Archive for July, 2019


Martha, Mary and Lazarus:  Friends of Jesus

Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  Brother and sisters.  Friends of Jesus.  Disciples of the Lord.  Within the monastic tradition our default buttons have generally been set toward Mary.  She’s the one who had chosen the better part, as Jesus said.  And so we single her out for her dedication to prayer and meditation on the words of Jesus.  We also think of her as a parallel to Mary the mother of Jesus.  She too had much to ponder in her heart.

All the same, beyond the fact that their neighbors knew that they were close to Jesus, there’s really not a lot we know about these three.  In the gospel Lazarus makes a cameo appearance as a dead man who must have been surprised when Jesus called him from the tomb.  As for Mary, we scarcely hear a peep from her, and of the three she best embodies the advice Saint Benedict gave to his disciples.  She was good at listening.

E2C8EFC3-92AF-4CA6-9381-32C97C4E2347It’s Martha who comes across as the strong and by no means silent personality here.  She was forceful and not at all bashful about saying what was on her mind.  She was not afraid to complain to Jesus when her sister slacked off in the duties of hospitality.  She even delivered a slight rebuke to Jesus, who in her modest opinion could have done something to prevent Lazarus’ death.

I’m going to hazard the opinion that Jesus liked each of these siblings precisely because each brought different gifts to the table.  Mary listened;  Lazarus could meet Jesus halfway when called;  and Martha was one of the few people who could tell Jesus what she thought and get results.  Perhaps even Jesus needed a friendly nudge and a bit of advice every now and then.

The fact is, Jesus chose three very different people to be his friends;  and that matters a great deal to us.  And so whether we’ve preferred the path of Lazarus or Martha or Mary matters less than the fact that the Lord loves us for who we are rather than who we are not.  In short, perhaps the Lord is telling us that it takes all kinds to make a family, a monastic community and even a Church.  There’s room for us all among the friends of Jesus, and for that lesson we owe a debt of gratitude to Martha, Mary and Lazarus.


+I didn’t have a lot on my calendar this past week, but there was still plenty to keep me busy.  Among other things I hosted a member of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, who made a five-day retreat to initiate her year of probation as a Dame in Obedience.  I also hosted Don and his brother, John, both from the Bay Area.  They were our guests for two days.

+On July 25th two returning members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps spoke to members of the community about their year of service at the Benedictine priory of Tabgha in Israel and at a community in Uganda.  Meanwhile one of our last remaining volunteers for next year left for the abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.

F67E591C-F011-494A-BD02-E96966CC2B8D+The week’s big lesson came from a trip to the emergency room of the Saint Cloud Hospital.  I was not the patient, but I had volunteered to drive in one of my confreres for what should have been a short and simple visit.  It turned out to be a seven-hour ordeal, and I learned a lot.  Up to now I had been spared a trip to the emergency room, and I was surprised at what I have been missing.  For one thing, it was interesting to survey the variety of people who frequent emergency rooms.  Among those who helped to pass the time was a young mother who let her three-year-old son run free-range for over an hour.  Finally a couple of mothers took charge and kept him entertained.  May God bless them forever.  My award for the most irritating behavior went to the irksome lady who spent an hour and a half going through her contacts list, calling everyone whom she’d ever met to tell them that she was in the hospital.  No doubt it was the most exciting thing that had happened to her in a long time — if not in her entire life.

+On 27 July our confrere Fr. Corwin Collins passed away.  Born in Port Jefferson, NY, he served most of his years as a pastor and chaplain.  This marks the fourth death of a confrere in five weeks, and while each of these four was more than ready to go, we wonder why they have chosen mid-summer to make their departure.  We will miss them all.

+Today is the feast of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and this post is a transcription of the sermon that I will deliver at the abbey mass later today.

+The campus at Saint John’s is particularly lovely right now, but the prize this week goes to the flower beds in the cloister walks of the abbey church, which the photos in today’s post illustrate.


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Mid-Summer’s Advice

Like most people, I’m delighted to give advice, even when it’s unsolicited.  Also like most people, I don’t particularly enjoy getting advice, especially when it’s unsolicited.  Who does?

For months now Marie, the manager in the office where I work, has badgered me about not using my vacation days.  “Use ‘em or lose ‘em,” has been her recurring mantra.  But of course I enjoy my work, so why would I want to deny myself of something that inspires me so much?

30E27D03-B130-4494-91A9-5CB4B97CC550Finally it dawned on me that her advice dovetailed neatly with advice I’ve doled out in retreat conferences for years.  I’ve always been a firm believer in the need to live a balanced life, and so I’ve preached that we ought not drown ourselves in work, to the neglect of everything else.  All of us need to live balanced lives, and that balance includes music and reading and good food and visits with friends and family.  All of those things have the potential to energize us, and they can revive us when work has at long last dragged us into the pits.

Last week I took a break from work, mainly so I could begin to chip away at those vacation days and make Marie happy.  I thought perhaps it might even do me some good to have a change of pace, for a day or two at least.  As it turned out, however, it was an inspired decision.  I’m glad I did it.

Among other things I read two books.  Fatal Discord happened to be a heavy tome in which Michael Massing constructs parallel lives of Martin Luther and his contemporary and sometime nemesis, Erasmus.  A former student of mine had recommended it, and I was impressed that he was still reading such weighty material, even without getting college credit for it.  The second was a book by the English wit Peter Mayle.  Entitled A Year in Provence, it appeared in shops decades ago and got an honorable mention recently in an article on travel to Provence.  Lest I be the only civilized person of my generation not to have read it, I downloaded it and savored every page.

2108FC4B-818E-45E1-8331-4434C6B96182So what else did I do on my summer vacation?  I walked, for miles.  One day I even did ten miles.  I also darkened the doors of one museum, an historic home and several churches.  All were great experiences.  I also visited with friends and family and listened to lots of music.  And I took a train ride.  All in all I did the sort of stuff that I’ve been telling others to do but never do myself.  It was great, and I concluded that I should listen to my own advice a little more often.

That brings me to a couple of other conclusions.  First, if I don’t bother to listen to my own advice, I can’t complain when others pay no need to the advice I give them.  Second, there really is something to all that palaver about living a balanced life.  It’s actually a great idea, and that was a big takeaway from this year’s summer vacation.  In fact I plan to try it again, and maybe even this winter.


+As noted above, I did not do anything of import last week save for an attempt to restore some balance to my life.  Since I celebrated fifty years in the monastery on July 11th, I thought it might be time to try.

+On July 19-21 95 oblates of Sant John’s Abbey gathered for their annual retreat.  Abbot John delivered the conferences to them.

+On July 21st we hosted at Mass and a luncheon many of the eighty volunteers who give so generously of their time and energy by helping in various activities around the abbey.

+I returned from summer vacation to see and hear an electronic organ parked in the sanctuary of the church.  Thankfully its presence is temporary, since the console of the pipe organ is being rebuilt in anticipation of the installation of the new pipes.  The latter begins in August.  But for now it came as a bit of a shock.  However, in the interests of variety it might be fun for someone to play some hockey arena music for us.

+On 20 July our confrere Fr. Knute Anderson passed away.  Fr. Knute was truly one of the monastery characters, and at 90 years he had lived a full life.


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Vengeance is no Way to Live

It’s a classic story.  The obnoxious brother irritates his siblings for years.  Finally their chance comes, but at the last minute they back off from killing him and instead sell him into slavery.  Years later, desperate for food, they meet their brother, who has risen to power in a foreign land and graciously saves them.  With the entire family now dependent on him, he waits for his father to die, and then in revenge he tortures and executes his wicked brothers.

That’s the story of Joseph — except for that last bit about biding his time to take revenge on his brothers.  Had he done that no one would have begrudged him.  After all, what they did to him was terrible.

F97A70F8-2935-44A7-8276-95AE907949F3For the last few days in the liturgy we’ve read the story of Joseph and his brothers, and it’s one that’s larger than life.  No wonder it’s provided fodder for movies and a musical, but tucked within the drama is a story of character.  Joseph grew up a narcissist and found redemption through his own suffering.  It was an extraordinary turn of events, and the Joseph that his brothers met in Egypt was scarcely the same person whom they had sold into slavery.

The desire for revenge is unique neither to Joseph’s nor to our own times.  It’s tinged with a sense of justice, which can make it particularly attractive.  It can even provide a moment of satisfaction.  But it’s no way to live a life.  Vengeance may be the Lord’s, but when we dabble in it ourselves it has a way of eating away at us from within.

Joseph grew to forgive his brothers because he had grown into nobility of character.  This same character is what Jesus urges on us when he encourages us to forgive others as we would have them forgive us.  In that prayer is the recognition that we may at times be the injured party, but seldom are we entirely faultless.

18E5FBE4-9E54-45F7-AD17-9B68BF5FBDB3So it is that the Lord invites us to join with Joseph to rise above our hurts and grievances and become people who are blessings to all whom we encounter.  At the very least it is a better way to live, and the return on the investment can be truly extraordinary.


+This was a busy week for me and many of my confreres.  On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  At that Mass our confrere Novice Jeremy professed his first vows, and I and five of my confreres renewed our vows on the anniversary of our profession.  It was a grand day, and I was happy to host as guests my two sisters, who had flown in from Oklahoma City, as well as several friends who attended the celebration.  After it was all over I could have slept for two days solid, but could only indulge myself for a day and a half.

+On July 14th the National Catholic Youth Choir completed its two-week residence at Saint John’s with a concert that preceded the abbey Mass.  Our confrere Fr. Anthony Ruff founded the choir twenty years ago, and the choristers always add a nice touch to our liturgies in the middle of the summer.

+The photo at top shows the chapter house in the foreground with the abbey church behind it.  Below that is the lower wing of the guesthouse, located to the east of the chapter house.  Next is a statue of Saint Benedict that is in the east cloister walk.  At bottom is a walk at the south end of the monastic garden.


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God Slips in through the Trap Door

In the back of a church which I once attended there was a ladder that reached from the choir loft to a trap door in the ceiling.  It wasn’t quite a real ladder, because the rungs were embedded in the wall, and it was pretty utilitarian.  One day somebody got the bright idea of turning it into Jacob’s ladder, and an artist embellished the rungs with ivy and angels ascending and descending.

For me that made visual and vivid the words of Genesis 28.  The mural reminded me first of all that that Jacob’s dream depends on the stereotype of God as someone “up there” somewhere, roaming around in the attic.  But at the same time the ladder stitches together heaven and earth.  God may be in the heavens, but it is the angels who signal that the earth is good and that it belongs to God.

If Genesis 28 describes a vertical relationship with God, it also reminds us of a horizontal relationship, and it does so through angels who are sent to touch our lives.  It’s the horizontal that Jesus stressed again and again, and it’s the concept around which Saint Benedict structures monastic life.  Theologically God may be “totally other,” but both Genesis and Jesus remind us that the Lord walks beside us and nudges us and even carries us if need be.

1519E5C1-2DE2-4573-82F0-B65CF4864014Finally, it is true that once in a great while the Lord does walk right up and stares us in the face; but all the the same the Lord prefers to sidle up to us rather quietly.  It’s on those occasions when the Lord slips through the trap door of our minds to remind us that we belong to him.  That’s when he claims us for his own.


+The highlight of this week in the monastery was our celebration of the 4th of July, with a picnic in the monastic garden.  Heavy rain earlier in the day gave way to a glorious afternoon.

+On July 6th we celebrated the Mass of Christian burial for our confrere Fr. Meinrad Dindorf.  We do funeral liturgies especially well at Saint John’s, and this one was no exception.  With all the rain we’ve had, the cemetery and our landscape in general are a verdant green.  As we gathered around Fr. Meinrad’s grave the loons sang and the squirrels scolded us, and it was a moving few minutes.

+At any given moment I juggle several books, reading each for a different purpose.  For example, I imagine myself to be one of the few people in North America not to have read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  A friend of mine recently loaned me the book, and it was a quick read on the plane because of Rowling’s wonderful prose.  Ron Chernow’s biography of U. S. Grant falls into a different category.  I have always enjoyed Chernow’s writing, and like his other books this one is thick and weighty and not the sort for toting through the airport and onto the plane.  All the same, I am enjoying it, and not just because U. S. Grant is quite different from Harry Potter.  After all, how could you not appreciate someone “so reticent that someone quipped ‘he could be silent in several languages.’”

EA6D9958-BEDB-4EEC-A543-B834F94DAE15+Today’s post is a sermon which I will deliver at the monastery Mass today.  The mural of Jacob’s Ladder to which I refer was in the chapel of Saint Thomas More, the Catholic chapel at Yale.  I had the opportunity to live and work there for three years while in graduate school, and from the altar I could glimpse the mural high on the back wall of the church.  Alas, the mural did not pass muster when the church underwent renovation, and so it exists only in the memories of the few people who ever looked up there to notice it.

+By its nature a chronicle narrates the past rather than speaks of the future.  However, on July 11th, the feast of Saint Benedict, I will celebrate fifty years of monastic vows.  On the day that Novice Jeremy will pronounce his first vows, I and five other jubiliarians will renew our vows.  I don’t know where the years have gone, but but there’s very little I would want to change.  It’s been a great experience, though I remain convinced that some of the best years are yet to come.

+The top photo in today’s post shows the link between the Quadrangle, where nearly half of the monks live, and the Breuer wing, where the other half lives.  For the moment the flower beds in the monastic garden are particularly nice, and the overlook of Lake Sagatagan is especially serene.


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Shaped by the Benedictine Tradition

Morning and evening prayer at Saint John’s Abbey may be as regular as clockwork, but summer provides almost daily surprises.  Those surprises generally have to do with guests who, as Saint Benedict pointed out, are never wanting in a monastery.  More precisely, the surprises have to do with the number of guests who join us in choir, and their number can vary dramatically from morning to evening and day to day.

It’s safe to say that while the roster of monks in most monasteries may be shorter than fifty years ago, the number of guests who show up at monasteries to join monks for prayer is up dramatically.  Part of that has to do with Latin, which in former times may have discouraged many lay people from attending.  Whether its absence matters today is debatable.  But of greater significance is the growing number of people who recite the liturgy of the hours on their own.  Not surprisingly that draws them to join us at prayer when they are at Saint John’s.

67A0E5EE-3905-428E-B895-BE9626FA724AAs a result, we monks at Saint John’s have learned to expect the unexpected when we enter the choir for prayer during the summer.  On some days there may be only a sprinkling of visitors.  But then there are days when there are more of them than there are of us.  Of course that can impact the quality of our recitation, but I personally contend that it’s a wonderful problem to have.

It’s also important to note the summer-time presence of a particular group of young men at prayer.  Unlike the other guests, they sit with us in the stalls reserved for the monks.  Dressed in distinctive black polo shirts with “Saint John’s Abbey” stitched on them in white thread, they are the incoming and outgoing members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corp (BVC).  For the new members their presence is a chance to experience a bit of Benedictine life before heading off to monasteries around the world for a year of service.  For veteran members it’s a chance to share their experiences of the last year, and we are always eager listeners.

Normally the Volunteers are recent graduates of Saint John’s University.  A few months before graduation they apply, and in practice the program has been able to accept roughly half of those who wish to go.  This year 26 will go off to serve, suggesting that there was an applicant pool of 50+.

Those numbers may not seem like much, but with a graduating class of 400+ at Saint John’s University, it’s a big deal.  It means that 12% of our graduating seniors apply to live and work for a year in a monastery somewhere around the world, and 6% actually follow through and do it.  In a society that assumes that young people are not the least bit curious about religious life, these are pretty astounding percentages.  What college sends 6% of its recent alumni to do a post-graduate year in a monastery?

8257666A-5657-4307-AC5E-18D09BCEF2AFOur Benedictine Volunteers serve literally around the world, and it’s fascinating to hear about their experiences.  Over the years I’ve had the chance to visit Volunteers on site at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where life is very different from what they knew at Saint John’s.  Volunteers at Montserrat outside of Barcelona have taught English to the Catalan-speaking students in the choir school.  Topping the list for sheer courage was one Volunteer at Saint Anselmo in Rome.  His duties included driving the abbot primate to the airport and to appointments around the city.  Rome may be the eternal city, but the eternally insane traffic helps it to maintain the title.  And I and my confreres have listened eagerly to stories from returning Volunteers who have been in Tanzania and Chile and India.  Theirs are experiences beyond anything that they will likely have in their professional careers, and they are transformative, to say the least.

At Saint John’s we’ve been fortunate to maintain contacts with monks in communities around the world.   All the same, the Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s have added a new and lively dimension to this network.  If most of us never quite imagined this twenty-five years ago when Brother Paul Richards began the BVC, it’s happened nonetheless.

When Sant Benedict cautioned that “visitors we will always have with us,” he never foresaw anything quite like the BVC.  And as the program has developed, however, it’s brought into being a group of young men who certainly are not monks, but who are more than our average guests.  They are young men who for one year immerse themselves completely in the Benedictine tradition.  I have to believe that somehow it shapes the course of their lives from that year onward.  And while the Volunteers realize the value they bring to the places where they serve, they probably have little clue of the delight that they bring to us monks at Saint John’s.


+On June 27th I hosted two visitors at Saint John’s from the East Coast.  Both are members of the Order of Malta and devote their energies to prison ministry.  We talked about that, and lots more.

+Last week was very quiet for me, and I did not go near the airport.  In fact, the furthest I went from home was a visit to an alumnus and his wife in Lakeville, MN, a town which I had never visited before.  As always in summer, the trip back on I-94 was interesting.  Two minor car crashes managed to create miles-long back-ups in both directions.  Among the artifacts on view was a boat that had gotten away from somebody and which rested on the shoulder of the road.  But the prize from me went to the couch that sat serenely and stately in the median of the highway.  It was as if someone had set it up for the benefit of people caught in traffic jams with nothing else to do.

+On Friday June 28th our community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Jerome Coller.  Abbot John’s homily was particularly witty, noting that when Fr. Jerome returned from graduate school at Cornell he was eager to apply his compositional talents to our singing at Saint John’s.  His first major effort was a hymn which we sang at the blessing of the first Abbot John in 1971.  “That was when we learned that the community was not yet ready for an atonal Te Deum,” he noted.  That brought chuckles, as did several other comments.  But Jerome went on to compose many songs that we regularly sing today.

EE808153-B55B-443F-BDDD-31EDF6638497+On the evening of June 28th our confrere Fr. Meinrad Dindorff quietly passed away after a short illness.  Meinrad was involved in many activities at Saint John’s, but I remember him best from my days in seminary when he taught theology.

+On 29-30 June we hosted visitors for Family Weekend for the monks at Saint John’s.

+On 30 June I presided at vespers in the Abbey Church.

+It should not surprise anyone that the hours of standing in choir could tire medieval monks, and so they came up with a novel solution.  When the seat in a choir stall was folded up it revealed a small shelf underneath, and monks could perch on this while still appearing to stand.  This was called a misericord, or mercy seat, for obvious reasons.  Artists learned to take advantage of this new opportunity by carving all sorts of things underneath the choir stall, as these images from the cathedral in Toledo, Spain, illustrate.  Even today our individual stalls at Saint John’s have misercords; and while they are not decorated they provide the same service to monks who weary during long services.


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