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img_4113Better to Have Lived and Loved

[I delivered the following sermon on 29 January as guest preacher at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo, ND.]

I feel myself quite privileged to be with you this morning, particularly during a week of the year in which many Christian communities pray for closer ties, if not for some sort of unity in the Lord.  That said, we have to acknowledge that this is one of the few really big things for which we pray where we’ve actually made progress over the years.  We pray for world peace, and yet world peace eludes us.  We pray for an end to hunger and disease around the world and wonder if we ever make any headway.  But when it comes to better relations among churches, we’ve made astonishing progress over the last fifty years.

We could read from a long list of encounters between various leaders of the churches, but none of that matters unless we experience something on a personal level.  In my own case the Episcopal Church has impacted me especially when it comes to music.  It’s no secret that for the last five hundred years the Anglican Communion has had a near-monopoly on all the best hymns in English;  and thankfully it’s shared them with churches far less blessed.  In high school I first discovered the richness of The 1940 Hymnal.  Then at Saint John’s Abbey, where I’ve been a monk for more years than I care to say, The 1982 Hymnal remains the source of first and last resort when we’re in need of a good hymn.  If and when you visit Saint John’s, you’ll discover a copy of that book sitting alongside two other hymnals in our choir stalls.  And if you sing with us you’ll realize how much that musical tradition has contributed to our worship.

img_4328Last year I happened to walk along Park Avenue in New York, and as I passed Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church the sign outside the door caught my eye.  The message was simple, warm, and very familiar to me.  It came from The Rule of Saint Benedict, and it’s something that guides our day in the monastery.  “Let all guests be received as Christ.”  If that’s appropriate for a monastery, it’s even more so for a church.  It’s a reminder that the parish church is not some exclusive club.  And if we see the face of Christ in our guests, then it means that Christ is out there walking in the streets.  He’s not just sitting in our sanctuaries.  That, it seems to me, is both a sobering and yet wonderful thought.

In today’s gospel passage from Matthew we read once again the Beatitudes.  It’s a passage we could all afford to read a little more often, because it’s a job description for what it means to be Christian.  The Beatitudes rely upon the same passage which inspired Saint Benedict’s thoughts on guests, and it’s familiar to us all.  Jesus tells us that what we do for the least of people, we do for him, and the Beatitudes translate that high-minded sentiment into lived reality.  They distinguish Christians as a people set apart.  And if by chance we seem out of step with society, it’s not because we are eccentric.  We’ve elected instead to view all of life from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

img_4292I have to confess that for much of my life I have had some difficulty with the Beatitudes.  The fact is, Jesus has taken some undesirable experiences and turned them upside-down and inside-out.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example.  Who among us really wants to be poor in spirit?  Even if I knew exactly what Jesus meant by that, it still sounds like depression to me.  “Blessed are they who mourn.”  Who wants to spend time mourning?  Wouldn’t we rather be happy 100% of the time?  “Blessed are the meek.”  In my experience people trample all over the meek.  “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Isn’t that something of a lost cause?  “Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  At first glance all of these blessings seem to be thankless tasks, if not curses.  Who really wants a life based on these experiences?

The Beatitudes can seem singularly unattractive, and they are until we realize what our world would be like without the people who practice them.  If then the Beatitudes describe people who go through life as doormats or shrinking violets, consider for a moment the alternative.  What if the Beatitudes read like this:  “Blessed are the warmongers.”  “Blessed are the suspicious and paranoid.”  “Blessed are those who are merciless.” “Blessed are those who never have to mourn — ever!”  “Blessed are those who never endure insult because their lives stand for nothing.”

img_4278You could devise your own additions to this list, but you get the point.  The Beatitudes may seem benign, until you realize what life would be like without them.  Could life on this earth even be possible if no one aspired to such principles?  How long would it be before we descended into chaos?

So the first point I would make is this.  The Beatitudes are a blueprint for a good and purpose-filled life.  They virtually demand that we lead active rather than passive lives.  They presume that we would take charge of our lives and live them with the greatest intensity and thoughtfulness.  Even more, they encourage risk-taking.  Taking chances includes the risk of failure, but that’s the point of stepping up to be counted.

I can’t go through all of the Beatitudes, but for just a moment let’s consider the words of Jesus when he says that they are blessed who mourn.  In popular culture people avoid mourning like the plague.  But consider that a life free of mourning is risk-averse.  Such lives are pointless, Jesus teaches, precisely for this reason.  People who mourn, however, are people who have taken risks.  They have taken chances.  When they had the chance to love others, they chose love.  When they had the chance to help someone in need, they helped.  When they had the chance to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and so on, they did it, regardless of the potential risk.  And they did all this for the sake of the kingdom.

img_4299Only those who never love or never care get spared the mourning.  Meanwhile, those who take chances reap the rewards, much as the folk wisdom reminds us: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

In his Rule Saint Benedict urged his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  Many assume that this is an invitation to depression, but in fact it’s an invitation to live life with intensity.  We have so few days, and why would we choose to be risk-averse and hide our lamps under a basket?  On the contrary, Jesus came to give us life, so that we might have it in abundance.  How we pursue our lives is the creative opportunity — the gift — that God gives to each of us.

The Beatitudes are a recipe for life lived to the fullest.  They are an invitation to live life with passion.  And if by chance there are moments of mourning or setback along the way, then it means we are making progress.  We are making good use of the gifts God has given us.  So let us conclude with this prayer:  “May God, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to a wonderful and happy conclusion.”

img_4340Notes

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

+On January 27th I drove to Fargo, ND, and on the 28th I preached at Gethsamane Episcopal Cathedral.  That evening I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible.  Fr. Mark Strobel, the dean of the cathedral, received a graduate degree at Saint John’s and remains a periodic and welcome visitor to campus.  He and his fellow church members offered hospitality that was truly Benedictine.

I cannot recall when I last went to Fargo, but it was before the Cohn brothers made the movie to which Fargo lent is name.  Being mere feet from Minnesota, you’d think there would be scant difference between the two; but you’d be wrong.  Fargo manages to flourish in its own culture, perhaps because of the independent spirit of the prairie.  For example, at the 10:30 Mass at the cathedral there was a baptism that almost stole the show.  This was one tough baby, and he remained stoic despite the very cold water and being held by the pastor for three minutes or more.  That befits a youngster who was baptised “Odin.”  Yes, Odin.  I was stunned by that name.  Then Fr. Mark told me it was the second Odin he has baptised at the cathedral.  Further, his son’s swimming coach is named Thor.  So just when I thought the Norse gods had faded from memory, I discovered that they have a home in Fargo.  How charming.

img_4285+Two weeks ago I presented photos of the exterior of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The exterior is certainly monumental, and one wonders whether the interior could be up to the challenge of carrying its own drama.  It does, and it succeeds in a way that just overwhelms.  Visitors cannot quite grasp the immensity of it, and these photos scarcely do it justice.  Throughout the church there are sweeping vistas bathed in light, and nooks and crannies that surprise.  The photo at the bottom is of the choir loft, and were I up there I would be too nervous to sing.

img_4503Pilgrimage to the Mountain

“Let admission to the monastery not be easy.”  So wrote Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries, and ever since then Benedictines have tended to interpret those words in spiritual terms.  Still, there have been exceptions, and so you can’t fault the monks of Montserrat because they took them literally.  Perched half-way up a peak thirty miles west of Barcelona, Montserrat is one tough place to get to.  From the valley far below, there is nothing to indicate that there’s anything up there except craggy rocks.  But then you spy the cable cars dangling high above, and you realize they must be going somewhere.

Benedictines have lived on Montserrat since the 10th century, and in the course of time they have put the difficult terrain to good use.  As they have for centuries, the pilgrims still come.  And if the modes of travel now include train, bus, car, bicycle and cable car, the goal of the journey remains the same.  People still come to venerate the statue of the Black Madonna in the church, and outside on the terrace they gaze out for a spectacular view that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean.

img_4382Secular-minded visitors to Barcelona are startled to read the signs in the middle of the city announcing the trains to Montserrat.  Given that Barcelona is one of the most sophisticated cities anywhere, I too found it a little incongruous.  Hadn’t we left behind the age of pilgrimages in order to indulge in more commercial pursuits?  Why would anyone take a train to some remote spot to see some old statue?  Why would people care to see a spot where a group of fairly average guys are doing their best to find God?  And perhaps the biggest mystery is this:  why would you need several trains a day just to manage all this?

The answers are varied, but the bottom line is this.  For centuries people have trekked up Montserrat.  Most have venerated the Black Madonna and enjoyed the incredible views.  Many have stayed in the extensive guest facilities for a chance to take stock of their lives.  Among them the most famous was the 16th-century visitor Ignatius Loyola, who offered his sword as a token of his conversion.  Suffice it to say that people still do these sorts of things at Montserrat — except for that bit about the sword.

img_4451The ritual that brings most people to Montserrat is the chance to stand in line, patiently, for the chance to venerate the statue of the Madonna.  It sits perched in a niche high above the main altar of the church, and on our recent visit my friends and I were smart to arrive early.  Our wait was minimal, and we enjoyed the added bonus of being seated during the Sunday Mass.  Even though it was the off-season, not everyone was as fortunate.  Some stood through the entire Mass, and after Mass the line to the Virgin stretched out the door of the church and into the square in front.  Timing is everything, even when it comes to a spiritual experience.

All this can suggest that life at Montserrat has always been peaches and cream.  Who knows what adversity the monks may have faced in the Middle Ages, but modern times have provided the greatest tests.  In the early 19th century Napoleon’s armies twice assaulted the monastery, and the place was closed for a few years.  Then it sprang to life, only to contend with a new wave of social unrest during the Spanish civil war.  In that horrible conflict twenty-two monks were executed for their faith.  Even after the war the monks did not enjoy complete tranquility, because despite Vatican II the Franco regime ordered that everyone in Catalonia — monks included — pray in Spanish.  Only in that context can you appreciate the gesture King Juan Carlos made at the death of Franco.  Shortly after his accession to power he came to Catalonia, and his first stop was at Montserrat.  There he spoke in the forbidden Catalan and soon thereafter permitted the use of Catalán in the liturgy.

img_4443Despite being a great symbol of Catalan culture, the monks of Montserrat pursue their lives with neither fanfare nor a sense of self-importance.  They’re tending to the thousands of pilgrims and people on retreat.  They’re busy with the Escalonia — possibly the oldest choir school in Europe.   They’re preoccupied with the need to keep the place in good repair so that it doesn’t slide down the side of the mountain.  And they are also seeing to the daily round of prayer that binds the whole place together.

I left Montserrat with one important lesson.  Monks today contend with the stereotype that we waste our lives in withdrawal from society in silence and isolation.  We console ourselves with the thought that this stereotype — popular outside of the monastery — has never really held sway inside the monastery.  Even Saint Benedict acknowledged this point when he wrote in the 6th century that “guests are never wanting” at a monastery.  The meaning of that?  Guests you will always have with you, and in the face of the guest you have the chance to catch a glimpse of God.

For that reason the monastic life is not meant to be self-serving.  We monks may do our best to see God in our brothers, but we also know how graced we are to see Christ in pilgrims, in our students, in people who come on retreat, and even in those who come merely to gawk.

All that is the Lord’s work, and it’s why society will never outgrow the need for a place set apart, at the edge of society.  It’s why we do what we do at Saint John’s, and it’s why nobody will be canceling the trains to Montserrat any time soon.  The market for that service is there, even in the off-season.

img_4457Notes

+On January 20th my tour to Barcelona came to an end, and the next morning we packed up our memories and headed home.  Chief among the experiences that I savor was our visit to the abbey of Montserrat, where we toured and had the chance to visit with the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s who are living there this year.

I have to count two site visits as nice discoveries for me.  The first is evidence of the self-imposed blinders that I wear when it comes to things monastic.  I tend to be oblivious to some of the other religious orders, so I was completely unaware of the Poor Clare abbey of Pedralbes, at the edge of Barcelona.  I had not planned to visit there, but the guide said “Do it!”   So I did it.  Queen Elisenda founded it in the late 1320’s, in anticipation of widowhood, and it is pretty much intact today.  Complete with three-level cloister, dormitory, refectory, chapter house and church, it is an amazing survivor of the centuries.  I will share photos of that in a future post.

Also on my list of little surprises is Sant Pau, a 9th-century Benedictine house.  Its romanesque cloister and church are tucked away in an immigrant neighborhood near the center of Barcelona.  It was designed to house only four or five monks, and it’s a real gem.

img_4400Finally, I spent the better part of a day in the Museum of Catalan Art.  It’s famous for its large collection of romanesque frescos rescued from dilapidated churches in the Pyrenees, and I took enough photos to clog my camera.

+I always know when it’s time to come home.  The first signal is that moment when I’d like to take most of my clothes out to be burned.  Helping things along this time was the decline in the weather.  It turned cold, and it rained on the last day.  As a result, the only thing I had to declare at customs was the bad cold I had acquired.

The flight home confirmed that the good times were over.  I was fortunate to sit behind a toddler whose two settings were “screaming at an ear-splitting pitch” and “not screaming.”  Her parents must have known to expect this, and the sound-canceling ear phones made their reading a serene experience.  I would say they were the envy of everyone within ear-shot, but that might be a fib bordering on mortal sin.

+Needless to say, the photos in today’s post give some inkling of what  you would see on a visit to Montserrat.

img_4385

img_4111Friendship:  God’s Graced Moment

At first blush it seemed we had little in common.  Professor Conrad Rawski was a senior scholar of medieval Italian literature, a retired dean of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and widely-respected for his multi-volume translation and commentary on Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae.  I, on the other hand, was a youngster in the medieval world, a student of Spanish history, and in no way destined for the kind of scholarly status that he had achieved.  Yet, despite the odds, we became good friends, and I still cherish the privilege of having known such a lovely human being.

I first met Conrad via the U.S. Mail.  At the time I was director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s, and we routinely served scholars from all over the place and on all topics relating to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  One day an inquiry arrived from Conrad, and despite my ignorance both of his work and who he might be, I decided to answer the letter myself rather than pass it on to one of my colleagues.

So it began as an old-fashioned, pre-email exchange, and as the correspondence stretched out, so did the topics of discussion.  For one thing, he and his wife Helen lived in Chagrin Falls, and that was something I could scarcely resist.  In my second letter I had the temerity to ask whether Chagrin was a noun or an adjective, and whether Falls was a verb or a noun.  It was just the sort of whimsy that intrigued Conrad, and that silly bit fueled a conversation that went on for years.

img_4116Eventually I got to meet Conrad, after he had arranged an invitation for me to speak at the Rowfant Club, one of the oldest book-collecting clubs in the country.  The Club had its home in a stately old mansion on storied Euclid Avenue in Celeveland;  but because Conrad was by then too frail to attend, I only met him the next day.  Then, for the first time, I got to shake the hand that had written so many fine letters and had authored so many scholarly texts.

It turned out that we actually did have something in common, which came as a great surprise to me.  Conrad had grown up in Vienna, but that wasn’t what we shared.  What did bind us, however, was a Benedictine thread that ran through both of our lives.  Conrad had attended the Schottenstift, a monastery in the center of Vienna founded in 1155.  Visitors to Vienna even today can step into their church and listen to the monks at prayer, as people have done for centuries.  Anyway, the Benedictine monks of the Schotten had befriended Conrad, and as the prospect of war loomed after the Nazi Anschluss, the monks had helped to spirit Conrad out of the country.  He eventually found refuge in the U.S., earned a doctorate, and compiled a distinguished career at Case Western.

img_4138It was only later, in his retirement, that I was privileged to step into Conrad’s diminishing circle of friends.  And it was quite possible that I was one of the last of the guests for whom Conrad prepared his favorite treat — Wiener schnitzel.

Eventually Conrad slipped away, and his wife Helen called to share the sad news.  She later wrote to say how much our correspondence had meant to Conrad, and then she asked whether our library would be interested in having some of his most prized possessions — books that had once belonged to his father and which Conrad had taken with him when he left Austria decades earlier.  “Gladly!  We’d be honored to give them a home,” I responded — trying not to sound too eager.

A few weeks ago Helen once again contacted me, this time about the one remaining volume that she had saved as her personal memento of Conrad.  It was a 1492 edition of Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae, and it was the volume that had inspired Conrad’s translation and commentary.  It was time for her to downsize, and once again she thought of Conrad’s love of the Benedictine tradition.  Would we want it?

img_4115Last week I paged through that text for the first time in many years — and not in Chagrin Falls but in the special collections department at Saint John’s.  Of course it was a great example of early printing, but for me it had long since acquired an added value.  The Benedictine thread that wove through both Conrad and me had brought this book from Vienna to Collegeville, and now it was also a symbol of a cherished friendship.

Sometimes we can only marvel at the twists and turns that bring people together in friendship.  Certainly one can make the case that accidents sometimes bridge the divides, but sometimes just a little bit of the credit belongs to God’s providence.  That, I think, is what friendship really is.  It is just one more of the many gifts of God that grace our lives.  For that providence we really ought to give thanks every now and again.

img_4154Notes

+On January 9th Jordan Berns, a 2014 alumnus of Saint John’s University, came to the abbey as a monastic associate, in preparation for his entrance as a candidate for the novitiate in April.  At Saint John’s he was a music and theology major, and for one year after graduation he served as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.

+On January 11th I departed Minnesota for Barcelona, where I met with a small group for a tour of the area.  It had nothing to do with the fact that it had become beastly cold in Minnesota, because we had planned this months ago.  The absence of cold and snow in Barcelona was one of those minor inconveniences that we had to endure.  Actually, it was not so bad.  My experience of Barcelona stretches back to graduate school, when I flew there to spend a summer in Spain doing dissertation research.  I had been back twice since then, but ages ago.  It is an amazing city, and if you’ve not been there, it is something to add to your bucket list.

+On January 15th we went to the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat, located about thirty miles outside of Barcelona.  In addition to attending Mass and touring the monastery grounds, we got to spend time with our two Benedictine Volunteers there, Tanner Rayman and Thomas Friebe.  Both are 2016 graduates of Saint John’s University.  Tanner was a biology major and Thomas a music major.  During their year as volunteers they are working with the Escolonia, the boys choir school of the abbey.

img_0171+The first five photos in today’s post show the south portal of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, and construction has continued for over a hundred years.  The design was revolutionary for its time, and even today it is absolutely stunning.  If you think you have seen all that can be seen in church architecture, it’s because you have not seen Sagrada Familia.  They project ten more years of construction, and the building of several more towers, before it is complete.  In the final photo I stand with our two Benedictine Volunteers, Tanner and Thomas, with the medieval wing of Montserrat in the background.  More on that in nexts week’s post.

img_0090_2Save the Dates

The Christmas season is nearly over, save for any residual shouting.  Of course traces of it linger in the shops that haven’t already shifted their focus to Saint Valentine’s Day;  but in the liturgical calendar Christmas began to grind to a halt yesterday with Epiphany, followed by the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which takes place today.  That means tomorrow we turn our attention to the season that the Church labels “Ordinary Time.”  That’s the stretch during which we get on with the business of everyday life, or so you might think.  But that shouldn’t really be the case.

There’s a bit of chant that comes on the feast of Epiphany that hints that there are actually more things to come.  The chant dates back to the early centuries of the Church, and while most parishes long ago dropped it, in monasteries like Saint John’s we continue to sing it as if this were the eighth century.  It’s an excerpt from The Roman Martyrology, and this Epiphany our confrere Fr. Michael Peterson intoned it beautifully, just before the final blessing and dismissal at Mass.

Without the musical notation it has all the charm of end-of-Mass announcements of bake sales, pancake breakfasts, raffles and the schedule of meetings of the parish council.  But sung to the tune of the Easter Exultet, it has a solemnity that stops you in your tracks.  So I will quote the words in full, in the event that you’ve never heard or read them before.

img_0030_2“Know this, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by the grace of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his resurrection, who is our savior.  On the 1st day of March will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the feast of the most sacred Lenten season.  On the 16th day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Holy Passover of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 28th day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 4th day of June, the feast of Pentecost.  On the 18th day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  On the 3rd day of December, the First Sunday of Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever.  Amen.”

There you have the outline of the entire Church year.  At the very least it suggests that the Church calendar is not some random selection of feasts that haphazardly crop up when we need something to lift our spirits.  They are organized to tell a story, in installments, and it all begins on the foundation of Christmas.  Without Christmas none of the rest of it makes much sense.  With Christmas, however, you have a statement of faith that defines a way of life, and you have to make repeat visits to hear and experience the whole story.  In other words, if you’re going to be a Christian, Christmas is not quite enough.  But it is the necessary starting point on a pilgrimage to a full life.

img_0299_2In his sermon on Epiphany our confrere Fr. Ian reinforced this sense of continuity with his reference to the star of Bethlehem that guided both shepherds and magi alike.  Despite our inclination to think of that star in astronomical terms, its real meaning in the Christian story is allegorical.  The star represents light, and for us who are Christians the light of our lives is Christ.  Christ is the reference point for the decisions we make in life.  Christ is the anchor from whom we choose not to drift.  Christ is the foundation on whom we build our home.  In sum, Jesus is more than a sweet child in a manger.  He’s the one who ultimately calls us to follow him in living noble and loving and sometimes even sacrificial lives.  That is the wisdom we adopt for ourselves when we choose to follow Christ our light.

So there you have it.  If you hadn’t heard that Ash Wednesday this year falls on March 1st, you know it now.  So save that date and all the others on the list.  Meanwhile don’t fritter away the next few weeks of Ordinary Time as if they were pointless.  In fact, those weeks and days are gifts from the Lord.  Let’s use them well as we take a breather on the path to Lent.  And if all this is too much “church” for you, then remember, there’s always February 14th, the feast of Saint Valentine.

img_0105_2Notes

+On January 2nd and 3rd I participated in the mid-winter workshop for the monks of Saint John’s.

+From January 4th through the 7th I was in San Francisco with our University president, Michael Hemesath, for meetings with several alumni.  We did not have to wait very long for our first meeting, as we unexpectedly sat with two alumni on the outbound flight.  We met yet another on the return flight.

+On January 7th I attended the celebration in St. Paul of Irene Okner, on her 100th birthday.  On her 90th birthday I was honored to give a blessing, and at the time I  saluted her for an achievement that few others on the planet accomplish.  She had likely achieved immortality, “since statistics show that very few people die after the age of 90.”  We are already making plans for her 110th birthday celebration.

img_0291_2+The photos in today’s post all show works from the National Gallery in Washington.  The first is “The Virgin and Child with Saint John,” Florence, 15th c., by a follower of Andrea del Verrochio.  Second is “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, Siena, ca. 1450.  Next is the “Adoration of the Magi” by Benvenuto di Giovanni, Siena, ca. 1470.  Following that is “The Flight into Egypt,” by Vittore Carpacio, Venice, ca. 1515.  At bottom is “The Madonna and Child,” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Florence, ca. 1450.

 

img_3993Jesus Blesses and Keeps Us

[Today’s post presents the sermon I gave on New Year’s Day in the Abbey church.]

A few years ago the movie Into the Great Silence gave a glimpse into life in a Carthusian monastery.  To the surprise of many, those Carthusians may have been silent, but their world was anything but.  In fact, their silence allowed them to hear the ordinary things that many of us never hear.

That movie also reinforced the stereotype that all monks keep silence.  That may be true for Carthusians, but it’s certainly not the case with Benedictines; and at Saint John’s I dare say we can chatter away with the best of them.  Still, Saint Benedict did give silence a priority in his Rule, and he outlines it in chapter six.  “So important is silence,” he wrote, “that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written:  ‘In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.'”

Right now some of you may be thinking that maybe it’s time for me to be a good monk and sit down and shut up.  I have to admit that I too was tempted by that thought.  And after all the noise of the last year perhaps it would be a good thing to ask Pope Francis to dedicate 2017 as The Year of Silence, starting now.  But then it occurred to me that on the Feast of Mary the Mother of God I should at least say something, and it need not be a “flood of words.”  And so, in the interest of brevity, I offer these few thoughts.

img_2102First of all, I find the blessing from the Book of Numbers chapter 6 really curious.  Remember that Moses was not allowed to look at God lest he die.  To reinforce that, the law of Moses banned the worship of graven images.  And yet the Book of Numbers asks us to imagine the face of God and the eyes of God and the voice and hand of God raised in blessing.  These are the very human and material attributes that the Mosaic Code bent over backward to avoid.  Was this a concession to a people who could not imagine a relationship with an abstract being or some mystical force pervading the universe?

Then we turn to the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, where we continue with the story of the birth of Jesus.  Mary is indeed the mother of Jesus the man, which all of the gospels stress emphatically.  But she is also the mother of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Like Mary, we are left to ponder what all of this might mean.  How could this possibly be, since it runs counter to the ban on graven images in the Ten Commandments?  Has God defied his own laws?

img_2103Whatever else the mystery of the Incarnation may suggest, it does say one thing quite explicitly:  God so loved us that he sent his son to be one of us.  Jesus has not only become like us;  he has become our very brother.  And in the process Jesus becomes the embodiment of what God promises in the Book of Numbers.  In Jesus God blesses us and keeps us.  In Jesus God lets his face shine upon us and is gracious to us. It is Jesus who looks kindly upon us and gives us peace.

So what does this mean to us on a practical level?  For one thing it means that Jesus reaches out to touch us in order to transform us.  In the Orthodox tradition theologians have termed this divinization.  Plainly stated, in Jesus God became human so that humans might become God.  And it’s a transformation that begins here and now, and not someday, later on.  Even now the life of God enters us, and we have life in abundance.  It’s life that we share and celebrate now.

img_2104The Incarnation of Jesus says yet one more thing that we can appreciate.  Jesus did not become the Son of Mary in order to be some abstract life force in the universe.  He does not intend to remain aloof and irrelevant to our lives.  And unlike the Carthusians, Jesus does not take a vow of silence.  Instead he walks with us; he speaks to us; he listens to what we have to say; he stands beside us in good times and in bad.  In short, Jesus reaches out to be one with us.  He reaches out to be our brother.

That, it seems to me, is what the mystery of the Incarnation is all about.  Jesus came to share in our humanity and to share with us his divine life.  He came to transform us so that we might live life to the fullest.  But of course on this feast of Mary the Mother of God I’m not asking you to take my word for it.  Ask Jesus yourself, and you’ll be more than surprised by what he has to say to you.

img_9806Notes

+On December 26th, the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr, I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass.

+On January 1st I was again the main celebrant at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon from that occasion.  In case you think it odd that I preside twice in such a short span of time, the logic is simple.  Because of my travels I am acutely aware that I don’t take my fair share of household duties in the monastery.  So when I’m home I try to squeeze in as much as I can.  But I’ll never catch up, and I have to acknowledge my debt to generous confreres who do so much.  They do far more than I, and I am grateful.

+Every now and again a comment will elicit an interesting response from readers of this blog.  Last week I noted that in the Christmas pageant that preceded the Christmas Eve children’s Mass at the Abbey parish, the staging gave mixed impressions.  To those sitting in the front pews Mary had a baby, while two shepherd beside her held dolls that were clearly lambs.  To those of us in the back pews, however, they all looked like baby dolls, suggesting that Mary had given birth to triplets.  One friend shared the story of his granddaughter who played Mary.  Unfortunately, en route to the manger the head of baby Jesus fell off.  That too was not in the script, and my imagination has run wild with that thought ever since.  Hopefully the trauma did not discourage the little girl from becoming a mother — or an actress.

img_9756+It’s just about time to put away my favorite CD of all time — Holly and the Ivy, by John Rutter and the choir of Clare College at Cambridge.  Over the holidays I’ve listened to it at least twice a day.  I confess that I’ve also listened to it in July.  It never tires!

+The first photo in today’s post is of an icon by Aidan Hart, in the Abbey church.  The next photos are of pieces housed at the V & A in London.  First are three glass windows (ca.1520) crafted for the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Next is a Virgin and Child in limestone, Italian, ca. 1160.  At bottom is a Virgin and Child, also Italian, ca. 1450.

img_4000Generosity:  the Point of Christmas

[I preached this sermon at the Christmas Eve Children’s Mass at Saint John’s.}

Let’s be honest and admit up-front that many people here this evening don’t have their minds on the birth of Jesus.  These same people probably didn’t pay much attention during Advent, and John the Baptist and Isaiah slipped right past them.  And they couldn’t have cared less about these Advent characters because their minds were elsewhere.  Specifically, Santa Claus was the guest of honor in there mental living rooms.

Shortly after Thanksgiving I happened to be walking past a Santa Station in a mall, and there they were, eager and anxious youngsters lined up to see Santa.  I make the distinction between eager and anxious because the eager ones had greed written all over their faces.  They desperately hoped they’d get most of what they’d written on their lists for Santa.

Then there were the anxious little kids who were terrified of meeting Santa.  I felt sorry for the parents who tried to still their cries and screams.  It didn’t make for pretty pictures, and I realized once again one of the fringe benefits of being a monk.

img_3990Of course not all kids react that way, as one of my coworkers assured me about her son.  Her son was neither greedy nor terrified.  Rather, he was curious, in a district attorney sort of way.   When his turn came to meet Santa, he put Santa on the hot seat.  “What happens if Santa gets sick — who takes his place?”  “How come the elves never get any bigger?”  “Why would anyone want to live at the North Pole?”  And on it went until Santa gratefully handed her son back back to her.

I do have a point here, and it’s this.  For the  youngest citizens among us, Santa has grabbed their attention.  And if you are one of these kids, please hear what I have to say.  At Christmas Santa and parents and brothers and sisters will bring you presents, but it’s not because you desperately need all those things.  Rather, those gifts are a sign that they love you.  And so, when you get gifts at Christmas, be sure to thank your mom or dad or brother or sister or Santa.  They give because they love you, and they care about you.

I suppose that also applies to the oldest citizens among us too.  Gifts are tokens of love and appreciation, and sometimes people even have to make personal sacrifices to give them.  Our gratitude and thanks are absolutely the best response we can ever give, and it’s something we should consider doing even when Christmas is long over.

img_3995Generosity is the point of Christmas.  In the Bible we read that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to be one of us.  It’s an act of generosity that we don’t always understand, but it’s one for which we should be grateful for precisely this reason.  In chapter one of Matthew’s gospel we read the genealogy of Jesus, and the point of it is simple.  Jesus may be the son of God, but he is also the son of Mary.  As Matthew tells us, Jesus descends from a long line of Jewish ancestors, stretching back to King David.  And Jesus did not come here to mess around in all of our affairs and give us a whole bunch of rules.  Rather, he’s here to be our brother.  He is one of us, and he’s like us in all things except sin.

What, then, does Christmas mean on a practical level?  It means that God loves us and in Jesus God walks with us.  God doesn’t want to be aloof from our daily problems and the challenges of our lives.  Instead, Jesus came to be part of our lives.  He wants to hear from us, and he wants to speak with us.

So if you’ve never prayed to Jesus as if he were your brother, the time to start is now.  If you’ve never confided in Jesus when you’re going through tough moments, then the time to start is now.  If you’ve never thought that Jesus personally loves you and cares about  you, then the time to start is now.

Jesus was born of Mary in a manger, but not because he had nothing else to do that day.  Rather, he came precisely so that he could get to know each of us.  He came to carry our burdens and to rejoice with us.  He came to be with us in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.  He came to be our savior and our friend.

What greater love could God have for us, and what greater gift could we possibly get at Christmas?  Be sure then to thank God when you next speak with Jesus.  And thank him especially for the gift of his son, our brother.  Amen.

img_3981Notes

+On December 23rd Frantz Soiro spoke to the monks in the chapter house about his current year as a Benedictine Volunteer at a Benedictine abbey in Africa.  Frantz grew up in Newark, NJ, went to Saint Benedict’s Prep there, and graduated from Saint John’s University last May.  He is staying with us in the monastery for a month while he takes a course in preparation for medical school, which he will start at Morehouse in Atlanta this fall.  In late January he returns to Africa for the second half of his stint as a Volunteer.

+On December 24th I was the celebrant at the children’s Mass at the Abbey parish.  It was really a fun experience, and I’m grateful to all those parents who managed to calm their little kids down, finally.  A nativity pageant preceded the Mass, and as I watched from the rear of the church I was taken aback by one unexpected development.  As Mary and Joseph and the shepherds circled the manger and then turned around to face us, Mary was holding a doll.  So also did two of the shepherds.  I turned to the lady beside me and gasped that “Mary had triplets!  I don’t think that’s in the book.”  I couldn’t figure it out until they all processed out and I discovered that the other two dolls were actually lambs.  Thankfully they had not rewritten the Nativity story after all.

img_4009+Because we were celebrating the parish Mass in the Abbey church at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, the monks said evening prayer in the Great Hall, the former Abbey church, also at 5 pm.  I wished I had been there to experience that, since it was the first time we’d celebrated evening prayer there in decades.  But alas, I was busy.

+The pictures in today’s post begin with one of the abbey church, followed by a photo of the abbot’s throne, above which is a painting on canvass that used to hang above the altar in the old abbey church during the Christmas season.  We’d not used it in nearly sixty years, and it fit beautifully in the spot where it was hung.  Brother Clement painted it on canvass in the 1930s.  Next is a photo of a decorated tree in the baptistry, and then follows the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  Last is a photo of the abbey church, facing the great window.

 

img_0211_2Welcome the Savior

“Here’s the deal.  There is a savior; and you’re not the savior.”  This bit of spiritual advice came to me third-hand last week, and it’s the sort of statement-of-the-obvious that most of us could afford to hear now and again.

It’s not that we actually think we’re God that gets us into trouble.  Most of us aren’t that self-deluded.  Rather, the real problem is the assumption that we’ve been delegated to act on God’s behalf.  Why else would God gift us with certain divine qualities, such as omniscience and always being right?  Why else would we make our own that wonderful prayer of the Pharisee:  “I thank God that I am not like the rest of people!”  Ironically, if we say that prayer often enough, it actually comes true.  But that’s a topic for another day, because for now I want to focus on the savior business.

In just a few days we’ll celebrate Christmas, and despite the overemphasis on material gifts, the point of it all is the gift of Jesus as savior.  I know that can sound a bit like a cliché, but I’d also suggest it will remain just a cliché until we finally give up being personal saviors to ourselves and turn that job over to Jesus.  Only then will we discover what a radical difference Jesus can make in our lives.  But until then we are on our own — which is a scary thing when you think about it.

In the Advent readings we’ve met some pretty formidable personalities.  Isaiah and John the Baptist are nothing if they are not forceful and dynamic.  Mary too has a unique role in this narrative, but her charisma is of a very different sort than that of the prophets.  And then there’s Joseph, who’s the unsung silent figure in all of this.

img_0232_2Joseph is the featured personality in the gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent.  That said, you have to conclude that his agent did a lousy job in promoting Joseph’s on-stage presence.  For one thing, Joseph sleeps through his entire scene.  Later on, when he wakes up, he discovers that even then he didn’t get a speaking part.  Never, in any of the gospels, does he get to say a single word.  Despite everything God expects of Joseph, the gospel writers not even once do Joseph the courtesy of citing his reaction to all this.  There’s not so much as a “maybe I’ll do it” or an “okay, I’ll get right on it.”  Nope.  Joseph hears the message and gets straight to business.  And we’re left to wonder what sort of person Joseph really was.  Was he always the strong silent type?  Was he like that as a kid?  Was he the teacher’s dream student in kindergarten?  Was he always so poised and determined to do the right thing?  Did he ever have a moment’s doubt?

Christian tradition has given Joseph the short end of the stick and put him in the supporting cast of the Christmas story.  But we should know better, and we should never dismiss him as unimportant, because in many ways Joseph is the most practical role model that any of us could ever have.  He may have run under the radar.  He may have been quiet and reserved.  On the other hand, he did an awful lot of heavy lifting when called upon to do so.  No doubt even Mary, who gets most of the headlines, relied on Joseph for strength, guidance and support.  After all, like Joseph she had only the sketchiest of notions about God’s plan for her.  She had to lean on somebody’s shoulder, and that shoulder belonged to Joseph.

img_0092_2That makes Joseph a not-so-bad role model for those of us who’ve come to realize that we are not the headliners in life.  Despite not having speaking parts on the international stage or in the leading pulpits on the planet, God still has plans for us. God has work for us to do, even if at times we wonder whether our efforts matter.  In fact, like God did with Joseph, God has assigned to each of us some moments when we can really make a critical difference.  And like Joseph, we need to awaken to the possibilities and seize them.

I believe it was John Calvin who made a useful point that helps us understand the difference between the savior and the saved.  “Believe as if everything depends upon God; and act as if everything depends upon you.”  That’s definitely not an invitation to run the world, or even our little corner of it, as if we were God’s vice-regent.  Rather, it’s a reminder that we have a savior and that savior stands with us when we deal with our assigned tasks.  That’s the real message of Christmas, and it’s great news.

img_0064Notes

+I know I shouldn’t say this, but throughout 2016 I had great good fortune with the airlines.  I made it everywhere I needed to be, pretty much on time and intact.  But last week was different.  For the first time in years my checked bag failed to make a flight connection, and it stayed in Detroit a lot longer than I did.  Fortunately it caught up with me the next day.

Then, later in the week, I landed at noon in Detroit for a 1:10 pm flight, only to discover that it had been rescheduled for 3:30, due to weather.  But the gate agent quietly told me that the 10:30 am flight hand’t left yet, and there were two seats left.  The upshot was that my original flight left two and a half hours late, while I got to New York fifteen minutes ahead of my original schedule.  Even better, my bag made it along with me.  The lesson here?  Be  kind to the people at the airlines.  Like God did with Mary, they too  have the capacity to do great things.

+I was on my way to New York, where it was cold and snowy.  And to top it all off, I was not properly dressed for any of it.  Even so, I made it to my meetings.  I also had time to join two good friends for a foray to the Metropolitan Museum, where I got to see an exhibit entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400:  Every People Under Heaven.  It ends on January 8th, so this was my only chance to see it.  Even better, we got to hear a concert of Byzantine Christmas Music, performed by the Axion Estin Foundation Chanters.

img_0063If you’ve never heard Byzantine chant, you should.  The deep and resonant voices are dramatic, and you can appreciate the reaction of the envoys of the king of the Bulgars when they listened to it in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the early 9th century.  They thought they were standing in heaven itself.  Ironically, the chanters at the Met were perched in the Medieval Sclupture Hall, beneath a mosaic of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist.  That mosaic had once graced an apse in Hagia Sophia, and on earlier trips to the Met I’d never noticed it.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I am hugely sophisticated when it comes to chant.  Despite the grandeur and majesty of Byzantine chant, a little bit goes a long way — at least for me.  Plus, given that it was in Greek, Armenian Arabic and Russian, for all I know they could have easily slipped in some stuff for Lent or Easter.

+The first three photos in today’s post show works of art housed at the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Marriage of the Virgin, by Bernard van Orley, Netherlands, c. 1513.  Next comes The Expectant Madonna with St. Joseph, made in France in the 15th century.  The third image is The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio, Venice, mid-15th century.  The two images at bottom show the balcony and mosaic that originally was located in Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, now housed in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At the bottom of this post is Sandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi, Florence, ca. 1480.

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