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IMG_6063.JPGThe Pilgrimage of Life

A pilgrimage must seem like a rather strange bird to 21st-century Americans.  To many it harks back to something out of the Middle Ages, and to more than a few it must seem like a big waste of time.  Yet, as a metaphor for life, a pilgrimage is that path through life which everyone must choose.  It boils down to the destination which all must set for themselves, sooner or later.  People may choose to go nowhere, but they will still go somewhere simply because events will set the course for them.

This week I happen to find myself on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with members of the Order of Malta.  It’s the 10th time I’ve done it, and you might legitimately wonder why I even needed to do it a second time.  But many of my fellow travelers have been here far more often than I, including Bill, who is here for the 24th time.  Don’t we have anything useful to do with our time?  Why would we do this over and over again?  Well, what most of us realized by the second time is that each pilgrimage is unique.  The mix of personalities and individual stories makes a single pilgrimage an unforgettable experience, each and every time.

IMG_6007Annually members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, along with volunteers and some fifty sick people, travel to Lourdes and spend a week in prayer, camaraderie, and wonder.  I use those terms deliberately, to counter the common assumption that a pilgrimage to Lourdes has to be among the most tedious of experiences.  It’s not.  For a week we 350 stay together in one hotel, dine and pray together, take care of one another and enjoy the beauty of this shrine.  Tucked away in a remote spot of southern France, it’s about as far away from Paris as one could get.  To the south Spain is just a few miles away, on the other side of the snow-capped Pyranees, which we can see from the edge of town.

Lourdes is by every measure a logistical challenge.  In Lourdes we 350 join upwards of 3,500 other members of Malta who travel from elsewhere around the world.  Then there are the thousands of other pilgrims from all over the place.  There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait about Lourdes, and it tests everybody’s patience and cooperation.  Imagine what it takes to get 20,000+ into the underground basilica of St. Plus X for Mass on Sunday and you get a hint of what organizers confront.  Of course the staff of the shrine is used to this, but most of the rest of us are not.  It’s energizing and crazy all in one.

IMG_5955I never fail to take away two things from Lourdes, and I always leave one thing behind.  I’ll mention the latter first, just to get it out of the way.  There are a ton of religious shops in Lourdes, catering to every taste known to humankind.  Of those, all but four or five sell stuff that US Customs should never allow into the country.  Those things range from the gaudy to the merely tacky, and they include items like the Blessed Virgin Mary cocktail glasses.  Her etched figure in the crystal may be a fitting tribute to the Mother of God in some people’s eyes, but not in mine.  So each year I do my part not to diminish the supply of those treasures, by not buying any.  That way there will be more than enough for the other pilgrims to drag home.

On the positive side, Lourdes is a vivid reminder of the universality of the Church.  When Jesus commanded the disciples to preach the gospel, even to the ends of the earth, the disciples could scarcely have imagined the results.  Stand in front of the basilica long enough and you really will see and hear people from the ends of the earth process by.  Clearly, somebody took the command of Jesus seriously, and you see it incarnate at Lourdes.

Finally, and most important of all, people come to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons.  Like medieval pilgrims they come to atone for sins;  they come for spiritual healing;  they come to satisfy curiosity;  they come because of religious enthusiasm;  and a few come because they are bored with life.  But no one leaves Lourdes in quite the state in which they arrived.

IMG_5959Lourdes has a way of calling the important questions in life — questions that sooner or later none of us can avoid.  If people are suffering a serious illness, Lourdes can remind them that there is meaning to their lives.  For those whose prayer is a variation on the old saw “There but for the grace of God go I,” Lourdes offers a follow-up question.  “All right, if I’m blessed not to go down the path of suffering, then exactly where am I going with my life?  Have I chosen a direction, or are the currents merely carrying me along?”

Lourdes has no monopoly on these kinds of questions, but along with places like Santiago and Jerusalem it invites visitors to pause and take stock of their lives before too much of it is spent.  It encourages people to make those small and large course corrections that determine life from that day forward.

Of course nobody needs to go 4,000 miles to pose those questions.  Wherever we find ourselves, we all have the chance to stop, get a grip on ourselves, and ask if we are becoming the people whom the Lord calls us to be.  Do our lives have purpose?  And if not, ought we make some sort of adjustment while it can still matter?

Lucky you if your house is in good order!  Quite possibility your life is nearly done, and there’s no need for further improvement.  As for the rest of us, however, our pilgrimage continues on, and the Lord invites us to use well each day and hour and minute.  Those precious minutes count for something on the pilgrimage of life.

IMG_5992Notes

+On May 5th the monks of Saint John’s celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Mark Thamert.

+The last few days have been taken up with the pilgrimage to Lourdes, which ends on the 9th of May.  My major concern about the trip was the condition of my back and the ability to negotaite steps and hills.  The biggest test came when the fire alarm sounded in my hotel.  With the elevators out of commission, I had to climb down seven fights of stairs, which I managed gingerly.

+For repeat visitors on the Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes, the gathering has the character of reunion of sorts.  On 7 May I attended a Mass where my friend Jean Brunel took his Promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  He is a member of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is the east-coast equivalent of the west-coast subpriory in which I work.  Also at Lourdes I got to visit at length with Bishop Steven Lopes, who in his days as a seminarian spent a summer at Saint John’s discerning a monastic vocation.  Recently he was appointed a bishop, with oversight of Anglican churches in North America that have been received into communion with the Catholic Church.

+One notable feature of our time in Lourdes has been the extraordinary weather.  The photos in today’s post give some inkling of that.  The photo at bottom shows the Sunday liturgy of some 20,000 gathered in the basilica of St. Pius X.

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IMG_5645Serving the Niche Market

He was a fixture on campus during my first years at Saint John’s.  Each morning, like clock-work, with measured steps he strode up to Wimmer Hall and disappeared into the building.  Never did I meet him, nor did I ever get to hear his voice live.  But Garrison Keillor’s electronic voice was a daily presence in my life — as well as in the lives of many of my confreres.

I recall wondering at the time whether Keillor would ever make something of himself.  Certainly I was of the opinion that he was a scream, what with his ads for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique and Jack’s — “All tracks lead to Jack’s.”  I longed to walk the streets of Lake Wobegon, though I knew it was a fictional amalgam of several nearby towns.  Then there was his approach to sports, which I very much appreciated.  It was Keillor who had introduced Jim Ed Poole to the world of sports broadcasting, and when Keillor turned to Jim Ed for the scores, that’s precisely what he got.  “7-3.  8-2.  10-5. Etc.”. Then there were the days when Keillor asked about the previous day’s games, and Jim Ed happily obliged with the same spare style.  “The Detroit team played the Boston team.  The Kansas City team hosted the Los Angeles team.”  That pretty much satisfied my interest in sports, and I often wondered why the NFL never drafted Jim-Ed to do the color-commentary for Monday Night Football.  I speculated that Minnesota Public Radio had Jim Ed locked into a lucrative multi-year contract.  If so, it was the NFL’s loss.

IMG_5603Fr. Colman Barry, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, had an amazingly productive imagination.  During his tenure as president of Saint John’s University in the late 1960s he presided over a campus building boom and a range of projects that continue to this day.  Under his aegis came the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and its mission to preserve manuscripts from the Middle Ages and beyond.  The Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies was the first such initiative at a Catholic college, and the Collegeville Institute promoted ecumenical relations.  All are in the midst of celebrating milestones in their existence, and each has made a singular contribution to religion and culture.  Their endurance argues that Fr. Colman’s ideas were anything but frivolous and ephemeral.  But if there was one idea that exceeded his wildest dreams, it was Minnesota Public Radio.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, last week MPR returned to its birthplace at Saint John’s and for two days resumed broadcasting.  This time around Sexton Commons served as the makeshift studio rather than Wimmer Hall, and spliced within its staple of recorded classical music were live performances by our music faculty and students, as well as interviews with various local notables.  In the course of the broadcasts all sorts of people dropped in to watch and listen, and it was a festive experience of arts and culture and ideas.  Fr. Colman would have been delighted.

IMG_5668When Fr. Colman started a campus radio station at Saint John’s his goals were modest.  At the very last he wanted to supply central Minnesota with classical music — something that tended to be in short supply on the radio dial across much of the country.  It was a niche market that had potential; nor was potential lacking in Bill Kling, the student to whom Fr. Colman entrusted leadership.  Under Kling MPR has grown into a national force, and at 50 years it now has 21 million listeners.

In retrospect Fr. Colman’s effort was unusual for its lack of confessional orientation.  For many years MPR did broadcast the Sunday Mass at the abbey, but absent was the spiritual didactic that has become the staple of religious radio and television today.  Fr. Colman’s goal was cultural enrichment for everyone, and it didn’t bother him in the least if the audience included Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, agnostics and atheists.  The irony of course is the fact that it came from a Benedictine abbey, and from the Benedictine perspective it all glorified God.

There is nothing in the Rule of Saint Benedict about radio stations or even cultural life.  Still, Benedict’s blessing of daily work and his reverence for the tools of the monastery can embrace any creative human endeavor.  Not surprisingly then, monasteries through the centuries have engaged artists and architects to design work that has inspired not just the monks but also the visitors to their monasteries.  From a larger perspective, they have stretched their musical talents even as they have honed their agricultural skills.

IMG_5586That helps to explain the character of a Benedictine house.  Certainly we pray, and we do so in formats that have scarcely changed through the centuries.  But monasteries continue to evolve because individual monks bring unique talents with them when they come knocking at the door.  That suggests that each monk is himself a unique gift from God, meant to enrich the lives of the monks and the people they serve.  That’s the theory at least, and often enough it works.

The campus radio station at Saint John’s was meant to serve a niche market.  Who knew that the niche would grow to include 21 million listeners by its 50th birthday?  Obviously it has met some need.  But then Saint Benedict wrote a rule for a group of monks at Monte Cassino in central Italy.  How could he possibly have known that someday somebody would be following that rule in Lake Wobegon?  He didn’t know, of course, but it was still another niche market that had potential.

IMG_5687Notes

+On 24 April I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On 25 April I sat in its makeshift studio as Minnesota Public Radio did its broadcast from Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.

+On 29 April our confrere, Fr. Mark Thamert, passed away at age 66 after a long struggle with cancer.  Fr. Mark was a gifted teacher and an imaginative individual, and we will miss his enthusiasm for life.  He earned a doctorate in German from Princeton University, and he came alive in the classroom and particularly when leading student groups to Europe.

+As I write this I am in Paris waiting to join the annual pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes.  I have come three days early, and the Metro with its challenging stairs have proven to be excellent therapy for the recovery of my back.  Lourdes, with its marathon processions and endless milling around, will be the big test.

+Today’s is the 300th post in this blog.  Thankfully I have not yet run short of ideas.  Thank you for reading, and I’m grateful for the comments and ideas that people have sent in the course of five and a half years.

IMG_5584+The photos in today’s post illustrate the broadcast day of Minnesota Public Radio at Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.  The photo of the building shows Wimmer Hall, and its third floor housed the broadcast studios for Minnesota Public Radio in its earliest days.  In the photo at bottom a technician puzzles over all the stuff it takes to broadcast, even from the road.  Gone are the simple days.

IMG_5558Alcuin Library Revisited

For hundreds of years people have spoken of monks and books in the same breath.  This is largely due to Saint Benedict, who assumed that each monastery would have to begin a collection of manuscripts from the day of its foundation.  For one thing a monastery needed books for the liturgy, and this would include missals, lectionaries, antiphonals and the like.  Secondly, monasteries needed books for lectio divina — the sacred reading expected of every monk.  At the very least Saint Benedict wanted each monk to read one book during Lent, though most did a little better than that.  As a result, however, for centuries the prime spot for the storage of books was the sacristy, until finally some monastic collections grew to the point at which the non-liturgical books began to find a home in a purpose-built room called the library.

It was a long time before monastic collections grew to the size of the library described in Humberto Eco’s great novel, The Name of the Rose.  That library seemed massive, or at least it seemed so in the movie.  In fact few monasteries had such sizeable collections, and in the year 900 it was the rare monastery that had more than a hundred books.  By the end of the Middle Ages, however, it was a different story, and large monastic collections paved the way for a 17th-century scholar-monk named Jean Mabillon.  While his fellow French monk, Dom Perignon, stole the limelight for putting the bubbles in champagne, Mabillon cemented the popular image of the monk poring over manuscripts.

IMG_5404That was the legacy that the monks brought with them to central Minnesota in 1856. As they steamed up the Mississippi, they brought with them clothing and vestments and tools for the monastery, but books were equally necesssary.  Those few books became the nucleus of the vast collection that students and scholars at Saint John’s page through today.  Of course the library developed in directions that those first five monks could scarcely have imagined;  but they also would be stunned at the size of the collection today.  They would also be startled to behold the home of those books.

For decades the Abbey and University library resided in Wimmer Hall, named for the founding abbot of Saint John’s, Boniface Wimmer.  Then during the Christmas break of 1965-66 the books were transferred to the newly-constructed Alcuin Library.  Today no one seems entirely sure whether the building was named for Abbot Alcuin Deutsch of Saint John’s Abbey or Alcuin of York, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk who headed Emperor Charlemagne’s palace school in Aachen.  These days most patrons of Alcuin Library seem not to care, though many pause to consider the painting of Abbot Alcuin that greets visitors.  Still, I’m happy that the name Alcuin has stuck.  It’s a fine yet seldom-used name today.  And the name has been on the building for nearly fifty years.

IMG_5542That building seemed to serve student and faculty needs for decades, but at long last it has gone through a major transformation.  For nine months it’s been closed, and in January and February it finally reopened after a complete overhaul.  Marcel Breuer’s original design for Alcuin Library is intact but enhanced, and the two concrete trees that support the roof are much more prominent than before.  The removal of the wall that cordoned off the entrance has opened up a spectacular vista of the abbey church across the plaza.  Even better, it has visually sparked a conversation between faith and reason — something that architect Breuer would have appreciated.

This August Alcuin Library will be joined to a new structure — the Brother Dietrich Reinhardt Learning Commons.  Together they will provide five high-tech classrooms and a range of rooms to serve individual and group study.  Also included will be a new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible and direct access to The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  In sum, it’s a spectacular development, at least in my humble opinion.

And what about the books?  Do they still have a place?  Happily, the books that the monks brought up the Mississippi now reside in a new special collections department, which includes a dedicated reading room.  Meanwhile, the collections that the University has accumulated in the course of 160 years now rest on compact shelving, easily accessible to students.

IMG_5524And is there room for growth?  Happily too the electronic book has not nor will ever replace the hard-copy books, and the collections continue to expand.  Alumni and friends of Saint John’s feed that growth with the donation of their prized books, and Alcuin Library adds newly-published works to the shelves.  And then there are treasures that appear unexpectedly, like the eight hundred books donated recently by the special collections library at Brigham Young University.  Over the years that library had grown its own collections through the purchase of entire libraries.  Two years ago I spoke at that library’s annual friends’ meeting, and at the end of the day the director approached me with an offer I could not refuse.  Among the collections were several items of Catholic interest that did not quite match the interests at BYU.  Would Saint John’s be interested in eight hundred books, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries?  I did not want to appear to be too eager, but I’m afraid I may bave been.  Through the kindness of Brigham Young University those books now share shelves in the special collections department at Saint John’s with the seed collection that arrived in 1856.

No doubt the story of Alcuin Library and its great collection is scarcely over.  There’s more to come, and it’s quite likely that ours today is the largest collection in the history of the Benedictine tradition.  Would Saint Benedict be proud?  Perhaps.  But at the very least he would be pleased by the thought that the monks of Saint John’s are still reading.

IMG_5544Notes

+On April 18th I spoke to the monastic chapter on the First Generation College Student program at Saint John’s University..

+On April 21st I attended the annual Saint John’s Day gathering, held at the headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.  Fr. Colman Barry, president of Saint John’s University, started an FM radio station at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and since then it has morphed into MPR.  No doubt it remains one of the most original and influential initiatives of the University.  On the occasion of MPR’s 50th anniversary Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on MPR the Fr. Colman Barry Award for distinguished contributions to religion and society.

+On April 22nd our Brother Lucian departed for Germany, where he will study German, in preparation for doctoral studies which he will begin at the University of Notre Dame this fall.

+Brother Walter reports that the maple sap harvest netted 272 gallons of syrup this spring.

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IMG_0027_2Easter Notes

To all of the readers of this blog I extend Easter greetings and my fervent hope that these days continue to be a time of reflection and personal renewal.  Happy Easter to you all, and thank you for your continued interest in this poor monk’s Chronicle!

Notes

+On April 12th I spoke at the monthly luncheon of the Administrative Assembly at Saint John’s University.  Perhaps the best way to describe this group is to say that it includes all those administrative colleagues who are not members of the faculty, and it was the first time I’ve ever spoken to this group.  I gave an update on First Generation College Students at Saint John’s, and more particularly described the Immokalee Scholarship Program.

+Holy Week services at the Abbey were over-the-top wonderful.  From Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil the music was particularly inspiring, and the community of monks sang the psalmody especially well.  Without the organ our voices resounded strongly through the church.  The schola for its part sang a wide range of pieces, beautifully.  Fr. Nick’s rendition of the Exultet was particularly nice, while Br. Aaron once again chanted the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet at morning prayer on Friday and Saturday.  Meanwhile the liturgies moved along with grace and ease.

IMG_0025_2By now, after over 160 years of doing this, people might be inclined to assume that we’ve got this down pat.  How hard can it be?  Well, it may look effortless, but anything can go wrong at any point.  Certainly the Exultet can go awry, as even the best of cantors can get tangled up in this hauntingly beautiful and challenging piece of chant.  Many of us have memories of unfortunate experiences, and I recall one instance which I have ever since labeled The Exultet from Hell.  Yet another mishap from our liturgical archives occurred when a student, acting as candle-bearer, bowed a little too profoundly when the entrance procession reached the altar.  Unfortunately his hair brushed the candle and burst into a lovely blue flame.  No harm came to the student, but it brought the opening hymn to a screeching halt.  And he needed a haircut afterward.

It’s the absence of such incidents that reminds us of all the hard work that our confreres invest in the liturgy.  They make it look easy, when in fact it is not.  For the rest of us their efforts make for a wonderfully spiritual experience.

+The two manuscript illuminations in today’s post are from antiphonals housed at the Civic Museum of Bologna in Italy.  The first depicts the Last Supper, and it dates from ca. 1275.  The second, ca. 1335, shows the empty tomb, with the angels greeting Mary Magdalene.

IMG_1272The Terms of the Covenant

There’s no denying that we live in a culture that worships at the altar of rugged individualism.  Given that frame of mind, what are we supposed to do with the covenant that God and Abraham made, which Genesis succinctly describes?  How could one man possibly commit generations of his descendants to an agreement in which they had no say?  Was there no wiggle room for his children and grandchildren — to say nothing of all of his descendants to the thousandth generation?  And if even one person had the nerve to walk away from the covenant, was that the end of the deal for everybody?  Was the pact annulled from that day forward?

Had Abraham’s commitment been binding on all of his offspring, then the failure of one might have invalidated the whole thing.  Had that been the case, the story would have ended with Abraham, and the Bible would have been a lot shorter than it is.  Meanwhile, the other party to the agreement — God — could have wandered off in search of a more loyal flock.

Fortunately it didn’t work out that way, and Genesis gave way to Exodus and so on down the line through to the Book of Revelation.  Throughout all this, generations of individuals came to terms with the implications of the covenant.  Some followed it, and some did not.  But the covenant endured, and the biblical narrative continues beyond Abraham and tells the story of all those successes and failures.

In the first grade we used as our religion textbook a short book with the rather focused title of Jesus and I.  Ever since then I’ve been tempted to think of my relationship with God in rather exclusive terms — something strictly between me and God.  How things were going between me and God was nobody else’s business; just as someone else’s religious situation was none of my affair.

IMG_0061_2In time I did grow beyond this slightly warped view.  My viewpoint began to change as I realized that the “Jesus and I” relationship was a necessary first step, but it was not the goal.  I began to understand that I have to respond to the call of Jesus to live with and in him, but that’s only the start.  Life in Christ necessarily takes into account the people with whom I make my earthly pilgrimage to God.  Frail and prone to failure as we all might be, we are still in this together, like it or not.

As much as I may resent that Abraham dragged me into his covenant without consulting me, I do have to give him credit for reminding me and everybody else of the social dimension of the covenant.  We may make it with God, but we live it out with one another.  We weave the covenant into our friendships and into our marriage commitments.  And for those of us who have chosen to make vows in a monastery, it permeates our lives together.  As a result, the monastery can never be just a residence hall where we as rugged individuals go about our business.  We commit ourselves to seek the presence of God and to get a glimmer of God in one another.

Holy Week presents us with the chance both to renew and to participate in the covenant.  Of course there’s nothing wrong with praying in solitude.  But imagine a Holy Week schedule that catered to individual tastes.  So the schedule on the monastery bulletin board might read thus:  “Br. Edwin will celebrate the liturgy of the Lord’s passion at 3:00 pm.  Fr. Rudolf will do it at 3:47 pm.  Fr. Peter will celebrate it at 10:45 am.  Br. George will celebrate it at a time yet to be determined, if and when he gets to it.  Reservations are highly recommended.”  Then add one hundred more entries, and you get an idea of the chaos that would ensue in my own community.  Inevitably that would say more about the dysfunction in a community than it would about any belief in the saving action of Jesus Christ.

IMG_1292So it is that monks and other Christians don’t celebrate the Triduum as solitary pilgrims, at their individual convenience.  Rather, we gather together as friends and spouses and families.  We monks even go to the trouble of lining up and then processing in together, and that’s not just to insure there’ll be only one official starting time for everybody.  We do it so that we can begin each service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — together.

There is in this a certain irony of course, because whether we are monks or members of a congregation, our decision to be there is quite personal.  Once gathered, however, we belong to each other and to the Lord.  We’ve gathered as friends, family and as a community of monks to search for God, together.  And together, in a renewal of the covenant, the object of our search becomes tangible.  We truly seek and experience the risen Lord.

Palm Sunday 003Notes

+On April 6th I was the celebrant for the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and for me it was a personal accomplishment.  It was the first time to be celebrant since I pulled my back several weeks ago, and I managed to stand up without a walker or cane.  Nor was there any mishap on the steps.  I continue to make progress on my back and am grateful to all those who have offered their prayers.

+Every now and again I am reminded of just how long I have been at Saint John’s.  Last Saturday I had dinner with one of my very first students, and the previous week I had met his son for lunch.  His son is a senior at Saint John’s University and will graduate in May.  From my own perspective I do not think of them as father and son, since I have not known them that way.  Rather, they are individual friends of mine.  The second son will be a freshman at Saint John’s this fall, so I will add a third friend to the mix.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items from the Cloisters Museum in New York.  At top is a Palmesel (Palm Donkey, 15th-century, German), which was pulled in Palm Sunday processions in many German-speaking villages until the Reformation saw the practice fade away.  Below that is a silver-gilt chalice, made in Northern Europe in 1222.  It is among the few signed works of the time; and the inscription on the base — “Bertinus me fecit” — identifies Brother Bertinus as the maker.  Next is a lindenwood Pietá, made in Germany ca. 1440.  The Calvary is by the contemporary artist Gerald Bonnet, and it hangs on a wall outside of the chapter house at Saint John’s.  At bottom is the crucifix in the Abbey refectory.  The mural was painted by Br. Clement in the 1930s.

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IMG_0189_2Find the Sinners You Can Live With

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection for a young man who has now begun his formal entrance into the monastery.  It was his first day as a candidate, and Fr. John — the formation director — had asked me to deliver two conferences.  I was free to talk about anything I wanted, as long as it had something to do with the monastic life.  To say the least, that still gave me plenty of leeway for topics.

What advice do you give to someone who’s come to enter the monastery?  “Don’t do it!” is certainly one option, and it would have made my day much easier had I selected that.  But I knew that Fr. John would frown on that approach, and it wasn’t my sentiment anyway.  So I puzzled over several themes until I concluded that it would be presumptuous of me to tell any candidate what he needed to know or to do.  I also realized that I was going to have to sit through these conferences.  So why not say something that might make an impression on me?  That way if the candidate’s attention were to drift off as I droned on, at least one of us might get something out of the experience.  So in the interests of pure self-interest I decided to remind myself of three points.

First of all, why do people come to the monastery?  Saint Benedict supplied the answer in his Rule, and it’s simple enough.  “The monk comes to seek God.”  Still, that’s a little abstract and doesn’t really touch on the practical reasons for why people embrace this life.  The fact is, novices enter for all sorts of reasons.  They may have a friend or two in the community.  They find the life attractive.  They enjoy the liturgy and the music.  They want to be involved in some aspect of the work of the community.  These are just a few of the lures that the Holy Spirit dangles to inspire people to enter.

IMG_0191_2But these are not the reasons that cause monks to stay in the monastery for a lifetime.  The fact is, monks grow and mature, as do whole communities.  What matters at one point may matter less twenty years down the road as monks grow in age and experience and wisdom.  What brought them to the monastery merely began a process that lasts a lifetime, and change occurs along the way.

That brings me to the second point.  In the course of life most monks gradually discover that the abstract business of the search for God is actually why they remain.  They also discover that God is not nearly so distant as they may have once assumed.  Gradually, little by little, they learn the lessons that Saint Benedict intended to teach.  They do begin to get glimpses of God in the abbot, in the sick and elderly, in the guests and the young, and even in themselves.  That’s the unexpected reward of the monastic life, unless of course a monk manages to keep his eyes closed to all of this.  But if a monk can keep his eyes alert to the possibilities, then he will rub elbows with Christ, resident in the people around him.

IMG_0155_2My final point has to do with a fundamental reality of life in community.  Monks may see the face of Christ in one another, but they also must come to terms with the fact that monks are people too.  In spiritual terms they are both sinners and saved.  In social terms, they all have their assets and their liabilities.  Every monastery and each monk does some things very well, and they fall woefully short in other areas.  The irony is that it can be as difficult to live with gifted people as it can be to live with sinners.  But the challenge for any candidate is whether he can live with these particular sinners and their particular sins.  If this is a deal-breaker, then he needs to find other sinners who are more to his liking.

These are the points with which I satisfied myself during that day of reflection.   That said, I harbor no illusion that these issues are somehow unique to the monastic life.  For bettter and for worse these crop up in marriage and friendships and in most any human relationship.  And if they are the challenges that we all encounter in the course of our spiritual pilgrimage, then no one should be surprised to encounter them in the monastic pilgrimage.  Therein is the struggle, and therein is the reward of a life well lived.  Along the way, the important goal is this:  find the group of sinners with whom you will flourish on the path to God.  Not surprisingly, then, that’s what novitiate is all about.

IMG_0182_2Notes

+On March 30th I sat in on the weekly meeting of the Benedictine Living Group, led by Brother Aidan.  Participants are college students who live together for a year in one of the residence halls and commit themselves to regular prayer together, as well as a fall and spring retreat and a weekly seminar on the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It was fun to participate in their discussion, especially since I didn’t have to prepare anything in advance.

+On April 1st I gave the day of reflection to our incoming candidate for the monastery.  For two months he will live and work and pray with us;  and at the end of that period he can apply for the novitiate.

+We had plenty of guests during the past few days in the monastery.  For two days four students from Saint John’s University lived with us as part of their introduction to the monastery.  On Saturday April 1st sixty students and three faculty from St. Olaf College joined us for Mass.  This is a yearly trek for these classes from St. Olaf, and no doubt they were surprised by the fact that their host for the day, Brother David-Paul, is an alumnus of St. Olaf.  He is subprior of the monastery.

+On March 31st Brothers Simon Peter and Asiel arrived and will spend a week with us.  They are newly-professed monks at Newark Abbey in New Jersey.  For years we have sent our Benedictine Volunteers to work in their school — Saint Benedict’s Prep — and since 2007 we’ve enrolled over thirty of their alumni at Saint John’s.  On Sunday the current cohort of those students joined Brother Simon Peter and Asiel for dinner in the monastic refectory.

IMG_0102_2+The photos in today’s post all show art from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Crucifixion, by the Master of St. Veronica (Germany, tempera on panel, ca. 1400/1410).  Next is Calvary, by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster (German, oil on panel, ca. 1470-1480).  Below that is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene, by Pietro Perugino (Umbria, 1482-1485). The gruesome Crucifixion is by Matthias Grünewald, Germany, ca. 1511/1520.  At bottom is St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Cima da Conegliano, Venice, ca. 1500-1005.

IMG_0413The Man Born Blind

It’s a question that sounds almost bizarre to modern ears.  Sitting near Jesus was a man who had been born blind, and someone posed to Jesus what seemed a rather innocent query.  “Who had sinned, the man or his parents?”  “Neither,” was all Jesus had to say about it, and that was that.

It’s hard to imagine a modern equivalent to that scene; but if it had to be, I would conjure up the image of a doctor who pauses in the middle of the examination of a child who is seriously ill.  “Is there a history of mortal sin in this child’s family?”  I leave it to the reader to come up with a suitable response.

John chapter 5 is the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent.  It’s a long passage, filled with all sorts of diversions, and it’s clear that John is trying to kill several birds with one stone.  He begins with the potential link between sin and illness, and we have to assume there were still people around who believed in a direct connection between moral culpability and disease.  To our scientific mind-set such causality seems absurd, but on another plane we still deal with the question, but from the other side of the coin.  When the ancients noticed that bad things happened to good people, they simply revised their estimate about the relative goodness of the person involved.  All evil had to have a cause, and people must somehow deserve what the cosmos sends their way.

IMG_0424Even today we struggle with the very same issue of the suffering of the innocent.  Like the ancients, we’ve come up with no satisfying answer, but at least we don’t lay the blame for disease on moral turpitude.

Anyway, Jesus brushed off the issue of sin and disease, but many among his listeners proved unable to give it a rest.  Like a dog with a bone, they finally branded the formerly blind man a sinner, and for good measure they labeled Jesus a sinner too, because he had cured on the sabbath.  That set things up for a wonderful conclusion to the story.

There’s some terrific irony here, which John picks up on and exploits to the fullest.  The episode had opened with a man who had been born blind.  He’d never seen a thing in his life, and it was even a while before he finally got to see Jesus, who had cured him.  But finally he saw Jesus standing before him.  But by then he saw him not only physically but also spiritually.  There stood the man who had counted him among the saved, despite being a sinner.

IMG_0426By contrast, the audience of religious professionals had eyes that let them see physically, but spiritually they had become blind.  On an allegorical level the scene has been upended by this turn of events.  The blind man sees and the sighted people are blind, and this recalls the words of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels.  “They have eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear” — all this despite the fact that they were experts in the scriptures and the law.  Clearly they had missed something along the way.

I’m not entirely sure how this might apply to each one of us today, but there is a take-home that can be of some benefit.  At the very least, we should not aspire to be people with eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear.  We need to be open as best we can to the reality around us.  That means, first of all, that we admit our solidarity with both the blind man and the scribes and Pharisees.  We are all sinners, no matter what excuses we make for ourselves.  Certainly each of us has gifts and talents, and there are moments when we use them well.  But at times we also fail, and it’s not healthy to deny it.  The admission of our failings means that Jesus comes for us too, and not just for everybody else.

IMG_0427It’s equally important that we avoid becoming people who have eyes but cannot see.  Sadly, on a moral level we are often the last to know that a little blindness clouds our vision now and again.  And so the need is acute that we compensate for this through regular prayer, sacred reading and service to the people around us.  All of these activities draw us into communion with our brothers and sisters in the Church and remind us that together we are pilgrims on the way to the Lord.  As pilgrims then, it’s always good to rely on the eyes and ears of our neighbor to supplement our sometimes faulty vision.

This is the point of Christian life, and it’s the message of Lent in particular.  We don’t pray and read in order to ingest material that will bolster our preconceived notions.  We pray and read and serve regularly so that we can listen to what the Lord has to say to us each day.  And having listened to the will of the Lord, we then set out with confidence to do his work.

IMG_0437Notes

+The last week was very quiet for me, and I left the campus only twice.  One of those excursions was a visit to the doctor to find out the results of my recent MRI.  I read the report but could make neither heads nor tails of it.  The good news is that I do not need surgery this time around.  The bad news is that someday I will.  The challenge is to put as much distance between today and that day as I can.  Meanwhile the pain in my back has gone way down.  I’m also hoping that this is the last medical report I will give for a good long while.  During a visit with some friends this week someone noted that during the first twenty minutes the conversation turned on our respective medical conditions.  We all laughed, and then we changed the subject.

+This week Fr. Benedict Fischer of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota arrived, and he will stay with us for nearly three weeks, doing research on his doctoral dissertation.  A few years ago he lived with us for four years while he studied for the priesthood in our School of Theology and Seminary, and it is great to have him back.  He is doing his degree at Louvain in Belgium.

+This last weekend the Abbey Guesthouse hosted a three-day Lenten retreat, given by our confrere Fr. Joseph.  It was a wonderful group that included friends of the abbey and alumni of the University, some of whom I knew.  Their presence swelled the attendance at the liturgy of the hours.

IMG_0348+The photos in today’s post show sculpture housed at the Museo Nacional de Escultura, in Valladolid.  Most pieces in this amazing museum are from religious houses in the area of Valladolid, and the museum itself is the former Colegio de San Gregorio.  At top is The Burial of Christ, by Juan de Juni, ca. 1540, polychrome wood.  Next is a tabernacle from León, ca. 1575, polychrome wood.  The following two panels are by Pierre Picard, ca. 1560, polychrome wood.   The last piece is a Calvary by Pompeo Leoni, ca. 1605, polychrome wood.  At bottom is the courtyard of the Museum.