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Archive for August, 2018

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Lord, Where Would We Go?

Pilgrimage is a religious exercise with deep roots in human history.  For millennia people have left home and set out on the quest for inner peace, self-awareness, repentance, a change of scenery, and as often as not a bit of fun.  But motivating it all is a simple question that eventually nags at everyone.  Looking around at their lives, people sooner or later ask this:  “Is this all there is?”

Recently I viewed a program that featured British commentator Simon Reeve as he retraced the medieval pilgrimage route to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury.  I found it fascinating, and not just for the trails and inns and churches that have survived in the five hundred years since Henry VIII ordered the shrine destroyed.  Himself a non-believer, Reeve puzzled over why people would still do this.  When science and technology explain so much, why would people go to such great lengths in hope of a glimpse of the sacred?

BF8AFC3D-E78A-42DB-ADD1-6D56FFDF50C1Reeve put his questions to pilgrims whom he met along the way to Canterbury, and I think the best nugget of insight came from a Carmelite friar whose community serves pilgrims and retreatants.  He framed his answer carefully, beginning with one bit of context.  Undeniably many people today refuse to be pinned down.  They keep all options open.  They shrink from commitments.  And so, in a world which doesn’t quite seem to know where it’s going, pilgrimage is the conscious decision to set a course for one’s life to some destination, and only God knows where it will lead.

People on pilgrimage, then, tend to be contrarians.  They set their sights on a goal — in this case a place — and they don’t give up until they’ve reached it.  Of course they have no idea how the journey will tease out in its details, but they commit time and energy to a journey that might turn out to be life-changing, or not.

That, it seems to me, provides insight into Peter’s response to Jesus in the gospel passage from John 6.  When the going got too tough, many of the disciples took off.  Peter stayed, and when Jesus asked him “why?”, his answer was simple.  “Lord, where would we go?”

296B5A4F-EDD4-467C-80F3-3D911EB3A0F8Peter’s response was not an expression of bewilderment, because it was an act of faith.  He knew there were other options, but he chose to throw in his lot with Jesus.  And he did so fully aware that the pilgrimage with the Lord offered no guarantees, save for the fact that the journey would be interesting and the destination rewarding.

Not to choose is to choose, and so it is that lifelong fence-sitters have in fact made a choice.  They have chosen the path of minimal risk, but that minimal risk brings with it minimal reward.  And that’s the implication in what Jesus asks of Peter.  “Are you willing to put yourself on the line for at least something?  For anything?”

The Lord puts the same question to us, and if we elect to walk with him our lives will be anything but dull and meaningless.  The route of our journey may include detours and potholes, but we’ll at least have a direction.  We will not be aimless wanderers, afraid to leave our comfort zones.

That’s the potential reward for throwing in our lot with the Lord.  For that journey the Lord gives us his Spirit, who provides us the wisdom to live day by day and hour by hour. With that wisdom comes the awareness that the Lord won’t always give us what we ask for, but he will always give us more than we ever imagined.  For me that’s worth the walk.

4E6F7EB8-F96D-49B9-9472-D741CB736E6DNOTES

+On August 23rd the incoming freshmen of Saint John’s University joined us for evening prayer in the abbey church.  Before we began, Abbot John welcomed them to Saint John’s and invited them to join us for prayer whenever the Spirit moves them — and not just during final exams.  After prayer the students met in small groups for discussions led by several of the monks.

+On August 25th I said Mass for a group of some forty alumni and spouses at the home of Len and Kay Mrachek, in Edina, MN.

+On August 26th I attended Mass presided over by Saint John’s School of Theology alumnus Fr. Alex Juguilon OSC, who was ordained this spring.  Gathered for the Mass was a large contingent from the Twin Cities Philippine community, and virtuallly all the music was in Tagalog — a tongue entirely foreign to me.  Held at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale, MN, I confess that I had to look it up on the map to find out where in the world it is.  It is a suburb of St. Paul, as I found out.  And I should have known better.

+The new school year has brought several monks and priests who will live with us in the monastery while studying at Saint John’s.  Among them are five Cistercian monks from Vietnam, along with one Benedictine from Vietnam.  To make matters interesting, our Brother Simon-Hoa now must share his monastic name with one of the visitors and his surname with another.  We’ll get used to it.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the Quandrangle courtyard, save for the butterfly.  The butterfly was draining nectar from a flower in the monastic garden, and it was a long wait before the wings fluttered open for this shot.

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The Big Banquet of Consequences

Matthew 18 is for me one of the more difficult gospel passages to digest.  On the one hand Jesus asks his followers to forgive their neighbors seventy-seven times.  Then in the next breath he tells the story of a slave whose sin seems unforgivable.  That slave had begged for and received forgiveness of a debt owed to his master, only to turn around and treat a fellow slave mercilessly.  For this act of meanness the first slave paid dearly, and it suggests that there may be limits to the “seventy-seven times” rule.  Given that this was likely a case of hypocrisy, however, I can understand why Jesus might be moved to make such an exception.

A couple of years ago I read an excerpt from columnist George Will that’s lodged in my mind ever since.  He cited Robert Louis Stevenson to the effect that “Sooner or later we will all sit down to a big banquet of consequences.”  Neither Will nor Stevenson were writing about religion, but the words apply, particularly so in light of the events in Pennsylvania during the past few days.  In this more recent case the sins of some were compounded by the official hypocrisy of others.  It was the latter who had demanded the highest of standards for others, but then in the next turn they expected people to give them the benefit of the doubt.

0793C23C-487C-41CD-9421-32666BFC518DIf I’m not mistaken, this was a major theme in the preaching of Jesus.  Regularly he hammered away at those scribes and Pharisees who placed heavy burdens on others while they crafted easy outs for themselves.  Fortunately Jesus never said that the sin of hypocrisy was unforgivable, but serious amendment of life had to figure as a necesssary prerequisite.

As surely as the sun appears in the morning, sins do come home to roost, and no one should be surprised at the ripple effects.  In this most recent case sin has devastated the lives of those sinned against.  But sin has also impacted those who were thought to be innocent bystanders.  The crushing disappointment that they now experience should astonish no one, because it’s a byproduct of the social dimension of sin.  Those who trusted that the Lord would walk with them always — in good times and in bad — now find themselves wandering alone in the valley of darkness.  Or so it might seem.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn, it may be this.  Whether we have amateur or professional status as sinners, our lives do matter.  What we choose to do or leave undone matters.  All things matter, for good and for ill, and our lives have consequence.  And so we can never let sin — in any of its forms — get the better of us.  So it is that we should prepare ourselves to sit someday at the big banquet of consequences.  And may we be so blessed to discover that we have been seated next to the Lord.

4682522B-2DF9-422C-9F6B-9090197E5C72NOTES

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

+On August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the first of our students returned to campus for the fall term.  This group mainly consisted of members and trainers of the football team.

+On Sunday August 19th The Saint John’s Boys Choir provided music at the abbey Mass.  They did a sterling job, all the more so because they had just completed their annual beginning-of-the-season choral camp.

+On Sunday evening the students working as resident assistants in the University dormitories joined us for evening prayer.  By the time every one else had been seated, some one hundred visitors had nearly filled the choir stalls.

+Happily for me, I stayed home the entire week, and I had no complaints.  Just comparing notes with some of my confreres allowed me to count my blessings.  As University chaplain, Fr. Nick went with 120 freshmen and 30 upperclassmen on a several-day orientation trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.  The thought of overnights in the wilderness sends shivers up my spine.  Meanwhile, Fr. Lew flew to East Africa to visit several of our Benedictine Volunteers.  And in the last hint of the change of seasons, Br. Lucian returned to Notre Dame for his second year of doctoral studies, following a nice stint at home with us.

+In today’s post I’ve selected work from the church of Santa Croce in Florence.  At top and bottom are terracotta altarpieces by Andrea Della Robbia, both dating from the end of the 15th century.  The second photo shows the interior of Santa Croce, while the Annunciation is by Donatello, ca. 1435.

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Retreat!  (But Don’t Run Away!)

The thought of monks going on retreat must strike some people as ridiculous.  After all, haven’t we already fled from the world to take up a life of prayer and asceticism?  What’s left to retreat from?

A second surprise for many is that monks are people too.  Like everybody else, we’re beset by distractions, even during prayer.  We also bump up against temptations, which are much like those that occur to most other people.  And we’re under no illusion that we’re the only ones who’ve ever thought of chucking it all and moving on to something new —- like a new job, new friends, new home, new way of life.  And we too see visions of grass that’s greener on the other side.  Of course it really is greener, but mainly in our dreams.

One of the ironies of the Rule of Saint Benedict is that Benedict makes no provision for a retreat.  He pretty much assumes that our lives will be one constant retreat in which we keep death daily before our eyes and live with intensity and focus.  That is certainly a lovely idea, but the reality of life in a monastery is somewhat different.  All too often the bias in our lives tips toward an emphasis on work and responsibility.  That comes at the expense of prayer, reading, recreation and even sleep.  It’s the human condition writ local, and long ago canon law in the Church made an annual retreat mandatory for all priests and religious — including monks and nuns.

F9FA4123-509F-4E92-BD50-946C8FCC2288So what do monks think about during a retreat?  For one thing, many of the monks I know think about work that’s not getting done because they’re sitting there listening to a retreat conference.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I’m one of them, so I know what I’m talking about).  They’re also thinking about vital email that must be piling up.  They think about all the other useful things they could be doing.  And of course they’re thinking about the nap that they could be taking because they’re not at work.  And every now and then they think about how life could have been had they chosen another course.

The point of a retreat, however, is neither to run away from the monastic life nor dream about an escape to some new and idyllic circumstances.  Ideally a retreat is meant to focus our attention on the two great commandments around which all the big and little details of life should be organized.  Loving God with all our heart is the first of these; and loving our neighbor is the second.  I grant it’s a stretch to believe that these could be more important than putting in overtime or answering email, but there you have it.

When monks come to the monastery they bring the intellectual and emotional baggage that they’ve accumulated up to that point.  Once clothed in the habit the agenda shifts to sorting out the items worth keeping and tossing the stuff that’s extraneous or destructive.  It also involves training in how to distinguish between the guests whom we should welcome into our mental living rooms and those we should politely ask to leave.  After all, why should we allow the latter to live rent-free in our minds?

Monks, like everyone else, need a retreat once in a while.  And it’s almost secondary whether it lasts five days once a year or a half an hour every few days.  We all need to clean house and rearrange the furniture.  Far from being an exercise in running away, it’s an attenpt to take an inventory of our lives.  It’s why we do it, and it’s why anyone who’s not given it a try should do so.  It’s amazing what a good cleaning can do.

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NOTES

+On August 6th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On August 8th I flew to Dallas to give a retreat to the Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.  The Cistercians are a late 11th-century offshoot of the Benedictines, and they too follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.  This particular monastery had its foundation in a group of Hungarian monks who escaped following the anti-communist revolt in 1956.  Today they conduct a wonderful prep school.  Once I arrived I was thoroughly surprised to discover that the novice master, Fr. Ignatius, is a 1998 graduate of Saint John’s University.  At Saint John’s he was an art major and then went on to a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Texas before discovering his monastic vocation.  All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and I was able to stay for the profession of first vows by their novice.  That retreat provided the occasion for today’s post.

+The various flowerbeds around campus seem to be particularly vibrant these days.  With so many possibilities to consider, these were the photos that made the cut.

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In Pursuit of Transfiguration

I’m probably not the best person in the world to make some sense of the Transfiguration of the Lord, for one simple reason.  I’ve always found this episode to be curiously out of place in the life of Jesus.  It seems so gratuitous and unnecessary.  Why in the world would Jesus pull off a stunt like this?  At worst it seems cheaply theatrical, meant to dazzle a few select disciples.  At best it seems like an irrelevant display of power meant to put distance between Jesus and us.

At first glance, in the Transfiguration Jesus seems to suggest that he’s not at all like the rest of us.  But in fact, years of puzzling over this now suggests to me just the opposite.  Jesus is very much one with us; and of greater importance, in this event he invites us to follow him in a lifelong pursuit of our own Transfiguration.

597FC45A-A9B5-4F96-A294-3B29884FE2BFFor me the key to understanding this episode is the guest list on that mountain with Jesus.  There’s Moses and Elijah, locked in mystical conversation; and watching, like children, are Peter, James and John.  The latter don’t quite know what to make of it all, but in fact Jesus has just invited them to join in this moment of Transfiguration.  Like Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John are meant to be part of the experience.  And by extension, Jesus also reaches out to you and me to pull us into the picture.

The Transfiguration, then, is meant to humble neither the disciples nor us.  Rather, in it Jesus extends an invitation to continue in a lifelong transformation.  In baptism we took the first step; in the Eucharist we grow further in our transformation; and in the little things of our lives we walk with the Lord on a pilgrimage that once seemed scarcely possible.

So as much as the Transfiguration may be about Jesus, it’s very much about us too.  It’s not some gratuitous stunt meant to put distance between Jesus and us.  Rather, it’s the moment when Jesus shakes us up to the reality of our own possibilities.  It’s an electrifying wake-up to remind us that there’s more to our lives than what we may have imagined.  There is in fact transcendent purpose to our lives.

We all are flesh and bone, as was Jesus.  But like Jesus there is more to us than that.  God has created us in the divine image, and Jesus has come to gather us and lead us into a lifelong process of Transfiguration.  So it is that the Transfiguration is no cheap theatric.  It’s a glimpse into who God calls each one of us to be.

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NOTES

+Today’s post is the text of the sermon that I delivered at the abbey Mass on August 6th, the feast of the Transfiguration.

+Today’s post is something of a personal milestone, in that it begins the eighth year of this blog.  It is the 366th post, published on 366 consecutive Mondays.  The entire experience has reaffirmed one old saw that I regularly repeat.  If I knew at the beginning how much work it was going to be, I never would have done it.  If I’d known the positive impact it would have on my life, I’d have done it a lot sooner.  Thanks for reading this!

+This past week we hosted the Eden Prairie High School marching band for their annual band camp, and it was wonderful to hear their music as it drifted across the campus.  In addition to other groups at prayer with us this week, we welcomed at evening prayer on Saturday the incoming class of architecture students from the University of Minnesota.

+This week I am hosting for a five-day retreat a member of the Order of Malta from San Francisco.  He is here in preparation for his promise of Obedience, which he will make this fall.

+Relatively benign temperatures and plenty of rain have marked our summer at Saint John’s, and the 2.2 inches on Saturday served as icing on the cake.  The rains have worked their own transfiguration of the campus, as the photos in today’s post demonstrate.  They are from the cloister gardens on either side of the church.

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