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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?”

imageNotes

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

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

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

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