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Archive for April, 2019

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Thomas and the Virtue of Doubt

Among the apostles I find Thomas to be perhaps the most curious and thoughtful.  While the others quickly confessed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, Thomas alone hesitated.  Unless he touched his wounds he would not believe.  And furthermore he wasn’t about to believe solely on the testimony of his fellow apostles.  After all, could anyone really trust the word of disciples who had run away when the chips were down?

But was there more to Thomas’ doubt — something he did not share with his more impetuous colleagues?  It’s entirely possible, and it had to do with what might come next.  It was all well and good to affirm his belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but what might come next?  Would there be other shoes to drop?  Would Jesus ask of him things he was not yet prepared to do?  Would Jesus ask too much of him?  That may help explain why Thomas doubted.  Certainly he had doubts about the risen Lord.  But Thomas had doubts about himself too.

A5C6B58B-532D-4C6C-8C57-90282ACBD891At the Easter Vigil we participants in the liturgy renewed our baptismal vows, and in the creed that we profess on Sundays we do much the same.  And while those statements were crafted long after Thomas professed his faith in the risen Lord, they mirror the words of Thomas.  They are our way of saying “My Lord and my God.”  They are our way of saying “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”  They are our confession that we don’t always know what the Lord has in mind for us; but despite all this we believe that the Lord will walk alongside us on our earthly pilgrimage.

In our culture doubt can seem to be a flaw.  When unquestioned self-confidence seems to be the ideal, we often see doubt as a sign of weakness.  And yet I would submit that doubt is actually a gift.  Doubt is part of any solid relationship — be it with a spouse or a friend or even with God.  Doubt is part of any pilgrimage that is going somewhere wonderful, because when there is no doubt then there is no adventure.  And there are certainly no surprises.  Do we really want to live a life in which there are no surprises?

The Acts of the Apostles demonstrate that it’s okay and perhaps even wise for us to doubt now and again — or often.  Thomas doubted and on that doubt he built a relationship that blossomed and flourished.  As for us. If we had certainty about everything and doubts about nothing, then we might misunderstand what it is the Lord asks of us.  Given that, we could very well panic and look for some sort of detour.

So it seems to me that doubt is not so bad a thing.  There is virtue to be had in doubt.  However, there is one doubt that Jesus invites us to put aside, and it has to do with his promise to be with us —  always.  Never for a moment should we doubt the word of Jesus, who plans to walk with us, even until the end of time.

746CB303-6CDC-4C31-9648-56FA6D63BDB9NOTES

+My week began quietly and ended with a flurry of activity.  On April 25 I flew to White Plains, NY, located a stone’s throw from my destination, Stamford, CT.  In the umpteen years of flying to Connecticut for school and then for work on behalf of Saint John’s it had never dawned on me to fly into that airport.  I am truly amazed at how oblivious I was to geographic reality.  But this discovery also shows that learning is a life-long opportunity, with lots of rewards.

+On April 28th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Darien, CT.  Following that I preached at one of the services, and today’s post is an excerpt from that sermon.  I have passed through Darien many times but had never stopped there.  It turned out to be a wonderful experience, and among others I met a couple whose grandparents are buried in the abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.  I would go back to Darien in a heartbeat!

+While the fire at Notre Dame deeply touched me and all those who revere that church, it also served as a reminder of the great architectural heritage that France shares with the world.  Among my favorite churches is the medieval abbey of Saint Remi, in the city of Rheims.  The cathedral there overshadows this Romanesque structure, and visitors seldom walk the half-mile to see it.  But like so much in France, it is well worth the extra steps.

+Today I leave for the annual pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes.  That may explain my preoccupation with France of late.

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The Flame of the Easter Candle

The flames from Notre Dame electrified all who stared at them in disbelief.  I was as shocked as anyone, and the thought of losing Notre Dame nearly brought me to tears.  And that takes a lot, given that my default buttons are set to stoicism.

People were stunned for all sorts of reasons, but at bottom was the assumption that nothing could ever topple it.  Notre Dame is huge, and it’s stone.  It looks indestructible.  But hidden from the naked eye was the forest of wooden beams that held it all in place.  For over 800 years they had done so.  Yet, in a matter of minutes they were no more.  What remains are walls of stone, kept in place by brilliant design, gravity, and perhaps the grace of God.

C0FBDF52-4FAB-48C2-8D07-0522781FDC4AThe flames in turn have sparked a torrent of generosity from donors great and small, and that’s good.  It will take an awful lot of money to rebuild Notre Dame, and it will take time.  But to me it’s worth it, because a place like Notre Dame is a barometer of the health of a society.

As I watched the flames devour the roof of Notre Dame my memory summoned up one story from the life of Saint Francis.  In a derelict chapel outside of Assisi, Francis heard this:  “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

At first Francis took those words literally, and his neighborhood had lots of chapels in need of repair.  But Francis decided not to become a stonemason, because he also appreciated the symbolic urgency of those words.  Appearances to the contrary, the Church was in dire shape, and it was desperate for reform.  If then it was time to reset the stones of tumbled-down churches, it was also time to see to the vitality of the flesh and blood stones of the Church.

71A90053-7658-4E6B-A8D7-EF1D566C9A63Could the fire at Notre Dame be God’s warning to the Church today?  That thought has run through the minds of many.  Still others see the flood of money for its restoration as a misdirection of funds that could be used to help the poor.  While I appreciate the concern for the poor, I don’t appreciate the binary choice that some people demand.  Jesus asks us to do for the poor what we would do for him.  That said, it is the same Lord who blessed us with the creativity that we’ve channeled into poetry and music and architecture and art.  I’ve always believed that giving to the poor and the encouragement of creativity cannot be an either/or proposition.  It’s both/and, and so we must serve the poor and see to to the beautiful — and lots more besides.

Easter is the season of renewed hope — both for the Church and for us as individuals.  So it is that we believe that the Lord walks alongside us, just as he did with Saint Francis.  And if the Lord managed to do great things through Francis, who’s to say that God can’t do equally fine things through us?

If there’s something positive to salvage from the flames of Notre Dame, it may be this.  We began Lent with ashes and ended at the Easter vigil with the flame of the Easter candle.  Those tongues of fire can serve as a wake-up call to each one of us this Easter.  If fire can destroy, as it did at Notre Dame, it can also strengthen and purify.  May the risen Lord take us by the hand and fire us with excitement to do his work.

A0A61090-D544-4C32-B4EC-46D52387AE39NOTES

+On April 15th I had class with Novice Jeremy, who is fated to learn more about the monastic tradition and history from me.  We will be meeting for ten classes on the development of the Benedictine tradition from Saint Benedict through the Reformation.

+On April 17th I hosted two friends from Naples, FL, who came to Saint John’s University to meet with some of our students from Immokalee, FL.  As supporters of our Immokalee Scholarship Program, they sponsor two of our freshmen, and it was a pleasure to meet with those students later in the day.

+According to several reports, during the night of April 19th —- Good Friday — the last of the ice went out from Lake Sagatagan, which spreads over 200 acres behind the monastery.  The next day it reached a balmy 73 degrees, and I went out for a five-mile walk.

+The Easter vigil was a lovely and moving experience.  It was also a bit on the lengthy side, lasting just shy of three hours.  Joining us for the vigil Mass was a large contingent of Latinos from the parish communities in nearby Rockville and Cold Spring.  Select hymns and readings were in Spanish, and Fr. Efrain repeated Abbot John’s sermon in Spanish.

+May you have a happy Easter season!

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Holy Week — A Time to Pray Together

I first met Egeria when I was in seminary.  I didn’t meet her face to face, of course, since she lived in the later 4th century.  So what I learned of her came via the pages of her diary, and among other things those pages provide the earliest detailed account of the Holy Week liturgy in Jerusalem.

I have to give Egeria a lot of credit for her gumption.  It wasn’t easy for her to set out from Spain at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of a travel industry to serve tourists.  She and her retinue may have been wealthy, but they still had to improvise along the way.  So while we modern pilgrims may complain about unfamiliar food, cramped buses and the jammed streets in the old city of Jerusalem, we have it easy compared to her.  She and her friends had to deal with life on a more basic level.  Still, despite the hazards of the route, Egeria’s narrative inspired droves of people to follow in her steps.

37E8FAD9-EAAE-4840-8670-EB1372D6ECE9I also give her credit for her liturgical stamina.  Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem went on and on and on.  But they did so because there was so much to do.  They were filled with chants and readings and prayers and processions;  and taken together they must have left pilgrims exhausted.  But therein lies the attraction.  Holy Week in Jerusalem was an awesome experience, and it changed lives.  And part of what transformed people was the common experience that welded individual pilgrims into the people of God.

I always recall Egeria during Holy Week.  It’s not because the abbey church will be jammed tightly with pilgrims, as Jerusalem can be.  Nor will our liturgies go on endlessly, though they will be leisurely and lengthy.  Rather, the experience of worship together will somehow shape us into the people of God.

Many years ago I attended the Easter Vigil at a small Catholic church in Wales.  Designed to hold about a hundred, that night nearly 200 of us managed to squeeze ourselves in.  In true Welsh tradition the choir of eight voices sounded like fifty, and together we accomplished something we never could have done had we prayed alone.  We prayed together, and as we huddled together in that tight space we became the people of God.

The important thing about Holy Week is the participation, alongside others.  Holy Week is not something people should do all by themselves.  And if some parishes or even monasteries fall short when it comes to the music or the size of the crowd, that’s of secondary importance.  It’s our praying together that forges us into a community.  It’s the readings and hymns and the presence of fellow pilgrims at our elbows that shape us into the people of God.

During this one week of the liturgical calendar it’s important that we pray together.  Nothing compares, and praying alone just can’t hold a candle to it.  So this Holy Week I encourage you to join some local congregation in praying the liturgy of Holy Week.  Better still, do what Egeria did: take some friends along for the experience.

39C94A5D-B8ED-4EF1-984B-B4874C501363NOTES

+This was not a good week for travel, and it all turned out to be a mixed bag for me.  My only commitment this week was to deliver a talk sponsored by the Program in Catholic Studies at the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, MN.  It was to be an overnight trip, but it morphed into three because of a major storm.  For starters I went a day early, just to make sure I would get there.  On the day of the talk everything in Duluth was closed or cancelled, including my talk.  Snow, 55 mile per hour winds and fifteen-foot waves on Lake Superior were good enough reasons to close things, and I couldn’t argue with that.  But the snow continued for yet another day.  So one day became three days, and rather than a public lecture I delivered the talk to my hosts, the Benedictine sisters of Saint Scholastica Monastery.  They also pressed me into saying Mass for them, since their regular chaplain could not make it.  So I made good use of the time.

C74B4248-160C-4D35-ADDF-4F5C057FF635However, there was a one sad note.  On the drive to Duluth, on a two-lane road, a car about a quarter-mile ahead of me crashed into two oncoming cars.  One of them burst into flames and the driver died.  For a half an hour there was no place to go other than to sit still and watch the dense black smoke.  Finally the highway patrol diverted us onto ten miles of dirt and gravel roads, which finally led back to the Interstate.

+On Saturday April 13th a goodly number of oblates and friends of the abbey joined us for evening prayer.  That same day seventy Latinos from neighboring parishes came to Saint John’s for a day of retreat, led by Fr. Ephraim and Brother Mariano.  Then on Sunday the 14th I presided at vespers in the abbey church.

+Work on the expansion of the organ in the abbey church continues, and a recent update hints that installation might begin as early as this summer.  In the meantime last week I had the chance to see the practice organ in the music building on campus.  Built in 1988 by Casey Marin, who is involved in the current organ project, that organ serves students and faculty in the University.  On the occasion of this visit I went with Brother Jacob, who is shown at the keyboard.  Music, of course, figures prominently in the Holy Week liturgies.  Most notable is its absence following the Holy Thursday liturgy.

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The Lord Comes in Disguise

”Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up;  while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.”  (John 5:7)

I can’t imagine what it must be like to sit and wait for help for 38 years.  So there’s a part of me that pities the crippled man sitting beside the pool of Bethesda.  But then there’s also part of me that wants to suggest to him that after 38 years it may be time to try a new strategy.

Because the man had been ill for 38 years, we might assume that this story is not about us.  We’ve all had our illnesses, but most of us haven’t had anything like that.  But what if the story really is about us?

B2F32306-18BF-4DEE-9B36-0397DA8BB251Metaphorically we can all waste big chunks of our lives.  Metaphorically we can all sit around and wait for the dramatic intervention that will change the course of our lives.  And when that doesn’t seem to happen, we just sit and wait some more.  And all the while Jesus walks by, day by day, quietly inviting us to get up from our mats and do something.

If we don’t see or hear the Lord’s invitation, is it because we’ve become blind or deaf on top of everything else?  Or is it because we expect the Lord to barge into our lives with a trumpet blast or a gold-embossed invitation?  I would offer that it’s pointless to wait for those, simply because the Lord generally doesn’t do business that way.

The fact of the matter is, Jesus tends not to make dramatic guest appearances.  Rather, as he said on more than one occasion, he will be coming in the form of the least of our brothers and sisters.  So the next time we look up from our mats to see who’s walking by, it may very well be the Lord — in disguise.

29FB5AED-7999-48CB-95A7-F1B13D329F84NOTES

+On April 2nd I presided at the abbey Eucharist.  Today’s post is a variation of the homily that I delivered that day.

+Currently I am in the course of staying away from the airport for an entire month.  Months ago I knew that February and March would be hectic, and so I marked off the month of April to stay home and get other things done.  Among those “other things” has been a thorough cleaning of my office, which I try to do at least once a year.  This spring my goal is to clear everything off of the floor, except for the furniture.  In the course of that I’ve found some neat stuff, and also a bunch of stuff that has made its way to the dumpster.  This exercise is a good parallel for what we might consider doing with our lives during Lent.  With several days left in the season, there’s still time to do something.

This also turned out to be a fortuitous time to stay home because my car got recalled for the repair of the air bags.  Since I never use them I hadn’t realized that they were not well.  Anyway, for seven days my car has been in the car hospital, but the prognosis is good.  I’ve not visited it, but the mechanic says it will need neither intensive care nor hospice.

+On April 6th sixty students and faculty from Saint Olaf College visited the abbey and while here joined in our Saturday Eucharist.  It was nice to add their voices to ours when it came to singing.

+It should not come as a surprise that nearly-contemporary artists should render sacred themes with different emphases.  In today’s post I’ve included four paintings from the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  At top is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John, Saint Jerome and Saint Mary Magdalene, (1480), by the Umbrian artist Pietro Perugino.  Second is a crucifixion by the German Mattias Grünewald (ca. 1475).  Below that is one by the Venetian artist Paulo Veneziano (ca. 1340); and at bottom is a work by Francesca del Cossa (Ferrara, ca. 1473.)

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What’s Your Favorite Law?

The other day I asked my confrere Fr. Lew what his favorite Church law was.  I’d never asked anyone that before, and as soon as I shut my mouth I thought better of it.  Where in the world did that question come from?  What was I thinking?

Lew was nice about it, and his answer came without hesitation.  “That’s easy.  The one-hour fast before communion.”

It’s not what I had expected from him; but on the other hand I really didn’t know what to expect, for one good reason.  We monks don’t spend a lot of time sitting around discussing Church law.  It’s not because life is too short.  Rather it’s because the days are too short.

As anyone who’s read the Gospels knows, issues of law cropped up regularly in the ministry of Jesus.  Certainly Jesus was no lawyer; but any time people push the envelope when it comes to religious practice then they better be ready for a heavy dose of push-back.  And Jesus most assuredly pushed the envelope.

FE3E7B69-008F-4751-9BAA-63AA45A7021EThere’s no denying that Jesus had to walk a fine line when it came to his teaching on the law.  Time and again he denied that he had come to abolish the law.  After all, he’d be the first to say that lawlessness tends to bring out the worst in people.  In the same breath, however, Jesus didn’t want to inflate the value of law in religious life.  Correct observance of the law does not give people the upper hand in their relationship with God.  Upright behavior is nice enough, but it never puts God between a rock and a hard place.  When all is said and done, salvation remains a gift.  It’s not a reward earned by those who have been good at least 51% of the time.

If the law is not an end in itself, then what’s the point of it?  I would submit that it’s a covenant that binds us together in a common way of life.  It’s a shared ethical standard.  It points out ways of acting that offer support to one another.

Not surprisingly, Jesus was not about to dodge the question when people tried to pin him down.  And he answered by resorting to a supreme irony: he actually maximized the importance of the law.  Certainly the Ten Commandments had normative value, but were they the be-all and end-all of God’s law?  Perhaps not.  And so, in as many words, Jesus responded with his own trick question:  “Which of the commandments is greater than the command to love God and your neighbor as yourself?”  From my vantage any answer but “none” should get you in a lot of trouble.

3DDFEE6B-B6E8-4918-A2FB-E1B8E3BB61B3So what about the business of fasting for one hour before communion?  Is this another instance in which a secondary law assumes an importance all out of proportion to its real value?  It depends.  On the one hand there’s something positive to be said for this law.  After all, it’s important for all of us to fast for several hours each day.  If we didn’t then we’d all put on weight like crazy.

But there’s an even better reason for fasting before communion.  Fasting for an hour serves as a time-out in the business of life.  That one hour is a reminder that we all need to get a grip on ourselves.  It reminds us that we each have purpose in our lives, and in the Eucharist we celebrate that transcendent conviction.  In the Eucharist, then, we affirm our love for God and for our neighbor as ourselves.

So Jesus chose not to evade questions about the law, because he wanted to make a larger point.  The law does not exist for itself.  Rather, it exists to shore us up in our daily pilgrimage with the Lord and with one another.

NOTES

+On March 26th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is an expansion of what was a much shorter homily on the subject of the law in the teaching of Jesus.  At that Mass I prayed for my friend and colleague from the Order of Malta, Sheila Carmassi, who  passed away recently after a long illness.  No doubt the Lord has already welcomed her into the gates of paradise.

9FF23F12-BE05-4075-B71A-F36ABB6D387C+This last week we received word that our confrere Father Michael-Leonard Hahn successfully defended his Pd.D. dissertation.  This fall he will return from his studies at Boston College to teach at Saint John’s University.

+Recently Abbot John appointed Brother Simon-Hoa Phan to a term as subprior of the monastery.  Brother Simon-Hoa is a member of the art department in the University and has served for several years as a faculty resident in one of the residence halls.  This July he will move back into the monastery, where no doubt he will catch up on several years of sleep deprivation.

+Because of the cold nights and bright sunny days the maple syrup season is well under way in the Abbey’s forests.  These conditions stimulate the flow of the sap up the trees during the day and down into the roots again at night.  Once the temperatures stop dipping below freezing at night, that’s the end of it.  So it’s a narrow window.

+Today is the 400th post of A Monk’s Chronicle.  Frankly, I never thought I would have that much to say, and my one fear has been that I will accidentally recycle an old post.  Hopefully that has not happened yet.  All the same, regular readers know that pet peeves have shown up in new wineskins.  Thanks for reading!

+This last Sunday was Laetare Sunday, which urges us to rejoice because Lent is half over.  I can think of no church that encourages exuberance and rejoicing more than Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and today’s photos illustrate it.  Whether visitors are believers or not, it simply takes your breath away.  For an enlarged view, click on each photo.

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