Archive for August, 2019


Heaven:  Many Mansions or Open-Concept?

In the monastery we don’t spend a lot of time talking about heaven.  I’m not sure why we don’t, but perhaps it’s because we have more immediate things to worry about.  Besides, Saint Benedict wrote a Rule that deals mainly with the here and now.  His plan was to bring out the best in each of us, now.  As for the hereafter Benedict doesn’t devote a single chapter to speculation about how God is supposed to organize and run heaven.

Another item that’s missing from our monastic conversation is anxiety about salvation.  Through the centuries questions about how and how many would be saved have vexed an awful lot of people.  Ironically in the early Church this issue turned to the benefit of Christianity, precisely because it allayed those fears.  It was reassuring to have a relationship with a loving savior versus worries about performing animal sacrifices flawlessly.  Far preferable was a savior who asked for a clean heart versus a judge who wanted ritual perfection.

6E64EDBC-19A0-4B82-81C2-D0D821683BEFCenturies later the turn of the millennium stoked fierce anxiety as people anticipated the return of Jesus.  Compounding the anxiety was the popular notion that only 144,000 would be saved.  Those were not good odds considering the hundreds of millions who would vie for those coveted spots.

Still later the Reformation turned on the question of salvation.  That controversy generated boat loads of literature and made booksellers rich.  But the contention eventually cooled, and I for one am happy that most people no longer feel the need to kill one another over those issues.

That segues into what I perceive to be the strange lack of anxiety about salvation today.  Do people not care about it?  Do Christians not worry about it like they once did?  Some certainly do worry, and they do so intensely.  But for most those questions generate far less heat than they used to.

I can only speculate on what’s caused this, but I think a better appreciation of what Jesus asks of us has helped to sideline some of those fears.  Many today seem more keenly aware of what the Lord asks of them.  They realize that our relationship with Jesus ought to be a seamless experience.  It begins now and not just at the day of judgement.  It involves transformation that is ongoing, and in fact at our passing we will not be meeting some total stranger for the very first time.  We will meet the Jesus whom we’ve already gotten to know.  At that point Jesus will sweep us up into a life of which we’ve already begun to taste.

Jesus asserts that he is the way, the truth and the life.  It’s a life which Jesus invites us to embrace here and now, and why would anyone want to put that off until some future date?  Why would anyone not want a life that is filled with meaning and purpose and direction?

E6F3C65C-BF43-42E7-AD91-2812B662E711Of course that still leaves unanswered the questions about what heaven might be like. For the most part I’m willing to be surprised, but one issue nags at me.  What exactly will the living arrangements be like?  Jesus has suggested that in his father’s house there are many mansions, which sounds very attractive to me.  The truth is, I still harbor a latent introversion, and I need some privacy every day.  So a heaven in which there are mansions with private rooms sounds just about right.  As for the option that seems increasingly popular today, open-concept living sounds a bit like hell to me.

So there we have it.  I’m not entirely sure what heaven will be like, save that it’s likely to be more than I ever imagined.  In the meantime, I’m thoroughly convinced that the best preparation for the future is to make the most of the present.  By wonderful coincidence that happens to be the recipe that Saint Benedict recommends for his monks.


+On August 20th I concelebrated at a funeral Mass at Saint Joseph’s Church, in Saint Joseph, MN. The monks of Saint John’s have served at that parish since the 1850s, and we’ve never had to go far because it is only four miles from the abbey.  The present church was built in 1869, and one historian notes that it was the first consecrated church in Minnesota made of permanent materials.  The photos in today’s post show the parish church, following a recent renovation and restoration.

+On August 23rd the incoming freshmen of Saint John’s University joined the monks for evening prayer.  Before vespers small groups of students met with individual monks to learn something about our life.  Later Abbot John spoke to the entire class and invited them to join us for prayer during the course of their four years at Saint John’s.

+On August 24th I attended the wedding of the son of a family with whom I’ve been good friends for ages.  It took place in Philadelphia.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Sunday’s gospel:  Luke 13: 22-30.

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Bogged Down in Service to the Lord

Say the name Jeremiah and chances are the monks in our community will think Holy Week.  That’s when one of our monks will chant from The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet at morning prayer.  It’s a haunting melody whose notes underscore the desolation that Jeremiah feels in his soul.  There, stretched out before him, is a ruined Jerusalem.  For most of his career he had warned of just such a day.  Alas, few took his message to heart, and what he had anticipated finally came to pass.

Given that context, a reading from the Book of Jeremiah on a Sunday in mid-August seems a bit out of place.  That would be true, save for the fact that Jeremiah 38 serves as the before to Lamentations’ after.  In Jeremiah 38 we read of a prophet who’s not just been ignored but punished for the warnings he’s issued.  There we find him, cast into an empty well, waiting for death as he wallows knee-deep in mud.

Despite it all, Jeremiah didn’t succumb to despair.  A sympathetic court official intervened, and that friend was the unexpected answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.  That rescue allowed him to continue to preach on the Lord’s behalf.

DBC4503D-82B8-4373-87C5-F9780DE603E5From Jeremiah I’ve learned three things.  First, Jeremiah reminds us that being God’s servant isn’t necessarily easy business.  It’s not all sweetness and light;  and while God always answers our prayers, God doesn’t always give us what we are expecting.  We should never be shocked when surprises come our way.

Second, service in the name of the Lord sometimes requires grit and lots and lots of faith.  Faith is what allows us to go on, even when we have no idea where we’re going.

Finally, Jeremiah reminds us to be alert.  There are times when we all feel like we are stuck in the mud and going nowhere.  It’s in those moments that the Lord steps in and urges us to get a second opinion.  From the moment of our creation God has had something in mind for us, and no matter our age we are indeed going somewhere.  We need to be alert to those reminders, no matter who the messenger might be.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that he will give his customers exactly what they ask for and more than they ever imagine.  God does the same for us.  So whenever my life seems bogged down in the mire, it’s good to recall that God still has plans for me.  My life has purpose.  My life has meaning.  And if by chance there are mud-puddles and detours along the way, then maybe those too have meaning.  All help to shape my life on the road from here to eternity.


+On August 16th we gathered to celebrate the Mass of Christian burial for our confrere Fr. Hilary Thimmesch, who died unexpectedly on the previous Sunday.  For most of his life Fr. Hilary taught English at Saint John’s University, and he served for several years as president of the University.  Until last May he also served as a faculty resident for a floor of freshmen in a University residence hall.  At 91 he decided it was finally time to retire!  Always a consummate gentleman, Fr. Hilary slipped away quietly, shortly after returning to his room in the evening.

+On August 17th I celebrated Mass for a gathering of some forty alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, who had gathered at the home of my friends Len and Kay in Edina, MN.

+On Sunday August 18th the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang at the Abbey Mass.  It was their first performance of the new season.

+While rococo interiors are not everyone’s cup of tea, for sheer exuberance and joy they are hard to beat.  In honor of the feast of the Assumption, August 15th, I have illustrated today’s post with photos from the pilgrimage church of Maria Steinbach, located in Bavaria.  I took them six years ago in the course of a tour of baroque churches and abbeys in Bavaria, guided by my friends Johannes and Adriana.  The abundance of baroque and rococo interiors in Bavaria almost takes your breath away.


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For Whom Should We pray?

A few weeks ago a photo gripped the world’s attention.  In it a man and a child floated, faces down, in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.  It was shocking, and it starkly illustrated just one of the many social ills that beset our times.

There was one thing that made the photo particularly poignant, however.  For whatever reason most of the media outlets chose not to give any names.  These two were almost objects rather than people.  Floating anonymously in the water, they seemed unblessed and lacking in even the basics of humanity.  Having achieved not even ten minutes of fame in life, they became nobodies in death.

Then I considered who they might have been.  One had been a son to his parents, a husband to his wife, and a father to the person floating next to him.  Eventually I discovered that he had a name after all.  He was Oscár Alberto Martínez Ramírez.

24011099-C4C2-4F80-B73A-C0EA6603D897As for the 23-month-old next to him, her accomplishments were fewer.  She was daughter to Oscár and her mother, and perhaps she was a sister to some siblings still at home.  Still, like her father, she had been created in the image of God.  She too had human dignity, and perhaps she was the future hope for her family.  And she too had a name:  Valeria.

Once I knew their names, Oscár and Valeria were no longer anonymous victims of circumstance.  Now I could imagine chatting with them.  I could picture them laughing and crying and sitting around a table eating with family and friends.  They were no longer poster children of some social or political problem.  They were individuals who needed both my respect and my prayers.

In a recent homily Pope Francis urged us to give names to the people who suffer from the vast litany of ills that beset our times.  It’s nice enough to pray for world peace and an end to persecution and an end to hunger;  but those remain abstractions until we can attach the names of real live people to our prayers.

When a congregation is small enough, the priest has the luxury of inviting others to add their own petitions to the prayers of the faithful.  “For whom shall we pray?” is the invitation for which many people thirst.  It’s the chance to be very specific, because it’s suddenly okay to pray — out loud and in front of other people —  “for Aunt Edna who has surgery today,” or “for my son who is going through a difficult time.”

4718FA92-9738-41A7-8188-874EF38F951EThis is when prayer becomes intensely personal.  It’s when we pray for flesh-and-blood neighbors, even if we scarcely know them.  But when we say their names out loud or deep within our hearts something profound comes over us.  We admit our kinship with them.  We confess that they and we were created in the image of God.  And through our prayers we no longer walk alone.  Instead, we walk the paths of the Lord alongside them as fellow pilgrims.

So what lessons might we take away from this?  First, it’s certainly okay to pray for big-ticket items like “peace in the Middle East.”  But it’s even better to pray by name for a person or a village or a parish community in that region.  That builds communion between them and us.

Second, pray for someone by name, at least once a day.  It gets us out of the mindset that we alone carry the burdens of the world.  It reminds us that we have kindred spirits out there who also share in our search for meaning and purpose in life.

Third, don’t wait for someone to issue a gilded invitation to pray.  It’s nice to hear that formal invitation “For whom should we pray?”  But it’s no sin to pray unbidden.  If truth be told, there are lots of people whom we know who need our prayers, and Oscár and Valeria are just two of them.  Why wait to be invited to do the decent thing?

4861A6E8-545C-4FE5-9D06-95F22D1BD62DFinally, for whom else should we pray?  As long as we’re at it we may as well save some breath to pray for ourselves.  It never hurts, and frankly the Lord may be wondering why we’ve not called on him for a while.


+On August 8th I was in Minneapolis for two meetings, and one of them happened to be at the American Swedish Institute.  It’s housed in a great old mansion built by Swan Turnblad, a very successful Swedish newspaper publisher in Minneapolis.  From personal experience I can say that it’s especially nice to visit there during the Christmas season.  Currently it has on display an exhibit of Viking artifacts from the 6th-9th centuries.  So after the meeting I had a choice between the “Swedish language happy hour” or the exhibit.  I chose the exhibit, mainly because I’m not sure what goes on at a Swedish language happy hour.

+On August 9th I made my semi-annual pilgrimage to the help desk at IT Services, which is now housed in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  Everyone is required to change the computer password to their account every six months, and I had one day left before I would be frozen out completely.  Like most people over the age of twenty I find this to be an ordeal, and years ago I vowed never to do this alone again.  The occasion of that solemn oath (and many others at the time, I might add), was when I was out of town.  Without any help at all I successfully locked myself out of my computer for four days.  Anyway, once again I packed phone and computer and iPad up and toted them over to the help desk.  This time the computer doctor happened to be a brilliant student from the Bahamas, and he performed wizardry before my eyes.  I left with devices that still talked with one another and secure in the knowledge that only college students and hackers know how to get into my account.  Heaven knows I don’t.

+Today the first of our students return for the fall term.  Meanwhile, all summer long the showy flower beds have garnered all the attention.  However, as the photos in today’s post attest, there are nooks and crannies that may be ignored but can hold their own.


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Staring Down the Darkness

If you want to know what tranquility looks and feels and sounds like, then a good place to start is a ruined English abbey.  Set in remote corners in parklike settings, many of them ooze peace and quiet, and they are reminders of what life was like before the industrial revolution.

There aren’t many places in the first world where people can escape the grip of industrial noise.  But there are those few moments when technology loosens its grip and we are left to our own devices to cope.  Just such an experience happened to me last Friday.  That afternoon I had flown to Irvine, CA, and the next day I was scheduled to give a retreat conference to members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  As I sat down to dinner in the hotel cafe, it happened.  The lights flickered and for a moment civilization hung in the balance.  Then the Middle Ages returned.  There were no lights, no whirring machines, and no power to open the doors.  Then I and my fellow diners began to discover just how gently electrical power coddles us.  The elevator would not take me back to my room on the tenth floor.  There was no air-conditioning.  And those who dined after us were treated to cold cuts and snacks.

BC61C80E-BD07-4DF9-86C1-4A064247873AWhat surprised me was my reaction to the absence of light.  At 6 pm, when all of this started, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  At that point the sun still shone brightly, but its gradual setting stirred me into a panic.  I had reserved most of the evening for some work, but then it dawned on me that when the sun went down the work would have to stop.  There would only be the primordial darkness.

Like monks had done for hundreds of years, I went to bed when the sun set.  There was nothing else to do.  Then I remembered that I am an early riser, and I prayed that the power would return by 3 am.  It didn’t.

When I woke up at 3 am my worst workaholic fears came true.  There was no point in getting up.  Short of a miracle it would be pitch dark until the sun rose just before 6 am.  So for three hours I stayed in bed, eyes wide open, staring at the darkness, waiting for something to happen.

For most of monastic history — and human history for that matter — monks lived in sync with the cycle of the days and the changing of the seasons.  They got by partially because they never saw electricity coming, so they didn’t know what they were missing anyway.  But still they coped, and one way to thumb their noses at the darkness was to recite the psalms of the night office by memory.  For the most part, however, they simply adapted because they could not control their environment.  It controlled them.

02878F3F-DB79-4FCF-827B-BBB5E5363008Of course electricity changed all that.  Still, twelve hours without it made me wonder whether we even realize what we’ve lost.  For one night I had to measure my steps because in my own room I couldn’t see where I was going.  There was neither radio nor television to keep me entertained, no light for reading, and my iPad could offer no solace because it was running low on juice.  The dimly-lit lobby could have been a haven, but the thought of having to climb ten flights of stairs to get back up was a real disincentive.  So I was left to settle in with my thoughts for company and with senses that were suddenly alert to even the faintest of sounds.

What surprises me most is that I’m grateful for the experience.  I discovered that I could live without access to light at the flick of a switch.  I could get around without an elevator, and I could make do with my thoughts as my only companion.  Life was possible, even without an iPad or a cell phone.  Who would have thought?!  In retrospect it almost seems like a revelation straight from the Almighty.


+As the final weeks of summer rush on us, we’ve hosted a variety of groups at Saint John’s, and this week our featured guests were the members of the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  Every August they come for a one-week camp, and it’s always fun to listen as their music wafts across campus.  Also at Saint John’s this summer have been members of three seminars at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  Hosted in partnership with Dumbarton Oaks, the Byzantine research institute sponsored by Harvard University, we’ve marveled at scholars who would spend a chunk of their summer studying Armenian, Syriac and Coptic paleography.

+On 2 August I flew to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA.  Four hours after I landed an electrical fire in a transformer closed the airport and cut the power to the hotel where I happened to be staying.  I later heard that we were the lucky ones.  Our power was out for twelve hours.  Other neighbors lost it for two days.

+On 3 August I gave a conference at a retreat for Orange County members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  The event took place at Saint Thomas More Parish in Irvine.

+The photo at top is the view of sunset from my hotel window in Irvine CA, shortly before everything went dark.  The other photos in today’s post show the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, at the edge of York in the UK.


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