Posts Tagged ‘Benedictine Volunteer Corps’


The Benefits of Online Trading

For those of you who assume that life in a monastery is routine and unchanging, I have news for you.  Yes, there is the regular schedule that varies little from day to day and week to week.  Yes, there are assigned tasks that include readers and servers and celebrants for Mass, and readers and servers for table, as well as sign-up sheets for other tasks and responsibilities.  Saint Benedict alluded to the need for this in his Rule, and these lists eventually get coordinated and posted on the bulletin board for all to see.  However, far from outlining some unchanging reality for the coming week, these lists merely suggest what ought to happen if this were the ideal world.

Like most every other place on earth, however, the monastery is not the ideal world, and that’s where email has become a great gift when the need to adjust comes up. Once upon a time, if I were assigned to be table reader and couldn’t make it, for whatever reason, this meant going from monk to monk to find a substitute.  Much like the mariner in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, I would have to explain my situation and humbly ask for help.  My hope, of course, was that I would eventually find some generous soul who could and would be willing to take my place.  And naturally this sometimes involved horse-trading of a sort, with me offering to take on some job assigned to the other monk.  Generally, however, we all have to rely on the good will of our brothers and hope for the best.

IMG_0659The internet has changed the entire dynamic, thankfully.  The advent of a Listserve which can reach every monk has introduced to the monastery our equivalent of electronic trading.  Pretty much every day there’s one or two appeals from monks who desperately need a substitute for something because their schedule has changed or because they’ve accidentally double-booked themselves.  Usually we get an answer within minutes, which strikes me as the greatest benefit of our unique form of electronic trading.

I cite all this as a preamble to a trade I made last week, and quite by accident I was the one who came out way ahead on the deal.  I had been scheduled to be the celebrant for Mass on Friday, and my confrere Fr. Nick was up for Mass on Thursday.  Nick had sent me an email, hoping against hope that I would be willing to trade days with him.  To his consternation he had two appointments for that date, both at the same time.  But since there was only one of him, this made for a difficult situation.  Much to his relief I was able to make the trade, and that’s how I gave to him Friday of the sixth week of Easter, while I came home with the memorial of St. Bede.  I was the clear winner in that deal, at least from my vantage.

St. Bede may matter little to most people, but I’ve always treasured this 8th-century Benedictine monk from the north of England.  In the 8th century most Europeans considered the north of England to be pretty much the edge of nowhere; but despite both the location and the relatively recent advent of Christianity, Bede had become one of the greatest scholars of the day.  And he has had an impact that reverberates even to this day.

IMG_0820Bede was a prolific writer, but he is best known for his History of the English Church and People, which I read for the first of many times in college.  It remains a fascinating text, all the more so because he pushed the envelop when it came to two ideas.  For one, in his day there was not yet an English church, and many of his Celtic neighbors would have taken umbridge at the thought that Bede had lumped them into it.  There also was no such thing as an English people just yet.  That reality was yet to come.  In Bede’s day there were Saxon and Angle and Jute and other Germanic tribes resident in what would become England;  but it would be a big stretch to call them a united English people.  That would come later, and English would emerge as a language only after many centuries.

Bede, however, was a visionary, and the fact that his vision became reality impacts us culturally and religiously to this day.  What brought all these tribes together was the preaching of the gospel in what became England.  In Bede’s thought the advent of Christianity made and shaped the English as a people, and Bede grafted this people onto the history of the Mediterranean homeland of Christianity.  Ironically, then, most of us Anglophones today can easily name one or more Roman emperors, but ask us to name the tribal kings of the East Anglia in the 5th century and we draw a blank.  Call it cultural imperialism or whatever you wish, but that’s the way it is, and Bede and his succession of readers are responsible for that worldview.

IMG_0660At his Ascension Jesus gave his final instruction to his disciples.  Included in that was the great commission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, which some of his followers took seriously enough to actually do.  Six centuries later that message reached the ears of a young man named Bede, who became a monk in a remote corner of England, far from Rome and even further from Jerusalem.  Bede grew up to be an extraordinary scholar, but he also became an example of what the gospel can do to energize the lives of any and all of us.

Today we may not have the opportunity to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, but we do have the chance to bring the face of Christ to the limits of our own little worlds.  And the lesson is clear for us all.  There are no geographic limits to where Christ can reach.  There is no aspect of our own lives which Christ cannot transform. And there is no limit to what Christ can accomplish through us if we but welcome him.  After all these centuries, Bede still reminds us of that — and more.


+On May 25th I presided at the Abbey Mass, which happened to be the memorial of St. Bede.

+On May 25th I also gave a conference to the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who on the 27th completed their two-week retreat and orientation.  In the course of the summer these nineteen graduates of Saint John’s will disperse to the four winds as they take up assignments at Benedictine communities around the world.

+Saturday May 27th was a busy day at Saint John’s.  It began with graduation for the seniors of Saint John’s Preparatory School.  Bishop Donald Kettler of St. Cloud presided and preached at the graduation Mass that preceded the commencement exercises.  That day there were two burial services in the cemetery, and we rounded out the day by hosting 250 alumni of Saint John’s University, who had returned for a two-day rugby reunion.  Thankfully none of these four events ran into each other.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the cathedral of Toledo (in Spain, not Ohio).  They show the late medieval reredos behind the altar, and they depict scenes in the life of Christ.  I especially like the image of the Ascension, in which Mary and the disciples look up as Jesus goes to heaven.  Note the bare feet, which indicates to me that there is no need for shoes in heaven.


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Summer:  Take Time to Dawdle

Memorial Day marks something of a new beginning for people.  For a few who are tradition-bound it’s time to put on seersucker and whites with nothing to fear from the fashion police.  For others it’s time to rehabilitate the local version of Minnesota’s cabin up north.  And for most everyone with residual memories of school days, Memorial Day rekindles the primal thrill of liberation from the classroom.

The onset of summer does seem to offer something for everybody, and at the very least it hints that the hectic pace of life is about to tone down a notch or two.  That’s the promise of the opening line of George Gerschwin’s song in Porgy and Bess, which asserts that it’s “summer time, and the livin’ is easy.”  For a few that tranquility actually materializes, and life really is wonderful.  But for many, including Porgy and Bess, the summer will bring mixed blessings.  Moments of leisure will punctuate the days and weeks of summer, but if anything the relentless toil and challenge of life will go on.  The “easy livin'” will be just beyond their reach, as it always has been.

IMG_6303In his book Strangers to the City, the Cistercian monk Father Michael Casey writes about the need to slow down and open ourselves to the wonders around us.  Of course the leisure for that might seem to be a luxury that we can ill-afford, but for the monk it is a sine qua non in the search for wisdom.  To his credit Casey points out that this search for wisdom ought not be the sole purview of monks, because all of us need to get a grip on ourselves and stop and smell the roses.

Casey encourages his readers to “dawdle along the way” of life, and only then might we shed the blinders that filter out wisdom.  “I suppose it was easier in a world not dominated by calendars and clocks simply to take each day as it comes,” he writes.  “On the other hand, making the effort to overthrow the tyranny of time yields proportionately higher profits to those of us who try it sometimes.  It is like a liberation.  We have to realize, however, that the tyrant is inside us, not outside.”

I’m not about to disparage work or productivity, but all too often we distill the essence of our lives down to our work.  We are what we do, and introductions these days go directly from the name of the person to the issue of occupation.  And if truth be told, we’ve probably always done it that way, as the story of Moses’ first encounter with God suggests.  Moses asked God for a name, and to God’s credit God gave Moses a succinct answer:  “I am who I am.”  There was none of this “I do this for a living.”  Nope, God is being, not doing, and that is a nugget of wisdom that we can all live with.  Our personal value derives from the fact that we are the image of the divine.  Our daily work flows out of that belief, but work is not who we are.

IMG_6291One of my favorite cartoons appeared several years ago in The New Yorker Magazine.  It shows a well-dressed couple about to go out to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and the husband presents to his wife a handsome leather-bound volume as a token of gratitude for another year together.  “Oh Stephen, how thoughtful — an annual report on our marriage!”  Obviously it’s not what she had always wanted.

Summer starts in a few days, and it offers us lots of possibilities.  If we tackle it in the same way that we do the other seasons, then we may very well compile an impressive list of what we accomplished during our summer vacation.  If we yield to moments of leisure, however, and use the eyes and ears that the good Lord has given to each of us, then we may end the summer with a few nuggets of wisdom that we picked up along the way.

This approach seems to me to be worth the risk.  On the one hand, come Labor Day the chapter on summer in our annual report might be a bit thin, but life itself might very well be full.  Some would dare to say that’s exactly what God has in mind for us this summer.  Who am I to argue with that?


+On May 20th I gave a conference at the day of reflection for members of the Order of Malta in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo.  The gathering took place in Menlo Park, CA.  In our cycle of activity we do a three-day retreat in the fall and a one-day gathering in the spring.

+Last week nineteen spring graduates of Saint John’s University began a two-week orientation and retreat in anticipation of their year as Benedictine Volunteers.  Later this summer they will head out to Benedictine houses literally around the world, where they will be for a year of service.

+On May 20th Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud came to the Abbey and ordained to the priesthood our confrere Father Efrain Rosado.  On Sunday Father Efrain presided at the Abbey Mass.

+Last week we had tons of rain, and it has spurred on the growth around us.  In particular, the scent of lilac has pervaded the campus, and it’s been just wonderful — provided you like the scent of lilac.  We have lots of it planted all over the place.


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IMG_0007_2Good Listening: Not So Easy

Like any good prophet, Jeremiah was a reluctant servant of the Lord.  And like any good prophet, he protested his unworthiness to preach the word of the Lord to those who needed to hear it.  He didn’t know how to speak well.  He was too young.  He was afraid of how people might react.  He wasn’t exactly sure about what he was to say.

In the last few days the first readings at Mass have come from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, and they present a dilemma that is both ancient and modern.  Jeremiah felt torn between what God might be asking from him and what he himself might prefer to do.  Jeremiah tried to beg off, but in the end none of his objections mattered.  The divine mind had been made up.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;  before you were born I dedicated you;  a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”  What could Jeremiah say in response?  What could any of us say to a commission like that?

In the long run God supplied all the words that Jeremiah needed.  To his own surprise. Jeremiah opened with the simplest of invitations, and God seemed to take it from there. “Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah!”  Then the words flowed freely, and Jeremiah must have marveled at how God had taken possession of him and accomplished great things through him.

IMG_0008_2In his Rule Saint Benedict opens with an invitation that parallels Jeremiah’s words. “Listen” is what Benedict encourages his disciples to do, and he promises that listening will transform their lives.  But of course the big challenge is to dispose ourselves to listen in the first place.

Listening takes a bit of work these days, simply because there is way too much stuff bombarding our ears.  It’s a challenge to sort through it all, especially when the marketers draft appeals that can be tough to resist.  We cannot blame them, of course, because that’s their job.  Whether it’s political posturing or aggressive pitches for products we might not need, the advertising is constant and almost militant.

Neither Jeremiah nor Benedict urges on us a passive listening, however.  It’s easy enough to cede personal responsibility to live good and thoughtful lives when we merely surrender to the flow.  In fact, however, it is our responsibility to sort through the mass of appeals and distinguish between the junk mail and what is truly life-giving.  Then it is critical to realize the consequences of our choices.

IMG_0046_2It’s amazing how little things have changed since someone first told the story of Adam and Eve.  Those two made their choice and then blamed the serpent for false advertising, when in fact they only had themselves to blame.  They had listened to the promise of the serpent, but they’d not listened critically.  They seemed oblivious to any consequences that might follow, and they would have to pay the price for what they’d decided to do with their lives.

That, it seems to me, gets to the core of the listening that both Jeremiah and Benedict urge on us.  This is neither “easy listening” nor “listening as entertainment.”  Instead, this is the sort of listening that determines the direction of our lives.  This listening requires a mulling over of sometimes difficult choices, but that’s the whole point.  It’s all challenging because our very being matters — if not to the marketers, then at least to God.

IMG_0051There’s a wonderful lesson to draw from Jeremiah and Benedict, and it’s this.  They practiced what they preached.  Each listened to the word of the Lord, and each let it percolate in his mind until listening became inspiration, and inspiration led to action.  They were anything but passive listeners, and the experience was transformative.

Like God did with Jeremiah, so God does with us.  From before our birth God has fashioned us and dedicated us.  God destined us to be more than consumers of products or political zealots.  Instead, God created us in the divine image and means us to live noble and thoughtful lives.  All we need do is pause and listen to what God has to put to us.  Then, if we can respond in the affirmative, we open ourselves to the great things God will do with us.  That, it seems to me, is the real reward of a  life well-lived.


+On July 21st I attended a reception for alumni and friends of Saint John’s in San Francisco.  It was a wonderful gathering, which was preceded by evening prayer at Grace Cathedral.  In attendance were Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, as well as alumni chaplain Fr. Don Talafous.

On July 21st and 22nd Brother Paul Richards staged a massive rummage sale in Guild Hall at Saint John’s.  He has done this for several years now, and the proceeds benefit the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  In August some twenty recent alumni of Saint John’s University will depart for year-long postings at Benedictine abbeys in Africa, South and Central America, Europe and to one site in the US — Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.

+Through the winter I was remarkably fortunate in that travels generally went smoothly.  Not so this week, when storms at the Minneapolis airport managed to transform a three-hour flight into a European-length adventure.  We boarded in plenty of time, and just as we were ready to push back a big storm came rolling through. There we sat for a while.  And then we sat some more.  Then we taxied out to the runway, only to discover that we no longer had enough fuel to complete the flight.  So back we went to the gate to get more gas.  Then another storm rolled through.  It was three hours, cooped on the plane, before we took off.  Then we went east for forty-five minutes before going west.  Altogether we were on the plane for over seven hours.  Remarkably, people took it all in stride, and no one got irate about it.  But we were more than ready to run off the plane on arrival.

IMG_0058_2+In the last few weeks I’ve heard hints that many did not receive mailings of this blog.  Some readers thought I had given up or lopped them off the mailing list.  In fact, as I discovered this week from one reader in Los Gatos, CA, the blog site WordPress was simply overwhelmed with too much business.  Hopefully they have added capacity.  In the meantime, all those posts are still there in the archive.  In case you missed something and have nothing else to do on a delayed flight, they are waiting to be read.

+The photos in today’s post hark back to a gentler time, when the sound of birds and streams tended to tickle the ears rather than cable television.  I took these two summers ago in a village in the Cotswolds, to the west of London.

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IMG_0002_2Exodus: An Exercise in Looking Back

During the last few days at evening prayer we’ve been reading lengthy passages from the Book of Exodus.  Of course all of us have heard this story many times by now; but even so, the repetition is neither boring nor repetitive.  For every rereading of a text, there’s always something new to glean for reflection.

So it was the other evening when Brother Simon-Hoa read from Exodus 13 and 14.  Perhaps it was the inflection of his voice or the emphasis he gave to certain phrases.  But whatever the reason, it struck me what a handful the people of Israel were.  More to the point, in the dialog it’s clear that God seemed to be painfully aware that he was dealing with a bunch of adult children.

Exodus is a prime example of how selective our memories can be.  While the text tells us that the Israelites hated every minute of life in Egypt, all that became a beautiful memory once they encountered the first sniff of difficulty in the desert.  What follows is an endless stream of sarcasm that must have irritated Moses to no end.  They complained about the food, the lack of water, and all the other inconveniences.  But the most telling complaint came when they heard that pharaoh was on the way to fetch them and return them to paradise and their old jobs as slaves.  “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  So much for any semblance of gratitude.  There must have been days when Moses wanted to shout back over the dunes to pharaoh.  “Hey, they’re over here.  You can have them all back.”

IMG_0001_2The text indicates that God too knew what he had on his hands.  These were people who would whine at the first hint of inconvenience, and so God had to factor that into the care and feeding of the Israelites.  Chapter 13 verse 17, for example, suggests that God could see trouble ahead when they’d someday meet the Philistines in the promised land.  The Philistines were scary people who meant business, and God knew from experience that at the prospect of war the Israelites would turn tail and run back to Egypt via the most direct route possible.  So God took them to the promised land via the long route — the one that took forty years.  God likely banked on the thought that after thirty-nine years the Israelites would forget the way back to Egypt and give up.  By then there would be no alternative, other than to face the music.

Exodus provides a not very flattering portrait of a people in transition.  Clearly God didn’t have much to work with, and it took forty years of purification in the desert to shape them up into something even remotely respectable.  That’s the theme that makes Exodus so interesting, and amusing.

IMG_0005_2But of course Exodus is our story as well, and most of us would not have tested out of their challenges any better than they did.  The fact of the matter is, we too like to blame others for our shortcomings;  we too prefer the easy fix;  and most of us are more than willing to give up at the slightest inconvenience.  Like the Israelites, we too can experience a lot and complain about it, but complaining can seem like a better option than actually doing something to remedy the situation.

Time helps us deal with the difficulties of life, particularly when it comes to the need to change ourselves.  That’s why God used the long route through the desert to transplant the people of Israel to the promised land.  After all, forty years in a desert will eventually bring people round to the idea that perhaps change is not as bad as they had once thought.  Experience has taught God to do the same with us.

If Lent lasted only a day or a week, we might get enthused for the short term, but we’d likely have little to show for our short-term effort.  We’d make our resolutions one day and just as easily forget them the next.  The reason for this is simple.  Authentic change takes time, and real growth can sometimes require forty days or even longer.  That’s why God doesn’t front-load all the challenges into the first few years of our lives.  Rather, challenge pops up over a lifetime, because building character can take forty years in a desert, or even longer.  In fact, authentic growth can take all the years that God puts at our disposal.  What a shame it would be to join the Israelites in looking back to Egypt for the entirety of life!


+On March 3rd I taught a class in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.

+On March 4th through the 6th I gave a Lenten retreat to guests in the Abbey guesthouse.  Twenty were in attendance, and I concentrated my conferences on the liturgy of Holy Week.  On Saturday evening we watched Babette’s Feast, which remains one of my all-time favorite movies.  It takes place in Denmark in the second half of the 19th century, and it has a strong Eucharistic theme.  It is the perfect movie to prepare for Holy Thursday.

+On several occasions I have written about the work of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s Abbey.  Corps members are recent graduates of Saint John’s University who do a year of volunteer work at various Benedictine abbeys around the world.  Among those abbeys is Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  Last week, in a reversal of fortune, a Benedictine volunteer from Montserrat has come to spend six months at Saint John’s.  Fransesc is a graduate of the Montserrat choir school and has been a university student in Barcelona.  He is a welcome addition to the abbey schola, in addition to all of the other activities in which he will be engaged.

IMG_0013_2+The photos in today’s post are of frescos and the interior of Saint Alban’s Abbey, which is located north of London.  At the time of the suppression of the monasteries in England the medieval frescos were plastered over, only to come to light centuries later.

+A few readers report that on occasion they have not received my blog come Monday morning.  I’m happy to say that I’ve not missed a blog post since the first week, and so there must be technical difficulties with WordPress every now and again.  In case you don’t receive a post, you can visit the web site of my blog.  In fact, for just such an occasion it is nice to bookmark the web address.

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imageConsider the Lilies

If the thought of twenty-four hours of non-stop lambing intrigues you, then Icelandic public television has the channel for you.  I first read about this in a short snippet from The Week, and my initial reaction was amused skepticism.  Who in their right mind would sit there for an entire day watching sheep give birth to the cutest little creatures on God’s green earth?  Surely this story had to be a joke, and so I went to the internet for confirmation.  To my surprise, there it was, not only on the BBC News, but on other respected sites as well.  Sure enough, it was true; except that the bit about the sheep-birthing marathon was only the tip of the iceberg.

imageFirst of all, it turned out that this program was not an isolated one-off.  Apparently it’s only the latest example of a phenomenon called slow TV that has gained popularity in northern Europe, and Norwegian public television seems to be in the vanguard of the movement.  There stations have tested the limits of the modern attention span, with shows that have featured twelve hours of wood-burning and four hours of knitting.  There’s also the program that showed eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream, sixty hours of Psalm-singing, and one hundred hours of non-stop chess.  And for those left pining for an even greater challenge, there were one hundred-thirty hours of a cruise ship sailing up and down the fjords of Norway.  It all leaves me wondering what’s next.  What are the limits of human endurance?

It would be so easy to make light of all this and conclude that there’s really nothing else going on in Scandinavia anyway.  We could even pity them because they don’t have enough shootings or scandals or political hot air to sustain even one decent cable news channel, much less the dozen or more that we enjoy.  No wonder they are reduced to filling the airwaves with such tedium, we might conclude.  But we’d be wrong to do so.

imageIn point of fact, slow TV is a critique of the sometimes shallow character of our information age.  For all the data that we have at our fingertips, it’s tough not to be overwhelmed.  Worse still, it’s often difficult to sort out fact from fiction in the avalanche of information that besieges us every day and hour and minute.  Ironically, the newscasters may tell us that we know more than any generation that has gone before, but in point of fact we are likely less-informed about life than any of our forebears.

I’ve not viewed a single example of slow TV, but it strikes me that it is a variation of the warning to stop and smell the roses.  It’s perhaps a reminder that we should never let events and the currents of the world drive us like lemmings over the cliff.  It may also be a caution about letting others dictate to us the standards by which we live our lives.  In blunt terms, it may very well be an invitation to get a grip on ourselves and figure out what we’re doing to ourselves — or allowing others to do to us.

imageThere’s resonance for all of this in the scriptures, and at the root of it is the invitation to be thoughtful and proactive in shaping the course of our lives.   When Jesus invited people to consider the lilies of the field, he certainly didn’t just mean for us to do so from an aesthetic point of view.  The array of lilies, so beautiful and yet seemingly unimportant, is a reminder of the care of God for each and every person.  Each lily has meaning, just as does each person.  And yet it’s so easy to forget about all that in the rush of activity and the flood of words that threaten to engulf us all.

There’s lots more to say about all this, but for the moment I’m struck by the invitation that Jesus puts to us to behold the sparrows, and to survey the plants of the field.  Given that perspective, Jesus is just the sort of guy who would ask us to consider watching a bit of slow TV as well.  And with that in mind, if I had to choose between ten hours of sheep-sheering and ten hours of mayhem on our freeways, I now realize that this is no choice at all.  I’d have to be crazy to choose the mayhem.


+On June 29th alumnus Brandon Dorsey spoke to the monks about his experience as a Benedictine Volunteer during the past year at Benedictine abbeys in India and Sri Lanka.  Brandon grew up in Pasadena, CA, and he graduated in 2014.

+On the 4th of July the monks gathered for festivities and a cook-out in the monastic garden.

+The gardens around the campus at Saint John’s continue to flourish, as the photos in today’s post attest.  Given all the work that the crew puts into the flowers and trees and shrubs, the least we can do is to stop and enjoy them for a moment — or even longer.

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imageThe Privilege of Making a Difference

We monks have long been accustomed to regular visits by trustees of the University and Prep School at Saint John’s.  These encounters normally deal with issues of governance that touch on things like budgets or strategic planning.  What they are not about, however, are the lives of our alumni themselves.  So there we sit in discussion with some truly amazing people, but on the agenda is nothing about their personal stories.  That’s what made last Wednesday’s visit by one alumnus so different — and so engaging.

Ochi is not at all typical of the sort of people who come and speak to the monks.  For one thing, he only graduated from the University two months ago.  For another, he’s not yet an accomplished professional with loads of insight to share.  But what he lacks on that score he more than compensates in other ways.  In brief, he has a personal story that is not short on the unusualimage.

Ochi was born Ochirbat Bayanjargal in Ulaanbaator, Mongolia.  That alone was exotic enough to draw our attention.  Through dint of hard work and being at the right place at the right time, he ended up attending Saint Benedict’s Prep, run by the Benedictine monks in Newark, NJ.  From there he came to Saint John’s, where he majored in economics.  Next on his itinerary is the Benedictine monastery at Tabga in Israel, where he will work for one year as a Benedictine Volunteer.  After that, who knows?  But for now he plans to explore the world until it’s time to go back home and make a difference in his native land.

That, of course, is the barest outline of a life that already has more complexity than most of us will amass in spans of fifty or sixty years.  On top of that, it’s stunning to realize the personal sacrifice and discipline that Ochi has made just to get this far.  For instance, he’s only been home once in the last eight years.  But even more daunting has been the transition from a very traditional society into a culture and language that may as well be on another planet.  But I’ll leave it to him to write the autobiography someday.

As for me, a couple of things popped into my mind as he spoke to us.  First off, we monks — and anyone involved in a school — seldom get to see short-term results from our work.  We help to provide an education, and thirty years later we may hear from someone whose life did indeed turn out well.  Years after graduation he has become professionally successful and personally happy, and it’s gratifying to think that we played some part in all that.  But standing before us last Wednesday was someone who had already experienced more transformation than most of us will ever know.  And he has a lifetime still before him.

imageA second bit that struck me was the part that Benedictine monks have been privileged to play in the life of this young man.  To say the least, the monks in Newark have made an incredible contribution to the development of promising young men in a city that isn’t always gentle with its younger citizens.  Happily, we at Saint John’s have been able to augment their efforts.  For several years we’ve sent Benedictine Volunteers there, and this fall two more will go to Saint Benedict’s Prep for the year.  For the moment it’s tough to say who has reaped the greater reward — the Volunteers or the students.  But beyond that, in the past few years we’ve accepted into our college program at Saint John’s some thirty-five graduates of Saint Benedict’s Prep, and the results have been astonishing.  That alone makes sitting through planning and budget meetings worth the effort.

Last Wednesday we had the good fortune to hear from a poised young man who stood in front of us for nearly forty-five minutes, speaking and fielding questions.  He described growing up in a country of three million people, half the size of the United States.  Even today some 45% of the population is still nomadic, while the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is morphing into one of the modern cities of the world.  What an odyssey this has been for Ochi, while for us westerners it’s difficult to appreciate the occasional tensions as old ways meet new.

imageSuch was the day when Ochi’s father led home a live goat, which he had received in payment for some job. No one in Ochi’s house knew the first thing about butchering a goat, but they certainly knew they needed to eat.  So there they all stood, goat and family staring each other down, wondering what to do next.  The goat seemed to figure it out first, and it nearly trashed the house in a desperate attempt to escape his fate.  Ochi choked on his own laughter as he related a story that could never happen in a typical American kitchen.

So what’s the lesson for a group of monks in Minnesota?  For one thing, we should never underestimate the possibilities that are latent in the tedium of daily life.  Doing work for years on end may seem routine and undramatic, but it can have a profound impact on others, even if they aren’t from Mongolia.

imageSecond, we should never underestimate the value of our efforts, just because they don’t seem to solve a single one of the big issues confronting the world.  All God asks is that we receive each guest as Christ, whether the guest be from Mongolia or Minnetonka.  God will figure out where to take it from there.

And last but not least, while budget and planning issues will always be the necessary grist for running a University, the real point of it all is the students.  The surprise is that we need not wait half a lifetime to see the results in our students.  As often as not we can see the transformation is as few years as four.  What a gift God has given to us, and it’s important that we use our eyes to see and ears to hear of the generosity of God.  Even better, God offers this gift not only to monks, but to all who walk the paths of the Lord.


+On June 17th Saint John’s University alumnus Ochirbat Bayanjargal spoke to a gathering of the monks in the chapter house, on the topic of growing up in Mongolia.

+On June 17th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Lives of Quiet Service, through this link.

+On June 18th I delivered my last class on monastic history to our novice, Brother Aidan Putnam.  On July 11th, the feast of Saint Benedict, Brother Aidan will pronounce his first vows as a monk of Saint John’s Abbey.

+Last March I had the opportunity to lead a group of alumni and friends of Saint John’s University on a visit to various sites in Umbria, Tuscany and Rome.  In today’s post are photos from our stop in Montalcino, which is best-known for its local wine, brunello.  In a separate gallery I have gathered photos from the lovely Abbey of Sant Ántimo in Tuscany.  Though seldom visited, it is noteworthy for its lovely romanesque architecture and the gorgeous countryside.  Perhaps it is better that it remain a secret rather than be overrun with tourists.

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imagePearls of Wisdom

A few weeks ago the president of Saint John’s University posed to me and several of my colleagues a very simple question.  “What do you know now that you wish someone had told you at twenty-two?”  It’s the sort of thing for which everyone has an answer, and to no one’s surprise it prompted a lot of replies.  And even though the president had asked us not to give it much thought, clearly there was wisdom in the nuggets that came pouring in.

The fact that wisdom came back at all was reassuring, since it need not have been that way.  To cite but one example of the latter, I wish someone had told me to buy stock in Apple when I was twenty-two.  Of course it didn’t exist back then, but eventually it would have changed my life, for sure.  The same would hold for buying real estate on the Florida coasts.  I’m now on in years to the point at which I could have cashed in on a fortune, even with the paltry sum I could have invested at age twenty-two.

imageTo everyone’s credit, however, there were no self-serving bits like these, and it speaks to their altruism.  To no one’s surprise, most contributions were thoughtful, and they were of the sort that could benefit any and all twenty-two-year-olds, provided they were willing to listen.  The latter isn’t always the case, as many of us can attest from our personal experience.  But the probability of people listening to our ideas was not something the president had asked us to factor in.

I won’t itemize what my colleagues had to offer, but I will say that I had a tough time deciding between two of my own long-time favorites.  One adage has served me well for ages, and it really could have come in handy when I was twenty-two.  “The only thing better than perfect is done” was the best thing I learned in graduate school, and I’ve used it ever since to ward off procrastination.  It’s stood the test of time, at least most of the time.

But I finally went with a more noble sentiment that would have helped me a lot in my early years.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  Now at first blush that sounds terribly self-centered, but I don’t mean it that way.  It can sound like I’m driven by a fiercely competitive spirit, but that’s not me.  It can sound like the desire to manipulate people is topmost in my mind, but I hope that’s not me either.  And it can sound like I’m the person who likes the front row in synagogues and banquets, but that’s definitely not me.  Since the first grade I’ve preferred the third seat in the third row, since it’s the ideal hiding place for someone like me who used to be terminally shy.  No, this aphorism is about something else entirely.

image“If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  It can sound crass and opportunistic, but in fact it’s been a great prod to get me in gear and to show up at events and places where I’d rather not be.  It’s a reminder that if I don’t participate in discussions, then I lose the right to complain about decisions that don’t go my way.  It’s also a reminder that if I’m peeved that no one has asked for my wisdom for days, it may be because I’ve stayed in my room all that time.

These are compelling reasons for adopting this motto, but it still hasn’t touched the most important rationale.  That has to do with talents that are ignored or underused.  If I absent myself from human interaciton, then I end up hiding my talents under a bushel.  Now I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I have a ton of talents, but what few I do have are wasted if I don’t trot them out every once in a while.  Talents that are seldom used tend to atrophy, and eventually they are of no use to the owner.  Not surprisingly, they’re of even lesser value to the people around me, and they’re the ones who need them most.

imageThat, it seems to me, is the whole point of living in community.  Life in community, whether in a monastery or in a church or in a family, isn’t just a matter of shared goods.  It also involves shared talents, shared points of view, and especially shared lives.  It’s the latter in particular that makes life in the monastery potentially wonderful.

That was my contribution to the president’s request, and I’m curious about why he had asked for this.  He certainly didn’t mean to share it with his one-year-old twins, since they would have paid zero attention.  And I doubt that he needed it for personal use, since he has more than enough wisdom already.  Perhaps he meant it for our own benefit.  Perhaps he wanted us to realize how far we’ve each come since age twenty-two.

imageNow that I’ve had a chance to mull all this over, I’m glad that no one told me about Apple or Florida real estate when I was twenty-two.  It would not have been enough, because I would have been upset not to know about Facebook and Google and all the other stuff that would have made me even richer.  And even had Apple and Florida been enough, it likely would have ruined my life anyway.  After all, stock tips and insider information are no substitute for wisdom and all the other things that really matter in life.

In some respects it may be a fruitless exercise to tell a twenty-two-year-old something that only comes with age and grace.  After all, back then I knew amost everything there was to know.  Nowadays, I know a lot less, but I’m blessed to know a little bit about what really matters in life.  And these are pearls of great price, without a doubt.


+On May 17th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and via the link you can access my sermon: The Feast of the Ascension:  Let’s Be Moving On.

+Last week twelve graduating seniors of Saint John’s University began a two-week retreat at the Abbey.  This fall  they will each begin one-year terms as members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  In the course of the year they will spread to Benedictine abbeys across the world.

+Last week the rains came in abundance to central Minnesota, and on Saturday night we received over two inches.  It was a welcome relief for us, as well as for the neighboring farmers.  It also boosted the spring flowers, and it provided continued encouragement to the monks who are avid gardeners.

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