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Archive for May, 2020

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Time Out of Joint

The picture that chapter one in the Acts of the Apostles provides is curious.  Gathered behind closed doors in an upper room in Jerusalem was an eclectic group of people.  Their leader and inspiration, Jesus, had just disappeared into the heavens.  He had warned them, yet they weren’t entirely ready for it.  He had also promised not to leave them orphans, but they must have felt very much like orphans that day.  And as people tend to do when they feel desperately at sea and puzzled about what comes next, they prayed.

Among the curiosities tucked into this narrative is the roster of those in the room.  Eleven of the twelve whom Jesus had chosen were there.  By any measure these were simple yet sturdy men.  But each was also flawed.  They may not have betrayed Jesus as had the twelfth disciple, but they had wavered in their loyalty to Jesus, and most of them had run away when the chips were down.

3575E362-B0B2-44CA-9290-FBF598DB5665With them were a few women, and their presence suggested that this might be a band of refugees rather than the core leadership in a religious movement.  Finally, almost as an afterthought, standing with them was the mother of Jesus.  With no visible means of support, she too likely wondered what would become of her.

In sum, Jesus had left behind a small and rather unpromising lot.  Yet, these were the people he expected to take his message to the ends of the earth.  Had he been wildly unrealistic in his hopes?  Couldn’t he have chosen better people?

The fact is, Jesus had been long on ideas but short on specifics;  and there was not a hint of the bits and pieces that we’ve come to take for granted as his legacy to us.  There was as yet not one word of the New Testament, save what existed in the memories of those present.  There was no blueprint on which to build what would be a Church.  Perhaps the most glaring absence was the one man who would make the critical difference in all of this.  Soon enough the voice of Jesus would knock off his horse a man named Saul.  For now, however, Saul was just one of many threats on the other side of the closed door.  Soon enough Saul would delight in harassing these people;  but in time, as Paul, he would become the most ambitious in the cause of Christ.  For now, though, that thought would have seemed ludicrous to those gathered in that room.

31AF8616-FE53-4D0F-A584-3B6987F34596Eventually the disciples of Jesus opened that door and stepped out to meet the world.  The Acts of the Apostles detail their journieys in service to the Lord, and from that narrative we glean a few grains that might be of comfort to us.  First, these were very ordinary people.  Jesus could have chosen the wisest or the richest or the most sophisticated people to be his messengers, but he didn’t.  Perhaps because they had little baggage nor personal empires to defend they were willing to take a chance on Jesus.  Other people might have melted into the woodwork after the crucifixion, but these people chose to face their demons.  Instead of retreating to their homes in Galilee, they returned to Jerusalem.  There they would cast their lot and seal their fate with Jesus.  Whatever else they might be, they demonstrated that they were not quitters.

In a few days we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and to us.  For now, however, we celebrate the calling of some very ordinary people who ended up doing extraordinary things.  In the process they discovered that the Lord had indeed not left them orphans, and that with God it was possible to do what they had never imagined.

All of us face watershed moments in our lives, and during those moments we agonize over what might become of us.  Who are we?  What ought we be doing with the time and talents that we have at our disposal?  Are we destined to nothing of importance, or might it be that the Lord Jesus calls us to do something wonderful, just as he did the disciples?

DD39766A-0551-47B6-8146-9A4CD3EA7415Such moments of testing occur at predictable and sometimes very inconvenient times.  Such is the case with the current stretch, which a friend of mine termed “a time out of joint.”  Whether we had big plans or no plans for the last few weeks, we all agree that we certainly did not budget time for hiding behind doors.  What good would that do us or anyone else?  Yet, if this has merely been an inconvenience at best or a nightmare at worst, we may have missed one of the watershed moments in our lives.  This could be our time when we stand with the disciples in the upper room;  when we walk with Jesus for forty days in the desert;  or when we, like Saint Paul, have to clear the calendar and live as if we were blind until the Lord opens our eyes.

In short, like the disciples we are pretty ordinary people.  But also like the disciples, the Lord calls us to do some pretty extraordinary things.  What a shame it would be to squander these days that the Lord has made.  What a shame it would be to stay behind the locked doors, paralyzed by our demons and afraid to take up the yoke of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphans, and he didn’t.  He then walked with them to the ends of the earth.  As the Lord did for his disciples, so in these days and weeks and months Jesus renews his promise, and this time he makes it to us.

For our part we can treat this “time out of joint” as a horrible inconvenience or as a welcome wake-up call.  Should we see it as the latter and answer “yes” to the Lord Jesus, then for us too the Lord will do great things.  He will transform each and every one of us.  He will leave us alone to continue as very ordinary people.  But he will also transform us into ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

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NOTES

+On May 24th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and the post today is the sermon I delivered.  However, there was a twist that I had not anticipated.  As Fr. Nick read from Acts 1: 1-11, like a bolt of lightning I realized I had prepared a sermon for Acts 1: 12-14.  Every preacher fears that day.  Horrified, I had no choice but to improvise.  On the spot I came up with a new introduction, which I grafted on to the text I was set to deliver.  No one seemed to notice the difference, or else no one seemed to care.  To the Holy Spirit I give thanks for this minor feat of dexterity.

+Once again the campus was quiet this week, and for the 9th week running I did not set foot off of the Abbey and University grounds. However, we were all rewarded with a stunning display of flowering crabapples and lilacs.  I was especially delighted by the blossoms on two trees I had planted many years ago.  The photo at top shows them reaching above the fourth-floor roofline of Emmaus Hall.

+For the last few days the elevator that serves the main residential floors of the monastery has been capricious, at best.  Consistently it stops at only the basement and fourth floor, which has been great for me and my confreres who live on the fourth.  We have enjoyed an express trip to the refectory on the basement level, but it was not so nice for those living in between.  Unfortunately none of us monks know how to fix a cranky elevator, and no elevator repair people want to make house calls on Memorial Day weekend.

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Saints:  Too Many or Not Enough?

For those not in the know or who never gave it a thought, there are too many great saints to squeeze into 365 days.  To give everyone a turn, some have been rotated out of the liturgical calendar after a few centuries.  Still others have been doubled, tripled or even quadrupled up.  The latter is a nice gesture, but if I were a saint I would object to this practice.  I’d hate to share a day with some other saint, for one simple reason.  It would smack of pride to go toe to toe with someone else in a saintly popularity contest.

All the same, when two good saints fall on the same day, one or the other is going to come out a winner.  May 15th is a case in point.  It is the feast of Isidore the Farmer, a saintly laborer who lived in the area of Madrid and who died around 1130.  I have an affection for him because a drawing of him has hung for decades in a shed beside the abbey vegetable garden.  I have also visited his shrine in Madrid, where he is a local patron.  Since we all rely on farmers for survival, Isidore is a person worth recalling.

A918725A-2077-41C7-8B6E-B96CA395555AAs far as I know, Isidore is the only farmer in the liturgical calendar, and for this rather practical reason he may deserve to overshadow the monk Pachomius, with whom he shares May 15th.  Pachomius was born in Egypt and became an abbot who helped to shape the communal life that Saint Benedict outlines in his Rule.  He died in 348, but his relevance endures, and not just because he was a monk.  Today the Coptic Church celebrates his feast on May 9th, while the Orthodox and Catholic Churches remember him on May 15th.  In an era of local, political, religious and all sorts of other divisions, it is refreshing to run across somebody who can reach across ecclesial boundaries.  That ecumenical dimension alone should qualify Pachomius for sainthood.

However, there is another bit in his life that speaks to Christians throughout the centuries.  Pachomius grew up pagan, and as a young man he was conscripted into the Roman army.  Incentives offered to draftees back then were not as generous as today, which explains the practice of locking up new recruits every night, lest they run away.  While in lock-down in Thebes Pachomius was surprised by some of the locals who brought food and encouragement each day.  Puzzled, Pachomius asked a fellow soldier who these people might be.  “They are Christians,” was the response.  “They do this on account of their god.”  Astounded by their generosity to total strangers, Pachomius resolved to look into Christianity further.  Eventually he asked for baptism, and the rest of his story is history.

D0D5539F-EF63-4A58-A40F-EF7B212325D5For years I have savored this story, and eventually I paired it with a comment made by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.  Asked to explain the importance of charity in the Christian tradition, his answer was clear and succinct.  “We help others, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.“

Jesus said that “what we do for the least of people we do for him.”  Three hundred years later Pachomius experienced those words in the deeds of the Christians of Thebes.  Centuries later they still ring true in the words of Cardinal Bevilacqua.

It is true that the experience of Christian charity can be so astounding that people will choose to follow Jesus Christ.  But in the 4th century and now in the 21st century that’s still not the primary reason to help others.  We help others not to make them Christian.  Instead, we help others so that we might make ourselves Christian.  It’s what Christians do.

98B990E8-4E59-43DD-B0FE-F241511CEE00NOTES

+On May 11th my mother was buried next to my father in a simple service in Oklahoma City.  In attendance was the pastor of our parish as well as my brothers and sisters.  Because of the challenge of travel these days I was unable to attend.  Our family will schedule a memorial service for her sometime in the summer.

+On May 11th I taught a class in monastic history to Novice Felix.  Quite by accident I had planned to speak that day on the abbey of Cluny, whose influence reached across Europe in the 10th-12th centuries.  By coincidence that was the feast day of five of my favorite medieval saints — Odo, Odilo, Maiulus, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — the five great abbots of Cluny.

+I had no meetings or events on the schedule for last week, but I did continue with my turn at some household chores.  That included cleaning the choir stalls with my confrere Fr. Nathaniel after prayer on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.  I was also the reader at morning prayer during the entire work.

+Spring continues to bud out, as the photos in this post suggest.  I took the photos in and around the Quadrangle.

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A Time for Course Correction?

I was amused the other day when a good friend told me that he goes to the office every day in suit and tie.  I found it humorous mainly because his office is no longer in downtown Minneapolis.  Rather, it’s two doors down from the kitchen in his home.  It’s a really short commute, and in the course of a day it’s usually only his wife who sees him.  All the same, he dresses on the theory that you never know who might come calling — or whether there might be a roll call on who is wearing shoes during a Zoom meeting.

I’m not entirely convinced of the old aphorism that it’s the clothes that make the person.  After all, clothes function mainly as veneer to keep us warm or publicly presentable.  However, there is something about dressing up that lends itself to a reflection on the word integrity.  Are we decent to the core?  Does our outward appearance and behavior project who we are, or do they mask an inner coldness or a calculating soul?

D4444DA0-ADF3-4666-A172-8B1DB7A02AD8In a similar vein, if no one were looking, would we still do the right thing?  Sooner or later all of us confront that question, and our answer is an expression of our character.  Are we people of integrity through and through?  Or does any expression of decency depend on whether somebody is watching or not?

In a time of isolation it’s pretty easy to let our personal standards go lax.  After all, who will ever know if we start to cut all sorts of personal corners?  On the one hand, I suppose, it’s fair to say that God would know.  On the other hand, so would we.

Jesus reserved some of his sharpest criticism for those with a deep disconnect between their inner motivation and outer behavior.  He called them whitened sepulchres, because their carefully crafted public image belied their blackened souls.  They were deadened within because of this radical inconsistency.

A venerable practice in the Christian spiritual tradition has been the regular examination of conscience.  Certainly that involves an effort to identify the sins and failings that have been part of our day.  But more deeply it’s a matter of checking the alignment between who we say we are and how we translate that into action.

That self-examination doesn’t always come easily, and a frenetic life can allow us to put off that sort of introspection for days and weeks and even years.  However, one of the great benefits of a time of isolation is the chance to take stock of ourselves and make course corrections.  These are the changes in trajectory that can make for full and beautiful lives.  On the plus side, it’s absolutely never too late to do this.  Even better, there’ll never be a time like the present for the leisure to do it.

5340AC77-9DAC-4C34-918B-7131860FD7FDNOTES

+On May 7th my mother Lenora passed away.  She was 96 and had enjoyed a wonderful life devoted to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  The only disruption to this came during the last two months, when her assisted living home closed the doors to all visitors.  The best our family could do was visit through her first-floor apartment window.  Unfortunately I was not able to see her during that time.  On her final afternoon everyone was allowed in, and I watched and spoke with her via FaceTime, which was a real consolation.  A few hours later she quietly slipped away.

+On May 9th after evening prayer Brother Jacob gave a short concert on the now-completed abbey organ.  With 3,000 new pipes installed, it is twice the original size.  Brother Jacob put it through its paces, beginning with a piece that relied solely on the old section of the organ.  He then incorporated the other pipes in three additional selections.  It was a wonderful moment for us monks, and our one regret was the absence of guests who certainly would have enjoyed the occasion.

+On May 10th, following the abbey Mass, Abbot John blessed the two builders of the expanded abbey organ.  This week Martin Pasi, master organ builder, will pack up his tools and return to his studio in Tacoma, WA.  Meanwhile Casey Marrin’s journey to his home in nearby Cold Spring, MN, will be much shorter.

+On May 10th we should have celebrated graduation at Saint John’s University.  For the first time in its 60+ years the abbey and university church stood empty, while students celebrated the day in their homes and who knows where else.  All the same, the flags were flying to mark this important milestone in the lives of our students.

+During the Easter season the exuberance of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona offers fodder for a meditation on the resurrection.  The photos in todays post offer a taste of that.

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Has God Forgotten Us?

There are days when I think that St. Paul was one lucky guy.  As the Acts of the Apostles relate, God struck Paul from his horse, and in the space of a few hours Paul’s life turned upside-down and inside-out.  By the end of the week there remained not one shred of doubt about the new direction of his life.

Paul’s certainty is what I envy most.  He was sure of himself, and he marched ahead with confidence.  Meanwhile I and lots of other people wonder what it is that God has in mind for us.  What is it that God wants us to do with our lives — if anything?  Has God forgotten us?

It’s important to keep in mind that Paul is an exception to God’s rule.  Paul was a stubborn thorn in the side of the early Christians, and somebody like him required a grand gesture on God’s part.  The slow meandering approach that God uses with most of us simply wouldn’t have cut it with Paul.

DBB28606-4A13-46DE-9A8E-8DE85DEE5614I find a bit of personal consolation in the story of the time that Jesus spent in the desert.  In so many ways his forty days in isolation run parallel to our own experience of extended isolation.  Alone in prayer, Jesus considered what the Father asked of him, and in time it all unfolded before him.  But certainly he did not have clarity immediately, as his agony in the garden later suggests.

In the desert Jesus considered the opportunities that the devil unfolded before him.  His options included the same sort of attractions to power and fame and instant gratification that beset us all.  Like us Jesus had to come to terms with them before he finally put them behind him.  There would be no place in his life for such delusions of grandeur.

Unlike Paul, we’ll likely not be shaken up so decisively.  Far more likely, I and most of the people I know will continue to undergo an experience similar to what Jesus had in the desert.  In our lives there will be testing;  and there will be alternatives both good and bad to consider.  But there will also be glimpses of the divine when the Lord does gently touch us.

On a road to Emmaus two disciples had an experience that was very different from Paul’s road to Damascus.  They had wanted to believe in Jesus, but his crucifixion had disillusioned them.  Then alongside them walked a stranger.  That stranger teased them along with his words, but he didn’t grab them and shake them up.  Little by little, however, he opened their minds, until finally they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

That, I think, is the best treatment we’re going to get from the Lord.  We should expect little in the way of drama.  We should expect no grand oratory, nor will there be any shoving to the ground.  Instead, very gradually, we’ll discover the Lord as he speaks to us softly in the course of our day.  That, I firmly believe, is how the Lord does his best work on us.

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NOTES

+On April 27th I had class with Novice Felix.

+As with so many people now, online meetings have become the order of the day.  On April 30th I took part in a Zoom meeting with members of the Board of Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On May 2nd I was the prayer leader for members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, as we prayed the Office of the Dead — via Zoom — for the recently deceased Grand Master, Frá Giacomo Dalla Torre.

+The inspiration for today’s post is the story of the conversion of Saint Paul from the Acts of the Apostles, which we read at Eucharist on May 1st.  The first two pieces of stained glass depict the temptation of Jesus in the desert.  They were made in the late 12th century for a church in Troyes in France, and today they are housed at the V & A in London.  Below them is an oil and tempera painting on an oak panel, by an unknown artist in the late 15th century.  It is housed at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon.  At bottom is a magnolia tree in bloom in the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  It is an opening salvo of spring, which is beginning to assert itself at Saint John’s — finally!

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