Archive for September, 2019


A Perfect End and a Great Beginning

As funerals go, George’s had more than its share of joy.  Of course his family and the crowd of friends that filled the church were sad to let him go.  He had touched the lives of many.  He had been involved in a full schedule of activities.  He had reached out to the sick and the infirm in his decades of service in the Order of Malta.  He had done so much;  and yet, if there was one regret, it was this.  George still seemed to be at the top of his game.

There were lots of wonderful stories exchanged that day, but one struck me especially.  On the day he passed George called his wife to say that he had just had the best day of his life.  Then, less than a minute after hanging up, he slipped into the arms of the Lord.  Totally unexpected was his leave-taking.

34B85D1E-F685-4B63-8717-0A0D0BD16DADIn the service of compline we pray for “a peaceful night and a perfect end.”  Not many say those words at the end of the day, but everyone should.  For one thing, who doesn’t want a restful night?  It’s why collectively we pay a fortune for beds and bedding.  It’s why we buy truckloads of pills and various sleeping aids to put to rest the anxiety or pain that can grip us at the end of a day.  And yet we sometimes forget that a key ingredient for a peaceful night is a day filled with purpose.

As for a “perfect end,” I’m not sure many want to think about that and fewer still pray about it.  It’s a topic best pushed to the margins of our imaginations.  And yet, as surely as the sun rises and sets, death comes to us all.

Rightly we all are anxious about death, but we as Christians strengthen ourselves with a bedrock conviction.  Death is not the end, because the Lord reaches out to us as we step into the greatest adventure of our lives.

Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries reminds his monks to “keep death daily before their eyes.”  That’s not an invitation to live in terror or paralysis.  Rather, it’s his unique way of reminding us that every day is a gift, and it’s a gift that we would be wise to make the most of.

Benedict also speaks of life as “something of a truce”.  In the expanse of eternity our few years are our chance to accomplish something creative and wonderful.  They are the interlude when we can be artists with all the talents and opportunities that God has given to each of us.

06EFDE6B-2260-4D57-B2DB-230D92B1780EI was struck by George’s last words.   Perhaps he saw the Lord coming for him, but the Lord’s appearance was no surprise.  George had already seen him many times in the faces of the poor and the sick.  And just maybe for one brief moment George appreciated the coincidence that the best day of his life also happened to be the day when the Lord took him by the hand and welcomed him into the new Jerusalem.  In that moment George had both a perfect end and also a terrific beginning.


On September 23rd I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.

+On 26 September I attended the board meeting of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA. I opened the meeting with a prayer and followed with a reflection on the importance of the virtue of respect for all people.

+On 27 September I concelebrated at the funeral of George Kiesel, which took place at the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in Burlingame, CA.  George and his wife Charlotte have been long-time members of the Order of Malta and also members in Obedience in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, of which I am a chaplain.

+I’ve always enjoyed the funerary monuments in medieval and Early Modern English churches, and in today’s post I’ve included several photos that I took at York Minster several years ago.


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Called to be Artists

Why in the world would Jesus propose an unreliable and dishonest servant as the hero of one of his parables?  Who really knows, but it’s exactly what Jesus did, according to the gospel of Luke, chapter 16.

According to the story a steward had “dissipated” the assets of his master, though it’s not explicit as to how.  Still, the suggestion is that he squandered rather than stole the funds, and it was enough to get him dismissed.  But in one last act of outrage he added insult to injury by doctoring the books.  He reduced the accounts of all those who were indebted to his master, hoping they might remember him when he landed on the streets.  Clearly this was not an act of affection, but rather a calculation that something good might come his way.

DD086A05-C9FB-4385-B3DF-25F99F84F05DWhat he did was blatantly dishonest.  But it was daring, and for that Jesus gave him credit.  But to add to the confusion, Jesus passed on the soft-ball opportunity to condemn stealing and instead praised the steward’s ingenuity in using ill-gotten gain.  Would that his own disciples might be equally resourceful in the service of God!

That’s the obvious moral to the story, but there’s something else that Jesus leaves to us to discover all by ourselves.  What does it take to wake up to what we’re doing with our lives?  Does it take a major illness?  Does it take a personal catastrophe or the loss of someone dear to us?  Does it take the wisdom that comes with age?  Or does it take a notice of termination, as was the case with the steward?

No matter when or if we each go through the shock of a personal Great Awakening, we all tend to waltz through long stretches of life on the assumption that there will be endless tomorrows.  It provides the excuse that the servant used to justify a wasted life, only to discover he didn’t have a lot of time to redirect it onto some thoughtful course.  As for us, we have the same opportunity, even if God doesn’t always send us ample notice on the termination of our pilgrimage.

5D44A3A1-DF0B-4A1B-BB18-98741A218320Recently a friend of mine sent a cartoon that showed a bewildered man standing at the gates of heaven.  Saint Peter reads from the ledger and then looks squarely at the recently-deceased.  “It seems you had a reasonably good life.  Unfortunately you missed most of it because you were staring into your cell phone.

That cell phone may be real or metaphorical, but the point is obvious.  To borrow from another medium, a painter has to work within the limits of a canvas, and so our lives too have limits marked by a beginning and an end.  They define our opportunity to do something singular with our lives, and they are part of the fine print in the contract God made with us at birth.  God then stands back to let us be the artist, and it’s the greatest commission we’ll ever have.  If we are imaginative and resourceful, and if we don’t put the work off until the last minute, our painting could very well become a work of art!


+On September 16th a van filled with 3,000 organ pipes arrived at Saint John’s after a ride from organ-builder Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  They were promptly unloaded and currently occupy one section of pews in the abbey church.  The church is a mess right now, but in a few months it will result in an organ that is twice the size of the current organ.

+On September 20-22 I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, at a retreat center in Mundelein, IL, located just outside of Chicago.

+This past week Abbot Jeremias Schroder from Germany visited us for several days.  He heads the Benedictine congregation of Saint Ottilian, which is a congregation of missionary Benedictine monasteries around the world.  Several of our Benedictine Volunteers currently work in some of those monasteries, and we’ve been fortunate to host monks from various of these abbeys studying at Saint John’s over the years.

+On September 22nd I attended a dinner and ceremony at which the president of Saint John’s Univeristy, Dr. Gene McAllister, conferred the Fr. Colman J. Barry Award on alumnus Ambassador Robert Shafer.  The award salutes unique contributions to religion and society, and Bob has certainly done that.  In addition to a long career at Pfizer Corporation, he has been a long-time member of the Order of Malta, and for many years served as the Order’s permanent observer at the United Nations.  He’s also served on the boards of Saint John’s University and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.

+I neglected in the previous post to note that we have welcomed two brothers into our community.  Brother Felix was clothed as a novice on September 11th, and Brother David  was welcomed for a probationary year.  He had already completed his novitiate and years in formation before taking a leave of absence to consider his vocation.  We are delighted to have him back with us, along with Brother Felix.

+The first photo in today’s post shows some of the 3,000 new pipes for the organ.  They will be fitted into the two spaces that flank the big red screen in the abbey church.  To get there they must go through one of two openings into the organ loft, shown in the third photo.  The event at which we honored Ambassador Shafer (below) began with a musical performance by students from Saint John’s University.


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Don’t Be the Fattened Calf

Picture for a moment someone who has spent a lifetime building a small fortune.  He’s labored day in and day out.  He’s been responsible with his property and considerate of the people who had worked for him.  He’s planned and built not only for his own future but also for that of his children and grandchildren.

Then one day, out of the blue,  his youngest son comes along and asks for his share of everything.  Why? is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps he’s bored.  Perhaps he’s restless.  Perhaps he’s tired of life in the shadow of his father.  Anyway, his request is brazen, to say the least, and something tells me that the son never for a minute thought his father would really give it to him.  But he did;  and that set in motion the story of the prodigal son.

I have to wonder if the father was just a little bit nuts.  Had he taken leave of his senses?  Who knows.  But whatever the case, the son knew that he had just hit the jackpot.  What he didn’t know, however, was this.  He was just about to glimpse the wisdom of the old saw that warns us to be careful what we wish for.  It’s nice to get what we want;  but every now and again it turns out to be a very mixed blessing.

69DBE606-1CC5-4E66-A609-34A50DB9F669This great story from Jesus goes on to detail the adventures of a son who was about to learn an awful lot.  He now had more money than God, or so he thought.  He must have thought it would last forever, so there was nothing to do but enjoy.  But little by little he frittered it all away.  Soon enough it had all slipped through his fingers, and then he came face to face with reality.  He had no money;  nothing to eat;  and no one who cared enough to stand by him in time of trial.  Worse still, he had none of the discipline that had driven his father to succeed.  His father had made everything look easy;  and for the first time in his life the son may have realized just how great a man his father really was.

As I reflected on this parable and tried to read between the lines, it finally hit me that the father was neither naive nor unwise.  In fact, he knew his son and likely had seen this day coming for a long time.  After all, someone who had been such a careful planner and disciplined worker could not be blind to the faults in his two sons.  He knew what made them tick. He knew most of their strengths and weaknesses.  And he knew that his younger son still had a lot of growing up to do.  But the father couldn’t make his son grow up.  The son needed a semester or two in the school of hard knocks to learn it for himself.

The key ingredient to the success of this story is love.  If the father had loved his money more than his son, he might have turned his son down flat. But he saw potential in his son, and letting his son grow up was worth more than a bank vault full of gold.  So he literally invested in his son and turned him loose.  Then he kept his distance and from the sidelines he let his son make his fill of mistakes.  And finally the day came when his son came to his senses and came home.  It was the moment for which the father had waited for months or years.  He had his son back — with value added.

ED32442B-975F-4DA3-8211-7364DB345517There’s a host of intriguing characters in the parable of the prodigal son.  There’s almost too much to digest when you add in the father, the prodigal son, the jealous older brother, stewards and workers, and the chorus line of men and women who graciously relieved the younger son of all his money.  Over the years I’ve preached on many of the themes that they have suggested, and so I asked my confrere Fr. Lew who I should concentrate on in this sermon.  Should it be the father?  Or one of the two sons, as I’ve done in the past?  His reply?  “The fatted calf.  Nobody ever preaches about the fatted calf.”

I mulled that over for about a minute, and I realized he might be on to something.  That fatted calf was the truly tragic figure in the parable.  Worse still, he never had the self-awareness to see it coming.  But I finally ditched that topic and I’ll save it for next year.

As for the main characters in the story, each has a lesson to impart.  The older brother, hard-working and obedient, was also jealous and insecure in his father’s love.  Life for the older brother was really all about himself, and that’s no way to live.

As for the prodigal son, he learned some of life’s lessons the hard way.  We have to hope that he realized the importance of love over money.  Love transcends and transforms all — even the life of someone who knows he’s hit rock bottom.

7DEE7C17-BE94-43C9-BE07-586F57C0A883The biggest take-away for me is the extraordinary character of the father.  For him money wasn’t an end in itself, and he used it well.  Some may think he was blind to the failings of his son.  Others may think that perhaps he hoped to buy his son’s love by giving him everything he wanted.  But the father was way too shrewd to be taken in by his son’s façade.  He knew his son well, and he knew he’d be back — a changed man.

Two things I leave you with today.  God is our loving and seemingly too generous father.  God gave us life, and God let’s us live our lives freely, sins and all.  But God always waits for the day when it’s time for us to come home.  And God’s there to welcome us as a loving father.

Sooner or later all of us will step into the shoes of each of these characters in this parable.  We will all be the older brother, and let us pray for the insight to see how envy and jealousy can corrode all the good that is in us.  At times we’ll all be the prodigal son, and let us pray for the wisdom to realize that forgiveness is always there for the asking.  It’s forgiveness from God and from the neighbor we’ve sinned against.  It’s there for the taking, but we have to ask.  And sooner or later we’ll be called to be the loving parent who has to take a chance on a friend or neighbor.  Sometimes taking a chance on another person is a big risk.  But if we risk nothing, we get nothing.

And lastly, there’s this business of the fatted calf.  Don’t be the fatted calf.  There’s no future in being someone else’s lunch.  Instead, be self-aware.  Look ahead to see what’s coming down the road for you.  And above all, like the father of the prodigal son, live your life to the fullest.



+I’m happy to report that I did not get into my car a single time this week.  All the same, it got off to a busy start on Monday September 9th.  That day was the annual retreat for my department at Saint John’s University — the Office of Institutional Advancement.  I was responsible for the first hour of the retreat, and I enjoyed my presentation.  That said, I cannot speak for my colleagues.

+On September 10th the monks gathered in the wing of the Quadrangle that now houses most of the public offices of the Abbey.  It is space reclaimed from the student health center, which moved last year to another building on campus.  For the first time it provides us some meeting space for guests, as well as a delightful set of conference spaces.

+On Saturday September 14th, the feast of the Holy Cross, we had our monthly day of reflection in the monastery.  Joining us for part of the day were nine students from Saint John’s University, who had scheduled a “work and prayer” day in the monastery.  For work they joined some of the monks in digging potatoes in the garden.

F01C6458-1DC8-40E2-8D1D-B20AAC9527CF+On Sunday the 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon that I delivered.  It is based on Luke 15.  Later that evening I joined the students from Immokalee, FL, who are studying at Saint John’s University.  This year we have five freshmen, bringing the total number of students from Immokalee to eleven.

+The photos in today’s post are a mixture that I took on Sunday evening as I wandered about campus.  I stumbled on one of the choirs lined up in preparation for taking a group photo, and they looked elegant as they stood around waiting.  The third photo shows two students who work with the emergency medical team of The Saint John’s Fire Department.  They were parked in front of the church following a call they had just made.  The door to the University dining hall is flanked by two beds of stones, and students have a tradition of piling them up artistically.  In their own way I find them quite artistic, as the two final shots suggest.  Above them is a photo of nine of the students from Immokalee, FL, with whom I had dinner.


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Does Jesus Really Ask Us to Hate?

What kind of fanatic would demand that his followers hate father and mother, brother and sister?  What leader would command disciples to leave all and risk life and limb just to be in his service?  What sort of egomaniac would demand that he be the pivotal figure in the lives of everyone?  Jesus is that person.

Of course it was this same Jesus who submitted to the will of his parents in Nazareth.  It was he who stepped into the limelight at Cana when his mother pushed him into it.  And he’s also the guy who washed the feet of his disciples, as if he were some sort of common slave.

Jesus at times could be a real enigma, and my heart goes out to the disciples when they had to pull him aside to explain himself.  What did he really want out of them?  It was a fair question, because on more than one occasion the signals from Jesus were mixed.  It’s why we still ask those questions today.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s puzzled over what Jesus meant about hating parents and relatives.  Does he really demand all that?  If so, I stand convicted of egregious sin.  I do love my family.  I’m also fond of my confreres in the monastery and of my friends and colleagues outside of it.  As for strangers, however, I find them a lot tougher to love.

7E948BE1-70EE-45D6-B119-9E2C638D61DCContext for all this is to be found in the two great commandments, which Jesus affirmed publicly on more than one occasion.  All the same, his insistence did not make love of God and neighbor any easier then or now.  It was tough in the time of Jesus, and  still a big stretch today.  I’m not the first to point out that it’s far easier to love family or village or tribe.  But when it comes to the stranger and the orphan and the homeless, that’s a different story.  No wonder that Jesus has to shake us up with language that rattles our complacency.

The last verses in Luke 14 offer one further bit of insight into what Jesus expects.  There he cites a king who is about to go to war and a group intent on building a tower.  If they rush in headlong and unprepared they risk serious failure.  If other projects distract them along the way, success can slip through their fingers.  In both  cases the recipe for success includes self-awareness, concentration and a commitment to see things through to the end.  Anything short of that might lead to failure, if not ridicule.

The truth of the matter is that it’s natural to love father and mother, brother and sister.  Far more difficult is it to extend ourselves in love to the stranger, the orphan, the poor and the suffering.  And yet are they not also people created in the image of God?  Are they not worthy of love from somebody?  And on any given day could that somebody be me?  Jesus would argue “yes!”  That’s why we have to be deliberate about it, day in and day out.


+On September 2nd we monks celebrated Labor Day with a cookout in the back garden of the monastery.  Despite plenty of rain this summer, we had fairly good luck with cookouts.  Few got washed out, and I credit Prior Brad for his steely determination to go through with them despite the occasional threat of rain.  It paid off this year, and all were delightful occasions.

+The highlight of my week was a lunch in St. Paul that I had with one of my colleagues and Mr. Larry McGough.  The occasion was Larry’s 90th birthday, which he celebrated a few days earlier.  We at Saint John’s have had a long relationship with Larry and McGough Construction, since it was his family firm that built the abbey church.  At the time it was the firm’s first truly monumental project, and the success of that undertaking was a turning point in the development and growth of the company.  Larry estimates that he has now given well over 200 talks on the building of the abbey church, and audiences have included other architectural and construction firms as well as people simply fascinated by the abbey church.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Luke 14:  25-33.  It was the gospel for Sunday September 8th.

+For those who think that medieval art was exclusively about pious subjects, I include the four pieces of stained glass in today’s post.  All are from a 15th century church and are now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  Medieval illuminators, fresco painters and glass makers delighted in depicting the months, the seasons and the signs of the zodiac, and they appear in surprising numbers.  At top is July, followed by August, September, and October at bottom.


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John the Baptist:  Eloquent to the Last Word

John the Baptist’s last hours are grist for one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible.  Here you have a man who once preached in a literal desert, but in his final days he sat in the middle of a moral desert.  From his prison cell he pondered what God might ask of him next.  Meanwhile revelers in a banquet hall treated John as some sort of a side-show, and his head on a platter became the ultimate in party favors.

There’s an irony that redeems this story, and it’s this.  John may have been absent from the banquet hall physically, but he was very much on the minds of many in that room.  And if they thought they were about to have the last word, they were mistaken.  They were powerful and ruthless people, but from the platter John preached to them — and to us — for one last time.

89F454E5-887E-46CA-81A3-2579ED274E1EDespite appearances John did not end up as some sort of hunting trophy.  His death in fact convicted everyone in that room, and in death John spoke even more eloquently than he had in life.

You and I — I hope — are certainly not the sort of people who would have somebody beheaded for our entertainment.  All the same, however, we do share temptations similar to what Herod and his guests experienced.  We do hold grudges, as did Herodias. We do care about saving face, as did Herod.  We do take lightly or even celebrate the misfortunes of others, as did Herod’s guests.

To Herod’s guests John appeared to be very dead and his life erased.  But all the same John’s last hours were not devoid of meaning or purpose.  In fact, on that evening he was the most eloquent person in the room.  Ironically, John had the last word, and he’s had it for twenty centuries and running.

Life has its tawdry moments, as Herod’s banquet hall suggests.  But in spite of it all our lives can have profoundly beautiful meaning, as did John’s.  So today we celebrate John’s passing in ways that are very different from those of the revelers in Herod’s palace.  Then in the spirit of John let us pray that his words will take root in our hearts.  May we prepare a way for the Lord, and like John may we too find welcome in the arms of the Lord.


+On 29 August I presided at the abbey Mass, which happened to be the feast of the Passing of Saint John the Baptist.  Today’s post, based on Mark 6:17-29, is the sermon that I delivered that day.

+From August 27 through 30 Saint John’s Abbey welcomed twenty-four pilgrims, most of whom were visiting Saint John’s for the first time.  On the evening of the 29th I and several of the monks hosted them for dinner in the Great Hall, at the end of which our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann played several selections on the piano.  Among the guests was a long-time friend of mine, Lin, who came from Ann Arbor, MI.  Fr. Geoffrey had planned this pilgrimage, the first of what we hope will be a series of such events.

+On August 30th one of my very first students at Saint John’s flew in from Luxembourg and stayed overnight with his family in the guesthouse.  John, his wife and two children live in Luxembourg, where their children have enjoyed a polyglot childhood that includes English, Mandarin, Luxembourgish, German and French.

+We were delighted to learn that Saint John’s University alumnus Fr. Anthony Yao was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of Jining in Inner Mongolia last week.  Along with Bishop Martin Wu, Bishop Anthony is now the second alumnus of our School of Theology/Seminary who now serve as bishops in China.

+In the Middle Ages John the Baptist was popular as a subject of religious art, and the images in today’s post suggest the different approaches that artists took.  All are now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The topmost originally was the frontal of an altar in Gésara, and dates from the 13th century.  Second is the baptism of Jesus, by Jaume Serra, c. 1390.  The portrait of Herod’s banquet is by Pere Garcia de Benavarri, ca. 1470.  At bottom in a panel from a retable made in ca. 1385, with John the Baptist at the left.


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