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Archive for May, 2019

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Hold Your Questions Until After the Ascension

Despite all the subtle hints that Jesus gave to his disciples, they were completely taken aback by his return to the Father.  Perhaps it’s just as well that they didn’t see it coming.  Had they known, they likely would have drawn up scrolls and scrolls of questions for which they wanted answers.  But there simply was no time for that sort of thing.

Whatever else there is to say about Jesus, he was definitely not a micromanager.  After all, many of his parables seemed more like riddles;  and the wisdom he imparted to his disciples tended to create as many questions as answers.  That, it seems to me, is precisely what Jesus intended to do.

BA6E5A56-D682-41A6-9AF5-EDA77EAA530EPerhaps a comparison between the Commandments and the Beatitudes sheds some light on this.  The Ten Commandments are quite specific.  It is wrong to kill;  wrong to commit adultery;  wrong to worship other gods.  By contrast the Beatitudes don’t even come packaged in command form.  They’re more like nuggets of wisdom.  “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Therein lies the quandary.  At the end of the day you pretty much know whether you’ve killed somebody or not.  But how sure can you be that you gave peacemaking an honest effort?

Jesus made that point throughout his teaching.  Again and again he stressed that God prefers a pure heart rather than birds and bullocks sliced open on an altar.  God also prefers a self-examined life over pretty much anything else.  Perhaps, then, that explains why Jesus made a surprise exit before the disciples could pin him down with all sorts of questions that required yes or no for an answer.

In four days we celebrate the Ascension, and perhaps what we should celebrate most of all was the decision Jesus made not to leave us with a block-long scroll of non-negotiable demands.  Far from it, and for very good reason.  Jesus didn’t answer all the questions before the Ascension because he expects us to ask them after the Ascension.

So the next time we wonder what God means for us to do with our lives, we might do what Jesus did when he was in a tight spot:  pray about it.  It’s certainly what the disciples started to do after the Ascension.

B1687FBF-A851-4B59-B3BE-35A547415094NOTES

+On May 23nd I made a brief trip to Long Island to give a talk on The Saint John’s Bible at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, NY.  I’d seen the church from the outside but had never been inside.  It’s an imposing gothic presence on a handsome site in the center of town.  The interior is equally beautiful.  While there I was surprised to discover that a friend and former history colleague of mine from Saint John’s University is now an assistant bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.  Before his retirement Bishop Bill Franklin served as Episcopal bishop of western New York.

+On May 25th Saint John’s Preparatory School celebrated graduation with commencement in the abbey church.  Presiding was Fr. Jonathan Licari, who is retiring after serving as head of school for several years.  However, monks never really retire, and this fall he will continue as a faculty resident in one of the residence halls of the University.

+I received several intriguing messages in response to last week’s post about my travels through Milan, Montevideo and Nassau.  My friend Don, who used to live in Austin, MN, wrote to describe one of his favorite bike rides.  He would start out in Austin, bike to London, and after breezing through Moscow he would finish in Austin, for a total of 35 miles.  That prompted my own questions about New London, MN, which is forty miles from Saint John’s.  Is it named for London, MN?  Or London UK?  Or New London, CT?  I’m sure someone knows the answer to that.

Long-time friend Jon wrote to describe a drive from Quincy, IL, to St. Louis.  En route he passed through Payson, IL, which he found “disappointingly rural given the august name” — Payson happens to be his surname.  From there he went through Mexico, Poland and Russia — all in the space of one day.

+The photos in today’s post show a fantastic reredos in the cathedral of Toledo in Spain.  When I saw it three years ago I was mesmerized by the depiction of the Ascension, which I have placed at the head of the post.  All the same I do not believe that it definitively answers the question of whether we will need shoes in heaven.

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What’s in a Name?  Perhaps Integrity

Recently, in the space of one afternoon, I visited Milan (not in Italy), Montevideo (not in Uruguay) and Nassau (not in The Bahamas).  I did all this as I and a colleague drove around western Minnesota on the way to Madison, which is just a short drive from Appleton, unlike in Wisconsin.  And just in case all of that was not enough, there was the South Dakota border, a tantalizing ten miles away.  But we resisted because we did not want to overdo it.

I’d never been to that part of Minnesota.  While I had heard of Madison, MN, these other towns came as a complete surprise.  So I had to wonder what possessed those otherwise sober Norwegian settlers to concoct such an eclectic urban mix out on the prairies.  Did they mean it as a long-range urban plan?  Was it meant to be a joke?  What were these people thinking?

D1A0F8EC-752B-4BB8-9AD7-9DC4E453EE10Perhaps they did it with a nod to their neighbors in central Minnesota.  Within a stone’s-throw of Saint John’s there are nice German towns like Saint Anna, Saint Wendel, Saint Stephen, Saint Joseph, Saint Augusta and Saint Nicholas.  There’s also New Munich and Uppsala, the latter of which is an outlier in anybody’s book.  So if people in central Minnesota longed for a bit of Germany, maybe the Norwegians of western Minnesota thought they could do better.  They didn’t leave Norway just to replicate it on the prairies.  No, perhaps they were inclined to be a bit more adventurous.  Perhaps thoughts of South America and the tropics and the Mediterranean may have been coursing through their minds.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that all of these places happened to be warm places.  Maybe they also thought warm.

Anyway, names bring in their train all sorts of baggage.  Well or poorly chosen, they can evoke aspirations that we set for our communities and ourselves.  And much like place names, the names we attach to people serve the very same purpose.  Names tell others who we think we are and what we hope to become, and they remind us of the dreams which we fashion for ourselves.

When there’s a disconnect between who we claim to be and who we really are, then we generally fool no one, except maybe ourselves.  In the gospels Jesus railed against the hypocrisy of those whose personal disparities were so glaring.  These were people who cut themselves lots of slack but expected an awful lot from the people around them.  Some of these people even accused Jesus of hypocrisy as he hung on the cross.  “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.”

2998EA26-8183-409A-AC86-380029599DC3Given all that, in the Easter season it’s paramount that if we claim to be Christian then we should actually give it our best shot.  We need to align our name with the reality of our lives.  So it is that if we believe that what we do for the least of people we are doing for Jesus himself, then we should act that way.  If the Beatitudes are the Christian equivalent of the Ten Commandments, then it might be nice to read up on them every now and again.

In theory, of course, this sounds easy;  but for all of us there are days when it’s a real challenge.  It’s a comfort to know that we’re not alone in this struggle, however.  As the Acts of the Apostles relate, it took the followers of Jesus years to come to terms with who they would be called and how that name would shape their lives.  Only in time did they realize they would be Christians and not Jews and that they would have to translate this into a way of life.

Selecting a personal brand is the fad of the moment, and in one sense that’s okay.  However, if our brand is only veneer-thin it advertises the shallowness of our lives to all whom we meet.  But choosing to be Christian is more than putting on a mask or adopting a veneer.  Our name and our very lives must feed upon one another.  They must give rise to a deep and ongoing self-examination.  And the product of that exercise is the joy that comes from being truly authentic.  We become Christian not only in name but in word and deed.

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+On May 14th I drove with one of my colleagues from Saint John’s University to meet an alumnus and his wife who live outside of Madison, MN.  In the course of the trip we passed through the other towns noted in today’s post.  It left me realizing that there is so much of Minnesota that I have yet to see, including the town of Ghent, which was just beyond our reach.  As you might expect, it was settled by immigrants from Belgium.

+On May 15th I flew to San Francisco, and on the 16th attended the board of directors meeting of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+On May 17th I said Mass and gave a talk to members of the Order of Malta who live in Monterey, CA.

+The photos in today’s post show glass made in the 15th and 16th centuries from the cathedral in Milan (in Italy, not Minnesota).  At top is Saint Matthew, followed by Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, a view of the city of Betulia, and the Tower of Babel.  At bottom is an interior shot of the cathedral of Milan.  For the record, unlike its namesake in Italy, Milan, MN, is pronounced just as it is spelled:  MY-lan, with the accent on the first syllable.

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Why We Feebly Struggle

Chapter 11 of the Acts of the Apostles describes a group of Christians in Jerusalem, irate that Peter feels free to eat anything he pleases.  Even worse, he has welcomed Gentiles into their community.  By whose authority did he do this, they demanded to know.

Peter’s explanation was simple:  the Holy Spirit told him to do it.  And their response?  It was the equivalent of saying: “Oh that’s wonderful.  Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

I have a hard time believing that Peter escaped their wrath so easily, because in fact he didn’t.  What Acts 11 fails to tell us is that the Christian community argued about these sorts of things for decades. Such questions were at the heart of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

953E75EC-1CEA-47F1-9899-6373B04F6704It’s tempting to wax nostalgic for a strife-free Church, but such nostalgia would be misplaced.  It would be misplaced because there never really was such a Church.  When Jesus ascended he didn’t leave behind a community that had all the answers.  In fact it was a community with too many questions.  But that was the whole point behind the gift of the Holy Spirit; and through the centuries the Spirit has guided the Church in its quest for the truth.

We primarily have Jesus to blame for the struggles we’ve faced over 2,000 years.  After all, his original point was that the sacrifice of birds and bullocks may be a nice gesture, but what God really prefers is purity of heart.  That purity of heart comes from the daily struggle to understand and follow through on God’s will for us.

If the Church has struggled for 2,000 years, we should not lament that we also feebly struggle at times.  It might be nice were life to have no challenges, but such a life would not be real.  Struggle is a sign that the Holy Spirit works within us.  As gold is refined in the fire, so the Spirit nudges and sometimes even pushes us around.  And the Spirit does so to awaken us to the presence of Christ within us.

NOTES

+My return trip from Lourdes last week was largely uneventful.  Last year’s return was also uneventful, but mainly for the lack of an event that was supposed to happen.  Last year a strike meant no trains, and that left some of us stranded in Lourdes.  This year the French trains ran efficiently and at a steady 300 kpm, and they are a marvel to ride.

AFB10947-CCDB-495F-9820-2AC1085C28E1+On May 12th we celebrated graduation at Saint John’s University, and for me it represented a milestone.  Six years ago two friends of mine, John Lyden and Jack Marshall, conceived the idea of bringing students from Immokalee High School, FL, to Saint John’s for college.  Our first two students, Alejandro and Jaime, graduated this Sunday, and it was a great day for them and their families.  For their support of these great students Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on Jack and John honorary B.A.s.  What made it even better was the fact that neither John nor Jack saw this coming.  It was a total surprise.

+Following graduation ceremonies we monks hosted the newest group of Benedictine Volunteers, as well as their families, at a reception and dinner in the courtyard of the Quadrangle.  Save for the chill in the air, it was a delightful event.

+On May 13th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered.

+It was a bit of a shock to record an inch of snow earlier in the week, but green is now the dominant color in the landscape at Saint John’s, as the photo of the monastic garden at the head of this post illustrates.  The second photo shows senior Alejandro Guzman from Immokalee, FL, with Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath.  Below that is a photo of my friends Jack and John after receiving their honorary degrees.  At bottom is a photo of four of our Cistercian student-monks from Vietnam, who received Master of Divinity degrees on Sunday.  They are pictured with a confrere from California and a friend from Minnesota.

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Letting Go of Spiritual Baggage

[The following is a sermon that I gave at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, on 2 May.]

One of the consistent refrains we’ll hear this week is that Lourdes changes all who come here.  I know that might sound trite, but it’s true.  Through our encounters with people, through the liturgies we share, and through the experience of the place, we all change in ways we might not have expected.

Now that we’ve gathered for our first liturgy our education has already begun.  The first lesson we all have to absorb is this:  Lourdes is the land of hurry up and wait, and there’s a reason for that.  With so many people to move around, that has to be the way it is.  But it’s also the chance for each of us to be sensitive to our neighbor.  This is one place where being ready and on time is one of the highest forms of virtue.  It is our chance to show respect and charity for our neighbor.

ECD3CF40-ACCB-4683-919F-808475A2D763Lourdes is also a place where the sacred and the secular stand in sharp distinction.  To get to this chapel we ran a gauntlet of shops that cater to all tastes and none.  But it all stopped once we reached the gates of the shrine.  Nowhere that I’ve ever been have I seen such a sharp contrast between the material and the sacred.

More than anything else, however, Lourdes is a place where we take time out from the routines that shape our lives.  Whether we like it or not, Lourdes has a way of calling the question on the meaning of our lives.  It’s different from any place we’ve been, and it forces us to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we are going with our lives.  Eventually we all have to ask whether and how we will be changed when we return home.  Will we return to lives that are in a metaphorical desert, or will we return to lives of renewed intensity — lives we’d not thought possible?

Lourdes touches all who come here, and experience forces us to confront our own mortality.  When we leave this place how do we intend to use the years and weeks and days that God has reserved for us?  Will we fritter our time away?  Or will we resolve to use our time wisely and treat it for what it really is —a wonderful gift from God?  Only we can answer that, but I hope it’s a question we’ll all mull over during our days here.

Tucked away in the materials that prepared us for this pilgrimage was a very simple warning.  “Don’t bring too much stuff.”  For those who thought they couldn’t live without the extra four or five pounds of stuff, you’ve already begun to pay the price.  It may have seemed to be indispensable, but it also turned out to be heavy and bulky.  I know that experience, because I’ve had it too.  But I quickly learned I never need as much as I think, and if I forget something there are always stores, even in France.  But more than that, I’ve learned to keep asking one question of myself:  will my stuff serve me, or will I serve my stuff?

7479A1F1-96B9-418C-952E-19B09C1FCA9ABut that stuff is not the only baggage that we brought along.  Certainly we brought material baggage, but we’ve also brought along spiritual and emotional baggage that can be both very heavy and very distracting.  Perhaps even at this moment you’re sorting through some of the emotional baggage you’ve brought along.  If so, that’s okay, because in Lourdes we want to pay special attention to all the baggage that can so easily become a ball and chain on our emotional lives.  It’s a part of us; and while we could leave our material baggage in our hotel rooms this morning, this spiritual burden is something we’ve dragged along with us into the shrine.

I like to think of my mind as a warehouse, and in it I carry all sorts of stuff that gives me life but also burdens me enormously at times.  Included in its inventory are memories of good times and bad;  the experience of sickness and health;  and the joys and sorrows of life.  In that mental storage bin I carry the scars of sin — sins that I’ve committed and sins that have been committed upon me.  I know that I’m not alone in this experience, because these things haunt you as well.  It’s the price we pay for the knowledge of good and evil which we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve.  And if rightly we cherish the good memories, we can also let the negatives become a cancer that turns us into people we never imagined we would be.

One of my favorite stories from the gospels is the parable of the prodigal son.  It’s the story of one son who wasted his inheritance and finally came back to beg forgiveness from his father.  Most of us don’t identify with this son, but sometimes we should.  The fact is, we all have stuff from which we should repent.

Then there’s the older son.  He’s done everything right, and he’s the perfect son in all things but one.  As the writer David Brooks once pointed out, that son has no empathy for his younger brother.  There’s no forgiveness in his heart.  On occasion we all share his resentment, but we shouldn’t.  We shouldn’t because not one of us is as good as we think.

4B4A8CDF-056C-48F7-9A49-7712D1097CD4Finally there’s the father who has to forgive two sons.  As Brooks also observes, each of his sons is deeply flawed, but he forgives them because he loves them.  He wishes each was better, but they are who they are.  And who knows, perhaps his own love might have the power to transform hem.

To my mind the parable invites us to take the father as our model.  He too may have once stood in his sons’ shoes, but he also knows how powerfully sin can grip us and transform us into people we never intended to become.  Still, he refused to let hurt and resentment burden him.  He refused to let it transform him.  Sin — whether it was his own or that of his sons — would not become baggage he would carry through life.  So he walked away a free man.

Senator George McGovern of South Dakota once remarked that he gave up holding grudges because he couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be mad at.  Whether he did it for religious reasons or not doesn’t really matter, because the result was wonderful.  He was free to get on with life, and the burden of at least some evil lost the power to call the shots in his life.  And that, I would submit, is part of the reason we have come to Lourdes.

D36C2FE1-5755-44EA-818A-7EBF3293D81AIn a few moments we will participate in the sacrament of reconciliation.  This is our chance to let Jesus wash us free from sin.  It’s our chance to leave all sorts of spiritual baggage behind us as we put it in the hands of Jesus.  It’s the chance to move on with our lives.

At every turn Lourdes reminds us to leave behind that burden of sin.  In the baths we let the water wash away the memory of sin. And if need be, when we cross the river each time it’s a good idea to toss in the worst of our memories and let the waters wash them out to sea.  It’s futile to chase after them, and it’s a sign that that sort of baggage no longer has a place in our lives.

And so, I would conclude, if you resolve to leave all your heavy stuff in the hands of the Lord and in the care of Our Lady of Lourdes, you’ll go home with a lot less baggage.  You’ll go home a free person.  You’ll realize that this pilgrimage was worth every minute and every step that it took to get here.

NOTES

+On April 30th I arrived in Paris, where I stayed the night before continuing on by train to Lourdes.  As I realized too late, this was taking a big chance, since May Day — May 1st — is usually reserved for raucous demonstrations in the city.  Sometimes the trains are on strike as well, as was the case last year.  Thankfully I made it to Lourdes with little difficulty.

+On May 2nd I delivered a homily at a penance service for members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  Some 350 gathered in the chapel of Saint Bernadette.  I’ve presented this homily in today’s post, and I apologize for the length.  I didn’t know what to cut out, so I leave it to readers to figure that out for themselves!

8D1ABBA1-DE50-4551-9BBC-8049714EA2E7+As I noted in the sermon, in Lourdes there are shops for every taste and none, and so far one friend of mine has come up with two champion gifts.  First prize goes to the inventor of the Lourdes combination back scratcher and shoe horn.  It’s the gift for someone who thought they had everything.  The second item falls into the category of the slightly bizarre.  In one shop my friend found a tiny statue of Mary that had been carved from a bullet, and the casing was highly polished to provide housing for the statue.  I tried to put the best face on it, by thinking of the exhortation to beat swords into plowshares, but I’m still not quite sure what market niche this gift intends to fill.

+Alumni of Saint John’s University pop up everywhere, and I was surprised to meet up with Lino Rulli.  Lino has a radio program — The Catholic Guy — that airs across the country on Sirius Radio.  He was at Lourdes with Cardinal Dolan of New York, who was also part of the Order of Malta pilgrimage.

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