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Archive for June, 2019

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Corpus Christi:  The Meal that Transforms

Several years ago I saw a movie that has since become one of my all-time favorites.  Babette’s Feast is the story of a young woman who had fled the political turmoil in her native France.  She found refuge in a Danish village, and there she lived among townspeople who were generous in giving her shelter and work.  On the one hand, however, they were stoic and humorless, and outwardly they were oil portraits of upright people.  But there was another side to them as well.  They were the sort of people who never forgot a personal slight and would happily spend half a life-time nursing a grudge.

Babette’s escape from this dreary existence finally came in the form of a lottery ticket;  but to everyone’s surprise she didn’t leave after all.  Instead, in gratitude I suppose, she used the winnings to prepare for her neighbors the finest feast of their lives.

31C9C0F2-5576-4029-922E-D27A0B8B5383So she sent away for all sorts of expensive ingredients, and along with them came fine French wines and champagne.  And with each delivery the suspicions of her neighbors grew darker and deeper.  They became the embodiment of the definition of Puritanism that H. L. Mencken once provided:  Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Not surprisingly, the villagers fit the definition.  And so as the day of the dinner approached they agreed among themselves not to enjoy a single morsel of food or sip of wine.  They were determined to resist any temptation to slip into joy.

None of this worked of course, and their iron resolve melted away as they began to taste the first bite of food.  They soon began to savor the flavor, and the wine began to bring color to their cheeks.  Even more shocking, they began to warm to each other.  They owned up to sins they had committed against each other and asked forgiveness.  They also forgave long-cherished hurts.  And by the time the dinner was over they had become new people.  The meal had transformed them because the meal was Eucharistic.

I’ve recalled this movie to some of my confreres on several occasions, and I do so again today for two reasons.  The first is personal.  Twenty-five years ago, at graduation in this church, Saint John’s conferred an honorary doctorate on Christopher de Hamel, who is a noted manuscript scholar at Cambridge University.  In the intervening years I became good friends with Christopher and his Danish wife Mette, whose family owned the property on which many scenes from Babette’s Feast were filmed.  Sadly, Mette died a few days ago.  Mette never fit that Danish stereotype, because in fact she was the most joyful Dane I’ve ever met.  So I hope that along with me you will remember Mette in this Eucharist today.

BD31C927-EB5D-40B2-A407-C19E5BC7427BThat’s the first reason for recalling Babette’s Feast.  The second reason is liturgical.  Today we celebrate Corpus Christi, the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  In that context it’s worth recalling what the movie has to say about the power of any meal, and about this meal in particular.  A meal can transform the lives of the people who eat it, and no meal has greater power to do that than the Eucharist.

I don’t know about you, but for me there are days when participation in the Eucharist can seem routine and empty.  It can seem lifeless and even boring.  When that happens there is no sense of the sacred.  And when that happens it’s a bit of a tragedy, I think.  At the very least we have to wonder what else in our lives has lost its meaning.  Have we lost any sense of ourselves as sacred people created in God’s image?  Have we lost our sense of wonder and awe about ourselves and God’s creation?

So it is that today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christ as a once-a-year reminder to take for granted neither the Eucharist nor anything else about life.  When Jesus gave himself for us he meant that gift to be life-giving and life-changing.  He meant it to be one of those moments when we pinch ourselves and realize what a privilege it is to savor life once more.  Life with all its gifts and opportunities and challenges is too short and precious to be wasted.  Every moment provides an opportunity to get the most out of the life we’ve been given.

C4C998C1-9990-4556-B992-4700A13F1F3BIn the final scene of Babette’s Feast the villagers step out into the crisp night air.  Physically they leave the meal every bit the same people they had been when they stepped into Babette’s dining room.  But spiritually and emotionally the meal had transformed them.  Fresh from the experience, one of the diners glanced up to the stars and marveled at what she saw.  “The stars seem brighter tonight,” she said.  To which another responded:  “Perhaps they always were, but we just never noticed before.”

Just as in Babette’s Feast, in this Eucharist we take the body and blood of the Lord and let the experience of that eating transform us.  In doing so the Lord invites us to open our eyes to possibilities within us that perhaps we’ve never noticed or forgotten about.  He then confirms that he walks with us until the very last step of our earthly pilgrimage.  Then he reminds us of our power — our capacity — to use or leave on the table the gifts we’ve been given.  And finally he calls us to use those gifts for the transformation of each and every moment of our lives.

You and I are most certainly biological creatures, but in taking the body and blood of Christ we confess that we are sacred creations as well.  You and I are tabernacles of the sacred.  We are temples of God’s life in a world that needs constant awakening to the sacred.

It’s a noble calling that the Lord extends to us.  But with that call comes a promise.  The Lord promises to walk with us every day.  And so we pray that God, who began this journey with us, will bring us safely home to a new and even more wonderful life with Him him his kingdom.  Amen.

DA5261E1-B359-437A-90C5-20090B7EED86NOTES

+On Sunday June 23nd I presided at the abbey Mass.  It was the feast of Corpus Christi, and today’s post is the transcription of that sermon.

+On June 16th I flew to New York to attend a meeting and visit with some friends.  The trip there was fine, but the trip home was anything but.  One highlight was a four-hour delay at LaGuardia, followed by another 45 minutes on the runway.  When we arrived in Minneapolis the pilot noted that they had added insult to injury by parking another plane at our gate.  Thankfully I will now be home for several weeks.

+On June 22st our confrere Fr. Jerome Coller passed away after a long battle with cancer.  Fr. Jerome grew up in St. Paul and received his Ph.D. in music from Cornell University.  For most of his career he taught piano and composed music for our liturgies.

+On June 21st and 22nd I participated in the reunions at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  Happily I got to visit with quite a few friends and spoke to the class of ‘64 at their class dinner.

+The grounds at Saint John’s are particularly beautiful these days, and topping the list of rarities is a clump of ladyslippers blooming in the abbey garden.

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Wisdom Finds Delight in Us

Every now and again a passage from Scripture can surprise us with a meaning it did not intend.  Take for instance Proverbs 8.  It offers a sublime reflection on Wisdom, which from the beginning of time has hovered over creation.  Then, all of a sudden, it inserts what seems to be a rather snide reference to some people I know:

”When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no fountains or springs of water;  before the waters were settled into place, before the hills, I was brought forth;  while as yet the earth and fields were not made, nor the first clods of the world.”

My cynical side wants to argue that here God was being honest with this little aside;  but my sensible side argues that it may be time for an updated English translation.  Either way, though, Wisdom’s real thoughts are best reflected in the verse that concludes this passage:  “And I found delight in the human race.”  That I find truly amazing, because sometimes I don’t see that at all.

B3597EA0-AAE4-404D-BF0B-3FFA3036A53BIn the liturgy on most Sundays of the year we recite the Nicene Creed, and in it Christians profess their belief that God saw the world and saw that it was good.  That includes not only the few masterpieces among us but also the clods and idiots and all those other deeply flawed people whom we know.  Of course by the time that we total up the complete list it pretty much includes us all.  Coming to terms with that reality is one of the ongoing challenges of life — at least for me.

Giving other people the benefit of the doubt, forgiving them, and owning up to our own faults are what make life so challenging.  They’re also what make life potentially so creative.  On any given day we all endure a tug-of-war between our better selves and the temptation to view others as Satan would have us view them.  From his perspective people are pretty much nasty, brutish, and a bunch of clods.  But of course that is not really the case.  Each of us, as a creation of God, carries some spark of divine life that drives us forward.  Certainly there are moments when we tend to come off as clods, but that’s not who we really are.

Sooner or later we all confront the temptation to write off our neighbors as hopeless causes.  But of course they are not.  Nor are we.  So whenever that inclination starts to well up within us, it’s worthwhile to recall God’s own delight in us.  If God sees in us what we can’t quite see, then perhaps it’s time we look again.

38005A36-26B0-49FE-8465-1A417DE4C3B9NOTES

+On June 10th I flew to Phoenix for a meeting and a series of visits with friends of Saint John’s.  Back in March, when I scheduled this, a trip to Phoenix sounded like a terrific idea.  Once I landed I had only one regret.  Save for Tuesday, when the temperature plunged down to a balmy 108, it reached 111 every other day.  It was not what I had hoped for, and in retrospect I should have gone sooner.

+On June 16th I received welcome news from Fr. Petrus Nowack, the librarian of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  For some time we have been in communication regarding the gifting of a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, made possible by Mrs. Hella Hueg, a friend of Saint John’s and native of Heidelberg.  Shortly before her passing she expressed the desire that her set be sent to an institution in Germany, and she welcomed the thought that it would go to Maria Laach.  We at Saint John’s have had a long relationship with the monks of Maria Laach, though we do not go back to the 11th century as they do.

+The translation of the passage from Proverbs that I’ve quoted in today’s post is from The New American Bible, which Catholics in the United States currently use in the liturgy.  It has its shortcomings, and recently the American bishops decided to abandon the current translation in favor of something more congenial.  They illustrated their decision with several passages from that translation in which the English has evolved to mean something other than what was originally intended.  Among them was one passage that recalled the Israelite conquest of a particular Canaanite town, after which “they paraded around with their booty.”  Seniors hear one thing and their grandchildren hear another when that passage is read.

+Wisdom is associated with the Holy Spirt;  and given that Sunday was the feast of the Trinity I searched for photos that might illustrate the Trinity.  At top is a piece of stained glass (ca. 1520) from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne, and now housed at the V & A in London.  Below that is a glass panel of the Trinity (early 16th century), now housed at the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The next photo shows The Saint John’s Bible and its case made at Saint John’s, positioned in the library of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  At bottom is a wooden Trinity, early 16th century, also housed at the Schuntzen Museum.

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The Acts of the Apostles:  We’re Part of the Story

On Saturday the last chapter from the Acts of the Apostles supplied the first reading for Mass.  In that text the author of Acts leaves St. Paul in Rome, settling in to what sounds like a comfortable house arrest while he waited for his day in court.

It’s an abrupt ending, and I’ve always found it unsatisfying.  For one thing, it leaves readers completely in the dark about some of the most dramatic scenes in Paul’s life.  I would love to read about his trial before the emperor and his execution.  But no, there’s not a word about any of that.  Nor does the writer grab at the chance to craft a happy or sad ending.  The curtain comes down on Paul almost in mid-sentence, and then that’s that.

After Mass, over lunch in the refectory, my confrere Fr. Hilary shared his own feigned disappointment with the ending.  “Now we’ll never know whether Paul went to Spain!”  True;  and had Paul gone to Spain there would have been enough material for several more chapters.

FD591DA4-60A9-4978-AFBA-1047E2393B89His comment got me to thinking.  We know of course that Paul wanted to go to Spain, but did he actually make the trip?  Someday perhaps somebody will find Paul’s name in a first-century hotel register from Barcelona, but for now we’re free to speculate.

As unsatisfying as the conclusion to Acts might be for some, its silence on Paul was intended to speak volumes.  Acts was never meant to be the definitive biography of Paul, because it meant to set the stage for something else.  The postscript to Acts is really about all those nameless people who finally did take the good news of Jesus to Spain, and then on to places like France and India and finally into our own towns centuries later.  In other words, the Acts of the Apostles as a text is in no way complete until we figure out how we fit into the story.

If Acts ends with a variation on “to be continued”, the writer wants us to realize that we are the people meant to continue the story.  Certainly the Acts of the Apostles provides useful information on the apostles, on Paul, and on those who succeeded them in leadership.  But the story is presented for the benefit of those for whom the message of Jesus was intended;  and as near as I can figure it, that includes me and you too.

DEBC65F1-D12F-4095-9CAD-DC71CFD2354FThat has profound implications for our role in the Church.  Whenever I learn more about the shortcomings of leaders in the Church, it naturally gives me pain, if not a big dose of anguish.  But then I try not to stop there.  That’s when I remind myself that “Church” is not nor has it ever been co-terminus with its ministers and leaders.  The Church includes all the baptized, and all the baptized must do the equivalent of “pick up our mats and walk.”  All of us share in the mission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, or at least to the end of the street where we live.

At Pentecost Jesus sent the Spirit for our inspiration, our consolation, and to be our constant travel companion.  With that gift comes the call to share in the commission that the Lord gave to his first followers.  Thankfully the work didn’t stop with them, and as a result a bunch of people had the gumption to take the gospel to Spain.

Others went even further afield, and so I’m left to wonder what the Lord expects of me on the feast of Pentecost.  Should I take the Spirit home with me?  To work or to the market?  At the very least I should take the Spirit to heart.  After all, the Lord meant that gift for me, as well as for you.

2758634C-3FCF-4796-A133-E5A198F8A040NOTES

+The farthest I travelled from home this week was to Minneapolis.  I drove down with one of my colleagues on June 6th, to meet with an alumnus of Saint John’s University and to attend a reception in the evening.  For lunch we stopped at Emily’s, for which I gladly give a plug.  It is a Lebanese cafe that has been a fixture in northeast Minneapolis forever.  Across the street is Saint Boniface Church, which the monks of Saint John’s Abbey staffed for over a century.  A block away is a Ukrainian Catholic Church, and between them is Saint Maron’s Maronite-Rite Church.  Since my colleague had never been to Saint Maron’s, I suggested we go in.  Once in the sanctuary he spied the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, which a donor had given to the parish.  On the way out we bumped into the caretaker, and I casually asked if Bishop Sharbel happened to be in.  Before I could stop him he called the bishop, and shortly he came out and we had a nice visit.  I attribute all that to the work of the Holy Spirit.

22CEC028-EB08-43E6-8464-06659B5A027A+Following the retreat that I gave in Malvern, PA, last weekend, I returned to catch the last part of our own community retreat at Saint John’s.

+I continue to get interesting comments on the geography post I produced three weeks ago.  In it I wondered how New London, MN, had gotten its name, speculating that it might be named for London UK or even New London, CT.  A friend of mine did the research and reported that New London MN is named for New London WI (who would have thought), which in turn had been named for New London, CT.  (Who would have thought.)

+Summer has finally arrived in Minnesota, and in addition to the weekend lake traffic going by on I-94 we have enjoyed the lush green landscape.  Save for the lilacs, the flowers are not yet in serious bloom, but we do have our first peonies, which is perfect timing.  They are also known as the Pentecost rose.

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From Tiny Acorns

When some people think of monks what generally pops into their minds are cowls, cloisters and books.  Eventually they think of chant, but then that’s it.  They’ve exhausted their imagination.

So it is that most people have little awareness of the importance of music in the monastery, and that goes especially for instruments like the organ.  Part of this is Saint Benedict’s fault, since he didn’t have one in his chapel.  But by the later Middle Ages most monasteries had at least some variation of that instrument at their disposal.

BCB3589D-D80A-4D53-8E8B-B830610E4ED4I’ve been fortunate to see a few early organs, and no doubt my favorite is the 15th-century instrument at the abbey of St. Savin, south of Lourdes.  It’s small and stubborn in its own way, which explains why it is among the oldest surviving organs in France.

In early modern times organs really came into their own, both in parish churches and in monastery chapels.  Some were astounding both in design and sound, and I count myself fortunate to have walked in and under one of the finest — the organ at the abbey church of Weingarten in Germany.

That brings me to the organ in the abbey church at Saint John’s.  It’s been nearly sixty years since the church was finished, and until now the organ has remained unfinished.  That explains why so very few people ever see it.  Through all those years a red cloth has screened the pipes from view, and first-time visitors often have to ask where all that sound comes from.  Soon enough they will wonder no more.

We monks finally decided to complete the incomplete organ, and later this summer designer and builder Martin Pasi will begin to install the pipes that will transform the organ into something truly extraordinary.  As a bonus, the abbey woodworking shop has been fashioning some of the largest pipes out of lumber harvested from our forest.  Not only have some of those acorns grown into mighty oaks, but a few select boards have become pipes weighing as much as 750 pounds.

52102235-048C-4854-8733-C1AF2DB3FDC9Last week some of us monks, donors and other guests gathered in the woodworking shop to watch as Abbot John blessed some of the largest pipes.   The staff also revved up a blower to pump air through two of them, and the deep tones literally shook the building.  Who knew the power of wind and wood!

In the common imagination there’s a lot about the monastic world that seems pointless and uneconomic.  Why would anyone want to search for God in relative obscurity in some cloister in the woods?  Why would anyone engage in an economically pointless exercise like prayer?  Why would anyone devote time, energy and resources to a musical instrument whose sole purpose is to transform air into sound, and all for a fleeting moment?

I’m not sure I have adequate answers for any of that, though I do have a question to counter the question.  “Why not?”  For centuries monks and nuns have devoted themselves to prayer.  They’ve worked and served guests.  And they’ve also devoted themselves to the pursuit of some very ephemeral experiences like music.  In the belief that traces of God can be found in the good, the true and the beautiful, Benedictines both ancient and modern have devoted their lives to that search.

115F89A8-F3DB-4D39-A56F-03B453A34350All things being equal then, the reasons for finishing the organ outweigh the reasons for not doing so, at least in my mind.  Not least of them is that its completion is a sign of hope.  There’s hope that in its majestic music we will catch a glimpse of God.  There’s hope that those pipes will inspire future generations of monks and visitors to thank us for the gift of music.

Finally, I should not forget to point out one practical benefit.  At long last the organ will be so large that the new pipes will flank the red screen that has always obscured the old pipes.  No longer will visitors have to ask where the pipes might be.  They’ll be obvious.  For our part we’ll be able to save some of our breath and devote it to singing the praises of God.

D204A134-8625-4A98-B94A-DDB55AD1A512NOTES

+On May 27th, Memorial Day, an honor guard from the local American Legion gave its customary salute to our deceased monks and neighbors who served in the military.  I find that service in the abbey cemetery to be a poignant ceremony, though the startled squirrels usually disagree.  I am always amazed at the number of our deceased monks who served as chaplains or soldiers in the military.

+On May 29th I gathered in the carpenter shop with fellow monks, friends and neighbors for the blessing of some of the pipes that will be installed in the organ in the abbey church beginning later this summer.  At the ceremony Fr. Bob Koopmann, who has led this project, spoke, as did Fr. Lew Grobe.  Fr. Lew and his colleagues in woodworking have had the honor of crafting some of these extraordinary pipes.

+On 30 May I flew to Philadelphia, and from that day through 4 June I am participating in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  This particular group comprises members from the American and Federal Associations, and the retreat has taken place at Malvern Retreat House, located outside of the city.

+Three of the photos in today’s post show scenes from the blessing of new pipes for the abbey organ.  Included among them is a signature board which will be fixed to the largest of the pipes.  The bottom two photos show the organ from the Abbey of Weingarten in Germany.

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