Posts Tagged ‘Ash Wednesday’


Lourdes Revisited

In my last post I wrote about Lourdes and commented that it tends to put front and center the fundamental issues of our lives.  In part, I think, the place reminds us of our mortality.  Just as the ashes of Ash Wednesday vividly point out our earthly destiny, so does Lourdes with its focus on the ill and the suffering.  Sooner or later we will all be in that boat.

Given that, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Lourdes as an exercise in religious escapism, divorced from the realities of daily experience.  Two incidents from this last pilgrimage made that abundantly clear, at least to me.  Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I flew into Paris and then took the six-hour train trip south to Lourdes.  Generally it’s a pleasant enough journey, with some interesting though not spectacular scenery until just before arrival in Lourdes.  Four hours into this trip, however, there was an incident.  It began with a sharp application of the brakes, followed by a slight jolt that most of us felt.  Then the train ground to a halt.  Some poor soul had hurled himself in front of the train, and for nearly three hours we sat on an isolated stretch of track while the police sorted things out.  None of us actually saw the damage, but we did see the van that carried the body away.

IMG_6099It was sobering, and I naturally wondered why someone would be so desperate that he would give up on life entirely.  Did the man leave behind friends and family?  How might they respond?  I could only speculate, but I also realized that one lonely man had given us a dose of reality therapy.  Already this was no ho-hum pilgrimage.

It was something else entirely that impacted most everyone in Lourdes, even if many were blissfully unaware.  Lourdes is a high-profile place, since it is one of the most visited spots in France and it is a religious shrine that attracts considerable attention.  Not surprisingly, there are always security issues, which the French handle discreetly and adroitly.  Still, when you add to the mix four or five thousand members and volunteers with the Order of Malta, the stakes are a bit higher.

There were special concerns for our safety this time around, as was evidenced by the presence of a few plain-clothes security people who shadowed us.  God bless their souls, but their efforts to blend in just didn’t work.  Not a few in our group noticed the strapping men who seemed to follow us wherever we went.  These guys must spend half their waking hours in the gym, and physically they looked like the last people on earth who needed the healing springs of Lourdes.  Still, we were happy to have them with us, even if they made all the rest of us look like wimps.

IMG_6138No one seemed to be particularly alarmed, but the situation did raise one point for reflection.  Why would anyone want to harm us?  There wasn’t a single person in our group who had international stature, and yet there were those who wished us ill.  That’s a difficult pill for anyone to swallow.

These kinds of events inevitably raise for discussion the problem of evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do a few people despair enough to give up on life?  Why do some think that they do deeds of valor when they do harm to others?  Why do the innocent have to suffer?  To these questions there are no tidy answers.  Even the questions are a problem, because they fall outside the pale of science and are a conundrum for philosophy and theology.  Yet, ironically, they are at the heart of the human experience.

Lourdes offers its own take on these issues.  It may not  have the definitive answer to the question of why evil exists, but it does show that love is the proven antidote to evil.  The love of God, the love of neighbor and the support we offer to one another all counteract evil, and they extend hope to someone whose life seems devoid of meaning.  They offer hope to the hopeless.

IMG_6131This explains why someone might go on pilgrimage to a place like Lourdes.  It also explains why we might want to join with neighbors to approach the altar of the Lord to be renewed by God’s Word and sacrament.  Such fellowship asserts that we are not lone travelers, adrift in the world.  Rather, we are part of the community of the Lord.

We act on these spiritual impulses because of one primal urge, which Saint Augustine once described.  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  That helps to explain why we, imperfect though we may be, still try to do our best.  And we do our best both for God and for one another.  Coincidently, all this helps to make some sense of the world.  Having embraced the Lord in faith, in love we joyfully embrace the world which God has created.


+On Saturdays we celebrate the Eucharist in the monastery at 11:30 am.  That’s a useful point to note as I confess that on this last Saturday I was standing at the community bulletin board at 11:27, when someone paused to remind me that I was the celebrant for the Mass.  In panic I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there my name was down for Mass, in three minutes.

IMG_6092+On Sunday May 14th we celebrated the graduation Mass for the seniors of Saint John’s University and their families, with Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud as celebrant and homilist.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of the college as well as of the School of Theology and Seminary at Saint John’s, and he welcomed everyone with these words:  “On this day in 1966 I was sitting exactly where you are sitting today.  Things happen,” he deadpanned.  All appreciated his dry humor.

+My reading companion on the trip to and from Lourdes was a book entitled How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland.  It is a fascinating and entertaining book, which analyzes the development of English-speaking in the Middle West.  Scattered through it are allusions to the kind of humor that has emerged from the region, including one item he heard years ago on A Prairie Home Companion.  It seems that a Minnesotan married a Palestinian, and to take note of their respective nationalities they named their first-born son Yassir Yewbetcha.  My laugh-out-loud response drew polite stares on the train to Lourdes.

+Near the end of our pilgrimage to Lourdes it has been the custom for our members from the Western Association of the Order of Malta to make a visit to the village of Saint Savin.  The abbey there dates to 945, and the scenery is just gorgeous.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the visual delights that await travelers.


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IMG_1005Ash Wednesday:  Time for Intensity

“Like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your nation.  By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”

Pope Francis spoke this message to a group of Latin-American immigrants at a gathering in Philadelphia last fall.  I recall at the time how warm and personal his words seemed, and to his listeners they provided more than just comfort.  They were a reassurance that they were gifted people.  Even better, they had an important mission to fulfill in their adopted homeland.  They could and would make a difference.

Something else struck me, however.  Pope Francis may have shaped his message for immigrants, but those words applied to all sorts of other people as well.  Specifically, they describe to a T what happens when a person comes to the monastery.  A novice might feel overwhelmed by what he encounters when he walks in the door, but I suspect he never imagines the impact he can have on the community.  The newcomer causes all of us to mull over once again why we are here.   He provides a wake-up call, just in case we need waking up.  That, in my humble opinion, is one of the chief benefits to having a novice in our midst.  He begins his search for God with us, and we in turn have to adjust and grow in response to the talent he brings into our midst.  We all get to renew ourselves, and none of us is ever the same again.

IMG_0988In a couple of days we begin the season of Lent, and I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday, though not for any morbid reason.  To recall that we are dust and to dust we shall return can be off-putting, but it can also be an energizing wake-up call.  In the spirit of Saint Benedict, who taught his monks to keep death daily before their eyes, Ash Wednesday is a not-so-subtle reminder that our days on this earth are a finite resource.  Given that, we would be well-advised to wring out the maximum good from each and every day, rather than fritter the day away.  It’s a useful warning, since the last time I heard, none of us is likely to get any sizable extension for our time on earth.

People approach Lent differently, though I feel sorry for those who let the season slip by as if there could be nothing more important in life than television, texting or shopping.  For those who take it seriously, however, Ash Wednesday provides the chance to recalibrate their lives, if only for a few weeks.

IMG_0983How then might we adjust our routine in order to squeeze the most out of Lent?  Saint Benedict offers some nuggets of advice, though for starters it’s important to know that he was no fan of ostentatious self-denial.  In fact, he discouraged it because of the potential to breed spiritual competition.  What he did encourage was simple, and he included added spiritual reading and perhaps a few small sacrifices that would fly under the radar.  He was not especially interested in giving up stuff in the hopes of finding God through deprivation.  Rather, one finds God by looking for him actively, and he finds God as often as not in the faces of other people.  So the wise monk uses all his talents in service, because in his neighbor he will likely find the goal of his spiritual quest.

If the words of Pope Francis resonate for immigrants and for monks, then they likely apply to everyone else as well.  Like immigrants, each and every one of us brings a set of gifts to the table.  If we fail to use our gifts in service to others, then both everyone else and we are poorer for it.  Conversely, when we share our gifts and talents, and encourage others do so as well, we are far more likely to see Christ showing through.

IMG_0990Ash Wednesday can be depressing; but if we harness it to its full potential it serves as an invitation to live with greater intensity.  Time is short; there is much to do; and we immigrants ought not be dawdling.  God has given to us gifts of all sorts; but topping them are life, talents, and the chance to encounter Christ incarnate in all sorts of people.  What mission could possibly be more important?

There’s lots to pray for this Lent, but we could do worse than to pray that we all be good immigrants.  May we remember we have gifts, and that our mission is to use them in service to our fellow immigrants.  May we learn from one another.  May we have the insight to see the face of Christ in their faces, and may they see the face of Christ in us.  And if by chance this turns out to be the formula for a good Lenten experience, then perhaps we might extend it into Ordinary Time, and beyond.


+On February 2nd I gave the first in a series of classes in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.

+The last week was crazy-busy for me, largely because of the convergence of several projects that came due at about the same time.  First, I had to write the post for my blog, which got done.  Then my turn to write a post for another blog came due, and I finished that.  I also had a reflection due for Give Us This Day, a monthly booklet published by the Liturgical Press (done.)  After that I had an article on The Rule of Saint Benedict for The Abbey Banner, which is the newsletter for the Abbey (not done yet.)  Lastly, I worked for several days on a  twenty-page brochure, which is nearly done, but overdue.  Many other things did not get done either, but they will, in time.  But thanks to the chance to hide away and hunker down at my desk, I finished the most pressing items that were on my plate last week.  Now I get to start all over.

IMG_1011+By February we begin to weary of winter and the snow, but the landscape still has its charms, as the photos in today’s post may suggest to winter aficionados.  If you enlarge the last photo you can see people ice-fishing on Lake Sagatagan, behind the abbey.  For the record, I went ice-fishing one time and one time only, during my first year at Saint John’s.  I was a quick study, and the most important lesson I drew is that there is no fish on earth worth all that trouble.

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imageMake Lent the Cornerstone

Lent has a reassuring rhythm in the monastery.  We see it in little tweaks that carry through into Holy Week, such as a second reading at evening prayer.  We see it as well in the Friday menu in the refectory.  And then there is the gradual increase in daylight.  By Holy Week it’s almost too much to manage.

But it’s Ash Wednesday that sets the tone.  On that day hundreds of students will join us for Mass.  Many will return to the abbey church for evening prayer with us, and some will continue to do so through much of the season.  But at the end of evening prayer on that one sacred day, they will see us file off to the chapter house, where the abbot will offer a conference that he hopes will inspire us for at least the next hour or two, if not for the entire forty days of Lent.

After a hundred and fifty-nine years of Ash Wednesday conferences, none of us monks really expect to hear anything new, which is okay.  In some respects it’s reassuring to hear old themes brought out for a periodic airing.  But this year Abbot John tossed out a nugget that seemed to offer a new perspective, and that was okay too.

imageBy reflex most of us think of Lent as a time for giving stuff up.  In my youth that tended to focus on things like candy or desserts or smoking or some other simple pleasure that we coud live without for the duration.  In the spirit of the times today it might be hard drugs or Cheetos.  But whatever your fancy might be, Lent has always seemed to be the time for a cease-fire in the pursuit of pleasure.  During Lent this has been our simple gesture of giving to God what is God’s.  During the rest of the year we take it all back, and we resume giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

This year Abbot John counselled a different approach.  Certainly he didn’t want us to give up entirely on self-denial, but he did invite a reconsideration for Saint Benedict’s teaching on Lent.  If Benedict asks us to pursue our entire life in the monastery as a Lenten observance, then forty days as a sort of time-out from normal life doesn’t quite reflect that spirit.  If you give up something for forty days, with every intention of taking it up again after Easter, does that not seem to waste a good opportunity?  Does it make a mockery of the integrity that should mark the entire duration of our lives?  It might very well do just that.

imageSo it was that Abbot John encouraged us to make Lent a time of testing.  This could very well be the ideal time for a trial run of something we might continue to do long after Lent is over.  After all, if something is worth doing for forty days, it might be worth doing for a lifetime.  And conversely, if there’s something we ought to integrate into our routine for a lifetime, might Lent be the best chance we’ll ever have for a feasibility study?  After all, if I can’t do something for forty days, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll succeed in doing it for forty years.  What better time to test drive an idea that has rattled around in my mind for months, or even years.

imageWe all have our own short list of things we should have tried out years ago.  What better time than Lent to find out if we’re capable of a “new normal” in our lives.  What better time is there than Lent to discover whether something really will work for us?  And if nothing else, why go on feeling guilty for not trying?

I’m not about to publish my own short list of aspirations, mainly because Benedict admonishes his monks not to make a big splash about this sort of thing. This is a matter of personal growth and development, not an item in a personal public relations campaign.  So it is that I will keep this to myself.  Besides that, if I fail, who needs to know?

But I wil not keep to myself the one lasting piece of advice that I took away from the abbot’s conference this year, and it’s this.  This time around let’s not let Lent interrupt our year.  Instead, let’s let Lent be the cornerstone of our year.


+On February 24th the abbey concluded a four-day visitation by two abbots and two monks from other abbeys in our congregation.  This happens every three to five years, and it allows monks from other communities to make a formal visit, to interview the individual monks, and to offer an assessment to the community at the end of the visit.  Our visitors included Abbot Mark from Saint Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire, Abbot Lawrence from Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Oklahoma, Fr. Meinrad from Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas, and Brother Gregory from Saint Procopius Abbey in Illinois.

+On February 25th I taught a class on early medieval monasticism to the two novices in our monastery.

+On 26-27 February I attended the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On the afternoon of the 27th I flew with a group of alumni and friends of the University on a Benedictine Heritage tour to Italy, where we will visit Monte Cassino, Subiaco, Norcia, and other sites associated with Saint Benedict and the Benedictine tradition.  Our first stop was in Orvieto, which is one of my favorite towns in Italy.  The pictures in today’s post show the exterior of the medieval gothic cathedral, which has no peer in all of Italy.

Orvieto once again impressed upon me how small a world it is.  In the lobby of the hotel where we were staying I met a couple from Connecticut, and the husband had attended what was once our priory school in Puerto Rico.  Today San Antonio Abad is an independent abbey, but this gentleman knew several of my confreres who had taught there many years ago when it was still a new foundation from Saint John’s.


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