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Posts Tagged ‘All Souls Day’

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Take a Chance on a Life Well-lived

[What follows is a sermon I delivered at the Abbey Mass on the Feast of All Saints]

Ordinarily the readings from the Scriptures are meant to be good news as we walk on our pilgrimage to the Lord.  They encourage us in the best and in the worst of times, and they remind us of the heavenly banquet that awaits us.

But then again there are passages that can scare us to death rather than offer assurance, and today’s readings from the Book of Revelation (7: 2-4, 9-14), and the Gospel of St. Matthew (5: 1-12), have the potential to do that.

The words from Revelation conjure up a vision of 144,000 elect who will sit in the company of the saints.  It sounds like a lot, and it was meant to sound like a lot.  It certainly wasn’t the biggest number that the writer could think of, but that wasn’t the point.  It had symbolic value, and it signaled the immensity of God’s generosity and hospitality.  More people than you and I will ever know, or can ever imagine knowing, will enjoy communion with the Lord.

IMG_7543Even so, there are those who have taken that number literally.  In New Testament times there seemed nothing to worry about, but by the Middle Ages, with tens of millions of Christians, the literalists among us grew nervous.  They concluded that the odds of getting into heaven were getting slimmer with each new baptism.  If only 144,000 would be saved, could there be any chance of salvation?  This began to generate a lot of anxiety about God’s generosity, and that anxiety was never meant to be.

As for the Beatitudes, which the gospel of St. Matthew recounts for us, there is also a rather dark tone.  It’s nice to know that the poor in spirit and the needy and those who mourn will find welcome in the kingdom of heaven.  It’s a comfort that the persecuted and the reviled will find reward that is proportionate to what they suffered.  But do all of us have to endure these things to qualify for a seat at the heavenly banquet?  I for one don’t find that prospect all that appealing.

Thankfully I long ago realized that the Beatitudes don’t demand that suffering be the price we pay for entry into eternal life.  And they make that clear after a careful reading.

IMG_7584Take, for example, the point that Jesus makes about those who mourn.  It’s easy to conclude that Jesus wants us to suffer or be doormats as the price we pay to know him.  But while the words of Jesus may seem to suggest that, in fact he is asking us to be bold.  He’s asking that we not be afraid to take some big risks in our lives.  Consider that the people who mourn do so to mourn the loss of something or someone important to them.  Something that they valued.  Something in which they’d invested.  Something for which they risked their lives.

That’s the point Jesus wishes to make in the Beatitudes.  He does not want us to go through life minimizing risks so as to avoid the day when we might have to mourn.  When we avoid all risk, when we avoid any possible discomfort, we also miss out on the rewards that come with the risk.  We miss out on the rewards that make life worth living.

In the Beatitudes Jesus invites us to take big risks in life.  He asks us to consider doing the right thing despite the possibility of failure or rebuke.  We should strive for a sense of purpose in our lives, even if there may be days when we might fail.  We may have to mourn, but we’ll also celebrate a life in Christ.

In the Beatitudes Jesus asks us to take the risk of a life well-lived.  Life is a gift, and it’s too precious a gift to live it on the sidelines, for fear of getting hurt.  Life is what Jesus came to give us, and he came so that we might have it in abundance.

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Notes

+On November 1st, the feast of All Saints, I presided at the Abbey Mass.  The post for today is the text of the sermon that I delivered.

+On November 2nd we celebrated the feast of All Souls.  By long custom we monks gathered for noon prayer in the Abbey cemetery.

+On the evening of November 2nd I spoke to a gathering of alumni of Saint John’s University, convened in Moorhead, MN.  The occasion for the talk was an exhibit of folios from The Saint John’s Bible, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.  (For the record, the Center is pronounced as it is written:  yemkomst.)  For those unacquainted with Minnesota geography, Moorhead is located on the Red River, a stone’s throw from Fargo on the other side.  So I extended a particularly warm welcome to those alumni and friends who had driven all the way from North Dakota to join us.

+Normally there is one prior per monastery, and that’s certainly the case at Saint John’s.  Saint Benedict wrote about the need for a prior, especially when there is too much for the abbot to contend with.  Normally the prior does all those things that the abbot either cannot or does not want to do.  On 4 November priors from sixteen monasteries joined us for a four-day meeting on the job of the prior.

+Early on the morning of November 4th we had about five inches of snow.  I thought it was wonderful, but I didn’t need to drive in it.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the beauty of the day, and at the bottom you can see winter’s version of the photo that normallly appears on the masthead of this blog.

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img_3767All Souls’ Day:  A Reflection

One of my all-time favorite hymns comes from 18th-century England, and it compares Jesus to an apple tree.   It’s a carol that we sing at Christmas, but its focus on ripe fruit makes it just as appropriate for All Souls’ Day, and for autumn in particular.  And the first stanza reads thus:

The tree of life my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit and always green.

The trees of nature fruitless be

Compared with Christ the apple tree.

I quote from this hymn because it complements the poignant lines from chapter 3 of the Book of Wisdom.  That too is a bit of poetry that sets an almost melancholy and yet hopeful tone for All Souls’.  “They seemed, in view of the foolish, to be dead, and their passing away was thought an affliction, and their going forth from us, utter destruction.  But they are in peace.”

img_3727What I find so compelling about these words is not just the consolation that they offer to us, the living.  They also express a fundamental connection between us and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord.  We struggle along the road to the Lord, and many of them still journey through purification as they look forward to the full vision of God.  To adapt the words from Wisdom, the followers of Jesus — both living and dead — seem foolish and our lives pointless.  Yet, as disciples of Jesus we pursue with all our being the good, the true and the beautiful.  All are attributes of God, and lives in pursuit of those three things are fruitful beyond words.  The reward for such a life is many times over our feeble investment in faith.

It’s our solidarity with those who have gone before us in faith that we celebrate on All Souls’ Day.  And so we pray for them as they journey through purification, in hopes that they in turn will remember us when they step into the presence of God.

For now, however, we acknowledge something we hold in common.  With them we are fellow travelers on the path to union with God, and we follow in their well-worn steps.  And what draws us on together is the occasional glimpse of God which we are privileged to have.  It’s this inspiration of which the last stanza of the hymn speaks:

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,

It keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be

With Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.

img_3785So we’re left to ponder the image of the apple tree.  Here we are in November, and a very few stubborn apples still cling to what look to be lifeless trees in the abbey orchard.  To the world those trees seem to be dead, but even in their leafless state their branches are noble and their roots capable of renewed life.  Those branches and roots next spring will sprout to life, just as did Jesus at the resurrection.  That is our faith, and it is the hope that we celebrate on All Souls’ Day.

That vision of eternal life is what now animates the souls who have gone before us in faith, and the very same glimpse of the divine sustains us who feebly struggle in their steps.  We pray for them and for ourselves that new life will bud within us, just as it does in the apple tree in spring time.  And come the autumn of our lives, our reward will be fruit on our branches that will be wonderfully abundant.

img_3788Notes

+On November 2nd I celebrated the abbey Mass, and today’s post is an adaptation of the sermon that I gave that day.  To my delight and surprise Fr. Anthony played on the organ an improvisation on Jesus Christ the Apple Tree as an Offertory meditation.

+November 2nd was a busy day for the abbey church.  For noon prayer the monks gathered in the cemetery to pray at the graves of our confreres.  In the church that day we hosted the funeral of the singer Bobby Vee, who was a member of the abbey parish.  Some 1,000 people gathered, and to a selection of his songs the monastic schola added its own music, including the Ultima.  The latter is a wonderfully moving bit of chant which we sing at the cemetery service for the burial of a monk.

Throughout the month of November we remember those for whom we have been asked to pray.  Friends of the abbey send us cards listing their deceased loved ones, and on the way into morning and evening prayer we each take a card and pray for those names.  It makes the remembrance of the dead wonderfully personal.

img_3827+On November 5th I attended the dedication of Gagliardi Field.  Named in honor our famed retired football coach John Gagliardi, it is a covered field that will serve both football practice as well as indoor soccer and winter intramurals.  To say that it is a huge space does not quite do it justice.  It is gigantic, and it is part of a now complete complex that includes a new soccer pitch, baseball stadium and tennis courts.

That afternoon I attended the football game, at which Saint John’s hosted and bested Hamline University, 42-6.

+The pictures in today’s post begin with one taken in the abbey apple orchard.  We’ve had an orchard from the earliest days of the community, and it has been renewed many times over in the course of 160 years.  The next photos show the last lingering colors of autumn at Saint John’s; while the photo at bottom allows a glimpse into the interior of Gagliardi Field.

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imageThank God for All Souls Day

I’ve always thought that All Souls Day was a much better fit for monks than All Saints. And yet again I was confirmed in this conviction when we celebrated these two feasts this weekend, and it only took a few seconds to remember why.

First off, when it comes to All Saints (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd), we’re not talking mere shades of difference.  Whether famous or obscure, all the saints have it made.  These men and women have fought the good fight, have finished the course, and now reap the reward for all that effort.  And they do so for all eternity.

All Souls Day, by contrast, recalls those who have crossed the threshold from this life, but they do not as  yet enjoy the full sight of God, face to face.  For all of them there’s work still to be done.  Just around the corner there’s yet another lane or byway to walk on their pilgrimage to the Lord.

imageThat not so subtle difference is not lost on us monks, and it hints at why we might be disposed to identify with the poor souls in transit.  As most any monk will confide to you in an unguarded moment, the monastery is crawling with people who could do with a little more spiritual polish.  Contrary to popular opinion, the monastery is no express lane to heaven, as monks will ungrudgingly confide.  Walking those halls are confreres who are very much works-in-progress.  We definitely belong with the poor souls.

Then there’s the issue of humility to consider.  For many monks the appearance of humility can be an easy stretch, because so many of us came to the monastery with a hearty dose of introversion.  That natural shyness renders any limelight difficult to endure, so you can imagine how excruciating would be the whole business of canonization.  Furthermore, most monks I know would be horrified by the prospect that some Vatican committee on saints would come knocking at our door, doing an inventory of our good deeds and heroic virtues. That’s just not us, and most of us have neglected to keep a running tally of our miracles.  For that reason we’re less inclined to put ourselves in the ranks of the saints.

imageThen there’s the business of the rite of canonization.  The mere thought of 100,000 people gathered at Saint Peter’s to proclaim my holiness would send me reeling for the exit.  Faced with such an ordeal, I’d commit a venial sin just to get out of there.  I and most monks simply aren’t cut out for that kind of veneration.  Plus, with all the prayers for intercession that would be sure to follow, peace and quiet would quickly become a memory.  Heaven would be anything but heaven.  Like the Hebrews who longed for the flesh-pots of Egypt, I’d pine for the days when I was a small-potatoes sinner in the cloister.

This partially explains the relative scarcity of Benedictines in the recent stampede to canonization.  But they’re not the only reasons.   As any astute observer of the liturgical year can tell you, the calendar is chock-a-block with monastic heroes from the early and high Middle Ages.  However, at a certain point the influx of saints from the monastic cloisters pretty much dried up.  It’s as if all the abbots and abbesses got together and declared “Enough already!”  “We have more saints than we can manage, so give it a rest.”

imageThat’s one explanation.  But narrowing standards for canonization in the 12th and 13th centuries provide another.  Once miracles and stand-out virtue became requirements for canonization, the ground rules that had favored monks and nuns crumbled.  With a spiritual focus on the search for God in the ordinary things of life, monks and nuns were hobbled in the competition.  Virtue in the monastery consisted in the spiritual equality of all.  So it was that the spiritual exceptionalism that Saint Benedict had banished from the monastery became a badge of honor in the new age.  How could monks and nuns possibly compete?

The same was true for miracles.  I can only imagine the uproar in the monastery if one of the monks started working miracles without the abbot’s permission.  Knowing many abbots as I do, I can’t think of a single one who’d give such a permission.  But if they did, they’d never hear the end of it from the rest of the monks.  At the very least he’d have to insist that the miracle-working monk should do it privately, when no one might be looking.  If not, soon everybody would want permission to work miracles, and where would we be then?  No, the monastic regimen demands that either everybody works miracles or nobody does them.  It’s the only way to preserve peace, and that’s the way it has to be.

imageThat, in sum, explains why monks and nuns in the Benedictine tradition are inclined to stick with the poor souls.  Like the poor souls, we are seekers of God, but we do so imperfectly and rather quietly.  Like the poor souls we are works-in-progress, and we still have quite a ways to go before our pilgrimage is complete.  And like the poor souls, we’ll accomplish all this with some measure of anonymity, or at least with a smidgen of humility.

That’s what happens when you go looking for God in the small things in daily life.  When you take this route there’ll be no big miracles to impress the neighbors;  but on the other  hand, every now and again there will be the tiny little miracles that pull back the curtain that  hides the face of God.

This may not be a very dramatic pilgrimage, and it very likely won’t end up in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square, with acclamation by a crowd of 100,000.  But together with a host of other poor souls we’ll in time enjoy the fulness of God.  Along the way the company will very likely be a delight, however.  And together, at journey’s end, the face of God will warmly welcome us latecomers to the heavenly banquet.

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+On October 31st some 185 guests from neighboring parishes joined us at Saint John’s for the vigil of All Saints Day.  Among the number was Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud.  All were served up with tours of the relic chapel, as well as the thirty-four private Mass chapels in the crypt of the abbey church.  Following the vigil service monks and guests gathered for coffee and cookies in the chapter house.  It was wonderfully crowded in there.

+On November 2nd, the feast of All Souls, we processed to the abbey cemetery for a short prayer service.

+Different cultures and traditions remember the dead in different ways, sometimes to the edification and even delight of those who come later.  In graduate school I and a few of my classmates took regular walks through the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, where we marveled at the tombs of the famous and the less than famous.  Among my favorite monuments was one of a well-known Congregational minister.  On it were emblazoned the words “Lord, how I love thy law.”  Since the whole business of the Reformation hinged on observance of the law, we appreciated the delicious irony here.

imageSince then I’ve always made a point to visit such places when I can, and among the most interesting has been the city cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine.  A couple of years ago I used a few photos from that scenic spot in one of my posts, and I’ve recently constructed a gallery of photos that gives the flavor of a park beloved by the local citizens.

+In the Middle Ages monasteries often served as burial sites, and sometimes the permanent residents of the church included the rich and the famous.  The Abbey of Saint Denis, located in the suburbs of Paris, is justly celebrated as the first gothic church in Europe, and its stained glass was and remains stunning.  But visitors come today to gaze on the tombs of the kings and queens of France, who reside in stately splendor.  The photos in today’s post portray the royal pantheon.

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The Blame Game

Perhaps you were as astonished as I to read about the recent conviction of some seismologists in an Italian court. Their crime was breathtaking in its scope and diabolic if true: they had failed to predict an earthquake that had devastated a hilltown and its neighborhood. The area had a long history of seismic activity, but locals must have assumed that there would be no more tremors ever again. Then came this latest nasty one; and because of scientific neglect scores lay dead and the landscape was in ruins. Someone had to be blamed.

What equally amazed me was the court’s apparent lack of interest in the motive for this crime against humanity. Were these rogue scientists completely indifferent to the sufferings of people? Was this a hate crime? Was this an act of vengeance for their failure to get adequate raises or elegant new Gucci-designed lab coats? We’ll never know until someone offers them immunity for their testimony. Meanwhile, most of us are left to speculate; and the northern Italians now live in terror of where the next crazed scientist might strike.

We may wring our hands and lament this “scientists-gone-mad” story, but jurists on both sides of the Atlantic have already seen the silver lining. They’ve begun to lick their chops, because this case opens unimagined opportunities for justice to be done, and for damages to be collected.

What’s mind-boggling is the wide net that can be cast. What about all those palm readers who promise love and fortune but time after time fail to deliver? What about weather prognosticators who guarantee sun but send hail instead? And what about the clairvoyants who withhold detailed and life-saving information? And then there’s the horoscope industry. The latter just cries out for regulation and enforceable standards. It’s enough to keep a congressional committee in session for decades. But justice must be done, and culpability must be assigned.

Ever since Adam blamed Eve, and Eve fingered the serpent, human beings have always tried to shift responsibility for their mistakes onto others. For one thing, no one wants to look bad in front of other people. Assigning blame to others accomplishes two things, then. It leaves our reputation for perfection intact; and conversely someone else looks bad by comparison. We are to be trusted; while others should not be trusted. We appear to be capable only of good; while the source of evil is found exclusively in our neighbor. What outcome could be better?

There is a down side to this, however. If we don’t deserve any blame for the sins we commit, then we don’t deserve any credit for the good we do. And there’s the rub for many of us. I’m as willing as the next guy to point fingers at the faults of my neighbors. But I also know that I am unlike most of my neighbors — thanks be to God. And when it comes to doling out blame on others, I and the Pharisee in the gospel are of the same mind. He and I are members of the same congregation, and we have zero in common with that miserable publican. The latter was righter than rain when he admitted his failings. But I and the Pharisee deserve a pat on the back for the great things we do.

Abbey church: east door

Dishing out blame all the time is a dangerous thing, and we’d be better off doing it sparingly — if at all. For one thing, others may not deserve the blame we heap on them. God forbid, they might even be innocent. But beyond that, if we engage in an ongoing blame game we can grow blind to our own reality. If we never own up to our own faults, there will never be a shred of a chance for growth or personal conversion.

In the Catholic liturgical tradition we have many opportunities to confess our failings. At the beginning of each Eucharist there is a penitential rite in which we own up to our sins; and among our sacraments is the rite of reconciliation — aka, confession. The goal of these rites is not to impart a deep sense of guilt from which we cannot escape. Nor are they intended to leave us miserable and wretched. Instead they focus us on our own reality. At the end of the day we can blame everyone else for all the troubles in the world. But until we admit our own solidarity with other sinners, we miss entirely the helpng hand which God extends to us. That hand guides us through the rough spots and into a fulness of life that we can never achieve all by ourselves.

Guesthouse garden

As for our friends in Italy, I sympathize with their predicament. If the meterologists and psychics and fortune tellers all admit their guilt, they might wind up in jail. But if they don’t admit it, they might end up in jail anyway — along with paying punitive damages. Perhaps it’s time for them to proclaim their innocence and fly off to Brazil.

Most of us don’t have that option. Wherever we fly, or to whatever place we think we are escaping, we will eventually discover we are still the same person. We’ve brought along with us our gifts, most certainly, but the liabilities have trailed along with us as well. So my advice is that we may as well own up to our own reality once in a while. Let’s stop passing all of the blame onto others, and let’s shoulder just a little bit of it ourselves. Maybe then we can be grateful for the hand that the Lord extends to us each day.

Abbey crypt: the relic chapel

Abbey Notes

+Throughout the month of November the monks of Saint John’s Abbey remember both our departed confreres, as well as people for whom we’ve been asked to pray. The month begins with All Saints Day, which is the occasion on which we honor the vast number of the blessed who don’t have an assigned feast day in the church calendar. On that day we bring out icons and other remembrances of the saints, and we open up the relic chapel, located on the lower level of the Abbey church.

On the feast of All Souls, November 2nd, we make our annual visit to the cemetery for noon prayer. Then, through the last day of November, we pray for the departed friends of the Abbey. In recent years we have invited visitors to the Abbey church to complete a card that lists the names of those for whom we should pray. As we enter the church for Mass or the liturgy of the hours, individual monks take a card from the basket below the crucifix, and we pray by name for the persons inscribed on the card.

Since we began that custom, I for one have appreciated the chance to connect with others who now sleep in Christ. Sometimes I’ve run across the name of someone I know. More often than not it’s someone unfamiliar to me. But each time it’s a reminder of my kinship with others who went before me and did the best they could with the gifts that God had given them.

+On November 1st our confrere Brother Urban Pieper passed away peacefully. He spent most of his life as a gardener, and for ages he managed the production of vegetables and flowers from the Abbey garden. Generations of novices and young monks worked under his direction, and at the end of a hot summer afternoon he would welcome them into the garden house for popcorn and a cool drink. We will miss his smile and his gentle ways.

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