesota our pollen is still frozen, we Minnesotans are defenseless in a pollen jungle like Southern California.  I was a mess until I got back to Minnesota and inhaled the pollen-free air.  But I know our time will come.

68C09D46-587B-4DC1-9991-4BBFA122E350+Thanks to the kindness of a couple whose son graduated from Saint John’s, I was able to get a wonderful tour of Boise.  I’d never been to Idaho before, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cityscape.  Among the highlights was a visit to Saint Mary’s Church, which recently underwent an expansion.  The carvings are nothing short of stupendous.  The top three photos show a ten-foot ceremonial door, carved by an artist from Oregon.  The first photo shows a rendition of Noah’s ark, which overlooks the baptismal font inside the church.  On the obverse is a scene from the Book of Revelation, which faces people as they enter the church.  Most intriguing is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, seated in the front pew, just below the pulpit.  With her arm draped over the pew, it looks like she is reserving judgement on the quality of the sermon.  It is wildly popular with children, who want their photos taken as they sit beside Mary.

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Lessons from St. Stephen

While St. Stephen’s feast day lands on December 26th, he seems much more at home in the Easter season.  It’s now that we recall what a firebrand preacher he was, and that he was the first martyr in the Christian community.  But he also gives us pause to consider what kind of impact he might have had on that community.

There’s no doubt that Stephen got under the skin of the religious leaders.  And when I say that, I don’t just mean the Jewish leaders, because he likely irritated some of the apostles too.  Lest we forget, Stephen was a deacon and not an apostle.  Even so, he got out ahead of the curve in preaching the resurrection of the Lord, and that likely alarmed some of the leaders in the Christian community.  What if Stephen’s zeal brought a crackdown on their community?  Might Stephen jeapordize everything they had worked for?

0EA15307-128F-4400-8959-57FBA9E156DFIf that’s what they were thinking, it was pointless.  Events moved too quickly for the cautious ones, and they were about to learn the wisdom of the high priest’s warning about zealots.  If Stephen’s zeal was of human origin, then it would fizzle out.  If it came from God, then there was no stopping it.

I suspect that a few apostles thought they were losing control of the church;  but if so, they were about to learn an important lesson.  They were about to learn that just because they had walked with the Lord, they did not have a monopoly on the message of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit was already calling new people who would follow in their steps.  And in Stephen’s case it’s not a little ironic that, 2,000 years after the fact, we know more about Stephen than we do about some of the apostles.

That’s a good take-away for all of us who have been involved in organizations that have been around for a long time.  In his Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict advises the abbot to cast his net widely when seeking advice, and he should especially make sure to include the youngest and newest members in that circle.  After all, the Holy Spirit is free to choose whomever to be carriers of divine wisdom, and so it would be foolish to ignore such obvious gifts.

780D7A67-13A4-4CD5-9023-C14C7036A3CBBut if that’s good advice for abbots, it’s also good for monks like me who’ve been hanging around the monastery for more than a few years.  It’s tempting for people like me to believe that I’m wiser than everyone else and that the Holy Spirit stopped doling out wisdom after I got mine.  But then I remind myself why the Lord keeps calling new people to the community.  They come, not to continue my work, but to continue the work of the Lord.  And if by chance they have a slightly different perspective on how to do things, then I am well-advised not to dismiss their wisdom just because I didn’t think of it first.

St. Stephen serves as a good example to all of us who are involved in communities and organizations. He’s a reminder that we came to do the work of the Lord and not our own work.  He’s a reminder that we need to make room for the new people who come into our midst, and not fear that they’ve come for the sole purpose of disrupting our own little worlds.

Most important of all, St. Stephen reminds us that none of us should assume we have a monopoly on how things ought to be.  Just as I am a gift from God, so are the late-comers to the vineyard of the Lord.  Of course we should always test the spirits of new people to see if they come from God, but while we’re at it we should not be afraid to take our own pulse just to make sure that we too come from God.

So these are the three points I take away for myself.  First, the Holy Spirit did not run out of wisdom after I got my share.  Second, the Holy Spirit keeps on calling others to the vineyard, whether I like it or not.  And third, the wisest course for me is to welcome those people into the church and into my life, as gifts from God.

242F865E-BC4C-48CA-9D7A-1C06BAEAFF02NOTES

+On April 9th I taught a class in monastic history in the novitiate.  This time I concentrated on the Cistercian reform in the 12th century.

+Later that day, on April 9th, I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 14th I participated in a day of recollection for provisional members in the Order of Malta.  I gave presentations on the history of the Order of Malta, and the event took place at Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On April 16th I presided at the monthly Mass for members of the Order of Malta in the San Francisco area.  Today’s post is a variation of the sermon that I delivered.

+Because I was away from the abbey, I missed out on what we hope is the last major snow of the season.

+The first photo in today’s post shows an altar frontal (ca. 1200) that once was in the church of Santa María de Taüll, in Catalonia.  It now is in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The remaining photos show the exterior and some of the interior windows of the church of St. Severin in Paris.

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The Lord Takes His Time With Us

With the hindsight of Easter it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Peter in the Gospels is the very same Peter whom we read about in the Acts of the Apostles.  After all, as a disciple Peter had had his doubts about Jesus.  Then came his denial of Jesus three times on the eve of the crucifixion.  Finally, almost miraculously, Peter seemed to mature as an entirely different person in the Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts Peter does not hesitate to confess his faith in Jesus.  He becomes a take-charge sort of guy.  He heals;  he preaches;  and he’s not afraid to go out on a limb and lead the followers of Jesus far beyond the Jewish customs that had tethered them to the temple and synagogue all of their lives.  In short, he and the disciples gradually create a church.  And we’re left to wonder where all that gumption came from.  What could have transformed this timid soul into a bold prophet?

378D8DF0-E65C-4B3E-99B9-53AEA1B848B3We’re now a few days into the Easter season, and the references to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles serve as a reminder of the power of the risen Jesus.  The risen Lord transformed the disciples, and if he could do that with such a motley crew, then he’s probably capable of doing the same with you and me.  Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him, because you and I are the very people whom the Lord came to save.

It’s entirely possible that by now our only souvenir from Holy Week is the memory of some beautiful and sometimes overly-long liturgies.  But it’s also possible to detect the hand of God at work, gently shaping and transforming us.

I for one would be naturally suspicious if Jesus were to turn my life upside-down, inside-out, in an instant.  He may have done that with Peter, or the writer of Acts may have instead compressed Peter’s long spiritual journey into a matter of a few days.  But whatever the Lord may have done with Peter, he’s taken an entirely different approach with me.  I for one know for a fact that the Lord has taken his own sweet time with me.  God’s given me length of years precisely for that reason.

92C6EAA3-A8EB-4C65-8CA3-D47C1F8B1FB1The same may be true for you as well.  If so, you’ve probably noticed how gradual and tentative your journey to the Lord has been.  And you’ve probably wondered why the Lord has not blesssed you with the audicity that Peter had.  Well, one reason for that is that the Lord deals with each of us differently.  But for most of us there is an air of deliberate calculation about it.  We may resist on certain days, but the Lord continues to chip away and sculpt and polish us into his good and faithful servants.  That, I think, shows just how persuasive the risen Lord can be.

In my own humble opinion God generally prefers not to bowl most of us over or hurl us to the ground.  That’s a lot of work for God, and besides, it’s the sort of stuff God reserves for those who are particularly stubborn.  As for me, I suspect, Jesus prefers to be patient and kind, and he draws me to himself in his own good time.  For that I am grateful.

That’s why I think it’s a good idea in this Easter season to pray that the Lord, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to completion.  But there’s no rush.

B57466FE-CD7F-4D14-B7B4-269EC2DB45BANOTES

+During the past week I taught two classes in the novitiate.  My main theme was the monastic tradition of the abbey of Cluny, which in time had some 350 priories within its orbit.  It was a major booster of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, and it built priories and hostels along the Camino.  Its 12th-century church was the largest in Western Europe, and it remained so until the construction of the new St. Peter’s in Rome in the 16th century — the one we see today.  In the middle of the design of St. Peter’s the architect had to add fifty feet just to make sure it was longer than the abbey church at Cluny.  Cluny is in Burgundy.  It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but as of now it is still on my bucket list.

+From 3-8 April I gave a private retreat to a member of the Federal Association of Order of Malta from Chicago, who is preparing to make his Promise of Obedience in May during the Order’s regular pilgrimage to Lourdes.  It was his first visit to Saint John’s, where he stayed in the guesthouse.

+On April 5th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to a group that included the president, some faculty and staff from Caldwell University, in New Jersey.  They stayed in the guesthouse at Saint John’s, and among other things I toured them through the new Bible gallery in Alcuin Library.

+On April 5th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expansion of the sermon that I gave that day.

+On April 6th I hosted Paul and Laura, graduates of our school, at whose wedding I will preside in the abbey church at Saint John’s this summer.  I don’t get to preside at many weddings, and so this will be a treat for me.

+Today, April 9th, is the feast of the Annunciation.  It’s a reminder that Christmas is upon us, at least in nine months, and we should prepare.  The photos in today’s post are from the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and the uppermost is of the Annunciation.  If you’ve not seen Sagrada Familia, you definitely should put it on your bucket list.

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Who Will Help Us Roll Away Our Stones?

Easter has come and gone, and while the liturgies linger in my memory, it’s the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus that sticks out.  I owe that to Abbot John, who brought it up in his sermon at the Easter Vigil.  That evening, for the first time, it hit me as something of outsized importance.

Obviously that stone served a practical purpose.  It shut the dead inside and it kept the living outside.  But that’s what set up the drama that was to follow.  When people came to tend to the body of Jesus, they knew they weren’t strong enough to shove the stone aside.  And so they wondered aloud: “who will help us roll the stone away?”

An angel solved the problem.  However, to everyone’s surprise, there was no body to be seen.  Who had taken the Lord’s body?  Where might they find him?

230C1BEC-1D88-490D-89BF-A5F2BEB86099Further into the story we read of the many appearances of Jesus, but there’s symbolic value to this scene at the tomb that we shouldn’t leave behind.  In this particular case, it may have been an angel who rolled the stone aside and then gave access to Jesus.  But the angel represents much more.  That angel is one of many figures who will roll aside rocks and open up to us the vision of the Lord.  The angel is merely the first in a progression of people who step into our lives and push aside the impediments that obscure our vision.  Because of those friends and strangers, we gain access to the Lord; and it’s something that we could never achieve all by ourselves.

I’m fond of reminding any of my confreres who will listen that we all bring plenty of baggage with us to the monastery.  That baggage contains everything from pebbles to boulders, and they are the sorts of things that shape us, for good and for ill.  Some of those stones we can learn to live with, and they can even have a positive force in our lives.  Others weigh us down.  Even worse, a few can block us from becoming the loving people we are called to be.

9BC009AB-9EEE-4160-BF3F-CAED6AC3DA22At the very least the rock that sealed the tomb of Jesus is symbolic of all the rocks that I continue to tote around with me.  Obviously I would be better off without some of them.  Others I should have unloaded years ago.  Those are the ones that weigh me down, metaphorically at least, and they hobble me every time the Lord encourages me to run.

Is a big rock my take-away from Easter this year?  Perhaps.  For one thing it reminds me of the big stones that still have the potential to stunt my growth.  Even more, the stone in the Easter story reminds me of my need for help from my brothers.  It’s they, along with both friends and strangers, whom the Lord sends to help me roll away the stones that derail my pilgrimage and blind me to the possibilities in my life.

Some stones can seem too big to budge, but Jesus never asks us to move any stone all by ourselves.  He regularly sends others to help with the pushing, and I’m utterly convinced that Jesus himself will help roll those stones aside, if we but ask.

A last bit of consolation is that passage in which Jesus comforts all who find life weary and burdensome.  His yoke is easy and his burden light, he promises.  That lesson, it seems to me, is the one thing the disciples took away as they left behind a big stone and an empty tomb.

So who will help us roll away those big stones in our lives?  It will be the Lord — along with a host of angels and friends and strangers.

49BE4E49-7B49-477F-8C7C-9FAB237F3B37NOTES

+On March 27th I gave a class on monastic history to the novices.

+On March 28th I gave a presentation on Stability and Stewardship in the Rule of Benedict.  Given to a group of new faculty and staff, it was part of a series sponsored by The Benedictine Institute.

+On March 30-31 we monks were on retreat, in anticipation of the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

+On 31 March we were all surprised to wake up to a blanket of snow, amounting to some six inches or more.  None of us were dreaming of a White Easter, and I for one was hoping for a glimpse of crocus.  But it was not to be.  April is supposed to come in with showers, but the prognosis is for another seven inches of snow today.  That contrasts with the experience of my first year at Saint John’s.  On April 1st of that year it had been so warm that the ice went out on the lake.  This year it’s been so cold that the sap in the maple trees is still not flowing well.

+The first three photos in today’s post show art housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  At top is an altar frontal that dates from ca. 1200.  The next two are panels from an altar retable dating from ca. 1340.  One of those panels is curious for its depiction of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The final two photos show some of the snow that accumulated in the courtyard of the quadrangle at Saint John’s.

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