Posts Tagged ‘Abbey of Montserrat’


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.


+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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IMG_0006_2Advice from Ruth

I seldom get an invitation to preside at a wedding, and so I was particularly glad to have that opportunity this last Saturday.  It was a wonderful occasion to be part of this moment in the lives of two lovely young people, and I wish them well as they go forward in their pilgrimage of life.

That said, I was a little taken aback at their choice of a reading from the book of Ruth, chapter 1.  For those not familiar with that text, the essentials of the story are simple.  Naomi, with her husband and two sons, had moved to Moab, east of the Dead Sea.  Her two sons married local (i.e.: non-Jewish) women, and all seemed to be going just fine.  Then Naomi’s husband died, unexpectedly.  Then her two sons also died.  Then one daughter-in-law took off.  That left Naomi and Ruth, her other daughter-in-law, and between them they confronted almost hopeless prospects.

What an inspiring story to tell at a wedding!  And more to the point, it’s a sobering tale for a prospective mother-in-law and bride to chew on.  So what’s a homilist to do with something like that?  Where’s the consolation, and where’s the optimistic message people expect to hear at weddings?

IMG_0019_2Thankfully, there’s a lot more to the story than that, and the bride and groom had chosen this unconventional reading precisely because of one gorgeous nugget nested square in the middle of chapter 1.  Just when Naomi seems bereft of any sort of future, Ruth turns to her to promise her loyalty.  Who knows if she was recalling the good times that they had all enjoyed before this disastrous turn of events; but she still has hope for the future.  “Entreat me not to leave you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge;  your people shall be my people, and your God my God….”

Have there ever been words more beautiful or better-suited to a wedding?  For that matter, what better commitment can one friend make to another, or a monk to a community?  Such words define a pledge to live a noble life, one in which love and commitment transcend any and every challenge that may come along.

Since the bride and groom had chosen this passage for their very special day, I decided to run with it, largely because there was lots to consider.  And there’s food enough for a lifetime of meditation.

IMG_0024_2For starters, Ruth pledges that where Naomi goes, she will go.  This is a reminder to all of us that life is a pilgrimage, not just in terms of geography but in terms of experience as well.  In marriage people pledge to make their pilgrimage together.  One promises not to leave the other behind — in every sense of the phrase.  In sickness and in health, in joy and sorrow, they will walk together through life.  They will travel in the hope that their life together will be far richer than had they taken separate paths.

Then Ruth promises that Naomi’s people will be her people. That is a pointed reminder that married people live in a community of family and friends.  All their family and friends are part of the marriage, because the two of them bring to each other what family and friends have invested in them over the years.  In marriage they do not shut people out of their lives.  Rather, they embrace all of their family and friends and bring them with them into this new relationship.  That’s why everybody was invited to the wedding in the first place.  It wasn’t because of the gifts, after all.

IMG_0275_2Finally, Ruth pledges that Naomi’s God will be her God.  That defines this relationship in terms of a consecration in the Lord.  The faith that has brought them to this point was not self-derived.  The seeds of faith were first planted by parents, and then watered and nourished by friends.  That’s what has shaped them as people who now give themselves, one to the other.

Anyway, that’s what I drew from this passage from the Book of Ruth, and that’s the message I tried to preach at this wedding.  Ironically, Ruth’s words were never meant to be used at a wedding, but they are as perfect as anything could be as a guide for two young people as they walk through life, together.  Even better, these words are a good foundation for friendship and life in community.  After all, that’s what Ruth meant them to be.

For those who’ve not read the book of Ruth, the story turns out pretty nicely, because Ruth followed through on all her promises.  And Ruth would encourage us to do likewise.  She would encourage us to be true to one another, in sickness and health, and in joy or sorrow.  She’d be the first to say that if we walk together in the ways of the Lord, our lives will be far richer than if we take separate paths.


+This was a great week for me, and I managed to stay away from the airport for the second week in a row.

+On August 12th I said Mass and gave a talk to the members of the Serra Club of Minneapolis, gathered at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, MN.

+On August 13th I presided at the marriage of Carl and Lezlie, held at the chapel  of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the campus of the University of Saint Thomas, in St. Paul.  My connection to the couple came through Carl’s side of the family.  I had met his parents many years ago when I gave a talk at the University of Minnesota.  After that we became good friends.  I connected with Carl via another route, after he had spent a year of service at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where we’ve sent Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s for the last twelve years.  By contrast, Lezlie and her family attended Holy Name Church in Edina, MN.  Our monks served that parish for over a hundred years, and the family fondly recalls our confrere, Fr. Arnold Weber, who was pastor for many years.

IMG_0175_2+On August 14th I joined our monks in the chapter house as we listened to a presentation by Francesc Gomis Domenech, who has been a Benedictine Volunteer at Saint John’s for the last few months.  Francesc attended The Escalonica Montserrat, the choir school at the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, outside of Barcelona.  Saint John’s has had a long relationship with Montserrat, that stretches back to the days when our community came to the abbey’s assistance at the end of the Spanish Civil War.  Years later the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University microfilmed the medieval manuscripts in the abbey library.  For the last few years members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps have served at Montserrat.  It was wonderful to have a volunteer from Montserrat with us these past few months.

+Since today is the feast of the Assumption of Mary, I have included depictions of Mary’s life.  All are housed at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

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photoThe Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The image of police in full riot gear had blazed across television screens all day, on all of the news channels.  The Spanish, stressed by the economic crisis, had finally taken to the streets and were protesting in front of the Cortes, the parliament building in Madrid.  It was a moment of high drama, and this one video seemed to prove it.  But one element was missing.  There were no shots of an angry crowd.

Every now and again a news source will run a video clip without commentary, on the theory that at least a few viewers might understand what was happening without benefit of talking heads.  Happily, the opening frames of this video seemed to bolster the prevailing story line:  all was not well in Spain.

The tension in the scene was palpable.  Lined up shoulder to shoulder were the police.  Looking every bit like clones of Darth Vader, with shields to match, they stood in a solid phalanx, ready to crush anyone who would dare approach.  They were the symbol of an uncaring and oppressive government.

photoBut this photographer was of  a rare breed.  Perched atop a building with a commanding view of the square, the camera slowly pulled back from the close-up that had made the police look so menacing.  And as the lens widened to take it all in, the full scope of the stand-off unfolded.  In a large semi-circle, facing the police, was an army of photographers and interviewers, each jostling for the best angle.  But despite the crush, they were careful not to encircle the police.  Why?  It was simple.  If even one photographer stood behind the police, it would spoil every one else’s shot.  This was a team of competitors, working together, to make the most of an army that was all dressed for battle but had no one to fight.

Almost as an afterthought, this one camera panned the streets leading out of the square.  Without words it asked: “Hey, where’d everybody go?”  And there they were, strolling off in the distance, a couple of blocks away.  It seemed as if the “mob” had to catch a train or go to lunch.  Whatever the case, it was break-time, and they were out of there.

photoAll protestations to the contrary, most news programs these days are designed to be entertainment, which in turn drives ratings and advertising revenue.  As often as not the viewers are clue-less as to the meaning of what they see, and networks are only too happy to supply inane commentary.  The result?  Despite massive amounts of data at our disposal, we’ve become a very ill-informed people.  If we see it on the internet or television, or in a newspaper headline, we’ll believe it.  We sit before the media passively, with the same “willing suspension  of disbelief” that we once applied to reading fiction.

photoThis near-universal credulity is nothing new, but it can be very unhealthy.  John Allen, the noted Vatican analyst, pointed this out in a recent article on concerts that Popes Benedict and Francis had each missed.  A few writers had branded Benedict’s absence from a concert as a deliberate snub of the performers.  More recently, Francis’ absence from a concert got a very different interpretation.  Prevailing wisdom contended it showed his unwillingness to sit in a big baroque chair, like some prince.  In fact, Allen pointed out, Benedict often could not get a break from his critics, while Francis gets credit where credit is not due.  In this instance Francis’ absence had nothing to do with his taste in furniture and more to do with his work ethic.  The papal nuncios were in Rome for a once-a-year meeting, and Francis decided that a work-session with his representatives was more important than recreation.

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict is no believer in taking things at face value.  If looks can deceive, words can as well.  So, for instance, when guests come to the monastery, the abbot should greet them and then pray with them — to see if they come from God.  In receiving new brothers the abbot likewise must “test the spirit,” to see if they come from God.  Elsewhere he advises the abbot to seek counsel from a wide range of sources, just to make sure he’s included every possible slant.  But then the abbot has the responsibility to make an informed decision.

photoIt’s important to recognize Benedict’s emphasis on curiosity and truth-seeking.  He’s not paranoid, and he harbors neither suspicion nor fear of guests.  Nor does he have any ill will toward new monks until they prove themselves deserving of his trust.  No, the abbot has little to fear except his own ignorance and ill-considered judgements.  If he is truly wise, he will use every opportunity to seek God and the truth, and separate fact from fiction.

As for us, that’s not such bad advice.  All too often we rush right in and believe every headline and every news alert, as if they came straight from God.  We likewise tend to believe every scrap of gossip; and with well-entrenched opinion we pre-judge others without giving them a chance.  In short, we let ourselves be manipulated, both by peer pressure and our own stubborn ignorance.  And when we do so, we are no gift to the human community.

photoWhen Jesus tells his disciples to be sly as foxes he means them to be inquisitive, but not mean-spirited.  I’ve always seen in this an encouragement to think for ourselves.  God gave us brains to use, and we should use them wisely — and often.  We disappoint the Lord God Almighty when we check our brains at the door of the church, or when we worship at the computer or television.

If God is the good, the true and the beautiful, as Saint Thomas Aquinas suggested, then we can never be passive in our search for God who is the truth.  At the very least it means that we should listen to gossip and slander cautiously.  We should read critically.  We should watch television news with a whole truckload of salt, and see it for what it is meant to be: entertainment.  And above all, we should be skeptical of what we read on the internet — except for my blog, of course.


+As I noted in last week’s post, on July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  At that liturgy Abbot John received the solemn vows of Brothers Nick, Michael-Leonard, and Lew.  They are pictured in this photo, standing at the gate to the abbot’s garden.

+On July 12th I presided at the abbey Mass, and you can access the text of the sermon, Jacob’s Journey, in the section marked Presentations.

+From July 12th-14th we hosted the annual retreat of the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey.  At Mass on Saturday some eighty oblates renewed their commitment to live in the Benedictine way of life.  At evening prayer Abbot John received the promises of ten new oblates.  I preached at the Mass on the 13th, and you can find the text of that sermon, All God’s Sparrows, in Presentations.

photo+On July 11th I published a reflection on the life and teaching of Saint Benedict, which appeared in the blog of Salt & Light Television in Toronto.  Visitors to the site can click here for the essay, entitled Saint Benedict: Seeker of God in the Ordinary Things.

+Our confrere Brother John Bede recently published a music-video of William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfgKrQYFYjU).  During his doctoral research in England Brother John Bede was part of a small choir that performed some of Byrd’s compositions at Ingatestone Hall in Essex, where Byrd composed some of his work.  In this musical clip, Brother John Bede appears with the choir, which includes Brother Sergi of the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat, located outside of Barcelona.  Happily, Brother Sergi recently spent several days with us, and he was here for the feast of Saint Benedict.

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Abbey of Montserrat

First and Last Impressions

You may have read the story of  the street musician who played in a D.C. Metro station in 2007.  To all appearances he was just another struggling artist, eeking out an existence on tips and an occasional word of encouragement.  That day he played six Bach pieces, as 2,000 people hurried by.  No adults paused to listen, and several children who tried to stop were dragged off unceremoniously by their parents.  At the end of an hour, he packed up his violin, pocketed $32 in tips, and walked off without a hint of applause.

Years ago, when I had the privilege of hearing Joshua Bell play with the Minnesota Orchestra, he got a standing ovation, and not just because Minnesotans are nice, and not just because he was dressed to the nines.  No doubt Bell had gotten the same response in Boston, where he had performed just days before his D.C. Metro concert.  And no doubt he played just as well in Washington.  But no one would pay $100 to hear a guy in a baseball cap and flannel shirt play Bach in a crowded Metro station.  It just wasn’t what you would expect.  No wonder the adults walked on by.

That experiment in Washington points up the conditioning that we all experience as we grow up.  In this instance it was the children who ignored the clothing and the setting, and they realized instinctively that they were hearing something extraordinary.  The adults, by contrast, were swayed by the packaging.  A life-time of advertising and peer pressure had prepared them for this moment.  Like most of us, they looked at the veneer and judged by appearances; and that day Joshua Bell looked every bit the down-on-his-luck street musician.

Obvious issues arise from this experiment, and not least among them is prejudice toward people we scarcely know.  How often do we close ourselves to others, to our own detriment?  How often do we let appearances dictate to us, rather than rely on our personal experience of someone?

Our Lady of Montserrat, in the cloister at Saint John’s Abbey

“First impressions” are yet one more angle to consider.  In the monastery, as in life, we tend to pigeonhole people.  On the basis of one single encounter we consign people to a predetermined future.  “This person will be great,” and “that person will never amount to anything.”  “This woman can do no wrong,” while “that guy is doomed to be an inept failure.”  When we do this to each other, neither person grows.  When communities do this, the negative predictions are often self-fulfilling

One of my favorite parables involves the householder who goes to the storage room and brings forth old things and new.  I’ve always thought that those old and new things are often one and the same.  How surprising it always is when someone whom we thought to be a “no-talent” shines in a new situation.  What a shock it is when a good idea comes from someone we always considered dumber than dirt.  It’s only then when we realize how we constrain one another with straightjackets, and we make people wear them for a lifetime.  And sometimes we even put them on ourselves, and wear them proudly.

Saint Benedict encourages the abbot to seek counsel from everyone, and even from those deemed least wise (i.e.: the young.)  He never wanted any brother to be type-cast for a lifetime, because each brother has a stash of talents that someday might come in handy.

And that’s an encouraging note for us all to consider.  For those who think they can only do one thing in life, they probably need to go back to the storage locker and find out what other talents they have hidden in there.  For those who think they peaked too soon (at thirty?), they should wonder why God gave them all those extra years.  The answer is that God gives us those years to continue our voyage of discovery.  And when we find ourselves passing a world-class musician and fail to stop, then our time for growth may be up.  But then again, if we can become like little children, filled with wonder and curiosity and openness, we might just prepare ourselves to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The choir in the Parliament of Catalonia

Personal Notes

On January 20th I spoke as part of a program at the Hatcher Graduate Library of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.  That evening a long-time friend of the University of Michigan presented a Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library.  Coincidentally, members of the donor’s family had attended the monastery school of Tepeyec, the Abbey in Mexico City founded by monks from Saint John’s.

On January 22nd I celebrated Mass and preached at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, CA.  The following evening I spoke at a service in the Cathedral, marking a week of activities to promote Christian unity.

The Benedictine Volunteer Corps: The Abbey of Montserrat

The Benedictine Volunteer Corps was established several years ago to give recent alumni of Saint John’s University an opportunity to live and work in a Benedictine community somewhere in the world.  The volunteers assist in the work of those monasteries, and today the program supports volunteers in North and South America, Africa and Europe.  All complete the program with a cultural enrichment they never anticipated, and I am happy to say that four of our monks in formation are graduates of this program.

The pictures in this posting all relate to the Abbey of Montserrat, located just a few miles outside of the city of Barcelona.  This year alumnus Andrew Stevens teaches English to the students of the Abbey boyschoir, which is among the most venerable in Europe.

Montserrat was founded around 1025, and over time it developed as the spiritual center of the region of Catalonia.  It has been famous as a pilgrimage destination for centuries, and even today visitors flock to venerate the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat.

Montserrat has a long and distinguished history, and among the highlights was Abbot Garcias de Cisneros (1455-1510), an advocate of the spiritual practice called the devotio moderna.  While Ignatius Loyola visited Montserrat, he read the abbot’s book entitled “Exercises on the Spiritual Life,” and it had a profound impact on the Jesuit founder.  (You didn’t really think that he came up with the title of his own book all by himself, did you?)

During the Spanish Civil War twenty-two monks from the community were executed, a few of them while waiting on a dock in the harbor of Barcelona.  Following the war the monks of Saint John’s gave material assistance to the monks of Montserrat, and today a replica of Our Lady of Montserrat sits in the cloister at Saint John’s — a gift from our confreres in Catalonia.  Even later, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library microfilmed the manuscript collections in the library at Montserrat.

Andrew reports that the view from his room is as breathtaking as these pictures would seem to indicate.  Also included is a picture of his students, on a visit to the chambers of the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona.

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