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Archive for the ‘Saint John’s University’ Category

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On Mission for Christ

Jesus may have sent his disciples to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, but soon enough that job fell to others.  It was not long before Christian merchants and soldiers and spouses began to do the heavy lifting, and that’s how the majority of the Christian communities popped up around the Roman world and beyond.

Eventually, trained missionaries stepped in, and ever since then most of us have assumed that the work of spreading the gospel belongs to the professionals.  So when we read Matthew 8, as we did yesterday on Trinity Sunday, we assume that Jesus directed his words to those best qualified.  He could not possibly have been thinking of us, since mission work is way above our pay grade.  Of course we do support those called to that work, but we tend to excuse ourselves by noting our lack of expertise and the absence of an unshakeable faith that’s needed for that sort of work.

In fact, however, Jesus actually did have us in mind when he commissioned his first followers to go out and make disciples.  For one thing, there was a sense of urgency in his voice, and this was accented by one fact staring Jesus in the face.  He had only eleven apostles, and that simply wasn’t enough to get the job done.  Jesus needed help, and he meant us to be the ones to provide that help.

58904846-8172-4481-9995-964AA43EE05CBut are we qualified to proclaim the gospel?  Do we have the skill set that suits us for the job?  Ironically, it’s some of our perceived liabilities that in fact count as strengths.  A sometimes shaky faith, laced with doubts and hesitation, would seem to disqualify us.  In fact that merely puts us in the same league with Peter and the apostles.  Lest we forget, it was Peter who denied Jesus three times, and the entire lot of the apostles ran away when the chips were down.  So we’re standing on soft soil when we excuse ourselves for lack of strong faith.  And to point out the rather obvious, who is better qualified to speak with those who don’t believe?  We in fact know where they’re coming from.

What else qualifies us to speak of Jesus in the public forum?  Frankly, I’d not thought about this until recently, but even we feeblest of believers have had at least some little experience of God.  Even if not every day, there have been moments when God has gently touched our lives, and we’ve sensed the Spirit of God stirring within us.  Who better to reach out to those who — like us — seek some fleeting experience of the divine?

D84A3155-E464-4491-8F5D-ABB82828B1A1Finally, there’s an attitude that sets apart those who are suited to proclaim the gospel to the ends of their own little worlds.  Perhaps it is better to specify who’s not in this group.  If we are curmudgeons or negative or angry people, or if we use religion as leverage to pressure others, then we are not in that category.  Such people merely reinforce the common misconception that Christians are joyless and strident human beings.  Who would possibly want to become such a person?

On the contrary, followers of Jesus need not wear the Christian brand on their sleeves, but the occasional brush with God should show in their daily demeanor.  In the bad times of life they can be confident that the Lord walks with them and sustains them.  In the good times they have an inkling that it is the Lord who bestows those blessings.  But above all, such people realize that life is a gift, and quite possibly it’s a gift from God.  Who then wouldn’t want such a gift?  That gift shows in their faces, and what better advertising can there be for the Christian way of life?

That kind of attitude shows in the face of a Christian.  A Christian, in fact, has the insight to see the face of Christ in others and to be the face of Christ to those who seek him.  Who is better qualified to be such an emissary for God?  Thankfully, such a labor is a labor of love, and it’s a mission to which all Christians are called.

D6E70975-1FC7-4FD5-9909-C7BA9B5C33DDNOTES

+On May 25th I gave a two-hour presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to members of the faculty and staff at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, Australia.  Later that evening I spoke at the opening of an exhibit of Christian art, staged in the University library.  That day I also had the opportunity to visit with several of our students who are doing a semester of study at the University.  We’ve had this exchange relationship for eighteen years.

+Fremantle is the port city of Perth, which is six hours’ flying time west of Sydney.  I’d never been there before, and I really did enjoy seeing what is a uniquely charming city.  Fremantle is blessed to have at its core the largest concentration of Victorian-era buildings anywhere.  It’s not gingerbread Victorian, however.  After all, it was a port city.

+I’m not terribly familiar with Australia, and in anticipation I read Bill Bryson’s book entitled In a Sunburned Country.  In it he points out that Australia is arid and has more animals eager to kill or bite people than any other place on earth.  Happily, nothing tried to bite me, and I didn’t see a single kangaroo during my short visit.  Nor did I experience the aridity that Bryson writes about.  On the contrary, I got caught six times in torrential rains that came in from the Indian Ocean to pound Perth.

B493948E-8904-41CE-9BB2-87BA5855411FIf you’ve never read anything by Bill Bryson, you might want to consider him.  He’s a travel writer, and an irreverent one at that.  His understatement is laugh-out-loud funny.  For example, he gives an insightful explanation of the game of cricket, a game which I long ago gave up trying to understand.  On the basis of a match between England and Australia that he attended, he gives some really useful information.  For instance, the intensity of the inaction on the field makes it absolutely necessary to pause for lunch and drinks several times in the course of the game.  However, one thing eluded him.  He never could figure out how England could lose all those wickets with all those people watching.  And where in the world were they losing those wickets?

The only thing for which I seriously fault Bryson is his writing style.  He writes brilliantly, and his turns of phrase are witty to a fault.  What I object to is that Bryson has used up most of the finest turns of phrase, leaving scraps for people like me.

+In today’s post there is a real mix of photos.  At top is the shrine of Saint Remi, in the abbey church of Saint Remi in Reims.  It was he who baptised Clovis, king of the Franks.  A simple inscription in the floor of the cathedral of Reims marks the spot of the baptism, and it is located quite near the grand pulpit in the cathedral.  The statue further down the page is of Saint Boniface, missionary to the German people.  It stands outside the cathedral of Mainz in Germany.  Next is a photo of me with students and one faculty member from our school, standing in front of an acrylic by Western Australian artist Joan Rastus.  At bottom is a street scene from Fremantle, complete with an ingenious pattern that has been painted onto the walks and buildings in the city.

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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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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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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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imageMake Lent the Cornerstone

Lent has a reassuring rhythm in the monastery.  We see it in little tweaks that carry through into Holy Week, such as a second reading at evening prayer.  We see it as well in the Friday menu in the refectory.  And then there is the gradual increase in daylight.  By Holy Week it’s almost too much to manage.

But it’s Ash Wednesday that sets the tone.  On that day hundreds of students will join us for Mass.  Many will return to the abbey church for evening prayer with us, and some will continue to do so through much of the season.  But at the end of evening prayer on that one sacred day, they will see us file off to the chapter house, where the abbot will offer a conference that he hopes will inspire us for at least the next hour or two, if not for the entire forty days of Lent.

After a hundred and fifty-nine years of Ash Wednesday conferences, none of us monks really expect to hear anything new, which is okay.  In some respects it’s reassuring to hear old themes brought out for a periodic airing.  But this year Abbot John tossed out a nugget that seemed to offer a new perspective, and that was okay too.

imageBy reflex most of us think of Lent as a time for giving stuff up.  In my youth that tended to focus on things like candy or desserts or smoking or some other simple pleasure that we coud live without for the duration.  In the spirit of the times today it might be hard drugs or Cheetos.  But whatever your fancy might be, Lent has always seemed to be the time for a cease-fire in the pursuit of pleasure.  During Lent this has been our simple gesture of giving to God what is God’s.  During the rest of the year we take it all back, and we resume giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

This year Abbot John counselled a different approach.  Certainly he didn’t want us to give up entirely on self-denial, but he did invite a reconsideration for Saint Benedict’s teaching on Lent.  If Benedict asks us to pursue our entire life in the monastery as a Lenten observance, then forty days as a sort of time-out from normal life doesn’t quite reflect that spirit.  If you give up something for forty days, with every intention of taking it up again after Easter, does that not seem to waste a good opportunity?  Does it make a mockery of the integrity that should mark the entire duration of our lives?  It might very well do just that.

imageSo it was that Abbot John encouraged us to make Lent a time of testing.  This could very well be the ideal time for a trial run of something we might continue to do long after Lent is over.  After all, if something is worth doing for forty days, it might be worth doing for a lifetime.  And conversely, if there’s something we ought to integrate into our routine for a lifetime, might Lent be the best chance we’ll ever have for a feasibility study?  After all, if I can’t do something for forty days, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll succeed in doing it for forty years.  What better time to test drive an idea that has rattled around in my mind for months, or even years.

imageWe all have our own short list of things we should have tried out years ago.  What better time than Lent to find out if we’re capable of a “new normal” in our lives.  What better time is there than Lent to discover whether something really will work for us?  And if nothing else, why go on feeling guilty for not trying?

I’m not about to publish my own short list of aspirations, mainly because Benedict admonishes his monks not to make a big splash about this sort of thing. This is a matter of personal growth and development, not an item in a personal public relations campaign.  So it is that I will keep this to myself.  Besides that, if I fail, who needs to know?

But I wil not keep to myself the one lasting piece of advice that I took away from the abbot’s conference this year, and it’s this.  This time around let’s not let Lent interrupt our year.  Instead, let’s let Lent be the cornerstone of our year.

imageNotes

+On February 24th the abbey concluded a four-day visitation by two abbots and two monks from other abbeys in our congregation.  This happens every three to five years, and it allows monks from other communities to make a formal visit, to interview the individual monks, and to offer an assessment to the community at the end of the visit.  Our visitors included Abbot Mark from Saint Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire, Abbot Lawrence from Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Oklahoma, Fr. Meinrad from Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas, and Brother Gregory from Saint Procopius Abbey in Illinois.

+On February 25th I taught a class on early medieval monasticism to the two novices in our monastery.

+On 26-27 February I attended the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On the afternoon of the 27th I flew with a group of alumni and friends of the University on a Benedictine Heritage tour to Italy, where we will visit Monte Cassino, Subiaco, Norcia, and other sites associated with Saint Benedict and the Benedictine tradition.  Our first stop was in Orvieto, which is one of my favorite towns in Italy.  The pictures in today’s post show the exterior of the medieval gothic cathedral, which has no peer in all of Italy.

Orvieto once again impressed upon me how small a world it is.  In the lobby of the hotel where we were staying I met a couple from Connecticut, and the husband had attended what was once our priory school in Puerto Rico.  Today San Antonio Abad is an independent abbey, but this gentleman knew several of my confreres who had taught there many years ago when it was still a new foundation from Saint John’s.

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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?”

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+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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imageReading Aloud:  Not Just for Little Kids Anymore

It can be a stretch to pay attention at morning prayer, but concentration can yield dividends now and again.  So it was last month when, in my early-morning fog, I distinctly heard the prayer leader ask God to assist “women-bearing children.”  What?!  What’s that about?  Then I realized that he meant “women bearing children.”  What a difference a hyphen and a slight inflection of the voice can make.

An instance like that isn’t all that rare, and one of the treats of Advent for a few of us is the prayer that opens with “Shirley, you are not far from us.”  Of course the reader means us to hear something with an alternate spelling, and minus the comma.  But I no longer care what the reader intends us to hear.  I hear “Shirley,” and I look forward to Shirley showing up every Advent.

I bring this up because monasteries are among the last bastians of public reading in the western world.  Once upon a time, in the  neolithic era before radio, it was common for families to gather together as someone read.  A few parents still read to young children, and they do so not just for education’s sake.  In contrast to the screaming inanity on television, there’s something warm and endearing about the human voice reading a story.  And there’s the unexpected benefit that prompted medieval monks to read aloud, even when they read alone.  Seeing the words on the page, forming the words on their lips, and hearing the words with their ears, they become one with the words they read.  The words pass via the senses, through the brain and into the soul.  This was how monks “chewed” on the word of God, and it also explains why they remembered so much of the Bible, effortlessly.image

That said, not all readers are created equal, and Saint Benedict cautioned that not just anybody should pick up the book and read to the brothers. Then, as now, there are some monks who struggle through public reading.  There’s also the occasional monk who emotes just a little too much for some people’s tastes.  Still others have been known to read in accents that are foreign both to these shores and to their own up-bringing.  And then there are those who just can’t resist a little editorial inflection.  It’s every monk’s temptation to read the chapter-heading from Benedict’s Rule that goes: “What kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  In pretended innocence it comes out “what kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  But the reader fools no one.

Every now and again you have the combination of a good reader and a great text that leaves monks wanting for more.  That happened these past few days as we marched through the Book of Esther at morning prayer.  For those who don’t know that story, Esther is not one of those pious bits of the Bible that lets a monk drift back to sleep.  No, this is high drama, involving King Artaxerxes, his close advisor Haman, a Jew named Mordecai, and the latter’s adopted daughter, Esther.

imageThis is a story of vengeance, love, palace intrigue and all the other stuff that makes for a great movie.  But this had to be a miniseries, spread over the course of a week.  Ask any monk and he’ll tell you that it’s not the morning reading that keeps him coming back for more.  But in the case of Esther, the deft editorial eye of the arranger left us hanging each day, and not a few kept coming back just to hear the next installment.

On day one Mordecai introduces Esther to Artaxerxes, who’s doing a national search to expand his harem to provide greater variety.  But Esther so enchants the king that he gives her the queen’s crown.  You know immediately that this story has legs, because the Bible doesn’t do Cinderella stories.  It’s never a matter of living happily ever after, because there’s always bad things coming down the pike.

In the next installment Haman concocts a plan to exterminate all the Jews in the empire.  And for the sheer pleasure of it, he’s built a scaffold in the courtyard of his home.  That’s reserved for Mordecai, of course.

imageI certainly would not want to betray the surprise ending, and I’ll leave it to you to guess how Queen Esther’s dinner party ends.  Her only guests are the king and his minister Haman.  The evening so pleases the king that he offers Esther whatever she might wish.  Needless to say, she doesn’t ask for that pearl necklace she’d seen in the shop window earlier in the day.  No, these people play for keeps, and no one wants to see a nice scaffold go to waste.

There’s much more to the story, and the successive readings created a dramatic tension that left us wanting more.  Strangely, even though all of us had heard the Book of Esther many times, we wanted to hear it again — like children who beg to hear their favorite story.

I’m not sure what the take-away is from this, but there’s two lessons I would draw.  First, the Bible warrants reading and rereading, and reading yet again.  There’s so many passages that bear a reread, and they nourish us with new insights every time.

imageA second suggestion has to do with Lent, which begins in two days.  If you want a taste of a bygone experience that monks still practice, read from the Bible each day of Lent.  Select a chapter each day, and read it in a soft but audible voice.  Let your eyes see the words on the page; let your lips translate the words into sound; and let your ears carry the sound to your inner soul.  In doing so you crowd out the noise from the world, even as  you and the words become one.

This may feel a little goofy at first, but  you’ll get over it soon enough.  In the process you’ll discover why our ancesters enjoyed it and why little kids love it so much.   You’ll also discover that this kind of reading isn’t just for little kids.  And in these days of Lent you may even discover the Lord speaking to you in ways you scarcely imagined.

Notes

+Occasionally I have the opportunity to contribute a piece of my writing to venues other than this blog.  Wonders in Our Native Place appeared in the February 2015 issue of Give Us This Day, published by The Liturgical Press.  It’s a reflection on Mark 6: 1-6.

image+I don’t often have the occasion to attend a baptism, but on February 13th I took pictures for Tim and Emily Enright, as my confrere Fr. Don Talafous baptised their daughter.  Tim is an alumnus of Saint John’s University;  he and Emily were married in the abbey church;  and his father’s funeral was in the abbey church.  Tim and his family have just relocated from his posting in the American embassy in Nigeria.  But once settled in their new home in Virginia there was never a question that they would fly to Saint John’s for the baptism of their first child.  In the abbey church, of course.

+On February 14th I crashed the celebration of the Chinese New Year at Saint John’s University.  The dinner was so well-attended that it spilled over into an adjacent room.  But he Great Hall was the scene of the most colorful activity, as the pictures in today’s post attest.

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imageJesus Will See You Now

Every now and again there’s a gospel passage that points strongly to the humanity of Jesus.  Of course chapter one of the gospel of Matthew is quite explicit about this, given that he traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham.  In other passages Jesus was thirsty, as he clearly said on the cross.  He was hungry, and so he ate with his disciples.  And he was tired; and so, during a raging storm, he slept in the back of the boat — much to the chagrin of his disciples.

But then in Mark 1: 29-39, the gospel for this last Sunday, Jesus had a distinctly modern problem.  In short, Jesus had too much on his plate, and he really needed a consultant on time management.

Consider that Jesus had just arrived at Simon Peter’s house and he’d scarcely settled in before they shoved Peter’s sick mother-in-law in front of him.  What was he supposed to do?  He was a guest after all, and he could hardly refuse to heal her.  Otherwise he would look ungrateful for their hospitality.

Later that evening the whole town must have appeared at the door, bringing the sick and the demon-possessed.  Who knows how late that went?  Then, before dawn, Jesus slipped out to pray, but he got no peace there either.  The disciples tracked him down and gave him the schedule for the day:  “Everyone’s looking for you.”  No rest for the wicked, nor for Jesus either.

imageTo his credit Jesus did the disciples one better.  He intended to preach in all the villages in Galilee, he said, because that’s what he’d come to do.  The disciples may have been delighted, but Jesus once again showed poor judgement when it came to time-management.  Who could handle all of that?

We’re used to the thought that Jesus emptied himself on the cross.  But in fact, the emptying began long before.  It began at the wedding feast of Cana, where he worked his first miracle.  From that day on, I’ve always assumed, nobody gave him a minute’s peace.  On the other hand, Jesus seemed to have thrown himself into this frenzy with complete abandon.

It’s a stretch for us to think of Jesus as pooped or even frustrated.  Yet there were such days, such as when he chased the money-changers from the temple.  Unless he was faking it, he really was a little miffed that day.  And there had to be other days like it.

imageI think it helps us all when we realize that Jesus had his tough days, precisely because we have them too.  These are the days when we can feel completely overwhelmed by responsibility.  We wonder where we’ll find the energy to do it all; and we realize we may have bitten off more than we can chew.  Jesus must have had such days as well.  But if he shared in our anxieties, we’d be well-advised to do as he did in such a situation.  He escaped for a moment and prayed.

One assumption that many of us make is that Jesus is too busy running the universe to pay attention to us.  At the very least, Jesus has way too much on his mind to tend to our puny problems.  And what could Jesus possibly do for us anyway?  And so we don’t pray, because what’s the point?  Besides, we’re way too busy to pray anyway.

But there’s a certain irony here, when we conclude that we are way too busy to pray.  At just such a moment Jesus, the consummate busy guy, reserves time to see us.  In fact, Jesus loves to barge into our lives to surprise us with words of strength and consolation.

So the next time we’re frantic with stuff to do, let’s pause for a moment to catch our collective breath.  And if by chance some voice whispers in our ears that Jesus will see us now, it may be a good idea to clear our calendar and go on in.

imageNotes

+On February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation, I presided at Mass at the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University.  You can access my sermon through this link, Letting Go.

+On February 5th I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s University, held at The Chazen Museum on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Through March 15th the Museum has an exhibit of sixty original folios from The Saint John’s Bible, and it is well worth the extra effort to see it.  The Museum staff was very warm in receiving us, but the catering staff  was taken off guard by our arrival.  Unfortunately they had the wrong date on their calendar, and so on our arrival the warm food that we had expected was still in the freezer.  However, they did drag out some chips and pretzels and soda.  In true biblical fashion, one big bowl of chips fed forty-five.  The photos in today’s post all come from The Chazen.

+During the past week we hosted at Saint John’s Donald Jackson, the scribe of The Saint John’s Bible.

image+Since autumn we have been enjoying on the monastery table the squash that the monk-gardeners harvested from our garden.  They stored in the cellar 4,000 pounds of butternut, acorn, spaghetti, buttercup and Hubbard squash, and I am sorry to say that as of today we are down to our last 1,000 pounds.  The pickled squash has been the surprise treat for many of us.

+On February 7th we hosted a group of students from Saint John’s University, who joined us for a retreat day in the monastery.  Last fall fourteen students banded together for the year to live a Benedictine experience in their residence hall.  They meet regularly for evening prayer, and periodically Brother Aelred hosts them for discussions on spiritual topics.

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imageBehold the Rosy-fingered Dawn

I’m no meteorologist, but then again anyone who lives in Minnesota for long enough becomes one anyway, honoris causa.  Experience makes you something of an expert, and it’s why those of us who live in the shadow of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon appreciate the weather report that opens his weekly monologue on our venerable town.  It’s the one element in his oral essay that’s non-fiction.  And it’s a vital part of the story because weather shapes the lives of everyone in Minnesota.  It keeps us from getting bored, and it builds character.

I raise this issue because last week we witnessed a change in the behavior of the monks.  In the summertime, in that space between morning prayer and breakfast, many monks instinctively take the outdoor route from chapel to refectory.  It takes us through the monastery garden and sweeps by the overlook to the lake.  En route we hear birds and see the dew on the grass and savor the moist early-morning air.  It’s an exhilarating wake-up call, and die-hards will continue in this routine  until Thanksgiving.  After that only the crazies will venture out.

imageBut something happened last week.  After weeks of cold we sensed a change in the air.  I first noticed it on Wednesday, when light filtered into the church as the 5 pm Mass began.  Even slightly longer days are enough to stir the blood.  But it was also getting warmer, and on cue the next morning quite a few of us monks instinctively walked out without coats into the bracing 30-degree air.  It was wonderful.  What’s more, already at 7:30 am there was some light, and not just ordinary light.  “Behold the rosy-fingered dawn” came the words from one monk a few steps behind me.  And he was right.  It was gorgeous all the way around, and none of us needed to do any calculations to realize that better times were on the way.

We’re way ahead of the robins, but these glimpses of spring give me hope, and they remind me of two things that stick with me through all these years.  First, colleges in Minnesota have the longest freshmen orientation programs of any in the country.  At Saint John’s it begins when students from places like California and Texas arrive in late August, vaguely aware that it will get chilly sooner or later.  50-degree days soon come, and they wonder  how they will survive.  Then it’s 30, and then 0, and life seems impossible.  Then comes 37 and they’re out in shorts and t-shirts, playing frisbee and catch on a sunny afternoon.  That was the case last Friday, and there was no stopping them.  Orientation was over, and they had become one of us.

imageThat brought to mind one of my students from Scottsdale who years ago asked me to take a picture of him, in shorts and t-shirt, perched on a six-foot pile of snow in a parking lot.  He planned to send it home as proof that all was well — and normal — in Lake Wobegon.

The second point is my appreciation for what monks and everyone else had to go through for centuries before central heat came along.  Ever practical, monks in the 6th century built their churches on an east-west axis.  In southern Europe the cloister would spread out on the north side of the church, where it would enjoy cool shade and protection from the hot winds.  In northern Europe it was the opposite.  There the church shielded the cloister from the cold north winds and reflected the warmth of the sun down into the cloister.  Today we call this discovery passive-solar.  Back then they called it common sense.

Needless to say, the early monks at Saint John’s put our cloister on the south side of the church, where it still stands today.  Who knows how many BTU’s of energy that arrangement has saved.  But for decades it spared literally tons and tons of firewood.  And it eased a lot of aching backs as well, I would imagine.

imageWe’re almost to the point at which few in this country remember the pioneers who braved the heat of the south and the cold of the north to create new lives.  I suspect those entrepreneurs didn’t think of their efforts as extraordinary, because that was what you had to do back then.  Today, of course, we can take their efforts for granted, but we shouldn’t.  Whether in north or south, the weather shaped their character, and people lived wonderful lives because of it, or in spite of it.

I’m under no illusion that winter is gone for good this year in Minnesota.  But the signs of change are in the air and on the horizon.  In fact, the great harbinger of spring — Lent — is just about three weeks away.  I know that Lent is supposed to be penitential, but how can you get down about something that portends rebirth — both in nature and in the spiritual life?  I guess I’ll just have to take it as it comes.  I plan to be stoic on the outside and joyful on the inside.

Notes

+On January 25th I spoke at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, CO.  That evening I attended a reception for prospective students and their parents in Denver, hosted by the Admissions Office of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+Last year one of our younger alumni from Saint John’s University, along with his high school classmate from Denver, won a Grammy Award for their work in children’s music.   Known as the Okee Dokee Brothers, they’ve been nominated yet again for a second album.  This week I’ve included a link to a song in the album that won them their first Grammy, Can You Canoe?  Their music may be geared for the very younger set, but they’ve also sung to older audiences across the country, and I occasionally discover that this particular song rattles around in my mind.  Next week I will provide a link to the album that I hope will earn them a repeat of last  year’s honors.

+On January 21st Pope Francis named Fr. Daniel Elias Garcia as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Austin, TX.  As the announcement from the Vatican Information Service duly noted, Bishop-elect Garcia earned an MA in Liturgical Studies at Saint John’s University in 2007; and of course we are delighted that someone who has studied with us would assume such a responsibility in the Church.

Of personal significance is Bishop-elect Garcia’s home-town of Cameron, TX, which scarcely anyone has heard of.  My father grew up just a few miles from Cameron;  my great-grandparents are buried in nearby Westphalia; and my grandparents are buried in even-closer Burlington.  On visits to my grandparents we always went to Cameron, where my father’s cousin owned the local Dairy Queen.  It’s a small world, at least for some of us.

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