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IMG_2326The Feast of St. Benedict

Today is the feast of St. Benedict, the patron of western monasticism.  It’s a major feast day at Saint John’s, and for most of the monks it was the day on which they made their first vows.  Today, then, we celebrate with those who professed twenty-five, fifty, sixty and seventy years ago.  We’ll also witness as Brother Cassian professes his first vows.  He’s now completed his year of novitiate, and today he will make promises for three years, in anticipation of the day when he will make his solemn vows.

Contrary to what most people imagine, monks in the Benedictine tradition — including Cistercians and Trappists — do not vow poverty, chastity and obedience.  Those vows surfaced much later and they are identified with orders like the Franciscans and Jesuits.  Since the sixth century, however, we’ve professed three vows which continue to distinguish us within the religious orders of the Church.  “Stability” binds us to a place and to a particular monastic community, and does so for life.  “Conversion to a monastic manner of life” — conversio morum — is a more general concept that embraces many facets.  It encompasses celibacy and simplicity of life, and it assumes a communal life of shared prayer and work.  Finally, “obedience” is what we profess to the abbot, who is our spiritual father.

IMG_2328A year ago when Brother Cassian was clothed as a novice, the abbot asked what he sought.  As novices have done for eons, he answered that he had come to seek God and to do so in the fellowship of this community.  The search for God is a quest we share with all Christians of course, but life in the context of a particular community is what distinguishes the monk’s vocation from that of the married or single person.

In our baptism we all began the search for God, and clearly monks have no monopoly on that.  It’s a universal hunger that should be the hallmark of all people of faith, monks included.  At the same time, the term “search for God” has a rather fuzzy ring to it.  What in the world does it mean?  Does it mean that we take the initiative and hunt for the same experience of God which Moses had on Mount Sinai?  Do we instead look for something transformative, as when God threw Saul to the ground?  Or do we wait for the moment of spiritual ecstasy, such as when the love of God transfixed the heart of Theresa of Avila?

I can say with some measure of assurance that those are not the things that most monks I know are looking for.  Nor have I ever met a monk who has experienced any of that.  Nor have I met any monk who’s been disappointed that none of that ever happened to him.  Are we failures or frauds then?  Not really, because all the while we keep looking for God in all the other places.  And most particularly, we look for God in the ordinary.

IMG_2331The search for God in a typical monastery sounds dull and repetitive, and it’s not the sort of thing a Hollywood producer would make a movie about.  Still, it’s in the very ordinary exchanges in our lives where we start to pick up the hints of God’s activity.  In the goodness and generosity of a very ordinary monk we see God’s hand at work.  In the support and love that we receive from one another we experience God reaching out to us.  And in the common struggle to better our lives we find the inspiration to get out of bed and resume the quest each day.

Monks certainly don’t have the inside track on the search for God.  Others have the same aspiration, though perhaps instead in the context of a married commitment or friendship.  But this monastic regimen is the life we’ve chosen.  We’ve opted to face the challenges and opportunities of life in the context of a particular group of brothers, and we’ve chosen to be with them for a lifetime.

IMG_2372Do we see God all the time?  Certainly not!  On any given day the presence of God doesn’t seem all that obvious.  Yet, God is there in the praying of the liturgy of the hours and the Eucharist.  God’s there in our work and in our recreation and in our service to guests and students and coworkers.  On any given day we might have to squint hard to see God at work, but over a lifetime it gets easier to perceive the hand of God shepherding us along.  It gets easier to pick out those footsteps which God left as he walked beside us.  It’s then that we discover that God has elected to do all of this in the fellowship of our community.

That’s the theory anyway, and that’s some of what we celebrate on the feast of St. Benedict.  The seniors for their part can reflect with astonishment at what God’s managed to do through them through the years.  Meanwhile Brother Cassian today takes up this quest to seek God daily and deeply in this community.  And we pray that the Lord will sustain us all as we continue on this pilgrimage.

IMG_2378Notes

+Last week some fifty monks and sisters joined us in choir, and their numbers added immensely to the quality of our music.  They were here for the annual meeting of the Monastic Institute, hosted by the School of Theology at Saint John’s University.

+On July 8th I presided and preached at the funeral for Mr. Richard Madden, at St. Anselm Church in Ross, CA.  I had known Dick and his wife Joan for many years, primarily through his work in the Order of Malta.  Dick had a professional career that was only outshone by his amazing volunteer work.  For six years he served as the president of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  There was nothing ordinary about Dick, including the trip to the cemetery, which was located some forty-five minutes away in a country churchyard on the Pacific coast.  We were running late, pressed by the promise that the cemetery workers would call it quits at 2:15.  We left at 1:15, but to gain time the driver of our car opted for a short-cut through the mountains.  You have to picture a stretch-limo that included five of us and Dick’s wife Joan, racing up a narrow winding mountain road, hoping to make it in time.  Needless to say, everybody got carsick.  Then came the summit, and with it the really big surprise.  There, blocking the road, was a sign that announced that the road was closed due to an avalanche.  So we had to race back down the mountain from whence we’d just come.  We were good and late to the cemetery, but the cemetery workers had mercy and all went well.  It was a day to remember.

IMG_2400+Today, July 11th, Brother Cassian will pronounce his first vows.  He is likely the first person in our community to come from Atlanta, and he comes complete with a non-Minnesota accent.  He attended Belmont University in Nashville and then did a graduate degree in theology at Vanderbilt University.  Before coming to the monastery he worked at the Dorothy Day House in Duluth, MN.

+The first three photos in today’s post show my favorite doorway at Saint John’s, the entrance to the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium.  In the foreground is a grid of littleleaf linden trees, and the bees were busy a couple of weeks ago with the linden flowers.  In the tympanum of the doorway is a carving of St. Benedict.  Other pictures in this post illustrate the lush summer vegetation in the monastic garden.

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imageMonastic Profession

Last week we experienced a wonderful transition in the abbey.  It began on July 8th when Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian as a novice.  So began his year of discernment, during which he considers a calling to the monastic life and a commitment to our community.

On Saturday the 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict, and having come to the end of his year of novitiate, Brother Aidan pronounced his first vows.  In that same ceremony Brothers Eric, Isaiah, Lucien and Richard made their solemn vows.  They had completed a year as novices and three years as junior monks, and from this point they take their place as full members of the community.  Among other things this means that they now take part in the monastic chapter meetings, and they get to cast a vote alongside the rest of us.

Most people have never seen any rite of religious profession, which is too bad.  For one thing, it’s filled with symbolism that includes gesture, word and clothing.  But of even deeper significance, it can convey a sense of vitality and hope for the future in any community.

imageIn our case, much of the ritual dates back 1,400 years to the time of Saint Benedict.  So it was that Abbot John clothed Brother Cassian in the monastic habit, in the presence of the community, at morning prayer.  On the 11th the novice and four juniors who were to profess knelt individually before Abbot John, and they read the petition which each had written in his own hand.  Then, again in accord with the Rule of Benedict, each signed his petition on the altar, and together the five petitions rested on the altar through the remainder of the liturgy.

Abbot John then gave to Brother Aidan a copy of the Rule — which was sort of redundant because he had read it many times already.  Following that the abbot clothed the four solemnly-professed monks in the cuculla.  This is a flowing wool garment that we wear over our habit, and it is best-bestowed in July when the weather is at its hottest and most humid.  This time around the weather came very close to ideal for that, but not quite.  Still, visitors never fail to ask why the other monks don’t wear the cuculla in mid-July, and the answer is simple.  The cuculla is best worn in winter when it can do some practical good.  But for the newly-professed it signifies full membership in the community.  There’s always time to be practical later on.

imageAt the end of this liturgy it’s our custom to gather under the bell banner to give the sign of peace to the newly-professed.  On Saturday that was the joyous conclusion to a splended event, and it marked a new stage in the lives of the professed and the community as well.

The admission of new members into the community quite naturally brings growth.  That may be true in terms of numbers, but it’s truer still when it comes to spirit.  Saint Benedict writes that the abbot should seek counsel from all the monks, and not just from among the seniors.  There is wisdom to be had among the young, he writes, and when six people become a part of the community, the pool of wisdom is bound to grow — at least in theory.

On a more tangible level, change is bound to take place with the addition of even one new monk.  Simply put, new people change us and we change them.  And this change comes because Benedictines do not create clones when new people enter.  We welcome them lock, stock and barrel.  We welcome their talents, their personalities, their experience, as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future.

imageSo what have these young men brought to our community?  For one thing, they’ve brought geographic diversity.  Novice Cassian is likely the first in our community to come from Atlanta.  He attended Belmont University in Nashville and later earned a graduate degree in theology from Vanderbilt — yet another first for us.  Brother Aidan lived in Okaland, CA, and he attended the University of California at Santa Cruz.  He also holds an MFA degree.

Our solemnly-professed are a diverse lot as well.  Brother Richard grew up in Sioux City, IA, and he graduated from Saint John’s University.  After that he worked in the theater department at Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict.  Brother Isaiah grew up in a military family, but primarily in Tucson; and he too went to Saint John’s.  After graduation he worked as an accountant for several years at Price Waterhouse in Phoenix before coming to the monastery.  Brother Lucien lived in San Antonio, where he eventually earned an MA in history at the University of Texas.  Finally, Brother Eric grew up in Ohio, attended college at the University of Dayton and earned and MS in engineering at Ohio State University.

imageOn paper their backgrounds and varied interests show that they bring a rich diversity to our community.  But the important point that I always celebrate is the presence of each as an individual in our community.  Each brings character and unique wisdom.  Each is a reminder that God does not call people by group or in herds to the monastery.  Rather God calls individual souls by name, and each is a gift to us.  That’s the hope anyway.

This year the feast of Saint Benedict was a happy day in the life of our community, and for that we senior monks give thanks.  At the very least it gives us pause and a reason to be optimistic for our future.  And it suggests that the Lord is highly likely to call other workers to the vineyard.

But regardless of who comes next, we can rejoice because of this infusion of wisdom.  After all, we need all the wisdom we can get as we continue the daily search for God.

imageNotes

+On July 8th I presided at the abbey eucharist, and you can access the sermon, Putting on the Face of Christ, through this link.

+On July 9th through the 11th we hosted thirty alumni from the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who were here for a reunion and retreat.  Given that each one has spent a year in service at some Benedictine community around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories to share.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  In addition to the profession of vows, we also celebrated the anniversary of profession of monks who made vows twenty-five, fifty, sixty and seventy-five years ago.  Pride of place went to Fathers Magnus and Fintan, who made their vows to Abbot Alcuin, in 1940.

image+The photos in today’s post all come from the celebration on July 11th.  We were also favored by the presence of several hundred guests, who filled the nave of the abbey church.  We were especially delighted to welcome Bishop Donald Kettler, our bishop and good friend of the abbey.  He sat with us in the choir stalls, and I’ve included his picture in this post as well.

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