Archive for October, 2019


The Discipline of Self-Awareness

Every now and again I have the feeling that Jesus must have lost patience with some of his audience, and that shows in a hint of sarcasm about those who purport to know most everything and are experts in all things save self-understanding.

In the passage which we’ve just read from the gospel of Saint Luke Jesus opens with the implication that we sometimes think we possess all the wisdom of the earth.  We know the weather, we can interpret enigmatic signs, and by implication we seem to know what’s best for other people.

DA5E931D-FBA8-4071-9648-5E1253BB3221Given all that abundance of knowledge about everything else, however, we can be surprisingly ill-informed about ourselves.  And the image of the plaintiff going to court is a good one that Jesus uses to make his point.  The plaintiff must have thought he had an air-tight case.  But he was done in by a critical lack of self-awareness.  So he naively but confidently approached the judge, assuming that victory would be his.  By the time it was all over, however, the process had chewed him up and spit him out.  Even a dollop of self-awareness could have saved him a lot of trouble, and it might have suggested that compromise sometimes is the better option, as opposed to risking and losing everything.

In today’s gospel Jesus invites us to to search for the self-awareness that in practice can change the course of our lives.  So important is Jesus’ advice that we even incorporate into the liturgy opportunities to own up to the need for self-awareness.  In the penitential rite that begins the Eucharist we confess our faults, and in the sacrament of reconciliation we confess yet again our sins.  Later this afternoon at our service of reconciliation we will all have the opportunity to confess our sins in conversation with another person — a confessor.  But the important point of all of this is that we approach the altar of the Lord to confess our sins.  So if by chance this afternoon you are coming to confess somebody else’s sins, please don’t.  Much better would be your chances for success if you went to some judge somewhere.


+Today’s post is a sermon on Luke 12: 54-59 that I delivered on Friday October 25th.  The occasion was a liturgy for members of the Order of Malta, who had gathered at San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, CA.  While I did not expect that this sermon would be remembered by the participants, little did I know that it would be eclipsed so quickly by events of the weekend.

Danville is not all that far from the fires that scorched Sonoma County this weekend, and the smoke from those fires drifted our way.  On top of that, the threat of high winds meant that the electric company had to turn off the power for nearly a million people, ourselves included.  So on Saturday evening the power went out, and it was scheduled to remain so until later today, Monday.

The impact was felt by all of us who woke up early on Sunday.  I woke up at 3:00 am, and there was absolutely nothing to do to occupy myself until the sun came up at 7:30.  No reading, no writing, no nothing.  And so for the next four hours I simply enjoyed the darkness and tried to fall back to sleep.  Mass later that morning was in a fairly dark chapel.  A bank of candles and a flashlight pierced the darkness, but it was much like it must have been in the 19th century.  Actually, it was a fascinating experiment on survival without power.

+On my recent visit to Frankfurt I was surprised by the reminders of the medieval city that are sprinkled through the old quarter of the city.  Most of the medieval city was flattened by the bombing of WW II, but the decision to rebuild just a portion of the old city gives a reminder of how interesting it must have been.


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Let the Lord Be Our Staff

Exodus 17 makes for great drama.  As long as Moses could hold his arms and staff aloft, the armies of Israel would win the field against the Amalekites.  But when Moses tired and let his arms fall to his side, they lost.  In a moment of desperation, however, his aides came up with a brilliant solution.  They propped up his arms, and by the end of the day the Israelites had mowed down their enemies.

This is a story that has the things that some love and others loath about religion.  First, this was a reciprocal deal between God and the people of Israel.  As long as they kept up their end of the bargain, then God had to respond in kind.  Even better, there were few follow-up expectations.  The demands on each party were explicit and to the point.  Absent was any of that fuzzy language about a change of heart that should follow years down the road.  When the battle was over all else was over, and both God and the Israelites presumably went back to their respective businesses.  There would be no need to be in touch until the next crisis came along.

FEAE839A-0801-4966-BA3B-E0EC83721FCAFor a long time I wondered what to make of this story.  The quid pro quo between God and the Israelites seemed to border on the absurd.  And while it got the job done, it left the Israelites totally unchanged by the experience.  Was this relationship between God and the people of Israel “strictly business?”  Finally a common-sense approach dawned on me.  An apparently cold-blooded deal to eliminate mutual enemies was not what this was really about.  There is something deeper here — which is usually the case when it comes to dealing with God.

First it’s important to realize what this passage is not about.  Having somebody hold a staff above a battlefield doesn’t count as some huge military discovery.  It may have worked once, but I can’t recall a single other instance when an Israelite army relied on that bit of strategy.  Holding a stick in the air is no substitute for old-fashioned military preparedness.

More positively, there’s something I glean from an allegorical reading of this passage.  A raised standard won’t win many battles, because it’s no magic wand.  On the other hand a standard raised as a point of reference in our lives can change everything.  To be more precise, choosing God to be our focal point alters our view of the world.  From that reliance flows a life that has direction and purpose.  This has nothing to do with magic and everything to do with a relationship that transforms us.

1ACA10D8-3F55-47ED-B4D5-9410D6793322Finally, while it was wonderfully practical that Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses, there was terrific symbolic value here as well.  Save for the Israelites, God hasn’t done deals with tribal or ethnic or even national groups in thousands of years.  Instead God calls us as individuals, each by name.  And then God seeks a place in our hearts and walks with us.

But God also reminds us that it’s not all about us as individuals.  God may have chosen Moses as a leader, but Moses was not the be-all and end-all of the story.  And if that applies to Moses, it applies to us too.  In the monastery we rely on the help of many brothers.  Others rely on spouses and family members and friends.  We even rely on the prophets in our midst who occasionally have to remind us that we’re not always right.

So it is that we who raise the Lord Jesus Christ as our staff make him the guide for our pilgrimage.  With him the journey goes more clearly, even when God leads us to destinations we’d not quite imagined.



+On October 18th friends of the Pottery at Saint John’s gathered to witness the firing of the Sister Johanna Becker Kiln.  It had been packed with ca. 10,000 pieces of pottery, and logs split and stockpiled for the last two years will feed the flames for ten days.  At the end of the firing the kiln will cool, and eventually the doors will open to reveal what treasures the firing has created.

+On October 19th a group of monks joined 20,000 other people for a football game between Saint John’s University and the University of Saint Thomas, held at Allianz Field in St. Paul.  Saint John’s won the game 38-20.  That outcome was just as well since nearly two-thirds of the viewers wore the Saint John’s red.  If you can’t please everybody, then it’s nice to please the majority once in a while.

+On October 17th I returned from a short tour to Germany.  In addition to the sites we visited I got to make a foray to Worms, which is a city I had hoped to visit since student days.  Site of the medieval imperial parliaments — called the Diet — the most famous of them took place when the Agustinian friar Martin Luther confronted the Emperor Charles V.  Held in the year 1521, that particular event has earned the moniker The Diet of Worms.  Heavily damaged in World War II, the cathedral has some wonderful pieces of modern stained glass, which I have included in today’s post.


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We are Called to Be Artists

Last week I visited Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha to give an encore of a talk I’d given there years earlier.  In 2006 the museum had hosted a major exhibit of folios from The Saint John’s Bible, and by any measure the attendance of 70,000 people made it a success.  And while I would not dare to attribute any of its success to the lecture I gave during its opening, at least I didn’t scare that many people away.

Last week I spoke once again to the Friends and docents of the museum, and I enjoyed being back.  As in 2006 the exhibit of folios is well-staged, but it is quite different from its earlier incarnation.  In 2006 we had folios from the first three volumes of The Saint John’s Bible.  This time around the project is complete, and the current exhibit includes folios from all seven volumes.  That in itself is quite an achievement because — as I reminded the audience — the only thing better than perfect is done.

17280824-BDB1-4F35-AB62-E1A5E9ADE994It was nice to have the opportunity to reflect on the project in its entirety.  For one thing, I noted, the project didn’t turn out quite the way our scribe Donald Jackson had promised nor had we imagined.  To be specific, it took a lot longer to make.  We thought it would take a mere seven years.  In retrospect that timeline now seems ridiculous.  Notably, it took almost two years of planning before Jackson put quill to parchment for the first time.  All kinds of other issues cropped up along the way, and in the course of time seven became fourteen years, and that translated into a budget that more than doubled.

At the beginning of the project Donald Jackson promised to give us exactly what we asked for and more than we ever imagined.  We certainly never anticipated some of the snafus and other grief-producing moments, but not for a moment do I believe this was the kind of experience that Mr. Jackson had in mind when he made those promises.  To cast it in the most favorable language, it turned out to be a genuine learning experience for all involved.  But out of that experience came something truly wonderful.

9ED52866-F447-44A0-BB9C-F3F177EBA314If there’s one unanticipated challenge that I would single out for special attention, it’s the one I touched on in my talk last week.  When Donald Jackson delivered the second volume I expected it to be nice, just as the first volume had been.  But it wasn’t.  Volume II was nicer.  Then each successive volume proved to be even nicer.  Jackson too noticed the progression; and when he proposed doing the first volume all over again we replied with a resounding “NO!”  By then, however, it was not just a matter of done being better than perfect.  It was a matter of artistic growth and insight.  His understanding of the Bible had deepened in the course of the project, and the illuminations reflected that.  Had we let him start at the beginning again there certainly would have been greater nuance in his work, but at what cost?  Better to be done and perfect in this particular case.

I didn’t dwell on that issue in Omaha last week, nor did I tease out one parallel observation that struck me in the course of this project.  Not often enough do we stand back and reflect on the course of our lives.  Not often enough do we appreciate our personal growth or whatever achievements we’ve racked up in the course of the years.  Still, we’ve been allowed to be artists with the materials God has given us, and God gives us the time and opportunity to be creative with our lives.  We can only hope and try to make the most of the chances we have.  For all of us, however, the day will come when we’ll be able to say that the only thing better than perfect is done.  That’s the day when we stand before the Lord and he welcomes us into his kingdom.


+On October 7th I spoke to the Friends and docents of Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  The address was part of the opening activities of the museum’s new exhibit:  Word and Image:  The Saint John’s Bible.

+On October 12th we had our first snow of the season at Saint John’s.  It was nothing big; but nevertheless it was a jolt, considering that most of the leaves are still on the trees and have yet to change color.  We may have missed autumn entirely.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from The Saint John’s Bible gallery in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s University.


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Saints Francis and Benedict

I found Pope Benedict’s reflection on Saint Francis that we heard at morning prayer to be a real spark for my imagination.  As he pointed out, Francis has transcended the centuries, and he’s done so because all sorts of people have found different reasons to like him.  Francis truly was and is a man for all seasons, a man for all times, and a man for all sorts of people.  And in that light I want to comment on Saints Francis and Benedict.

Most every Benedictine monk knows that Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Benedict began his monastic journey.  There on one of the walls is a fresco of Francis as a memento of that visit.  Clearly Saint Benedict must have meant a lot to Francis, and perhaps he saw something of himself in Benedict.  And if at first blush they seem to have little in common, I think we’d miss an element that is key to the story of each.  Both of them fled social environments that they found toxic.  For his part Francis fled the bourgeois wealth of his family, and Benedict fled the wealth of Rome.

E45B1A7C-8B38-4DA5-A825-FCC20E425617All too often we’ve assumed that Benedict sought escape from the dissipated student life of the city.  In fact it may have been more likely that he fled the wealthy ways of the Church in Rome.  So I’m not sure what Benedict expected to find when he got to Rome, but it may have been the wealth and growing power of the Church that sent him packing.  The churches that he entered looked every bit like the basilicas in which the emperors had presided, and where the emperors had once sat the leading clergy sat instead.  And manuscript historian Christopher de Hamel notes that illuminations of the day show the apostles and bishops clean-shaven and dressed every bit like members of the Roman senatorial class.  And so it’s entirely possible that the wealth of the Church sent Benedict into the wilderness, just as it did the Egyptian ascetics in the 4th century.

What might we conclude about Benedict and Francis?  For one, they were not Manichaean dualists.  For them neither wealth nor creation were intrinsically evil.  On the other hand they each had seen how wealth and power could transform even the best of people.   Neither wanted to be in the number of the latter.

And so, on the feast of Saint Francis may we celebrate with joy all of God’s creation, as Francis did.  And then let us remember that God has put us here not to be transformed by the good things of the earth.  Rather, let us transform all those good things and put them into the service of the Lord.


+On September 30th through October 2nd I hosted four supporters of the Immokalee Scholarship Program at Saint John’s University.  While at Saint John’s I got to spend some wonderful moments with John, Jack, Sandy and Bill, and certainly the highlight of the visit was the evening when we join nine of our students from Immokalee for dinner.

+On October 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the text of the homily that I preached that day.  In the monastery we began the day with a morning prayer reading in which Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the appreciation for Saint Francis through the centuries.

+On October 5th I flew to Omaha, NE, and the next day I gave a tour of an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible, now at the Joslyn Art Museum for the next few weeks.  On Monday the 7th I will give a lecture to Friends of the Museum.

+Readers may find it a surprise to learn that Saint Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began life as a hermit.  The fresco of Saint Francis was painted shortly after his visit, and the absence of a halo indicates that he was still very much alive at the time of the painting.  That fresco is included in today’s post, along with other photos of the abbey of Subiaco.


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