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Archive for the ‘Saint John’s University’ Category


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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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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