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Speak Lord, Your Servant is Listening

First-time readers of The Rule of Saint Benedict are often surprised that Benedict expected one monk to read to the rest of us during dinner. Guests in the abbey refectory at Saint John’s are equally startled to discover that we still do it. Why would we do that after all these centuries?

There are a few monks who ask that too, but that’s a topic for another day. For now it’s enough to say that table reading provides one of the few occasions outside of Mass when we as a community can encounter a broad range of ideas and narratives. It provides some common intellectual input, be the book tedious or fascinating. But my own argument in favor of reading is that it’s way better than watching TV or talking politics during breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Right now we’re reading a book entitled Minnesota 13, which tells the story of corn liquor in Stearns County during Prohibition. For those who may not realize it, Saint John’s Abbey sits near the center of Stearns County, so the protagonists in this book are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

During Prohibition Minnesota 13 was lumped in with what people inelegantly called moonshine. Today we would call it craft whiskey and triple the price, but that too is another issue. Author Elaine Davis interviewed survivors of that era and put together a fascinating collection of stories that we’ve enjoyed hearing. There are tragic stories of homes and barns that burned to the ground when stills caught fire. There are tales of local citizens trying by every which way to evade federal agents. Then there are descriptions of ingenious ways of disguising “product” on the way to market. There was one bootlegger, for instance, who always took a Roman collar along on his deliveries. There was the farmer-distiller who drove his bull to market to Saint Paul every day for weeks on end. The bull was the decoy that distracted curious eyes from the load of whiskey stashed away in the truck. Above all, however, these are the stories of our neighbors.

My personal favorite involves the case of a newly-ordained priest who had just finished with confessions. Puzzled about the right penance to give a bootlegger, he touched base with the pastor. “This bootlegger came to see me,” he said, “and I wasn’t sure what to give him.” The pastor paused and then offered this advice: “Well, if it’s really good, then I’d give him $10.”

You might be wondering right about now what this has to do with today’s gospel, but there is a connection that I hope you will appreciate. As entertaining as Minnesota 13 might be, running through the book is an undercurrent of struggle and desperation. These people were trying to feed their families. They were farmers who worked long hours but rarely reaped a reward that matched their labor. They were people who went to prison while their families suffered. They were people who resented one another because some tried to abide by the law while others saw no other option to doing what they were doing.

More than anything else, however, these are stories of people who lived every day in fear of being caught making or selling or possessing illegal alcohol. They lived with intensity and in anxiety, and rarely could they let down their guard. Those were far from ordinary times, and they knew neither the day nor the hour.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and he concludes with this bit of advice: “…Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Through the centuries preachers have legitimately thought of that hour as the hour of death. All too often death can come like a thief in the night, and so the best preparation is a life lived to the fullest. We must stay awake and alert to the chance that death might come calling today.

But Jesus also means for his disciples to stay awake and alert to the possibilities that life throws our way each day. In this respect it’s key to take note of the oil in the lamps of the foolish and wise virgins. Literally the foolish ran low on oil, but metaphorically that was the story of their lives. They had fallen asleep and died long before before their bodies died. Meanwhile the wise ones had oil enough to keep the fire inside of them burning. They missed no opportunity in life. They made the most of the time that they had at their disposal.

Part of life involves our endurance during difficult times. That suggests to me that life without any challenge is no life at all. Whenever life seems to be too much for us, then, we ought to stand back and reflect on what kind of opportunities those challenges throw out to us.

Right now most of us have been living in some degree of suspended animation for nearly nine months. If at this point we are tempted to give up or despair, it’s good to remember that these times are an extraordinary chance to rebuild ourselves. These need not be wasted days, because these are the days the Lord gives us to accomplish great things —whatever they may be.

In Psalm 95 we pray these words: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Whether we listen or not, the Lord’s voice still calls out to us. We can respond by making the most of this day — or not. How we respond will become the story of our life.

If today you hear God’s voice, find out what it is that God calls you to do and do it. Don’t wait until the coast is clear and the challenge is over. I guarantee that by then the best of times will be long gone. By then, as the foolish virgins found to their regret, the chance to live will have slipped away. Choose to live, and when the Lord calls out you’ll be more than ready to respond. Like the young prophet Samuel, you too will be able to say “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

NOTES

+On November 5th I had my weekly day of endless Zoom meetings. At least they tend to be interesting, which is compensation enough.

+On Sunday November 8th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered. It is based on Matthew 25: 1-13.

+This past week we enjoyed seven days of nearly flawless weather in the high 60s and low 70s. This will not last, which is why we have savored every moment of it. My personal achievement of the week occurred on November 3rd, when I hiked for 6.5 miles. That likely will not happen again until spring.

+Since reverting to standard time it has been especially dark when we gather for evening prayer, as the photos in today’s post suggest. The lower two photos show us as we gather for noon prayer in the cemetery on the feast of All Souls, November 2nd.

All Souls: A Note of Thanksgiving

Each year on the feast of All Souls we monks gather for noon prayer in the abbey cemetery. It’s a ritual replicated by Benedictines around the world, and I’ve always found it to be very moving. But given the weather in Minnesota at this time of year, why in the world would we do it?

The answer has to do with our respect for tradition. Each day at morning prayer, for instance, we mention by name the monks of our community who have died on that date. We also pray for our recently-deceased confreres as well as for those recently-deceased at many of our sister monasteries. This gesture is a tribute to those whose prayer and work built our community. Because of them we are who we are and we are where we are. It’s only fair to acknowledge that debt.

That’s part of the motivation behind our All Souls observance. That ritual in the cemetery goes beyond mere commemoration, however, because it’s the one day when we join symbolically to pray alongside those who have gone before us. Each year on All Souls we are one community — living and dead.

To our predecessors in the monastery we owe gratitude for their inspired service. It still shapes our way of life. It’s not that they dictate the round of our activities, however, because in no way do they rule from the grave. Rather, like parents who prepare their children for the world and then step back and let go, so our brothers have bequeathed to us a legacy. It is our responsibility to build upon their legacy; and in turn we pass it on to the next generation of monks. From our predecessors we learn that someday we must let go too.

There’s one other bit of wisdom here that inspires me. Monks, like everyone else, are prone to believe that we somehow brought ourselves into existence. That’s ludicrous, of course, but we fall prey to that self-delusion all the same. So gathering to pray alongside our brothers who now rest in peace gives them the chance to tone down our hubris. They remind us that they were here before us. We then remember that we are their brothers who are called by God to continue in the nurture of their gift of faith. In short, we build upon their lives.

I’ve only met a fraction of the monks in the abbey cemetery, but I know many by name. All Souls gives me the chance to pray for them and to pray in thanksgiving for them. Together they and I forge the connection that makes sensible the sage comment of historian Jaroslav Pelikan. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Together then we strive to live in a faith that energizes us all. Like those monks who have gone before us, we try our best to nurture that seed of faith into lives of prayer and service. And then we try to plant the seed of our faith in the next generation of monks.

NOTES

+In terms of activities this was a rather quiet week for me. After nearly eight months I’ve scarcely left the abbey property, and this last week I went nowhere — physically but not figuratively. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found these days to be so creative.

+Thursday seems to be the one day of the week reserved for an excessive number of Zoom meetings. This Thursday I spent nearly six hours glued to the computer.

+On Saturday October 31st I presided at the burial service for Saint John’s University alumnus Dr. Robert Foley. Five years ago I presided at a similar service for his wife Mary, and now they are together in the abbey cemetery.

+The photos in today’s post show the abbey cemetery. On the upper portion are the sections for the monks and the members of the parish of Saint John the Baptist, and on the lower level is the expansion to accommodate friends and alumni of Saint John’s. It’s a wonderfully serene spot, overlooking Lake Sagatagan.

The Payback for Service

What kind of master hurries home to serve the servants? What servants wait patiently for the master to return and serve them?

Jesus must have puzzled his audience with this parable of servant role-reversal. Clearly he must have grown up in a home that had no servants, because his way was not the way it was supposed to work.

All the same, Jesus meant what he said, and he intended to turn our attitude toward service inside out. Those who serve others in his name will find themselves served. Those who come last will be first. Those who do for the least of people actually do for the Lord himself.

I suppose this still leaves us wondering how that’s supposed to work out in practice. What exactly are we going to get for our trouble? Are these promises just a bunch of pious fluff?

There really is a payback for service, as those who volunteer their time and talent will freely testify to that. For one thing, they’ll tell us that when we give unselfishly we begin to glimpse our own capacity to love. We discover that our own limits are not nearly as narrow as we had thought. We learn that caring for others need not be painful, nor will we lose the skin off our noses.

Something else — something amazing — also happens when we reach out to others. The world begins to open up to us. We become the person we never imagined we would be. Our lives become exciting and maybe even at times extraordinary.

Unfortunately much of this is totally unbelievable for many. But can it be true? Absolutely, as those who have acted on the Lord’s promises readily admit. There is a payback for doing even a short stint of service. That payback is life — life in abundance. Small wonder, then, that in trying to change the lives of others it is we who do most of the changing. That should come as no surprise, however, because it’s what the Lord promised.

NOTES

+On October 20th I presided at the Abbey Mass and preached on the gospel for the day: Luke 12: 35-38. Today’s post is an expansion of the message I delivered that day.

+On October 24th we celebrated the feast of the dedication of the Abbey church. Dedicated in 1961, it remains an extraordinary piece of architecture, which the Getty Foundation has recognized with a planning grant for the long-term preservation of this world-class structure. In doing so The Getty noted that the church along with several other buildings on campus constitute the largest collection of the work of Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer anywhere in the world.

+Also on October 20th we had a large snowfall that effectively called a halt to the progress of autumn. The oaks will have to strut their colors next year, because it’s over for 2020. Surprisingly, the persistent cold has meant that the snow has stayed with us, which is unusual so early in the season. Perhaps it ushers in an early winter.

Don’t Tempt the Spirit to Do It All

As a newly-ordained priest I assisted on weekends at a country parish that probably didn’t need the extra help. I enjoyed going there, though, mainly because I had the chance to get to know many of the parishioners by name. That simply wasn’t possible in a large suburban parish; and so I was grateful that the prior had thought of that when he sent me there.

The pastor had been there for nearly twenty years and was an impressive figure. He was also a bit intimidating, and I weighed his advice carefully. One comment, however, stopped me in my tracks. As I prepared to step into the sanctuary for the very first time, he eyed my sermon, clutched nervously in my hand. “Let the Holy Spirit tell you what to say. I always trust in the Spirit, and in twenty years the Spirit has never let me down.” He then suggested I toss my text in the circular file. Meaning no disrespect, I didn’t.

I’ll admit that even back then I trusted in the Holy Spirit, but I also knew that the Spirit sometimes works in mysterious ways. Sometimes the Spirit expects me to do some of the work, especially when I’m preaching. That’s why I decided that if people were going to go to all sorts of trouble to come to church, then I had to do my part to make it worth their while.

A frequent complaint about worship has centered on the quality of the preaching. This of course is nothing new, as Saint Paul’s experience reminds us. During one of his less memorable sermons someone dozed off and fell out a window. Paul’s performance literally knocked the guy dead; and perhaps that’s one reason why windows in many churches are too high to reach.

Another common complaint has centered on topics of keen interest to the preacher but of zero concern to the congregation. To this day I recall a sermon at my grandmother‘s country parish, where no member was younger than seventy-five. The preacher had delivered a harangue about the evils of marijuana, and afterwards I asked my mom what marijuana was. Her answer was evasive, and it left me to conclude — erroneously — that my grandmother and her friends had a pot problem. Why else would their pastor bring it up?

In sum, all too often preachers are tempted to leave the heavy lifting to the Holy Spirit. In fairness, however, many in the pews are tempted to do the same. Truth be told, both the preacher and listeners ought to prepare for this moment of conversation between pulpit and pew. The result ought to be a sermon that conveys some nuggets of nourishment and a message that falls on eagerly receptive ears.

I wish I had been better prepared to respond to that pastor’s advice to me. In Luke 12: 12 Jesus did indeed say that “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you are to say.” But context is everything, as verse 11 makes clear. That moment has nothing to do with pulpits. That moment is actually when they “drag you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities.” That moment has yet to happen to me, and you can rest assured that when it comes along I will definitely rely on the Holy Spirit to get me out of that jam. Until then I will continue to prepare sermons ahead of time.

I hope that over the years my preaching has improved. If it has, then it might be due to the fact that I try not to tempt the Holy Spirit to do all the heavy lifting. I honestly believe that the Lord helps those who help themselves, and that certainly applies to me.

That’s why I’ve always subscribed to a bit of wisdom from Woodrow Wilson. “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.” To that I suspect Jesus would add a hearty “Amen!” After all, it took Jesus thirty years to get ready for his first sermon.

NOTES

+Today’s post is a reflection on Luke 12: 8-12, which was the gospel passage for Saturday October 17th. By way of postscript to my own experience cited above, a few members of that parish finally confided that the pastor had delivered variations of the same sermon every Sunday for nearly twenty years. Eventually the pastor was dragged into the archbishop‘s office; and once again he relied on the Spirit for something to say. Apparently the Spirit had a more pressing engagement that morning, and the archbishop granted him an unsolicited early retirement.

+On October 11-13 I participated in a retreat for members In Obedience in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. Most of the members are in California, and I was the eastern-most participant. At the other extreme was a member who lives in New Zealand. It’s a judgement call whether that is east or west of Minnesota.

+On October 15th I clocked nearly seven hours on Zoom and my cell phone. I hasten to add that this is not my favorite way to spend a day.

+On October 17th at the abbey Mass Abbot John commissioned Brothers Benedict Tran and Amadeus Mhagama as acolytes, in preparation for their ordination to the priesthood. Brother Benedict is from the Cistercian Abbey of Chou Sun in Vietnam and Brother Amadeus is from Hanga Abbey in Tanzania. They are with us for several years as they pursue their seminary studies, and both have added much to the richness of our community life.

+On October 16th we had a touch of snow, as the photo at bottom illustrates. It signals the impending end of autumn colors. For now, however, we still enjoy the ivy that decorates the buildings.

Gus Revisited

Gus and I were friends as much as distance allowed. He lived in Boston and I in Minnesota, so the chance to visit didn’t come often. When it did, however, the conversation was always spirited and a delight.

Our last appointment was to be over dinner in Boston. Gus had offered to drop by my hotel, and from there he would drive to one of his favorite haunts in north Boston.

Uncharacteristically, I was ready early; and in a moment of inspiration I decided to call our one and only mutual friend, who happened to live in California. We connected, and I shared the news of my dinner with Gus. But I was not at all prepared for the response. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but Gus died last week.”

I was stunned — first by the news, and then by the fact that I had been lucky enough to call the one person on the planet who could share that sad news with me.

That was nine years ago. Ever since then I’ve given Gus credit for nudging me to get in touch with our friend in California. It’s the sort of thing that Gus would have done. He was not a person to leave anyone waiting, and ever since then I’ve appreciated this last kind gesture.

Last week an alumnus of Saint John’s emailed to tell me about a book he’d just finished. He knew I’d like it and offered to get a copy for me. From his home in Kennebunk, ME, he scoured the internet, and he finally located a used copy of the out-of-print book. It had been sitting for who knows how long on a shelf in a book store in a New England town whose name was unfamiliar to me.

Three days later the book arrived. I carefully unwrapped it, examined the dust jacket and then opened the hard cover to the flyleaf. There, neatly inscribed, was the name of the original owner and the date he had purchased the book. The name leapt from the page. There it was: Gus Grace, 9/92. What are the odds of that?!

Now that I’ve had two post-death encounters with Gus, I’m not sure what to make of them. I suppose I could wax eloquently about the unexpected legacy we can leave behind. I might comment on how God continues to use us, even after our passing. I might even wonder about any specific message Gus might be trying to send me. But for now I’ll leave all that for the musings of All Saints and All Souls Days.

In the meantime I’ll let stand this simple thought. Friends and loved ones never really leave us behind. We carry something of them in our hearts and memories, even after their passing. In more than a few ways they continue to be guests in our mental living rooms.

That’s what I’ve learned from Gus. At least that’s what I’ve learned from Gus up to this point. Now I’m anxious to see what comes next.

NOTES

+On October 6th I participated in a meeting of the council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, of the Order of Malta.

+The major event on my calendar last week was cataract surgery on my right eye on October 7th. With that I now have 20/20 vision in both eyes, and I’ve savored the brilliance of fall colors as I haven’t in years. It’s been absolutely stunning. Mine is no original discovery, however, and I merely repeat what everyone who’s undergone this procedure has testified to before me. Still, I’ve also come to appreciate one unexpected benefit. Since I no longer need glasses except for reading, I don’t have to contend with fogged lenses when I wear a face mask.

+Today’s post harks back to the post entitled One Last Kindness, which I published on 29 August 2011. That describes my dinner appointment with Gus, and readers can access it through the link. Readers will also be able to compare the layout of my blog in 2011 with its current incarnation. I’d like to think I’ve made some progress in the interim.

Just How Long Has God Known Us?

”Nathaniel said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.’ Nathaniel answered him, ‘Rabbi you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.’” John 1: 48-49.

To the casual reader Nathaniel’s response to Jesus marks him as a pretty gullible guy. What kind of person would drop everything to follow somebody, just because he claimed to see him sitting under a fig tree? Had it been me in Nathaniel’s sandals, I would have been a little skeptical. I’d be tempted to answer Jesus with a nonchalant “so what!”

Obviously there’s more to the story, and we find in Jesus’ response an echo of Psalm 110. There we read the puzzling and also reassuring words of Yahweh: “From the womb, before the dawn, I begot you.” That suggests that Jesus had a similar intent in his words. Long before Nathaniel had ever heard of Jesus, Jesus had seen Nathaniel and had already loved him.

That’s the message that Jesus intends for us to hear in this gospel, and it’s meant to strike us to the core of our being.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves drowned in the expanse of eternity. But Jesus assures us that he cares for us, and that you and I are worth far more than sparrows.

At our baptism we were signed for something important. We were claimed for Jesus Christ. Today, let us pray that we be not blind to the Lord’s love for us. After all, from the womb, before the dawn, God already knew us.

NOTES

+On 28 September I participated via zoom in the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at HMML at Saint John’s. The Center does important work in the preservation of the archives of the Order of Malta as well as materials relating to the history of the state of Malta.

+On 29 September I presided and preached at the Mass for the monks of Saint John’s Abbey. Today’s post is a transcript of the sermon I delivered. I also served as prayer leader for this week‘s Liturgy of the Hours at the abbey. In the days of a heavy travel schedule such an assignment would not have been possible. During the pandemic this marks the third time in seven months. So I am making up for years of unavailability to do this.

+On 30 September I participated in the online meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+That same day I underwent the seventh and eighth testings for the corona virus. For the first one I drove into Saint Cloud — meant as part of the preparation for upcoming cataract surgery on my right eye. Then I drove back to Saint John’s, parked the car, and went in for another Covid testing as part of the abbey’s regular testing program. For the seventh and eight times I tested negative.

+On October 1st I took part in an online meeting of the Admissions and Formation Committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+Finally, it’s only right to make mention of something I was unable to do last week. I had been scheduled to give a three-day retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta. It was supposed to take place in Boston on 2-4 October. Much to my regret, it didn’t happen.

Autumn: When the Landscape Sings

A few days ago my confrere Father Ian emailed to alert me to a tree. It’s a solitary maple flanked by rather drab basswoods; and over the years it’s earned a reputation for its vibrant fall color. The metamorphosis was not to be missed, he assured me, so that morning I walked across campus to see it. It was definitely worth the detour.

My schooling in the niceties of fall color began when I was in college in New Jersey. There for the first time I experienced autumn at its full potential. The intensity overwhelmed me, and equally dramatic was the abrupt end as the leaves floated to the forest floor.

Monastic life in Minnesota has honed my skills at reading the autumn landscape, and I now appreciate the subtleties of change. It all begins in August, when a few trees send out hints that the big show is coming. So understated are they that people often fail to notice. Some pass by, oblivious to the warning, and only weeks later when the leaves burst into glory do they stop to gawk. Then, just as dramatically, it’s over.

I used to think that those few days were the sum total of autumn. The rest was either late summer or early winter. I now know otherwise.

Autumn is more than a brief blaze of glory. In fact, in our part of the woods it’s a weeks-long palate change. It’s an opera in which maples, oaks, sumac and various grasses strut onto the stage for cameos and arias. Eventually they give way to the grand finale. Then they take their bows and abruptly exit the stage.

I find all this spiritually stirring, and the message seems obvious to me. If we ignore a lot of what is happening around us, then we deny the value of the little things in our lives. If then we think that autumn is restricted to those few days of intensity, then what else are we missing? Can it be true that “the real world” begins only after we graduate from college? Does “true freedom” start only after the kids move out and the dog dies? Can it be that life through seven months of quarantine counts for nothing until a vaccine is found? Actually they all count for something, because the quiet stretches in our lives matter enormously.

We all have our variations on these escapes from reality, but the point is simple. It’s very easy to slip into the delusion that life is sometime in the future or somewhere else. In fact, life is now. It’s the portion of days that God has given to each of us.

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict encourages us monks to keep death daily before our eyes. This is not a recipe for depression. Rather, it’s an urgent call to live in the present and make the most of each moment. Benedict then would be sorely disappointed were I to ask someone to “wake me when we’re there.” He’d counter with the comment that we’re there already.

I’ll grant that autumn is not over until the great burst of color. However, there’s an awful lot going on well before then. So what is autumn’s spiritual lesson for us? Savor every moment of autumn, even the quiet moments when the leaves have scarcely begun to sing. Do so, and chances are you’ll get a lot more out of life.

NOTES

+My routine was fairly simple last week. I worked in my room, which for seven months has served both as office and bedroom. I logged into a couple of Zoom meetings, and I got outside for walks to admire the landscape. The high point of the week was likely the day when I had two medical check-ups and the sixth test for Covid this summer. Normally I don’t like to think of myself as a negative person, but six times of being labeled negative has been music to my ears.

+We’ve had a trickle of visitors to the abbey arboretum over the course of the summer, but this last weekend that trickle turned into a river. Great numbers of people hiked through the woods, and the landscape did not disappoint.

+Throughout the pandemic we have not missed a day of our monastic round of Mass and the liturgy of the hours. However, only since the middle of August have we been able to welcome visitors once again. So I was delighted this Sunday to welcome a couple of friends — Mike and Jane — who drove from Saint Paul to join us for the Eucharist. In the meantime it has been great to have others join us regularly for these activities, and especially for morning and evening prayer.

The Gift of Sight and Insight

Years ago my eye doctor told me that someday I would need cataract surgery. Plus, I would have to be the one to tell her when it was time. Well, that day came this winter when I got moved to the back row of the choir stalls. From that vantage I could no longer make out the numbers on the hymn board, nor could I see any detail in the faces of my confreres seated across the sanctuary. The time had definitely come.

Last week I had surgery on my left eye, and the results were astonishing. Everything was brighter; colors seemed to pop; and I saw detail I’d not seen since high school. I summed it up for the surgical nurse with this succinct question. “When I went into surgery the walls were beige; when I came out they were white. How did you manage to paint them so quickly?”

It may seem a stretch to see how this could have anything to do with the parable of the workers who came late to the vineyard. Late though they were, they got the same pay as those who had worked all day; and for that seeming injustice those who had worked from early in the day groused bitterly. I would have done the same, I’m sure.

The sense of injustice is what stirs our emotion, and it’s exactly the hook that Jesus intended. While there is an element of unfairness here, Jesus took aim not at the overly-generous owner nor at those who seemed to take advantage of his kindness. Instead he spoke squarely to those who let moral outrage and envy get the better of them. As for the outrage, it may have been justifiable. But envy of the generosity of others ate away at them. It ruined a day that had been wonderful up to that point.

Unlike the late-comers to the vineyard, the surgeon came to work early, because he had as many as seventeen procedures that day. In ten minutes with me he earned as much as I would earn in two weeks or more. If that seems unfair, then that might be grist for a public policy round-table. As far as I’m concerned, however, it’s secondary to what happened. I could see — and remarkably well.

Do I envy that doctor? Absolutely. But I don’t envy him his skills, because I never wanted to be a surgeon in the first place. What I envy is his ability to touch the life of another person and make a difference.

The good news is that I can make a difference too, and I think that may be one of the points that Jesus intends to make in this parable. Jesus calls each of us in our own good time. He bestows on each of us a basket of talents, and those talents are there for us to develop and use. They are our chance to make a difference in our own corner of the world.

Long ago I decided that there was no point in envying other people their talents. For one thing, a variety of talents makes a neighborhood a richer place. For another, it means I don’t have to do everything myself.

The lesson I draw from the parable of the vineyard workers is this. Be glad that the Lord calls people early and late. Be glad the Lord gives each person talents to accomplish something of value. Be glad that others join in the harvest when they can and however they can. There’s more than enough to do, and why in the world would I want to do it all? Thank goodness that’s yet one more thing I see clearly now.

NOTES

+Today’s post is a reflection on Matthew 20: 1-16A. It was the gospel passage for Sunday, September 20th.

+On September 14th our confreres Brother David Allen and Brother Felix Mencías made their first profession of vows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Brother David is originally from Rosemount, MN, and he is a graduate of Saint John’s University. Brother Felix was born and grew up in Vera Cruz, located on the east coast of Mexico. The photo above shows them at the front entrance of the church, following the Mass of profession. To the right is Abbot John, and to the left is formation director Father Lew.

+On September 15th I had cataract surgery on my left eye. As the essay above suggests, I was astounded both by the speed of the recovery as well as the recovery of eyesight. Not since high school have I had 20/20 vision in either of my eyes. The right eye comes next, on October 7th. At that point I hope to be done with all the medical deferred maintenance that I’ve been through during the past two and a half months. Given the drawn-out nature of some of this, I realize now I could never have come up with the time to do this, save for the pandemic.

+On September 17th I took part in a meeting of the membership and formation committee of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+This is the time of year when hikers jam the trails to the other side of Lake Sagatagan to visit the Stella Maris Chapel. Along the way they pass through a covered bridge as well as the trailhead that welcomes people into the woods. At bottom are five of our six first-year students at Saint John’s Univeristy from Immokalee, FL. It’s my privilege to work with them during their four years at Saint John’s, and it is among the most gratifying things I will ever do in my life.

Our Bias Toward Fault-Finding

”Why do you notice the splinter in someone else’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” (Luke 6: 42)

It’s a good question that Jesus puts to his disciples, and I think that the Book of Genesis provides a useful insight. Eve may have committed disobedience, and Genesis gave her credit for an original sin. Still, Eve hadn’t exhausted the well of human creativity when it came to sin. Adam chipped in with his willingness to blame Eve in order to cover up his own fault. He was just as creative, and together Adam and Eve had begun the task of fleshing out a comprehensive list of original sins.

I would venture to say that most of us prefer Adam’s sin of fault-finding to Eve’s sin of disobedience, for one simple reason. Disobedience takes some energy and initiative, while fault-finding is best done from a recliner. It takes very little effort to raise a finger to point out the faults of others, and perhaps that’s why Jesus so often chose Adam’s sin as a theme for his preaching. The fact is, he rarely preached about disobedience to the law; but hypocrisy was a different matter. Hypocrisy seemed to bring out the heat in his preaching, and it did so because hypocrisy seems to be part of our DNA. Our default buttons are set to it.

So pervasive is this sin of hypocrisy that Jesus asks us to factor it into our daily prayer. When he taught his disciples to pray he told them to ask God for forgiveness in proportion to the forgiveness we grant to one another.

For our part that’s a dangerous petition to put to God. If we really meant it most of us would be in a lot of trouble. But all the same, those words serve to remind us of the common frailty that we share. Together we sin, and together we ask for forgiveness. As we continue our search for God it’s a reminder that neither my neighbor nor I can afford to be blind — blind not only to our failings, but especially blind to the gifts that the Lord bestows on each of us.

NOTES

+On September 8th I made my first trip to Minneapolis in six months. It was a quick excursion, but it was nice to see that it was still there.

+On September 11th I presided at Mass in the abbey church, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I gave that day.

+On September 12th Fr. Michael Peterson gave a day of reflection to 65 oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, via Zoom. These electronic gatherings now take place monthly, and they seem to work quite well.

+Last week I failed to note that the Sunday Mass for the students of Saint John’s University took place in Clemens Stadium. The athletic director called University chaplain Fr. Nick Kleespie to say that with no games in the stadium his staff was going crazy with nothing to do. So they hastily configured it for the liturgy; attendance doubled from the previous week; and the staff finally had something to do.

+In last week’s blog I made mention of Larry Haeg’s book entitled The Nature of Saint John’s. One enterprising reader promptly looked it up on Amazon and was aghast that the list price for a new copy was $864.56, while the price for a used copy was a more modest. $775.00. I told him I know a place where he could get it for less than half the cost.

+Our friends the squirrels have been very busy in the abbey garden during the past three weeks. They have been biting off the spruce cones and piling them at the base of trees. Later they return to peel out the seeds for winter storage. For now they are in a frenzy of activity, and monks who pass by and interrupt their work generally get a scolding from our furry farmers.

Brother Ansgar’s Woods

Most funerals at Saint John’s Abbey end with the same ritual. We monks process two by two from the monastery to the cemetery. Gathered around the grave, the abbot leads us in prayer; in silence the body is lowered into the grave; we sing a hauntingly beautiful Latin hymn called the Ultima; and in a final gesture of goodbye we drop handfuls of soil onto the casket. Then we drift back to the monastery in twos and threes and fours.

Normally the chatter on the way back is about nothing in particular. But for Brother Ansgar’s burial in 1981 it was different. I walked back with Abbot Jerome, and I distinctly recall that we talked about something very specific. We talked about trees.

Brother Ansgar was not an academic. He never went to college. He never gave a formal lecture or taught a class or published a book or said a Mass. All the same, or perhaps because of it, he was a rare bird in our community. He planted trees.

In his book The Nature of Saint John’s, author and Saint John’s alumnus Larry Haeg writes about Brother Ansgar’s work as a forester. In the early 1920s he raised some 14,000 seedlings of white pine, white spruce and Douglas fir; and in 1926-27 he led in planting them in bare spots throughout the forest. Of course he didn’t stop there, and until late in life he added to those plantings. No one really knows how many trees he planted, but “an awful lot” is a pretty accurate tally.

In a recent essay journalist John Allen recounts the old saw that “there’s no limit to the good someone can do if they don’t care about getting the credit.” In a coda he adds a personal comment that is very good advice, unless of course you crave the limelight. “It takes a special kind of courage — one might almost call it faith — to plug away, year after year, without really caring if someone ever applauds you for it.”

I suspect that Brother Ansgar never got a formal retirement dinner, nor did he get an engraved watch to commemorate decades of service. Had someone labeled his work “courageous” he would have blanched. Had someone called it “faithful” he likely would have blushed. But of one thing I am sure. In the nearly hundred years since he began planting trees his work has touched the life of everyone who has ever been on our campus. One might even say that he helped to define the character of our landscape.

Since Brother Ansgar planted his first pine tree seedling, the abbey archivists have carted off to the files bales of sermon and lecture transcripts as well as tons of minutes of countless meetings. Ironically it’s not them but rather Brother Ansgar’s trees that we see today. For decades of plugging away he needed no plaque or medal. The woods are epitaph enough for a life quietly and faithfully lived.

I suspect that life itself was the reward that Brother Ansgar enjoyed most. And as for us, we get to enjoy the legacy of Brother Ansgar’s woods.

NOTES

+Last week I served as prayer leader at the Liturgy of the Hours. At morning prayer we commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of monks, and it so happened that Brother Ansgar’s anniversary fell on September 2nd. Brother Ansgar was 90 when he passed, and as a young monk I really didn’t have a chance to get to know him. Still, almost daily I enjoy the fruits of his labor.

+On September 5th I got to meet with the first-year Saint John’s students from Immokalee, FL. I had first met some of them when I visited Immokalee High School on March 2nd. It was good to see them at Saint John’s at long last.

+During much of September I have the awesome responsibility of feeding the fish in the pond in the monastic garden. I have no particular qualifications that suit me for the job, but the goal is fairly simple. I‘m supposed to feed them enough and often enough so that the big fish do not feel inclined to eat the little fish.

+The go-to source for information on the Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum remains Larry Haeg’s book entitled The Nature of Saint John’s. It touches on both the history of the grounds as well as the spirituality of the landscape, and I consult it every time I take a major hike through the woods. Brother Ansgar certainly was not the only forester in the history of Saint John’s, but he reinforced the planting of spruce and pine, which are not really native to this part of Minnesota. The conifer line actually ends about forty miles north of us. But you would never know it from looking at our landscape. Photos in today’s post provide a sample of those plantings, and far and away the most impressive of them are located near the Prep School and Guesthouse. Each photo may be enlarged, and in the bottom photo you will better see Brother Ansgar’s white pine seedlings towering over the hardwood forest.

+The passage which I quote from John L. Allen Jr. is from an article entitled Celebrating the anonymous change-makers in the Church, published on 30 August in his online journal Crux.