Posts Tagged ‘Benedictine Volunteer Corps’

imageGive Mr. Mouth a Rest

As a priest I’m naturally on the lookout for good bits for a sermon.  So it should come as no surprise that I’ll crib any and all ideas, and I’ll even give credit to the source when I absolutely have to.  So it was that I recently listened eagerly to a parish priest revered for the quality of his sermons.  And that day he did not disappoint.

He began his sermon by quoting advice he’d gotten from his second-grade teacher.  For an entire year that nun had drummed into her students the message for which they have remembered her:  “God gave us two ears to hear, but only one mouth to speak.”

I don’t know whether that warning was meant to cow her students into submission, or whether she only wanted to give them the benefit of her own experience.  It may have been a little of both; but regardless, it’s what this priest recalls about her umpteen years later.

imageActually, it’s not such a bad aphorism to carry around, and for me it ranks with my personal favorite which I appropriated long ago from the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.  Every time she was about to trash somebody, she reached inside for self-regulation:  “Give Mr. Mouth a rest.”  Who knows how much grief it spared her, but I know it’s been invaluable to me.  When I can remember in time, I trot it out of mothballs when my mouth threatens to get out way ahead of my brain.  I’m just glad I don’t have to pay royalties for all the times I’ve invoked it.

Speech is a great gift, and by and large our ability to speak well puts us a cut above most of the animals.  Speech allows us to encourage and help one another, to teach one another, and to express love and support for one another.  But there’s also a dark side, as Adam discovered when he told God that whopper about the woman making him do it.  From there it’s only gotten worse.

imagePeople usually associate silence with monasteries, but I can tell you that if you want silence go to a Carthusian monastery.  It’s so quiet there that they even made a movie about it, called — appropriately enough — Into the Great Silence.  As for Benedictine houses, you’ll find some good stretches of quiet, depending more or less on the customs of the local community.  But we do speak, and Saint Benedict expected us to do so.

All the same, Benedict had a lot of ambivalence about speaking.  For one thing, there could be too much of it.  For another, speaking always has the potential to be destructive.  For that reason he cautioned his monks that the tongue holds the key to life and death.  Of course he didn’t for a minute believe that a few words could kill someone literally.  But he also knew the power of gossip to destroy a reputation and the peace of mind of a fellow monk.

imageWe think of Benedict as a man of balance, and I suspect that in his attitude toward speech you have yet another instance of striving for the golden mean.  After all, he may have encouraged silence, but he also prescribed these words which begin every day for every monk:  “Oh Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”  And these words come from the lips of a man named Benedict, which in Latin means to speak well.  So it is that he encouraged holy speech, even as he feared that speaking could veer off in another direction.  No doubt he knew from personal experience that even in a monastery the tongue can race way ahead of the brain.

As for that bit of advice from the nun, had Benedict known it he would have lifted it and made the most of it.  After all, two ears and one tongue is just about the right proportion for Benedict.  But then again, in an act of holy zeal, he might have teased it out even further.  I can just imagine him saying that God gave us two ears for hearing the word of God, two eyes to see what needs to be done, two hands to go and do it, and one mouth to call it all blessed.  And he’d end with the observation that God also gives us one brain to make sure that Mr. Mouth gets his proper rest.


+On January 27th I spoke on design in The Saint John’s Bible in two art classes at George Fox University, located near Portland, OR.  That evening I addressed a much larger audience on that topic.

+On Sunday February 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and  you can access the text at this link, Does God Demand Anxiety?

+On January 31st Fr. Geoffrey Fecht and a group of friends of the Abbey began a two-week journey to Africa.  Among other excursions, they will visit with members of our Benedictine Volunteer Corps who are serving at two abbeys in Africa.

+Since today is the Feast of the Presentation, I have included in this post a painting of the Presentation by Giovanni Bellini, housed in a gallery in Venice.  The gospel for the Mass of the day recounts the story of Simeon who rejoiced to live long enough to see the Savior.  It is a story of “letting go,” and so I have included photos of 17th-century tombs of various professors at the University of Bologna.

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imageSummer Time and Holy Leisure

Among the few serious complaints I have about monastic life, there’s this:  the schedule is horribly inefficient.  Consider that we drop what we’re doing, several times a day, to go and pray.  Consider that, depending on our jobs, we change into and out of our habits several times a day.  Consider that, during some of the most productive stretches of the day, we stop everything so that we can dine together, recreate together, and squeeze in spiritual reading and reflection.  What was Saint Benedict thinking when he organized this life?  How did he expect anyone to get anything done?

I’ve always cherished the strong work ethic that I inherited from my parents.  I’ve derived a lot of personal satisfaction from it, and because of it I’ve compiled a decent record of modest accomplishment.  Still, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of balance, even if it does eat into productive work time.  I’ve even accepted the possibility that there may be more to life than a full schedule — as much as I hate to admit it.

imageAs you might expect, of all the alternatives to work, it’s leisure that troubles me most.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I know too that I’m not the only one who is driven to cram activity into each and every moment of my day.   And I know I’m not unique in my suspicion that leisure is a personal indulgence, especially when there’s so much to be done.

You can imagine my unease, then, when I read this:  “The Benedictine vocation includes within its integrity an attraction to leisure….”  Who says so?   So writes Michael Casey, a Trappist from an abbey in the wilds of Australia.  He’s widely revered for his wisdom and insight into life, and not just monastic life.  Despite that, quite naturally my first impulse was to dismiss out of hand his comment on leisure.  After all, what else is there to do in the Australian wilderness anyway, other than to wait for the next sunrise?  But of course life there is much like life everywhere, and Casey is as busy as the rest of us.  So I have to give his words their due, even if I prefer to imagine monastic life as one long work period.

imageActually, Casey’s chapter on leisure in his book Strangers to the City makes a lot of sense, whether you’re a monk or not.  He argues, for starters, that leisure is not idleness.  Nor is it escapism.  Nor is it an indifference to the world around us.  Rather, leisure is a conversation with life.  Leisure involves climbing out of our self-enclosed existence so that we can listen to what people have to say, and be open to the lessons that life has to teach.  True leisure, in other words, is an activity in which we learn that we are not the measure of all things, nor are we the center of the universe.  Believe it or not, there are other people out there.

imageCasey goes on to note that leisure, in and of itself, is value-neutral.  But when we make time for leisure and use it well, it opens us up to growth.  Perhaps that’s why Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the invitation to Listen.  Listen thoughtfully to our brothers and sisters.  Listen to the sacred reading we do.  Listen and pay attention to God as God appears regularly in the people around us.  But the only way in which we can listen is to make room for leisure in our lives.  So it is that in the monastic tradition we speak of Holy Leisure, because it’s sacred and it’s transformative.

Given all that, it helps to explain why Saint Benedict breaks up our day so inefficiently. Left to my own devices, I’d keep my nose to the grindstone morning, noon and night — and I’d call it good.  But I’d likely live in oblivion to what’s going on around me.  I’d miss God present in the people and events around me.  At best, life would be white noise or muzak as I meandered on about my own business.  No wonder that Saint Benedict deliberately yanks us from this self-absorbed little world.

imageNow that we’ve reached Memorial Day, what are my summer resolutions?  For one thing, I’m going to listen intently to some music, for the sole purpose of hearing what the composer and musicians have to say.  I’m going to visit an art gallery or two, just to see how a few artists view life.  I’m going to make more time for reading, just to find out if there are people out there who see life differently than I.  I’m going to pay attention to my confreres and friends, if for no other reason than to savor the wisdom that God has imparted to them.

In short, I’ve decided that this summer I will try to experience life as more than one extended stretch of white noise.  And who knows?  If it works out, and I do hear something  useful, then I might very well engage in some holy leisure even after Labor Day lowers the curtain on summer.


+On May 19th-20th I took part in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  On the evening of the 19th the Trustees joined the monastic community for dinner in the abbey refectory.

+On May 19th, between sessions of the meetings of the Trustees, I rushed to the other side of campus to speak to a group of faculty and staff from Concordia University in Saint Paul.  They were at Saint John’s to participate in a day-long workshop on The Saint John’s Bible.

+On May 21st I attended the dedication of the new entry hall at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, MN.

+On May 22nd I spoke on “Leisure in the Monastic Tradition” to the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s.  For two weeks the twenty-two members are on retreat before heading off to year-long assignments at Benedictine abbeys across the world.  All are 2014 graduates of Saint John’s University, and this is the largest such group of volunteers that we’ve ever sponsored.

image+This last week, and for a while to come, the monks have moved out of the refectory, while its ceiling is being repaired and a few of the frescoes are being retouched.  In the interim, we are taking our meals in the basement recreation room of the monastery.  It’s tight, but the confined space builds community!

+While I was in Paris recently I had the chance to visit several churches that were new to me, if not to the Parisians.  Among the most impressive was that of Saint Eustace.  Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, it served the center of Paris, including Les Halles, for long the chief market of the city.  One is oblivious to the huge Metro station below; while the church itself is an island of tranquility.  Inside of the church is a wonderful sculpture that depicts the former market.

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imageThe Benedictine Volunteer Corps

It certainly has not looked at all like spring at Saint John’s these past few days, but one sure sign of spring was there anyway.  In the course of the week some forty seniors from Saint John’s University came calling at a conference room in the Abbey.  Their interviews were anything but the usual ones for jobs in industry or internships in the not-for-profit world.  Instead they were there to explore the Benedictine Volunteer Corps (BVC) and the chance to devote one year of their time and talent at some Benedictine house around the world.

Now in its eleventh year, the BVC has enabled dozens and dozens of our recent alumni to live for a year at Benedictine communities in such disparate spots as India, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Italy and Spain.  They’ve worked at Saint Benedict’s Prep in inner-city Newark, NJ; at Saint James (Benedictine) Parish in Chicago; and at Tabgha Priory on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  In each case their contributions have been valued and their experiences unique.  I suspect too that each participant would readily agree that it has been a real stretch to adjust to worlds very different from what they knew at Saint John’s.

imageWhat makes the BVC unlike any conventional gap year program is the grounding that participants have in a local Benedictine community.  First of all, the volunteers live in a monastic community, or at least in housing adjacent to the monastery.  Second, volunteers must be engaged in the work of that local monastic community.  And third, volunteers must take part in the prayer life of the monastic community.  The goal is not to prepare them to be monks; but it is intended to give them a chance to explore the spiritual dimension of their lives at that critical juncture between graduation from college and the onset of a professional career.  Given that mix of experiences, this is a year that no doubt prompts a lot of reflection as they consider their future.

The program director, Brother Paul Richards, himself had the benefit of such an opportunity.  Following his graduation from Saint John’s, Brother Paul served for a year at our priory in the Bahamas, where he also worked in their school.  Whether that influenced his decision to become a monk matters less than the fact that it was a pivotal moment in his own growth.  He decided that others could and should benefit from a similar program; and with the support of the community at Saint John’s he launched the BVC.

imageTo begin with, there’s no particular personality that Brother Paul looks for in a prospective volunteer.  Still, it helps to be a self-starter, and it’s paramount that one be open-minded when it comes to dealing with other cultures.  Facility in a foreign language can help, but how one deals with a place like Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee takes special ingenuity.  There the German monks speak German, not surprisingly.  But the students in their camp speak Arabic and Hebrew.  And pilgrims to the shrine speak everything.  I can only imagine that the volunteers speak a little of each by the time it’s all over.

Before spreading to the ends of the earth at the end of August, the eighteen applicants who are accepted as volunteers gather for two weeks of orientation at Saint John’s.  During that time they participate in the full horarium of the community, including prayer and meals, and they receive conferences on Benedictine life and the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Alumni from previous years also contribute from their experience, in hopes that the new volunteers will know something of what to expect.

imageThings never go exactly according to plan, but that’s what makes the BVC such a rewarding year.  After a year of service the volunteers gather again at Saint John’s for a group retreat, and I have to assume that each has great stories to tell.   Happily, many BVC alumni continue to return for group reunions and personal days of reflection at the Abbey.  And happier still, four volunteers have gone on to become monks at Saint John’s Abbey.

No amount of preparation can prepare the volunteers for worlds that are very different from our own, and that may be the best part of the program.  Last year Brother Paul shared a letter from a volunteer who was working at Hanga Abbey in Tanzania.  In his letter Joseph Gair wrote about the Mass on the feast of Saint Benedict, at which one of the young monks took his final vows.  It’s worth quoting the entire passage, because it’s like no feast day I’ve ever attended.

The Mass was epic — with traditional singing, percussion, little girls dancing and singing.  My God, the singing!  That was the first hour.  Then a one-hour homily, thirty minutes of ceremony to recognize the monk making solemn vows, thirty minutes for the Eucharist.  I thought we were done, but there was another hour of random speeches.  It was all in Swahili, but there were some cognates.  I think they were talking about the education system.  I heard ‘sociology, business administration, information technology,’ who knows.

image“After Mass everyone started playing traditional drums and dancing and singing and chanting.  I couldn’t believe the energy….Finally they brought out the cake, accompanied by a ‘cakey song’ and ‘cakey dance,’ which was a bit depressing because the cake wasn’t nearly big enough to serve everyone there.  Or was it?  Watching the cake being served was like watching the seven loaves and fishes feed the masses.  Each person got a slice the size of two fingers, so everyone got some; and there was about one fourth left over!”

Yikes!  Could I sit through all that?  Frankly, I don’t know if I’m personally prepared for a liturgy quite like that one.  On the other hand, it serves to remind us of the variety of God’s people and the different ways in which they serve and praise God.  God bless them all!  And may God bless our volunteers.  They have far more gumption than I!

[If you’d like to read more about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s Abbey, visit their web site.  It comes complete with lots of description and pictures.]


+On January 28th I presided at the Abbey Mass.  It was the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, doctor of the Church.  People are always surprised to learn that Thomas Aquinas began his religious life as a novice at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino.  He did indeed, but he left to join the far-less-fashionable Dominicans.  His parents were furious and tried to get him to return to Monte Cassino.  He was as stubborn as he was brilliant, and he persisted as a Dominican.  Of course he flourished in the Order of Preachers, and he grew into a great scholar and something of a mystic.  I reminded my confreres in my opening comments that Saint Thomas was our gift as Benedictines to the Dominicans and to the Church.  The text of the sermon, Who are my brothers and sisters?, can be found under Presentations.

+Some weeks ago Brother Robin, the editor of the abbey newsletter The Abbey Banner, asked me to write an article on our confrere Fr. Matthew Luft, who is pastor of Saint Boniface Parish in nearby Cold Spring, MN.  I spent the morning of January 28th visiting with Fr. Matthew, gleaning nuggets of wisdom that I might use.

image+On the evening of January 28th we hosted Fr. Michael Creagan, pastor of the Church of Saint Joseph in West Saint Paul.  He was staying at the abbey guesthouse for a private retreat, and following the community Mass he joined me and two other monks for dinner in the abbey refectory.  Fr. Michael is the head chaplain for the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Minnesota.  That is only one item on his dizzying list of responsibilities.

+This has been an exceptionally cold winter in Minnesota, and I would be remiss were I not to admit that I’ve been away for some of it.  Still, it’s not always a good thing to write home to say how nice it may be elsewhere.  A few people never seem to understand that it is, after all, work.

imageIn that spirit, I wrote to a few confreres that the weather was not exactly what I had expected during my recent trip to Arizona.  In fact, I took my heavy coat along; but for all the good it did me, I may as well have left it at home.  At least at home I would be comfortable wearing it.  I was also careful to point out how cold it can be in the desert at night.  And I actually did have one real live complaint: the pollen is very much alive and kicking in Arizona, and I spent two days dealing with that.

On the other hand, winter foliage in Arizona may not seem like much to the locals, but it is very different from its counterpart in Minneota.  As a reminder of what living plants can look like in the winter, I share the pictures in today’s post. I did not take them in Minnesota.

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photoStaying in the Game

For years each group of novices in our community heard the story of the elderly monk, whose job included waking one novice early each morning.  That novice would then walk through the halls, ringing the hand-bell that called the monks to morning prayer.

One pre-dawn morning, as he made his rounds, the senior stopped to knock at the door of the novice who was the bell-ringer for the week.  But the door was open, the room was empty of personal belongings, and the novice was nowhere to be seen.  At a loss for what to do next, the senior ran into another monk, and asked him about the absent brother.

photo“Oh, he left yesterday,” was the reply.  “He wasn’t happy.”

“Happy?  Who’s happy?” was all the senior monk could think to say.

It’s sad but true that there are monks who go through life unhappy and depressed.  For the life of me I don’t understand why people would stay in a monastery if they didn’t find it to be an enriching experience.  But some do, because in their depression they see no way out. Nor can they envision any option that might be better.  In fact, they are caught in a Catch-22, where they are unhappy if they stay, and likely would be even unhappier if they were to leave.

Of course monks have no monopoly on unhappiness and depression, since those are pretty wide-spread conditions.  All over the place you encounter people who feel trapped by the hand that life has dealt them.  With no apparent exit strategy, they endure what seem to be lifeless marriages, tedious jobs, and aching loneliness.

photoI’ll be honest and say that so far life has spared me that sort of experience.  Though we all share moments of depression, mine have been brief and non-paralyzing.  Part of this is due to the fact that I am an incorrigible optimist, as I’ve noted in an earlier post.  But now I again admit that I have a really hard time finding the cloud that envelops the silver lining.  That makes it very difficult to nurture depression for long stretches, and that probably is a real gift that I’ve yet to understand.  But I appreciate it.  Such inveterate optimism provides the quick escape route I need when dark clouds threaten.  But that is not so for a few of my confreres, and certainly not so for many of our fellow citizens in the world.

There’s not a single one of us who hasn’t at times felt that life has not gone the way we wanted.  I’m the first admit my disappointment that the western world has yet to recognize my talents.  Others of us have dug themselves into a social hole because they think no one likes them.  Others have enjoyed little of the esteem or privileges that seem to shower down on the elect among us.  And on the most elemental of levels, virtually everyone, or most people, or a few people, or one person always does better than me.  What rotten luck always seems to befall me.  I have every right to be thoroughly depressed.

photoThese are the thoughts that percolate through our minds when we are tired or have our guard down.  Such thoughts come to all of us, but whether they reflect the truth is another matter entirely.  Granted, when bad things happen to good people, we do have a right to feel just a bit put out.  And when the wicked seem to prosper all the time, it’s enough to make one swear at the injustice of it all.  But sometimes we do get fooled by our self-pity and fall for it hook, line and sinker.

What surprises me most is that these thoughts creep into the minds of people who are talented and blessed in so many ways.  These people have absolutely no right to feel depressed about anything.  But on down days they do crash, and those dark  days can leach out from them any and all hope for the future.

photoIn her book on John Cassian, Thoughts Matter, Sr. Mary Margaret Funk gives a few strategies for pulling ourselves out of this dark hole and back into health.  But among her suggestions was one that caught my eye, because it sounded very familiar to me.  She recommends that one “stay in relationship with others.”  “If I begin to isolate myself, there is no end to the number of people I cross off my list.”

Years ago I adopted as my daily mantra one rule that I use to drag me wherever and whenever I don’t want to go someplace.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game” has served me well.  It’s been for me the antidote to occasional bouts of introversion.  It’s also been effective medicine for the days when I don’t feel like doing a thing, and for days when I’d rather stay in my room and hide.  But over the years I’ve learned this:  the longer I stay on the sidelines, the harder it is to get back out there and meet the world.  And after years of experience, I know that things always go much better when I do show up.

photoI had not realized that this was a good spiritual tonic.  Little did I know that the temptation to isolate myself could open me to all sorts of pitfalls .  Little did I realize that the antidote to such temptation was so close at hand.

I never did find out whether the novice who left did so because he was  unhappy, or because he had realized that this was not the life for him.  I hope it was the latter.   As for the senior monk, I have a feeling he was not being entirely honest that morning when he hinted at his own unhappiness.  After all, his quick wit that morning entered him into the ranks of the immortals in the monastery.  But beyond that, he continued to be the first to greet the dawn each day.  He must have had a lot to live for, because he never failed to show up to play the game.

Benedictine Volunteers

Benedictine Volunteers


+On Sunday, June 2nd, I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  For a transcript of my Sermon on Corpus Christi, click on this link or visit Presentations.

+In late May we hosted a cohort of recent alumni of Saint John’s University, who will serve as Benedictine Volunteers during the coming school year.  They were with us in the monastery for two weeks of orientation and retreat, and this September they will begin a year of service at Benedictine abbeys in South America, Africa, Israel, India, Europe and the United States.  This is the eleventh year of the program, and it continues to provide an extraordinary experience for the Volunteers.  As for the Abbey, we have been delighted to welcome into the Abbey four former Volunteers, who now live with us as young monks.

photo+On May 25th Saint John’s University alumnus Deacon James Peterson was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.  A native of Minnetonka, MN, Fr. Peterson was a theology major at Saint John’s and participated in track and field.  He also worked as a student ambassador in the Office of Institutional Advancement, which happens to be the office where I work.  Fr. Peterson is the second of two of our former student ambassadors to be ordained in as many years.  Congratulations to Fr. Peterson!

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