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Archive for January, 2019

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Thank you Russell Baker!

I lost a good friend last week.  Russell Baker was for years a feature writer for The New York Times, and I was saddened to read of his passing.

I never met Mr. Baker, but all the same I once decided to write to let him know that he saved my sanity during a summer in Spain.  I was in the city of León, doing dissertation research, and for two and a half months I neither heard nor spoke a word of English.  Mr. Baker’s column, filled with wit and whimsy and rendered in beautifully-crafted English, was my lifeline to the world I had left behind.

León was a bit of a backwater back then, and Americans had not really discovered it yet. Like much of Spain, León was still trying to figure out how to behave in the aftermath of Francisco Franco.  In America we had timely announcements from Saturday Night Live, reassuring us that Francisco Franco was still dead.  But many in Spain were not so sure.  That may explain one thing that unnerved me on my first day in León:  copies of Mein Kampf were on sale at a few of the book stalls.

f7c78cfc-5686-49f2-aaf4-6b47fc95a03aI survived my time in León thanks to the hospitality of the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Santa María de Carvajal.  Their warmth was my haven in an unfamiliar culture, but my guest room did come with a price.  First, the nuns locked the front gate at 5 pm.  That meant that I could not enjoy the evening paseo that is the custom in Spain.  My room also looked out over a small plaza that included a noisy bar.  Five nights a week it belted out American country music, a genre for which I had not yet acquired a taste.  But two and a half months of it led to a change of heart.  After all, it was a touch of home, and I also saw it as the harbinger of change in León.  Hitler could never win against country music.

By the end of my first week in León I was desperate to speak some English, but it was a full month before I finally spied my chance.  Across the plaza mayor was an American couple, and I knew so because of his powder-blue leisure suit and her lime-green pant suit.  100% authentic polyester, if I’m not mistaken.  They clutched each other for dear life, while the Leonese stared as if they had come to announce the circus.  That was the day when I realized that dignity was more important than my need to speak English.  So I walked on by, hoping that everyone would take me for a Leonese.

That’s the context for the deep affection that I developed for Russell Baker and his writing.  His column appeared in The International Herald, and only one newsstand in León carried it.  So early each day I threaded my way through the narrow streets to buy one of its two copies.  But one day I was too late, and I came up short.  Some tourist must have snapped up the second copy, and I was devastated.  It was like losing a friend.

Today León is a lively and beautiful city, due in part to its niche on the revived Camino to Santiago.  Tourists and pilgrims now crowd the streets, and the news stalls bulge with an array of lurid magazines that are enough to raise Francisco Franco from the dead.  But a copy of Mein Kampf cannot be had.  Nor will you see pastel-hued leisure suits.  Just as I had foreseen, country music was indeed the death of it all.

8e465faf-a438-4089-868f-3a7787d17949With news of the passing of Mr. Baker, I must own up to one sin of omission.  I should have written him years ago, just as I had intended.  I should have told him what a good friend he became to me that summer.  I should have told him how I savored all his delicious turns of phrases and delighted whenever he plucked from his memory just the right underused word.  He was an artist in words, and he was the consummate gentleman when dealing with people who did not share his views.  He was the picture of civility, and with that he was generous to a fault.

The latter is one of two takeaways for me.  First, it’s never a good idea to trash people with whom I disagree.  I’m always amazed to recall that there are still ample supplies of civility and courtesy in storage, so there’s plenty to go around.  It does me no good to hoard them, and it’s better to give them away.

Second, I should never wait to thank people for their kindness until after they’ve died.  By that point it no longer does them much good.  On the other hand, it’s never too late for me.  Clearly, someone of the stature of Russell Baker didn’t need to hear my thanks all those years ago.  But I still feel the need to give them.  So here’s to you, Russell Baker!  Thank you for being a creative genius with your words.  And thanks for an amazing summer together in Spain.

a3330c18-9aef-430f-b23a-d369181b8c71NOTES

+On January 23rd I attended a talk delivered by Zach Vertin, who graduated from Saint John’s University in 2005.  Since graduation he has worked in the foreign service and spent considerable time in South Sudan, about which he has written his first book.  Today Zach is a lecturer at my alma mater, Princeton University, and he is a fellow at the Brookings Institution.  I’m always amazed at the prodigious accomplishment of such youngsters and wonder what in the world they can do for an encore.

+On January 26th I was in Atherton, CA, where I gave a morning session to incoming members of the Order of Malta of the Western Association.  I spoke on the history of the Order and the development of its mission in the course of 900 years.

+Alas, I searched my photo files to find something to show what a lovely city León is, but the cupboard was bare.  So I pulled up the file for Valladolid, which is located to the southeast of León.  The Museo Nacional de Escultura has some remarkable items, including sculptures of three of the evangelists, sitting at their desks besieged by writer’s block.  They were carved in the first quarter of the 16th century by Felipe Vigarny (d. 1542).  (Click on the photos to savor the fine detail.)  The photos at top and bottom show the façade and the cloister of the Museo, a former monastery.

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Will Never Work for You?

One of my favorite cartoons appeared years ago in The New Yorker Magazine.  It shows a busy executive with phone in one hand while his other hand flips through a desk calendar.  And the caption says it all.  “No.  Tuesday won’t work.  No, Thursday won’t work either.  How about never?  Will never work for you?”

That scene came to mind as I read the gospel passage that recounts the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John.  They literally dropped everything to follow Jesus, and I know I could never do a thing like that.  For one, I’m not terribly spontaneous.  I’m not a risk-taker; and I have to think things through.  And even if I wanted to make a radical decision to follow Christ, it would take planning.  To hit the road and be free to follow the Lord would mean untangling myself from a host of obligations.  And then I’d have to get the abbot’s permission, and I just hope he’d have the wisdom to say “No!”

The calling of Simon and Andrew is a good reminder of just how rooted we are in the world.  Positively those roots are life-giving;  but negatively they entangle us and make us overly cautious when we do have the chance to act as Jesus would have us act.

I don’t want to be footloose and fancy-free, as were the disciples.  But I also don’t want a thousand excuses to paralyze me.  That’s a good reason to pray regularly for the wisdom to know when it’s time to act and when it’s time to pray some more.

505ddaf8-3737-4c6d-b2ff-c51f0a641ad3NOTES

+On January 14th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the homily that I delivered that day.  It is based on Mark 1: 14-20.

+On January 17th I delivered a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to members of the Pittsburgh Legatus Club.  I went at the invitation of Saint John’s University alumnus Seth Beckman, who is the dean of the school of music at Duquesne University.  I then spent extra time in Pittsburgh to meet two other alumni, both of whom have been at Carnegie Mellon University for 25+ years.  To my surprise, neither had met the other, and neither knew that there was another alumnus of Saint John’s on the faculty there.

+I have to say that I found the geography of Pittsburgh to be stunning.  I’d never been there before, and I was mesmerized by the view of downtown from Mount Washington, where I gave my presentation.  For sure I intend to return someday, but I will definitely wait until the leaves are back.

+I’ve been so fortunate in my travels that I scarcely anticipated the bad weather that prevented an easy exit from Pittsburgh.  I was schedule to leave Saturday morning and connect through Atlanta and eventually end up in Darien, CT, where I would speak on Sunday at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church.  With my Saturday morning flight scheduled to leave four and a half hours late, I had two options to consider.  I could take the flight I was booked on, with a high probability that I would spend the night on the floor at the Atlanta airport and miss the talk altogether.  Or I could go back to Minnesota.  I chose to go home, and I definitely chose the better part.  The good news is that I can go to Darien another day, and I look forward to that.

+During the Christmas break Brother Cyprian Ryu returned to his community of Waegwan Abbey in Korea, where he was ordained deacon.  We were happy to welcome him back to Saint John’s and look forward to three more semesters with us.

+The first two photos in today’s post show a 12th-century altar frontal from the Cathedral of Urgell, now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  At bottom is a photo of downtown Pittsburgh, which I took near the site where I spoke.

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They Went Home by Another Way

Last week’s post on the Epiphany generated quite a lot of comments, and I was grateful to know that it had resonated with so many.  Most of those who emailed did so to say that they too had wondered what had become of the gifts that the magi had delivered.  One, however, speculated that Mary and Joseph had politely thanked the magi for their thoughtfulness but had then refused the gifts.  Gold, frankincense and myrrh were just a bit over the top for people like them, and they knew it.

Two friends of mine shared a different approach to the story, and their comments gave me pause.  One wrote to say that every time he hears the story of the Epiphany he thinks of a song about the magi by James Taylor:  They Went Home by Another Way.  I could not recall that song, so I googled it, listened and immediately recognized the tune.  That’s also when I realized I’d never paid much attention to the lyrics.  Now that hauntingly lovely song is firmly fixed in my mind, and the next time I hear the story of the Epiphany I’ll access my mental link to the song.

a7794815-6bf6-4490-9cca-f689c8e22122A second friend, Eddie from New Mexico, wrote in the same vein, but with a nod to the Holy Family.  After the Epiphany Joseph and Mary also had a change of travel plans.  It was no longer safe for them and their child, and tradition says that they went into exile in Egypt.  There they stayed put until Herod died and it was okay to return.  And so Eddie offered this meditation:  “I wondered where they must have gone and how that must have been such an unexpected twist for them.  Yet, it was necessary.  So it is with us in so many ways.  Twists and turns in life, and some of them so unexpected.  Some good and some bad.  Through it all God is there.”

That’s a great take-away to draw from the Epiphany.  We don’t know how it impacted the shepherds, but it changed the lives of everyone else involved.  “They went home by another way” is just a more poetic way to say that after Bethlehem the lives of the magi, Joseph and Mary were never the same again.  For them the encounter with Jesus was life-changing.  They could not nor would not go on with life as it had been.  The circumstances demanded something new, and they rose to meet the challenge.

That, I think, is what can happen to us in the Epiphany.  When we encounter the Lord, be it in a conversion experience or in the daily twists and turns of life, we can never be the same.  Certainly we have to go back to our routines, but the routines demand something better of us.  Happily, that’s what the Lord likely had in mind for us all along.

7d2e1e6c-da40-4524-8eeb-822ecbfc8010NOTES

+On 7-9 January I participated in the annual community workshop of the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.

+On January 9th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to faculty and staff from Saint Edward’s University in Austin, TX, who were visiting as part of a program entitled “A Year With The Saint John’s Bible.”  Following lunch and my talk they visited the new Bible Gallery in Alcuin Library.

+Not quite worthy of inclusion in my post today is a reference to a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  Anyone who’s seen the movie can never forget the moment when the magi mistakenly present the gifts to the parents of the newly-born Brian.  The mom greedily grabs for the gold, and in a parting comment she thanks them for the gold.  “But next time just leave off the frankincense and myrrh.”

+The photos in today’s post are of medieval mosaics in the baptistery of the duomo in Florence.  At top the magi present their gifts to Jesus.  The second photo shows the magi being warned in a dream, and in the third photo they return home “by another way.”  Below is a scene in which the Holy Family goes into exile in Egypt.

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Jesus:  His Kingdom is not of this World

I find it curious that the gospels begin and end the story of Jesus with references to kingship.  The visit of the magi and their presentation of royal gifts clearly allude to the hopes of many who looked for a messiah who would be king.  Later, in the course of his ministry, Jesus consistently brushed aside those who would make him king.  Then, as Jesus endured the worst of his agony, Pilate mocked those aspirations with the sign he had fixed to the cross:  Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.

For those who still try to leverage Jesus into power over others, the words of Jesus serve as a timely reminder:  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  On the contrary, his is a message of love, which after nearly 2,000 years is still capable of inspiring some people and disappointing others.

4d845af6-5ae1-4386-928f-48256b4ef549Every now and again I’ve wondered what in the world Mary and Joseph decided to do with the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi dropped off.  Regardless of what became of those royal gifts, however, they were symbols of what Jesus chose to reject.  They disappear from the narrative, never to reappear.

The story of Epiphany has one other important element that provides a good takeaway for us.  The magi came looking for a king, but they ended up finding the object of their quest in a very unkingly place.  Bethlehem was not the setting for royal births, then or now.  Bethlehem was definitely no Jerusalem.  But if it was no place for the birth of a king, it was suitable enough for the birth of a messiah.

Bethlehem then serves as a reminder that there are simply no excuses for backing away from doing the work of the Lord.  We may think we were born in the wrong place, that we are too poor, too young, too old, that we don’t speak well, or that we have no influence.  But the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem dismisses all that with a wave of the hand.

That’s the way the Lord does business.  Consistently the Lord still chooses to do great things through the least likely of people who hail from the least likely of places.  Given that, why would the infant of Bethlehem pass over the chance to do great things through us too?  For that I have no answer.  And so I pray that the Lord, who could turn water into wine, can work a similar transformation in us.

32886ef3-ca8b-49d0-b98a-14fccfc8f3eeNOTES

+At Saint John’s we only had a dusting of snow for Christmas, and so it was a stretch to call it a white Christmas.  However, we more than made up for it by New Year’s.  In fact, we got several inches, along with bitterly cold weather for a couple of days.  So it was that I celebrated New Year’s afternoon by clearing the snow off of my car.  It took twenty minutes, and by the end of it my fingers were stinging from the cold.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the beauty of the landscape that day.

+On January 3rd I flew to Phoenix for a short trip to visit with several alumni of Saint John’s University.  I also celebrated Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany for a small group, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered that day.

+On January 5th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Kieran Nolan.  Fr. Kieran was born and grew up in the Bronx, New York, and among other things he served as rector of the seminary at Saint John’s and pastor of Saint John the Baptist Parish in Collegeville.  For several years he served at our priory in Fujimi, Japan, and he nobly endured a long illness before his passing.  Fr. Kieran was one of those larger than life characters whose mind was always churning with ideas, and some of them were even practical!  I and my confreres will miss him dearly.

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