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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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imageThe Sharing of Goods

The historian in me has always loved The Acts of the Apostles.  It’s the vivid narrative of how the disciples came to terms with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But it’s also the story of how they teased out the logical implications of that act of faith.  In short, it’s the story of how the Church came into being.

As detailed as the Acts might seem at first glance, it is in fact a bare-bones account of how the disciples moved from one conclusion to the next.  If you asked them their goal at the beginning of the story, I suspect they would have confessed their ignorance.  Certainly they weren’t sitting around discussing a constitution for the Church on the day when Mary Magdelene burst into the room with news of the resurrection.  For one thing, they didn’t even believe her.  For another, they were probably more concerned about getting over the loss of Jesus and how to get on with their lives. That scene was only the first in a series of tense confrontations that dragged the disciples out of their comfort zone and into an entirely new mindset.  And what was happening here?  From the perspective of faith we’d say that the Holy Spirit had begun to transform a group of pretty average people into the nucleus of a Church.

imageSaint Luke, to whom we attribute The Acts of the Apostles, went on to itemize a series of experiences that led to agonizing decisions, from which there was no turning back.  The whole process rested on the  conviction that Jesus was the messiah, and that he  was truly risen.  From there it was all a matter of logic.  Slowly, and painfully, they ventured beyond their roots in Judaism, and the trend line in Acts is obvious.

At some point they decided it was okay to welcome Gentiles directly into their midst.  Still later they decided that baptism, but not circumcision, was the necessary rite of initiation.  Then they dispensed with most Jewish dietary restrictions.  At another point they ceased going to the temple to pray.  Slowly came  a more proactive attitude toward Roman authority and Greek culture.  By the time it was all over this was no longer an ethnic sect tethered to Judaism.  This was the community of believers in the saving power of Jesus Christ, and they were citizens of the world.

But not every idea on the table had the ring of permanence.  Acts 4 relates one issue that got a good airing but eventually bit the dust.  “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they held everything in common.”  This experiment falls into the category of all those things that “seemed like a good idea at the time;” but the fact is, Christian communism turned out rather poorly.  Not everybody bought into it wholeheartedly, and soon enough the leaders realized that this was one noble experiment that went down a black hole.  And so it quietly slipped from usage and from view, and Luke never returned to the subject again.  Here was yet another decision from which there was no turning back.

imageWhen I take off my historian’s hat and put on my monk’s cowl I feel a little disappointed that this idea of shared property turned out to be such a flop.  After all, most religious orders in the Church haven’t quite given up on this ideal, even if the mainstream of Christianity has moved beyond it.  We monks still treasure some sense of kinship with the early Christian community in Jerusalem, even if others in the Church might not do so to the same degree.

But in religious life, and in the Benedictine tradition itself, we too have shared the early hesitaton about shared goods and ideals of poverty.  Saint Benedict himself preached neither equality of possessions nor destitution.  Rather, monks were individuals, and individuals have different needs.  So he taught that monks should have what they need, but no more.  And those who need less should not feel superior to those whose needs are greater.

At the same time, Benedict’s emphasis on hospitality is the nice corrective to pegging self-worth to the scale of one’s possessions.   His injunction to treat all guests as Christ is capable of broad application, and so through history monks have fed and housed guests, whether rich or poor.  They’ve educated guests who through the centuries have come in the guise of students.  And they’ve prayed with and for guests, who’ve come as pilgrims and soul-searchers.  But at no point have we judged the worth of guests based solely on how much or how little they had.

imageLiving in community and sharing our goods are as challenging for monks in the 21st century as they were for Christians in Jerusalem in the years after the Ascension of Jesus.  In the Acts the early Christians finally solved the dilemma and left behind shared goods as a way of life; and instead they fixed their gaze on the needs of the needy. I think modern monks aspire to the same values.

A focus on the risen Lord ultimately gives the monk — and each Christian — the standard by which we shape our lives.  I’m reminded here of the insight that historian Jaroslav Pelikan often repeated to his students.  “If Jesus died and rose from the dead, then nothing else matters.  If Jesus didn’t die and rise from the dead, then nothing else matters.”  That, I think, is what the disciples eventually concluded, and it’s not such a bad conviction by which to live.

imageNotes

+On April 8th eight monks from Saint John’s, including Abbot John and myself, attended the funeral of Fr. Mark Ostendorf at the Cathedral of Saint Mary in St. Cloud, MN.  Fr. Mark grew up in our parish in Freeport, MN, and then went on to attend our prep school before graduating from Saint John’s University.  Later still he was ordained a priest for the diocese of Saint Cloud.

+On April 10th I spoke to the board of directors of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.  The meeting took place in Chicago, IL.

+In the recent issue of The Abbey Banner, I presented an article entitled The Garden of the Lord, which you can access here.  The magazine is a regular publication of Saint John’s Abbey.

+Among the less-visited spots in Rome is the church of Santa Presseda, which contains some of the oldest mosaics in the city.  It is well worth the visit, and you will not be hemmed in by the crowds.

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imageProofread Your Fine Print

For years I’ve wanted to see this particular edition of the Bible, but who knew that Holy Thursday would provide the occasion?  The said Bible was printed in London in 1631, and there was little to distinguish it from all the other editions of The King James Version, save for one glaring omission.  In his rush to publish, Robert Barker may have cut a few corners a little too closely.  We’ll never know whether the shoddy proofreading was due to budget cuts or poor execution, but the results have not lost their power to startle.  Nested in the fine print of Exodus chapter twenty, there is a line that should have a “not,” but it does not.  And a critically important “not” it was, as surprised and delighted readers discovered when they first stumbled onto the seventh commandment.  There it was in all its glory:  “Thou shalt commit adultery.”  Who could have imagined!

That little variant in the text may explain why this edition became a run-away best-seller.  It may also have inspired not a few people to pick up their Bibles to find out what else they may have missed in earlier readings.  In any case, the king’s agents burned as many copies as they could find, which has fueled a steady price rise ever since.  Meanwhile, the king also levied a big fat fine on Barker, ensuring that he would reap no financial gain from his happy fault.

imageThis may seem an odd prologue to a reflection on Easter, but it reminds us of the importance of reading the fine print in any human endeavor.  As often as not, the devil is in the details, and when it came to this particular Bible, the omission of one three-letter word earned the book its monicker for all time:  The Wicked Bible.

On Wednesday of Holy Week chapter twenty-six from the gospel of Saint Matthew provided good grist for my thoughts on the fine print in any of our endeavors.  Who knows when it first entered the mind of Judas to betray Jesus, but at some point he decided to approach the chief priests to see if he could do a deal.  “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

Several things struck me about this, and not the least of them was the sheer audacity of the man.  There’s egomania in Judas, with the thought that he controlled Jesus and could turn him over at will.  It’s as if Jesus were some commodity or intellectual property.  Then there’s the self-delusion that allowed Judas to believe that he wielded all the levers of power.  “If people want to deal with Jesus, they’ll have to deal with me first, and they’ll have to do it on my terms.  But the good news is that we can do business together.”

imageTo think of this as a form of prayer may seem a little odd, but in some respects it’s not unlike many of our prayers.  It is in fact the obverse of the prayer that Jesus uttered in the Garden only a few hours later.  “Not my will, but thy will be done,” he agonized.  The contrast may be as stark as can be, but it is prayer.  The difference?  Judas bargained for power and control;  Jesus bargained for the strength to surrender.

The irony of these two prayers shouldn’t be lost on us in the aftermath of Easter.  Judas prayed to be master of the moment, but what he thought was a good deal turned out to be a bust.  He sought to capitalize on a difficult situation, but he ended up losing everything.  Jesus, by contrast, surrendered himself completely.  But in losing his life he gained it.  And into his new life he gathers us all.

When Jesus called Judas to be his disciple, I just can’t imagine that Judas intended to have it end the way it did.  Who knows when it began to go off track?  Who knows when the urge to control all the details asserted itself?  But it happened; and what had begun as a promising discipleship ended in tragedy.

imageThe lesson for us, it seems to me, is this.  All of us begin relationships with the best of intentions.  Whether it is in our commitment to a spouse, to a friend or to God, we plunge in with high expectation.  But all such relationships require work, and any neglect is never benign.  Our lives require that we make regular course correction, or they will suffer from unplanned course correction.  All of us need to re-examine our motives;  all of us need to proofread our contracts with God and with one another, just to make sure that key words have neither slipped out nor been wedged in.  Such little changes can seem innocent enough at first, but over a lifetime they have the power to transform.

So it was with Judas, whose life as a disciple veered off course at some point.  So it was with Jesus, who grew in age and wisdom.  With Judas the prayer morphed into the self-serving demand to the high priests: “What can you do for me?”  And with Jesus it morphed into the conformity of his will to that of the Father.

As we enter Easter week the same is true for us.  The resurrection has the capacity to wipe our slate clean and to orient our lives to God.  But if it’s going to work, we must pay attention to those little changes in our own text that can redirect our lives, one way or the other.  Like Judas, we can gain a few pieces of silver and think we’ve won life’s grand prize;  or with Jesus we can appear to lose our lives entirely, and yet gain everything.

imageNotes

+This was a crazy week for me, and I spent the first part of it recovering from the flu as well as allergies.  On Tuesday I finally managed to get my car towed from the airport garage in Minneapolis, back to Saint John’s, where I now await the verdict of the automotive physicians.

+On April 2nd I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at the Dunham Bible Museum on the campus of Houston Baptist University, located (appropriately enough) in Houston, TX.  It was through their courtesy that I was at last able to see and photograph The Wicked Bible.

+On April 4th the monastic community, joined by a large gathering of friends, celebrated the Easter vigil.  Lasting two hours and forty-five minutes, the music was flawless and beautiful, and the entire service flowed wonderfully.  We were blessed by the absence of anyone from the Environimental Protection Agency, since the clouds of incense qualified us to be a major industrial polluter.

+The top photo in today’s post is of an icon by Aidan Hart, which is on display in the Abbey church during the Easter season.  Two come from the interior of the church, while two show the promise of spring outdoors.  And the Ten Commandments speak for themselves.

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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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imageAre We All From Galilee?

A recurring theme in the gospels is the rather shabby reception that Jesus got in towns that should have known him well.  In chapter four of his gospel John writes that in Galilee Jesus could expect no honor.  Elsewhere, in equally familiar places, he could do no wonders.  I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer for this, but perhaps his neighbors couldn’t possibly see Jesus in any other role than as the son of Mary and Joseph.  Or perhaps the village mentality asserted itself.  It’s the knee-jerk reaction of us all when we confront some young upstart who shows the potential to disrupt our cozy little worlds.  Whatever the reason, Jesus got no respect from his neighbors, as all the gospel writers attest.

Still later in chapter four John introduces a messenger from Capernaum, the city where Jesus had moved after leaving Nazareth.  In this episode an official has sent word, asking Jesus to heal his son.  The request is so matter-of-fact that it’s the equivalent of calling a pharmacist, and the rudeness irked Jesus just a little bit.  He did heal the son, but not before he had pointed out the presumption of the offical.  People in Capernaum, like people everywhere, enjoyed a good show of signs and wonders, noted Jesus.  But they expected this demonstration before they would believe.  If Jesus wanted their acceptance, then he had to jump through their hoops first.  Then and only then would they believe.  Maybe.  That’s what rubbed Jesus the wrong way.

imageTwo questions popped into my mind as I thought about this.  First, why did the evangelists feel compelled to include in their gospels all sorts of stuff that was unflattering to Jesus?  A modern publicist would edit the tale very differently, and so would I.  I, for one, would have a roar of hosannas greet Jesus at the gate of every town in his triumphant tour of Galilee.  And I’d  have people begging him not to leave.  Meanwhile, all that business about pushing Jesus over the cliff wouldn’t survive the first draft.  That’s how I’d like to see it; but that’s also why the Holy Spirit never asked me to write a gospel.  My sanitized and happy tale is not the story that Jesus meant to tell.

Then there’s the dogged determination that Jesus showed when he returned to all those hostile places.  Did he really have no place else to go?  I doubt it.  But the fact is, Jesus did go back, again and again, despite it all.  And you have to wonder why he even bothered with those people.  Why didn’t he just shake the dust from his sandals at the edge of town and then call down an air-strike of fire and brimstone?  That’s what I’d do if I were in his shoes.

imageWe may wonder why Jesus obsesssed with the people of Galilee, but there’s a very good reason:  those people are us.  For better and for worse, the population of Galilee did not exhaust the world’s supply of narrow-minded people, and in these gospel passages they do an excellent job of standing in for us.  That, in a nutshell, is why these ugly incidents are in the gospels.  These neighbors of Jesus remind us that people have scarcely changed in the last 2,000 years, and we’re in their number.

Like the people of Galilee and all the others who gave Jesus a chilly reception, we do the same sometimes.  We too expect Jesus to jump through our hoops.  Only after we’ve put our fingers in his wounds or seen him do his wonders will we get up from our bench on the sidelines.  Only after Jesus makes the first move will we respond.  And only after he meets us three-quarters of the way will we show some initiative.  And we do that to Jesus, because that’s how we often treat one another.

imageAs we approach the home stretch of Lent, Christians have a fundamental option to consider.  Will we always be observers in the story?  Will we always stand on the sidelines, looking for the trend lines, before we commit to something?  Or will we choose to act, despite all our imperfections?  To be blunt, will we reach out and help to carry the cross of Christ?  If we do, we’ll discover that we’re doing Jesus no big favor, because the cross he carries happens to be our own.

In retrospect I’m glad that the gospel writers included the stories of the neighbors who gave Jesus a rough time.  But they didn’t do it to stir our pity for Jesus, because he wasn’t welcome in his home town.  Rather, they told these stories to remind us that the Galileans represented us when Jesus, time and again, entered their villages.  And if we think that Jesus was crazy for going back, then I’m glad he was crazy.  Afer all, if Jesus came back for them, then it’s quite possible that he’d come back for me as well.

imageNotes

+On March 16th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices of the monastery.  Later that morning I presided at the Mass for the students of the School of Theology/Seminary, and then at 5:00 pm I presided at the Mass in the Abbey.  I did it on the theory that if a sermon is good enough to give once, why not give it twice?

+On March 19th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

+On March 20th I flew back to Minneapolis.  I had managed to have smooth flying throughout the winter, so it was only appropriate that on the last day of winter my luck would run out.  My morning flight was delayed by snow in Philadelphia, but I eventually got back to Minneapolis on a different flight.  Then my car decided to punish me for being gone so much.  I thought the battery was dead, but after a bit of work the people from AAA announced that the car’s security system did not recognize my key anymore.  Did I have a second key with me?  Of course I didn’t.  Who carries two sets of car keys with them?  So I left the car in the airport garage, simply because I had no other choice.  My car is still sitting there, pouting.  But two can play this game, as I have unfortunately discovered.

image+On March 21st Abbot John presided at the Eucharist as the monks celebrated the feast of the Passing of Saint Benedict.  The pictures in today’s post are medieval frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Benedict began his monastic life as a hermit.

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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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imageThree Days, Three Monasteries

Most tours to Italy try to carve out overly-ambitious itineraries that include way too many stops.  After all, the logic argues, if you go all that distance, why wouldn’t you want to cram in as much as possible?  But of course you can never see even a fraction of what’s there; so you have to choose, whether you like it or not.

My just-completed visit to Benedictine sites in Italy must seem like gross underachievement to some.  Our group could have seen a dozen sites a day.  We could have raced through churches, palaces, ruins and the like until we choked.  But we didn’t.  On the principle that more is actually less, I decided to focus on less when I built the schedule.  So we ended up — not with a blur of too much information — but with the memory and insight that come from seeing just a few things well.

So it was that we twenty-five visited the monasteries of Norcia, Monte Cassino, and Subiaco, in as many days.  All are in the region of Umbria; each played a distinctive part in the life of Saint Benedict; and each today houses a community of monks.  But to the surprise of many in our group, all similarities ended there.  Last week many learned that if you’ve seen one monastery, you’ve not seen ’em all.  Nor is there such a thing as the stereotpyical, one-size-fits-all, monk.

imageTradition says that Saints Benedict and his twin Scholastica were born in Norcia.  A monastery has stood in the center of town for ages, but only in 2000 did a community return to set up shop after a hiatus of nearly two hundred years.  Today the town still owns the monastery, but it has welcomed the monks with open arms.  For ages the town has staked its reputation on hams and sausages, which are truly excellent.  But in a tough economy many of the civic leaders decided that a restored monastery might be good not only for the spirit but for business as well.  Time tells all, but I think their judgement is sound.

Monte Cassino sits in solitary splendor on top of its mountain, just as it has since Saint Benedict set up shop there in the early 500’s.  Unlike the modest buildings at Norcia, Monte Cassino overwhelms visitors with its renaissance arcades and its baroque interior.  It’s huge and imposing, and it just swallows you up.  Perhaps that explains why it’s been such a tempting target ever since the Lombards destroyed it in the 6th century.  Each time it has risen from the ashes, in tribute to the grit and determination of the monks.

Finally, Subiaco is the place where Benedict began his search for God.  He found refuge in a cave high in the mountains, and today the monastery encases the cave as it clings to the side of the mountain.  Here it’s not the exterior that impresses, however.  Instead, the building protects a collection of frescos that any museum would covet. Among them is the only life-portrait of Saint Francis, painted shortly after one of the monks recognized their famous guest.

imageThese monasteries each merit a visit, but our group learned something that most tourists fail to notice.  Monasteries may or may not have great art or great geography, but that’s not what really distinguishes them.  After all, there are monasteries with no monks that are equally impressive.  Instead, it is the community that makes the monastery, and no two communities are alike.  Some communities are tired and barely cling to life, while others are marked by warmth and vitality.  And they thrive or decline not because of any magic formula in their way of life.  Rather, it all depends upon their willingness to search for the face of God every now and then.

The second lesson is this:  monasteries differ because no two monks are alike.  Perhaps this was the biggest discovery for many in our group.  Those among us who had spent time at Saint John’s already knew this, but others were surprised by the unique personalities we encountered.  At Norcia the prior came after Mass to offer warm words of welcome.  Later, guestmaster Brother Ignatius let his lunch go cold as he went from table to table to speak with each person individually.  Quiet enthusiasm radiated from his face, and each of us easily imagined spending more time with him.

imageAt Monte Cassino the 90-year-old monk who greeted us did not have quite the same energy, and his words of welcome reached only a few ears.  Perhaps he had seen way too many a tour bus in the course of his life.  By contrast, Fr. Mauricio at Subiaco seemed to possess boundless energy.  Who knows how many groups he had ushered through those halls as he explained one fresco after another?  He was an over-the-top guide that day, as he probably was the day before, and will be tomorrow.

So what were our take-aways from visits to three Benedictine monasteries in three days?   For one thing, no one left with the impression that if you’ve seen one monastery you’ve seen them all.  No two are alike.  Nor did anyone leave thinking that monks come from cookie-cutters.  Each monk comes to the monastery with a distinct personality, and each remains a unique gift to his community.

imageI hope my fellow pilgrims picked up on one last insight that most tourists scarcely grasp.  People do not join monasteries because they have a calling to be a monk.  Rather, they enter because they have a calling to be a monk within a particular community.  This is what sets Benedictines apart from Franciscans, Jesuits and all the rest.  The latter go where the needs of the Order might dictate.  For us monks, place is all-important.  In one place, and in one family, monks pursue the face of God.

Happily, at Norcia and Monte Cassino and Subiaco the monks see the face of God in each other, and I hope they do so every day.  But they also get to see Christ in the visitors who climb out of the fleet of coaches that pull up every day.  Perhaps they even saw Christ in us last week.  And, in return, I believe we glimpsed the face of Christ in them as they welcomed us.

imageNotes

+On March 3rd I and my fellow pilgrims visited the monastery of Norcia, in Umbria, where tradition says Saint Benedict was born.

+On March 5th we visited the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where it rained torrentially.  It was the only foul weather of our trip.

+On March 6th we visited the Abbey of Subiaco, where glorious sunshine and high winds greeted us.

+On March 4th the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s University joined our group as we visited three Roman churches.  Mark Greci and John Dube are spending a year of service at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo, the Benedictine headquarters in Rome.

+On March 8th several volunteers joined several monks in tapping over 1,000 maple trees at Saint John’s.  This marks the beginning of the maple syrup season, and it also allows us to  hope realistically for spring.

+The first two photos in today’s post come from Norcia, followed by two from Monte Cassino.  The last three come from Subiaco, where the fresco cycles are among the finest in Italy.

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