Posts Tagged ‘American Institute of Architects’

Crucifix, ca. 1150-1200, Leon-Castile, The Cloisters Museum, New York.

Crucifix, ca. 1150-1200, Leon-Castile, The Cloisters Museum, New York.

Lent: What’s a Person to Do?

I’m one of those people who never know what to do about Lent.  Should I deny myself and give up a whole bunch of things?  Should I do something proactive?  Should I do nothing, except pray and meditate on where I’m going with my life?  Or should I ignore Lent altogether and get on with things?  Given that life has challenges enough already, might the latter be the best course of action? (Or inaction, in this case.)

The first option is worthy of consideration because tales of heroic self-denial have been real crowd-pleasers through the centuries.  Of course everybody prefers horror stories of carnage and mayhem; but if we can’t get those, we’ll generally settle for the out-and-out bizarre.  Small wonder that the Lives of the Saints don’t bother to recount how some pious soul gave up candy for Lent.  Frankly, who cares if someone foregoes dessert on every third Thursday of Lent — especially if the alternative is a tale of some genuinely eccentric person.

Abbey chapter house, entranceConsider for a moment the fifth-century Egyptian monk who stood for all of Lent.  Assuming that he wasn’t a raving maniac, he at least expressed himself in a naively off-the-wall way.  I’ve never been sure how this effort nourished his spiritual life, but for his troubles he did get into the Church’s version of the Guinness Book of Records.  And I suspect he also got a case of fallen arches, and he likely racked up a big fat sin of pride as well.  After all, we’d never know about him except for his very successful public relations campaign.

There’s also the complication of conflict of interest — where you become the chief beneficiary of your own asceticism.  It would kill me to give up Cheetoes and shed fifteen pounds for Lent.  I would feel the pain of every bag left uneaten, and every ounce of weight lost.  But on the other hand there’s no denying the well-being that would come my way.  The value of Cheetoes stock might ebb if enough of us did this, but the health benefits could be tremendous, at least until Lent was over.  So I’m not at all sure that ascetic practices that align with pure self-interest get you anywhere either.

Walkway from chapter house to church.

Walkway from chapter house to church.

Switching to the proactive approach, I could elect to be nice for all of Lent.  I know full well that there are moments when this is a no-brainer (especially when I’m asleep); and even for much of waking time it’s easily done.  But when people are around, “being nice” can become a major chore.

So “being nice” would be an excellent resolution for Lent, were it not for my fear of falling into yet another terrible trap.  The fact of the matter is, a great many people assume that all Minnesotans are nice.  That’s why they coined the term “Minnesota Nice.”  So once again, what virtue is there in being merely who you are supposed to be already — even if you were nice with a vengeance? Worse still, if I were nice for all of Lent, I would only reinforce what many consider to be an unhealthy social stereotype.  I certainly don’t want to demean my fellow citizens of Minnesota any more than we are already.  “Nice” — what a put-down.

Stairs in Chapter House/Pavilian.  Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Stairs in Chapter House/Pavilian. Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Before I drive myself mad with logic-chopping, it’s good to remember that we humans have an excellent facility for rationalizing virtually anything.  We can transform the bad into good and the good into bad, with scarcely any effort.  Such is the power of spin, particularly when no objective principles hold sway to ground our ethical reasoning.

Lest we smugly think this is a byproduct of the modern political process, I like to keep myself humble by remembering that Saint Benedict has already written about this, fourteen hundred years ago.  He referred to the four kinds of monks, and the worst of these were the sarabaites, who were rationalizers par excellence.  “What they like they call good; and what they dislike they call bad,” Benedict wrote.  Therein is the challenge we all face when we try to find meaning in a world in which I am the measure of all things.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel.  Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Given that, Benedict’s advice that the entire life of a monk should be a Lenten observance can turn our attitudes about Lent upside down.  Lent for Benedict is no set of mental games played for a few weeks each year.  Rather, Lent serves to remind us of the seriousness of our lives.  We are not junk, because God never makes junk.  We instead are noble creatures, created in God’s image; and each of us is endowed with vast potential.

Lent then is not really a “time out” for doing less or doing more.  Instead, it is a season in which we do an inventory of our lives.  It’s a season when we recall that we were created from dust and will return to dust, and in the interval we are given a tremendous opportunity.  For Benedict, this “truce” in eternity is the gift of life that God bestows on each of us.  Why would we want to waste any of it?  Why would we not strive to rise above the merely mundane to become what God hopes for each of us?

This Lent I definitely will consider giving up Cheetoes and shedding fifteen pounds.  I will also try to be nice, even if people expect me to be so anyway.  But mainly I intend to give some thought to the kind of person God created me to be.  I’m fairly certain that God didn’t create me to be junk.  God has more thoughtful motives than that.  And I confess that I’m just a bit curious about what God may have in mind for me and for you.

Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.


+On February 8th I was the chief celebrant at the Abbey Mass.

+At Saint John’s we’ve always been concerned about the quality of our environment and the architectural design that shapes our lives.  This was true for the intricate brick-work in our nineteenth-century buildings, as well as in our contemporary structures designed by Marcel Breuer.

With this in mind, we were delighted to learn that on January 11th the American Institute of Architects announced that its highest award will be given to Vincent James and his Minneapolis firm, for their design of our Blessed Sacrament chapel and the chapter house addition and renovation.

Mosaic pavement, Saint Mark's, Venice

Mosaic pavement, Saint Mark’s, Venice

The project was complicated, to say the least.  We needed a Blessed Sacrament chapel for reservation of the Eucharist and private prayer.  We needed an elevator to access the lower-level parish church.  We also needed additional bathrooms for the Abbey church, as well as bride’s and groom’s rooms.  Uppermost among our goals was public access to the Abbey chapter house, and an entryway that would service all these objectives.  And finally, a pedestrian tunnel to connect the guesthouse to the church was an important feature.

The design by Vincent James was simple yet ingenious.  A two-level addition to the chapter house provided access to everything, and the results have been a structure that is seamless in its efficiency and beauty.

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