Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

CB8107C3-CAA9-4BC8-A7D5-C4D85945A2ED

Advent:  A Beginning, not an End

”Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”  Matthew 17: 13.

It seems odd to meditate on a gospel excerpt that deals with suffering as we prepare for Christmas.  After all, Advent is about eager anticipation.  It should be positive and joyful in spirit.  And yet in this passage Jesus reminds his disciples of the suffering that John the Baptist endured, and he hints at his own as well.  And so when we focus on this, rightly we ask the point of it all.

99CE3322-5C79-4EF3-9B4E-1CAE5CD277CFWell, I think the point is this.  Advent is not a stand-alone season.  Nor is Christmas an end in itself.  In fact they serve as the prelude to the entire life of Jesus.  The story of that life is what we recount in the course of the liturgical year, and it’s the story we embrace as the template for our own story.

In baptism we begin our life in the Lord, but like Advent it’s only the start of our pilgrimage.  And as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel, following in his steps will not be one running theme of sweetness and joy.  In fact he promises that we will have challenges galore.  But a life in which challenge is absent is reallly no life at all.

Advent then is the invitation to go on a life-long pilgrimage.  It’s a trek that will have its joys and difficulties, its opportunities and stumbles.  But as Jesus assures us, it will also be a journey that will have meaning and purpose.  And if we do choose to start that pilgrimage with the Lord, he gives us one assurance.  If we decide to walk with him, he will walk with us, every step of the way.

NOTES

+On December 11th I attended a Christmas Social for trustees and friends of Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.

+On December 13th I spoke to the Senior Class Committee of Saint John’s University.  I described my work in the University Office of Institutional Advancement and encouraged their volunteer efforts on behalf of the University as they morph into alumni next May.

F438B625-F50F-4462-8E01-6EB7EEEB3C8C+On December 14th I gave a lecture to the cohort of staff and faculty who will be going to Italy and Germany next June on a Benedictine Heritage Tour.  They had asked me to address these two questions:  1.  What did Saint Benedict see and experience when he went to Rome to study; and 2.  What may have influenced him to give up on his studies and become a hermit in the wilderness at Subiaco.  I’d never thought of these questions before, and I suspect that I learned a lot more than my listeners did.

+On December 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and the post today is the sermon which I delivered that morning.

+On December 16th I assisted with a Penance service at Saints Peter & Paul Church in nearby Richmond, MN.  Like the parish in Saint Martin where I helped out a few days earlier, the monks of Saint John’s have served at this parish since its foundation in 1856.

+The photos in today’s post were the result of a visit to the library late one evening during finals week at Saint John’s University.  I have also included an impressive photo of the abbey church, which sits facing the library on the central mall of campus.

98FBC0B1-B739-4358-9A87-8AE99F2AECE3

Read Full Post »

0BE313A2-A359-4B0F-A003-9E1F27F0FA30

Dinner Guests from the Bible

If I could host anybody from the Bible at a dinner party, whom would I invite?  Someone asked me that the other day, and I have to admit I’d not really thought about it before.  But it’s a great question because there’s such a wide range of characters to choose from.  Who would make my A-list, and who would be discreetly omitted?

It’s actually more fun to consider those whom I wouldn’t invite.  For sure Cain wouldn’t get an invitation, nor would Samson.  They’d be too rowdy.  Nor would most of the prophets, simply because so many of them were difficult to live with.  And it’s nothing personal, but I’d turn Herod away at the door simply because his presence could make the other guests just a little nervous.

F495F3EE-FE85-4EAF-BD8D-45A198CD5703My A-list would be surprisingly long.  David and Solomon would make it, most definitely.  Neither was perfect, but as kings they knew how to behave properly at dinners.  Rebecca would be there for her cleverness and Mary Magdalene for the wonderful stories I hope she would tell.  For his conversation Paul would be fascinating if not scintillating.  And Jesus would be at the top of my list.  He’d be there not because of favoritism on my part but based solely on his reputation.

The gospels portray Jesus as accomplished on the banquet circuit, and they provide lots of evidence to back that up.  At Cana, for instance, he helped out with the wine, which spared the hosts a lot of embarrassment.  He was a gracious guest at the home of Zachaeus and an equally gracious host at the Last Supper.  Clearly he had thought about the art of dining and conversation, as many of his parables suggest.

82F04CE0-6386-49FB-9AC1-070395C3E2EEThen there are a few individuals whom I would not have thought to invite, and John the Baptist is one of them.  It’s not because he was a nobody, because today we honor his memory all over the place.  My own monastery is dedicated to him, and the Order of Malta is actually the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — to name but two from a myriad of examples.  Still, I have to believe that John didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.  For one, the Bible makes no mention of any polished manners, and he seems to have had none of the savoir-faire of Jesus.  He didn’t care much about food, as his diet of locust and honey suggests.  Nor did he care much about fine clothes, because he was definitely not known as a snappy dresser.

More to the point, John was the sort of person who readily said what was on his mind.  It’s true that people went miles out of their way and into the desert to hear him, but it wasn’t because of any reputation for glamour.  All of that makes him a rather intriguing figure, but I wonder if people weren’t willing to risk having him at a dinner party.

D319D554-959D-48C1-91CB-17759C9C262EOn the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist steps onto the stage and into the story leading to the Nativity of Jesus.  He’s intriguing, but for reasons that distinguish him from Jesus.  He preached in the wilderness and not in synagogues or in Jerusalem.  He didn’t carry himself like a rabbi, in contrast to Jesus.  And while he too had disciples, he certainly didn’t run around with the smart set.  Yet, like Jesus, he was a powerful preacher.  Like Jesus he didn’t always tell people what they wanted to hear;  but also like Jesus he was not afraid to tell people what they needed to hear.

I sort of hate to admit it, but there’s real value in having someone like John the Baptist sit at our table.  He might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, but without someone to call us out of ourselves, how would we ever become aware of the larger world?  Without someone to awaken us to our potential for growth, how would we ever crawl out of our comfort zone and achieve the things we never thought possible?  Without someone like John the Baptist, how would we ever own up to the mistakes we make?  John, in short, is a mind-expander.  He urges us to examine ourselves and be self-aware.  He points to paths of which we are unaware, and he tells us that the Lord is waiting for us, just ahead.

When all is said and done I suspect that each of us needs someone like John the Baptist.  Such people help us to find our way through life.  They remind us that the path to a full life is one that includes God.  And if that sounds a bit difficult or inconvenient, consider the ultimate reward of a life well lived.

I suppose then that it’s worth the risk to invite John the Baptist to sit at our table.  He may not make our A list, but consider how wonderful it could be to host a guest who only wishes the best for us.

BA9617E4-BED2-47BD-9427-74FB7BCD8A6FNOTES

+As we progress through Advent many of our monks assist with penance services at area parishes.  On December 5th I assisted at the Church of Saint Martin, in Saint Martin, MN.  It’s a parish that the monks of Saint John’s have served since its foundation in 1858, and our confreres Frs. Edward and Julius serve there today.  Located about twenty miles west of Saint John’s, it was the first time I had ever visited the small town of Saint Martin.

+On December 6th I flew to Naples, FL, where I attended a meeting of supporters of our scholarship program that enrolls alumni of Immokalee High School at Saint John’s University.  This spring we will graduate our first two students from Immokalee, and it’s been a wonderful experience.  To say the least, their experience at Saint John’s has been transformative.

+On December 3rd we hosted the members of next year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps at evening prayer.  The 26 soon-to-graduate seniors of Saint John’s University comprise the largest group of Volunteers that we’ve ever sent out, and they will serve in thirteen monasteries in twelve countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

+The first three photos in today’s post are Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, a work of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Italian, ca.  1465-1501.  It is now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, as are the following two photos showing John the Baptist and the Last Supper.  The latter were originally part of an altar panel, and date from ca. 1490, France. At bottom is the cohort of Benedictine Volunteers for next year.  Our confrere Fr. Timothy supplied the photo.

284C3E9B-C024-499C-BD27-9159356ED787

 

Read Full Post »

CB43FB01-C646-4CB2-B7A5-4DDA34F71CCE

Wake Up!  (a bit of advice for Advent)

Once a month we monks at Saint John’s set aside a day for reflection.  From rising until dinner we are silent — save for prayer — and the abbot convenes us for a spiritual conference in the chapter house.

Given that we already live in a monastery, it’s fair to ask why in the world we’d need to do this extra stuff.  Aren’t twenty-nine or thirty days a month in church enough already?  Well, the answer is yes, and no.

Monks follow a religious regimen that most people would consider more than adequate.  But for a moment consider where we’re coming from.  Just because we go to church several times a day, and just because we practice all sorts of other rituals, that doesn’t keep us from turning it all into a numbing round of activity.  And therein is the value of an occasional day off to get a grip on ourselves.  Whether we do a lot or a little or nothing, slippping into an unexamined routine can rob life of its intensity.  That’s why we — and anybody — should do this sort of thing.

794354BC-0C9A-472B-9CEC-AB17E8FB850AFrom a seasonal point of view Saturday’s conference had real possibilities.  Advent was to begin the next day, and in the gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus urges people to “be awake.”  It’s just the sort of advice we need to hear once in a while, and it was the theme that Abbot John chose to focus on, in hopes of stirring us on a sleepy Saturday morning.

However, I began to wonder if he was about to fritter the opportunity away with his opening comment.  He reminded us that Saint Benedict says nothing about Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  On the other hand Benedict does say that the lives of monks ought to be like a Lenten observance.  But as for Advent, Benedict says nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  It’s like the season doesn’t even exist, which naturally made me wonder.  Was it because in 6th-century Italy they didn’t have Black Friday or the pre-Christmas shopping season?  Or was it because there were as yet no shopping malls to give meaning to the season of Advent?  We’ll likely never know.  But having mulled over Saint Benedict’s telling omission, I began to wonder why the abbot had roused us out of our reverie on a Saturday morning.  Did he do it just so he could tell us that Advent was unmonastic?

Abbot John did not choose to go in that direction.  But his opening bit did succeed in priming the pump for my own sometimes irreverent thoughts.  And so, once again, last Saturday morning I reaffirmed the value of an Advent observance, even in a Benedictine monastery, and even for me.

7BF6B804-B562-4AE8-A538-B7EA19C19FDEIn the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus makes this point:  “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you like a trap.”  (Luke 21: 34).  Drowsiness is the problem, and the  day to which Jesus refers is the day of the coming of the Lord.  And if we let the complexities of daily life overwhelm us then there may be unintended consequences.  The Lord will come, but we’ll be the last to know that he had been standing right in front of our noses and we hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe that’s why Saint Benedict doesn’t bother to write anything about the season of Advent.  Maybe it’s because he presumes that monks — and all Christians for that matter — should be aware that Advent goes on around us all the time.  Granted, the gospel speaks of the day when we will stand before the Lord at the end of time;  but all the same the Lord isn’t exactly hiding from us right now.

In fact, Jesus is in front of us, in plain sight, each and every day.  For that reason Benedict writes that the monk should see Christ in the guest, in the elderly and sick, in the abbot and in the youngest monks.  And the same applies to everyone else.  Whether it’s in the poor and sick, in the lonely or struggling, or in the person who needs our kind word or smile, the Lord makes cameo appearances all the time.  So it is that the Lord’s advent is present to us every day;  and if once a year we need a season to serve as a reminder to us, then so be it.

That explains the urgency in the words of Jesus.  He’s coming, but not just at the end of time.  Advent is the season when we deliberately rouse ourselves from our routine and admit how incredibly blessed we are.  We have the chance to meet the Lord — today.  Why wouldn’t we want to stay awake for that?

3F972559-CFD9-4B8A-A48C-9899BE27BCE1NOTES

+On November 27th I presided and preached at the Eucharist for members of the San Francisco area Order of Malta, who had gathered for their annual meeting.

+On December 1st we had our monthly day of reflection, and we assembled for a conference written by Abbot John.  Because that morning the abbot was away to preside at the funeral of his aunt, Brother David-Paul was delegated to read the abbot’s conference to the community.

+On December 1st the football team of Saint John’s University ended its season with a loss in the NCAA Division III playoffs.  The game took place in Belton, TX, which is a small town in central Texas.  Oddly enough, I’ve been there a few times.  My grandparents lived near there, and my father was born in nearby Westphalia, TX.

+A few days ago the nation and Saint John’s lost a wonderful scholar and friend.  Dr. James Billington served as the Librarian of Congresss for ages, and he was generous in his energy and expertise in arranging an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Library of Congress.  He also spoke at an event at Saint John’s, and our last encounter took place when he gathered in the office of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis.  In the presence of Pope Francis, the Speaker, Abbot John and a few others, Dr. Billington accepted a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, to mark the occasion of the Pope’s visit.  That set now resides in the Library of Congress.

+At the top of this post is a photo of the Advent wreath in the abbey church.  We also have a second large wreath in the refectory.  Below that are two photos of the abbey chapter house, where we gather for spiritual conferences and meetings.  While it may seem a substantial building, it’s dwarfed by many of its medieval counterparts, as illustrated by the two photos of the chapter house at Canterbury Cathedral.  As you might imagine, I prefer our cushioned seats to the stone benches at Canterbury.

C09A7580-0C0D-44B3-A430-89C70131C0E9

Read Full Post »

IMG_0015_2

Who Stole My Sundays?

It was a nightly ritual in their household.  Jake gave the signal when he walked to the door and stared through his dark brown eyes.  Finally someone came to throw the tennis ball far into the darkness outside.  Then out he bolted, eyes fixed on the ball.  Only after he had pounced on the ball did he do his duty, and at last it was time for bed.

I think that was the first serious lesson I ever learned from a dog.  For Jake there was no physiological connection between throwing that ball and doing his business.  Nor was it a feature at any other time of day when he needed to relieve himself.  Only at bedtime was it part of his routine, and it seemed that for Jake it was the last joyous affirmation of a day well-lived.  That day I learned from Jake the importance of ritual, even in the lives of some of our animal friends.

IMG_0020_2In a few days comes the First Sunday of Advent.  For some it will occasion little or no response;  for others it may elicit memories of religious obligations that were more onerous than life-giving.  For still others it will resurrect thoughts of a more innocent age, before Black Friday side-tracked it into a seasonal frenzy of consumerism.  But for the lucky ones, Advent will be a time of renewal that reminds us of an inner transcendence that we all share.

Jesus often spoke about the importance of the sabbath, and in well-chosen words he reminded anyone who would listen that they were not made for the sabbath.  Rather, the sabbath was made for them, and it was meant to recall our intrinsic value as people made in God’s image.  We need not be pawns of marketers or slaves to unrelenting schedules.  There’s more to life than mindless activity, because there is in fact purpose to our lives.

A recent column by David Brooks reinforced this point for me when he quoted the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel.  “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build,” he wrote.  “It is made of soul, joy and reticence.”  Brooks paraphrased Heschel when he concluded that “we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living.”

IMG_0024_2I find it interesting that in our march toward a more secular worldview we’ve managed to repurpose the point of Advent and decorate it in the trappings of merchandise.  We’ve supplemented it with what some have labeled the nightly liturgy of the talking heads.  Even as our eyes are glued to the televised politicos, we hold cell phones as if they were life-support, and in effect we make of ourselves appendages of technology.  Ironically, we’ve come to believe that all these things are here to serve us, when in fact it’s become the other way around.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the first time in the human experience that this has happened.  It’s merely the modern iteration of the eternal quest to achieve sanity and to attain the inner peace that makes life worth living.  Not surprisingly, our sabbath and Advent observances are part of that ritual effort to transcend the mundane.

I’m not about to advocate that we take these religious observances to some extreme.  But what I do suggest is that we take them for what they are worth.  And therein I draw one more lesson from Jake.  Jake didn’t need to chase tennis balls all day long to find meaning in life.  Once a day was enough to affirm the value of his life in a routine of eating, chasing squirrels and barking at the UPS people.  Life was good for Jake, and life can and ought to be good for us, no matter the tedium and challenge that fills the spaces between successive Sundays and Advents.

IMG_0022_2This Sunday I’ve resolved to set aside one activity and elevate it as a symbol of the transcendent value of my life.  I was made for God, and not for online shopping or the cell-phone or rush-hour traffic.  Sure, these are struggles with which we must contend, but they are not the ultimate good in and of themselves.  They are no more than the means to a greater good.

Finally, when the last Sunday of Advent dawns, I hope I don’t find myself wondering what happened to all those Sundays.  Nor do I want to be asking “Who stole my Sundays?”  For better or for worse, if I have nothing to show for my efforts, I hope I’ll have the honesty to say that I’ve given all my Sundays away.  If, on the contrary, I’ve made something of them, then I’ll have the joy of singing with the saints:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice!”

IMG_0025_2Notes

+Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was serenely quiet at Saint John’s over the holidays.  Now the rush to the end of the term has begun, and the starting gun has signaled to our students the opening of the camping season in the library.

+In a recent post I presented a photo of a fresco of Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, on the walls of the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  I noted that it was the first time I’d seen such an image, and one of my confreres graciously pointed out that it is in fact a common image in Italy, Spain and the Latin countries in the Americas.  There it is referenced as La Divina Pastora.  My previous encounters with similar images have been in manuscript art, and from one of my files I have retrieved a stone carving of that scene.  It is entitled the Madonna of Mercy, done in the first half of the 15th century in Tuscany.  It is housed in the Fondazione Salvatore Romano in Florence.  The photo is at the bottom of today’s post.

+The stained glass in today’s post all come from a rose window in the church of Saint Eustace in Paris.

IMG_9122

Read Full Post »

img_0211_2Welcome the Savior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0064Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0295_2

Read Full Post »

img_3912Routine:  The Foundation for Change

“When was the last time you did something for the very first time?”  So the greeting card I held in my hand asked, and I took it as a test of my flexibility and spontaneity.  To be perfectly honest, I had never posed that question to myself;  so my response was a forthright “Just now!”  Clearly I had passed that test with flying colors.  Next question, please.

Most people are creatures of habit, and on that score monks get higher marks than most.  After all, Benedictines live by a Rule written nearly 1,500 years ago.  Its wisdom and values have scarcely changed, and when we’ve made alterations to the daily routine, we’ve tended to stick with them for decades or even centuries at a time. Whatever else you may care to say about monks, spur-of-the-moment people we are not.

Still, nothing lasts 1,500 years if you never do anything for the first time.  Even St. Benedict recognized that, and he knew there would be times when monks would have to adapt.  In cold climates, which we enjoy on occasion in Minnesota, Benedict allowed his monks warmer clothing.  When monks did more strenuous manual labor he made provision for more food.  And to the abbot who had a better idea for the organization of the Psalms or the daily schedule, Benedict gave blanket permission to give it his best shot. After all, he meant his Rule to be a guide for living, not a straight-jacket.

img_3967We often think of change as something to resist as much as possible, but some change is unavoidable.  Take, for example, the flow of the seasons.  We’re unable to do a lot about that save to escape to other parts of the country — which itself is a form of change.  In ancient Israel they accepted the inevitability of spring, summer, fall and winter, and they harnessed that seasonal progression to teach something about our relationship with God.  The Hebrews incorporated into their cycle of worship harvest festivals, days of atonement and spring planting; and not surprisingly, early Christians did the same.

Even so, many in our own day are blissfully unaware that the liturgical calendar is linked so intimately to the changing seasons.  Now that we are in Advent we’ve begun the new Church year, and our celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas correlates with days that will slowly grow in length and begin to hint of the coming of spring and the flowering of his ministry.  Advent and the darkest days of winter reinforce one another wonderfully, unless of course you live in the southern  hemisphere.

img_3935What in the world might this suggest about our relationship with God?  At the very least, it seems to me, it hints that it’s not static.  Like the seasons, the course of our lives waxes and wanes.  To take a cue from the vows made at marriage, we all have good times and bad.  We all experience bouts of sickness and health.  Death will us all do part, someday.  But most of all, we each grow with the seasons — sometimes imperceptibly and at other times quite obviously.  We are all on pilgrimage, to cast this process in spiritual language, and experience teaches that we do not walk alone.  We walk alongside our fellow pilgrims, and we also walk with God.

As we change and mature, we tend to feel the pull to pray, and so it is that we pray alone and we pray together.  Prayer brings us into conversation both with God and with one another, and we do so because we all seek the wisdom to choose our next big steps in life.  It’s what comes naturally when we need to figure out the course of our actions.

img_3957I long ago realized how pointless it is to pray that things might never change.  That doesn’t mean I no longer pray for that.  Rather, I just realize it won’t happen, whatever I may have to say about it.  That was the bind that Peter found himself in at the Transfiguration.  He prayed that Jesus would let him build booths for Jesus, for Moses and for Elijah.  He wanted to prolong the moment, to which Jesus responded with the equivalent of “are you kidding me?  I have other stuff to do.”

Jesus is not kidding when he reminds us to wake up and get with the program.  Of course there will be stretches during which the observance of routine will be life-giving.  But we can never let “routine” degenerate into “rut.”  Routine certainly keeps chaos at bay in our lives, but it also prepares us for life’s surprises.  Routine allows us to pick out the voice of the shepherd when he calls us to seize the moment.  Routine is the foundation on which we build fruitful lives, and it prepares us for the occasion when we have to do some very important things — each for the very first time.

img_3948Notes

+On December 10th Bishop Donald Kettler visited the abbey and ordained our confrere Brother Isaiah Frederick as priest.  Fr. Isaiah grew up in Tucson, came to college at Saint John’s University, and for several years worked as an accountant with Price Waterhouse in Phoenix.  Since my work has taken me to Phoenix regularly through the years, I had the opportunity to visit with him there, before he came as a candidate to the monastery.  It is wonderful to have him as a confrere and priest in the abbey.

img_3972+This past week was fairly uneventful, save for one little incident that I could never have anticipated.  I made a brief trip to Portsmouth, NH, to meet with an alumnus of Saint John’s.  I arrived early and had a bit of time to explore the town, which I had never seen before.  I stepped into a gift shop, looked around, and saw pottery which I did not need and the card on which today’s post is based.  In the course of this, the woman working there asked if she could be of help.  So I inquired whether there was a good bookstore in Portsmouth, and she asked what kind of book I had in mind.  I told her non-fiction, biography.  “I have just the store for you.”  She then locked up her own shop and walked me four blocks to the hole-in-the-wall shop she had in mind.  She took me in, introduced me to the owner, and returned to her shop.  I was completely flabbergasted by her act of kindness, so much so that I bought a novel.  The fact that a stranger would extend such hospitality to a visitor to Portsmouth is proof enough of the existence of God.  On the other hand, I left with the distinct impression that this was not one of those things she had just done for the first time.

img_3969+Two years ago I found myself in Vienna during Advent.  Famous for its Christmas markets, the city comes alive with lights and casual outdoor conversation.  It’s cold, which makes it all the more exhilarating.  If you’ve not been there during this season, it’s one more thing to add to your list of things that you’ve never done for the first time.  Today’s photos show the Christmas market in front of the city hall of Vienna.

Read Full Post »

img_0012_2Advent:  A Luxury We Can Afford

I was surprised when a friend of mine told me the details of a three-day retreat he had gone on recently.  The fact that he’d made a retreat was no big surprise, since lots of people do them these days.  What caught my attention was the place where he went to do this.  He had just spent three days with the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur — the monastery — is quite a distance down the coast from San Francisco, and the place is exceptional both for its beauty as well as for its isolation.  The views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking; and as for its site, it’s best to say that it’s convenient neither to schools nor shopping.  It’s not near anything, and the occasional earthquake or forest fire has left both monks and guests isolated from the outside world.  Still, people keep coming, and reservations are a must.

In general people are familiar with Jesuit retreat programs and their regimen of structured activities.  Unlike them, however, retreats at Benedictine monasteries tend to leave people plenty of time to sort things out for themselves.  There may or may not be conferences to attend, and participants usually have access to one of the monks for spiritual guidance. But the biggest investment of time and energy goes into the round of liturgies that structure the lives of the monks.  In addition, there is encouragement to do some reading and meditation and walking.  And as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once pointed out, walking can be one of the great spiritual therapies in any program of renewal.

img_9825Not everyone is able to trek out to some isolated spot for a retreat these days.  Some simply don’t have the time.  Others may not have the resources to do it.  Still others have obligations from which there is no easy escape — or so they assume.  And therein is my bit of encouragement to anyone who could benefit from time away from the normal routine.  At first glance retreats can seem to be a luxury that most can ill-afford.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  Taking time to assess our lives is something most of us can ill-afford not to do.

On the Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps into the scene, and he pleads with his listeners to consider what they are about.  To translate into modern English, he’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody.  Rather, he challenges people to think about what they are doing with their lives.  Are they good stewards of their time and talent?  Do they care about one another?  Or are they chasing after material fantasies and other such delusions?

There are days when the pursuit of power and wealth and the exploitation of one another may seem what life is all about.  John would argue that these are dead-end activities.  For him what matters most is our creation in the divine image.  That’s what makes us noble, and with that comes the invitation to live wonderfully creative lives.

img_9826That reduces John’s message to its bare bones, and that was the takeaway for people who had hiked out to the desert to hear him.  John encouraged them to make good use of the brains that God had given them, and he urged them to put their brains to the task of producing good fruit.  Such lives reflect the vitality of God.

John was a powerful force in his day, in part because he did not preach in the temple in Jerusalem.  Instead he went to the wilderness along the Jordan River, and there people searched him out.  Ever since then, men and women in the Christian monastic tradition have gone out to the wilderness, and in imitation of John they are willing to share with any and all what they have learned in their spiritual journeys.  Far from wasting their lives, they try and replicate the message that John once proclaimed.  Like John, they try to live with intensity, and not because of any impending doom.  Rather, it’s a tragedy to waste a life that God has given.

img_0103_2Advent is no time for a guilt trip.  Rather it’s a wake-up call to consider what we’re doing with our lives  And in that spirit, if John the Baptist were to offer his recommendations today, this is what he might have to say.  First, it’s impractical for most of us to fly off to the Jordan River in order to repent, but that’s no excuse for doing nothing.  It’s impractical for most people to check into a monastery for a three-day retreat, but that’s no excuse either.  But there are things almost anyone can do.  First off, unless people are illiterate, it is possible to read a little bit of scripture and then pray.  That can be a bit of a retreat.  Attending a concert of sacred music can clear the mind and be something of a retreat.  Stepping out of the daily routine to volunteer in service to others can be a bit of a retreat.

These scarcely exhaust the options, but common to them all is this:  they give some equal time to the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Given the season, the screaming commercialism will always get plenty of air-time.  But stepping out of that noise gives God the chance to whisper into our ears a message whose time has come.  To our surprise, such a moment may not be a luxury after all.  By comparison, all else may be luxuries we can ill-afford.

img_0102_2Notes

+On November 30th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Currently there is a major exhibit of folios from the Bible through early January, and my talk was part of a series of lectures on the topic.  What made this different was the presence of my mother and brothers and sisters.  It was the first time my mother had ever heard me speak, and finally she’s learned something of what I do for a living.  It was especially nice that the museum director introduced her to the audience.  That evening she finally got to decide whether years and years of tuition were worth the investment.

+In the interests of full disclosure, I have never had the chance to visit the community of Benedictine monks at Big Sur, CA.  They belong to a branch of Benedictines that blend in an emphasis on hermit-life, and it was begun by St. Romuauld at Camaldoli in Italy.  Many of our monks have gone on personal retreats at Big Sur, and one of their monks is scheduled to give our community retreat at Saint John’s in June 2017.

+The photos in today’s post present stained glass from three different sites.  The first is of Saint John the Baptist, and it comes from the entrance to the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The next two photos are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and they are 14th-century Austrian glass now housed in the V & A Museum in London.  The two lower panels illustrate the Annunciation, and they were made in the Upper Rhine Valley in the 15th century.  They are now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »