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Listen, Because God is Whispering

”We have moved from a time of medical crisis to a time of endurance. It is almost as if we are living like monks.”

So wrote a friend of mine who is involved with the Order of Malta. His words didn’t really alarm me, however, mainly because I don’t know of any members who have thrown in the towel and joined monasteries as a result of the pandemic. On the other hand, he does point out the conundrum that confronts groups whose mission is to serve but cannot do so. To say the obvious, change that is forced upon people can be terribly disruptive.

My friend went on to note the sense of endurance that is infused into the Benedictine tradition. Those who practice that way of life pay attention to spirit, body and mind, and a balanced attention to each is what allows for endurance. It means that after a crisis has finally passed there’s still something to work with. It also suggests that after such trials people are not left with only disillusionment and a pile of shattered aspirations. There is still hope that can revive them and work still to do.

There is a wonderful passage in the First Book of Kings that describes how the prophet Elijah listens for the voice of God. Elijah waits patiently, but he doesn’t hear that voice in ways one might expect of the Almighty. The voice wasn’t there in the fierce and roaring wind. Nor was it in the earthquake or raging fire. Finally, at long last, the voice of God came in a tiny whispering sound. Barely audible, that was how God chose to speak to Elijah that day.

Adapting our expectations of God is how monks survive and how people shift from crisis mode to endurance mode. At the risk of pushing a comparison too far, searching for God is a bit like long-distance running. Runners must pace themselves for the long haul, stick to a plan and factor in even the littlest of things. They must also be aware that catastrophes can crop up along the way. Absent such attention, who knows where they might end up?

It’s important to accept the possibility that ordinary things can fall apart. If people who dedicate themselves to service but cannot serve end up adrift, what throws monks off balance? Well, I would submit that it is in the mundane stuff, and those are the things that have thrown me for a loop in this pandemic. Changing our seating chart in choir is a good example. We had to do it because we had to spread ourselves out, and by now I have come to appreciate it. But it started off as a big inconvenience. We’ve also endured a total reorganization of our refectory and our ways of dining. That’s had its ups and downs, and though it’s been necessary to do it, it’s been difficult. And then there are the liturgical changes. To cite but one example, I never really liked tambourines nor thought of sticks striking against wood as a form of sacred music, even in their heyday in the 1970s. Sadly, their revival has yielded no personal growth, but at least I’ve owned up to my lack of sophistication when it comes to the newest trends in sacred music. So I am learning to live with it.

This is a roundabout way of saying that those who seek God — be it in a marriage, in a monastery, in the workplace or even on vacation — must pay attention to the little things in life. It’s in the littlest of things where we have the chance to show respect and love for one another. It’s through the little sacrifices that we help one another along the way. It’s in our attention to the needs of one another where we sometimes help others out of the ditch and hope that they will do the same for us. But most of all, it’s in the little things where we hear the voice of God whispering to us. Perhaps that is why Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the word Listen.

NOTES

+On August 4th I participated in the monthly meeting of the council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. While it was a virtual meeting, its locus was in California. Later that day I gave a Zoom presentation to the Boston Leadership team of the Order of Malta.

+On August 6th I had some minor surgery at The Saint Cloud Hospital and then spent a couple of days recovering from the greatest ill effect — the anesthesia. It is the latest installment in my attempt to get through a spate of deferred medical maintenance. Next on the list is cataract surgery in September.

+On August 9th I participated in a service that laid to rest in the abbey cemetery the ashes of Kathleen Kovacs, who passed away after a long illness. I have known Kathleen and her husband Andy for years, and have been friends with Andy since his college days at Saint John’s. Several years ago I introduced them to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and was present when they were invested into the Order. May she Rest In Peace.

+The quotation with which I opened today’s post is from a letter of Michael Grace, who is the president of the Western Association of the Order of Malta. The reference to the prophet Elijah is taken from I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a. It was the first reading for the liturgy of Sunday, 9 August.

+The photos in today’s post have in common the fact that I took them while I stood in the plaza in front of Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University. I’ve especially loved the venerable maple tree, pictured below, and it has been a favorite of so many students over the decades. It is a little startling to see hints of autumn color on a few of the leaves.

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Check in with Yourself

This morning I set out to compile a list of all the things that I do routinely, every day, without much prompting. The list wasn’t all that long, and at the top was eating. I for one never have had to put breakfast, lunch or even dinner on my to-do list. Those get done without fail and without reminder, versus the other stuff that needs writing down if it is to have half a chance at getting done.

This exercise popped into my mind because of something I saw last week when I joined our incoming Benedictine Volunteers for lunch. They were here for a two-week retreat and orientation, and as luck would have it they were having a silent day when I and a confrere met with them. I had looked forward to hearing their stories, but I and my fellow guest told the only stories that day.

Anyway, as the Volunteers filed into the dining room they wrote two numbers on the big register of names. One number was body temperature, which each took before signing in. The second was more curious, as each inscribed a number between one and ten. What might that be about?

Brother Paul, the director of the retreat, later explained that number to me. On a scale of one to ten it represented where each was that day. Certainly it was imprecise and unscientific, but it was meant to be a barometer of spiritual, emotional and social vitality that day.

I found it a curious exercise, but then I reflected on the importance of regular self-evaluation. While most of us need no prompting to eat, we often need all kinds of encouragement to do the other things that need doing. Above all we should be curious about the direction and quality of our lives. Yet, all too often we scarcely give that a thought.

A few among us are zealous about keeping diaries and journals, and I’m not one of them. This blog is as close as I come to that, and a few months into writing I began to realize that such practices ought not be the preserve of literary giants. All of us can benefit from at least a little self-reflection.

Freshly-minted college graduates might seem an unlikely group to benefit from this introspection. With endless days stretching out ahead of them, what’s the point of writing down a number that expresses their spirit on any given day? Does it really matter all that much?

Actually, the answer is “yes, it does matter.” The Greeks were certainly not the first to point out that the unexamined life is not worth living. It was also central to the preaching of Jesus. Christians since then have fleshed that out with a menu of daily prayer and meditation, retreats and a periodic examination of conscience. The point of doing all that, however, is not to give us the satisfaction of crossing more things off of our to-do lists. Rather, these practices shape the contents of future to-do lists.

So if you’ve never done a regular “state of the self” evaluation, there’s no better time to start than now, while you’re still young. Next year, when you turn twenty-five or fifty or ninety years of age, you’ll likely be glad you did.

NOTES

+This is perhaps more news than some are interested in, but I noted recently that I am going through some routine medical maintenance over the next few months. On July 28th I had a colonoscopy. Aside from the fact that I got a clean bill of health, I was duly prepared when the nurse told me to expect higher blood pressure in anticipation of the big event. When she told me the results I was absolutely delighted to have the lowest numbers in years. I attribute those numbers to a balanced life and regular exercise, thanks to my COVID-19 regimen. Some good has come from it.

+On July 29th my confrere Fr. Geoffrey and I had lunch with the new members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps. In a previous post I had mentioned that they were here for a three-day retreat. I was wrong about that, and realized that when I saw them still here on the fourth day. The retreat and orientation went on for two weeks, under the direction of Brother Paul.

+One of the most serene spots on campus is a square referred to as the Abbot’s Courtyard. Defined by the abbey church to the east, the Quadrangle and Great Hall on the west, and the Breuer wing of the monastery to the south, it is particularly lovely early in the morning, when I took the photos in today’s post.

+Several weeks ago I noted that Brother Jacob delivered a recital on the expanded abbey organ. Brother Jacob sought to demonstrate the musical range of the instrument, and the first half of his ten-minute recital relies on the pipes of the Holtkamp organ. At five minutes and thirteen seconds into the video viewers begin to get an inkling of the possibilities that result from Martin Pasi’s additional pipes. If you are curious to hear the comparison, you may click on the link to Brother Jacob’s recital, and you will be directed to the YouTube site where it is housed.

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“O my people, what have I done to you, or how have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6: 3)

It seems a little strange to read these words from the prophet Micah in the middle of summer. They seem better-placed in Lent, and especially among the laments of Holy Week.

All the same, it’s important to read these words for what they are not and for what they are. For one thing, they are not an example of self-pity on God’s part. God is not depressed for any mistreatment from us. Rather, God seems baffled that people have elected to answer with bullocks and goats rather than with changed and full lives. So the “answer me” at the end is not a demand for even more bullocks and goats. Rather, God is expecting something a little more personal from us — something along the lines of lives that make the most of God’s gifts.

It’s always seemed to me easier to buy God off with sacrificial offerings, and the more the better. But the whole point of the ministry of Jesus is summed up in this passage from Micah. God is not some nameless merchant-banker who strikes bargains with us. God doesn’t do those kinds of deals. No, God hopes you and I will answer personally, with a comment or two or a deed or two that comes directly from our hearts and not some ledger. Is this too much to expect from us? There are moments when we might think so; but apparently God doesn’t think so.

NOTES

+On July 20th I presided at the abbey Mass, and I preached on the first reading of the day — from Micah 6: 1-4, 6-8. Today’s post is a transcription of that homily. It’s also an example of a homily that follows the not-so-subtle advice of the liturgy director, who continues to suggest that short homilies tend to be better-received by members of the community. It also aligns with Saint Benedict’s advice in his Rule, where he suggests that God is not necessarily to be found in a flood of words.

+A visit to the doctor on July 22th confirmed the dawning realization that there has never been a better time in modern history to schedule medical appointments. That afternoon I learned that I will need a minor surgical procedure, and I could have scheduled it as early as five days later. But then I would have had two appointments in one week, and one doctor a week is enough for me. By October I will be done with everything that needs attention, so it turns out to be a good use of this long time-out in the calendar.

+On July 25th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Simeon Thole, who died peacefully after a short illness. For many years Fr. Simeon taught English and religion at Saint John’s Preparatory School. Among many other notable activities he later served as chaplain to the Sisters of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Crookston, MN. Fr. Simeon had the distinction of being one of three brothers who have taken vows as monks of Saint John’s. His brother Fr. Tom died a few years ago, while Br. Otto remains as busy as ever.

+The photos in today’s post show the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s. This is the time when the hydrangeas are at their best, as the top photo suggests. The monastery refectory is on the other side of the ground-level windows, and so this bank of flowers is what we will enjoy for the next few days.

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Write Down Your Passwords!

Here follows a bit of wisdom that you’ll never hear in church: “Write down your passwords!”

This came to me in the course of my first trip away from the abbey since March 6th. Normally I am not a “cabin in the north woods” kind of guy, but after four months of going literally nowhere, it was time to go somewhere. A week ago, then, I and one of my fellow monks drove to the abbey’s lake cabin for what we expected would be a nice break.

I intended this to be a four-day working vacation, and once we had settled in I sat down to dive into work. However, it was not long before my iPad sensed that it was in a strange place. Worse still, it had suspicions about the user — me. No longer happy with the thumb print that had satisfied it so often before, it demanded a real live password.

I keyed in what should have appeased it, but it didn’t pass muster. Then I racked my brain for other possibilities and typed them all in. That’s when things began to spiral out of control, and within an hour the iPad had erased its data and locked me out. There I was, stuck in the woods for four days, with no email, no videos and no electronic books to read. To say the least, I was not a happy camper, but at least I still had a phone.

In the course of those four days I learned quite a few good lessons. First, self-proclaimed “help desks” don’t always function as advertised. In this case my tech colleague back at Saint John’s, Ann, spoke with three corporate voices at Apple and got one “I don’t know” and conflicting advice from two others. What she came away with was frightening news: it might take a week to recover my errant password, if ever. Inaccessible forever might be the 19,000 photos I had stored in the Cloud.

After days of desolation we drove home, where I planned to turn over my iPad to Ann, who promised to torture it until it yielded up its secrets. However, she had one last idea. With her car running while we stood on the steps of the abbey church at 7:45 am, she gave it her last and best shot. Meanwhile I looked on hopelessly.

There, under the arch of the bell banner, my iPad blinked. Like Lazarus in the tomb, it awoke as life started to course through its empty memory files. It was resurrected, and within an hour it had retrieved the music files, the books, and the thousands of photos I had feared were lost forever. As far as I was concerned, this was a miracle worked by Ann, the servant of God.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation? First, I discovered how dependent I had let myself become on a small machine. Four months of social isolation had been bad enough, but electronic isolation was even worse. Why did I ever submit myself to such slavery?

Second, confidence in what I thought was my iron-fisted memory melted away. It was an act of supreme hubris to think that I would never forget those passwords. I should have confessed a lot sooner that no memory is perfect, even mine.

Finally, I remembered why pen and paper are such great inventions. Neither require passwords or a charger, and they wait patiently to be used, anytime and anywhere.

Saint Benedict didn’t command his monks to write things down. However, he himself wrote a Rule, and he presumed that his monks would want to write as well. In the course of the centuries they have written down all sorts of stuff, on the assumption that good memories are not enough. So were born great libraries of wisdom that still serve us today.

My greatest take-away is a lesson in humility that I hope not to forget. Once home at the abbey I searched every drawer and gathered every scrap of paper within even a fragment of a user ID, a password, passcode, security code, and whatever else some keeper of tech secrets might demand. All those letters, numbers and symbols are now gathered on a few sheets of paper in a folder, which I have enshrined in a place of honor in my room in the monastery. There they remain ready, for my eyes only.

The story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical allegory about hubris. It was the tale of people who tried to build a tower to the heavens, only to fail in a hopeless confusion of language. Now I realize that it may have a modern application as the story of people whose ultimate undoing may very well be one simple mistake. They got confused about their passwords, and they had forgotten to write them down.

NOTES

+We were saddened to learn last week of the passing of Abbot Ricardo Tintes Delgado of Abadía del Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. He died of the corona virus. Monks from Saint John’s founded Tepeyac in 1946, and in 1971 it became an independent abbey.

+On July 17th the monks of Saint John’s as well as many of our colleagues who work on campus were tested for the corona virus. A week earlier 137 of us were tested and none of us turned up positive — for which we were very grateful.

+On July 17-19th the incoming members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps gathered for a retreat and orientation at Saint John’s. Given the circumstances around the world, it is not entirely clear when they will begin their year of service.

+Not all of the flowers at Saint John’s are in manicured beds. The photos in today’s post are from the abbey arboretum, which annually draws not only our students, but tens of thousands of other visitors. A topographical map shows that our property sits at the confluence of four kinds of terrain: oak savanna, hardwood forest, wetlands, and prairie. Years ago our confrere Fr. Paul Schweitz led an effort to restore the prairie and wetlands, and he was aided by records filed away in the 1860s in the abbey archives. Before plowing the ground for farming, the first monks at Saint John’s mapped the contours of the land, wrote it all down, and then saved it. Fr. Paul was able to use those records in restoring the land to what it had once been. Sadly Fr. Paul died too soon, but his work delights us long after his passing.

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The Garden of the Lord

Saint Benedict’s suggestion that hermits are the best monks has always amused me. Benedict notes that only long years of testing in community can prepare somebody for the solitary life. But having said that at the beginning of his Rule, he never returns to the subject again. The monastery may be the school of the Lord’s service, but Benedict never offers a course leading to graduation to the hermit’s cave.

Life in community offers the security of mutual support at both the material and emotional levels. It also affords the chance for fraternal encouragement. But beyond these obvious benefits, it is in community that Benedict’s spiritual vision takes flesh: monastic life continues the incarnation of Jesus. Benedict weaves it into the daily experience of the monk, and we see it first in the abbot, who holds the place of Christ. We also see Christ in the guest, in the young monks, and in the elderly. In fact, Benedict excludes no one; in every human interaction the monk meets the Lord, in the flesh.

To appreciate how radical this is, it is important to know that in Benedict’s day many viewed the world as intrinsically evil, as suggested by words that oppose one another: the sacred and the profane, the material and the spiritual, and the temporal and the eternal. The logical imperative is escape from this den of iniquity to be one with God in eternity. But Benedict teaches an entirely different lesson, because in the monastery heaven and earth touch. We see this most clearly when Benedict asks his monks to treat the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. If people are sacred, then so must be the ordinary activities of human life.

Benedict embraces the created order deliberately, and into it he infuses the experience of God. One experiences the harmony of the Garden of Eden in the monastery. As God once walked with Adam and Eve, so now God rubs elbows with monks living in community. That is the mystery of the incarnation that Benedict applies to life in community. Of course he’s under no illusion that monks won’t stumble now and again. But the garden belongs to God, an the monk need not wait for eternity to see the face of God.

This is a sacramental way of life. As Jesus took bread and wine to be his Body and Blood, so Benedict gathers the common elements of life to fashion a place where his monks can and ought to encounter Christ. If they squint hard enough, on the good days, they will see Christ not only in their neighbors but in their own faces as well.

NOTES

+On July 10th fifteen graduates of Saint John’s University who had served as Benedictine Volunteers last year joined us for a three-day retreat and reunion. Since they had served around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories and perspectives to share. On a sad note, former Volunteer Nick Briese, who had served at Saint Benedict’s Prep and Newark Abbey in 2007-08, passed away after a struggle with cancer. Following his year in Newark he had gone to medical school and was a physician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He was a delightful young man, filled with promise.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict. For that occasion we welcomed several visitors to the celebration of the Eucharist, as we did the next day for the Sunday Eucharist. Following the morning Eucharist we adjourned to the Great Hall for a festive lunch. We had intended to stage that in the monastic garden, but the threat of rain forced us indoors. It was good that we did, because the threat materialized.

+Once again it was a quiet week for me, which allowed me to tend to various work-related projects that I had put off for months and even years. In addition, I participated in three Zoom meetings with various committees of the Order of Malta — two on the west coast and one on the east coast. The times and technology have made such gatherings routine, which still amazes me.

+Today’s post first appeared in the spring 2015 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey. Given both the current social climate and also the season of the year, I thought it useful to resurrect this piece. It’s a reminder that the Lord works outside of the monastery as well, and that Saint Benedict’s wisdom has relevance even for those who do not live in a cloister. The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into garden spots around the campus at Saint John’s.

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Musings on the Feast of Saint Benedict

On July 11th we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and this year one key ingredient will be missing from our festivities. Hundreds of friends of the abbey normally would join us, but this year that is not to be. For obvious reasons they’ll be absent, and we’ll miss their presence keenly. All the same, the celebration will go on because it’s more than a memorial of some guy who lived in the sixth century. It’s also an affirmation of our life together in this place, in the 21st century.

This feast has outsized importance in our community calendar. For one thing, the Rule that Saint Benedict wrote some 1,500 years ago still defines our lives as monks. For another, the day provides the occasion to honor our confreres who have reached milestones of 25, 50, 60 and on rare occasions even 70 years in vows. Finally, it’s a moment to pause and be grateful for the life that we draw from one another in this community.

In a grove of trees to the west of the abbey church is a bronze statue of Saint Benedict, shaped by the hands of our confrere Brother David Paul. In his hand Benedict balances a hefty-looking tome; but his face looks up, as if to chat with a visitor. But if that visitor steps back to take in the full panorama, it’s clear that something else has caught his attention. That “something” is the tower of the church and the bells whose ringing have interrupted his study. The bells remind him that he exists for a purpose, and from that purpose his life derives all of its meaning. That purpose is prayer —what Benedict and the spiritual tradition call the Work of God.

If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, will it still make a noise? That’s a perennial musing, and someone might very well pose this variant: “If there are no guests to pray with us monks, will we still pray?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” We will still gather to pray because that is what we do, and also because there is always something more to pray about.

This year, as last, we will pray for our brothers who celebrate years of life in the community. We’ll also pray for the sick and the poor and for victims of injustice everywhere. We’ll pray for the young and the old, and for the multi-talented and for those who have yet to discover their gifts. Not least of all, we’ll pray for God’s creation, over which God has given us stewardship.

Lest we forget, we’ll also pray in thanksgiving for our confreres who have gone before us. Like the great trees that have fallen in the forest, they gave life to us. The shade of their wisdom has nurtured the seedlings that have taken root in their shadow and now flourish in their stead.

In short, on the feast of Saint Benedict there are lots of reasons to pray. But to Saint Benedict’s bit of wisdom I would add a corollary that Saint Francis provided centuries later: “Preach always; if necessary, use words.” With that bit of wisdom Saint Benedict would agree. After all, when all is said and done, there is still plenty more to be said and done.

NOTES

+On the 4th of July we gathered in the monastic garden for our annual holiday cookout. The festivities began earlier with Mass, after which we moved from the church to the garden for patriotic songs, a lunch of grilled hamburgers and bratwurst, and games. It was a very warm and humid day, but perfect for such a summer event.

+A more balanced schedule during the past few weeks has given me the chance to catch up on some reading, including two books that had been on my list for months. David Kelzer’s The Pope who Would be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Random House, 2018) is a fascinating portrait of the political predicament of the Papal States under Pius IX. John W. O’Malley’s Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard University Press, 2018) examines the religious/theological side of things during the papacy of Pius IX. Both books were surveyed together in a review that appeared in The Wall Street Journal some time ago.

+The statue of Saint Benedict sits in a grove of trees in front of the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s. It is one of my favorite buildings on campus, due to the wonderful doorway topped by the tympanum containing a carving of Saint Benedict. At bottom is a photo that shows the plaza with the statue.

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Blessed are the Self-Righteous?

No doubt Jesus had a few pet themes in his preaching, and in the middle of chapter 7 of the gospel according to Saint Matthew we have a prime example. In this passage Jesus offers a blistering critique of those who clothe themselves in self-righteousness. These are the ones who loudly display their good works, proclaiming that they are doing the work of the Lord. But Jesus has none of it, as he says in verse 23. “I never knew you. Depart from me you evildoers.”

What Jesus asks of people then and now is authenticity. It’s the authenticity that comes from actions that flow organically from his words. On those words we meditate and chew, and from that sacred food we draw food for thought. What should not result is some sort of convoluted logic that turns everything — including our own show of religious exercise — to our advantage.

Sometimes to our discomfort Jesus means it when he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He intends that we love all of our neighbors, and not just the ones who might return the favor later on. When he praises the good Samaritan for helping the victim in the ditch he means for us to lend a helping hand, even before we are called. Our own convenience ought not come into the calculation.

In short, Jesus asks us to be his hands when it comes to serving the sick and the poor, our confreres and our neighbors. Putting our hands in our pockets is somebody else’s work; but it is definitely not the work of the Lord.

NOTES

+On 24 June we celebrated the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the patron of our abbey, university and prep school, and we are thankful that he shows up several times in the course of the liturgical calendar.

+On 25 June I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a transcription of the sermon that I delivered.

+This week Abbot John returned to the abbey after he had presided at the election of a new abbot at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Two weeks earlier he had presided at a similar election at Saint Martin’s Abbey, in Lacey, Washington. On his return he took up residence in the abbey guest house, where he will go through a two-week quarantine.

+Since early March most of us have not left the grounds of the monastery, and that includes the young monks in formation. Deeming it time for a break, the formation team divided the novice and juniors into two groups and took them in turn to our lake cabin near Nisswa, MN.

+One of the delights of spring and summer is the return of the birds, and various of them have their favorite spots for nesting on campus. Popular among the barn swallows are the various niches in the Quadrangle façade, which seem tailor-made for these great builders. Colonies of purple martins meanwhile have for years staked claim to the nest boxes provided for their comfort on the shore of Lake Sagatagan. Pigeons prefer the tiles of Alcuin Library, while bluebirds nest in boxes scattered throughout the property. The other species seem to fend for themselves all over the place. It would be nice to think that they sing for our delight, but we prefer not to kid ourselves on that one. They have other audiences in mind.

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Time for Reflection: A Gift

Now and again I wonder what in the world Jesus did to fill in the years between ages twelve and thirty. That’s the gap between his visit to the temple while his parents went home to Nazareth, and the beginning of his public ministry. It happens to be the longest stretch of his life about which the gospels are silent, but clearly he didn’t sit around and do nothing during all that time.

There’s a lot we can safely assume about the middle years of Jesus, however. Joseph and Mary were religious people who went yearly to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. So Jesus must have been steeped in the Jewish tradition. Since Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus had to have learned something about that trade, if only by osmosis. He also must have learned some Hebrew simply to be able to read from the scrolls which he unrolled in the synagogues. Beyond that, some guesses about his upbringing are better than others; but there will be no definitive biography, at least until the discovery of some major new materials.

Was all this time wasted? Clearly not, as the gospels suggest when they tell us that Jesus grew in age and wisdom. But he was not the only one in his home who did so. Mary herself pondered all this in her heart. I suspect that Joseph too would have had a tale or two to tell had the gospel writers bothered to ask for his story.

Time apart, whether it be a whole span of years or forty days in the desert, was seminal to the life of Jesus. However he may have spent it, he used his time well, as his three years of public ministry imply. As a teacher and a preacher he did not present things on the fly. No, years of study and prayer and asking questions provided a solid foundation on which his ministry depended.

During this current run of isolation I have already learned — or remembered — quite a lot. For one, I’ve learned that life can go on without trips to the airport or the mall. I have also remembered that fulfillment is possible even without an endless run of meetings. And I’ve realized the truth of the old saw about teaching old dogs new tricks. It’s actually true.

All the same, staying in place presents its own particular temptations. When we can’t go anywhere else the urge to go somewhere — anywhere — can be almost too much. There’s also the haunting fear that by staying home we are missing out on so much. I’ve learned, in fact, that the opposite can be equally true. By chasing after distractions we can miss out on so much that life has to offer.

Maybe that’s why Jesus began his public ministry at age thirty and not at age nineteen. Clearly he found those years of reflection and retirement to be of value. So should we. They were a gift for Jesus, and these days should be so for us as well.

NOTES

+On June 19th the seniors of Saint John’s Preparatory School celebrated their graduation at a ceremony on the plaza in front of the Abbey church. Even if it was an abbreviated event, the pealing of the bells signaled the seniors’ delight at four years well spent.

+For several years now I have dedicated quite a bit of my time and energy to developing a scholarship program at Saint John’s University for alumni of Immokalee High School in Florida. On 20 June my confrere Brother Paul Richards and University colleague Jeff Glover hosted the current and incoming students and their parents at a reception and dinner. They gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee. I wish I could have been there for that, since they are a wonderful group of guys. But I’ll see them all in Collegeville in a few weeks. According to reports they had a great time.

+While the need to stay at home has not allowed me to engage in the customary involvement in activities of the Order of Malta, my hours have not been idle. Last week I participated in telephone and Zoom conferences with committees of the Western Association, the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes on the east coast, and the area leaders of the American Association on the east coast.

+Each week brings a new wave of flowering shrubs and trees at Saint John’s, and now it is the turn of the Japanese Lilac trees. The cream-colored blossoms look like lilacs, and they have a fragrance that is somewhere between pungent and sweet. We have many large specimens of these trees, as the photos in today’s post suggest. Most of them descend from previous generations of these trees at Saint John’s.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Luke 2: 41-51, which happened to be the gospel passage for the Eucharist on June 20th.

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Clothe Yourself in Gratitude

”Unexpected uncertainty can breed paranoia, researchers find.” So read a recent headline in the Yale News. Frankly, that news did not surprise me, though I am not the sort of person who would say I could have saved those researchers a lot of time and money.

First off, I’m not a scientist, so I do not have any of the credentials to author such a study. However, I am a human being, and my own experience backs up their findings.

Luckily I do not suffer from conventional paranoia — the kind that assumes everyone is out to get me. For one thing, most people don’t know who in the world I am. As for the people who do know me, humility spares me the illusion that they spend many of their waking hours trying to trip me up. All of that suits me just fine, because I’m happy to live and work on the sidelines and out of the limelight.

However, I do have a variation on paranoia that I likely share with lots of people, if the drug ads are any indication. I have a touch of hypochondria, which periods of isolation exacerbate. Since the onset of this pandemic I have gone through a laundry list of possible diseases, only to come up empty at almost every turn. By the second week, to cite but one example, I had developed pain in my left knee, and so I began to steel myself for a knee replacement. To my surprise, though, the pain disappeared after a few days of exercise, leaving me to wonder what might be next. What came next was shoulder pain and impending replacement for that. As the pain melted away I began to speculate on the next big illness that was bound to cripple or do me in.

What I realized in the course of all this was something that Saint Benedict could have helped me with on day one of isolation. He wrote his Rule for small communities of monks, and most of them never traveled further than a mile or two from the monastery. Medieval monks, like their modern counterparts, were not exempt from anxiety, and when monks have time on their hands they tend to think a lot about themselves. To our medieval confreres and to us monks today Benedict’s advice was simple. Monks should use this time to take stock of their lives and pay careful attention to their fellow monks. In them they will discover the presence of Christ, and also in them they will perceive the hand of God reaching out to help. That, I continue to remind myself, is the antidote to any paranoia lurking in the recesses of my mind.

That said, I have managed to come up with one medical self-diagnosis that is rock-solid. Years ago the doctor told me that someday I would need cataract surgery and that I would be the one to tell her when its time had come. Well, now is the time.

I realized this in March when I was reassigned to a choir stall in the back row in the abbey church. From there the numbers on the hymn board are just a blur to me, and I now have to rely on the kindness of my confrere, Fr. John, to tell me what we are about to sing.

Ironically, the pandemic has reminded me of my dependence on the skills and kindness of others. To Fr. John I am grateful that he continues to share his good eye sight; and to the eye doctor I will be grateful when the surgery is over and done with. On the day of the latter I will put aside a little more uncertainty in life and put on the garment of gratitude a little more often.

NOTES

+On June 8th our confrere Fr. Joel Kelly passed away after a two-year struggle with ALS. Fr. Joel had a varied career that included teaching at our mission priory (now abbey), San Antonio Abad in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Later he served as chaplain at Saint John’s University, and for ten years was chaplain at the Saint Cloud Department of Corrections. His final ministry took him to San Bernardino, CA, where he served from 2005-2019 in San Bernardino Hospital.

+On June 13th we gathered for the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Joel. It was the first time since March that we had welcomed a congregation into the abbey church, and the burial service was noteworthy for two things. First of all, the weather was a perfect crystal-clear day. Second, we were mesmerized by a big bald eagle perched on the top branch of a spruce tree overlooking the grave site. From there he watched the entire service.

+The grounds at Saint John’s have been particularly beautiful these days, as the photos in todays post suggest. They show a corner of the monastic garden, which Fr. Geoffrey tends. Noteworthy is the ladyslipper, in the third photo, which is just coming into bloom.

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Stability:  Not Just for Monks

The other day a friend of mine asked about my stability.  I hasten to say that it was not mental stability that concerned him.  Rather, the stability in question was the distinctive vow that Benedictine men and women have taken for centuries.  What is that all about?

First of all, people seem genuinely surprised to discover that Benedictines do not take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  If we don’t take those vows, then what do we promise in their stead?

img_9175The better-known vows of poverty, chastity and obedience came centuries after Saint Benedict outlined the three commitments that we Benedictines do make.  In the first of them, conversio morum, we promise to live a monastic manner of life.  That includes life in community, simplicity in our life-style and a balance of prayer and work.

The second vow, obedience, can seem straightforward, but it is more nuanced than you might expect.  What it is not is blind obedience to an arbitrary authority.  What it really is is thoughtful obedience to the abbot, who is our father and whom we believe holds the place of Christ in our lives.

The third vow, stability, is the real puzzler.  What is it and why is it such a big deal for Saint Benedict?  Well, the logic behind it is simple.  Unlike those religious orders which organize themselves into provinces that allow superiors to shift personnel to suit the need, we monks commit ourselves to life in a particular community, in a particular place, and we do so for life.  Benedict prescribes this because his paradigm for monastic life is the family.  In this family the abbot is father and the monks are brothers to each other.  In one another we strive to see the face of Christ, and we support one another in the life-long search for God.

7C1D9C25-2E92-413D-B78F-DADEAE25D903Within these parameters Benedictines seek to grow, and we hope to grow in many ways.  To cite but one example, experience taught Benedict that we all must face our personal demons, and if monks try to escape then the demons are sure to follow.  It’s better to confront them headlong with the help of many brothers.  In that struggle monks are accountable to one another, and in a stable community there is potential for measured growth as well as measured backsliding.  But as a family we help one another deal with the challenges of life.

There is no denying the occasional inefficiencies in this way of life, and unequal distribution of talents among monasteries can be one of them.  At Saint John’s we’ve been blessed to have several gifted organists over the years, as well as several monks who love woodworking.  By contrast, for generations we’ve been short of plumbers.  Despite that, we thank God for whatever talents that monks have, and we make the most of the opportunity.

9B0BDCA5-FD30-4677-8A9B-3E30A38935B3There is also a certain culture that stability can create in a community.  Visitors usually find monasteries to be well-tended, serene, and lovely places, and the reason for this owes something to our vow of stability.  We live here for life, and if we trash the place then we are stuck with it.  So we cultivate a reverence for the land, for the buildings, and for the landscape;  and we do so in the conviction that these will shape the kind of lives we will lead.

Creating a place that shows the work of God among us takes daily effort.  Failure is not really an option, because if we leave the place a dump then the next generation will rightly scold us for poor stewardship.

Finally, our culture tends to prize escapism and a wanderlust that discourages the formation of rooted communities.  That’s a subject for another day, but it is something that we should mull over nonetheless.  Civilization in the monastery depends on the willingness of monks to live and work together in harmony, both for their own sakes as well as for the sake of generations to come.  For that very reason I suggest that stability may be something we want to cultivate not only in monasteries, but also in our homes, neighborhoods, cities and even countries.  From experience monks can tell us that it can actually be a force for good.

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NOTES

+From June 1st through the 5th we had our annual retreat for monks in the abbey.  Delivering the retreat conferences was Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.  The retreat was notable for at least two things.  First, Abbot Jeremy delivered his conferences via Zoom, which was a first for him and for us as well.  Because of the need for social distance we monks had to make additional adjustments to the situation, and that included provision for lunch and dinner.  Rather than having us crowded in the abbey refectory, we decided to hold them outside in the monastic garden.

+On June 5th I participated in my first meeting of the advisory council of Saint John’s Outdoor University.  The Outdoor University creates and implements educational programs that introduce our students as well as the public to the abbey arboretum and the other natural resources at Saint John’s.

+Today’s post presents photos of the monastic garden, which was built in the late 1920s.  I have always found the stone walls there mesmerizing, and we are fortunate that they still stand sturdy and strong today.  The walls pictured in this post were built in 1929.

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