Posts Tagged ‘A Prairie Home Companion’


Lourdes Revisited

In my last post I wrote about Lourdes and commented that it tends to put front and center the fundamental issues of our lives.  In part, I think, the place reminds us of our mortality.  Just as the ashes of Ash Wednesday vividly point out our earthly destiny, so does Lourdes with its focus on the ill and the suffering.  Sooner or later we will all be in that boat.

Given that, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Lourdes as an exercise in religious escapism, divorced from the realities of daily experience.  Two incidents from this last pilgrimage made that abundantly clear, at least to me.  Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I flew into Paris and then took the six-hour train trip south to Lourdes.  Generally it’s a pleasant enough journey, with some interesting though not spectacular scenery until just before arrival in Lourdes.  Four hours into this trip, however, there was an incident.  It began with a sharp application of the brakes, followed by a slight jolt that most of us felt.  Then the train ground to a halt.  Some poor soul had hurled himself in front of the train, and for nearly three hours we sat on an isolated stretch of track while the police sorted things out.  None of us actually saw the damage, but we did see the van that carried the body away.

IMG_6099It was sobering, and I naturally wondered why someone would be so desperate that he would give up on life entirely.  Did the man leave behind friends and family?  How might they respond?  I could only speculate, but I also realized that one lonely man had given us a dose of reality therapy.  Already this was no ho-hum pilgrimage.

It was something else entirely that impacted most everyone in Lourdes, even if many were blissfully unaware.  Lourdes is a high-profile place, since it is one of the most visited spots in France and it is a religious shrine that attracts considerable attention.  Not surprisingly, there are always security issues, which the French handle discreetly and adroitly.  Still, when you add to the mix four or five thousand members and volunteers with the Order of Malta, the stakes are a bit higher.

There were special concerns for our safety this time around, as was evidenced by the presence of a few plain-clothes security people who shadowed us.  God bless their souls, but their efforts to blend in just didn’t work.  Not a few in our group noticed the strapping men who seemed to follow us wherever we went.  These guys must spend half their waking hours in the gym, and physically they looked like the last people on earth who needed the healing springs of Lourdes.  Still, we were happy to have them with us, even if they made all the rest of us look like wimps.

IMG_6138No one seemed to be particularly alarmed, but the situation did raise one point for reflection.  Why would anyone want to harm us?  There wasn’t a single person in our group who had international stature, and yet there were those who wished us ill.  That’s a difficult pill for anyone to swallow.

These kinds of events inevitably raise for discussion the problem of evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do a few people despair enough to give up on life?  Why do some think that they do deeds of valor when they do harm to others?  Why do the innocent have to suffer?  To these questions there are no tidy answers.  Even the questions are a problem, because they fall outside the pale of science and are a conundrum for philosophy and theology.  Yet, ironically, they are at the heart of the human experience.

Lourdes offers its own take on these issues.  It may not  have the definitive answer to the question of why evil exists, but it does show that love is the proven antidote to evil.  The love of God, the love of neighbor and the support we offer to one another all counteract evil, and they extend hope to someone whose life seems devoid of meaning.  They offer hope to the hopeless.

IMG_6131This explains why someone might go on pilgrimage to a place like Lourdes.  It also explains why we might want to join with neighbors to approach the altar of the Lord to be renewed by God’s Word and sacrament.  Such fellowship asserts that we are not lone travelers, adrift in the world.  Rather, we are part of the community of the Lord.

We act on these spiritual impulses because of one primal urge, which Saint Augustine once described.  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  That helps to explain why we, imperfect though we may be, still try to do our best.  And we do our best both for God and for one another.  Coincidently, all this helps to make some sense of the world.  Having embraced the Lord in faith, in love we joyfully embrace the world which God has created.


+On Saturdays we celebrate the Eucharist in the monastery at 11:30 am.  That’s a useful point to note as I confess that on this last Saturday I was standing at the community bulletin board at 11:27, when someone paused to remind me that I was the celebrant for the Mass.  In panic I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there my name was down for Mass, in three minutes.

IMG_6092+On Sunday May 14th we celebrated the graduation Mass for the seniors of Saint John’s University and their families, with Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud as celebrant and homilist.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of the college as well as of the School of Theology and Seminary at Saint John’s, and he welcomed everyone with these words:  “On this day in 1966 I was sitting exactly where you are sitting today.  Things happen,” he deadpanned.  All appreciated his dry humor.

+My reading companion on the trip to and from Lourdes was a book entitled How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland.  It is a fascinating and entertaining book, which analyzes the development of English-speaking in the Middle West.  Scattered through it are allusions to the kind of humor that has emerged from the region, including one item he heard years ago on A Prairie Home Companion.  It seems that a Minnesotan married a Palestinian, and to take note of their respective nationalities they named their first-born son Yassir Yewbetcha.  My laugh-out-loud response drew polite stares on the train to Lourdes.

+Near the end of our pilgrimage to Lourdes it has been the custom for our members from the Western Association of the Order of Malta to make a visit to the village of Saint Savin.  The abbey there dates to 945, and the scenery is just gorgeous.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the visual delights that await travelers.


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The Lake Wobegon Trail: Highway to Excellence?

The Quest for the Ordinary

It has been many years since Garrison Keillor trekked to the studios of Minnesota Public Radio at Saint John’s.  In my first years in the monastery, Keillor was a familiar figure on our campus, and a Prairie Home Companion was a daily event.  Back then the sponsors were a bit more eccentric, but consistent through the years has been the character of Lake Wobegon, the mythic town which neighbors Saint John’s.  Then, as now, all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average.

I used to think that this must be an exceptional place, until I recently recalled its sister-city in New England, Stepford.  In Stepford all the women are lovely, all the children are obedient, and all the men are heavily bruised from pinching themselves all day.  Then the light bulb came on, and I began to wonder if average people are an endangered species in America.  If they aren’t yet, they will be soon.  The overabundance of superlative grandchildren argues that in our lifetime the average kid will go the way of the polar bear.

No business, no institution and no person wants to be thought of as merely average any more.  You need only look at the ubiquitous persuit of excellence to realize where we are headed.  Universities have Centers for Excellence in Everything, and companies have eighteen-point plans to achieve excellence in the mail room.  Excellence is the buzz-word which drives us all,  and it will continue to do so until someone points out that excellence has become the new Gentleman’s C.  Then we will all stampede in pursuit of some new fantasy of self-delusion.

The fact of the matter is, we are a people obsessed with image, and in the pursuit of persona we are subject to the same inflationary spiral that sometimes bedevils the economy.  To cite but one example, there was  a time when a young actress aspired to be a starlet.  Then “star” became de rigueur.  But one glance at the award shows reveals that it is the superstars that radiate above the galaxies of stars.  What’s next?  So far only Dame Edna has staked a claim to Megastar, but you see where this is headed.

Given all this hoopla over excellence, has the Church made a terrible mistake when it begins Ordinary Time on January 10th?  Is it not demeaning to invite an entire population of overachievers to live in ordinary time?  Just hours after Saint Valentine has banished Saint Nicholas from the stores, and when the Easter Bunny is only days away from hopping down the bunny trail, has Christianity once again failed to stir the imagination?

In his Rule for Monasteries, and in his biography by Gregory the Great, it is the ordinary which seems to grab Saint Benedict’s attention.  He doesn’t schedule any big Christmas bashes; and as for Lent, he writes that our entire lives should be a Lenten obsevance.  While he certainly is aware of the cycle of seasons and the liturgical year, it’s the daily grind that transforms us.  It’s the task of seeing Christ in one another, on the weekdays, that is life’s biggest challenge.  It is the monotony of showing up for prayer and work, day in and day out, that is far more taxing.  That’s what really tests the metal of the monk.  It’s on those days when we see any real progress in the spiritual life; while the feasts are merely the bookends in life.

So what should be our resolution for Ordinary Time?  I would contend that it is the ordinary which is most important.  It is in the ordinary that we see the hand of God stirring the pot, whether it be in our neighbor or in the routine of our lives.  To discount these moments in favor of the few super-blowout-days in the year is to miss the greatest gifts God has in store for us.

But what about the pursuit of excellence?  Well, I for one have chosen to exit from the overcrowded highway to excellence.  In 2012 I’ve set my sights on nothing short of eminence.

The Nativity, icon by Aidan Hart, Abbey church

Monastery notes

Today, January 9th, marks the last day of the Christmas season, no matter what the malls may have said last week.  By sunset the trees in the monastery will be down, and the decorations will once again be in storage.  The three magi will have made their visit to the new-born savior, and many of us will begin our atonement for the cakes and candies that modern magi have brought.

On January 2nd, the feast of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazienzen, I celebrated the Abbey Mass.  While Basil in particular was an important influence on Saint Benedict, I opted to preach on the gospel of the day from John 1: 19-28.  You may read that sermon, Who are you? John the Baptist’s Response, in Presentations.

The Epiphany, Abbey church

During the Christmas holidays we began a new book in the Abbey refectory: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  For those  unfamiliar with Bryson’s work, I’m happy to say that you have some wonderful reading ahead of  you.  I had already read this book, and before that I had gone through two others by Bryson:  The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away.  From my perspective his dry wit and spare writing style are nothing short of hilarious at times.  While Saint Benedict discourages laughter in the monastery, one evening the reader choked on his own laughter, and soon most of us yielded to uncontrolled laughter.  At that point the abbot rang the bell, and that was the end of table reading for that evening.  I recommend Bill Bryson highly, but merely for your reading pleasure and not for your spiritual edification.

Years ago someone ruined my Christmas holiday by giving me Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  I spent all of my free-time reading it, only to emerge bleary-eyed for church and for meals.  I spent this Christmas in 18th-century Russia, reading Robert Massie’s new book, Catherine the Great.  I had enjoyed two of his previous books: Peter the Great, and Nicholas & Alexandra, and this book is equally fascinating.  When a German-born empress (Elizabeth) names her German-born nephew (Peter) her heir, and then marries him to a German-born wife (Catherine), you logically assume that you would not be in Russia.  Wrong.  Though Catherine did close several hundred monasteries, that’s as close as this book comes to the topic of monastic spirituality.  But if  you want to be glad you’re alive today, read this terrific book.

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