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Posts Tagged ‘Benedictine Volunteer Corps’

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Martha, Mary and Lazarus:  Friends of Jesus

Lazarus, Martha and Mary.  Brother and sisters.  Friends of Jesus.  Disciples of the Lord.  Within the monastic tradition our default buttons have generally been set toward Mary.  She’s the one who had chosen the better part, as Jesus said.  And so we single her out for her dedication to prayer and meditation on the words of Jesus.  We also think of her as a parallel to Mary the mother of Jesus.  She too had much to ponder in her heart.

All the same, beyond the fact that their neighbors knew that they were close to Jesus, there’s really not a lot we know about these three.  In the gospel Lazarus makes a cameo appearance as a dead man who must have been surprised when Jesus called him from the tomb.  As for Mary, we scarcely hear a peep from her, and of the three she best embodies the advice Saint Benedict gave to his disciples.  She was good at listening.

E2C8EFC3-92AF-4CA6-9381-32C97C4E2347It’s Martha who comes across as the strong and by no means silent personality here.  She was forceful and not at all bashful about saying what was on her mind.  She was not afraid to complain to Jesus when her sister slacked off in the duties of hospitality.  She even delivered a slight rebuke to Jesus, who in her modest opinion could have done something to prevent Lazarus’ death.

I’m going to hazard the opinion that Jesus liked each of these siblings precisely because each brought different gifts to the table.  Mary listened;  Lazarus could meet Jesus halfway when called;  and Martha was one of the few people who could tell Jesus what she thought and get results.  Perhaps even Jesus needed a friendly nudge and a bit of advice every now and then.

The fact is, Jesus chose three very different people to be his friends;  and that matters a great deal to us.  And so whether we’ve preferred the path of Lazarus or Martha or Mary matters less than the fact that the Lord loves us for who we are rather than who we are not.  In short, perhaps the Lord is telling us that it takes all kinds to make a family, a monastic community and even a Church.  There’s room for us all among the friends of Jesus, and for that lesson we owe a debt of gratitude to Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

9760B680-06F9-4E59-8170-4EC44FB0B2C8NOTES

+I didn’t have a lot on my calendar this past week, but there was still plenty to keep me busy.  Among other things I hosted a member of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, who made a five-day retreat to initiate her year of probation as a Dame in Obedience.  I also hosted Don and his brother, John, both from the Bay Area.  They were our guests for two days.

+On July 25th two returning members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps spoke to members of the community about their year of service at the Benedictine priory of Tabgha in Israel and at a community in Uganda.  Meanwhile one of our last remaining volunteers for next year left for the abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome.

F67E591C-F011-494A-BD02-E96966CC2B8D+The week’s big lesson came from a trip to the emergency room of the Saint Cloud Hospital.  I was not the patient, but I had volunteered to drive in one of my confreres for what should have been a short and simple visit.  It turned out to be a seven-hour ordeal, and I learned a lot.  Up to now I had been spared a trip to the emergency room, and I was surprised at what I have been missing.  For one thing, it was interesting to survey the variety of people who frequent emergency rooms.  Among those who helped to pass the time was a young mother who let her three-year-old son run free-range for over an hour.  Finally a couple of mothers took charge and kept him entertained.  May God bless them forever.  My award for the most irritating behavior went to the irksome lady who spent an hour and a half going through her contacts list, calling everyone whom she’d ever met to tell them that she was in the hospital.  No doubt it was the most exciting thing that had happened to her in a long time — if not in her entire life.

+On 27 July our confrere Fr. Corwin Collins passed away.  Born in Port Jefferson, NY, he served most of his years as a pastor and chaplain.  This marks the fourth death of a confrere in five weeks, and while each of these four was more than ready to go, we wonder why they have chosen mid-summer to make their departure.  We will miss them all.

+Today is the feast of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and this post is a transcription of the sermon that I will deliver at the abbey mass later today.

+The campus at Saint John’s is particularly lovely right now, but the prize this week goes to the flower beds in the cloister walks of the abbey church, which the photos in today’s post illustrate.

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Why We Feebly Struggle

Chapter 11 of the Acts of the Apostles describes a group of Christians in Jerusalem, irate that Peter feels free to eat anything he pleases.  Even worse, he has welcomed Gentiles into their community.  By whose authority did he do this, they demanded to know.

Peter’s explanation was simple:  the Holy Spirit told him to do it.  And their response?  It was the equivalent of saying: “Oh that’s wonderful.  Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

I have a hard time believing that Peter escaped their wrath so easily, because in fact he didn’t.  What Acts 11 fails to tell us is that the Christian community argued about these sorts of things for decades. Such questions were at the heart of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

953E75EC-1CEA-47F1-9899-6373B04F6704It’s tempting to wax nostalgic for a strife-free Church, but such nostalgia would be misplaced.  It would be misplaced because there never really was such a Church.  When Jesus ascended he didn’t leave behind a community that had all the answers.  In fact it was a community with too many questions.  But that was the whole point behind the gift of the Holy Spirit; and through the centuries the Spirit has guided the Church in its quest for the truth.

We primarily have Jesus to blame for the struggles we’ve faced over 2,000 years.  After all, his original point was that the sacrifice of birds and bullocks may be a nice gesture, but what God really prefers is purity of heart.  That purity of heart comes from the daily struggle to understand and follow through on God’s will for us.

If the Church has struggled for 2,000 years, we should not lament that we also feebly struggle at times.  It might be nice were life to have no challenges, but such a life would not be real.  Struggle is a sign that the Holy Spirit works within us.  As gold is refined in the fire, so the Spirit nudges and sometimes even pushes us around.  And the Spirit does so to awaken us to the presence of Christ within us.

NOTES

+My return trip from Lourdes last week was largely uneventful.  Last year’s return was also uneventful, but mainly for the lack of an event that was supposed to happen.  Last year a strike meant no trains, and that left some of us stranded in Lourdes.  This year the French trains ran efficiently and at a steady 300 kpm, and they are a marvel to ride.

AFB10947-CCDB-495F-9820-2AC1085C28E1+On May 12th we celebrated graduation at Saint John’s University, and for me it represented a milestone.  Six years ago two friends of mine, John Lyden and Jack Marshall, conceived the idea of bringing students from Immokalee High School, FL, to Saint John’s for college.  Our first two students, Alejandro and Jaime, graduated this Sunday, and it was a great day for them and their families.  For their support of these great students Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on Jack and John honorary B.A.s.  What made it even better was the fact that neither John nor Jack saw this coming.  It was a total surprise.

+Following graduation ceremonies we monks hosted the newest group of Benedictine Volunteers, as well as their families, at a reception and dinner in the courtyard of the Quadrangle.  Save for the chill in the air, it was a delightful event.

+On May 13th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered.

+It was a bit of a shock to record an inch of snow earlier in the week, but green is now the dominant color in the landscape at Saint John’s, as the photo of the monastic garden at the head of this post illustrates.  The second photo shows senior Alejandro Guzman from Immokalee, FL, with Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath.  Below that is a photo of my friends Jack and John after receiving their honorary degrees.  At bottom is a photo of four of our Cistercian student-monks from Vietnam, who received Master of Divinity degrees on Sunday.  They are pictured with a confrere from California and a friend from Minnesota.

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Be It Resolved:  In 2019 Remember to Consider the Lilies

The other day I ran across a slip of paper I’d stuffed into a book several months ago.  On it I had written a portion of verse 28 from Matthew 6:  “Consider the lilies….”

I recalled immediately why I’d written that down, and it had nothing to do with running outside to see if I could spy any lilies in bloom.  Rather, I thought of the potential to recast the teaching of Jesus into a more congenial light.  For better and generally for worse, many people who are tired of religion pigeonhole Jesus as just one more negative guru who’s heaped impossible demands on people.  For the moment I’ll set aside Jesus and concede that there is a grain of truth here.  After all, “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” are serious restrictions on our personal freedom.  I don’t like those restrictions any more than the next guy, but that’s part of the price that both Jews and Christians pay for sticking with the Bible.

874F9A70-648A-4EF0-B86E-8BF6C5E108F8Anyway, skeptics do sometimes tar Jesus with the same brush of negativity, and to some extent it’s his own fault.  After all, he did say that he hadn’t come to abolish either the law or the prophets.  So he too is partly responsible for the onerous baggage that we have strapped to our backs.

That’s why I wrote down “consider the lilies.”  Jesus said that too; and while the phrase doesn’t have the gravitas of the Ten Commandments or the commands to love God and neighbor, it’s a command all the same.  And it’s unlike many of the others that we chafe under.  In fact, there’s something delightfully wonderful here.  For one thing, there’s a touch of whimsy about it, particularly if we take it literally.  But lilies also conjure up a certain innocence and playfulness and beauty.  And on a symbolic level the command to consider them suggests a certain opportunism.  After all, lilies don’t grow year-round except in greenhouses.  If we’re going to consider the lilies, especially in places like Minnesota in the winter, then we need to keep our eyes peeled for the moments when they go to the trouble of blooming.  But beyond the literal meaning, then, those lilies symbolically represent all the glimpses of innocence and beauty and playfulness that come our way each day.

1AE17F35-7DEA-406F-8198-D8C612F59C56Purists will note that I have failed to provide the full context of “consider the lilies.”  Actually the verse is less about lilies than it is about us.  It concludes with the observation that God loves us even more than those lilies.  For all their simple beauty, lilies still can’t hold a candle to one of the most beautiful of God’s creations.  That creation would be we.

By tradition New Year’s Day provides an excuse to begin again, and in that spirit I’ve jotted down at least a few resolutions I’ll try to honor in 2019.  First, I’ve resolved neither to kill anyone nor steal anything.  Nor am I going to grumble about these onerous restrictions on my personal freedom.  Of course success will require an entire year, and so I’ve also resolved to consider the lilies every chance I get, starting on 1 January.  On the morning of 1 January I’m going to welcome into my life every bit of gratuitous joy and beauty that I can.  And there may be a bonus — it may even make loving God and neighbor not just less annoying, but perhaps even life-giving.

43685329-0794-432F-AE45-04DB80789BC5NOTES

+Christmas eve Mass in the abbey turned out to be a real tour-de-force, musically and otherwise. Among other things, our confrere Brother Lucian returned from gratudate studies at Notre Dame to join us, and he read the second reading in Spanish, which was a first for the Christmas liturgy.  Later, with a nod to tradition and the origins of our comminity, we sang one verse of Silent Night in German.

+On 29-30 December several alumni of last year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps joined us for a weekend retreat.  Fr. Nick presided at the liturgy on December 29th, which featured the gospel that contains the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, which is sung at compline.  Himself a former Benedictine Volunteer who served in Tanzania, he concluded his sermon by singing the Nunc Dimittis in Swahili.  As near as I could tell, his pronunciation was flawless.

+On 30 December in the abbey church I baptized Luke Chaphalkar, infant son of my colleagues and friends Rajiv and Emily Chalphalkar.  Luke was a real trooper, and in fact he had been in training for this for weeks.  When the water washed over his head he quite naturally assumed it was time for his bath, which he loves.  Happily, several of the monks provided musical support for the service.

+We were saddened a few days ago by the passing of Sister Wendy Becket.  Sister Wendy became an unlikely celebrity through her PBS series on art history.  But more particular to us, we honored her with the Fr. Colman Barry Award at the opening of an exhibit of folios of The Saint John’s Bible at the V & A Museum in London in 2006.

+The photos in today’s post show the abbey church during the Christmas season, including the tree at the baptismal font.  Below is a photo of Sister Wendy with calligrapher Donald Jackson, Brother Dietrich and Abbot John, taken by Edmond Terkopian/PA Wire, at the V & A Museum in London in 2006.

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Dinner Guests from the Bible

If I could host anybody from the Bible at a dinner party, whom would I invite?  Someone asked me that the other day, and I have to admit I’d not really thought about it before.  But it’s a great question because there’s such a wide range of characters to choose from.  Who would make my A-list, and who would be discreetly omitted?

It’s actually more fun to consider those whom I wouldn’t invite.  For sure Cain wouldn’t get an invitation, nor would Samson.  They’d be too rowdy.  Nor would most of the prophets, simply because so many of them were difficult to live with.  And it’s nothing personal, but I’d turn Herod away at the door simply because his presence could make the other guests just a little nervous.

F495F3EE-FE85-4EAF-BD8D-45A198CD5703My A-list would be surprisingly long.  David and Solomon would make it, most definitely.  Neither was perfect, but as kings they knew how to behave properly at dinners.  Rebecca would be there for her cleverness and Mary Magdalene for the wonderful stories I hope she would tell.  For his conversation Paul would be fascinating if not scintillating.  And Jesus would be at the top of my list.  He’d be there not because of favoritism on my part but based solely on his reputation.

The gospels portray Jesus as accomplished on the banquet circuit, and they provide lots of evidence to back that up.  At Cana, for instance, he helped out with the wine, which spared the hosts a lot of embarrassment.  He was a gracious guest at the home of Zachaeus and an equally gracious host at the Last Supper.  Clearly he had thought about the art of dining and conversation, as many of his parables suggest.

82F04CE0-6386-49FB-9AC1-070395C3E2EEThen there are a few individuals whom I would not have thought to invite, and John the Baptist is one of them.  It’s not because he was a nobody, because today we honor his memory all over the place.  My own monastery is dedicated to him, and the Order of Malta is actually the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — to name but two from a myriad of examples.  Still, I have to believe that John didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.  For one, the Bible makes no mention of any polished manners, and he seems to have had none of the savoir-faire of Jesus.  He didn’t care much about food, as his diet of locust and honey suggests.  Nor did he care much about fine clothes, because he was definitely not known as a snappy dresser.

More to the point, John was the sort of person who readily said what was on his mind.  It’s true that people went miles out of their way and into the desert to hear him, but it wasn’t because of any reputation for glamour.  All of that makes him a rather intriguing figure, but I wonder if people weren’t willing to risk having him at a dinner party.

D319D554-959D-48C1-91CB-17759C9C262EOn the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist steps onto the stage and into the story leading to the Nativity of Jesus.  He’s intriguing, but for reasons that distinguish him from Jesus.  He preached in the wilderness and not in synagogues or in Jerusalem.  He didn’t carry himself like a rabbi, in contrast to Jesus.  And while he too had disciples, he certainly didn’t run around with the smart set.  Yet, like Jesus, he was a powerful preacher.  Like Jesus he didn’t always tell people what they wanted to hear;  but also like Jesus he was not afraid to tell people what they needed to hear.

I sort of hate to admit it, but there’s real value in having someone like John the Baptist sit at our table.  He might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, but without someone to call us out of ourselves, how would we ever become aware of the larger world?  Without someone to awaken us to our potential for growth, how would we ever crawl out of our comfort zone and achieve the things we never thought possible?  Without someone like John the Baptist, how would we ever own up to the mistakes we make?  John, in short, is a mind-expander.  He urges us to examine ourselves and be self-aware.  He points to paths of which we are unaware, and he tells us that the Lord is waiting for us, just ahead.

When all is said and done I suspect that each of us needs someone like John the Baptist.  Such people help us to find our way through life.  They remind us that the path to a full life is one that includes God.  And if that sounds a bit difficult or inconvenient, consider the ultimate reward of a life well lived.

I suppose then that it’s worth the risk to invite John the Baptist to sit at our table.  He may not make our A list, but consider how wonderful it could be to host a guest who only wishes the best for us.

BA9617E4-BED2-47BD-9427-74FB7BCD8A6FNOTES

+As we progress through Advent many of our monks assist with penance services at area parishes.  On December 5th I assisted at the Church of Saint Martin, in Saint Martin, MN.  It’s a parish that the monks of Saint John’s have served since its foundation in 1858, and our confreres Frs. Edward and Julius serve there today.  Located about twenty miles west of Saint John’s, it was the first time I had ever visited the small town of Saint Martin.

+On December 6th I flew to Naples, FL, where I attended a meeting of supporters of our scholarship program that enrolls alumni of Immokalee High School at Saint John’s University.  This spring we will graduate our first two students from Immokalee, and it’s been a wonderful experience.  To say the least, their experience at Saint John’s has been transformative.

+On December 3rd we hosted the members of next year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps at evening prayer.  The 26 soon-to-graduate seniors of Saint John’s University comprise the largest group of Volunteers that we’ve ever sent out, and they will serve in thirteen monasteries in twelve countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

+The first three photos in today’s post are Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, a work of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Italian, ca.  1465-1501.  It is now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, as are the following two photos showing John the Baptist and the Last Supper.  The latter were originally part of an altar panel, and date from ca. 1490, France. At bottom is the cohort of Benedictine Volunteers for next year.  Our confrere Fr. Timothy supplied the photo.

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The Big Banquet of Consequences

Matthew 18 is for me one of the more difficult gospel passages to digest.  On the one hand Jesus asks his followers to forgive their neighbors seventy-seven times.  Then in the next breath he tells the story of a slave whose sin seems unforgivable.  That slave had begged for and received forgiveness of a debt owed to his master, only to turn around and treat a fellow slave mercilessly.  For this act of meanness the first slave paid dearly, and it suggests that there may be limits to the “seventy-seven times” rule.  Given that this was likely a case of hypocrisy, however, I can understand why Jesus might be moved to make such an exception.

A couple of years ago I read an excerpt from columnist George Will that’s lodged in my mind ever since.  He cited Robert Louis Stevenson to the effect that “Sooner or later we will all sit down to a big banquet of consequences.”  Neither Will nor Stevenson were writing about religion, but the words apply, particularly so in light of the events in Pennsylvania during the past few days.  In this more recent case the sins of some were compounded by the official hypocrisy of others.  It was the latter who had demanded the highest of standards for others, but then in the next turn they expected people to give them the benefit of the doubt.

0793C23C-487C-41CD-9421-32666BFC518DIf I’m not mistaken, this was a major theme in the preaching of Jesus.  Regularly he hammered away at those scribes and Pharisees who placed heavy burdens on others while they crafted easy outs for themselves.  Fortunately Jesus never said that the sin of hypocrisy was unforgivable, but serious amendment of life had to figure as a necesssary prerequisite.

As surely as the sun appears in the morning, sins do come home to roost, and no one should be surprised at the ripple effects.  In this most recent case sin has devastated the lives of those sinned against.  But sin has also impacted those who were thought to be innocent bystanders.  The crushing disappointment that they now experience should astonish no one, because it’s a byproduct of the social dimension of sin.  Those who trusted that the Lord would walk with them always — in good times and in bad — now find themselves wandering alone in the valley of darkness.  Or so it might seem.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn, it may be this.  Whether we have amateur or professional status as sinners, our lives do matter.  What we choose to do or leave undone matters.  All things matter, for good and for ill, and our lives have consequence.  And so we can never let sin — in any of its forms — get the better of us.  So it is that we should prepare ourselves to sit someday at the big banquet of consequences.  And may we be so blessed to discover that we have been seated next to the Lord.

4682522B-2DF9-422C-9F6B-9090197E5C72NOTES

+On August 16th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expanded version of the sermon that I delivered that day.

+On August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the first of our students returned to campus for the fall term.  This group mainly consisted of members and trainers of the football team.

+On Sunday August 19th The Saint John’s Boys Choir provided music at the abbey Mass.  They did a sterling job, all the more so because they had just completed their annual beginning-of-the-season choral camp.

+On Sunday evening the students working as resident assistants in the University dormitories joined us for evening prayer.  By the time every one else had been seated, some one hundred visitors had nearly filled the choir stalls.

+Happily for me, I stayed home the entire week, and I had no complaints.  Just comparing notes with some of my confreres allowed me to count my blessings.  As University chaplain, Fr. Nick went with 120 freshmen and 30 upperclassmen on a several-day orientation trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.  The thought of overnights in the wilderness sends shivers up my spine.  Meanwhile, Fr. Lew flew to East Africa to visit several of our Benedictine Volunteers.  And in the last hint of the change of seasons, Br. Lucian returned to Notre Dame for his second year of doctoral studies, following a nice stint at home with us.

+In today’s post I’ve selected work from the church of Santa Croce in Florence.  At top and bottom are terracotta altarpieces by Andrea Della Robbia, both dating from the end of the 15th century.  The second photo shows the interior of Santa Croce, while the Annunciation is by Donatello, ca. 1435.

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Saint Benedict:  Seeker of God in Ordinary Things.

Saint Benedict never struck me as the sort who aspired to have his own feast day in the liturgical calendar.  Nor would he have taken well to the title “Patriarch of Western Monasticism.”  On the contrary, all of this likely would have left him slightly embarrassed, because none of it squares with the simple life that he chose.  For someone who sought the presence of God in the ordinary, such grand gestures would have seemed entirely superfluous.

That said, there’s no denying the enduring influence of Saint Benedict.  Born in Umbria in the late 400’s, he went to Rome for studies.  There he found the social scene repugnant, and soon he fled to the mountains outside of Rome, where he began his search for God.  From his experience as a hermit and then as an abbot, he drew the principles that undergird his appreciation of human behavior.  From Eastern sources like Saints Basil and John Cassian and especially from his meditation on the Scriptures, he knit together a spirituality that puts him squarely in the Wisdom tradition of Christian writing.

E6D23A48-6235-44E5-8285-382FDEC17E48From all this Benedict distilled the elements that went into his Rule for Monks.  Today, nearly 1,500 years later, his Rule still guides men and women living the monastic life.  That might not surprise him all that much.  But his popularity among many outside of the cloister would likely astound him.

For modern readers there are passages in the Rule that may seem hopelessly dated.  But peel those away and you find a spiritual vision that centers on one fundamental goal.  People come to the monastery to seek God, and around that aspiration Benedict structures an experience that reveals God at every turn.

Benedict writes that the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.  All you need to do is to open your eyes.  First you will see God in the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community.  The monk also sees Christ in the sick brethren and in the guest and in the poor.  And in a departure from his sixth-century neighbors, Benedict writes that one can find wisdom (and God) even in the youngest of the brothers.  I’m tempted to say that if Benedict were writing today, in our youth-centered culture, he would have to reverse the teaching.  Only then would we understand the counter-cultural statements he often made.

59087894-7378-46E7-9D0B-280396B38F37In the monastery Benedict proposes a balanced life which is neither harsh nor burdensome.  Monks are to work and pray, but they are not to engage in the competitive ascetical practices that distinguished earlier generations of monks in Egypt and Palestine.  His monks were to have enough to eat, sufficient sleep, decent clothing and all the other things that were necessary for life — in proportion to each monk’s need.  In fact, Benedict discouraged any self-denial that might stir up pride.  His asceticism was not a regimen of doing without, but rather doing pretty much the same as everyone else.

While prayer and meditation predominate in his monastic schedule, Benedict’s emphasis on the importance of work was unusual for Roman society.  For him all work was noble and all monks should work.  Neither should they take pride in their talents, nor should they denigrate those who labor at menial jobs.  Every task and every person has value in the monastery.

So what does Benedict have to offer to the 21st century?  First, and despite our tendency to think otherwise, Benedict reminds us that God is not absent from our world.  God regularly appears in the poor and the sick, and in the faces of our family and friends.  And perhaps God even shines forth in our own faces when we serve others.

When it comes to a balanced life, Benedict is equally pointed in his critique.  Contemporary culture tends to value work above all else, and the highly-paid are the most respected of all.  But in Benedict’s estimation all work is noble, and all who work for the good of others deserve our respect.  Nor should we dismiss non-economic activity as worthless.  Prayer has no monetary value, nor do music and recreation and time spent with family and friends.  But in so many ways those are the activities that make life worth living.

We shouldn’t need a saint to remind us of this.  But on the other hand, someone who does recall us to these priorities has to be among the saints of God.  Maybe that’s why we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict.  He certainly doesn’t need this feast day;  but we do.

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+On July 11 we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  Today’s post first appeared in 2013 in The Abbey Banner, which Saint John’s Abbey publishes for its friends.  To my knowledge I’ve never used this article in this blog before, so in the interests of conservation (my time and wits, primarily) I decided to recycle it as today’s post.  It worked in 2013, and not all that much has changed in our appreciation of Saint Benedict since then.

+On July 11th we witnessed the first profession of vows by Brother Jacob Berns, as well as the renewal of vows by several of our confreres.  To cite the youngest and oldest of them, Brother Simon-Hoa celebrated his 25th anniversary, and Fr. Hilary marked the 70th anniversary since his first profession.  Brother Jacob grew up in Perham, MN, and is an alumnus of Saint John’s University.  After graduation he worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, and then worked in music ministry in his parish.  He plays the viola and organ (not simultaneously), and I look forward to hearing him at the organ console soon.

Likely the highlight of the profession Mass was a communion hymn sung by Brothers Andrew, Thomas, Emmanuel, and Benedict — the four Cistercian monks from Vietnam who have been living and studying with us.  They were joined by a Florida priest-friend of Brother Simon-Hoa.  With four of them singing in Vietnamese and Brother Benedict playing the flute, their voices literally stole the show.

8EC0EF55-3234-482B-904D-56E4FF8CEECD+On July 14-15 we hosted 75 oblates of the monastery, who returned to Saint John’s for the annual oblate retreat.

+On July 15 we hosted at Mass and lunch some 30 Abbey volunteers who generously contribute their time and energy in a host of activities around the monastery.

+Saint Benedict wrote that “guests are never wanting” in a monastery, and that has certainly been the case this summer.  For several days we have been blessed with the presence of Bishop Felipe Estévez, from Florida.  The bishop of Saint Augustine, he prayed with us and joined us for meals in the monastic refectory.  We thoroughly enjoyed his company.  Currently we are hosting Frs. Efrem de Montellá and Bernat Juliol from the Abbey of Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  They direct the Escolonia, the choir school at Montserrat; and they have been here to talk about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  For several years we have had graduates of Saint John’s working there as volunteers, and they continue a relationship between our two abbeys that stretches back nearly a century.

+The top three photos in today’s post show the site of Benedict’s first monastery, at Subiaco, outside of Rome.  At Saint John’s images of Saint Benedict abound.  The stone etching of Benedict’s motto — “Work and Pray” — is embedded in the exterior brick of the Quadrangle, while the granite carving of Saint Benedict is mounted on the wall inside of the east cloister walk of the monastery.  Benedict’s preference for remote locations is confirmed by the view from Monte Cassino, at bottom.  The monastery is renaissance in design, but the view of the clouds and countryside is as Benedict left it.

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Pentecost:  An Everyday Sort of Feast

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the great parables of the Old Testament.  In brief, it describes a group of people who assumed they had no limits, and they expressed this in a tower that would reach endlessly upward.  But of course they failed;  and as the tale concludes, God frustrated their designs through the introduction of languages that disrupted their common purpose.

I call it a parable because that’s really what it is.  On the one hand it certainly does try to explain the variety of languages that impedes seamless communication among people.  On the other hand, it’s a parable that explains why humans as a group have such a hard time staying on topic and on mission.  One day we all agree on a common goal, but the next day rugged individualism and tribalism interfere with the best of common pursuits.

2A7EC61B-1D14-4A61-B2A7-D371C0D189C8Beyond that, the Tower of Babel is a parable of hubris.  Somehow people had come to the conclusion that they had created themselves.  In a flight of fancy they believed that they were like God or perhaps no longer needed God.  They imagined themselves to be almighty; and the Tower of Babel was only one of several instances in which God disabused them of that notion.

That’s a key bit of context for Pentecost.  Gathered in an upper room and afraid of the world on the other side of the door, the disciples were paralyzed with fear.  They locked the door, I suppose in hopes that the world might go away.  Then came the Spirit, and with the Spirit came the power to break free of the consequences of Babel.  Variety of languages no longer constrained them.  They spoke of the Lord in all languages, and in their new-found freedom the sky was the limit.

In retrospect it’s easy to appreciate how all of this energized the apostles.  On the one hand, they were the same people as before.  They still had their limits, and they knew them.  But the Spirit breathed new life into them, and the apostles then earned the right to take as their own the words of Mary.  The Lord began to do great things through them, just as he had done with Mary.

I suspect most of us don’t think about how the Spirit can work through us.  Most days I assume that the Spirit works primarily through other people.  Leadership is the responsibility of others.  Action is the responsibility of people of talent and energy.  And the works of the Spirit are for people far better positioned than I.  But of course on all counts I’m wrong.  All of these items are in my job description too.  As God did with Mary and the apostles, the Lord does with me:  the Lord can and will do great things.

6282581C-AF49-4349-8CB9-D00BC479D7CEFor centuries preachers have spoken of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, and that’s certainly true.  It’s the day on which the Spirit came to rest on the apostles and told them to stop sitting around and get on with life.  Jesus had come to give life, and to give it in abundance.  It was the job of the apostles to carry on with that work.

But the gifts of the Spirit did not end on that one day.  I give the apostles credit for realizing that the job was far bigger than they, and they immediately went off and shared responsibility.  They breathed on others the life of the Holy Spirit when they baptised.  They conferred the Holy Spirit when they imposed hands on others in confirmation.  They were the first to recognize that the Spirit was not meant for them alone.  The Spirit is meant for all, and the Spirit is a gift that speaks across any and all human boundaries — and not just the linguistic ones.

For the disciples Pentecost was the beginning of a strange and wonderful pilgrimage, and that same Spirit animates us as well.  That same Spirit urges us to step out from the sidelines and engage in life to the fullest.  The Spirit invites us to let the Lord accomplish some pretty significant things in us — things that could very well surprise us.

So it is that it’s nice to celebrate Pentecost once a year.  Still, the point of Pentecost is this:  it’s an everyday sort of feast.  It’s a reminder of how the Spirit empowers us to reach out and accomplish the impossible, even if it has to be on a weekday.

C2F920AE-003B-40D5-9D7B-0D610726B5C7NOTES

+This past week we hosted in the Abbey the twenty-two individuals who will comprise this fall’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  All graduated from Saint John’s University on May 13th, and so this marked their first week out of school since kindergarten.  It was a real delight to have them with us during their weeklong retreat in preparation for service next year in Benedictine monasteries around the world.

+I just finished reading a book which a good friend gave me for Christmas.  Now that I’ve finished it, I realize it did not really reflect anything of the Christmas spirit, but it was entertaining, to say the least.  Jeffrey Lee’s God’s Wolf tells the story of Reynald de Chatillon, who turned out to be one of the most unscrupulous of the 12th-century crusaders in the Holy Land.  To his credit, Reynald did succeed in bringing Christians and Muslims together in a common appreciation for him.  It seems that people on all sides came to mistrust him.  And it likewise seems that he was noted for his indiscriminate violence, if both Christian and Muslim sources are to be trusted.  The book reads almost like a novel, and it illustrates how complex politics in the Middle East can be, even in the 12th century.

+In last week’s post I showed illustrations from the Abbey of Saint Pierre on top of Montmartre in Paris.  I noted that most of the people who trek up the hill rarely visit the abbey, but they flock in droves to Sacre Coeur, its more famous neighbor.  It truly is an impressive edifice, as these photos suggest.

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