Posts Tagged ‘Benedictine Volunteer Corps’

Resolution: Something Risky for the New Year

Last week I made my fourth visit to the grocery store since March 6th. I’d planned out previous visits, and the store’s online chart always suggested Saturday afternoons as a good window to slip in and out. No one promised that the store would be empty, but each time I felt like I had the place pretty much to myself. But not so on the fourth visit.

Last week it turned out differently, and I wondered if others were now in on the secret. I hurried with my shopping, but I still had to wait in a properly-distanced line of masked shoppers until it was my turn at the cashier. Wanting to appear knowledgeable, I casually noted my surprise at seeing so many there on a Saturday afternoon. “Well, you just never know around here,” she genially offered. “But then again, today’s Wednesday.”

I was a little embarrassed to have forgotten what day of the week it was, but I was grateful that she’d not made a federal case out of it. After all, if I were her I’d be wondering what home was so careless as to let one of the patients wander freely. However, on reflection I’ve concluded that last Wednesday was an anomaly — aka just one of those days.

More than a few of us have lost track of the days during the last few months. Thankfully that need not be a sign of feeble-mindedness, but then again it raises an important question. Has anything good come out of 2020? If so, what could it possibly be?

Call me crazy, but despite the trials and tribulations I think there has been some good. In his year-end column, for instance, writer Dave Barry noted one great non-event that’s not gotten the recognition it deserves. The killer wasps didn’t kill anyone in 2020. Who knows why, but going into 2020 they were rated to be the plague of the year. So that has to count for something.

As for me, 2020 has not been an unmitigated disaster, despite not going anywhere for nearly ten months. To cite but one positive, for the first time since pre-school I now take daily naps. Also, for the first time since high school I now have 20/20 vision, thanks to cataract surgery. Add to the list the fact that I’ve delighted in more time with my confreres in the monastery, and you begin to see a pattern. Perhaps because of all of that I’ve clawed back some serenity in my life, and to that I attribute the lowest blood pressure in ages.

Above all, however, I’ve emerged with a renewed appreciation for the importance of courtesy and respect. The cashier at the market was only the latest among many who made my life better during the past year. It’s good to remember that she didn’t have to do what she did. She could have pressed the secret button and called security. Rather, she did what she did because of courtesy and professionalism.

In his Rule Saint Benedict notes that the tongue holds the key to life and death. By our words we can do so much damage, and by our words we can also do so much good. That brings me to the business of resolutions for the new year.

I could draft a long list of resolutions, but I’ve decided that the times demand that I speak a few kind words to someone each day. If by chance the recipient doesn’t need to hear them, that’s okay. I still need to say them, if only because they are great therapy. They remind me that the Lord still expects something important from me. Of course there’s always the danger that I might end up killing someone with kindness. Is that a risk I’m willing to take? Definitely.


+On December 31st after evening prayer our community gathered in the Great Hall to celebrate the coming of the new year. There were refreshments, pizza, a few games and lots of good conversation. Most monks don’t feel the need to stay up until midnight, and that certainly is the case for me. Through the years I’ve celebrated midnight with those who live in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. That way I welcome the new year at midnight but am in bed by 10:15 pm Central Time.

+On January 1st 25 monks and members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps hiked across Lake Sagatagan to the chapel on the south shore of the lake. Due to my healthy respect for ice, I stayed home. I still hold to the belief that if God intended us to walk on water we’d be doing it year round.

+On January 2nd we woke up to a wonderful display of hoar frost. The first three photos in today’s post illustrate that. Over the years I have compiled a file of favorite photos, and at bottom is one I took on 27 March 2016.

+On January 4th our confrere Fr. Nick Kleespie began a D.Min. program at Fordham University. Since the program requires people to remain in active ministry while studying, he will continue as chaplain at Saint John’s University. We wish him well in his studies.

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Seize the Opportunity

For two weeks I had intended to give Carl a call. He’d been ill, as I had learned from a mutual friend, but there seemed to be no hurry. Finally, however, I resolved that I had waited long enough. “Today is the day,” I said to myself.

That morning I learned that Carl had died the night before.

Why I put things off is beyond me, but the results are usually the same: a big helping of regret. And in Carl’s case it meant that I had missed the chance to say goodbye. It was a lost opportunity that I will always recall with sadness.

The story of the ten lepers cured by Jesus is the tale of an opportunity lost by nine and seized by one. In failing to thank Jesus the nine committed no sin. Just as ordered, they presented themselves to the priests and then went about their business. No doubt they were glad to be cured, but did they ever realize the opportunity they had passed up?

Only one leper returned to thank Jesus. Driven by curiosity, his second encounter with Jesus deepened the relationship, and he walked away transformed.

It’s no sin to lack curiosity or initiative. All the same, the person who urged those with ears to hear and eyes to see invites us to take advantage of every chance we have to meet him. It’s the chance to see the face of Jesus at every turn. And to see Jesus even one more time is an opportunity not to be missed.


+On November 11th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass. The sermon I gave that day was an abridged form of today’s post, which in turn is a reflection I wrote for the November issue of Give Us this Day. Published by The Liturgical Press at Saint John’s Abbey, Give Us this Day is a monthly publication with Mass texts, an abridged form of the daily Liturgy of the Hours, and reflections by contemporary and ancient authors. I write occasionally for that publication.

+On November 12th at the end of evening prayer Abbot John blessed the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who have been with us since the end of August. Because of the pandemic, most of them were not able to go immediately to their assignments around the world, and while many will leave shortly a few will continue to do service on campus at Saint John’s. We have appreciated their presence at prayer and Mass, and they have filled up a nice gap in the pews in the church. The photo at the bottom shows them at their morning gathering, which takes place after morning prayer. Brother Paul is the director of the program, and it continues to provide an extraordinary experience to about twenty alumni of Saint John’s University each year.

+On the evening of November 13th monks and many guests gathered in the abbey church to hear a concert of organ and sung hymns that served as the first major musical program to highlight the expanded organ. It was a wonderful evening.

+The top photo in today’s post is an example of one time when I was there and seized the opportunity. On the way to morning prayer last Tuesday I glanced out the window to see an extraordinary sunrise, which I knew would not last long. I hurried to the vantage where I could get this shot. The second photo was one I took at the end of morning prayer, and by then the sky had turned a dull gray. But at least the snow was fresh.

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Check in with Yourself

This morning I set out to compile a list of all the things that I do routinely, every day, without much prompting. The list wasn’t all that long, and at the top was eating. I for one never have had to put breakfast, lunch or even dinner on my to-do list. Those get done without fail and without reminder, versus the other stuff that needs writing down if it is to have half a chance at getting done.

This exercise popped into my mind because of something I saw last week when I joined our incoming Benedictine Volunteers for lunch. They were here for a two-week retreat and orientation, and as luck would have it they were having a silent day when I and a confrere met with them. I had looked forward to hearing their stories, but I and my fellow guest told the only stories that day.

Anyway, as the Volunteers filed into the dining room they wrote two numbers on the big register of names. One number was body temperature, which each took before signing in. The second was more curious, as each inscribed a number between one and ten. What might that be about?

Brother Paul, the director of the retreat, later explained that number to me. On a scale of one to ten it represented where each was that day. Certainly it was imprecise and unscientific, but it was meant to be a barometer of spiritual, emotional and social vitality that day.

I found it a curious exercise, but then I reflected on the importance of regular self-evaluation. While most of us need no prompting to eat, we often need all kinds of encouragement to do the other things that need doing. Above all we should be curious about the direction and quality of our lives. Yet, all too often we scarcely give that a thought.

A few among us are zealous about keeping diaries and journals, and I’m not one of them. This blog is as close as I come to that, and a few months into writing I began to realize that such practices ought not be the preserve of literary giants. All of us can benefit from at least a little self-reflection.

Freshly-minted college graduates might seem an unlikely group to benefit from this introspection. With endless days stretching out ahead of them, what’s the point of writing down a number that expresses their spirit on any given day? Does it really matter all that much?

Actually, the answer is “yes, it does matter.” The Greeks were certainly not the first to point out that the unexamined life is not worth living. It was also central to the preaching of Jesus. Christians since then have fleshed that out with a menu of daily prayer and meditation, retreats and a periodic examination of conscience. The point of doing all that, however, is not to give us the satisfaction of crossing more things off of our to-do lists. Rather, these practices shape the contents of future to-do lists.

So if you’ve never done a regular “state of the self” evaluation, there’s no better time to start than now, while you’re still young. Next year, when you turn twenty-five or fifty or ninety years of age, you’ll likely be glad you did.


+This is perhaps more news than some are interested in, but I noted recently that I am going through some routine medical maintenance over the next few months. On July 28th I had a colonoscopy. Aside from the fact that I got a clean bill of health, I was duly prepared when the nurse told me to expect higher blood pressure in anticipation of the big event. When she told me the results I was absolutely delighted to have the lowest numbers in years. I attribute those numbers to a balanced life and regular exercise, thanks to my COVID-19 regimen. Some good has come from it.

+On July 29th my confrere Fr. Geoffrey and I had lunch with the new members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps. In a previous post I had mentioned that they were here for a three-day retreat. I was wrong about that, and realized that when I saw them still here on the fourth day. The retreat and orientation went on for two weeks, under the direction of Brother Paul.

+One of the most serene spots on campus is a square referred to as the Abbot’s Courtyard. Defined by the abbey church to the east, the Quadrangle and Great Hall on the west, and the Breuer wing of the monastery to the south, it is particularly lovely early in the morning, when I took the photos in today’s post.

+Several weeks ago I noted that Brother Jacob delivered a recital on the expanded abbey organ. Brother Jacob sought to demonstrate the musical range of the instrument, and the first half of his ten-minute recital relies on the pipes of the Holtkamp organ. At five minutes and thirteen seconds into the video viewers begin to get an inkling of the possibilities that result from Martin Pasi’s additional pipes. If you are curious to hear the comparison, you may click on the link to Brother Jacob’s recital, and you will be directed to the YouTube site where it is housed.

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Write Down Your Passwords!

Here follows a bit of wisdom that you’ll never hear in church: “Write down your passwords!”

This came to me in the course of my first trip away from the abbey since March 6th. Normally I am not a “cabin in the north woods” kind of guy, but after four months of going literally nowhere, it was time to go somewhere. A week ago, then, I and one of my fellow monks drove to the abbey’s lake cabin for what we expected would be a nice break.

I intended this to be a four-day working vacation, and once we had settled in I sat down to dive into work. However, it was not long before my iPad sensed that it was in a strange place. Worse still, it had suspicions about the user — me. No longer happy with the thumb print that had satisfied it so often before, it demanded a real live password.

I keyed in what should have appeased it, but it didn’t pass muster. Then I racked my brain for other possibilities and typed them all in. That’s when things began to spiral out of control, and within an hour the iPad had erased its data and locked me out. There I was, stuck in the woods for four days, with no email, no videos and no electronic books to read. To say the least, I was not a happy camper, but at least I still had a phone.

In the course of those four days I learned quite a few good lessons. First, self-proclaimed “help desks” don’t always function as advertised. In this case my tech colleague back at Saint John’s, Ann, spoke with three corporate voices at Apple and got one “I don’t know” and conflicting advice from two others. What she came away with was frightening news: it might take a week to recover my errant password, if ever. Inaccessible forever might be the 19,000 photos I had stored in the Cloud.

After days of desolation we drove home, where I planned to turn over my iPad to Ann, who promised to torture it until it yielded up its secrets. However, she had one last idea. With her car running while we stood on the steps of the abbey church at 7:45 am, she gave it her last and best shot. Meanwhile I looked on hopelessly.

There, under the arch of the bell banner, my iPad blinked. Like Lazarus in the tomb, it awoke as life started to course through its empty memory files. It was resurrected, and within an hour it had retrieved the music files, the books, and the thousands of photos I had feared were lost forever. As far as I was concerned, this was a miracle worked by Ann, the servant of God.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation? First, I discovered how dependent I had let myself become on a small machine. Four months of social isolation had been bad enough, but electronic isolation was even worse. Why did I ever submit myself to such slavery?

Second, confidence in what I thought was my iron-fisted memory melted away. It was an act of supreme hubris to think that I would never forget those passwords. I should have confessed a lot sooner that no memory is perfect, even mine.

Finally, I remembered why pen and paper are such great inventions. Neither require passwords or a charger, and they wait patiently to be used, anytime and anywhere.

Saint Benedict didn’t command his monks to write things down. However, he himself wrote a Rule, and he presumed that his monks would want to write as well. In the course of the centuries they have written down all sorts of stuff, on the assumption that good memories are not enough. So were born great libraries of wisdom that still serve us today.

My greatest take-away is a lesson in humility that I hope not to forget. Once home at the abbey I searched every drawer and gathered every scrap of paper within even a fragment of a user ID, a password, passcode, security code, and whatever else some keeper of tech secrets might demand. All those letters, numbers and symbols are now gathered on a few sheets of paper in a folder, which I have enshrined in a place of honor in my room in the monastery. There they remain ready, for my eyes only.

The story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical allegory about hubris. It was the tale of people who tried to build a tower to the heavens, only to fail in a hopeless confusion of language. Now I realize that it may have a modern application as the story of people whose ultimate undoing may very well be one simple mistake. They got confused about their passwords, and they had forgotten to write them down.


+We were saddened to learn last week of the passing of Abbot Ricardo Tintes Delgado of Abadía del Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. He died of the corona virus. Monks from Saint John’s founded Tepeyac in 1946, and in 1971 it became an independent abbey.

+On July 17th the monks of Saint John’s as well as many of our colleagues who work on campus were tested for the corona virus. A week earlier 137 of us were tested and none of us turned up positive — for which we were very grateful.

+On July 17-19th the incoming members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps gathered for a retreat and orientation at Saint John’s. Given the circumstances around the world, it is not entirely clear when they will begin their year of service.

+Not all of the flowers at Saint John’s are in manicured beds. The photos in today’s post are from the abbey arboretum, which annually draws not only our students, but tens of thousands of other visitors. A topographical map shows that our property sits at the confluence of four kinds of terrain: oak savanna, hardwood forest, wetlands, and prairie. Years ago our confrere Fr. Paul Schweitz led an effort to restore the prairie and wetlands, and he was aided by records filed away in the 1860s in the abbey archives. Before plowing the ground for farming, the first monks at Saint John’s mapped the contours of the land, wrote it all down, and then saved it. Fr. Paul was able to use those records in restoring the land to what it had once been. Sadly Fr. Paul died too soon, but his work delights us long after his passing.

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The Garden of the Lord

Saint Benedict’s suggestion that hermits are the best monks has always amused me. Benedict notes that only long years of testing in community can prepare somebody for the solitary life. But having said that at the beginning of his Rule, he never returns to the subject again. The monastery may be the school of the Lord’s service, but Benedict never offers a course leading to graduation to the hermit’s cave.

Life in community offers the security of mutual support at both the material and emotional levels. It also affords the chance for fraternal encouragement. But beyond these obvious benefits, it is in community that Benedict’s spiritual vision takes flesh: monastic life continues the incarnation of Jesus. Benedict weaves it into the daily experience of the monk, and we see it first in the abbot, who holds the place of Christ. We also see Christ in the guest, in the young monks, and in the elderly. In fact, Benedict excludes no one; in every human interaction the monk meets the Lord, in the flesh.

To appreciate how radical this is, it is important to know that in Benedict’s day many viewed the world as intrinsically evil, as suggested by words that oppose one another: the sacred and the profane, the material and the spiritual, and the temporal and the eternal. The logical imperative is escape from this den of iniquity to be one with God in eternity. But Benedict teaches an entirely different lesson, because in the monastery heaven and earth touch. We see this most clearly when Benedict asks his monks to treat the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. If people are sacred, then so must be the ordinary activities of human life.

Benedict embraces the created order deliberately, and into it he infuses the experience of God. One experiences the harmony of the Garden of Eden in the monastery. As God once walked with Adam and Eve, so now God rubs elbows with monks living in community. That is the mystery of the incarnation that Benedict applies to life in community. Of course he’s under no illusion that monks won’t stumble now and again. But the garden belongs to God, an the monk need not wait for eternity to see the face of God.

This is a sacramental way of life. As Jesus took bread and wine to be his Body and Blood, so Benedict gathers the common elements of life to fashion a place where his monks can and ought to encounter Christ. If they squint hard enough, on the good days, they will see Christ not only in their neighbors but in their own faces as well.


+On July 10th fifteen graduates of Saint John’s University who had served as Benedictine Volunteers last year joined us for a three-day retreat and reunion. Since they had served around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories and perspectives to share. On a sad note, former Volunteer Nick Briese, who had served at Saint Benedict’s Prep and Newark Abbey in 2007-08, passed away after a struggle with cancer. Following his year in Newark he had gone to medical school and was a physician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He was a delightful young man, filled with promise.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict. For that occasion we welcomed several visitors to the celebration of the Eucharist, as we did the next day for the Sunday Eucharist. Following the morning Eucharist we adjourned to the Great Hall for a festive lunch. We had intended to stage that in the monastic garden, but the threat of rain forced us indoors. It was good that we did, because the threat materialized.

+Once again it was a quiet week for me, which allowed me to tend to various work-related projects that I had put off for months and even years. In addition, I participated in three Zoom meetings with various committees of the Order of Malta — two on the west coast and one on the east coast. The times and technology have made such gatherings routine, which still amazes me.

+Today’s post first appeared in the spring 2015 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey. Given both the current social climate and also the season of the year, I thought it useful to resurrect this piece. It’s a reminder that the Lord works outside of the monastery as well, and that Saint Benedict’s wisdom has relevance even for those who do not live in a cloister. The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into garden spots around the campus at Saint John’s.

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Does God Demand Violence?

In the course of making The Saint John’s Bible the illuminators flourished in their art.  On page after page they lavished their creativity, and it was clear to everybody that it had become a labor of love.

But then they hit a brick wall, and that brick wall was the historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Within those books they found violence that waS hard to digest.  They also ran up against passages like the one we’ve just read from 1st Samuel — passages in which God commanded the Israelites to wipe out their enemies — down to the last child.  How were the illuminators supposed to deal with genocide and unmitigated hate?  How could they render violence in their art and pretend that it was the will of God?

Texts like these are not easy to deal with.  One way, I suppose, is to try and explain them away, as if there’s no problem here after all.  But ultimately we return to the tough question that such a passage poses:  how can a god of love ask such things of people?

0315A57F-03BE-4F8F-B8DB-24ADAD900B24In fact, however, one snippet from a Bible narrative does not an entire Bible make.  Such terrible episodes are not stand-alone highlights but rather bits of a transformative story.  It’s the story of how over time the Israelites came to understand what God was asking of them.  And in this particular passage the seeds of that transformation are found.  It’s here that God begins to upend their notion of what’s expected of them.  Here God tells these people that obedience and submission to the will of God matter far more than the slaughter of bullocks and rams.  None of this heartless ritual can be redemptive.

In these verses we see the germ of a theme that Jesus makes his own many generations later.  And Jesus also reaches back to echo the commandments to love God and neighbor.  These are the greatest of the commands of God, and nothing takes precedence over them.

As powerful as the words of Jesus may have been, they have yet to transform humanity completely.  And they have yet to succeed in this because you and I need a lifetime to internalize them.  Only when we do so do we finally become the people of God.

But along the way we rely on prophets to rise up among us and remind us how central is the command to love.  God still sends us prophets, thankfully, and today we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, who for his preaching paid the price that prophets pay.  He took the words of Jesus and reminded us that violence does not bring justice.  In the search for justice violence can have no place in the hearts of Christians, because those hearts are reserved for love.

Today we remember Dr. King and all the prophets who have helped us move beyond the violence that shows up in 1st Samuel.  God doesn’t ask for genocide nor hate in any form, because what God asks of us is love.  And so today and every day we pray that we may love one another as God has loved us.


+On January 20th I presided at the abbey Mass, and coincidentally that happened to be the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  That explains the reference to him near the end of the homily, which is today’s post.

+Work on the expanded organ in the abbey church is moving along nicely, and currently they are tuning the pipes.  Meanwhile the organ console is making progress as well, and the keyboard has now been installed.  For the moment the pedals sit like orphans behind the choir stalls, waiting to be installed.  We are hoping to have pipe organ music once again by the end of Lent.

Further out on the calendar there are several events planned for the dedication of the organ.  On November 4-8 Escalonia — the boys choir of the Abbey of Montserrat outside of Barcelona — will be in residence with us for a concert and other activities.  Then in the winter of 2021 The Canadian Brass will perform in concert with the abbey organ.

+In anticipation of the visit of the boys choir from Montserrat this fall, I have included a photo of the abbey, perched high on a mountain a few miles outside of Barcelona.  Since the Middle Ages it has been an important pilgrimage site, and people still come to venerate the Black Madonna.  Among other pilgrims was Saint Ignatius Loyola, who donated his sword to the abbey.  The monks of Saint John’s Abbey have had a long association with the monks of Montserrat, and it continues with the residence at Montserrat of Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s.  At Montserrat they teach English in the choir school.  At bottom is a photo of the boys choir in the abbey church.


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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.


+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.


+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.


+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.


+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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