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Archive for May, 2018

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On Mission for Christ

Jesus may have sent his disciples to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, but soon enough that job fell to others.  It was not long before Christian merchants and soldiers and spouses began to do the heavy lifting, and that’s how the majority of the Christian communities popped up around the Roman world and beyond.

Eventually, trained missionaries stepped in, and ever since then most of us have assumed that the work of spreading the gospel belongs to the professionals.  So when we read Matthew 8, as we did yesterday on Trinity Sunday, we assume that Jesus directed his words to those best qualified.  He could not possibly have been thinking of us, since mission work is way above our pay grade.  Of course we do support those called to that work, but we tend to excuse ourselves by noting our lack of expertise and the absence of an unshakeable faith that’s needed for that sort of work.

In fact, however, Jesus actually did have us in mind when he commissioned his first followers to go out and make disciples.  For one thing, there was a sense of urgency in his voice, and this was accented by one fact staring Jesus in the face.  He had only eleven apostles, and that simply wasn’t enough to get the job done.  Jesus needed help, and he meant us to be the ones to provide that help.

58904846-8172-4481-9995-964AA43EE05CBut are we qualified to proclaim the gospel?  Do we have the skill set that suits us for the job?  Ironically, it’s some of our perceived liabilities that in fact count as strengths.  A sometimes shaky faith, laced with doubts and hesitation, would seem to disqualify us.  In fact that merely puts us in the same league with Peter and the apostles.  Lest we forget, it was Peter who denied Jesus three times, and the entire lot of the apostles ran away when the chips were down.  So we’re standing on soft soil when we excuse ourselves for lack of strong faith.  And to point out the rather obvious, who is better qualified to speak with those who don’t believe?  We in fact know where they’re coming from.

What else qualifies us to speak of Jesus in the public forum?  Frankly, I’d not thought about this until recently, but even we feeblest of believers have had at least some little experience of God.  Even if not every day, there have been moments when God has gently touched our lives, and we’ve sensed the Spirit of God stirring within us.  Who better to reach out to those who — like us — seek some fleeting experience of the divine?

D84A3155-E464-4491-8F5D-ABB82828B1A1Finally, there’s an attitude that sets apart those who are suited to proclaim the gospel to the ends of their own little worlds.  Perhaps it is better to specify who’s not in this group.  If we are curmudgeons or negative or angry people, or if we use religion as leverage to pressure others, then we are not in that category.  Such people merely reinforce the common misconception that Christians are joyless and strident human beings.  Who would possibly want to become such a person?

On the contrary, followers of Jesus need not wear the Christian brand on their sleeves, but the occasional brush with God should show in their daily demeanor.  In the bad times of life they can be confident that the Lord walks with them and sustains them.  In the good times they have an inkling that it is the Lord who bestows those blessings.  But above all, such people realize that life is a gift, and quite possibly it’s a gift from God.  Who then wouldn’t want such a gift?  That gift shows in their faces, and what better advertising can there be for the Christian way of life?

That kind of attitude shows in the face of a Christian.  A Christian, in fact, has the insight to see the face of Christ in others and to be the face of Christ to those who seek him.  Who is better qualified to be such an emissary for God?  Thankfully, such a labor is a labor of love, and it’s a mission to which all Christians are called.

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+On May 25th I gave a two-hour presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to members of the faculty and staff at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, Australia.  Later that evening I spoke at the opening of an exhibit of Christian art, staged in the University library.  That day I also had the opportunity to visit with several of our students who are doing a semester of study at the University.  We’ve had this exchange relationship for eighteen years.

+Fremantle is the port city of Perth, which is six hours’ flying time west of Sydney.  I’d never been there before, and I really did enjoy seeing what is a uniquely charming city.  Fremantle is blessed to have at its core the largest concentration of Victorian-era buildings anywhere.  It’s not gingerbread Victorian, however.  After all, it was a port city.

+I’m not terribly familiar with Australia, and in anticipation I read Bill Bryson’s book entitled In a Sunburned Country.  In it he points out that Australia is arid and has more animals eager to kill or bite people than any other place on earth.  Happily, nothing tried to bite me, and I didn’t see a single kangaroo during my short visit.  Nor did I experience the aridity that Bryson writes about.  On the contrary, I got caught six times in torrential rains that came in from the Indian Ocean to pound Perth.

B493948E-8904-41CE-9BB2-87BA5855411FIf you’ve never read anything by Bill Bryson, you might want to consider him.  He’s a travel writer, and an irreverent one at that.  His understatement is laugh-out-loud funny.  For example, he gives an insightful explanation of the game of cricket, a game which I long ago gave up trying to understand.  On the basis of a match between England and Australia that he attended, he gives some really useful information.  For instance, the intensity of the inaction on the field makes it absolutely necessary to pause for lunch and drinks several times in the course of the game.  However, one thing eluded him.  He never could figure out how England could lose all those wickets with all those people watching.  And where in the world were they losing those wickets?

The only thing for which I seriously fault Bryson is his writing style.  He writes brilliantly, and his turns of phrase are witty to a fault.  What I object to is that Bryson has used up most of the finest turns of phrase, leaving scraps for people like me.

+In today’s post there is a real mix of photos.  At top is the shrine of Saint Remi, in the abbey church of Saint Remi in Reims.  It was he who baptised Clovis, king of the Franks.  A simple inscription in the floor of the cathedral of Reims marks the spot of the baptism, and it is located quite near the grand pulpit in the cathedral.  The statue further down the page is of Saint Boniface, missionary to the German people.  It stands outside the cathedral of Mainz in Germany.  Next is a photo of me with students and one faculty member from our school, standing in front of an acrylic by Western Australian artist Joan Rastus.  At bottom is a street scene from Fremantle, complete with an ingenious pattern that has been painted onto the walks and buildings in the city.

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Pentecost:  An Everyday Sort of Feast

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the great parables of the Old Testament.  In brief, it describes a group of people who assumed they had no limits, and they expressed this in a tower that would reach endlessly upward.  But of course they failed;  and as the tale concludes, God frustrated their designs through the introduction of languages that disrupted their common purpose.

I call it a parable because that’s really what it is.  On the one hand it certainly does try to explain the variety of languages that impedes seamless communication among people.  On the other hand, it’s a parable that explains why humans as a group have such a hard time staying on topic and on mission.  One day we all agree on a common goal, but the next day rugged individualism and tribalism interfere with the best of common pursuits.

2A7EC61B-1D14-4A61-B2A7-D371C0D189C8Beyond that, the Tower of Babel is a parable of hubris.  Somehow people had come to the conclusion that they had created themselves.  In a flight of fancy they believed that they were like God or perhaps no longer needed God.  They imagined themselves to be almighty; and the Tower of Babel was only one of several instances in which God disabused them of that notion.

That’s a key bit of context for Pentecost.  Gathered in an upper room and afraid of the world on the other side of the door, the disciples were paralyzed with fear.  They locked the door, I suppose in hopes that the world might go away.  Then came the Spirit, and with the Spirit came the power to break free of the consequences of Babel.  Variety of languages no longer constrained them.  They spoke of the Lord in all languages, and in their new-found freedom the sky was the limit.

In retrospect it’s easy to appreciate how all of this energized the apostles.  On the one hand, they were the same people as before.  They still had their limits, and they knew them.  But the Spirit breathed new life into them, and the apostles then earned the right to take as their own the words of Mary.  The Lord began to do great things through them, just as he had done with Mary.

I suspect most of us don’t think about how the Spirit can work through us.  Most days I assume that the Spirit works primarily through other people.  Leadership is the responsibility of others.  Action is the responsibility of people of talent and energy.  And the works of the Spirit are for people far better positioned than I.  But of course on all counts I’m wrong.  All of these items are in my job description too.  As God did with Mary and the apostles, the Lord does with me:  the Lord can and will do great things.

6282581C-AF49-4349-8CB9-D00BC479D7CEFor centuries preachers have spoken of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, and that’s certainly true.  It’s the day on which the Spirit came to rest on the apostles and told them to stop sitting around and get on with life.  Jesus had come to give life, and to give it in abundance.  It was the job of the apostles to carry on with that work.

But the gifts of the Spirit did not end on that one day.  I give the apostles credit for realizing that the job was far bigger than they, and they immediately went off and shared responsibility.  They breathed on others the life of the Holy Spirit when they baptised.  They conferred the Holy Spirit when they imposed hands on others in confirmation.  They were the first to recognize that the Spirit was not meant for them alone.  The Spirit is meant for all, and the Spirit is a gift that speaks across any and all human boundaries — and not just the linguistic ones.

For the disciples Pentecost was the beginning of a strange and wonderful pilgrimage, and that same Spirit animates us as well.  That same Spirit urges us to step out from the sidelines and engage in life to the fullest.  The Spirit invites us to let the Lord accomplish some pretty significant things in us — things that could very well surprise us.

So it is that it’s nice to celebrate Pentecost once a year.  Still, the point of Pentecost is this:  it’s an everyday sort of feast.  It’s a reminder of how the Spirit empowers us to reach out and accomplish the impossible, even if it has to be on a weekday.

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+This past week we hosted in the Abbey the twenty-two individuals who will comprise this fall’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  All graduated from Saint John’s University on May 13th, and so this marked their first week out of school since kindergarten.  It was a real delight to have them with us during their weeklong retreat in preparation for service next year in Benedictine monasteries around the world.

+I just finished reading a book which a good friend gave me for Christmas.  Now that I’ve finished it, I realize it did not really reflect anything of the Christmas spirit, but it was entertaining, to say the least.  Jeffrey Lee’s God’s Wolf tells the story of Reynald de Chatillon, who turned out to be one of the most unscrupulous of the 12th-century crusaders in the Holy Land.  To his credit, Reynald did succeed in bringing Christians and Muslims together in a common appreciation for him.  It seems that people on all sides came to mistrust him.  And it likewise seems that he was noted for his indiscriminate violence, if both Christian and Muslim sources are to be trusted.  The book reads almost like a novel, and it illustrates how complex politics in the Middle East can be, even in the 12th century.

+In last week’s post I showed illustrations from the Abbey of Saint Pierre on top of Montmartre in Paris.  I noted that most of the people who trek up the hill rarely visit the abbey, but they flock in droves to Sacre Coeur, its more famous neighbor.  It truly is an impressive edifice, as these photos suggest.

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Will the Stones Speak of Us?

The landscape of Europe is littered with monastic establishments.  Some are ruins, whose skeletons reach up to the open skies.  Others are fragments of their former selves, and they long ago surrendered most of their stones to builders of cottages and manor houses and garden walls.  But every now and again there’s an impressive remnant to remind us modern folk of the Spirit that once animated the people who lived in these sacred spaces.

At the end of my recent pilgrimage to Lourdes some friends and I passed through Paris, and one morning we visited the stately basilica of Sacre Coeur.  It perches on the highest point in the city, and there it stands as something of a poke-in-the-eye of the Revolution in France.  It’s stately and amazing, even to a jaded critic like me;  and I was glad to have the chance to wander its aisles once again.

C4589408-1357-454A-85F3-079FBB06D06AHowever, I have to confess that I and my fellow pilgrims were there for different reasons.  They had come to see the late 19th-century basilica in all its glory.  I, on the other hand, came to get a peek once again at its lowly neighbor — the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre.

My first and last visit to Saint Pierre was in the 1980s.  When I walked through its doors back then it turned out to be a huge disappointment.  The church was filled with dust that I assumed had accumulated since the monks had vacated the place in 1789.  Still worse, it was dark and decrepit and seemed ripe for the wrecking ball.  Given those times, that seemed a likely fate.

I returned wondering whether there was anything left of it, and I dreaded the sight of the tourist outlet that must have replaced it.  To my surprise, however, the church was still standing.  Even better, it had gone through a metamorphosis.  The dust was gone.  New stones had replaced the battered ones.  And signs of rejuvenated pastoral activity were everywhere.  Once again it was in the business of serving the spiritual needs of the denizens of Montmartre as well as the herds of tourists who accidentally wander in.

10E149F3-94C7-4211-BFE0-A39DF139AF6BThe most striking elements were the new stained glass windows.  There were also a few new statues, including one of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris.  He was beheaded on Montmartre, and according to legend he picked up his severed head and walked away.  In this rendition the headless bishop couldn’t look more casual and relaxed.  And as for me, I thought of all those skeptics who naturally scorn such stories.  In answer to them Saint Denis stands there with his head and a nonchalant “so what!” on his lips.  After all, his story is no more far-fetched than most of the urban legends that we swallow uncritically today.

I left Saint Pierre with a comforting sense of reassurance.  While individual souls may be granted eternal life, God makes no such promises to monasteries.  Monasteries come and go, in response to the changing times.  That said, the monks who lived at Saint Pierre in the course of 850 years have every right to savor the legacy they have left on Montmartre.  After all these years their silent witness still touches the lives of all sorts of people.  And even if it was never their original intention to draw tourists from around the world, that’s okay.  That part of their legacy may have been unintentional, but God works in mysterious ways.

Here I find a certain consolation as I try to live my own life as a Christian and a monk.  Who knows how many lives any of us touch?  Who knows whether we do so for good or for ill?  All the same, it seems to me that we all ought to work with whatever resources God has given to us, and to let God figure out what sort of legacy we will leave.  And whether the stones will speak of us fondly a hundred years from now is a matter for future generations to decide.  But in the meantime, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be of some service to our neighbors in the here and now.  That in itself is legacy enough.

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+The conclusion of our Order of Malta pilgrimage was anything but uneventful.  For days some of us who planned to return through Paris watched the train schedule with apprehension.  Sure enough they were true to their word and the train operators went on strike on the day we had to return to Paris.  Our only recourse was to hire a van and drive from the south of France to the north, which made for a very long day.  What made it personally excruciating were the exit signs on the freeway.  Every few miles we passed a place that that I had read about for years, but of course there was no way we could stop and see even a single one.  That was a tough experience for me, but at least I now know where all those places are.

+Fortunely Air France was not on strike on the day of my departure.  I was to connect with a Delta flight in London, but alas the Air France and Delta computers were not speaking with one another on the morning when I checked in at the Air France desk.  They told me that my London flight had been cancelled and that I had to go to the Delta desk to find out what to do.  It was early in the morning, and the Delta desk was not open yet.  When it did open they told me the flight was not cancelled, and that I would have to return to speak with the people at Air France.  By then we had frittered away two hours, and with 45 minutes before departure I still had not checked in or gone through security.  It turned out that everyone was a little right and a little wrong.  The flight did depart from London, but it was several hours late.  Thankfully I made it through security in Paris and met the connection in London, but I also vowed never to construct such an itinerary again.

+The photos in today’s post show the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre, that sits next to Sacre Coeur on top of Montmartre.  Needless to say, the abbey runs a poor second in attracting visitors, but that makes it a more awesome place to visit.

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The Christian Vocation:  To Be a Pilgrim

You’d be right to wonder how in the world anyone could keep busy for six days in a place like Lourdes.  Is there any decent shopping?  Are there great restaurants?  Is there much of anything else to do?  The answers to these three questions are short and sweet:  not much; no; and it depends.

First of all, I can assure you that no one on a culinary tour of the south of France makes a detour to Lourdes.  The restaurants are adequate, but the market for fine dining just isn’t there.  As for the shops, it’s fair to say that Lourdes caters to all tastes and none, but I can only think of four shops that I wouldn’t mind being photographed in.  As for things to keep you busy, there can be a surprisingly lot of stuff to chew up hours and hours.

097EFACE-14AA-4023-9890-D555C59EF61FFor starters, there is no such thing as an express Mass in Lourdes.  I can’t think of a single one that was over in less than an hour — and those were the weekday ones.  As for our Sunday liturgy for 25,000, that took over two and a half hours.  A close second in the time department was the candlelight procession that takes place every evening.  On the night we processed, we did so with 20,000 companions, and a procession of that magnitude simply cannot be hurried.  But to be fair, with 350 in our group, even a walk down the block takes planning.

I’m not going to recount the entire schedule, but I will note the two moments when I made my own particular contribution to the program.  On one afternoon I moderated a two-hour session with the care-givers in our group.  It was a moving experience for us all, and by the end of it I had a profound respect for these people who have given so much love and service to the people for whom they care.

A second instance came on the morning I led the stations of the cross for a large group.  It took place outdoors, across the river from the shrine.  There we walked from one stone-carved station to the next, mentally retracing the passion and death of Jesus.  In the past when I’ve done that I’ve always been conscious of the layers of meaning that this exercise evokes; but this time the circumstances compounded it.  As a spiritual meditation it is a substitute for a trip to Jerusalem and walking the Via Dolorosa.  But that morning it was also an abbreviated pilgrimage within the pilgrimage to Lourdes.  And finally, it serves as a reminder to all of us who are Christian that our fundamental vocation is to be pilgrims.  As Saint Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless, until finally they find their rest in Jesus.

43B8EFC6-5AA2-4D83-B920-BF67738B18FFAs you can imagine, six days of pilgrimage also bring a flood of words, much of it in the form of sermons.  I’m relieved to report that most of them were relatively benign, but I must cite Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit for the most down-to-earth and moving words of the entire journey.  At the Lourdes grotto, where tradition says that Mary gave her message to Bernadette, he pointed out an obvious truth that had never occurred to me.  “Mary came to Lourdes, and not to Paris.  Mary chose to appear in the town garbage dump, and not at Versailles.  Mary spoke to an unlettered young woman, and not to some sophisticate.”

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict notes the awe with which we approach the wealthy and powerful, and he urges his monks to bend over backwards to pay equal attention to the poor and powerless.  In her appearance to Bernadette, Mary makes the same point.  She provides a not-so-subtle reminder that in our pilgrimage of life we’d be well-advised to pay our respects to any and all fellow travelers.  If the scriptures relate the stories of people who unknowingly entertained angels, then they suggest that we can never be too cautious ourselves.  There’s always the outside chance that we could be walking with the Lord.  Given that, none if us can be too careful.  After all, we could miss something really important.

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+The first full day of our pilgrimage to Lourdes did not begin auspiciously.  It rained the entire day, and it was cold.  The second day it rained too.  Then it got progressively better, until by Sunday it was gloriously sunny and even warm.  It was the first day on which most of us shed our coats.  That lifted everyone’s spirits and made it a lot easier for people to get around.

+On May 5th several of the monks as well as volunteers gathered to plant the first of 500 fruiting trees and shrubs in the Abbey Arboretum.  This wild orchard will serve both the wildlife as well as those in the community who make jams and jellies for our table.

+The photos in today’s post all show scenes from Lourdes.  Certainly the oldest structure in town is the medieval fortress, that was built on Roman ruins on top of the hill that dominates the town and the river Gave that flows through it.  The shrine that greets visitors dates from the 19th century, while the enormous basilica that hosts Masses for up to 25,000 is underground.  Given that space is tight at the shrine, the location  underground preserves a valuable plaza that sits in front of the shrine.

Lourdes is not a big town, but it hosts around 5 million visitors during the peak months of the pilgrimage season.  That makes it the biggest tourist destination in France after Paris.   In winter the town shrinks down to a few thousand, and most of the hotels close.  And as a footnote, after Paris Lourdes has the greatest number of hotel rooms of any other city in France.

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