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Posts Tagged ‘Abbot John Klassen’

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Falling Down, and Getting Up

After evening prayer on Ash Wednesday we monks gathered in the chapter house to hear Abbot John deliver a conference to us.  Normally we meet there on Tuesdays, and in that room we discuss everything from the sublime to the ridiculously mundane.  But Ash Wednesday is different, both for the day and for the topic.

As near as I can recall, this was Abbot John’s 17th Ash Wednesday conference to us.  And for those who can’t quite imagine what a conference is, it’s pretty much like a sermon that’s gotten out of control.  There’s no seven-minute limit with conferences, and they usually run 20-25 minutes.

After sixteen earlier conferences on the subject of Lent, I wondered what in the world the abbot could possibly say that we’d not already heard.  And as much as the abbot might want to rely on our collective short-term memory and recycle some previous material, he dares not.  We can count on at least one or two of our confreres to remember, and they’ll remind us.  So the pressure is on to come up with something fresh and original, or he’ll hear about it afterward.

9CCAFA7E-0FD5-4E81-BF59-7A0C2938C2DBDespite our expectations, we still cut the abbot some slack.  He’d be negligent not to recall for us Saint Benedict’s description of the monastic life as a Lenten observance.  He’d be remiss not to cite Benedict’s encouragement to make do with less food and drink, to restrain ourselves from excessive speaking, and to compensate with extra prayer and meditation.  It just wouldn’t be a Lenten conference without these old saws, and on this occasion Abbot John once again delivered.

He also repeated Benedict’s caution that we not let our Lenten observance inflate us with pride.  I’m particularly susceptible to this, and not just during Lent, and for one big reason.  I long ago conceded that I’ll never be as good a monk as many of my confreres.  But I’ve also convinced myself that I’m at least better than the worst monk in our community.  My favorite prayer has long been one that the Pharisees would have said with gusto:  “There but for the grace of God — and my own initiative — go I.”  That’s not necessarily a bad prayer, except when it’s said with a dollop of pride.

With all those niceties out of the way, Abbot John got to the central focus of his conference:  baptism and the baptismal font at Easter.  For starters he cautioned that we should never think of our baptism as some sort of personal achievement.  Baptism is not a membership badge indicating that we have chosen Jesus, with the implication that Jesus ought to be grateful for what we’ve done.  On the contrary, in baptism Jesus has chosen us, and not the other way around.  The business of baptism is God reaching out to us, and we feebly responding.

0304DEB6-6461-4A7F-B31C-1EDCEF7C62EEAbbot John said a lot more in the course of 25 minutes, obviously, but for me the most vivid image was his reference to the Olympic skater Scott Hamilton.  Hamilton once estimated that he had fallen down 41,600 times in the course of  his career.  He also estimated that he got back up 41,600 times.  That’s astonishing, and it reminds me that I’ve done the same thing in my life — metaphorically, if not literally.

I’m guessing that the Scott Hamilton bit was likely the biggest take-away for many of the monks gathered in the chapter house on Ash Wednesday evening.  As for me, I was away from the Abbey, but I was fortunate to get a copy of the abbot’s address via email.  And I count myself fortunate because this is exactly the sort of stuff I need to mull over.

This is not my 17th Lent as a monk, but after seventeen Lents and more, I’m sorely tempted to join the chorus of people who say that Lent is boring.  Like them I sometimes wonder what more I could possibly learn from one more Lent.  The answer?  A lot.

The image of Scott Hamilton falling down and getting back up 41,600 times is powerful.  I can’t imagine that he ever came to enjoy it, nor did getting back up become any easier with experience.  But for him the struggle must have become a moral imperative.

So this Lent I’ve decided to meditate on the fact that I keep falling down, and I do it fairly often.  But all the same, I take comfort in the thought that the Lord never seems to tire of reaching out to help me get back up.  Praised be Jesus Christ, and thanks be to God!

AFAA9F5E-BCB1-4542-865C-2C5D50FB4D67NOTES

+On 13 February I flew to Miami, where I and a colleague met with several alumni of Saint John’s University.  Two days later we drove across Alligator Alley to Naples, where we had scheduled more visits and two events.  To my great disappointment, I did not see a single alligator along the way.

+On Ash Wednesday I and my colleague attended Mass at Saint William’s Church in Naples.  It was notable primarily because the power went off ten minutes before Mass.  We proceeded anyway, and candlelight and the strong voices of the readers managed to prevail in the packed church.   As for me, I was disappointed when the  power came back on.  But not everyone shared my sentiment.

+On February 15th I attended a reception that featured Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough, who served as chief of staff in the White House during President Obama’s second term.  The next day I attended the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast, where Denis again spoke.  Women now attend, but for some reason they still call it the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast.  It meets for twelve Fridays every winter, and always includes some distinguished speaker — many of whom are women.  This week some three hundred attended to hear Denis speak.

+The first three photos in today’s post show a panel now housed in the Wallraff Richards Museum in Cologne.  It’s by the Master of the Heisterbach Altar, made ca. 1450 in Cologne.  The bottom two photos show the chapter house at Saint John’s Abbey.  It adjoins the church, on the east side.

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Saint Alban's Abbey

Saint Alban’s Abbey

Wanted: Pope Who Does It All

I was a little startled to read Cardinal Dolan’s comment about the impending papal conclave.  He was celebrating the Eucharist at Saint Peter’s Basilica, and in the middle of a sermon he blurted it, out of the blue.  “We’ve got to keep in mind — even more important than the pope is what we’re doing right now. The life of the church goes on, and the life of the church centers around what we’re doing right now.”  What he was doing just then was celebrating the Eucharist, not electing a pope.

That kind of comment can hurt your chances to become pope, but it can also provide perspective for viewers of the current hoopla in Rome.  We are a celebrity-driven culture, and it’s very tempting to deal with the church in terms of celebrities rather than personal commitments of faith.  It’s so much simpler to argue about the qualities of the next pope than it is to live out the responsibilities of our faith.

Saint Alban's Abbey.12.ReredosIn the last few days people have asked me about what the next pope will be like, and my answer is short and succinct:  “you’re bound not to like him.”  Probably you’ll like him for a few minutes, but only before you know his name and where he’s from.  But once the hysteria has subsided, you’ll realize you’re stuck with a guy whose favorite color is not yours and who likes the wrong baseball team (or worse: he couldn’t care less about baseball.)  Quickly the luster of the new pontiff will fade, and the cameras will turn off, and our lives will be back to normal.

The fact of the matter is, writers and all of us have expanded the job description of the pope to include “savior.”  Today we expect so much of the pope that we’re virtually guaranteed to be disappointed.  For starters, he must be charismatic and able to inspire people around the world.  He must have exceptional leadership skills and know almost all languages.  He must be  an astute manager of people and resources, but he must spend all of his time preaching the gospel.  He must oversee each and every bishop, but he must leave them alone to do their jobs.  He must rein in the curia but let them do their work without a  lot of supervision.  And he must know all about banking and accounting, but have the material detachment of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Alban's Abbey.11.LanternBeyond that, he’ll need to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Though he won’t have time for leisure or sleep, he still should lead a balanced life, as an example to all.  Plus, he’ll have to change and modernize everything in the the church in order to make some people happy.  And he must affirm the unchanging reality of the church to make others happy.  Lastly, he should visit his flock throughout the world, but he should spend most of his time in Rome, tending to business.

Shrine of Saint Alban

Shrine of Saint Alban

Given everybody’s expectations for the pope, no wonder this is such a tough job.  Should anybody be surprised that Jesus gave all authority to Saint Peter and then got out of town? He’d been crucified once already, and now it was Peter’s turn.  And even if a few popes have failed miserably or exploited the papacy for their own benefit, most have tried to do a decent day’s work of it.  Most have tried to live out one of their most ancient job titles: Servant of the Servants of God.  In practice that meant that you were head of a church in which everyone had an opinion on how the pope should do his work.  As pope you may look and dress like the chief shepherd, but it’s the sheep who are really calling the shots.  And the sheep include cardinals and bishops and priests and lay people.  All of them have solid advice on how to run the church.  And all of them will listen carefully to the shepherd, and carry out exactly what they judge to be most important.  And all of them are infallible.

You can now see why I don’t aspire to be pope and have not turned in my application.  Nor should others who are in their right mind.  It’s a thankless job.  You’re overworked; and you live in a fish bowl.  People with thin skin should not throw their hat into the ring for this position.

Monks' Gallery

Monks’ Gallery

Three or four years ago Cardinal George of Chicago wrote in one of his books that Catholics think too much about the pope and the Vatican.  Obviously he referred to the cult of personality, as it prevails not only in the church but in politics and society at large.  But he also had in mind the use of the pope as a reference point in the lives of people.  If some people  don’t like the pope’s teaching, it’s a convenient excuse for apathy or dropping out.  Still others, who may love what a particular pope preaches, will use that message as a weapon.  In either case, they have absolved themselves of personal responsibility for their own faith.  They also tend to absolve themselves from participation in parish life.  After all, what could take precedence over Vatican politics?

Medieval Fresco

Medieval Fresco

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict does present a chapter on “What kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  At the end of the day, however, his is a rule for monks rather than a manual for management.  He not only presumes, but he specifies, that people come to the monastery to seek God in the context of community.  But they don’t enter in order to find an abbot they like or dislike.  The onus of responsibility for a monk’s life cannot be pushed off onto the abbot, because it is the monk’s calllng to lead a good life.  If the abbot doesn’t live a perfect life, in no way does that exonerate a monk from  having to try himself.  It’s the monk who must decide whether to seek God, and for that he gets the credit or the blame.

In coming days there will be a new pope, and after three days you’ll either like him a lot or be deeply disappointed.  But remember that the pope is neither the  savior nor the enemy.  He’s there to teach the tradition that has been  handed down since New Testament times.  That’s his job.  And my job as a monk is to get on with the life of being a Christian.  Regardless of whether the pope is learned or simple, charismatic or dull, or gifted or inept, my own calling is to be a fellow pilgrim on the path to God.  I cannot use someone  else’s situation as an excuse for me.

Between the lines and behind the headlines, that’s what Pope Benedict was really trying to say.  And he took his own words to heart; and he was so serious about it that he gave up being pope in order to become a simple pilgrim like the rest of us.  What could possibly be more important?

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+On March 4th I flew from Minneapolis to London for a series of meetings and to say Mass for a family gathering at the Farm Street Church, the Jesuit parish in London.  Happily, the plane lifted off from Minneapolis just as the second biggest snow storm of the season was rolling into the airport.

+On March 6th I had the opportunity to visit Saint Alban’s, which is about thirty minutes by train north of London.  It was one of the first spots I ever visited in England, and I’ve been enthralled by this tranquil place ever since.

Founded by the Romans as Verulamium, it became the site of one of England’s most important abbeys.  Built on the site where Alban was martyred by the Romans, ca. 250, the church is now a cathedral.  The shrine has been restored, and pilgrims once again light candles to honor the saint.

Abbey Gatehouse

Abbey Gatehouse

The pictures in today’s post all come from Saint Alban’s.  Among the most interesting is that of the wooden gallery that stands next to the shrine, where monks could unobtrusively stand guard to make sure no zealous pilgrim ran off with the relics.

+Saint John’s University alumnus Sebastian Gomes (BA ’07 and MA ’09) is currently having the time of his life.  Sebastian works at Salt+Light TV, a Catholic production company in Toronto, where he assists Fr. Thomas Rosica, the director.  Last fall Fr. Thomas and Sebastian came to Saint John’s, where they produced a lengthy interview with Abbot John Klassen, OSB.  Now they are both in Rome, where Fr. Thomas is working as a media consultant with Fr. Federico Lombardi and the Vatican Press Office.  If you’ve watched any coverage of the papal conclave, you’ve likely seen Fr. Thomas fielding the questions that come to them in English.

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