Archive for the ‘Saint John’s University’ Category

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.


+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.


+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.


+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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imageThe Chance to Serve: Incentive Enough?

It’s not often that I draw inspiration from the world of professional sports, but now and again there’s a story that touches the heart of even a jaded monk like me.  Here was a respected coach, at the top of his game, and no doubt he pulled down giant bucks for his efforts.  But now he was ready to chuck all the glamour and prestige.  And for what?  For the chance to coach football at his college alma mater.  And he was going to do it for something in the neighborhood of $5 million per year, “plus incentives.”  It was that phrase, “plus incentives,” that caught my eye.

When I entered the monastery ages ago I vaguely recall that $5 million per year seemed like quite a tidy sum.  But then again I remember when I thought that a quarter-million lire in pre-Euro Italy seemed like a lot for dinner for four.  But times change, even in America; and while I wasn’t looking the inflation rate must have done something to salaries.  Anyway, in my innocence I was surprised to learn that these days $5 million is scarcely enough reason to get out of bed in the morning.  Now employers have to offfer some really big carrots if they expect you to come strolling into the office any time before noon.

imageI know these kinds of numbers give heart-burn to some, but they give heart to me.  For one thing, the wording of the contract suggests that at least this one coach isn’t in it for the money.  As the announcement implied, he seemed totally detached from the salary.  It was the “incentives” that had reeled him in and would continue to motivate him.

So I’m left to assume that he has walked away from the world of professional sports for the chance to influence young people at a key moment in their lives.  He also now has the chance to instill the importance of good sportsmanship and to shape a cooperative team spirit.  And at the end of the day he hopes for a pat on the back for a job well done, provided that indeed it has been done well.  Were those the unspecified “incentives” in the contract?

imageBefore I plunge totally into the depths of utter cynicism, let me for a moment say that such aspirations do motivate people, including the vast majority of coaches.  Most people do want to make a difference in the lives of others.  Most people do wish the best for their students and their colleagues and those they mentor.  Most people genuinely care about the fate of their neighbor.  Never for even a minute should we think that we are among the few on this planet who harbor such aspirations for others.

But putting a price tag on others — in this case a coach worth $5 million, plus incentives — is to transform them into commodities.  There’s no arguing that this guy will make a ton of money, and he’s fortunate to have found a profession that pays reasonably well.  But the truth is that he’s worth far more than any numbers that are assigned to him.  He’s somebody’s beloved son or spouse or father.  He’s another person’s dear friend.  And he’s yet another person’s teacher and coach.  And above all else, he’s someone created in God’s image, and he’s blessed with many but not all of the talents in the world.  Still, he’s not the only person in the world so blessed, and from such people we should ask and even expect an awful lot.

imageFor good reason recent popes have preached long and hard against the reduction of  human beings into economic units.  Still earlier, in the 6th century, Saint Benedict cautioned monks that their intrinsic value to the community did not reside in their economic utility.  By that he did not mean to suggest that some monks need not work, just to prove the point.  Rather, they are truly monks when they live by the labor of their own hands.  What he meant to say was that talents are not bestowed to inflate a monk’s ego.  Talents are given, instead, to allow a monk the chance to live in service to others.

That, it seems to me, is an attitude that we should hope to find in ourselves as well as in our neighbors.  Whether we are well or poorly compensated, we nevertheless should expect one important thing from one another.  Work done for the sake of others has a sacred character; while work meant only to benefit oneself has a ring of self-indulgence about it.

To whom much is given, much is expected.  And from all those to whom God has assigned talents, large and small, we should expect an awful lot.  That chance to serve is one of the great blessings that God gives.  Perhaps that is the greatest incentive that any coach, or anybody else for that matter, will ever need.


+On January 5th through the 7th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey met for our annual three-day workshop.  This gathering is not to be confused with our annual retreat that takes place in June.  By contrast, the January meeting features presentations on various topics, some of which can be as prosaic as energy conservation in the monastery.  This year’s primary theme dealt with vocations and how we might create a “vocation culture.”  In a future post I hope to take up this theme.

+I don’t normally use this forum as a chance to ask for prayers for some person or purpose.  But today I make an exception.  Yesterday my mom took an unexpected trip to the hospital, with what looked like a stroke or a heart attack.  Fortunately, it was neither.  Still, an irregular heartbeat and a few other things are symptoms of something.  She’s not out of the woods as yet, but this is a little scary, since my mom has always been the picture of health.

+Given the tragic events in Paris in the last few days, I thought it would be good to feature photos from Saint Eustace, one of my favorite churches in that city.  A late-gothic structure, Saint Eustace sits adjacent to Les Halles, the food market that served Paris for centuries. Inside Saint Eustace is a wonderful sculpture grouping of the workers in the market.


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Be It Resolved:  No Resolutions This Year

“Do monks make New Year’s resolutions?  Do Monks keep their New Year’s resolutions?”  Those were two questions a friend put to me this week, and the answers are short and sweet:  “Yes,” and “About as well as everybody else.”

The more nuanced response is that monks are pretty much like everyone else when it comes to resolutions.  The fact is, deliberate and major changes in the course of our lives don’t come easily, and wishing they were so generally doesn’t make them so.  Like most people, then, monks have aspirations that are ambitious, but it’s in the follow-through where we all show our common humanity.

imageClose to the monastic home, you don’t have to be a great scholar to realize that the Rule of Saint Benedict yields not a clue about how monks in the 6th century celebrated the new year.  And it’s not that Benedict’s monks were oblivous to the passage of time.  They knew their Roman numerals as well as any of their neighbors, and they had at their fingertips an array of dates to match with events.  Whether it was the exact year after the founding of Rome or the regnal year of an emperor, they had more than enough numbers to mark the passage of time and events.  But I don’t think it occurred to them to peg the quality of their own lives to a numeric grid.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nor do I know whether monks back then packaged their lives in segments of years.  But if they did, the divisions of the Church calendar mattered more to them.  Advent initiated the liturgical cycle.  Then came Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  Then came the long stretch of Ordinary Time.  And when it was all over, they went back to Advent and did it all over again.  That rhythm hasn’t changed in centuries, and it was bolstered by its links to the seasons of the year. The parallel between the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the four natural seasons worked brilliantly for centuries, at least in the northern hemisphere.  I suppose it was nobody’s fault in 6th-century Italy that they had no idea there even was a southern hemisphere.  But I suspect the general lack of curiosity about the other hemisphere was mutual.

Nativity.  Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nativity. Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

If the liturgical calendar and the seasons of nature shaped the lives of Benedict’s monks, I would contend that of even greater import was the festal calendar of the Church.  The ordo of feasts and seasons read much like an opera score, and the cycle of special and non-special (ferial) days created something of an emotional joy ride for the monks who lived by it.  No two days were ever alike, despite outward appearances.  And so the days did not blend seamlessly into one long stream of boredom, contrary to popular assumptions.

So where is it that monks concentrate their minds and energy when the need arises to make decisions about their lives?  It occurs to me that this takes place in the liturgy of the hours.  Here we find the kind of deliberate analysis that many people prefer to relegate to New Year’s Day and its resolutions.  In the morning we begin with “Lord, open our lips,” and with that the day is off and running.  In the course of morning prayer there are petitions that spell out our hopes for the day, and we repeat this practice in the other moments of community prayer.  And then at compline there is the “post game-day analysis” — the examination of conscience.  At that hour, monks who are still awake take time to inventory their lives during the past day.  They then express their regret and sorrow for any missteps, and look forward to the chance to try it all over again the next day.  Perhaps the next day will go better, or even repeat what went well the day before.

Presentation in the Temple.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Presentation in the Temple. Notre Dame, Paris.

That, it seems to me, is why monks don’t get terribly worked-up about New Year’s resolutions.  The time-frame is way too long for us.  We much prefer to have a focus that is pegged to a one-day-at-a-time framework.  We live for the moment, just as Saint Benedict advised when he told his monks to “keep death daily before their eyes.”  From that perspective, any program that delays analysis until next December 31st serves no useful purpose.  The press of daily business will leave those resolutions on the shelf, collecting dust.  And soon enough we’ll forget all about those life-changing resolves.

There you have the reasons why my New Year’s resolution will be quite simple this year:  “I will make no New Year’s resolution.”  For one thing, success is guaranteed, instantly, and I can move on to other things.  For another, living for the day is tough enough, and I don’t want to have to think about the entire year.  That’s way too ambitious.

Besides all that, I believe with all my heart that Christ will come again, and perhaps even on the last day of 2015.  But of greater urgency is today: “This is the day the Lord has made.”  Today is the day when I’ll most likely encounter Christ in my brother, in the guest, and in those suffering around me (to say nothing of those who are suffering from me.)  The truth is, today is about all I can handle.

The Holy Innocents.  Notre Dame, Paris.

The Holy Innocents. Notre Dame, Paris.

So at the end of this day I don’t want to look back and wonder where it went.  Nor do I want to console myself with the thought that I’ll do a state-of-the-person analysis next December 31st.  That kind of procrastination is way too tempting.

And if it sounds self-indulgent to live for the day, then you’ve got it all wrong.  Today is a gift from the Lord.  Looking ahead 365 days may just cause us to miss the more regular appearances of the Lord.  But live for the day, and come December 31st you may very well be stunned at what you have accumulated in the course of a year: an abundance of truly great days.


+Among the various items on my plate is membership on the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  Our regular meetings are not all work, and in fact we regularly schedule some opportunity to learn about various student activities.  So it was at our last meeting in December, when we sat in on a rehearsal of several choirs preparing for Christmas concerts at Saint John’s and elsewhere.  Excerpts from that rehearsal provided the material for University President Michael Hemesath’s Christmas and New Year’s greeting, which follows.

+Years ago someone gifted me with a copy of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  It was so fascinating that it gobbled up all of my free-time over that Christmas break.  This year a good friend gave me A. N. Wilson’s recent book, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press, 2014.)  This book in turn has chewed up prodigious amounts of this year’s Christmas holiday.  But there are worse ways to spend a Christmas break.  So if you are even remotely interested in 19th-century English history, or Queen Victoria herself, I highly recommend this book to you.

Flight to Egypt.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Flight to Egypt. Notre Dame, Paris.

+The photos in today’s post come from various sources.  At top is a clock on the façade of an office building in Paris.  I knew immediately that someday it would come in handy, and so it helps to inaugurate this blog into 2015.  The second photo, of the Holy Family, fabricated in Alsace around the year 1500, is housed at the Cluny Museum in Paris.  It’s the only piece of art that I’ve ever seen that depicts Jesus and Joseph having a good time, while Mary serenely looks on approvingly.

As anyone who’s been to Paris knows, it is a trove of all sorts of art.  From various pieces of medieval art in The Louvre Museum I’ve assembled a sampling to create a Christmas Gallery that spans many centuries and several media.

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imageThe Sacred is in the Details

Every now and again even monasteries must tend to the little things in the daily routine.  As any astute observer of human nature can tell you, the devil is always in the details; and left untreated for long enough, little things morph into the big deals that come back to haunt us.

In that spirit the abbot posted a note last week, listing three appointments to responsibility within the community.  For the next six months Fr. Bob will be acting choirmaster, while the current monk-choirmaster is away on sabbatical.  Second, Brother Paul-Vincent will work with monks when they read or lead the prayers at the liturgy of the hours.  And rounding out the triad, Fr. J.P. will serve as the “in-house pronunciation guide.”

The abbot didn’t have to justify any of this, but he hinted at its importance anyway.  For one thing, he noted, we simply couldn’t get by for six months without a choirmaster.  As for the quality of our public reading, most of us could always do a bit — or in a few cases a lot — better.  We’ve come a long way since the 12th century, when Saint Bernard could preach to and be heard by 10,000 people.  Today, with the marvels of modern technology, we’re lucky to hear anything at all.  And as for proper pronunciation, perfection is always something for which to strive, but its achievement can be a mixed blessing.  Perfection would certainly better the tone of our prayer, but could we live with the trade-off?  Over the years we’ve compiled a short list of celebrated howlers and bloopers made by unprepared readers.  Could we live without that mirth?  There’s something to be said for spontaneous and pure laughter, even at prayer.  So I’m not sure we’re quite ready to sacrifice all that.

imageSo what does all this mean in practice?  Well, on the day of the note-posting, Fr. Bob spoke to the community about the quality of our singing and our cadence in the recitation of the Psalms.  He opened with the observation that while it’s true that individually we are each great singers, we can’t always say that about some of the monks sitting on either side of us.  (Mirth.)  He didn’t reveal the names on his list, “because we all know who they are.”  (More mirth.)

Compounding that, there are monks who are never happy with the pace, and so they take it upon themselves to speed things up or slow things down.  Innocent parties who prefer to go with the flow find themselves caught in the middle, not quite knowing how to handle the situation.  And then there’s the larger issue of our collective recitation.  The monks on the abbot’s side of the choir invariably sing too fast, while those on the prior’s side (my side, incidentally), tend to keep to a perfect pace.  How does a good choirmaster deal with these and a myriad other issues?  “Gently,” says Fr. Bob in more candid moments.

imagePublic reading is something even Saint Benedict found to be a problem, and he warned that “not just anybody should take up the book and read.”  I agree totally with that, and to that end I long ago compiled a list of monks who should not read in public, ever.  I’m sure most every monk would concur with my selections; but since the abbot is hesitant to go that far, he promises help to those who need it.  In brief, he wrote, if someone’s reading is “too fast, to slow, too soft, too anything,” then they can expect a helpful visit from Br. Paul-Vincent.

I have to confess that the appointment of the “in-house pronunciation guide” took me by surprise, and not because we don’t need such a person.  We most definitely do.  For one thing, we have a number of monks for whom English is a second language.  Then there are the monks for whom English is not a second language.  For years I’ve pointed out that Sweden and Minnesota are alike in so many ways, save that in Sweden everybody speaks better English.  So never underestimate our capacity for improvement when it comes to our public reading.  Still, Fr. J.P.’s appointment leaves unfilled the post of “out-house pronunciation guide.”  We’ve never had such an official, but perhaps the abbot anticipates the spread of potty-mouth English in years to come.  It’s best to be prepared, I suppose.

imageOne can argue that there are enough problems in the world and in the monastery, and we shouldn’t nitpick over this sort of stuff.  True enough.  One could also argue that we should be grateful that people bother to show up for prayer at all, and leave them in peace.  And that too is true enough.  But Saint Benedict suggests that everything we do has a sacred character, and anything worth doing is worth doing well.  And so it is that we need to pay attention to the little things, and not just because they can morph into big problems when we neglect them.  Because it’s also true that the little things, done well, become the foundation for a life well lived.

It seems to me that whether you live in a monastery or not, this principle applies.  So if we want the world to be a better place, the place to begin is with ourselves.  And if we start there, the best approach is to reach for the low-hanging fruit.  Focus on the least of things and go from there.  That, it seems to me, is how we develop good friendships, good marriages, and good relationships with the Lord.  Sure, it’s safe to say that other people, and even the Lord, are willing to overlook and even forgive a lot.  But why test their patience?  Why not bring out the best in ourselves each and every day?  It can only help, I think.

It’s safe to say that choir practice and attention to reading will always be remedial actions.  Twenty years from now a new abbot will post a list of new appointees who will tend to these same old challenges.  But such is life for everyone.  It’s why we get up each day to begin life anew.  It’s why we work for improvement and pray for continued growth.  It’s what makes life such an adventure as together we search for the Lord.


+On December 4th and 5th I attended meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On December 6th Bishop Donald Ketler visited the Abbey and ordained Brother Nickolas Kleespie to the diaconate.  This coming semester Brother Nickolas will work as deacon in Saint Joseph Parish, in Saint Joseph, MN.  For those unfamiliar with the geography of central Minnesota, this is three miles from the abbey, and monks from the abbey have staffed this parish forever.

+In the days following Thanksgiving the decorating crew swung into action, putting up greens and ornaments all over the place.  Pride of place belongs to The Great Hall, where the photos in today’s post were taken.  Their preparations culminated in a Christmas concert on December 5th.  But on the 4th the Trustees were privileged to hear a private concert, as student choirs rehearsed for performances on campus and at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, on December 6th.


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imageBe Watchful.  Be Alert.

You have to wonder what in the world the disciples were doing when Jesus pushed them to “be watchful.  Be alert.”  (Mark 13: 33).  Had they dozed off during one of his parables?  Had their minds wandered?  Did they assume that, as the ultimate insiders, there was nothing more to learn?  We’ll never know.  But I’m guessing they’d grown a little smug and thought they had nothing to worry about.  Life with Jesus was good.

Whether these words rattled them or not, we’ll also never know.  But one thing seems clear.  This was not an invitation to sit back, relax, and coast through life.  Jesus expected a little more out of them than waiting around for their turn to sit at his right in the kingdom.

What Jesus wanted from his apostles matters to us as well, since this gospel passage inaugurates the season of Advent.  And therein is a dilemma.  Is Jesus trying to scare us to death with talk about burglars breaking in when we least expect them?  Is he trying to make us paranoid with the thought that the loss of everything dear to us is just around the next corner?  Or does he recommend that his disciples and we dial down on the alarmism, but open our minds just a tad to what is going on around us?  It strikes me that we have two options here.  We can hit the panic button, or we can buckle down and tend to the quest of becoming Christian.

imageA popular stereotype of monks is that we are a dour and depressing lot.  People assume that we must worry constantly about our salvation, and that best explains why we spend all that time in church.  And Saint Benedict doesn’t help our public image when he tells  his monks to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  Who wouldn’t panic at the thought that today may see the end of everything.  I know I’d be anxious as heck at the thought that by nightfall I would pack it all in and face the grim reaper.

Most monks I know simply can’t and won’t live that way.  None of us can sustain that sort of emotional intensity for very long, because we’d either despair or go crazy.  On top of that, confreres who are like that are tough to live with.  That’s why we usually encourage them to search for God someplace else.  Life has enough difficulty without somebody constantly telling us that it’s going to hell in a hand-basket.

With all due respect, neither Jesus nor Saint Benedict were trying to have a little fun at our expense.  They did not intend to cry wolf and scare the daylights out of us, hoping to induce radical change in our behavior.  Instead, they both hoped we’d keep on searching for God, day in and day out.  No matter how boring it might seem.

imageThis point may be tough to tease out, but I think it goes something like this.  For those who expect salvation to be a personal big-bang moment, when God hits us on the head, they’re generally disappointed with the results.  Even Saint Paul, and even Martin Luther, had to deal with the realities of a long life after they fell from their horses.  Life proved too long to put all their eggs in the basket of a split-second conversion experience.  Life went on, and on.  And unlike so many other things for which life is too short, when it comes to the search for God, one life is more than long enough.  It’s a relationship that waxes and wanes through the years.  And like a marriage or a friendship, it’s something that requires regular investment.

So if Advent is an invitation to buckle down and be about our Father’s business, what exactly should we do?  Well, like New Year’s or Lent, one or two resolutions can be enough to nourish our relationship, at least for this interlude in our lives.  And as this passage from the Gospel of Mark suggests, our focus should be on the Lord in our midst.

imageOn the assumption that we should keep our eyes peeled to see Christ where we least expect him, I’ve decided to address one of my many pet peeves where my vision could use some improvement.  I know this sounds a little jaded, but one peeve results from years of experience with taxi drivers in New York.  If ever again a driver asks how to get where I hope to go (as two of them did recently), I’ve decided to take the question philosophically rather than literally.  “Let’s pray about this together, and I’m sure we’ll find the way.”  That’s definitely better than what I said two weeks ago, and on a few other occasions as well.  And the benefits of this approach?  I lower my blood pressure, and the driver is transformed before my very eyes.  He’s no longer the thief in the night, trying to lead me on a long and expensive diversion.  Instead, I realize that maybe he’s only trying to do the best he can.  In such a person it may be tough to see Christ at first.  But if you squint, it’s a real revelation when you finally spy Christ at the wheel of your taxi.

That, I submit, is the invitation Jesus puts to us in Advent.  This is no time to panic because we’ve not seen his face for ages.  Rather, it’s a few weeks when we buckle down and focus on someone who’s been there all along.  And so, if there are people on your list in whom you least expect to find the Lord, be watchful, and be alert.  The Lord may have been in them all along.  What a surprise to realize that — all this time — we’ve be gazing on the image of God.


+The monks of Saint John’s celebrated Thanksgiving with the customary festive meal.  Unlike in past years, however, the monks did everything, including the preparation of the refectory, the cooking, and the clean-up.  This gave the regular kitchen staff the day off, though from them it required an act of faith that we would not destroy the kitchen in their absence.  Actually, we are blessed to have several monks who have accomplished skills in the kitchen, and the meal was a great success.  At the end of the day the kitchen was in mint condition, much to everyone’s relief.

+On November 29th the University football team played its second game in the Division III national play-offs.  Sadly, they lost to Wartburg College, thus ending the season.  It was a great season though, and the final loss did come with a silver lining:  no more games in the cold of winter.  The winner gets to go on and freeze another day.

image+Over Thanksgiving I finished reading a book that I’d worked on for a while: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2013.)  As a medieval historian I found the narrative immensely interesting, as Heather traces the evolution of a new empire in the West and the development of the papacy from the 5th to the 12th centuries.  I had read a favorable review of it in The Wall Street Journal, which suggested its accessibility to the general reader.  It is accessible, but the novice historian will find the array of names of barbarian chiefs and kings bewildering.  The popes under discussion are slightly more familiar.  This is a terrific book for its narrative of how the Church and empire in western Europe became what it became.

+The prophet Isaiah shows up early in the readings for Advent, and the first photo in today’s post is of “Saint Isaiah”, from Oliva Cathedral in Gdansk, Poland.  The other photos are from the cathedral in Metz, France, which was near the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.

+In the post of 24 November I included a gallery of images of the Abbey church.  This week I’ve included selected photos of the Abbey church in use.


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