Posts Tagged ‘Basilica of Saint Mary Minneapolis’

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.


+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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imageAdvent: Pious Purposelessness?

Fr. Daniel Durken has not been gone from our midst all that long, so memories of him are still quite vivid in the monastery.  During a long and productive life he taught scripture to undergraduates at Saint John’s University, was editor at The Liturgical Press, and for a while served as novice master.  He excelled at all, but we remember him best for his love of the English language.

As a preacher Daniel had a unique style, and we looked forward to his displays of wit in the pulpit.  What was most remarkable was not just what he had to say, but how he said it.  For one thing, alliteration was the signature element in all of his homilies.  Effortlessly he could string together phrases and even sentences that hung on a single vowel or consonant.  I’m guessing he was predisposed to this, since his initials were DDD.  But his expertise didn’t end there, and many a well-crafted sentence became grist for thoughtful meditation.

A friend of mine reminded me of this last week when she wrote about the onslaught of work as Christmas approaches.  She knows from experience that the season can be too much for her, and that’s when she pauses to glance at a note that Daniel penned to her long ago.  “You can’t do everything altogether at the same time at once right now.”

imageObviously this points up the major shortcoming of multi-tasking.  We mere mortals can do one thing at a time, and if so we can do it pretty well.  Or we can try to do a bunch of things at the same time, and the results likely will be shoddy.  Less obviously, this is also a reminder of the impact of deadlines that come nearer and to-do lists that lengthen.  Ironically, those lists tend to grow longer at the very time of the year when the days grow shorter.  It’s a recipe for panic.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent John the Baptist makes his entrance into the Advent story.  The gospels portray him as a voice crying in the desert, and his message is striking for its simplicity.  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths.”  It’s all a very nice thought, but do any of us really have the time to add one more thing to our to-do lists?  Could this be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back?

The interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not a good practice run for the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.  Actually, for most of us it’s a crazy time of frenzied shopping, congested traffic, holiday parties and the like.  It’s a high-stress time when people and events can push many of us to the breaking point.  We do it all to promote goodwill and build community, yet some of us still find ourselves lonely and depressed.  We can often feel like we walk the paths of life alone.

It’s important to realize that John the Baptist is not asking us to add one more item to our to-do lists.  Rather, he suggests that this may be the best time to set everything aside for as long as it takes to make some sense of it.  Where is all this mindless activity taking us?  Do we even know what we want to do with our lives?

imageJohn the Baptist offers a way to deal with the season and the pressure, and it’s a matter of sitting down and sorting things out in the light of our gospel calling.  If tasks do not have some ultimate meaning or purpose, then chances are they lead to dead ends.  If hyper-activity leaves us dazed by mid-day, then it’s possible we’ve become little more than hamsters on a wheel.

Making straight the way to the Lord is not just another job.  It’s not pious purposelessness, to use some of Fr. Daniel’s alliteration.  A focus on the Lord gives perspective, and it helps us prioritize all the stuff we think we need to do.  A focus on the Lord provides the criteria for effective triage.  If something contributes to personal peace as well as to goodwill among family and friends, then it can stay on the to-do list until it finally gets done.  But if it doesn’t help us realize a vision of Christ in our lives, then off the list it should go.

So John the Baptist is not trying to choke us with one more assignment.  Rather, he urges us to simplify our lives.  Focus on the Lord, he suggests, and all the pieces will come together — eventually.

This Advent, then, if we have too much to do and we’re doing it all poorly, then let’s try to do at least one thing well.  Let’s heed John the Baptist and get a grip on ourselves and go out and get lives.  Preferably we should get lives rooted in the Lord; and if we do so, all else will come our way besides.  Of course this is easier said than done, until we finally start to do it.


+On November 30th we celebrated the lighting of the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  This year it was different for two reasons.  First, after umpteen years we finally had to dispense with a live tree in the Great Hall.  Our insurance company and the fire department had badgered us for years to stop dragging in a live tree, for fear of fire.  Because of that, long ago we stopped decorating it with lights.  This year we finally went with an artificial tree that should last us for years and years.  But with that came the opportunity to decorate it once again with lights.  So it really is a sight to behold.

+On December 5th the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict performed their annual Christmas concert at the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis.

+John the Baptist has been a favorite subject for artists for centuries.  At Saint John’s images of him abound, including the stained glass in the Great Hall and the sculpture by Doris Cesar in the abbey church.  The third photo is a mosaic from Lourdes, and at bottom is another mosaic, from the cathedral of Orvieto in Italy.

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Crucifixion w_creditGood Friday: Jesus Embraces us from the Cross

We don’t often take the time to consider the artistic differences that distinguish one crucifix from another.  In one figure Jesus may gaze out with stately bearing;  in another he may suffer gruesome torment;  and in still another he has accepted death with serenity.  In each case the artist has picked up on an aspect of the suffering Christ and run to the logical conclusion.  In each case the artist has the potential to speak eloquently, or miss the  potential of the scene entirely.

I was particularly struck by the artist’s ability to teach when I first saw the illumination of the Crucifixion in The Saint John’s Bible.  Artist Donald Jackson had portrayed the figure of Christ in a way I’d not conceived before.  The figure of Jesus and the cross itself were pitched forward, almost as a kite ready to go aloft.  And while the corpus is abstract, the gold leaf conveys a sense of energy — an energy that almost explodes on the page.

This is not a defeated Jesus.  This is a Jesus who is undergoing radical transformation.  Death has not crushed him.  Rather, death has unleashed something truly awesome and powerful.  A metamorphosis is taking place.  Death has had no power to destroy.  Rather, Jesus has broken any chains of death, and instead a scene of intense drama has played out on the page.

Crucifix, 15th century, Abbey church

Crucifix, 15th century, Abbey church

To people scared to death of death, the prospect of transformation provides a glimmer of hope.  But to those who have undergone intense pain and suffering in their final journey of life, the figure of Christ at peace offers a measure of consolation.  The 15th-century Flemish crucifix that hangs in the Abbey church at Saint John’s is just such a figure.  Whatever he may have suffered, the face of this Jesus is tranquil and peaceful.  He is now beyond pain, and the inner beauty has returned after the agony of the cross.

There are so many varied crosses because we each carry quite individual crosses — as does each individual artist who tries to depict this awesome experience.  We each look to Jesus for reasons that are unique to ourselves.  Some look to him for backbone, some for guidance, some for consolation, some for hope that suffering will subside.  Oddly enough, all of these hopes that we direct to Jesus on the cross are ones he seeks to address and embrace.

Crucifix, Castile-Leon, 12th.  Cloisters Museum, New York

Crucifix, Castile-Leon, 12th. Cloisters Museum, New York

In the next few days we will celebrate the Triduum, the most solemn days of the Christian calendar.  On Good Friday we will experience the liturgy of the passion, which has the potential to summon to our imagination all of the varied crosses we have seen, and all of the crosses that we carry.  Each of these images contributes somehow to our understanding, because Jesus on the cross embraces the meaning of it all.  He does indeed suffer unbelievably.  He does forgive.  He is compassionate.  He is serene.  And ultimately he is triumphant — because he conquers the cross and reaches out to each of us.

Throughout Christian history there have been several strands of theology that attempted but ultimately fell short in describing the full reality of our belief in Jesus Christ.  For better or for worse we have called those heresies, and we rejected them not for reasons of intolerance but simply because they took us in the wrong direction.  Among those who narrowed our understanding of Jesus were the docetists, who denied the humanity of Jesus.  According to them the crucifixion was an illusion, because Jesus had no body which could be tortured.  It was all a ruse to trick the devil and to rescue souls from the prison of an intrinsically evil body.

Saint Alban's Abbey

Saint Alban’s Abbey

But orthodox Christians pray in the conviction that Jesus was indeed both human and divine.  Son of God, he embraced our humanity and suffered and died just as we all must.  In that he is one with us.  Just as surely our own sufferings are no fantasy, so is Jesus’ suffering no charade.  He authentically shares in all our sorrows.

One of my favorite prayers from the Mass is said rather quietly by the priest at the offertory.  As the drops of water mix with the wine in the chalice, the words softly come:  “through the mingling of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”  That ultimately is the mystery of the cross.  And it is also the consolation of the cross for all of us who are confused or suffer or are tortured by life.  Frail and mortal as we all are, Jesus comes to remind us that we have within us the life of God.  From the cross Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, just as he has shared in our humanity.

Dawn at Saint John's Abbey

Dawn at Saint John’s Abbey


+On March 21st I attended a reception and luncheon for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University.  It was held at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Phoenix, AZ.  Needless to say, the weather was adequate.

+On March 23rd I gave a day of reflection to members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  I had given the group its first-ever retreat day last year, and it was wonderful to see many familiar faces and to meet several new members.

+On March 21st our confrere Brother Shuuta Maximilian Oka renewed his vows in the presence of Abbot John Klassen.  This ceremony took place at our priory, Holy Trinity Monastery, in Fujimi, Japan.

+In anticipation of Good Friday, our confrere and junior monk, Brother Nick Kleespie, offered a reflection on the illumination of the Suffering Servant from The Saint John’s Bible.   You may see the illumination and hear his narrative at this link.

Brother Oka renews vows

Brother Oka renews vows

+Two alumni of Saint John’s University celebrated the election of Pope Francis in very distinctive ways.  On March 13th, the day of the election of Pope Francis, alumnus Chris Stroh, ’04, recorded an improvisation on the Gregorian chant “Tu es Petrus” (You are Peter).  In this video he plays the organ at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, where he is principal organist.  It was a lovely way to celebrate the arrival of a new pope.

On the day of the installation of Pope Francis as bishop of Rome and Pope, viewers at Saint John’s were startled to see Sebastian Gomes (BA ’07 and MA ’11) approach the lecturn to do the first reading of the Mass.  He was in Rome as part of Salt+Light TV of Toronto, assisting the Vatican Information Services in working with the multitude of media outlets present in Rome..

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