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Posts Tagged ‘Babette’s Feast’

The Palace of the Grand Master, Malta

The Palace of the Grand Master, Malta

The Parable of the Cheese Sandwich

This past week we were on our annual retreat at Saint John’s Abbey, and our director was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP.  Fr. Timothy was for many years the Master of the Dominicans, and he currently serves as the Master of Blackfriars at Oxford.  Of even greater import for our purposes, Fr. Timothy is an eloquent preacher and prolific writer, which one would hope to find in a member of the Order of Preachers.  Even better, he speaks in a lovely English accent, which should surprise no one, since he’s from England after all.

I say “even better” because long ago we monks discovered what suckers we are when it comes to foreign accents.  For one thing, people with foreign accents sound so much smarter than we, since by implication they know two or more languages.  That’s at least one more than most of us speak.  And if an English accent doesn’t necessarily imply two languages, at least it suggests a level of worldly sophistication that many of us envy.  All things being equal, we’ll sit and listen to an English accent without complaining for hours on end.  Not so the American accent.  After all, what could an American monk possibly tell us that we don’t already know?

photoNo doubt Fr. Timothy’s experience, learning and wisdom all contributed to the success of his conferences.  But he also likes to season them with stories.  So plentiful and so charming were his stories, that many of us were swept up by them and often forgot the point of a particular conference.  We forgot, that is, until he reeled us back near the end of each talk.  Then, all of a sudden, we’d see the carefully-cut path through the trees and behold the magnificent forest laid out before us.

My favorite of his tales involved a group of co-workers who paused each day to take their lunch together.  With a curiosity more intense than his peers, one fellow took out his sandwich, opened it, and with undisguised pleasure declared:  “Ah, Cheeeeese.”  On Tuesday, they repeated the ritual.  But this time the enthusiasm was toned down.  “Oh.  Cheese again.”   By Wednesday a note of disappointment had seeped in.  “Oh no.  Not cheese again.”  By Thursday it had become:  “Rats.  Cheese again.”  And by Friday he had become thoroughly disgusted.  “Cheese.  Why is it always cheese, day after day after day?”

photoHis co-workers had watched with amusement, until on Friday one ventured to ask:  “Why don’t you ask your wife to make some other kind of sandwich?”  To which came the reply: “Oh, but it’s my job to make the sandwiches.”

Like any good parable, the story of the cheese sandwich is capable of many applications.  But I’ll start with the monastic life, because it’s what I know best.  We world-weary monks are accustomed to seeing novices come to the monastery with all the excitement in the world.  For them it’s a heady time, and on the day they are clothed in the habit the intensity of the spiritual life is especially acute.  The future is incredibly promising, and what we call “first fervor” seems to be both boundless and endless.  But it’s neither, as we all know.

Sooner or later reality sets in, and all of us begin to notice the little failings in the people around us.  It’s never easy coming to terms with people whom you realize are prone to lots of mistakes and even a few sins.  But  you have to reconcile yourself with them, somehow.  It’s doesn’t mean that we lower our expectations of one another.  Rather, it is a process of identification with our brothers.  They are fallible.  But so are we.  And once we admit that we are on a pilgrimage to God, together, then  it’s easier to accept our common lot.  As brothers we strive to do our best, and we have to help each other along the way.  That’s the reality that blossoms when the innocence of first fervor peters out.

photoBut a few never make it.  There comes a day when life in the monastery makes no sense.  In the face of the human, nothing seems to matter any longer.  The spiritual quest that brought us to the monastery begins to seem pointless.  It’s scarcely worth the effort to get out of bed or show up for anything.  This surrender is what John Cassian and others have called acedia.  It’s the noon-day devil, the terror of the night, in which life in the monastery — and perhaps life itself — seems pointless.  It’s devoid of any and all meaning.

That “dark night of the soul” has also gripped the likes of Mother Theresa and Theresa of Avila, as well as a host of lesser lights.  That number may even have included us as well.  For a while, or for a long time, the God whom we thought was there seems absent.  And then we wonder if God has abandoned us — as Jesus did on the cross.  And more desperately, we question whether there even is a God.  Such is the scourge of the noon-day devil.

photoThat experience is not isolated to our relationship with God, nor is it found exclusively in monasteries.  It happens to people in parish churches;  and it happens within marriages and friendships.  I presume, for example, that people marry for the best intentions in the world; and they do so in the full flower of love.  Then something happens, and the life drains out of the relationship.  The other person seems distant and alien, and it’s easy to believe that there was never any love there from day one.  Worse still, there’s no hope of repairing the relationship.  So why even try?

But the parable of the cheese sandwich suggests that our fundamental assumptions can sometimes be wrong.  What if our downward spiral is not someone else’s fault?  What if God is not the one who moved away?  What if it was not our spouse who did the changing? What if it was not our friend who was the one who grew cold and indifferent?  Does it ever occur to us that perhaps it was we who did the changing and the drifting?  At what point did we become so negative?  Could it be that we were the ones who blinded ourselves to the beauty of life?

photoThere’s no easy cure for acedia.  Waiting is part of the therapy, as is opening our eyes.  “Listen” is the first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and I think that too is a key ingredient.  Common to all is an openness to see God alive and working in our world, as well as in the people who mean so much to us.  Very often this means stretching ourselves to see God and others in new ways.  And it can mean seeing them as they are, rather than as we would like them to be.

I’ve long been fond of the movie “Babette’s Feast.”  In it an entire town seemed caught up in one grand case of acedia.  At the end, after a feast that was so transformative that it’s best described as Eucharistic, the townspeople wander out and behold the night sky.  One woman marvels at the bright stars, which never seemed so vibrant as on that night.  To which another woman responds:  “Perhaps they were always there, but we just never saw them.”

As for the guy who made the cheese sandwiches, I give thanks to God that I am not like him.  I definitely would have made the cheese sandwiches, all right.  But on Monday it would have been brie; on Tuesday gouda; on Wednesday cheddar; and on Thursday Stilton.  I’d let Friday be a surprise.

photoNotes

+Last week I hosted two individuals for private retreats at Saint John’s.  Fra Jeffrey Littell made a three-day retreat in preparation for the renewal of his temporary vows as a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta.  Fra Jeffrey is from Orange County, CA, and is a member of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, to which I am a chaplain.  Mr. Stephen Klimczuk is from Santa Fe, NM, and a member of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  His five-day retreat began his year of preparation to become a Knight in Obedience in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes.

photo+Last week friends of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University embarked on a tour to Malta.  The Knights came from Rhodes to Malta in 1530, and remained there until Napoleon conquered the island in 1798.  The buildings left behind by the Knights are impressive, and include the Grand Master’s Palace, which serves today as the seat of government of the nation of Malta.  But the spiritual heart of their presence in Malta remains the hospital, whose enormous wards housed hundreds of patients.  The Knights served the patients as “Our Lords the Sick and the Poor,” and in that spirit served their patients’ food and medication on silver plates.  Since they saw Christ in all the sick and the poor, the hospital served people of all religions, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew.  The pictures in today’s post come from Valletta, the capital that the Knights built.  For forty years the Malta Study Center at  HMML has worked to preserve the archives of the Order of Malta, housed at the National Library of Malta.

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