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imageWhen the Well Runs Dry

There comes the day when most speakers run out of stuff to say, and I came perilously close this weekend. Of course I had known for months that this day of reflection for members of the Order of Malta was on the horizon, so it wasn’t like it came as a total surprise, out of the blue.  But the real challenge came from years of speaking to this same group.  Was there anything new to say?  Was there anything that I could repackage and present in a novel way?  Or could I do a variation on that line from the gospels — could I pour old wine into new wineskins?

I suppose the title of my conferences hinted at my dilemma.  How do you replenish the well when the well runs dry?  My intention was to address the issues of my audience, but the title was as much for my benefit as for theirs.  Of course it was a catchy title for a group living in drought-plagued California.  But it also happens to be an appropriate theme for people who have committed themselves to service that they pledge to keep up for a lifetime.

There’s no denying the fact that as people mature they find many old commitments increasingly difficult to keep.  Marriages can coast on early enthusiasm for only so long, and eventually people have to invest a lot of work to make the relationship flourish and deepen.  The same is true with friendship.  But it’s in the commitment to serve others where the strains can show most easily, and often it shows after only a short while.

imageIt’s great to work in a soup-kitchen, for example, but if the lines never get any shorter people can reasonably begin to wonder if there’s any point to it.  MInistering to the sick and to those in their last weeks and months can drain care-givers beyond anything they ever imagined.  Even the most optimistic of parents can slip into depression when children wander away from the values they sought to instill.  And the strongest of people can be adrift at sea when close friends find themselves estranged from their faith in God.  In the face of apparent defeat, what are people to do when they have given to others day in and day out, and there seems nothing to show for it?

It seems to me that if people intend to keep giving of themselves but not be drained entirely, then they must replenish themselves somehow.  The first step to renewal seems not to be intuitive, however.  Renewal can only begin when people admit that they cannot stand alone.  They cannot be their own sole source of inspiration.  Sooner or later they will run out of reserves, and there will be nothing left.

imageIt’s a genuine temptaiton to want to be independent and strong for the sake of others, but eventually that becomes the temptation to be like God.  It’s the very same thing that Adam and Eve reached out for in the Garden of Eden.  But they, like most people since, learned the cruel and ultimate lesson of life.  None of us can stand alone.  We need to rely on someone else, and ultimately that someone else is God.

Saint Benedict opens his Rule for Monks with one simple word that invites the monk to reach out beyond himself to discover the real source of strength.  “Listen” in Benedict’s way of thinking is not passive.  It’s an active engagement with inspiration that comes from outside, and it’s that inspiration that replenishes the monk who is on the verge of empty.

Of course that’s just as true for other Christians as it is for monks.  If people are to be renewed, and if they are to avoid running out of enthusiasm or commitment to service, then they have to reach beyond themselves.  They have to “listen with the ear of their heart,” as Benedict advises.

imageBenedict’s words of course embody the wisdom of the ancients, but they are equally valid for the internet age as well.  So it is that even people in the 21st century who find themselves drained need to find nourishment somewhere, and that naturally has to come from outside of oneself.  For Christians that nourishment comes from reading the scriptures, praying alone and with others, and participating in the worship of the community.  And if it’s important to have ears that are open to the noises God sends our way, it is equally important to have eyes that are open to the work of God that takes place right in front of us.  Closed in on ourselves, it’s easy to succomb to self-pity and think that we alone carry burdens that are unique in all the world.  With eyes open we can see others who carry similar burdens, and they do so with generosity that can be equal to our own.  And in fact some of them are so generous that they’re willing to reach out and help us carry our own heavy burdens.

There’s no easy solution for replenishing our own well when the well runs dry.  But for sure the solution is not self-derived.  Thankfully God gave us ears to hear and eyes to see and brains to use.  And God invites us to use them all.  Using them all is the quickest way I know to refill the well, even to overflowing.

imageNotes

+On May 30th I gave a day of reflection to the members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.  We gathered for that at Vallombrosa Retreat Center in Menlo Park, CA.

+On May 29th the community gathered for the funeral of our confrere, Fr. Richard Eckroth.

+On May 31st we celebrated the feast of Trinity Sunday.  Depictions of Jesus abound in the history of Christian art; but illustrations of the Trinity are few and far between.  Just such a depiction of the Trinity is to be seen on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto, in Italy.  The pictures in today’s post come from that cathedral.

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imageCalling in Sick

It was bound to happen eventually.  After writing posts for 189 weeks in a row, production ground to a momentary halt this weekend.  The last few days had been particularly busy for me, but I had reserved Sunday to write a post that I could send today.  Unfortunately, a combination of the flu and allergies made sitting at a desk pretty much impossible.

On the plus side, there is a grain of wisdom to draw from this experience.  If you have to have the flu, the beginning of Holy Week is not such a bad time to have it.  For one thing, it is a not so subtle reminder that we do not always control our personal universe.  For another, it allows for some empathy for those people who suffer from chronic illness that deprives them of normal activity.  And finally, it’s an opportunity to share in the suffferings of Jesus Christ, if only in the slightest of ways.

In his passion and death Jesus emptied  himself completely, but on the third day he rose to new life.  Whether we experience robust or poor health, each of us has the chance to make those personal sacrifices in which we too empty ourselves.  And whether it is in service to others or in our own maladies, there is this consolation from the Lord.  Those who pour themselves out for the sake of others will be replenished. It’s both a mystery and a wonderful surprise.

imageNotes

+On March 23rd I gave a day of reflection to the area members of the Order of Malta in Phoenix, AZ.

+On March 24th I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, held at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Phoenix.  What makes that site so appropriate for us is their display of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  Several generous individuals joined together to make it possible for the Center to acquire a set, and they’ve built a wonderful spiritual program around it.

+On March 28th I gave a retreat day for the area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.

+On March 29th the Graz (Austria) Boys’ Choir provided music at the Abbey Mass for Palm Sunday.

+The first photo in today’s post is a 12th-century Limoges enamal crucifix, housed at the Louvre in Paris.  Also housed at the Louvre is the second photo, a ca. 1250 crucifixion.

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imageSaint Benedict and the Command to Love

I came way too late to the monastery to experience those first heady days of ecumenical encounter in central Minnesota.  To be clear, I’m not writing about the dialogs among Catholics and Lutherans and Episcopalians.  Those talks came much later, and they were possible only because of the earlier breakthrough between the German Catholics and the Polish Catholics.  It’s hard to imagine the day when a mixed marriage in Stearns County, our county, was the term for a union between members of those two communities, and people spoke of such marriages in whispered tones.

Given that disquiet about Catholics of non-German extraction, you can just imagine the level of enthusiasm that our early monks brought to the triad of feast days that sit squarely in the middle of Lent.  On March 17th, the feast of Saint Patrick, the more daring of the monks admitted to trace elements of Celtic blood flowing in their veins; while the more cautious among them owned to having met someone of Irish heritage, once.  Then, on the 19th, came the feast of Saint Joseph.   Way back then there was little of anything Italian in our community, save for the decrees that came by boat from Rome.  Then, in the next breath, the monks celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict on the 21st.  Now that was a feast they could sink their teeth into, despite the glaring note of his accidental birth in Italy.  In fact, he may have been born Italian, but there was something wonderfully German about the man that more than compensated.

imageOur community, since day one, has had a strong work ethic.  This turned out to be a strategic advantage in the pioneering days of Minnesota.  In the days when the option for everybody who came here was hard work or freezing to death, our founding monks came well-disposed to make the right choice.  And so a man like Benedict, whose motto was “work and pray,” had to have at least a little German in him, or so they must have thought.

As for the Italian DNA in Saint Benedict, everyone knew it was there, though they must have hesitated about it.  Here I’m not referring to the strain of legalism that has coursed through the Roman bureaucracy for centuries.  Rather, I speak of the reputation for creativity that Italians have earned as they’ve applied the ideals of Christian doctrine to its lived expression.  To say the least, I’ve always admired them for their genius at sorting out issues of law and love.  But of course they are artists at heart.

Nowhere is the tension between law and love better expressed than in the last visit that Benedict paid to his sister Scholastica.  On the prescribed day they left their respective monasteries and met at some spot halfway in between.  But as the visit stretched beyond Benedict’s self-imposed curfew, the latter grew antsy to get home.  Scholastica was not so eager to call it a day, and she dismissed out of hand her brother’s insistence that his own Rule forbade an overnight absence from the monastery.

imageScholastica then went on the offensive, and in as many words she let her brother know that “we’ll see about that.”  So she prayed and shed copious tears, until finally God got the message.  It rained cats and dogs, and Benedict was forced to admit defeat.  “What  have you done, sister?”

That evening Scholastica got the better of her brother, and Benedict’s biographer, Pope Gregory the Great, did not hesitate to say so.  “Surely it is no more than right that her influence was greater than  his, since hers was the greater love.”  So it was that the writer of the Rule lost out to his sister, and that day her great love trumped his excellent laws.

Stories such as this one abound in the early monastic tradition, and I’ve fondly recalled one that amused us to no end when we read it at evening prayer many years ago.  In that episode an Egyptian monk was walking down a road when he spied a group of nuns headed his way.  Worried that he might compromise his integrity, he hid in the ditch and covered his face until they had walked by.  Then he stood, brushed off the dust, and walked on with more than a smidgen of self-satisfaction.  But while he was still within earshot, the abbess called out to him and stopped him dead in his tracks.  “If you were a real monk, you’d never have even noticed that we were women.”

imageThe monastic tradition has delighted in these sorts of stories, partly because they owe so much to the spirit of the parables in the gospels.  Common to them all is the suggestion that every now and then God really does raise up the lowly to confound the proud.  They also warn that a healthy reserve of humility can come in handy, just when you need it most.  And last but not least, they offer this one bit of wisdom:  law has primacy, and the greatest of the laws is the command to love.  Teasing this wisdom into everyday life is not easy, of course, but that’s what monks and nuns try to do.  It’s also what thoughtful Christians do.

All this is a little disconcerting for those who would like to put law and wisdom into opposite corners and dispense with one or the other.  The fact is, we  need a healthy balance of both.  For its part, law is the practical embodiment of Christian ideals, and they lead us on the path to God.  But the Holy Spirit grants us wisdom for those cases when we’re tempted to walk a straight line down a twisting road.  Weaving the two together, it seems to me, is the challenge of Christian life.  It’s also what makes it wonderfully beautiful.

This March 21st I plan to celebrate the memory of the Benedict who wrote the Rule that still guides the lives of me and my brothers.  But I also plan to celebrate the man who could look squarely at the command to love, and be wise enough to adjust his plans accordingly.

imageNotes

+On March 15th I gave a conference to the Benedictine Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, who had gathered for the Abbey Mass, lunch, and lectio.  At the conclusion of the day, five individuals made their oblation, completing a year of study and prayer.

+I neglected to mention in the last post that during our visit to Norcia, the city of Benedict’s birth, I was named a citizen of the town.  To my great surprise I received a document signed by some civic official, suitable for framing.  Only later did I have the presence of mind to ask our guide whether this entitled me to any special rights or privileges. “Do I qualify for a pension?” I asked.  “Oh, I guess they forgot to tell you.  We’re broke.  Flat broke.”  I’m now going back to read the fine print and find out whether I’m the first and only citizen of Norcia required by law to pay taxes.

+I’m reaching back a bit to mention that on February 26th I attended a lecture at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University, entitled Templars, Hospitallers and 12-century Popes.  The Malta Study Center at HMML sponsored the talk, delivered by Dr. Jochen Burgtorf.  Dr. Burgtorf is Professor of Medieval History at California State University at Fullerton.

+The photos in today’s post all come from Monte Cassino.  At top is a wonderful modern sculpture, depicting two monks who support Saint Benedict as he surrenders himself to God.

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imageWas That Today?

Several months ago someone sent me a cartoon of two dinosaurs, smoking and chatting away as they stood on the beach.  Suddenly one spies a big ship sailing off, and poking from the deck and portholes are the heads of giraffes, horses, peacocks and two of every other kind of animal.  It’s just then that the awful truth dawns on them.  One turns to the other and in alarm asks:  “Rats.  Was that today?”

Actually, he used another expletive, though I forget which one.  But the point doesn’t depend on the naughty word in question.  These two dinosaurs were so caught up in their own little world that they’d completely forgotten about their tickets for Noah’s Ark.  Here it was, the biggest thing to happen in weeks, and they were lolling around on the beach, smoking.  Coincidentally, this may very well be the first documented instance that links smoking to mortality.

imageIt’s easy to smirk at the forgetfulness of those dinosaurs.  But how often do we do the same thing?  I bring this up because the opening reading for the liturgy of the first Sunday of Lent tells the story of God’s covenant with Noah.  Noah and the animals who remembered to keep their reservations on the ark had just survived the flood of the millenium.  Now God has promised not to do that again.  And so, what emerges is a covenant between God and people, and it would last for all time.

There are not a few of us who prefer to see this covenant as a contractual relationship between God and the entire human race as a species, or at the very least a bargain between God and a political entity like Holland or Canada.  But as near as I understand the current iteration of God’s job description, that contract binds God to each and every individual.  God loves us all, each and every one of us.  After all, we are created in the divine image.  Why wouldn’t God love us?

Still, like the dinosaurs, we forget.  How can anyone of us expect to remember our relationship with God for a lifetime?  In an era in which our attention span has slipped to less than twenty seconds, how are we supposed to remember the deal that somebody struck on our behalf at baptism?

imageI’m not sure I have the answer to that, but I would suggest that short-term projects may be the solution to long-term memory loss.  That’s where Lent comes in.  Lent is only forty days long.  I’ll grant that to some it might seem like an eternity.  But, compared to having a spouse or raising kids or doing college, it’s not all that long.  For many of us, forty days is doable.

So if some of us have the capacity to remember to do something for forty days, what might we do?  And why would we do it?  That’s the genius of picking some Lenten project.  It’s not too late, for instance, to commit ourselves to a daily reading from scripture.  It’s not too late to commit to morning prayer, a meditative rosary, or some other practice that won’t chew up the entire day.  And the point of all this?  The point is not to keep God happy.  God long ago gave up on animal sacrifices and the other chips we’ve used to curry divine favor.  Rather, we do it to remind ourselves regularly of God’s love for us.  That’s the point of God’s promise to Noah.  The sign in the sky is not a signal of a cease-fire from divine wrath.  Rather, it’s the promise of God’s love for each and every one of us.

imageIn his Rule Saint Benedict asks his monks to make of their lives a Lenten observance.  But for most monks that takes way too much long-term concentration.  So Benedict breaks the year down and asks each monk to do one project for Lent.  And even if forty days sounds like an awful lot, it’s something I can almost wrap my mind around.

So this Lent we shouldn’t get left behind, absent-mindedly smoking with the dinosaurs.  On Holy Thursday we shouldn’t be startled and have to ask “rats — was that Lent?  Where did it all go?”

imageNotes

+On February 17th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the University of Portland.  The next day, in the sacrificial spirit of Ash Wednesday, I acidentally offered up my cell phone somewhere in the Portland International Airport.  To my utter amazement, I did not die.

+On February 20th the Order of Malta celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the Order’s mother church in Malta, Saint John’s Co-cathedral.  It was built between 1573 and 1578, and it is gorgeous down to the least detail.  It earned World Heritage designation because of the inlay marble tombs that today form the floor.  Enclosed you will find a gallery of this magnificant church.  Adjacent to the cathedral is the palace of the grand masters of the Order of Malta.  Today the palace serves as the seat of the parliament and the offices of the president and prime minister.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the palace.

image+Also on February 20th, some 1,300 people gathered in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome for the Mass and opening of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God, Frá Andrew Bertie.  Frá Andrew is the first Grand Master of the Order of Malta to begin this formal process; and coincidentally he would become the first canonized saint to hold a degree from Saint John’s University.  In 2004 we hosted Frá Andrew at Saint John’s, and during his visit the University bestowed on him an honorary doctorate.  One highlight of Frá Andrew’s three-day visit to Saint John’s was the Mass said by Abbot John, attended by Frá Andrew and other guests, and a few of us monks.  That day we celebrated the feast of Blessed Frá Gerard, the early 12th-century founder of the Order of Malta.

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imageThree Days Left

Nothing motivates quite like a deadline.  And for those who get things done well in advance of the due date, I only feel pity.  They know nothing of the thrill of a drop-dead end-time.  Nor do they ever experience the burst of creativity that comes with the intense pressure to get something done, preferably yesterday.  No, it has to be a tedious existence when you finish something days before it’s due, and then have to sit there with nothing to keep you busy.  How sad.

As for me, I’m firmly in the ranks of the procrastinators.  I recall many a college paper that crunch time transformed from a C into a C+.  What a thrill.  But mostly I recall the day when I adopted an entirely new philosophy of life.  It was the day I turned in my PhD dissertation.  That day it dawned on me that the only thing better than perfect is done.  That was a game-changer.

imageChristmas is one of those deadlines that separate the sheep from the goats; or to be more precise, those who got cards mailed and shopping done weeks ago, versus those who desperately count on the twelve days of Christmas to be there when they need them. The only thing left for the former is to defrost the Christmas dinner and serve it. For the latter, Christmas dinner has yet to be planned.

Procrastinators experience this season in an entirely different way.  While their peers are reading novels and sipping hot chocolate, the rest of us are crazy-busy at the mall or at airports.  Still others are begging special favors from the FED-EX and UPS people.  Mainly we sit in traffic or wait in long lines, vowing that next year will be different.  But of course it never is.

The good news is that there are still three days standing between us and Christmas.  For some of us that’s all the time in the world.  That’s even enough time to reflect on what all this mess was about in the first place — Advent.  Remember the voice crying in the desert?  Well, the good news is that John the Baptist has not given up on us.  He’s still out there crying in the desert, reminding us that there’s plenty of time to do something, anything.

imageThere’s no time and little point in writing a long essay on the cosmic significance of what John had to say.  I don’t have the time to write it, and scarcely anyone has the patience to read it.  So here’s the abbreviated version.

First, with his words and with his finger John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, whose sandal he was unworthy to unfasten.  Whether this upset his mom, who probably wished better for him, is irrelevant.  John did not strive to be #1, because it was all about Jesus.  Apart from Jesus he might have been the #1 prophet of his day, but what would be the point of that?  John drew his meaning from Jesus, and that was the relationship to which he called all who listened to him in the desert.

The second point that strikes me is John’s choice of the desert as the setting for his sermons.  In the desert there are none of the usual distractions.  There you face a fundamental reality of life.  If you are alone in the desert, survival becomes an issue.  If you stand with others, you could very well flourish.  And that’s what John taught.  Alone they could do little or nothing.  But building a relationship with God and neighbor might allow you to flourish.  The choice is ours to make.

So what do we do with three days left in Advent?  Well, in the spirit of John the Baptist, I encourage you to consider two things, neither of which will take much time.

imageFirst, do something for yourself.  Let your mind wander out into the spiritual desert to pray for a moment.  Read something from the Bible, or select one of the readings from the Mass of the day or a Psalm.   Read it, and for a few minutes mull over what it has to say to you.  Ignore the mall and the advertising, both of which will still be there when your mind comes back to pseudo-reality.  But in the serenity of a moment clear your mind of clutter and find out how soothing a bit of peace can be.

Secondly, take a moment to do something for Jesus.  I’ve always been fond of Mother Theresa’s words of exhortation:  “Do something beautiful for Jesus.”  This need not be a big deal, but even a minute or two in which we pay attention to the needs of a fellow human being can work wonders for the other person, and it may impact our own soul as well.  In doing so we may actually discover that Jesus lives in our neighbor.  What a wonderful surprise that could be.

The good news is that neither of these suggestions takes much time, and they’re not all that difficult to do.  But the return on our puny investment of time and energy can be enormous.  So between now and Christmas Day, give it a shot.  And if it works, try it again after Christmas — unless of course you have other plans.  But even if you do, God and neighbor will be standing by, just in case you change your mind.

imageNotes

+On December 15th I celebrated Mass and spoke to the San Francisco area members of the Order of Malta.

+On December 17th I attended a Lessons and Carols Service at the Cathedral in Los Angeles.  Afterwards I attended a dinner hosted by Archbishop José Gomez, at which he thanked the many people who sit on archdiocesan boards and volunteer in the ministry of the archdiocese.

+On December 21st the monks of Saint John’s held an Advent service of Lessons and Carols, in place of our usual Sunday vespers.

image+Recently I completed John Rhöl’s Kaiser Wilhelm II: a concise life (Cambridge University Press, 2014.)   As promised, it was a concise life, and I found myself speeding along and wishing it were longer.  It ended way too soon, and I would have enjoyed learning a lot more about this fascinating and troubled individual.  On the other hand, this was an abridged version of the author’s magisterial 4,000-page biography, which must have included everything the kaiser ever ate, did or said.  I don’t think I want to know that much about him, so I will content myself with the concise life.

+There’s more than one way to tell the Christmas story, besides words.  The first photo in today’s post is a stained-glass Annunciation, made most likely in Cologne in the mid-fifteenth century.  It’s now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.  The next photos continue the story, this time in stone.  They are from a tympanum at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

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imageThe End Times Are Upon Us

In last week’s readings at Mass there were at least two occasions when the texts pointed to the end-times.  Quite naturally, the mere thought of end-times is enough to send shivers up some spines.  Urgency floods into our consciousness.  Our blood pressure spikes.  We rachet up the intensity of our lives.  And not surprisingly, we often get a lot more done, even if we have to compromise on the quality a bit.  And common to many of us in such a pickle, we do our level best to squeeze every opportunity out of life — especially when our days seem numbered.  In the process we become very decisive people, as we deftly toss aside the less-important projects to concentrate on the things that suddenly matter.

All of this makes sense to me, because I know it’s true in my own life.  Through years of schooling, on the eve of deadlines I’ve miraculously produced research papers that may not have been good, but in the space of a few hours they became good enough.  And I’ve gotten productive beyond my wildest dreams when I’ve been up against the wall with office work long overdue.  Still, in each instance I knew that this was not the way I wanted to live my life.  I don’t like deadlines staring me in the face.  And if I don’t like the little deadlines, I can only imagine how I’ll deal with Jesus when he comes knocking at the final end-time.

imageThat may explain why I found the subject of end-times to be a little off-putting last week.  First off, the third week of October is nowhere near the feast of Christ the King, which marks the end of the liturgical year.  And it’s even less proximate to December 31st.  So what’s the point of having readings that are way ahead of their time?  Why talk about end-times when we still have plenty of time to put stuff off?  I for one prefer to leave end-of-the-year business to the end of the  year.  I do not at all appreciate readings that try and terrify me, weeks before I should be dealing with that emotion.

My other objection to this out-of-season scare-mongering stems from my life according to the Rule of Saint Benedict.  I’ve perused that Rule many times over the years, and despite my best efforts I’ve yet to find a passage in which Benedict meant to scare the daylights out of his monks with threats of end-times.  In fact, Benedict lays out a way of life that seems to minimize any need to lead a frenzied last-minute style of existence.  Granted, he does ask his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  But since it’s something he expects us to do every day, there’s no sense getting wild-eyed about the prospect of the end-times.  He seems to suggest that if that’s the sort of thing that motivates you, then you should live with that intensity every day, rather than embrace it only at the last minute.  Why delay, especially if there’s the risk you might not have the time to get to it, even then?

imageBenedict also expects his monks to  undergo a conversion of life, but he doesn’t presume that this will happen overnight, due to some crisis.  Rather, this is a process of a lifetime, fed by regular prayer, regular work and rest, and regular everything else.  Like wind and water that carve a landscape over thousands of years, so the slow and patient schedule of the monastic day should shape a monk.  But the horarium doesn’t do it in a day, and Benedict would be keenly disappointed if a monk put all that off until the final week of his life.

That still leaves us to consider just how ordinary and even boring such a life should be.  The fact is, Benedict hopes that his monks will encounter God in the ordinary things of life. There’s no need to go to the mountain when God is to be found in your neighbor.  Nor do you need to get a set of specially-carved stone tablets, because the monk can see God in the gentle breeze and in the sacred readings and in the kindness of a brother.

imageIn short, if we wait until the end-times to go looking for God, we’ll likely be terribly disappointed.  And that will be so because God was already there — underfoot and rubbing elbows with us, in the ordinary circumstances of our lives.  From that perspective, what a waste it would be to postpone the search for God until the end-times.  If we do so, chances are excellent that we’ll miss God then, even as we forget to notice the divine presence now.

Given that Saint Benedict warns us not to wait until it’s too late to search for God, perhaps it’s appropriate after all to have readings about end-times well in advance of the end times.  Perhaps it serves as a reminder that we all need, suggesting that life can and should be lived in October, and not just at the end of the year or at some other peak moment of our existence.  And if God can be found at any time of the year, and not just at the end of time, then it’s certainly worth thinking about.  Perhaps even today.

imageNotes

+On October 21st through the 26th I delivered conferences at the annual retreat of the members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta, held in Danville, CA.  This year members had read Chris Lowney’s book, Pope Francis: Why he leads the way he leads, (Loyola Press, Chicago.)  Some friends had recommended the book to me, and most in our group enjoyed it. It approaches the leadership style of Pope Francis from a business and organizational perspective.  It is an easy read, as long as you don’t mind the overly frequent references to the business world.

+On October 23rd Fr. Fintan Bromenschenkel, our oldest monk, celebrated his 96th birthday.  Many credit his longevity to his daily regimen of manual labor, and to the fact that he always takes the stairs rather than the elevator.  Say what you will about him, there is one thing upon which we can all agree:  Fr. Fintan is not nearly as old as he used to be.

+During the month of November the monks of Saint John’s Abbey remember in our prayers all friends and benefactors who have asked for them.  Those prayer requests are contained in a basket, and on entering the church for office or Mass each monk will take one slip of paper and remember the names printed on it.

imageOn All Souls’ Day, November 2nd we normally process to the cemetery for a short prayer service for the repose of our deceased confreres and members of the parish of Saint John the Baptist who are buried there.  During the height of the fall colors I was able to get some good photos of the Abbey cemetery, and you can access that gallery here.  Once inside the page, the icon “Galleries” will appear at the top of the page, and from there you can visit the other galleries that I’ve posted.  More will follow!

+The photos in today’s post come from the Liebfrauenkirche in Trier, Germany.

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imagePilgrimage: A Metaphor for Church

She wasn’t the sort of pilgrim who shows up at shrines like Lourdes or Fatima.  For one thing, she had elected to walk to Santiago Compostela.  For another, she definitely looked like she’d walked.  I’m sure a quick rummage through her back-pack would bear this out.  Fifty miles earlier she must have run out of freshly-starched and ironed blouses; and her last visit to the day spa had to have been at least a hundred miles ago.

On the other hand, she was sturdy, determined and friendly.  Perhaps that was a reflection of the Bavarian blood that coursed through her veins.  And she was also a mavarick.  Unlike everyone else who hikes or bikes or skate-boards to Santiago, she had begun her trek in Seville, far away in the south of Spain.  Was that even legal?  I wondered.  Is there even a hiking path for pilgrims from Seville?  Probably not.  Worse still, was she even a believer?  I shuddered to think.

Eventually you have to ask whether they let just anybody come to Santiago.  And the answer is a resounding “Apparently so.”  The fact that you can walk or bike to the shrine of Saint James means that quality control for pilgrims is largely absent.  At Fatima and Lourdes most people arrive pre-selected, pre-sorted, and in neatly overpacked planes and trains;  and it shows in the streets.  In Santiago people show up when they show up, and locals  have long since ceased to stare at what the cats have just dragged in.  As a result, Santiago still has the feel of the medieval Wild West.  That makes it, in my humble opinion, the most interesting pilgrimage destination in Europe, hands down.

imageThat mix of people of all shapes and sizes and classes and ethnic groups is what has made Santiago such a fascinating place for centuries on end.  What also fascinates is the movitation that has driven people there.  They’ve come to repent of sins great and small.  They’ve come out of curiosity.  They’ve been out to seek adventure.  And perhaps they’ve come to escape.  But above all, they still come to discover something about themselves; and for that reason the hike to Santiago is as important as the arrival.  A lot happens en route.  Thoughts are thought.  Friendships are made.  And lives are discovered.  As such, it’s a destination that encourages dreamers and searchers.

imageIf that’s what makes the road to Santiago such a vibrant place, that’s also what unnerves more organized people like myself.  I admit that I like my world tidy, and I dare say that I prefer the Church to be the same way.  So it is a bit off-putting that God keeps calling such a rag-tag mixture of people on pilgrimage to Santiago.  Couldn’t it be just a little more stately and serene?  I could only hope so, and for that I have prayed on occasion.

It’s in this vein that Jesus could easily have used Santiago as a parable of what he would like his Church to be.  Time and again Jesus indicated that he intended to invite everyone to the wedding feast.  In more than one parable the lord sent servants to gather people from the byways and crossroads, and in some cases they compelled the guests to take the seats that the preferred guests had earlier refused.

That meant that the unsavory and the less-than-perfectly-mannered would occupy places of honor — alongside the respectable.  That meant lots of surprises for everybody when they gathered to celebrate at the feast.  And for some it was sheer joy; while for a few others it had to be socially awkward, at best.

imageIn the current synod of bishops in Rome there has been some discussion about language, and more precisely, the appropriate words to describe a Church that includes all sorts of people at all sorts of stages in their spiritual journey.  To my mind pilgrimage is one of those words, because it describes people on the move.  They are people who may be on pilgrimage together, but as in any pilgrim group there are those who occasionally stray from the path.  Some stumble and fall.  Some get lost or sidetracked for a while.  But with minds fixed on the goal, they make progress that is unique to each.  Eventually, in God’s good time, God gathers them in, one pilgrim at a time.

If God allows people to make progress on their journey at their own pace, God also invites an infinite variety of people to take part in the journey.  Here’s where, yet again, I find myself uncomfortable with God’s approach.  I have to admit that there are more than a few times when I regret God’s indiscriminate taste in friends.  Why couldn’t God call a better sort of person to be part of the pilgrimage?  Why does God have to call people who clearly should not have been on the invitation list?

imageIf all this seems a little bit theoretical, it’s important to recall that Jesus meant his parables not just for other people, but for you and me as well.  In that light, I went back to consider the road-weary young woman who had hiked from Seville.  By a lot of people’s standards, and probably by my own as well, she did not deserve a place in the sanctuary in Santiago.  Bettter that she stand nearer the door, for a variety of reasons.

But then it recently dawned on me that perhaps God’s standards might differ rather significantly from my own.  Might God prefer the person who had walked two hundred miles to pray, versus the pilgrim who came by bus?  Might God prefer to hang out with the person who carried a backpack full of dirty clothes, instead of the monk with a bag of clean laundry?  I’m hoping God has better sense than that.  But given God’s taste in pilgrims, I think I had best prepare myself for a few surprises at the heavenly banquet.  After all, the joke would certainly be on me to meet people who were surprised to see me there.

imageNotes

+On October 8th I attended a reception for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University, held at the Museum of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, CT.  Currently there is a wonderful exhibit of original folios from The Saint John’s Bible at the Museum.

+On the morning of October 8th I had the opportunity to visit Saint Thomas More Chapel and the Catholic Center at Yale University.  For three years during my PhD studies I was privileged to live there and work as a student-priest chaplain.  The new addition to the Center is an over-the-top facility.

+On October 10th-12th I gave a retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta.  We met at the conference center at Mundelein Seminary, the archdiocesan seminary of Chicago.

+On October 8th our novice-confrere Brother Bradford successfully defended his PhD dissertation at Boston College.  In the audience was our confrere Fr. Michael Hahn, who has just begun his PhD studies in the same department at Boston College.

image+Given my frequent involvement in activities of the Order of Malta, one reader asked me to comment on the structure of the Order.  The Grand Master, Frá Matthew Festing, a Knight of Justice who takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, is the head of the Order.  He is both head of state, since the Order has governmental status; and he is the head of the Order of Malta as a religious order in the Catholic Church.  He is assisted in the work of administration by the Sovereign Council, which acts as a cross between a cabinet and a senate.  The Prelate of the Order oversees the work of the chaplains as well as the spiritual life of all the members of the Order.  Finally, the Cardinal Patron of the Order acts as a liaison between the Order and the Vatican.  His role is to promote the interests of the Order at the Vatican.

image+While perusing photos I’ve taken over the years, I recalled a statue of Saint James, perched on the wall of a building in Amsterdam.  That picture, along with other examples of building art in Amsterdam, are included in today’s post.  These little bits adorn the nooks and crannies of Amsterdam, and together with the canals and bridges they help to make Amsterdam one of the most charming cities in Europe.  I also like Amsterdam because it’s one city where smoked herring is available on so many street corners.

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