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Lent:  A Life-long Pilgrimage

I don’t suppose most people associate Lent with pilgrimage.  On the popular level the indulgence of Mardi Gras is the prelude to Lent.  Then, perhaps out of necessity, some set aside Ash Wednesday and sometimes a few extra days for heartfelt regret and recovery.  Then come the fasting and self-denial that are grist for a traditional Lenten observance.  Though much of this can be done from the comfort of a recliner, it’s best done actively, on our feet.  After all, spiritual exercises should have a physical expression about them as well.

Beyond that, there’s something to be said for linking our personal regimen for Lent with the itinerary of the ministry of Jesus.  For instance, on Ash Wednesday we can still vaguely make out the Nativity in our rear-view mirror.   That’s a reminder of the humanity that we share with Jesus, as are the passion and death of Jesus which end the Lenten season.  In between are the years that Jesus spent as a young man in Nazareth and as a teacher in Galilee.  Those were formative years for him, and in that interval he grew in age and wisdom.  But they were also the years when Jesus came to terms with the mission that his Father had bestowed on him.

7DA89B51-8E48-40F9-9CF3-14F0B07020D8Geography obviously played a key role in the life of Jesus.  He was born in Bethlehem, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem.  But it was in the north, in the lower elevations of Nazareth and Galilee and the Jordan River Valley where Jesus came to terms with his relationship with his Father.  And from there he eventually went up to the high places of Jerusalem to fulfill his ministry.

The life of Jesus points to something fundamental for us all.  Like Jesus, we are not called to live a static existence.  Like Jesus, we should grow and mature.  Like Jesus, we should deepen our human relationships.  Like Jesus, we should become ever more aware of our talents, of our capacity to be generous and make sacrifices for the sake of others, and of our ability to be supportive of one another.  And we should do this for a very specific reason.  Jesus invites us to continued growth so that we might use our hands to do his work and open our hearts to share his love.  All that requires movement on our part.

Lent then is not a time to sit still.  Lent instead is a time to reflect on the pilgrimage of Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Galilee and finally to Jerusalem.  It’s a pilgrimage on which Jesus invites us to join with him.  And along the ascent from our own Galilee to our own Jerusalem Jesus promises to walk with us.  That certainly is a pilgrimage worth considering, especially since it lasts a lifetime.

74A6E597-36E2-4CC8-B982-AD3667B9F63ANOTES

+This was a momentous week for us in the monastery.  On Friday the 21st the new pipe organ accompanied our singing at evening prayer for the first time.  Then on Sunday the 23rd Fr. Bob played the organ at Mass, and Fr. Anthony played at vespers.  Not all of the new pipes have been tuned, but the additional 3,000 pipes show great promise.  Meanwhile, this Wednesday the electronic organ that has kept us company for many months will return to the organ studio from which we had rented it.  Despite its obvious differences from a pipe organ, that electronic organ had the capacity to produce some really interesting sounds.  For better and for worse all of our abbey organists resisted the temptation to produce music suitable for a hockey rink.  It might have been fun.

+On Saturday February 22nd I gave a presentation on the history and mission of the Order of Malta to provisional members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat day took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

+In March of 2019 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, and the photos in today’s post derive from that experience.  At top is the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  Below that is the basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a structure that blends the old and new.  The next photo shows the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, the city where Jesus lived during much of his ministry.  It was in the earlier version of this synagogue where Jesus taught and preached.  At bottom is the tomb of Jesus in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

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Lent:  What’s a Monk to Do?

Lent’s back, and with it comes the annual challenge it always poses.  What can a monk do that hasn’t been done before?

Part of my problem is that I can’t remember most of the resolutions I’ve made through the years.  Obviously they succeeded in changing neither my life nor my mind.  Still, two experiences stand out, and the first was the Lent when I gave up candy.  For some kids that can be truly heroic, but for me it wasn’t.  I’m a saver by nature and a life-long believer in the virtue of delayed gratification.  Even back then, as a child, I knew that on Easter Sunday that candy would still be there, augmented by a nifty delivery from the Easter Bunny.

9A7D23C2-E440-4427-B9F3-A8E8458DEE61Years later as a young monk I began to read Genesis and the New Testament during Lent.  In fact I did that for three Lents running.  Then one day my dissertation director told me he read the New Testament in a different language each Lent.  Deflated, I gave up the practice;  but I shouldn’t have.

For many years the issue of self-denial during Lent didn’t get much attention in our monastery.  Of course we noticed Lent’s presence in the liturgy, and desserts disappeared from the refectory.  But benign neglect of self-denial remained in place until just a few years ago, when the abbot began to encourage monks to do something special to observe the season.  That at least got us to thinking, but thinking about something isn’t quite the same as actually doing something.  This year, in keeping with the Rule of Saint Benedict, what had begun as the abbot’s suggestion morphed into an expectation.  This year, by Ash Wednesday each of us must turn in a written statement noting what we intend to do.

Recently a priest-friend told me how he deals with people who shy away from the confessional because they have nothing to say.  “I wish I had that problem” has become his stock reply.  By extension I think the same is true for me when it comes to Lent.  What could I possibly do that would be original?  How could I come up with a fresh idea that would both impress the abbot and change my life?  Then I thought of something that could hit me where I live — literally — and get me to thinking long-term.

FB15FFB3-BD03-49D8-A877-EB953A72B677For years I’ve fought the battle against excess baggage in my life.  However, when it has come to books I’ve generally drawn the line.  Now it’s time to pare back on books too, for a lot of good reasons.  Saint Benedict may have written that monks should have what they truly need, but books that haven’t been touched for twenty years probably  don’t fall into the category of things I cannot live without.  So the specifics of my Lenten resolve this year include recycling four shelves of books and the book-case that holds them.  To let go of those books will be painful, at least until they’re gone.  But the exercise will strike a blow for simplicity;  the books will benefit the readers who will end up with them;  and I’ll gain four square feet of floor space in my room.

Even better, there’s an added benefit here.  In another of his maxims Saint Benedict urges his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  In our monastery it falls to the prior to clear out the rooms of monks who have died.  So even as I keep death daily before my eyes by discarding stuff, the prior will someday thank me for it.

Finally, there’s another positive from this Lenten resolution.  When Saint Benedict asked his monks to inform the abbot of their resolutions, he told them to share the news with neither the rest of the monks nor the whole wide world.  This avoids pride, and I certainly want to avoid that sort of thing.  But all the same, true to the law of unintended consequences, there is yet one more benefit from the announcement of my Lenten observance and violating Benedict’s command.  At least now I’ll have something to say when I go to confession.

3A13F994-37F4-453D-96B2-485A3A0298DCNOTES

+On February 10-11 I attended the annual meeting of the chaplains of the American Association of the Order of Malta, held in New York.  I participated in the presentation made by the spirituality committee of the Association.

+On February 11th I was able to meet and have dinner with our three Benedictine Volunteer Corps members who are spending the year at Saint Benedict’s Prep and Newark Abbey in Newark, NJ.

+On February 15th I gave a presentation on the history of the Order of Malta at a retreat day for provisional members of the Western Association of the Order.  It was held in Menlo Park, CA.

+While in New York I was able to meet with a long-time friend, Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic.  Ours is an annual visit, and this year we celebrated the publication of her memoirs, entitled Lost Without the River.  In it she tells the engaging story of growing up on a farm in South Dakota.  Life was not easy for her family, but she proves the maxim that life without challenge can become a life impoverished.

+The photo at top in today’s post is Fra Filippo Lippi’s portrait of Saint Benedict speaking to his disciple Saint Maurus, painted ca. 1445.  It is now in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  The next four photos show works housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  They are part of a current exhibit that deals with the cost to buy or commission art in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Lacking a unifying monetary unit like the euro, and with fluctuations in the price of gold, silver and other materials used to create works of art, the curators finally came up with a single unit of monetary value that could faithfully compare the relative costs. So, for instance, Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in his Study, made ca. 1514, had a relative value of one-half cow.  Next, the alabaster figure of Charity by the circle of Jacques du Broeucq (ca. 1580) was valued at 40 cows.  The chalice by Otto Meier (?), ca. 1604, had an approximate value of 255 cows.  At bottom the stained glass of the Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabee by Dirck Vellert (ca. 1530) would have set the buyer back for all of 12 cows.  I can only imagine what shopping would have been like in the 16th century if people had to pay in cows.  Thankfully credit cards came along as a tidier replacement.

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A New Age of Hermits

Not since the 11th century have so many people opted to become hermits.  Back then hermitages and communities of solitaries dotted the landscape of Europe.  Today, however, we have whole cities of hermits, and suburbs are filled with single people living in homes designed for families.  The result?  For some it’s unintended isolation.  For others it’s loneliness

I’m not the one to explain all of this, but sociologists note the changes, at least in America.  The fact is, people have been retreating into the safety of their dens for decades.  Fewer people join clubs and other social organizations.  Church attendance is down; malls close for lack of customers; and people would crawl into their laptops and cell phones if they could.  And when they do participate in something, it’s something big, like massive sporting events or mega churches.  In such places it’s much easier to protect their anonymity.

95799A87-C199-4C66-B4DE-948FB58DB632In light of all this,  I do offer one observation.  It puts a strain on our ability to develop social skills.  Those, after all, require practice if they are going to blossom and flourish.

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict allowed that the best kind of monk is the hermit.  But when we read the entirety of his Rule it’s clear that he pushes in the opposite direction.  He skews everything toward the creation of a healthy and vibrant community.  All is geared toward the respect and nurture of neighbor.  It’s the neighbor that brings out the best — and the worst — in us; and without the presence of that neighbor personal growth is much harder.

In Matthew 5:16 Jesus says that our light must shine before others, and obviously that requires some sort of community.  But of even greater significance is this:  the gifts God gives us ought not be stashed away or placed under a basket.  When we hide our talents no one benefits, and that includes the owner of the talents.  Rather, gifts given to one are gifts meant to be shared.  Only then will we grow.

45B503C8-1293-400D-8F11-B4DFB52F3B0ASharing gifts and talents requires effort on our part.  It takes gumption to show up regularly for activities that build relationships and communities.  It takes initiative to reach out to others.  For some it requires real effort to overcome the urge to live totally private lives.

Ironically, we only fool ourselves if we think we can live totally private lives.  If we rely on others for food, for safety, or for any sort of emotional support, then we owe all those people a debt of gratitude.  We in fact live in community with them.

The words of Jesus offer us a challenge.  Will our experience of community be minimalist — one in which neither we nor others see what gifts we have to offer?  Or will we take any sort of risk to reach out to others?

Jesus commanded the paralytic to pick up his mat and walk.  In less elegant language he asks each of us to get up off our bottoms and make some little difference in our community.

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+On February 5th former president of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos arrived at Saint John’s for a two-day residence.  In the course of his visit he delivered the 13th annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture, and he met with faculty, staff and students at various luncheons and receptions.

+On February 7th I met with Novice Felix for the first of a series of classes that will address the history of the Benedictine tradition.  In this first class we reviewed The Saint John’s Bible — a project I’ve been involved in for what seems like forever.

+Later that day I drove to LaCrosse, WI, with one of my colleagues, where we attended a vigil service for the mother of one of our alumni.

+While in Washington DC recently I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite haunts, The National Gallery.  There I saw an amazing exhibit of the work of Alonso Berruguete, a 16th-century sculptor who worked in Castile.  Son of an artist, a visit to Italy where he saw the work of Michelangelo was pivotal in his development.  The works on display are part of a retable that Berruguete created for the Benedictine abbey of San Benito Real in Valladolid, Spain.  I find his work just amazing in its originality and emotion, particularly the figure of Jesus at top.  Below that is the figure of Abraham, about to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Tap on the photo to enlarge and savor the anguish on the face of Abraham.  Next comes John the Baptist, and at bottom is a section of his Adoration of the Magi.

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God Gives Us Whatever — Really?

“Whatever you ask from the Father, he will give it to you in my name.”  (John 16:23).

Whatever means whatever, doesn’t it Father?”  The question came from a friend of mine, and I could see where this was going.  He is a litigator, and one of the few things that I’ve learned about the legal profession is that litigators thrive on spirited debate.  So I knew I was in the docket and on the defensive.

The fact of the matter is, we can ask what we want from God, and God will definitely answer.  However, as often as not God doesn’t give us what we ask for but rather what we really need.  In short, then, this assurance from Jesus is not about a contractual relationship but rather is about a human relationship based on love.

C14C9541-00D0-4AEB-817F-690A85C8FF9EI like to focus on this statement of Jesus because it gets to the core of his preaching.  Time and again he assured people that he had no pretense of being a legal scholar.  He had come to do the will of his father, and that didn’t include providing an entirely new legal code.  There were already enough laws in the scrolls of the Jewish tradition, and Jesus was not the first Jew to point this out.  There was little or no need for more.

If we’re ever going to unlock the meaning behind the parables and other sayings of Jesus, then we have to appreciate one simple fact.   Jesus teaches out of the Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures.  So it is that he doesn’t resort to legalese, but rather he gives us puzzles and enigmas to tease out the complexity of what it means to be a son or daughter of God.  “God as loving parent” is the image that Jesus prefers to work with.

That insight is key to understanding today’s reading from the gospel of Mark.  “To the one who has, more will be given;  from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”  At first blush this sounds terribly unjust.  It suggests that Jesus has put his own stamp of approval on the notion that the rich should get richer and the poor poorer, because that’s the divine will.  But economics is not what this is about.  It’s about our openness to the gift of life.  It’s about our willingness to let our light shine forth, or whether we choose to hide it under a basket.

AB6302AD-20F7-417C-BBBE-038150F05F6CThere’s one other point that I’d latch onto, and it has to do with those of us who work to nurture the talent in other people.  It’s one thing to let our own light shine, but it’s another to let other people shine as well.  So we have to check in with ourselves and ask whether we can be open enough to let our friends and children and students shine.  Can we see the talents that are latent in them?  Can we be alert to the potential within them — be they young or old?  This is part of what Jesus intends to say.

If we can be open to the Spirit working within us, then we are far more likely to be open to the Spirit working within others.  So when we can do that, God will likely give us exactly what we ask for, but far more than we ever imagine.

Let me share one last reference to my friend the litigator.  I asked him if he had won all of his cases, and he said “no.”  “Well then,” I asked, “is that because you didn’t pray to God for a win, or was it because Jesus was pulling our leg when he made this promise about his father?’’  I hope I don’t flatter myself with the thought that Jesus might have loved this answer.

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NOTES

+On January 30th I attended the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.  Prior to the meeting I said Mass for the members of the board, and today’s post is the sermon that I gave.  It is based on Mark 4:21-25.

+On February 1st I delivered the main address at a symposium on Benedictine Spirituality hosted by The Friends of Saint Benedict, an Episcopal group with which I have had a long association.  The event took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.  During the luncheon that followed the symposium I was pleasantly surprised to read a flyer announcing that my confrere Fr. Michael Peterson will be speaking two weeks later at Saint Anselm Abbey in Washington.

+On February 2nd I attended choral evensong at Christ Church in Georgetown.  The choir at Christ Church is simply wonderful, and in the setting of the late-19th-century Anglo-Catholic architecture, it made for an over-the-top experience for me.

+Given that we celebrated the feast of the Presentation on Sunday the 2nd of February, the first two photos in today’s post illustrate that scene.  The painting is by the Master of the Prado “Adoration of the Magi,” and dates from ca. 1470.  It hangs today in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below that is a decidedly more contemporary Presentation, done by Antonio Gaudi at the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  Below that is the chancel of Christ Church in Georgetown.  Finally, at bottom is a bit of whimsy that I could not resist including in today’s post.  While in the Bay Area I toured a new housing complex in downtown San Francisco.  In one courtyard of this massive development is a sculpture entitled Venus;  and while half as tall as the surrounding buildings, it just sucks the air out of the space.

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Does God Demand Violence?

In the course of making The Saint John’s Bible the illuminators flourished in their art.  On page after page they lavished their creativity, and it was clear to everybody that it had become a labor of love.

But then they hit a brick wall, and that brick wall was the historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Within those books they found violence that waS hard to digest.  They also ran up against passages like the one we’ve just read from 1st Samuel — passages in which God commanded the Israelites to wipe out their enemies — down to the last child.  How were the illuminators supposed to deal with genocide and unmitigated hate?  How could they render violence in their art and pretend that it was the will of God?

Texts like these are not easy to deal with.  One way, I suppose, is to try and explain them away, as if there’s no problem here after all.  But ultimately we return to the tough question that such a passage poses:  how can a god of love ask such things of people?

0315A57F-03BE-4F8F-B8DB-24ADAD900B24In fact, however, one snippet from a Bible narrative does not an entire Bible make.  Such terrible episodes are not stand-alone highlights but rather bits of a transformative story.  It’s the story of how over time the Israelites came to understand what God was asking of them.  And in this particular passage the seeds of that transformation are found.  It’s here that God begins to upend their notion of what’s expected of them.  Here God tells these people that obedience and submission to the will of God matter far more than the slaughter of bullocks and rams.  None of this heartless ritual can be redemptive.

In these verses we see the germ of a theme that Jesus makes his own many generations later.  And Jesus also reaches back to echo the commandments to love God and neighbor.  These are the greatest of the commands of God, and nothing takes precedence over them.

As powerful as the words of Jesus may have been, they have yet to transform humanity completely.  And they have yet to succeed in this because you and I need a lifetime to internalize them.  Only when we do so do we finally become the people of God.

But along the way we rely on prophets to rise up among us and remind us how central is the command to love.  God still sends us prophets, thankfully, and today we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, who for his preaching paid the price that prophets pay.  He took the words of Jesus and reminded us that violence does not bring justice.  In the search for justice violence can have no place in the hearts of Christians, because those hearts are reserved for love.

Today we remember Dr. King and all the prophets who have helped us move beyond the violence that shows up in 1st Samuel.  God doesn’t ask for genocide nor hate in any form, because what God asks of us is love.  And so today and every day we pray that we may love one another as God has loved us.

5368D678-87B6-4402-90A6-9B178268934CNOTES

+On January 20th I presided at the abbey Mass, and coincidentally that happened to be the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  That explains the reference to him near the end of the homily, which is today’s post.

+Work on the expanded organ in the abbey church is moving along nicely, and currently they are tuning the pipes.  Meanwhile the organ console is making progress as well, and the keyboard has now been installed.  For the moment the pedals sit like orphans behind the choir stalls, waiting to be installed.  We are hoping to have pipe organ music once again by the end of Lent.

Further out on the calendar there are several events planned for the dedication of the organ.  On November 4-8 Escalonia — the boys choir of the Abbey of Montserrat outside of Barcelona — will be in residence with us for a concert and other activities.  Then in the winter of 2021 The Canadian Brass will perform in concert with the abbey organ.

+In anticipation of the visit of the boys choir from Montserrat this fall, I have included a photo of the abbey, perched high on a mountain a few miles outside of Barcelona.  Since the Middle Ages it has been an important pilgrimage site, and people still come to venerate the Black Madonna.  Among other pilgrims was Saint Ignatius Loyola, who donated his sword to the abbey.  The monks of Saint John’s Abbey have had a long association with the monks of Montserrat, and it continues with the residence at Montserrat of Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s.  At Montserrat they teach English in the choir school.  At bottom is a photo of the boys choir in the abbey church.

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Lives Shaped by the Seasons

Every time winter settles in I muse on what life in the monastery would be like if we followed Saint Benedict’s Rule literally.  Summer at Saint John’s would be a delight.  Winter, however, would be another story.  For most of winter, dark and cold would be the order of the day.

In chapter 41 of his Rule we get some inkling of how Benedict allows the seasons to dictate the daily round of life.  Here he legislates the time for eating during Lent, and it rings strange to modern ears.  “Let Vespers be celebrated early enough so that there is no need for a lamp while eating, and that everything can be finished by daylight” (RB 41.8).  Would we really want to finish supper and call it a day before 5:00 pm?

Of course, Benedict did not mean “everything.”  The night office, for example, still took place at night, even in winter.  But since monks generally recited those psalms from memory, they needed only a cue from the reader, who was the only person who needed a candle or lamp.  Obviously, Benedict made no provision for a brilliantly-lit church.

31EE15CB-59EF-4773-9303-DA68707A5CE8As a medieval historian I appreciate how different life was for Benedict and his monks.  There was little illumination at night, though he did allow for one lamp in the dormitory (RB 22.4).  I also presume that lamps lit steps and sharp edges to avoid accidents or injuries.  Despite that, nights were dark in medieval monasteries — and everywhere else for that matter — and moonlight offered the only relief from the inky blackness.

If Benedict is sparing in his use of artificial light, he’s nearly silent in reference to the cold.  He comments on the oppressive heat of summer, which comes as no surprise from a resident of Italy.  But about the cold of winter and the occasional need for snow removal, he is reticent.  Later, medieval monasteries in Northern Europe indulged in one heated room — the calefactory (sitting room).  All the other rooms ranged from stifling to bone-chilling, depending on the season.

What might Benedict think of modern monks and nuns with their electric lighting and central heat?  At the very least he’d be puzzled by the rhythm of our lives.  For one, artificial light pierces every corner, and the days are as long as we choose to leave the lights on.  Meanwhile, central heat allows for the possibility that a blizzard might rage outside while we might be too warm within.

While nature dictated the terms of life for monks and nuns in the Middle Ages, modern followers of Benedict live in perennial greenhouses.  As a consequence, the horarium never varies, and nature no longer is the decisive factor that it was in Benedict’s day.

8E9AED96-9860-478A-803B-8F5B110759C3NOTES

+Today’s post is an article that I wrote and which appeared in the winter 2019-20 issue of The Abbey Banner.  The latter is the magazine published by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.

+On January 18th I attended the wedding of Bill and Kate in Minneapolis.  Bill is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and I have known him and his family since he was a kid.  He and his wife live in Washington, DC, and they met while working for politicians of different parties.  They are living proof that you can come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and still thrive together.  Their experience gives hope to the world!

+Beginning this month the majority of our monks will go into exile for the next year.  The reason for this is the renovation of the wing of the monastery that Marcel Breuer designed in the mid-1950s.  Since its construction we’ve done precious little to update the building; and finally the single-pane windows, the original heating and electrical systems, and the need for serious noise abatement have finally caught up with us.  That means that for a year the monks who live in that building will reside in other spaces on campus.  Happily I do not have to relocate because I live in the wing that was constructed in the 1880s.  All the same, we’ll all feel the effects of the relocation of our community gathering spaces, and no doubt we’ll be delighted when all of this is over.

+Heading today’s post is an altar frontal made in the 13th century for the monastery of Sant Serni de Tavernoles in Cataluña.  On 17 January we celebrated the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot, an early 4th-century ascetic from Egypt.  He is a good example of how the popularity of saints can wax and wane.  Not widely known today, he was immensely popular in the Middles Ages, and the second and third photos hint at that.  The first was made in ca. 1375, and attributed to Mestre de Rubió.  It too is housed at the Museum of Catalan Art.  The second was made in Alsace and attributed to Nicolaus of Hagenau.  It is in the Cloisters Museum in New York.  At bottom is another altar frontal from the Museum of Catalan Art, dated ca. 1200.

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Baptism Begins Our Public Ministry

As rivers flow the Jordan is no Rhine or Amazon or Mississippi.  On rainy days it might qualify as a decent tributary, but even on those days it inspires neither poets nor painters nor boating enthusiasts.

Despite its shortcomings, however, the Jordan does play an extraordinary role in the gospels.  It was beside its waters that John the Baptist preached and baptized.  It was there that he had his first and perhaps only encounter with Jesus.  And it was into the meandering waters of the Jordan that John immersed the head of Jesus.

Last year on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I got to celebrate the Eucharist on a dock that extends out over the shallow waters of the Jordan.  While our small congregation sat on bleachers on dry land, I had to stick close to the altar, lest a misstep plunge me into the Jordan.  I’d already been baptized, so there was no need for another.  But praying out on that dock impressed on me the importance of that place for Jesus.  It was there that he began his public ministry.

C3758ED1-E5AD-4A52-AC17-15FD184DC811The feast of the Baptism of Jesus marks the end of the Christmas season, and in churches of the Latin tradition the decorations come down.  All the same, this action marks a new beginning.  It’s time to get on with the business of ordinary life.  But we do so with a twist.

If the baptism of Jesus inaugurated his public ministry, does our own baptism not do the same for us?  And if it does, what might be the nature of our ministry?  To what kind of life does Jesus call us?

For those who think that public ministry is reserved to the ordained, it’s time to think again.  The witness to Jesus is actually the vocation of the baptized.  To that creative witness Jesus invites us all.

In western culture today the practice of religious faith has become such a private exercise that sometimes one scarcely knows whether or not we’re Christian.  In fairness, part of this is due to our neighbors who share our values if not our baptism.  But all the same, if the nature of our lives remains a cypher or a mystery to our neighbors, then it may be time to evaluate how we are coming across.

Jesus does not ask us to wear our religious conviction on our sleeves.  Nor does he invite us to be Pharisees and dedicate our lives to pointing out the sins of our neighbors. Unfortunately, too many have already signed up for that work, and there’s no need for further volunteers.

Rather, Jesus asks that we rise from the baptismal waters and live with integrity and love.  And he asks us to invite others to share in the new life that he offers.  Our very way of life then should inspire curiosity in our neighbors, and therein begins our public ministry.

A4E68E6C-C251-4B16-9A96-EB87DAB94243To be blunt, in baptism Jesus does not propose that we follow the course of the Jordan as it lazily empties into the Dead Sea.  Rather, like him we need to rise from the waters, step ashore, and as consecrated people begin our public ministry.

NOTES

+On January 6th and 7th I attended a meeting in Cincinnati to discuss the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+On January 12th we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and that evening the monks living on my floor in the monastery gathered to take down our Christmas tree and other decorations.  By nightfall all traces of Christmas had vanished from the monastery.

+On January 13th the new semester for Saint John’s University began, and with it life as we know it returned to normal.

+The photo at top is a wood carving of the Baptism of Christ, ca. 1480, made in Nuremberg, Germany, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Below that is a piece of stained glass made in 1520 for the Cistercian Abbey of Mariawald, located near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the V & A Museum in London.  Below that is an ivory panel carved in the 500s, in either Syria or Egypt, and now in the British Museum.  At bottom is a terracotta by Andrea Della Robbia, ca. 1500, now in the V & A in London.

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Vocation:  A Personal Transformation

In his book The Second Mountain David Brooks offers a helpful distinction between a career and a vocation.  They’re very different, he writes, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that each requires a very different kind of preparation.

When we’re searching for a career, he suggests, we draw up an inventory of our talents.  As best we can we identify those things that we’re good at.  Then we weigh those talents and decide which are likely to get us a decent-paying or satisfying job.  Once we’ve done all that, we dedicate a chunk of time and energy that will prepare us for that career.

A vocation is something entirely different.  It’s not something that we can prepare or study for, and in fact it can seem almost unplanned.  And it can be something as simple as this:  some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of our nature and demanded an active response.

D428367B-BFCB-4184-AB38-459D92FE9568When Brooks muses about vocation, one caveat matters.  Vocation is not confined to a monastic or religious vocation, as we reflexively might think in the Catholic tradition.  Brooks is Jewish, and he thinks of vocation in almost existential terms.  Common to all who search for their vocations is a fundamental set of questions.  What do we want to do with our lives?  To what will we dedicate our lives?  Will we be content to compile what is essentially a résumé of activities — a curriculum vitae?  Or do we want to create a legacy — a legacy of service and love that makes some small difference in the lives of others?

How we come upon a vocation is unique to each of us, and if we’ve been blessed with the discovery of a vocation we know it.  Brooks suggests that it’s the response to some person or event or ideal that has touched us and changed our lives completely.  After that experience we can never be the same because some sort of epiphany has altered the fabric of our being.

Brooks doesn’t use the word “epiphany,” but it’s a useful term, particularly on the day when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany to me suggests a second stage of Christmas.  If the Nativity proclaims Emanuel — God with Us, then Epiphany asks what difference this is going to make in our lives.  If we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, then what if anything do we intend to do about it?  Will the Nativity be the equivalent of a television show which we passively watch and then turn off?  Or will it reach to the core of our being?  That there is a choice to be made is obvious but also uncomfortable — both for Christians in general and even for monks.  At Epiphany the birth of the Lord cries for some visceral response from us.

It’s interesting to see how the characters in the Epiphany story responded to the birth of Jesus.  Forever after Mary pondered all these things in her heart.  She was never the same again.  As for Joseph, the events were equally jolting.  I’ve always believed that all Joseph really wanted was to get married, have some children and grandchildren, and live quietly under the radar.  That’s not what happened.  He went on to play a decisive role, and if at first an angel gave him all sorts of advice, Joseph eventually was on his own.  After all, the decision to settle into safety and security in Nazareth was his decision and his alone.

B6906C70-C563-4964-B6B4-9E6EC72864E2That was their Epiphany, and so today we ask what will be ours.  What is it that might change the course of our lives?  What is that unique experience or who is the person or what is the idea that will help us make sense of our lives?  Will we or can we be open to an epiphany?

Our moments of epiphany can be great or small, but they will certainly come if we keep our eyes and minds open.  As for me, a few days before Christmas I had just such an experience, for which I was totally unprepared.  I was at a gathering of friends of Saint John’s in Florida, and the host couple mentioned to me that the next day they’d be joining a group from Catholic Charities to deliver food baskets to migrant families.  I’d never done that before, and without thinking I invited myself to come along.

To say that the experience was an epiphany for me is an understatement.  That day I walked out of my comfort zone and discovered something profound.  First of all I had no idea that some people in America lived like that.  Whole families lived in two-and-a-half-room cottages.  Unrelated adults shared trailer homes that should have been recycled years ago.  That was the deeply disturbing part of this epiphany.  But there was something that was also puzzling.  Early on I met an elderly woman who was riding herd over seventeen kids.  The moms of these seventeen were at work in the fields, and the kids were running around like free range chickens.  What struck me was the sense of joy that pervaded the scene.  But it was a joy that seemed out of place.  After all, these people were desperately poor, and they should have been sad.  But they weren’t.  They celebrated the gift of life, and joy was etched into their faces.  And to me none of this quite computed.

639C1C6E-59D1-4DBC-B6EC-30202679A94EThere’s two things I took home with me that day.  First, that small epiphany reminded me that all people are the handiwork of God.  Be they poor or rich, migrants or exiles or homeless or comfortable homeowners — all are made in the image of God.  As such each needs to be loved and each deserves reverence and respect.  And this is the commitment that I make as a baptized follower of Jesus Christ.

The second item has to do with my own vocation.  There are days when my life as a monk seems like a job and a career choice that was right for me.  Then there are the days when it seems like a vocation, and those are the days with touches and even streaks of joy.  I and my confreres know the difference, and we know that the vocation days are far more exhilarating.  Those are the days when we feel the hand of God tugging at our sleeves.  Believe me, those are the better days by far.

On the feast of the Epiphany we make an act of faith.  We affirm that God loved the world and sent the incarnate son to be with us.  That son Jesus walks with us every day.  But Epiphany presents us with a challenge.  Will that pilgrimage with the Lord be a job or a good career choice?  Or will it be a pilgrimage that transforms us completely?  If it’s the latter, then our lives will never be the same again.

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NOTES

+New Year’s Eve was the highlight of the social scene in the monastery this past week.  We gathered in one of the recreation rooms in the monastery and played cards and board games, visited, and shared home-made pizza made by several of the monks.

+On Sunday January 5th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered that day.  As noted in the text, I have been deeply indebted to David Brooks for ideas he has shared with his readers through the years.  Through those years I’ve become one of his most enthusiastic fans.

+It seems a little odd to use the Roman numerals MMXX for the new year.  But there you have it.  Happy new year to all my readers, and thanks for the many helpful comments I received during MMXIX.

+The wood-carving in today’s post was made by Master Arnt of Kalkar and Zwolle, in the Lower Rhine, c. 1480.  Today it is housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The photo at bottom shows a clock attached to the wall of a modern municipal building in Worms, Germany.

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Saint Joseph Revisited

There it was — tucked into the middle of the Gospel of Matthew chapter 2.  I had read or heard read that verse hundreds of times, but somehow I had missed it every time.  How could that be?  Like the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the desert, it had been calling out to me.  But I guess I was not ready to hear it until last week.

The passage in question dealt with the Holy Family’s exile into Egypt.  Joseph, Mary and Jesus were returning to Judaea, but along the way Joseph had a change of plan.  “…When he heard that Archelaus was ruling in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there.”  So Joseph adjusted the route and took his family to Galilee, where they settled in a town called Nazareth.

In the Christian tradition Joseph comes off as a supporting actor in a cast of strong-willed or charismatic people.  It’s why artists have consistently portrayed him as an elderly man who quietly devoted his final years in service to Jesus and Mary.  But this verse suggests a determination in Joseph that I’d not considered before.  Joseph thought for himself, and he was was capable of decisive action.  And in this particular case he didn’t need an angel to tell him what to do.  In short order I had to junk my life-long impression of Joseph as the passive actor who stood quietly in the shadows.

E66009F8-F09D-458D-82F3-7FFA51AAD48ESo what have I learned from this?  First, I appreciate the fact that Joseph was an astute man capable of independent thought and decisive action.  He reminds me that God gave us brains and God meant us to use them.  And to those who think that being Christian requires checking an open mind at the door of the Church, Joseph offers a stern rebuke.  God gave us intellect and imagination, as well as the energy to put them into the service of the Lord.

The second lesson has to do with the value of revisiting the sacred texts day after day, week after week, and year after year.  As monks we read the same 150 psalms over and over and over again.  While some might see that as a pointless waste of time, in fact those same 150 psalms have a capacity to nourish that is astounding.

If that’s true for the Psalms, it’s also true for the Scriptures as a whole.  Medieval monks and nuns read big chunks of the Bible year after year, and they read those passages aloud.  In that exercise the text leaps from the page to the eyes, courses through the brain, and as it passes through the lips the ears hear the words as well.  In their experience the reader and the text became one, and it was a total sensory experience.  That said, the ancients would have been the first to admit that it could become familiar food.  But every now and again there was a morsel to savor in a new way.

That experience is not the exclusive preserve of monks and nuns — be they medieval or modern.  Those morsels are available to any who would take and read — or merely listen.  Perhaps the next time we take and eat the food that nourishes our body we should give a thought to the food that nourishes our spirit.  After all, it’s right there for the taking.  Better still, it’s free for the taking.

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NOTES

+On Christmas Eve we prayed vespers in the Great Hall, which is the space where the monks of Saint John’s Abbey prayed for eighty years before moving to the new abbey church in 1960.  The acoustics in that Romanesque space are perfect for our voices, and being there makes the beginning of Christmas a moving experience.

+Christmas Eve Mass at the abbey began with a concert of sacred music, presented by the abbey schola and The Saint John’s Boys Choir.  Mass followed at 10:00 pm, and over eight hundred guests joined us for that service.  As usual, the music was superb and Abbot John’s homily well-crafted and delivered.

+The illustrations in today’s post show a 13th-century altar frontal that originally was in the church of Santa María de Cardet in Cataluña.  Today it is housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.

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Christmas:  A Leap into the Unknown

It’s easy to get carried away with the Christmas spirit.  With an abundance of lights, carols, tinsel and decorated trees, what’s not to like?  All the same, it’s not all that hard to gloss over one key element to which the gospels allude.  We may celebrate Christmas joyously, spurred on by hundreds of years of tradition.  Mary and Joseph saw the birth of their son quite differently, however, and not just because there were no decorations to greet them on their arrival in Bethlehem.

In today’s post I’ve included a late 15th-century painting by an unknown artist from the Netherlands.  It’s entitled The Marriage of the Virgin, and it first caught my eye because it depicts no wedding I’ve ever attended.  Not only do Mary and Joseph look unhappy, they seem almost terrified.  None of this was what they had planned.  In fact, they were only there because divine messengers had told each of them not to fear.  It would all work out, somehow, eventually.

C0598529-DDA5-4260-9320-1B56ED29D8FAFrom our vantage the birth of Jesus comes with a heavy dose of sweetness and light, shaped by commercial interests.  For Joseph and Mary it meant a leap into the unknown. Soon enough they would be exiles in Egypt.  Later still Mary would stand by her crucified son.  While other new parents might nurture high hopes for their newborns, Mary and Joseph hadn’t the slightest idea how this might end.

Christmas is serious business for believers.  It’s more than the accumulated memories of wonderful family traditions.  The birth of Jesus puts in place the cornerstone of our existence.  His presence among us is our North Star and the point of reference for all the major decisions of our lives.

In short, Christmas is for us what it was for Mary and Joseph.  It is our leap into the unknown — our act of faith.  It is our conviction that Jesus really is Emmanuel — God with us.

CD1E5DB1-93A5-464F-8540-CB11016BB609NOTES

+This week I spent several days in Florida, visiting with several supporters of our Immokalee Scholarship program.  On December 17th my friend John and I had lunch with eight of our eleven Immokalee Students from Saint John’s, who were home for their Christmas break.  The photo below shows them gathered for that festive occasion.

+On December 17th the faculty and staff of Saint John’s joined with the monks for our annual Christmas celebration and dinner.  Unfortunately I was unable to attend, but a good time was had by all.

+On December 21st we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere Fr. Chrysostom Kim, who died earlier in the week.  Born in Korea, Fr. Chysostom entered the novitiate at Saint John’s after attending college at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul.  Later he earned a PhD at the University of Chicago and headed the honors program at Saint John’s University through much of his career as a teacher.

+On December 21st I joined my friends Tom and Mary Ann, as we assisted a team from Catholic Charities in the delivery of Christmas food packages and presents for children in a neighborhood housing farm-workers in Immokalee, FL.  The joy on the faces of the residents belied the poor living conditions, and I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.  It was a touching experience, and I count myself lucky to have seen the face of Christ in these people.

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