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Posts Tagged ‘Aidan Hart’

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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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IMG_2644A Moment of Transfiguration

The feast of the Transfiguration has never had the popularity in the Latin Church that it enjoys in Orthodoxy.  In the latter there are icons galore that celebrate the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah;  and the liturgy for the feast is anything but ordinary.  Not so in the West, where it slips by with scarcely any notice.  The fact that it takes place on August 6th, when people tend to be on vacation, dooms it to obscurity.

You’d think that the feast would deserve a little more respect.  After all, the occasion is pretty dramatic, as the gospels narrate the moment in which Jesus, in prayer, meets two great figures from the Bible.  As the disciples look on, stupefied, Jesus is transfigured before their very eyes.  It’s a mind-blowing experience for Peter and the others with him.

Generations of preachers have had fun with all this, as if Peter and the disciples beheld aliens from another planet.  They scarcely knew what to say, and so Peter said some pretty inconsequential nonsense about putting up tents to celebrate the occasion.

What in the world is going on here?  Why do the gospel narrators give us this story but scarcely interpret its meaning for us?

IMG_2651For one thing, in this passage we have a fundamental insight into the nature of Jesus.  In him the divine and the human touch.  The sacred and the material somehow blend, and in that meeting we should all find some little measure of hope.  In the Orthodox tradition spiritual writers have stressed that in Jesus the divine became human so that humans might become divine.  The fact that Moses and Elijah and Peter and the others shared in the experience is an important signal to us all.  Each of us has spiritual value in the eyes of God.  God is not distant from us, and the mission of Jesus is to open our eyes and to draw us into the eternal dimension within us.

A second lesson may have to do with the nature of prayer.  There is something wonderfully naive about Peter’s offer to put up tents.  Still, I don’t think Peter meant those tents to be for the exclusive use of Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  I suspect he had every intention of crowding into that tent with them.  He intended to be part of the moment, and he intended to prolong the moment.  He wanted to milk it for all it was worth.

Years ago people were accustomed to greet the elegantly-clad in our midst with the observation that they looked “simply divine.”  That veneer of beauty is not what divinization is all about.  Rather, it’s about the potential within each of us to be open as God reaches into our very souls to touch us.

IMG_2635Secondly, when God reaches into us in prayer the experience of the divine is often very fleeting.  Only for the rare individual is it prolonged, and that’s the point of the Transfiguation.  In an instant the veil between the divine and human was pulled back, and for Peter and the other disciples it was a moment of incredible insight and perhaps even spiritual ecstasy.

As the Gospels make abundantly clear on more than one occasion, Peter and the disciples are the most ordinary of people.  Chances are good that they were even more ordinary than we are.  If a moment of spiritual vision was their privilege, so it is ours as well.  In that vein, Jesus reminds us that we know neither the day nor the hour of the Lord’s coming; but he comes, in an instant and in the twinkling of an eye.

The gospels encourage us to savor those moments and let them bleed into the rest of our lives.  That is the divination to which God invites each of us.  It  is nothing less than a conversation with the Lord in prayer, and translating it into the nooks and crannies of our lives.   In the process not only is the Lord transfigured in our midst, but he transfigures us as well.  We humans grow in the divine and share in the eternal.

IMG_2626Notes

+August tends to be a rather quiet time in the monastery, but there are moments when there’s almost more than we can handle.  On August 4th we had the perfect storm, when three events vied for our presence.  That evening a number of monks attended the opening reception for an exhibit of monastic art at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis.  Simultaneously there was the annual picnic for current and former trustees of Saint John’s University, which took place in Plymouth, MN.  Finally, those who stayed home had to carry the burden of Mass and evening prayer with diminished numbers.  Though I had two photographs in the art exhibit, I chose the picnic.  My reasoning was simple.  Summer in Minnesota does not last forever.

IMG_2642+On August 6th we celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration.  Again, it was a busy day for us, as the Abbey church served many purposes.  The day started with morning prayer.  Then it was set up for a concert by the Minnesota All-State Choir, whose 250 members had been with us all week.  Then the church was transfigured for a wedding, which continued as a dinner in the Great Hall later in the day.  Then came a baptism in the baptistry of the church.  We monks retreated to celebrate the Transfiguration in the chapel of Saint Benedict, in the crypt of the Abbey church.

+On August 7th we hosted a number of our sisters from the Monastery of Saint Benedict for evening prayer and a festive dinner.  It is an annual event that recalls the visit of Saint Scholastica with her brother Benedict.

+The first two photos in today’s post show an icon of the Transfiguration, by iconographer Aidan Hart.  The third photo shows a practice session for the Minnesota All-State Choir.  Next is Jesus as he presides over the impending wedding banquet in the Great Hall.  Finally, I’ve included a picture of a modern rendition of Saint Benedict, which sits in the entrance to the east cloister walk of the Abbey church.  He was the one who reminded us that “guests you will always have with you.”  How wonderfully right he was!

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