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Archive for June, 2018

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The Legacy of Saint John the Baptist

Normally I’m a great believer that each saint deserves a feast day, but one day per saint should be more than enough.  More than one is superfluous, and it could even stir up dormant egos.  After all, saints were once sinners, and who am I to say they aren’t ever tempted to look back whistfully on their golden years as sinners?

Still, I’m willing to grant exceptions.  Take Saint Benedict, for instance.  On July 11th we Benedictines will celebrate his feast.  But come March 21st we’ll celebrate it again, just in case we missed it the first time.  The same is true for John the Baptist, whom we celebrate on June 25th and again later this summer on August 29th.  Generally I’m happy with that arrangement because of the character of his message and the humility that he wore on his sleeve.  Most everyone could use a little more of the latter every now and again, at least I believe.

5691B404-9353-48C5-8D1E-6C20EF795EC8This last weekend, however, I came close to getting a surfeit of John the Baptist.  On Friday the 22nd I celebrated that feast with members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, who had gathered in Oakland to invest new members.  Since officially it is The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, John the Baptist’s feast is an appropriate day on which to welcome new members.  It’s why the Association long ago settled on the Friday closest to that feast for this annual gathering.

Then on Sunday the 24th we monks celebrated the same feast of Saint John.  Ours is the Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, so we legitimately celebrate both of his feasts with spirit.  But to do it twice in one weekend and then again in August may test my limits.

John figures prominently in the Christian story because he stands firmly rooted in Jewish tradition and also reaches out to Jesus.  That’s clearly seen when he urges people to return to an authentic Jewish observance.  Then, in the same breath, he describes Jesus as “the lamb of God.”  Of Jesus John said:  “He must increase and I must decrease.”  That to my mind is a remarkable expression of humility — but it needs a bit of clarification.

First, John the Baptist was no doormat, and he was fearless in his preaching.  But, despite the long shadow of Jesus, he knew that his life still mattered.  He had not come to play second fiddle to Jesus’ first violin.  Rather, his life had great value because he would shape the message that Jesus would carry even further.

61431057-3D50-4B77-AA6C-A5FB0F53EE55When John pointed to Jesus he didn’t yield up his sense of self-esteem, nor did he see himself destined to become a bit player as Jesus became the star.  In fact, the ministry of Jesus accented the dignity John had as the last of the prophets.

Every now and again we may be tempted to believe that becoming Christian means losing ourselves and so be swallowed up in Jesus.  In fact, Jesus did not come to smother us or make us into clones of some Christian ideal.  As Christians we check neither our personality nor our brains at the door of the church.  Rather, we take the spiritual vitality that Jesus offers to each of us and integrate it into lives in which we make the most of all that the Lord has given us.

So it is that as Christians we overlay onto our talents and qualities the love of Jesus Christ.  That’s what John the Baptist has in mind when he encourages us to let Jesus increase within us.  As Jesus increases, our individuality doesn’t fade away.  Rather, we flourish as the Lord brings out the best in us.

That, it seems to me, is a portion of the legacy of John the Baptist that we ought to celebrate regularly — not only twice a year, but even, on rare occasions,  twice in a weekend.

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NOTES

+On June 20th I made a short trip to the Bay Area, primarily to participate in the annual investiture ceremony for new members of the Order of Malta, which took place in Oakland on the 22nd.  Among the new members was Saint John’s alumnus and friend Steve Nelson, who lives in Scottsdale, AZ.

On the 20th I attended a reception, at which I blessed the new mobile clinic that will work out of the Malta free clinic that the Order operates in Oakland.  It’s big and bright and red, with the Malta logo on it.  If you see it tooling around the Bay Area, you can’t miss it.

+On June 23rd I attended alumni reunions at Saint John’s University.  We were blessed with lovely weather, which continued on into the next day.  In the course of the day I had lunch with the alumni who were celebrating their 60th anniversary since graduation, and dinner with those celebrating their 55th year.

4B625F49-2F03-4267-9461-594AB205A7A2+You never know when the opportunity to do a good deed will come along, and that was certainly the case on Saturday.  I was driving to the reunion luncheon, which was at the University president’s home, a mile from campus.  As I passed one home along the way, my eye caught a glimpse of what I thought was a bar-b-que grill going full blast in someone’s garage.  After a few seconds I asked myself who in the world would run an open flame in their garage.  And then the answer came:  “No one!”  So I backed up, turned up the drive to their home, only to discover a roaring fire in their garage.  So I laid on the horn until someone poked his head out the front door to ask what I wanted.  I casually noted that his garage was on fire.  As he glanced at the garage his irritation turned to horror.  His big tractor-mower was ablaze and threatening the entire structure.  He managed to pull it out of the garage, and I managed to get a dramatic photo, which I’ve included in this post.  Since my work was done, I turned around and drove off to lunch.

+The photo at top shows a 19th-century tower from the monastery, and if you look carefully at the arched glass window you will see the small perch where a statue of John the Baptist stood for decades.  Then the new wing to the monastery was built in 1954.  Instead of greeting visitors to the door of the monastery, however, John instead looked out over a roof.  So we brought him down to earth, and now he stands in the monastic garden, ruefully pointing up to the perch where he used to be.  The second photo is that terra cotta statue.  Below that is a copy of the tapestry of John the Baptist, which hangs in the cathedral in Los Angeles.  This copy hangs in our guest house, where it greets visitors.   For the feast we brought it to the sanctuary of the church.  At bottom are two photos of a small garden outside a side entrance to the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s.

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Think Small.  Achieve Big.

I recently ran across an article that encouraged people to “think small.”  By no means did the author urge people to slack off at work or scale back on their ambitions.  Rather, his recipe for success was simple and counterintuitive.  If people want to accomplish great things, then they should begin with the little things that over time will lead to bigger things, and more.

Common lore suggests that impressive results require grand masterstrokes.  However, in all too many cases those masterstrokes end up gathering dust on the shelf.  Who hasn’t been dazzled by brilliantly articulated but largely ignored mission statements?  Who hasn’t wondered why an organizational chart meant to turbocharge a company fell far short of goal?  The author argues that grand plans often leave people scratching their heads, wondering where to start.  By contrast, people can make a contribution through concrete steps that appear at first blush to be inconsequential.  However, done over time, with discipline and attention to detail, those modest steps have the potential to transform an organization.

A84FE2EA-D1E7-4327-827B-3AD15C9791C2If that’s true for organizations, it’s particularly true for individuals.  All of us have made grand resolutions that we’ve failed to accomplish, while we’ve also made simple resolves that we’ve been able to put into action.  There’s a world of difference between a new year’s resolution to “achieve good health in the new year” and one that prescribes “exercise for thirty minutes, three times a week.”  The latter may sound a bit modest, but it has a better chance of getting done.  Furthermore, done with discipline and dedication, it might even result in the better health that was the higher aspiration.

There’s little doubt that Jesus asks idealistic things of us, but all the same we’re lucky that he tended to emphasize the measurable, if not always the achievable.  For that reason he stressed the importance of little things, as he suggests in the parable of the mustard seed.  That seed may be tiny to start with, but it contains within it the germ of something really significant.  When tended and watered and nourished, the seed grows into something all out of proportion to its original size.  So it can be with us.

I find the parable of the mustard seed useful in a couple of ways.  First, that seed is symbolic of each bit of potential still latent within us.  All of us have a variety of talents, and some we have developed and some not.  Yet all of them have the potential to accomplish something of value, and we should never forget the undeveloped potential within us.  There’s still lots for us to do in life.

27F20C59-69FE-424F-B098-EE93287FE826Second, you and I are the mustard seed that Jesus speaks about.  Now and again we’re all tempted to discount our worth as persons and our ability to make much of a difference in life.  But God doesn’t see us that way, and Jesus came to remind us of the possibilities within each of us.  We are created in the image of God;  we matter;  and God invites each of us to live to the full the life we’ve been given.

There can be moments when the two great commandments can seem much like the mission statements that are far beyond our reach.  Who of us can possibly love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves?  I suspect that Jesus appreciated the challenge of such pie in the sky expectations, and so he encourages us to think about the small things that can turn us ever so slightly in the direction of the bigger aspirations.  And so, if we can’t quite seem to love our neighbors as ourselves, then treating them as if they were Christ for thirty minutes, three times a week, is a good start. It’s measurable;  it’s achievable;  and it might even lead to bigger things.

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NOTES

+Last week was rather quiet for me, and I spent the entire week without leaving Saint John’s.  However, on June 14th I did host two people for a tour of the Bible Gallery and a luncheon.  The day came courtesy of a bid the two had made at a silent auction at the annual gala for Vocal Essence, the choral group led by Dr. Philip Brunelle.  Philip had asked me to make this offer, which I gladly did.  It was a delightful experience, though I didn’t have the nerve to ask what they had paid for the winning bid.

+This was a blessed week for two alumni of Saint John’s University.  Fr. Bill Lies, CSC, was elected the provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and as such oversees the 500 members, whose work includes the sponsorship of the University of Notre Dame.  Fr. Bill is an ‘84 graduate of Saint John’s, and he majored in English with minors in French and philosophy.  He later received his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  For the last several years he has been on the faculty of Notre Dame.

EAF9573D-C50A-43B6-8D83-0EE3DBB5AA2FFr. Gregory Mohrman, OSB, is an ‘86 alumnus of our School of Theology and Seminary, and he has been elected to serve as abbot of Saint Louis Abbey in St. Louis, MO.  At Saint John’s Abbot Gregory lived with us in the monastery for four years, and during that time he became a beloved and respected colleague before returning to his community.

+There are quiet moments in the summer at Saint John’s, but this was not the week for them.  Through most of the week we hosted nearly 500 high school students who attended the annual American Legion Boys State.  They were great guests, and they used virtually every class and seminar room on campus.  At the end of the week the annual camp for the National Catholic Youth Choir began, and on Sunday the choir sang at the Abbey Mass.

+Until recently the plantings on campus had not yet reached the point when they seemed ready for photography.  But in today’s post I present the first of many summertime photos from the Abbey gardens.  Of particular note are the ladyslippers, which are the state flower of Minnesota and rather uncommon.

+The article to which I make reference in today’s post was a short online essay by Bob Cohen, principal at the wealth management firm of Tamar Fink in Minneapolis.

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Looking Beyond the Artificial

On Saturday the lights went out in the monastery.  Actually, everything went off, thanks to a planned power outage that takes place every year at about this time.  I’m not exactly sure what the power people have in mind when they do this to us, and perhaps they haven’t a clue either.  But whether they know it or not, they turn our world upside-down.

We had no electricity for seven hours, and a lot of inconvenience happened in our little world of the monastery.  For one thing, the kitchen staff had to consolidate the cold food into storage that would stay sealed for the entire day.  As for lunch and dinner, we had the indoor equivalent of picnics, complete with paper plates and plasticware.  As expected, the lights were out, making things pretty dim in all the places we need to be — like the refectory, the church, the halls, the stairs, and our rooms.  The elevator to the health center was also out of action, leaving the retired monks stranded on the second floor.  Fans and the air-conditioning took the day off too, leaving most public rooms stuffy and close.

CB4C0FEA-424D-4A1A-B9C8-848368D1FD97This year’s shut-down was distinctive for one new element, however.  A few months ago we installed a key-card lock system in the monastery, and without power it was dormant.  The practical result was that monks could leave the monastery but couldn’t get back in.  Thankfully the prior had the foresight to prop open two doors, and woe to the monk who absentmindedly closed them on the way out.

Other than a cold shower and the inability to read in my darkened room, this business didn’t really inconvenience me.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t frustrating, sitting there trying to think of what I could do in the semi-darkness.  But it was an interesting test in patience as I sat there and waited for life as we know it to resume.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent some photos he had taken that day.  They showed the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, a monastery I’ve long wanted to visit.  It was fortuitous, because the photos were enough to suggest to me both continuity and discontinuity within the monastic tradition.  850 years after the monks built Fountains, we still follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the architectural elements of monasteries have remained pretty much the same.  But some differences are startling, largely because of electricity.

35C9C63C-75CB-477F-AB1E-AC6A691354AAToday we have things that medieval monks could scarcely imagine.  We have artificial light that’s lengthened the work day beyond imagination.  We have heat and air-conditioning, elevators, sound-systems and media equipment and noisy compressors everywhere.  White noise is an integral part of life, and silence such as the monks of Fountains knew is unknown to us.

In short, we monks — and most everyone else — live in a world in which artificial sound and light and air have isolated us from the things of the earth.  Meanwhile, the lights of civilization long ago screened from our gaze the dazzling display of stars that the monks of Fountains marveled at every evening.

I’m no Luddite, and I would be loathe to dispense with the things that make our lives both comfortable and productive.  All the same, however, I wonder whether there is a price we’ve had to pay as we’ve created an artificial world that shelters us from the reality of creation and the cycles of the seasons.  Has our world become unreal?

I wonder too whether our isolation from nature has engendered a corresponding isolation from one another and from God.  A recent study points out the prevalence of loneliness in our society, but the data provided one big surprise.  Researchers had expected to find loneliness among the elderly, but the discovery of a pervasive loneliness among the young was shocking.  No one had expected that.

6DA8C891-C0A0-422C-8321-CC785B4B21E6If we’ve insulated ourselves from close human companionship, have we done so with God as well?  It seems entirely plausible to me that if we can fashion our own little artificial world — entirely the result of the machines we have created — then we can just as easily close our eyes to the presence of God.

For better and for worse, something like a power outage reminds us of two things.  First, we aren’t omnipotent, despite what we may think.  In fact, we would be helpless without the power grid, until we learned to get along without it once again.  And second, we would eventually recall that there is something to life besides cell phones and the machines that now shape our artificial world.

Perhaps, then, it’s good to turn off the power every now and again, just to remind us that life is possible without it.  For one, we’d discover that life still has meaning.  For another, we’d discover that we still have each other.  In the faces of one another we behold the spark of the divine presence that never seems to grow dark or weaken.  Oddly enough, it’s the one spark of energy that the power company can’t seem to turn off.

0B940A52-A951-4703-98B0-C668166F4C9ENOTES

+On June 5th I returned from giving conferences at a retreat for members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Malvern Retreat House, located in the Philadelphia suburbs.

+On June 9th we monks of Saint John’s survived a planned power outage at Saint John’s.  Not willing to miss the opportunity to comment on that experience, I made it the subject of today’s post.

+Lacking photos of the medieval abbey of Fountains, I have done the next best thing by resorting to photos I took of the nearby abbey of Rievaulx.  Located outside of York, it is a stunning ruin, and it’s a miracle that builders and looters did not cart off all of its stones. Given that there were no glazed windows in the cloister to shield the monks from the elements, they managed to survive the winter by taking refuge in the calefactory — the one heated room in the entire complex.  That fireplace served some 600 monks and laybrothers at one point, and I can only imagine how they crowded around it in the dead of winter.  The photo of the fireplace is at bottom.

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Our Own Personal Annunciation

Last week we celebrated the feast of the Visitation, and a friend of mine used the occasion to hark back to the feast of the Annunciation, which we celebrate normally on March 25th.  That’s a feast that has earned the fascination of Christian artists through the centuries, and as a result we have a ton of renditions of that biblical story.

Much of that art reflects the rather sweet character of the gospel story.  Oftentimes it presumes that Mary was in the middle of her prayers, though the gospels don’t explicitly say she was doing that at the time.  Anyway, an angel interrupts to confide that Mary has found favor with God, and God has invited her to be the mother of Jesus.  Mary’s positive response, recounted in the Magnificat, has for most of Christian history taken its place in the daily prayer of the Church.

432B0660-7CE4-4AA8-B531-4672CAA5A663Preachers have regularly commented on Mary’s ready response, but my friend wondered aloud whether Mary may have asked for time to think about it.  Why wouldn’t she ask for some time — time to talk with her parents or with at least one good friend?  No one could fault her for wanting to think things through — not even God.

That comment opened the floodgates of my own imagination.  If I had been Mary, my own assent would not have come so easily.  “You want me to do WHAT?  Are you kidding me?  What will people say?”  Then would have come a quick afterthought.  “At least give me some time to think about it.  What you’re asking is huge, you know.”

The gospel account contains no trace of any personal drama, but it does leave us wondering about what really may have just happened.  It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the whole thing may have left Mary a little dazed.  After all, she pondered all this in her heart, and I’m guessing she did so every day for the rest of her life.

From one perspective this story is simple and straightforward.  Mary accepted God’s invitation;  she gave birth to a son;  and mother and son moved on with their lives.  But we also know that the story would have been entirely different had it been we.  Thank God we weren’t the ones at that kneeler that morning.  We wouldn’t have known what to say, but “okay, sure, make it so” would not have been the first thing out of our lips.

39D07D97-5DEA-4031-850C-0FFA4C8EF1ACAs true as all that may be, it doesn’t mean that our turn with God will never come.  God may have had a unique role for Mary, but God always keeps an eye out for other people too, including us.  Mary was neither the first nor was she the last person to whom God has pitched really crazy ideas, and sooner or later our day with God will come.

All of that serves as a good preamble to thoughts about what God has in mind for us.  Not surprisingly we find God’s invitations to us to be really difficult things.  Whether it’s a vocation or a personal crisis or a challenge that seems way beyond our skill set, the invitations from God come anyway.  And often they come at the most inconvenient of times.  Actually, they tend to come when we’re busy — when we have other plans.

”Why me, oh Lord?”  “This is way too much to ask of me.”  “I don’t have the strength to do it.”  “Ask somebody better-suited to take this on.”  “At least give me time to think about it.”  This is how we usually bargain with God for time and understanding.  This, coincidentally, is what we call prayer.

The fact of the matter is, sooner or later each of us will have our own annunciation.  For better or worse God asks something of each of us; and being a sly negotiator, God gives us all the time in the world to come up with a really good reply.  The good news is that God is patient with us.  The less good news is that God never gives up on us, so we can never beg off from God’s invitations.

45CB9377-93DB-4D74-9A08-77789FB40EC5God asks what sometimes may seem to be the impossible;  but it’s equally true that God never asks for more than we are able to do.  So it is that at the end of it all our story will be much like Mary’s.  As unlikely as it may seem to us, we too will join with a personal chorus of the Magnificat.  “Behold, the Lord has done great things for me;  holy is his name.”  Who would have thought!  I know I certainly never saw it coming.

NOTES

+Today we monks of Saint John’s Abbey begin our annual five-day retreat.  This year Abbot Gregory Polan will lead us in the retreat.  Abbot Gregory is a monk of Conception Abbey in Missouri, and he lived in our community for four years while he did seminary studies with us.  More recently he was elected Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, and he now lives at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo on the Aventine in Rome.

+The photos in today’s post were ones I took at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  At top is The Annunciation, by Giovanni de Paolo (Sienna, ca. 1435).  Below that is a work by Masolino da Panicale (Florence, ca. 1423), followed by a work by Fra Carnevale (Florence, ca. 1445).  Next is a favorite of mine, The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio (Venice, ca. 1505); and at the bottom is The Holy Kinship, of south German provenance, ca. 1480.

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