Archive for February, 2019


Moses:  He Let His People Go

I’d not been to Mount Nebo in Jordan in many years, and I was unaware of the changes that had taken place there.  Located on the east bank of the Jordan River, it was the place from which Moses gazed into the promised land, and on the earlier occasion I had left with memories of the great views across the Jordan and a real empathy for Moses.  After all, it had to be bittersweet as he bade goodbye to the people he’d led for more than forty years, while he stayed behind to die.

Moses was a singular figure in history, but like most whom God chooses he wasn’t perfect.  Whatever gifts he may have had, he could also be angry and headstrong, and he was a murderer.  He had killed an Egyptian who had mistreated an Israelite slave, and that would always be a mark against him.

590C123E-124D-4FA5-B8B5-5B80A459539CMoses was not destined to be a leader, but against his own will he emerged as God’s chosen representative.  That said, his work was not a piece of cake.  He managed to anger God, and on many occasions he angered his own people.  But transformation happened anyway, and not just in spite of those conflicts but perhaps because of them.

What might have been his salient features?  Curiosity might have headed the list.  After all, it was curiosity that caused Moses to detour and visit the burning bush.  Curiosity led him to gaze long and hard into the fire, and in search of understanding it was his curiosity that finally led him to transformation.

Perseverence might have been next on the list.  When Yahweh asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt I’m sure Moses had no idea of what he was getting into.   All the same, if he thought it would take a few months at most to reach the promised land, then he was badly mistaken.  It took 40+ years.  That required incredible patience and perseverence.  Along the way the journey took on the character of purification of a sinful people.  It was also a period of uneven growth both for Moses as well as for the people;  and wandering in the desert was symbolic of the wisdom and maturity that come only with time and experience.

Finally, I have to admire Moses for his readiness to let go.  He had served his people for forty years, but they were God’s people and not his own.  As much as he must have relished the thought of leading his people across the Jordan, it was not to be.  He had to let go of the reins of leadership, and like Pharoah before him, he too had to let the people of Israel go.  They left for the promised land west of the Jordan River, while he stayed behind, prepared to die, east of the Jordan.

88113F95-2C1C-4951-9434-38B9EFCAEB79So what — if any — are the lessons we draw from the life of Moses?  First of all, we all need to cultivate our own sense of curiosity.  The minute we start to believe that we know everything is the moment when we need to go back to school.  We’re only fooling ourselves if we think we deserve to have the last word on everything.

Second, we can all use a little perseverance when it comes to our relationship with the Lord.  Like it was for Moses, our own path to God can be rocky, circuitous, surprising and disappointing.  But that’s the story of any relationship that is meant to grow.

Finally, a healthy sense of detachment is important for us all.  Serving others does not mean we can put them in our debt.  It doesn’t mean we help others and then demand the right to make the major decisions for their lives.  Authentic service means that we help others — not because they are Christian but because we are Christian.  And then we let go.  We help others because we see in them what Christ sees in them:  people created in the image of God.

Ironically, then, Moses as leader and servant is one of the best examples we can choose as our model.  After forty years of service in the desert he let his people go, and there are moments in life when we have to do the same.  As parents, teachers, mentors and friends we must learn to let go of the people whom we serve.  It’s the very least we can do, because very likely God has plans for them — plans of which we can only imagine.



+On Tuesday 19 February I left Boston for Amman, Jordan, where I met up with a group of members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, to begin a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  However, my final hours in Boston reminded me once again  that the world can be a small town.  On Sunday I traded texts with a couple from Minneapolis with whom I’d hoped to meet for months.  It turned out that we were four blocks away from each other in downtown Boston.  Then on Tuesday, as I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for a taxi to go to the airport, I looked up to see a friend from Minneapolis.  Minutes later I met unexpectedly with another friend, this time from Seattle.

+On 20 February I arrived in Amman, Jordan.  After a tour of the city our group left for Petra, and en route we visited Mount Nebo, where tradition says that Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the Holy Land which he would never enter.  Since my last visit the Franciscans have built a church on top of Mount Nebo that lovingly encases the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church.  The photos in today’s blog show the results of their work, and we were privileged to celebrate Mass there.

On 24 February we visited Petra, a truly over-the-top and extraordinary place.  In a future post I will include photos of that amazing place.


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Blessed Are We!

”Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.”  This and the other promises that Jesus makes in the Beatitudes for a long time puzzled me.  To my literal way of thinking it all sounded like small consolation for having gotten the short end of the stick in life.  It also seemed to encourage passivity, suggesting that if we suffer patiently and with dignity now, then we’ll hit the jackpot when we reach the gates of heaven.  Conversely, wealth and happiness in the present life come with an ominous warning.  Enjoy them now because they’re not going to last forever.

I think the first time an alternate interpretation presented itself came as I watched a homeless person pushing a cartload of stuff down the street.  I assumed that cart held all he owned, and the Beatitudes seemed crafted precisely for someone like him.  But all the same there was a disconnect.  Clearly he was poor, and if the Beatitudes weren’t meant for him, then for whom were they meant?  But the nurture that he gave to his cartload of possessions gave a different message.  Was he in fact serving the stuff, rather than the other way around?  His possessions seemed to hold him captive, just as a bag of gold holds a miser in its thrall.  That’s when the light bulb came on.

04D4265C-690C-4C2C-BF7D-2EF2D34CD088I confess that for much of my life I thought of the Beatitudes as the promise of compensation for misfortunes suffered in the here and now.  Now I realize that Jesus probably didn’t mean it that way.  Nor did he ever intend that death open us to our first taste of the divine.  The experience of God actually begins in the here and now.

That, it seems to me, is the key to an appreciation of the Beatitudes.  So when Jesus blesses those who are poor he does not promise fantastic wealth in the hereafter.  Rather he says that an abundance or lack of stuff does not determine the value of a human being.  Whether rich or poor, all are created in the image of God.  All can experience the spark of the divine already, in this world.  Why would anyone want to wait?

The same holds for the other Beatitudes as well.  Each one sugggests that we should look at life from a broader perspective.  Each suggests that the opportunity to live a full life ought not be constrained by conventional wisdom.  Rich and poor can be sad, but rich and poor can be happy as well.  So much depends on whether we can take risks and open our eyes to life’s possibilities.

662C1934-8DD9-4D80-B986-45D51E5437A9Therein is the real value of the Beatitudes.  They are not a quid pro quo contract, with a promise and a reward.  Rather they are a code of wisdom to live by.  In them Jesus invites us to break out of the narrow band-width that determines how most of us choose to live.  Jesus invites us to cast aside those conventional views of wealth and happiness, and he invites us to take a chance on life.  Only then will the payback be enormous, and we should experience it now.

If we learn to relish the presence of God now, in both the best and worst of times, then the Beatitudes will start to make sense.  They are the promise that we can meet God now, and we need not wait until the end of time.  They are also the promise that when we do finally see God face to face, there will be no surprises.  The God we will meet then will be somebody we’ve already met before.


+On February 12th I flew from Minnesota to Naples, FL, where I visited friends of Saint John’s.  After days of cold and snow in Minnesota it came as a bit of a relief, though winter did not let go of me so easily.  The last act before driving to the airport included sweeping the latest six inches of snow from the car and navigating through snow-filled streets to get there.  All the same, several days of snow have left the Minnesota landscape just beautiful.

+Among the highlights of my visit in Naples was attendance at the Minnesota Men’s Breakast, which despite its name does welcome women. The speaker to the 400 gathered that day was Saint John’s alumnus General Paul Nakasone.  Paul commands U.S. Cyber Security and heads the National Security Agency.  His presentaiton was a real tour de force, and he fielded the technical questions adroitly.  I think everyone in the room felt better just knowing that someone like Paul managed such responsibilities.

+On February 16th I flew to Boston, where I had the opportunity to visit alumni of Saint John’s.  That said, the absolute highlight of the trip has been the chance to visit Jon and Beth, whom I’ve known for ages.  My friendship with Jon goes back to school days in New Haven, and years later I presided at their wedding.  It was great to see them again.

+In a chronicle one normally talks about events in the past, but I’ll violate that rule by noting that today I will go to Kennebunk, ME, for lunch with an alumnus.  Then tomorrow I will leave for Amman, Jordan, where I will join members of the Order of Malta from California on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  I’ve not been there for a long time, and please say a prayer that all goes well.


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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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