Archive for the ‘Lourdes’ Category

1.Entrance to MdinaCourtesy: Not a Bad Policy

Mdina is one of those towns people don’t visit often, if ever.  Perched in the middle of the island of Malta, on its highest point, it has a commanding view of both the island and the sea that isolates it from the rest of the world.  Through much of Malta’s history Mdina served as the capital as well as the main bastion for defense.  Even after the arrival of the Knights of Malta in 1530, it continued to be the seat of the archbishop.  From there both the archbishops as well as the Maltese natives cast wary eyes at the Knights, who ruled from their port city of Valletta.  Relations were not always good; and when spats arose, it fell to the Roman Inquisitor to mediate the peace.

Today Mdina is a sleepy town, but it remains an architectural jewel.  Around every corner is  a lovely palace or church, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in its narrow streets.

2.Red DoorLast May I visited Malta with several members of the Order of Malta, and Mdina was the surprise of the tour.  We should have budgeted more time for the town, and we left wanting more.  But we made the most of it, including a pause for lunch at a sidewalk cafe.  Lunch did double duty, since it opened out from a stately  sixteenth-century palace.

The service was prompt but unhurried, and when the bread and water had appeared on the table, the waiter made the rounds to take our order.  When he came to me he stopped, smiled, and politely observed: “You were in Lourdes last week, weren’t you.”

Taken aback, all I could sputter out was “well, yes.  As a matter of fact, I was.”

“I thought so,” he answered.  “I saw you at the Mass in the underground basilica.”

3.Cathedral AlleyThis may sound like no big deal, but there were 20,000+ of us at that Mass, including over 250 priests and bishops.  Since I hadn’t gone berserk or made a spectacle of myself that day, I wondered how in the world he could have noticed me in that vast crowd.

Then we put it all together.  As the clergy filed into the basilica, there was the equivalent of a  human traffic jam, and for five minutes we stood stock still while the ushers untangled the front end of the procession.  With nothing to do, I could have made catty remarks about the organizers.  Instead, I struck up a pleasant conversation with a woman from Washington, DC, who was seated on the aisle.  Our new friend, the waiter, was right behind her.  So of course he could remember me, if he so chose.

It was a remarkable coincidence to run into him a few days later, and a few hundred miles away.  And it made me extremely grateful that I had followed one of my working principles that Sunday in Lourdes:  “never throw snits in front of strangers.”  Those snits can come back to haunt you.

4.Street sceneMore than a few books and movies have featured people who were absolute jerks to others, only to discover later on that the person they had insulted was their future boss or mother-in-law.  Or he was the guy about to park  your brand new car.  Or the waiter who was about to balance hot soup over your lap.  We borrow a phrase from literature to describe such situations, and the term is “poetic justice.”  Thankfully, there was no need for poetic justice in Mdina that afternoon.

For those who travel a lot, and even for those who don’t, life has plenty of frustrations.  People can be quite pretentious in their demands, and others can be downright rude, whether on the highway or in a line or wherever.  The fact is, there are plenty of opportunities to explode in righteous indignation; and the trick is to keep your cool and not have others shrink back in horror at your conniption.  Nor do you want to set others off with your own obnoxious behavior.  After all, it’s entirely possible that their fuses could be even shorter than yours.

5.palaceAs a modern reader I think of courtly behavior as a feature of a bygone era when people had little else to do but be nice.  But as a  medieval historian, I learned better.  Courtly behavior doesn’t come  naturally to people.  It is a code of manners designed to keep little spats from escalating into big wars.  Sure, people still fought duels over the most trifling breaches of etiquette, but courtly manners at least limited some of the violence and channeled it elsewhere.  And if you could restrict anger and voilence to a few hard-core cranks, then most everyone else would be a lot better off.

Courtesy provides many benefits.  Foremost among them is the value of keeping everyone around you relatively happy and sweet-tempered.  There also is a more altruistic motive for being courteous.  We should not overlook the possibility that most people actually do deserve our respect.  Whether they are having bad or good days, they should get the benefit of the doubt.  Besides, one good word or act of courtesy might very well make the difference in their lives that day.

One friend who volunteers in a soup kitchen once confided that he doesn’t derive all that much joy from handing out food.  But what he loves to do is smile to each person who comes through the line.  The smile costs him absolutely nothing, but it may very well be the only smile those people will see that day.  It could mean the world to them.

6.SquareAs for the waiter in Mdina, we had a great lunch, served by his hands.  He showed us pictures of his wife and two kids, and we posed for new ones to add to the collection.  We are now fast friends, or at least we will be when we meet up again in Lourdes next year.

I’m also glad we decided to give him a generous tip.  Three days later, on our last day in Malta, we sat down for breakfast at our hotel in Valletta.  As luck would have it, our friend from Lourdes and Mdina was again our waiter.  Everyone greeted him like a long lost friend, and he responded in kind.

7.Street scapeAs for me, once again I was astounded by the coincidence.  Like God, this guy seemed to be everywhere.  Thank goodness I had been on my best behavior the first time around.  You just can’t be too careful these days.  It’s a very small world, populated by some very nice people.


+On July 13th I attended a reunion of members of a pilgrimage to Poland and Ukraine that I was part of last August.  The gathering took place at the home of Dr. Tom and Mary Ann Okner in Sunfish Lake, MN.

+On July 15th I attened the funeral of Jack Kolb, at Saint Joseph Church in West Saint Paul, MN.  Jack and his wife Rajah are fellow members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and I’ve been privileged to know them for many years.  The funeral liturgy was topped off with a wonderful offering of incense, taken from the Maronite Rite, in which Rajah was raised.

+On July 17th I visited the dentist to prepare a broken tooth for a crown.  The most notable feature of the procedure was that I fell asleep while they were working on me.  That is a far cry from the days when I shrank in terror from any visit to any dentist.

+On July 19th through the 21st I delivered a retreat to the deacon-candidates and their spouses from the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT.  David Flynn, a good friend and alumnus from Saint John’s University, is preparing for ordination as a permanent deacon in Bridgeport.  I am grateful to him and his colleagues for the invitation.

+The pictures in today’s blog all come from Mdina in Malta.  They don’t begin to cover all the wonderful nooks and crannies of the place, but they give a hint of the city’s charm.


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Queen Victoria Agave

Queen Victoria Agave

On Crossing the Great Bridge

In all the years that I’ve visited New York, I’ve completely overlooked what is likely its greatest landmark: the Brooklyn Bridge.  Like so many others, I’ve always assumed that the most interesting sites in New York are in mid-town.  So I’ve never felt the need to venture south of the Empire State Building, save for a tour of the Stock Exchange once.  But it all changed last week.

I was in New York to officiate at a wedding.  I had come a day early, in anticipation of crises and melt-downs; but none seemed in the offing.  So, with time on my hands and a willingness to explore, I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.  And I’m glad I did.

I had avoided the Bridge because I thought it would take forever to cross.  But I now know that a leisurely stroll can get you to the other side in twenty-five minutes or less.  Then, like a true Manhattan snob,  I had always assumed that there was nothing to see on the other side.  I  now know that is not the case.  But all that is grist for a repeat crossing.

2.LadyslipperIt was a very warm day, and maybe it seasoned the entire experience.  It also brought out the tourists in droves.  On the Bridge I heard German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and a host of other languages.  In fact, visitors seemed to outnumber the natives, most of whom were probably at work.  Altogether, there were strollers and runners and gawkers and bikers; and there were baby carriages and wheel chairs.  In short, it was a real hodge-podge of people, representing New York and the ends of the earth.

I quickly realized that despite all the tourists, this really is a working bridge.  For one thing, the bikers mean business.  Some pedal by furiously, and it’s amazing that no one ever gets hurt.  I was also surprised by the relative quiet.  Tons of cars roar over the bridge, a few feet away from the pedestrians.  But there is little or no honking, because they all share one common purpose:  to get to the other side as quickly as possible.  No motorists pause for the view, and there’s no need to make everyone’s life worse by honking.

3.Ladyslipper.PondMany things surprised me, but I very quickly noticed the absence of the long arm of the law.  On the way over and back I didn’t see a single police officer.  That’s unusual for New York.  Maybe it was just too hot to be out that day.  Or, better still, maybe it is too much trouble to climb up that bridge just to keep order.  On the other hand, I’m sure they do care, as the signs everywhere warned that cameras were catching our every move.  I never heard “the voice”, but I can just imagine a disembodied spirit yelling out:  “Hey you!  Yes you!  Stop that right now!”  And then the voice would return to its reading or coffee or sandwich in a comfortable control room in The Bronx.   Or Bangalore.

With no law and order, people obey the lane markers when and if they feel like it.  A big white line divides the bycycles from the pedestrians, and only people with a death-wish wander over into the bike lanes.  All else is up for grabs.  Despite clear directional markings painted every few feet, no one seems to pay the least attention.  Either they can’t read the sign language, or they are taking advantage of the absence of law and order.  Either way, it is paradise for rugged individualists.  And it irritates the heck out of people like me, who like tidy neat lines of people.

4.Great HallThe Bridge invites the use of your imagination.  On the one hand, both shores teem with activity and vitality.  The huge buildings that now block the horizons have dwarfed the Bridge for decades, but once upon a time the Bridge was the biggest thing in town.  And if you squint and try to imagine an era when those buildings only had four or five floors, you can understand what a massive monument the Bridge must have been in its first years.  No wonder it siezed the public imagination.

What did I learn during the walk?  I learned that there are still plenty of dim-witted people who are willing to stand in the biking lane while someone takes their picture.  I learned that there are very trusting souls up on that bridge, especially the three people I saw in wheel chairs.  One can only hope that the friends who had pushed them across one way were still friends when it came time to push them back.

I also learned that there is entertainment to be had all along the Bridge.  For one, there was the aspiring drama queen who screamed at her mother that she was now ten years old and was starving to death.  She wanted off the Bridge, now.  That led to a heated exchange, witnessed by many of us who thought this was far better than any street theater we had seen.  I for one thought the mother had the chance to confer a measure of immortality on her ungrateful daughter.  After all, lots of people have died on that Bridge, but none has ever died of starvation.  This would be a first.  Meanwhile, I was almost positive that the mom eyed greedily the hearse that was just then passing by not a few feet away.  Was that a sign from God?   But she resisted.  What a saint.

National Catholic Youth Choir camp

National Catholic Youth Choir camp

I also realize that the American bias toward casual dress has maybe gone too far, at least in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge.  I did see three guys in suit and tie, which seemed a little odd in the late-June heat.  On the other hand, there were an awful lot of people on that Bridge who definitely should have considered wearing more clothing.  I don’t say this out of prudery, but rather for aesthetic reasons.  Americans are just not designed to dress that way any more.  But I’m not going to climb up on that bridge and start a crusade about it — no matter how badly it hurts the eyes.

6.FlowerbedLike anywhere, if you stay alert you can catch the little incongruities that make life interesting.  As you approach Brooklyn, for example, a massive building greets you, front and center.  Someone had emblazoned “Read Watchtower” and “Jehovah’s Witness” on its walls, and you couldn’t miss it.  I had expected to find lots of religion in Brooklyn, but not that one.  I was also struck by the t-shirt headed toward Manhattan.  “Follow me.  Walk to the Quiet.”  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was going the wrong way.  Besides that, no one was following her, and she needed the exercise anyway.

All in all, I should never have waited so long to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.  It’s free, at a time when prices for everything else in New York are sky high.  It’s also good for you, unless you get hit by a bicycle.  And it’s just flat-out beautiful up there, standing with the rest of humanity, caught between heaven and earth.

But I’m also glad I waited this long to cross the Bridge.  Weeks ago I began reading David McCullough’s “The Great Bridge”, and for whatever reason I got bogged down in the later chapters.  Now that I know how it ends, maybe I can put the book aside.  And without spoiling the ending too much for you, I now know that they finally did finish the Brooklyn Bridge, and it still works pretty good.

7.Cody GroenerNotes:

+On June 24th Brother George Primus passed away.  For much of his life in the monastery he worked in the tailor shop, but also volunteered in the orchard.

+On June 29th I officiated at the wedding of Emily Krump and Thomas Hart at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier in New York.  Emily is an ’08 alumna of the College of Saint Benedict, while her father Paul is a graduate of Saint John’s University and her mother Anne an alumna of Saint Ben’s.  I have been friends with the family for ages, and it was an honor to be part of this moment.

+Last week monks, faculty and staff trooped to the University greenhouse to see a Queen Victoria Agave in flower.  It was a big deal because they bloom only once and then die.  Since this plant was fifty years old, we thought we owed the plant this visit.  Botony student Cody Groen provided expert instruction for all who made the trip.

8.Stickhouse+”Stick House” still greets drivers entering onto the property of Saint John’s.  Recently one photographer caught a dazzing display of the aurora borealis, with Stick House in the foreground.  Much to our surprise, NBC aired the footage nationally.  Click here to view the short video.

+Only a few weeks ago I went to Lourdes with members of the Order of Malta.  Then it was high and dry, though still very green.  A few days ago flood waters overwhelmed Lourdes, for the second time in a year.  Click here for a sampling of pictures of the devastation.

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74.Town and ChurchOn a Second Thought

American culture fancies itself to be the most liberated in all of human history when it comes to sex.  With shows like “Sex and the City” and a myriad of parallel productions, we’ve constructed a self-image that puts us opposite the stuffy Victorians on the social spectrum.  When it comes to sex, we believe we are without doubt the most enlightened people in human history.  And therefore we must also be the happiest people ever.

This is cultural narcissism, and I would maintain that it is a fantasy of the first order.  First off, we may be very aggressive in flooding our culture with thoughts of sex, but we are not the first to notice its paramount place in human life.  John Cassian, the 5th-century spiritual writer, posited that after the quest for food, thoughts of sex are the next most potent force running through our mental universe.  With a nod to those who cannot believe that someone from the early 400’s could know much of anything, you still must give Cassian his due.  He definitely was on to something — despite being a stuffy monk.

The fact of the matter is, in our society sex sells big, and it plays on our mental preoccupations as few other forces do.  Take cars for instance.  While we may resort to the little old lady from Pasadena to sell “pre-owned” cars, we recruit only the most attractive people on earth to sell new cars.  You see it in the marketing of cigarettes as well.  Seldom in the media will you see the elderly smoking.  Rather, it’s always the young and the sleek who smoke in the ads.  The message is clear: the true benefit from smoking is linked to sexual attractiveness.

46. Church at Saint SavinWhen it comes to sex and the prescription medication industry, I’ve always been slightly amused by advertising’s resort to yet another human anxiety: the fear of missing out on something.  Ads for some prescriptions hint that you may be the only 16 or 95-year-old on the planet who’s celibate.  Horrors!  Who could possible want to be in that desperate situation?  How terrible it would be to defy the herd instinct and refrain from sexual activity, even at the most advanced of ages.  Or at the earliest of ages.  “Everyone does it,” and there ought not be a single exception.

The fact of the matter is, our society is virtually evangelical when it comes to sex, and we are deeply suspicious of people who are celibate.  I would submit that those same anxieties apply to those  who are monogamous — for they too are celibate when it comes to anyone other than their spouse.  In the popular imagination, both celibacy and even monogamy can be seen as basic denials of human freedom.  In this case, it’s the freedom to do any and everything you might want, whenever you want.

When marketers and others parade sexual fantasies before our eyes, they are of course reaching deep into our own minds to manipulate thoughts that are among the strongest and most vibrant.  Long before there was television or the print media, and even before the internet, there were such thoughts.  Perhaps because of that vast experience, some have dared to suggest that the most creative and happy people in human history have learned to master those thoughts.  To their way of thinking it may just be better to master them than be driven by them  into a crazed frenzy.

48.Chapter House DoorThere are any number of directions one could take this, but at the risk of seeming to be a Victorian, I’d like to make two points.

First of all, the need for social and spiritual intimacy is undeniable and good; but indiscriminate sexual activity is never a cure for lonelilness.  In fact, over time it may even create a pervasive loneliness.  Such activity becomes destructive, since it serves the self first and last, with little respect for others.  Ironically, then, there is no life-giving human connection in such indiscriminate relationships.  Genuine intimacy centers on the respect and love of the other, and that is true whether that other person is human or divine.

The second point has to do with commitment.  There’s no denying that we have a very difficult time making life choices and settling down.  We like to keep our options open, and God forbid that we make anything that smacks of a permanent commitment.  Such an act would violate our intrinsic freedom and independence.

37.Organ at Saint SavinBut as in so many cases, not to decide is to decide.  When we opt for “freedom forever,” we eventually lose it, simply because we’ve never invested ourselves in a life-giving relationship with any one person, or with God.  In that sense chastity is less a deprivation than it is a gamble.  It’s a gamble that God and someone else may be worth our love, and it may justify the sacrifice of our unlimited freedom.  They are worth the risk of organizing our thoughts and words and deeds so that we direct ourselves to another.  Could that be better than being constantly distracted and ultimately left adrift in a sea of confusion and loneliness?

That may very well be what Jesus had in the back of his mind when he offered up his great conundrum.  “Those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”

29.Townscape at Saint SavinNotes

+Post-script to Lourdes:  Still fresh in my mind is the pilgrimage to Lourdes which members of the Order of Malta completed a few days ago.  As I wrote in the post for May 7th, it’s an extraordinary experience, and if you’d like to read fuller descriptions that I wrote some months ago, please go to my posts of 31 October 2011, and 7 May 2012.

56.Windows at Saint SavinOn the lighter side, Lourdes has all the challenges that any complicated gathering of people has.  Typical of this is the Sunday Eucharist, in the Basilica of Saint Pius X, which holds 25,000+.  With more than twenty-five nationalities present, language is always an issue.  At past gatherings of the Order of Malta the Mass prayers have been in French, English, Arabic and Italian.  The music comes from all language groups, while the readings have been in a variety of tongues.  The prayers of the faithful this year were in Dutch and German, but they’ve been in a dozen other languages through the  years.  This year the celebrant was Cardinal Sardi, patron of the Order of Malta.  He presided in Italian, while translations projected onto the big screens were in French and German.  (I read the French, hoping it would be nicer.)  Cardinal Dolan of New York welcomed poeple in English.  The multiciplicity of languages, and the sound of 25,000 singing in unison, impressed on me once again the vast stretch of the Church. It really is the gathering of peoples from the ends of the earth.

Four Benedictine chaplains of the Order of Malta were at Lourdes this year.  In addition to me, in attendance were Abbot Placid of Belmont Abbey in North Carolina; Abbot Matthias of Sao Bento in São Paulo in Brazil; and Fr. Henry from Glenstal in Ireland.

68.Arcade at Saint SavinThe unofficial motto of Lourdes ought to be Festina Lente.  While literally translated as “Make Haste Slowly”, in the case of Lourdes it is better rendered as “Hurry up and wait.”  Were there a Lourdes Olympics, the main events would include “The Stand”; the “Marathon Stand”; “The Walk Very Slowly” (done in teams of 5,000); the “Stand and Walk”; and my personal favorite, “The 100-Yard Sprint for the Exits after a two-hour Mass.”  (Best done with 25,000 people.)  Of coure there are always special awards and honorable mentions.  This year’s award for the strongest cart-puller went to my teammate Tom, who pulled his cart for thirty-five minutes with the brakes on.  “Most-determined cart-puller” also went to Tom, for pulling his cart for thirty-five minutes with the brakes on.

65.Carolingian Chapel.Saint SavinFor the second half of the pilgrimage the sun came out and it was glorious.  It made our outing to Saint Savin especially refreshing.  In today’s post are pictures from that visit.  This was a Benedictine abbey dating back to Carolingian times (ca. 800).  It sits at the entrance to the Pyranees, overlooking one of the passes into Spain.  Spain sits just on the other side of the snow-capped peaks.

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6.LourdesFood: The Great Temptation

It all started with Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Theirs was a perfect life, but they were not alone with their thoughts.  It was in Eden that they encountered what likely was the first major distraction on record:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Accustomed to a daily round of walks with God, plenty to eat, and camaradarie with the animals, everything seemed to be as good as it gets.  Who would want to upset that apple-cart?

35.Mosaic of JesusIt should come as no surprise that the first temptation recorded in the Bible centers on food.  It’s a basic need, after all.  You can’t go for very long without it; and if you do so, body and mind will insist on doing someting about it.  Not surprisingly, the early ascetics experienced this, and John Cassian writes of it as the entry-level preoccupation of the human mind.

Still, the Book of Genesis reports that Eve’s focus on that tree was less about food and more about the desire to go beyond her current state.  The story implies that she couldn’t have been all that hungry, despite the absence of soft drinks and fast food.  Nor was she aware of impending famine and the need to store up for the future.  No, by the time she plucked the first piece of fruit from that tree, something else was going through her mind.  This was not about fruit.  This was about power and self-esteem.  That’s what pressed her buttons that day.

13.Candles at LourdesIn her book “Thoughts Matter”, Sr. Meg Funk reflects on John Cassian’s teaching about the  thoughts that run through the minds of us all.  Constantly, throughout our waking hours, a steady stream of thoughts prance through our imagination.  Who knows where they all originate, but thankfully our mental spam filter deletes a lot of it before it gets onto our agenda.  Yet, some still make it through into our consciousness.  There they disturb us and inspire us and incite us into further thought, word and deed.  In short, they press our buttons hard enough to take over our waking hours for just a bit, or for a long time.

Food certainly is the most basic of human needs, but it’s never as simple as it seems.  Sure, we all like to eat, and some of us love to eat.  Some of us even live to eat.  But when we think of that big bag of chips, or whatever it is that gets us going, it can become really complicated. Thoughts of hunger and the allure of food remind us of the need to eat to survive.  They remind us that food could run out some day, and it might be prudent to lay in a big supply to allay our fears about the future.  Those thoughts might remind us that eating some foods brings prestige to the diner, as do the select places where we might choose to dine. Thoughts of food also bring out the latent competitiveness in all of us.  In order for me to get more, someone else must get less.  Isn’t it better to get yours before all the greedy people get it first?  And on a more positive note, if I eat the right kinds of food, in proper balance, I just might live a longer and healthier life.

19.GrottoPretty soon the mere thought of food can trigger all sorts of responses in us.  We can stop in our tracks to get some; we can eat beyond what is reasonable; we can eat beyond our means; and we can do the completely irrational.  That’s one reason I avoid the snack food aisle like the plague.  I know that one small bag of Cheetos is a nice treat.  But  I also know that if they manufactured twenty-pound bags of Cheetos, I’d get several.  I’d lay in a big supply, because you never know.  All the Cheetos factories could burn down.  Or someone might corner the market on Cheetos and drive up the price.  Anyway, that’s how Cheetos have the power to press one of my buttons and send me off into a chain of  uncontrolled actions.  That’s why I’ve always had a special sympathy for Eve.  She may have started with an apple, but in her mind it was about far more than that.

If our thoughts are complicated and savvy enough to catch our attention, they are also persistent.  The first Christian ascetics learned this early on, and we need to own up to that as well.  If early monks and nuns thought they’d leave their troubles at the cloister door, they always got a big surprise when they walked into their cell for the first time.  No sooner had they settled in, then the old familiar friends popped up in their imagination.  What they wanted before, they still wanted — but now with a vengeance.  Their experience explains why so many of us go to church and immediately start thinking of everything but church.  Know it or not, we all bring an awful lot of baggage with us, and the quieter the place, the sooner those bags get unpacked.

36.Mosaic at LourdesWhen I was a young priest I was always a little put off when people confessed to distractions during prayer.  In those heady years when I knew nearly everything, I tended to dismiss such comments as scrupulosity or fluff.  Now I’m not so sure, because my own mind wanders when I’m in church.  What kind of medicine should I be taking?

Through the years I’ve learned from many who are far more experienced in using strategies to deal with distraction.  The first point I’ve drawn from them is not to treat distraction as if it were sin.  Think of a distraction as a button that is being pushed, and then step back to analyze it.  What’s the point of this thought?  Where does it lead me if I follow through on it?  How best should I deal with this distraction?

31.Church FrontOne should also keep in mind that not all “distractions” lead us down the wayward path.  Some thoughts point straight to God.  Some thoughts lead us into doing the right thing.  Some thoughts tug at our imagination and help us prioritize our lives.  All this happens when we don’t let our thoughts run away with us.  Rather, we are better off placing our thoughts and preoccupations at the foot of the Lord, and he will help us sort them out.

So one day I prayed to the Lord about the Cheetos.  “What about the Cheeetos?”  I asked.  “Well, what do you think you should do about the Cheetos?” was the response I got.  “Well, they’re nice enough, but I don’t live for them.”  And God said: “That’s what I was thinking too.”

Then I knew I was ready for the next big thought.

53.The streets of LourdesNotes

+This week I am in Lourdes with the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage.  It’s an extraordinary experience, and everyone should  consider it someday, whether they are a believer or not.  People come to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons, but spiritual healing ranks far above physical healing in the benefits that we all take with us when we leave.  Lourdes also reminds us of the contrasts between the sacred and the secular worlds.  At Lourdes one sees the sublime and the banal, and the edge of the shrine is the physical boundary.  On the other hand, one of the great lessons of Lourdes is that in all of our lives the sacred and the profane are not totally separate worlds.  They blend together in our own little world.  We also learn that one cannot live in a shrine forever.  You have to go home eventually, and you take a glimpse of the divine back with you to serve you at home.

Lourdes, like other pilgrimage destinations, is not all peaches and cream.  It rained for the first forty-eight hours after our arrival.  That was not fun.  But by far the biggest challenge to our psyche was our willingness to enter into sacred time and sacred space.  Upon arrival, quite a few people rushed down to the gates of the shrine to take it all in.  Meanwhile, a very unhealthy percentage of us (myself included) rushed to our rooms to turn on the wifi to connect with the world we had left behind.  The hotel wifi system promptly jammed for several hours.  I had to get up at 4 am to get access to the internet and get this posting out. Thank goodness all the greedy people were still asleep.

22.Bridge at Lourdes

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Stained glass E Pluribus UnumDo Thoughts Count?

Pope Francis continues to provide heathy grist for our musings, and I especially appreciated his use of a comment from Saint Francis.  “Preach always.  If necessary, use words.”

That’s an important point to keep in mind, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time preaching and writing.  Both genres depend on words, and there isn’t a lot we can do to make up for that.  One could, I suppose, sing and dance in the pulpit, or use other ploys to hold a congregation’s attention.  But more often than not such stunts leave people amused at the ineptitude they’ve just witnessed.  Most walk out convinced that the performer really shouldn’t have tried it.  As for a blog, I suppose I redeem myself by using pictures, which in theory count for more than words.  Plus, I send something every Monday morning, thereby demonstrating reliability by my deeds.  So there may be some hope for me.

Stained Glass 25Still, there’s a serious message in the words of Saint Francis.  At the very least, they presume that we are, or ought to be, more than mere talk.  Within Christian tradition we’ve always recognized this, even if at times we’ve only paid lip service to the ideal.  In the Confiteor, for example, we speak of sins of thought, word and deed.  That implies that what we often use in a perverse direction can also be channelled for the good.  But what it also speaks to is the integration that should exist in our lives.  Thought, word and deed are not individual items with nothing in common.  They are, instead, expressions of the core of our being.  And you cannot specialize in one or two and forget about the other entirely.

For once this sacred notion has some good crossover with popular wisdom.  “Talk is cheap,” and the need to “walk the talk” are but two examples of a commonsense parallel.  Both aphorisms point out the schizophrenia that results when there is a disconnect among thought, word and deed.  Even secular society sees the  hypocrisy in the person who is long on talk but lacks the ambition to translate that talk into action.

Stained Glass 27On the other hand, popular wisdom can also be self-contradictory.  Take as an example one phrase that we often lean on when deeds don’t materialize:  “It’s the thought that counts.”  Does it really?  I hope not, because if it’s the thought that really counts, then a lot more of us should be going to jail.  If the thought does count, then there are far more serial killers around than anyone ever imagined.  And you and I might even be among them.  Thank God the legal code demands that we walk the talk before we’re convicted for murder and similar such deeds.

I write all this by way of introduction to a weighty but very succinct book that I am currently reading.  With a title like “Thoughts Matter” you would suppose that Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, was coming down firmly on the side of just one of the various choices we might consider.  But in fact she too argues for an integration in our lives, and she offers a much deeper analysis of the nature of the thoughts that flow through our minds.

Stained Glass 29Sr. Meg bases her work on the writings of the early 5th-century monk, Saint John Cassian.  Arguably one of the greatest authors in the spiritual tradition, Cassian knew the desert fathers and mothers personally.  He traveled widely, and systematically sought out hundreds of ascetics.  From his many interviews he distilled a series of reflections that went on to become a major source for Saint Benedict when he composed his Rule for Monks.

Sr. Meg writes about the thoughts that pass through our mind as chatter.  And as Cassian has outlined them, they congeal around eight common themes: food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory and pride.  I’m not going to explain or elaborate on them now, because in coming weeks I want to attend to those themes individually.  But significant to all of them is the pull that they exert on our attention.  Each draws us in its own direction, for good and for ill.  And whether pope or nun, or layman or laywoman, that chatter runs through all of our minds.

Stained Glass 30If you’ve ever wondered whether you’re going crazy because of all the stuff churning through your mind, be assured you are not alone.  The ascetics in the Syrian and Egyptian deserts faced the same chatter.  All we’ve done is accelerate the pace.  While we watch the news on television, we’re also glancing at the headlines that stream across the bottom of the screen.  While we are listening to commercials.  While we are texting and thinking about email.  While we are listening to someone trying to compete for our attention.  While we are remembering stuff we should have done.  And worst of all, while we are driving.

Who has time for deeds when all this chatter is running through our minds?  Those who install a good spam filter in their mind, that’s who.

Stained Glass 32Notes

+On Sunday April 21st I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Minnetonka, MN.

+On Monday April 22nd it snowed another nine inches.  Happily, by the following weekend it soared past 70 degrees and much of the snow simply slipped away.

+While the maple syrup harvest is not yet complete, the cooks have made over 400 gallons.

+In anticipation of the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes, I escaped the snows and arrived in Paris on the 26th.  The early arrival gave me the chance to visit several medieval sites, pictures of which will show up in this blog in coming weeks.  I also had the opportunity to visit with one of my former students, who now lives with his wife and daughter and son in Luxembourg.  We met in Metz, which allowed me to visit that city for the first time. It also let me catch up on Jack’s life in Europe.  True to his imaginative approach to life, he and his wife have raised their two children in a bi-lingual household: English and Chinese.  But classes for the youngsters are in Luxembourgish, French and German.  What a world they will enjoy!

+There are many nooks and crannies around Saint John’s that reward the attentive explorer, and the most interesting collection of stained glass is to be found in Emmaus Hall, home of the School of Theology.  The pictures in today’s post all come from there, and they speak far more eloquently than my mere words.  But to show you this, it was absolutely necessary to use just a few words.

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Postscript to Lourdes

By every measure the Order of Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes last week was a complete success.  We did everything on the schedule; the rains pelted us only a couple of times; and no one’s feelings got hurt.  All in all it was great.  But re-entry into the real world was no piece of cake for a few of us, however.

The ordeal began at Pau, one of the airports that serve Lourdes, where we arrived at 9:00 am.  That’s plenty of time to meet an 11:00 am flight, even for a group toting wheel chairs and canes.  Besides convenience, Pau offers dramatic views of the snow-capped Pyranees, in case you tire of watching the gate agents chatter with each other.  In fact, for quite a while we wondered if those guys actually worked there.  But at last they swung into action, at 10:55.  It must have dawned on them that they would miss their lunch break if they didn’t get us on that plane and out of there.  And so they herded us on unceremoniously.  Thus began a travel experience best described as “seamless” from beginning to end.

In theory we had one hour to make our connection in Paris; but we had already frittered away most of that on the ground in Pau.  Now, at Charles de Gaulle, we had zero minutes to go from terminal 2G to 2E, a trip that also includes passport control and security.  The uninitiated might think that going from 2G to 2E is like popping over to the neighbors for a cup of sugar.  After all, only one letter separates them.  But at de Gaulle this is the linear equivalent of a side trip through the Loire Valley.

I will give the ground people in Paris their due, however.  They requisitioned a special bus, and they drove us right to our gate, albeit via a tortuous ride around the airport.  Parenthetically I should note that the airport seemed absolutely vast to us, until  one eagle-eye among us pointed out that we had just passed one airport landmark three times on the way to our gate. We had been going in circles.  But who cared, since we were under the protection of the Paris Airport at that point.  Happily, they held our plane, much to the delight of those who had boarded an hour earlier.

Atlanta was the icing on the cake.  For ten hours across the Atlantic we fretted about missed connections, but our worries were completely unnecessary.  A security breach had closed the airport that afternoon, and on arrival we sat at our gate for half an hour before they finally peeled open our door.  Then, after a one-hour crawl through immigration and customs, we entered a world best described as chaotic.

But all’s well that ends well, and once again I learned the valuable lesson that life is not always “all about me.”  That afternoon it was “all about everybody.”  It was a comfort to learn that when all the planes are heroically late, everyone makes their connections.  Or no one makes their connections.  And that’s exactly what happened.

Goodbye Lourdes; and hello to the real world!

Abbey church of Saint-Savin, France

Saint-Savin: a monastic legacy

One special feature of our pilgrimage to Lourdes was an afternoon at Saint-Savin, a Carolingian-era Benedictine abbey that overlooks a valley through the Pyranees on the way to Spain.  The spot was suggested long ago by Fr. Egon Javor, a Benedictine monk of Woodside Priory in California, who served as a chaplain in the Order of Malta for umpteen years.  We’ve gone there for several years now, and the afternoon excursion includes prayer in the abbey church, spectacular views of the Pyranees and the valley below, and ice cream at a local shop.  A small village surrounds the remains of the abbey complex, and I’ve quietly admired the shopkeeper for not raising prices when 250 customers suddenly line up to buy cold treats.

One of our number wondered about the monks who had lived there until the French Revolution.  In a place like that the monks had little alternative but to live quiet and unassuming lives, and I suspect the knowledge of our visit would bowl them over.  We were there to enjoy the awesome place they had built, and we owed them big-time for our afternoon of sublime tranquility.  That experience was the monks’ gift to us, though they could scarcely anticipate it.  It was their legacy, which we were privileged to enjoy.

In our better moments we all wonder about our personal legacy.  Will the world be a better place because I walked here?  Will my life make any difference whatsoever to others who will come long after me?  Will someone remember me or anything I did a hundred years from now?

Saint-Savin, before the French Revolution

Our first order of business, of course, is to deal with the here and the now.  But if we handle these daily challenges of life well, then we have a real shot at making a lasting difference.  If we use our talents wisely and apply our resources astutely, then we will touch others, even in the most subtle of ways.  And so we should not be surprised to know that we can reach out to future generations, just as have the monks of Saint-Savin.  They lived, worked and prayed for centeries, and two hundred years after they left for the next world we have paused to enjoy what they created long ago.  Pleasing us was not their original goal, but they do so anyway.  That is the unintended by-product of a life well-lived.  May you and I be equally successful!

Graduation at Saint John’s

Notes from Saint John’s.

+Yesterday, Mother’s Day, was also graduation day at Saint John’s University.  Nearly 500 undergraduates were awarded degrees, and joining them were the graduate students in theology.  Likely for all of the moms in the audience the day was one of the finest presents they could have received.

+Today the first of two Benedictine Heritage tours leaves for Italy, where participants will visit Monte Cassino, Subiaco and other sites that have shaped the Benedictine tradition.  The Benedictine Institute at Saint John’s University began this program to provide faculty and staff an introduction to the roots of the Benedictine tradition, which undergirds Saint John’s today.  Both groups will conclude their tours with a stop at the abbey of Metten in Bavaria, from which the first monks of Saint John’s originated.

+I recently began Jean Edward Smith’s new biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, entitled Eisenhower in War and Peace.  I found the first chapter dull and the writing a bit simplistic.  But once I got into the better-documented phase of Eisenhower’s years, I’ve found the book to be just fascinating.  The pattern of Eisenhower’s leadership style was set early on, and he chose to be self-effacing rather than egotistical.  He led by conciliation rather than confrontation.  And it seems to have worked remarkably well in his case.

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The Report from Lourdes

Once upon a time the first week of May meant that I would be found at the annual International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University.  I miss the camaraderie a great deal, and it was a chance to catch up on current research in medieval studies.  However, for the last nine years I’ve stepped back into a close approximation of a genuine medieval experience by going to Lourdes.  Each year members of the Order of Malta gather here, and along with them are hundreds of volunteers and the sick — all part of a ritual that pilgrims have experienced for centuries.  For a week both the healthy and the suffering pray and celebrate and talk together, and extraordinary is the best word to describe what happens here.

Many who have never been to Lourdes can find it difficult to understand the attraction of a shrine in the 21st century.  People often assume that Lourdes is all sweetness and light, but that’s  hardly the case.  At Lourdes people confront illnesses and all their troubles, and they come to a better appreciation of the reality of their lives.   People also assume that Lourdes is in the business of providing physical cures; but its specialty is spiritual healing, and it takes place not just daily, but minute by minute.  For an example of this, visit my post of October 31, 2011.  The Boy and the Marine recounts a moving exchange between two pilgrims.

Medieval fortress, overlooking Lourdes

People also operate under the assumption that Lourdes must be the capital of religous simplicty.  In fact, it’s a complicated place, like most shrines were in the middle ages.  I like to think of Lourdes as the place where the sacred meets the state fair.  The town has a carnival atmosphere about it, with 300+ stores selling what can gracefully be termed religious “junque”.  So far I’ve found only two shops that sell stuff that I would drag home.  But the contrast bewteen carnival midway and the precincts of the shrine serve a purpose.

A couple of years ago I wrote a short piece on Lourdes, which was published in the magazine of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  Rather than re-invent the wheel and write something brand new that says the same thing, I’ve reproduced it below.  It gives a flavor of “town and gown” in a great pilgrimage destination.

Meanwhile, my mind still wanders back to Kalamazoo.  What Kalamazoo and Lourdes have in common is this.  Both are hives of activity, with people rushing and meandering about.  The two towns  also share a common weather forcast.  It can rain, snow or hail.  It can be quite hot or be quite cold.  You have to bring clothes for every possibility.  This year my mind will be in both places, even while I wander the streets of Lourdes.  And I will light a candle for my friends in Kalamazoo who have organized that pilgrimage destination this year.  Both Kalamazoo and Lourdes are shrines, each in their own way.

Lourdes: Where the Sacred and Secular Meet

The very name “Lourdes” conjures up the image of a sleepy village tucked in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  It evokes the sacred, where generations have come for the purifying waters and the deeply moving round of prayers and processions.  It summons visions of the French countryside and a  shrine bypassed by the relentless march of modernity.  In short, the uniniated expect to find in Lourdes an oasis of holy tranquility.  But what they get at the city limits is the equivalent of a cold shower.

To be fair, there is ample warning for what awaits.  At the airport the jets disgorge their cargo of weary travelers, while on the other side of the terminal the coaches scoop them up and whisk them away.  This is travel on a massive and well-organized scale.  En route, billboards announce an array of hotels and restaurants, and at town’s edge are the stores typical of any city.  But it is the center of Lourdes that jolts the unwary.

There, on the very threshold of the shrine, are block after block of shops hawking religious souvenirs, ranging from the outrageous and tasteless, to the merely tacky.  It’s worse than the worst of strip malls.  It truly is something between a flea market and a carnival.  Garish neon lures the dazed pilgrims as they make their way, and one begins to realize the value of the red line that leads through the middle of town to the sacred precincts.  Stray from it, and you enter the dens of crass commercialism.  Stay with it, and you reach the long-sought goal.

Shrine cities have always had their merchant quarters, as pilgrims to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago have known for centuries.  Host citizens need to earn a living, and one cannot fault them for catering to the range of tastes that pilgrims bring with them.  For their part, visitors need to eat, sleep and stay healthy; and for centuries they’ve also wanted to bring home a token of their spiritual journey.  So to expect something entirely different from Lourdes would be unrealistic.  How then should one deal with the sacred and the profane, abutting one another as they do so dramatically in Lourdes?

As much as one might wish the shops to disappear, in fact they play a vital role in Lourdes.  The contrast is sharp as one leaves behind the glitter and enters a hauntingly sacred sphere.  In the shrine there is no trace of the commercial to distract pilgrims as they now walk with God.  Here one truly meets God, and the sensation is all the more intense because of what’s just been left behind.

Town and shrine together are a parable of Christian life.  If the commercial district of Lourdes is over the top, so too is the shrine.  One is the epitome of allure and the transitory; while the other points to the holy and the eternal.  One represents the earthly home, the other the heavenly home to which God calls everyone.

But there is another lesson as well.  Pilgrims cannot stay at a shrine forever, and sooner or later everyone has to go home.  And it’s then that the town of Lourdes becomes symbolic of the world to which everyone must return.  Lourdes grows on people, and in a week a grudging affection often replaces the initial shock.  The stores may still be tacky, but the merchants have become familiar.  The shops are still garish, but they are less off-putting.  Something is different now, because visitors to Lourdes have taken the sacred with them back into the world.

The evening candle-lit procession, Lourdes

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Joe was only thirteen, but he had wisdom and poise far beyond his years.  He had come into the world with a birth defect that prevented the proper development of his limbs, and so the doctors had transplanted his feet onto his arms.  He then had digits with which to grasp, and he walked on two metal legs.

Joe was one of the malades, or sick pilgrims, on the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes.  He was like the other youths on the pilgrimage in every other respect, except that his joy in life seemed a little more intense.  He played with equal gusto; he mixed easily with everyone; but he appeared to be entirely unselfconscious of the challenges that life seemed to throw at him.  It struck no one as unusual, then, that Joe wore shorts as he carried the cross at the head of the procession into the basilica.

Also on our pilgrimage was a marine returning from duty in Iraq.  He had been injured after stepping on a mine, and he was scheduled to lose one leg after the pilgrimage.  Rightly, he was depressed and grieving, as any of us would be in that situation.

One afternoon Joe sat down with the marine, and for nearly half an hour they talked.  Here was a boy on the threshold of life, chatting with a man who had already experienced too much of life.  As their visit ended, Joe’s face grew serious, and he offered a bit of advice:  “Look, it’s not so bad.”  And at that point the marine reached in his pocket, pulled out his war medal, and presented it with the words:  “Here, kid, you’ve earned this.”

In the popular imagination Lourdes has a reputation for physical healing, but it is the spiritual healing that impacts the vast majority of pilgrims.  At Lourdes millions of ordinary people each year gather and pray together, and they experience something truly remarkable.  In the precincts of the shrine it is not at all unusual that the sick teach those who are well, and no one is the same afterward.

In the case of the boy and the marine, a few simple words were a healing balm.  Theirs was not a private conversation, but they probably never realized the impact of their exchange on the people privileged to listen.  And from their exchange we learn at least wo important things.

First, the face of Christ can be seen in a variety of faces.  As Saint Benedict writes, the presence of Christ is to be seen in the young and in the old, in the sick brothers, in the visitor and in the abbot.  In fact, we should be able to behold the face of Christ in virtually anyone, because God creates us all in His image.  And from each face we can learn something.

But the second lesson is more easily missed.  In his chapter On Obedience Saint Benedict cites Proverbs 18:21 when he writes that “the tongue holds the key to life and death.”  Now most of us are ready to own up to the destructive power of slander and lies and backbiting.  We all have the power to tear one another to pieces and devastate one another with the simplest of words.

But we also have the power to give life through our words.  Our words of support, our words of encouragement or consolation, our simple greeting of peace in the hall have greater impact than we might imagine.  To the person in need, they matter more than gifts of money or stuff.  And yet, as personally inexpensive as our words of encouragement might be, we hesitate to give them.

In the introductory rite of the Eucharist, we confess our sins, both what we have done and what we have failed to do.  We all know the harm we can do with our speech, but we seldom confess the missed opportunities to build up one another with our speech.  Imagine if Joe had simply walked past the grieving marine.  Nothing would have been lost, except the chance to change the lives of the rest of us privileged to watch.

Ultimately those few words cost Joe little or nothing.  And the same is true for us.  Our words matter in ways we can scarcely imagine.   So the moral is simple.  Don’t miss the chance to offer your words of encouragement, because they are among the cheapest but most precious gifts you have to offer.

My Calendar

On October 20-23 I took part in a retreat with members of the Order of Malta, in Danville, CA.  This is an annual event involving a group of people who have made special promises of obedience to the Order, and the group is referred to as the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo.  Philermo is a village on the Island of Rhodes, and it was there that the Knights of Malta began to venerate an icon that has been closely identified with the history of the Order ever since.

On Sunday, October 23rd, I preached at the Mass for the retreat participants, and for the text of the sermon you can go to Where is my Neighbor?, found under Presentations.

I based my seven conferences on Pope Benedict XVI’s book entitled Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, from the Entrance to Jerusalem to the Resurrection.  I found it to be an amazing book, for two reasons.  First, it is one of the finest expositions of the core of Christian belief that I’ve ever read.  His thinking is insightful and his writing amazingly personal, and I encountered ideas I had never considered.

Second, it’s a very un-pope-like book.  Pope Benedict writes as a professor, and as such he puts his ideas out into the public forum for its consideration.  He is widely read, and he freely cites scholars with whom he agrees and disagrees.  And he does so with the utmost of respect.  Consistent with that, when he offers his own ideas, he expects you to consider them on their own merits, rather than on his papal office.

He sets a nice tone in the Preface, where he comments on the publication of a similarly-themed book, by a Lutheran scholar.  I simply cannot imagine any pope before Benedict writing a sentence like this:  “A further joy for me is the fact that in the meantime this book has, so to speak, acquired an ecumenical companion in the comprehensive volume of the Protestant theologian Joachim Ringleben, Jesus (2008).”

While this is an enormously rewarding book, few should expect to speed-read it.  It is densely packed, and I confess to reading portions of it two or three times before I could begin to grasp the full meaning.  But it was worth it!

Monastery Notes

In November we celebrate two important days in the liturgical calendar: the Feast of All Saints (November 1st) and the Feast of All Souls (November 2nd).  Most people tend to think of this as a fairly democratic exercise, since it includes both the canonized and the far-from-canonized people who have gone before us in faith.

In recent years at Saint John’s we’ve marked this with a practice that lasts through the entire month.  Friends of the Abbey have sent in cards, asking that the monks remember deceased relatives and friends, whose names they have inscribed on the cards.  As monks enter the church for Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours, each takes a card and prays for the names on it.  I’ve found it partiuclarly moving when I recognize the names.  But at the very least, the entire exercise is a stirring reminder that the communion of saints is much wider than just me and my brothers in the choir stalls.

Monks have prayed for the dead since the earliest days of the Benedictine tradition.  In the middle ages monks who travelled from monastery to monastery took with them long parchment rolls, on which they entered the names of deceased monks from other houses.  On their return home, prayers were offered for the eternal rest of these souls.

For as long as I can remember, at Saint John’s we have maintained a Book of Remembrance, listing the names of all sorts of people for whom we’ve been asked to pray over the years.  This book is positioned on a stand behind the choir stalls, and occasionally you will see a monk standing there, going through some of the pages.  This practice is our link to an ancient tradition.

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