Archive for February, 2019


How Monks Stay Warm

A friend of mine from Honolulu wrote recently to ask how we monks stay warm.  He’d read the reports about our chilly weather in Minnesota, and so I assumed he asked out of curiosity rather than desperation.  Still, I’ve never been to Hawaii in the winter, and I’ve always assumed that winters there are not so bad.  But perhaps they’re not as nice as I have imagined, so what follows is drawn from the monastic tradition and will conclude with my best advice for my friend trying to survive another winter in Hawaii.

How we monks stay warm in the winter has become in most monasteries a question for the history books.  After all, today we simply turn on the heat, like everybody else.  But it wasn’t always that way, even at Saint John’s.  For starters, the remaining chimneys that spike the roof of the quadrangle at Saint John’s testify that our fireplaces were once considered state-of-the art.  On the other hand, there’s no denying that it was a real chore to keep them stoked.  A framed photograph that hangs outside of our refectory is a sobering reminder that the “good old days” should always be qualified with a firm “so-called.”  In that photo teams of horses are working their way across Lake Sagatagan, pulling wagons piled high with wood destined for hungry fireplaces.  It must have been tedious, back-breaking and cold work, but but once inside the wood kept everyone warm — sort of.

F3213A4B-3F03-4641-B86B-C48E5D2AB22DBy medieval standards our fireplaces were luxurious, however.  The fact of the matter was that the great monasteries of the middles ages usually had only one heated room, called the calefactory.  There the monks gathered to warm themselves before heading back into freezing churches and unheated dormitories, refectories and cloisters.  And the further north in Europe they went, the colder it got, both outside and in.  Small wonder that medieval monks and their neighbors packed down as many calories as they could, because those calories spelled the difference between life and death.

Staying warm wasn’t a lost cause, however, and there were positive steps that monks took to keep winter at bay.  Architecturally monasteries employed passive solar techniques to harness the sun, and the design of cloisters tended to be standard across much of Northern Europe.  In those regions, and at Saint John’s in the nineteenth century, the church was placed on the north side of the cloister.  From there it would block the cold north winds and reflect the rays of the winter sun down into the cloister on the south side.  Monks also planted wind-breaks, and where the site made it possible they would nestle the monastic complex into the south side of a slope.  Taken together, these practices made quite a difference, and modern architects have begun to resort to these once again.

D0AFB1C3-2443-49AD-8115-80001604FC2BBut if there is one item that made all the difference in the world, it was clothing.  If “clothing makes the man,” as the old saw went, then it was clothing that kept medieval monks alive through harsh winters.  For good reason monks in previous generations wore heavier habits in the winter, except in places like the tropics.    But they also wore the cuculla — or cowl — and this made life possible as they chanted away in cold and drafty churches.  These were ample robes that slipped over the habit, giving a layered effect that worked really well.  At Saint John’s many monks — including me — still wear the cuculla on the coldest days, and we’re grateful to our medieval brothers for bequeathing to us this gift.  At Saint John’s the abbot clothes us  in the cuculla when we make solemn vows.  However, since this usually happens on July 11th, the feast of Saint Benedict, we have to take it on faith that someday these things will come in handy.  But on July 11th they tend to be sweltering.

It suffices to generalize that winter in the Middle Ages was tough for everybody, be they monks, nobles, serfs or animals.  So it was that Easter joy was honest and not feigned in the least.  People celebrated not just the risen Lord but also their personal survival through another tough winter.  So if there is one negative about modern central heat, it’s this.  Easter doesn’t have quite the personal punch that it once had.

So how do we monks and our neighbors in Minnesota stay warm in the winter?  Well, we give winter a poke in the eye by going ice-fishing, skating on the lake, snowmobiling and hiking.  And we dress appropriately when it gets down into the 20s.

And what’s my advice to my friend in Honolulu?  First of all don’t let winter hold you hostage.  Dress in layers.  Don’t go out when the wind-chill drops to -20.  And buy some ice-skates and skate while the skating’s good.  It works for us in Minnesota, and it should work equally well for people in Hawaii.  And lastly, on Easter morning celebrate the fact that you’ve survived yet another winter in Hawaii.


+On February 6th I flew home to visit with my mom and brothers and sisters and their families in Edmond, OK.  Expecting something a little better than the snow and cold I had left behind, it snowed on the first day at her home.

+I received several nice messages in response to my post on Russell Baker two weeks ago, and the most surprising came from an alumnus of Saint John’s University who had graduated in 1976.  That year Russell Baker happened to be the commencement speaker, and at the end of the ceremony the alumnus asked Mr. Baker for a copy of his speech.  The latter obliged him by thrusting forward the copy he had used for his delivery, complete with his hand-written edits.  The speech opened with a demonstration of Mr. Baker’s wry sense of humor.  He warned his audience that he was opposed to capital punishment, and that he considered commencement speeches to be a form of capital punishment.  But contrary to his warning, the speech was not torture at all.

+I’ve assembled a rather eclectic group of photos to illustrate the point about monks keeping warm.  At the top of the post the photo shows my favorite tree at Saint John’s.  It sits in the monastic garden, and one giant limb rests on a stone wall.  Next is a 17th-century engraving of the Abbey of Saint Serge in Angers, France.  Below that is a 17th-century engraving of the 13th-century monk and chronicler Matthew of Paris, modeling his cuculla.  At bottom are two photos that remind us that we still have three working fireplaces in the monastery.  Fortunately we have lots of fallen trees to harvest each year.  Equally good is the fact that we don’t have to rely on them to stay warm through an entire winter.


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The Lord Presents Himself to Us

I’ve always loved the Canticle of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke chapter 2.  It’s the joyful confession of a just and elderly man as he holds the infant Jesus in his arms.  It’s a day he probably never thought he would see, and yet it had come to pass.

This passage is familiar to any and all who pray compline, the final prayer in the daily cycle of the liturgy of the hours.  It’s also a favorite prayer at the end of funerals, and we monks sing it to a chant that is hauntingly beautiful for the ability of the music to support the words.  “At last you may let your servant depart in peace” is what Simeon says to God, and in our funerals those words reinforce the drama of what we are doing.  We sing them at the moment in which we begin to let go of a brother who has been part of our community for most of a lifetime.  It’s both a sad and happy moment, when we give our brother back to the God who had so kindly given him to us years earlier.

The Presentation of Jesus in the temple is a full and rich story that taps into the emotions of many.  Simeon is overwhelmed as he holds in his arms the savior for whom he had prayed for who knows how long.  Anna gives thanks to God as well.  She had witnessed to the power of God to sustain her as a widow and prophetess through most of her life.  But now she’s seen her visions fulfilled.

88A1EEFA-CFEB-4159-835D-BC2E17FFE2A6Finally, it’s Joseph and Mary who intrigue me most.  What ideas were churning in the minds of this naive young couple as each stepped cautiously into the precincts of the temple?  And the words they heard about their son had to be a little unnerving.  How did Simeon and Anna know about their son?  How could they say those odd things about him?  And certainly not least among their worries, who was this child to whom Mary had given birth?

All of this speaks to the power of Jesus to touch their lives and ours as well.  Like Anna and Simeon, we look for the coming of the Lord into our lives.  And sometimes we wait, and we wait, thinking God has neglected or forgotten us.  And then, just when it seems too late or impossible, the Lord does appear, right beside us.

And as for any advice that Joseph and Mary might have for us, I’d like to think it would go something like this.  Never underestimate the power of God to surprise us.  Never stop wondering what God has called us to do or to be.  Never assume that God has given up on us.  And never doubt for a moment that God has something amazing in mind for us to do.  For as surely as the Lord was presented in the temple, so the Lord will present himself to us.


+On January 28th I presided at Mass in Saint Dominic’s Church in San Francisco.  The occasion was a gathering of members of the Order of Malta, at which one of our colleagues made his promise of Obedience.

+On January 29th I flew back to Minnesota in order to host a visitor to Saint John’s who was flying in from St. Louis.  Unfortunately I got back just in time to enjoy the worst cold weather that we’ve experienced in twenty years, and that same cold put off to another time the visit of my friend.  I never made it back to Saint John’s, but thankfully for three days I did enjoy the warm hospitality of some friends of mine in Minneapolis.

+On February 2nd I gave a retreat day as part of the preparation for provisional members of the Order of Malta.  The event took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, and the investiture will take place in Los Angeles in June.  Today’s post is the homily that I gave that day, which happened to be the feast of the Presentation.

+On February 3rd I made it home to Saint John’s in time to catch the last bit of our annual Super Bowl party.  Each year the monks on the formation floor of the monastery host the rest of us for an informal buffet.  It’s always a nice occasion, no matter who wins the game.

+At the top of the post is Mary Presents Jesus at the Temple, by Giovanni Bellini, housed in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.  Everywhere you turn in Venice the neighborhoods seem to be works of art in themselves, as the other photos in today’s post suggest.  Though it’s been years since I’ve been to Venice, the memories are warm and fresh.


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