Posts Tagged ‘Canterbury Cathedral’


Wake Up!  (a bit of advice for Advent)

Once a month we monks at Saint John’s set aside a day for reflection.  From rising until dinner we are silent — save for prayer — and the abbot convenes us for a spiritual conference in the chapter house.

Given that we already live in a monastery, it’s fair to ask why in the world we’d need to do this extra stuff.  Aren’t twenty-nine or thirty days a month in church enough already?  Well, the answer is yes, and no.

Monks follow a religious regimen that most people would consider more than adequate.  But for a moment consider where we’re coming from.  Just because we go to church several times a day, and just because we practice all sorts of other rituals, that doesn’t keep us from turning it all into a numbing round of activity.  And therein is the value of an occasional day off to get a grip on ourselves.  Whether we do a lot or a little or nothing, slippping into an unexamined routine can rob life of its intensity.  That’s why we — and anybody — should do this sort of thing.

794354BC-0C9A-472B-9CEC-AB17E8FB850AFrom a seasonal point of view Saturday’s conference had real possibilities.  Advent was to begin the next day, and in the gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus urges people to “be awake.”  It’s just the sort of advice we need to hear once in a while, and it was the theme that Abbot John chose to focus on, in hopes of stirring us on a sleepy Saturday morning.

However, I began to wonder if he was about to fritter the opportunity away with his opening comment.  He reminded us that Saint Benedict says nothing about Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  On the other hand Benedict does say that the lives of monks ought to be like a Lenten observance.  But as for Advent, Benedict says nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  It’s like the season doesn’t even exist, which naturally made me wonder.  Was it because in 6th-century Italy they didn’t have Black Friday or the pre-Christmas shopping season?  Or was it because there were as yet no shopping malls to give meaning to the season of Advent?  We’ll likely never know.  But having mulled over Saint Benedict’s telling omission, I began to wonder why the abbot had roused us out of our reverie on a Saturday morning.  Did he do it just so he could tell us that Advent was unmonastic?

Abbot John did not choose to go in that direction.  But his opening bit did succeed in priming the pump for my own sometimes irreverent thoughts.  And so, once again, last Saturday morning I reaffirmed the value of an Advent observance, even in a Benedictine monastery, and even for me.

7BF6B804-B562-4AE8-A538-B7EA19C19FDEIn the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus makes this point:  “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you like a trap.”  (Luke 21: 34).  Drowsiness is the problem, and the  day to which Jesus refers is the day of the coming of the Lord.  And if we let the complexities of daily life overwhelm us then there may be unintended consequences.  The Lord will come, but we’ll be the last to know that he had been standing right in front of our noses and we hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe that’s why Saint Benedict doesn’t bother to write anything about the season of Advent.  Maybe it’s because he presumes that monks — and all Christians for that matter — should be aware that Advent goes on around us all the time.  Granted, the gospel speaks of the day when we will stand before the Lord at the end of time;  but all the same the Lord isn’t exactly hiding from us right now.

In fact, Jesus is in front of us, in plain sight, each and every day.  For that reason Benedict writes that the monk should see Christ in the guest, in the elderly and sick, in the abbot and in the youngest monks.  And the same applies to everyone else.  Whether it’s in the poor and sick, in the lonely or struggling, or in the person who needs our kind word or smile, the Lord makes cameo appearances all the time.  So it is that the Lord’s advent is present to us every day;  and if once a year we need a season to serve as a reminder to us, then so be it.

That explains the urgency in the words of Jesus.  He’s coming, but not just at the end of time.  Advent is the season when we deliberately rouse ourselves from our routine and admit how incredibly blessed we are.  We have the chance to meet the Lord — today.  Why wouldn’t we want to stay awake for that?


+On November 27th I presided and preached at the Eucharist for members of the San Francisco area Order of Malta, who had gathered for their annual meeting.

+On December 1st we had our monthly day of reflection, and we assembled for a conference written by Abbot John.  Because that morning the abbot was away to preside at the funeral of his aunt, Brother David-Paul was delegated to read the abbot’s conference to the community.

+On December 1st the football team of Saint John’s University ended its season with a loss in the NCAA Division III playoffs.  The game took place in Belton, TX, which is a small town in central Texas.  Oddly enough, I’ve been there a few times.  My grandparents lived near there, and my father was born in nearby Westphalia, TX.

+A few days ago the nation and Saint John’s lost a wonderful scholar and friend.  Dr. James Billington served as the Librarian of Congresss for ages, and he was generous in his energy and expertise in arranging an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Library of Congress.  He also spoke at an event at Saint John’s, and our last encounter took place when he gathered in the office of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis.  In the presence of Pope Francis, the Speaker, Abbot John and a few others, Dr. Billington accepted a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, to mark the occasion of the Pope’s visit.  That set now resides in the Library of Congress.

+At the top of this post is a photo of the Advent wreath in the abbey church.  We also have a second large wreath in the refectory.  Below that are two photos of the abbey chapter house, where we gather for spiritual conferences and meetings.  While it may seem a substantial building, it’s dwarfed by many of its medieval counterparts, as illustrated by the two photos of the chapter house at Canterbury Cathedral.  As you might imagine, I prefer our cushioned seats to the stone benches at Canterbury.


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imageWhat Price Friendship?

One casualty of the post-Christmas frenzy is the string of liturgical feasts that follow the big day itself.  On the 26th comes the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, celebrated in the lyrics of the popular carol with these words:  “Good King Wenceslaus went out, on the feast of Stephen.”  Stephen was a deacon in the New Testament Jerusalem community, and he was the first to give up his life for the Christian faith.  He surrendered his life while Saul, the future Saint Paul, looked on with approval.  Stephen certainly deserves a little more respect than he gets, but it’s tough to compete with post-Christmas gift returns and sales.  People will stampede to the cathedrals of commerce on the 26th, but they’re not so inclined to crowd the churches to honor this great deacon.

imageOn the 27th is the feast of Saint John the Evangelist.  By tradition we revere him as the author of the gospel that bears his name, as well as of the Book of Revelation.  But we also celebrate his deep friendship with Jesus.  According to the gospel, he was “the one whom Jesus loved,” which is indicative of the high esteem that the ancient world placed on friendship.  He alone of the disciples stood loyally at the foot of the cross, and there he became the surrogate for all believers when Jesus entrusted his mother to him, and him to her.  Unique among the apostles, he lived to an old age; and alone among them he did not wear the martyr’s crown.

On the 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents, followed this year by the feast of the Holy Family.  The first recalls Herod’s order to execute all young boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem, in hopes of wiping out potential rivals to his kingship.  Ever since the gospels first recounted this story, it has gripped the imaginations of readers and preachers and artists alike.  It never quite loses its power to shock.

imageAs if all of this were not enough, we also remember Saint Thomas Becket, who was assassinated inside Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.  Born into modest circumstances, Becket eventually rubbed elbows with the great and powerful of England, and Henry II chose him to be both friend and chancellor.  Henry, who likely fancied himself to be a master tactician, conceived the brilliant idea of adding to Becket’s titles that of archbishop of Canterbury.  In one fell swoop Henry would have his friend be lord of both the secular and the religious.  Through this pliant and loyal friend Henry’s power would be seamless, complete, and unchallenged.

Of course those plans didn’t materialize in quite the way that Henry had hoped, and his ambitions were thwarted when Thomas put duty over friendship.  As Richard Burton portrays him in the stirring movie Becket, the archbishop chose to be God’s servant first and the king’s second.  In this he provided a model for the 16th-century sequel, when another Chancellor Thomas (More) preferred God to yet another Henry, this time number VIII.

imageBecket’s murder shocked Europe for a lot of reasons, and not just because it was a conflict between royal and ecclesial rights.  For one thing, the murder violated a sacred space, since it took place on holy ground inside Canterbury Cathedral.  It also violated a sacred time, since it occurred within the octave of Christmas, as the archbishop-monk prepared for vespers.  Third, heavily armed knights had brought weapons into a sacred space and had hacked to death an un-armed non-combatant.  And lastly, they had killed a man of God.  For two centuries peace-makers had worked to bridle indiscriminate violence, and in one celebrated act these knights had violated not only the laws of human decency, but also a budding code of chivalry.  Still, though only a few knights had done the deed, it was Henry II who got the credit, and for it he paid dearly.

imageOn major feast days at Saint John’s we add a second reading to the scripture passage at morning prayer.  This time of year, as expected, lots of days get that special treatment simply because so many feasts crowd the calendar.  But on the feast of Stephen we heard a reading that was brilliant both for its prose as well as for its ability to tie all the days together.  It was a passage from T. S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, and it was the sermon that Thomas Becket preached in Canterbury Cathedral on the feast of Saint Stephen.  In his reflection on Stephen, Becket foresees his own impending martyrdom.  Like the Innocents, he will be a lamb led to slaughter; but in the spirit of Saint Stephen Becket will accept his fate with full consciousness.  He will put duty and faith above all else — including friendship with the king.

What struck me as I listened was the proximity to the feast of John the Evangelist and a theme that is common to both.  Running through the stories of Becket and John is an emphasis on the importance of friendship.  John was friend to Jesus, and that had been a decisive and life-changing reality for him.  Becket was a friend to Henry II, and their friendship was an equally decisive motif in his life,  until of course he had to choose between commitment to God or commitment to king.  There’s no reason that there should have been an ethical dilemma here, but there was.  And Becket had to choose.  For his choice he paid the ultimate price.

imageAll this drama follows on the feast of Christmas, and it is a poignant reminder that Christmas is not just some sweet story about an innocent child in a manger.  For all who would follow the  teaching of the adult Jesus, there are choices that have to be made.  Sometimes those choices are easy and joyful; sometimes they are difficult and painful.  But choose we must.  And I’ve always thought that if we choose well, the results will be wonderful, whatever they may be.  Such choices transform our lives because through them we become sons and daughters of God.  That, I think, is the price and the reward of our friendship with Jesus.  To my mind that is a gift we would scarcely want to return on December 26th.


image+On Christmas Eve some 900 people braved both the cold as well as snowy roads to join us for Mass.  At the end of the liturgy many seemed to be in no great hurry to leave, and it was nice that so many could join us for coffee and cookies in the Great Hall.  However, one person apparently was in a great rush to get home; but how you leave a shoe behind is beyond me.  He or she must have been talking on a cell phone at the time.

+Like the shepherds of old, our manger scene has migrated to various spots around the church.  This year it was relocated to the baptistry, with a fine orientation toward the altar.  Designed by a French artist, who gave the figures a North African accent, they received new clothing a few years ago when a candle accidentally burned off their clothes.  There were no candles this year, due in part to the hay that gave the scene the feel and aroma of an authentic stable.  The bales came via the generosity of one of our neighbors, who asked asked that they be returned when the Holy Family moved on.  Hay is not cheap this year.

image+One of my favorite portraits of the Holy Family is a wood relief carved by our now-deceased Brother Placid Stuckenschneider.  It hangs in the Mary chapel of the parish center, which is located across the lake from campus.

+Last year the admissions department of the University staged several photos that highlight the natural beauty of the campus.  “Raft U” was the overall theme, and enclosed is their Christmas greeting.  Needless to say, this is not an accurate photo of the lake, at least as of 30 December.

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A Canterbury Tale

The road to Canterbury has changed quite a lot since Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims told their ribald stories en route.  For one, today’s generic naughtiness is far less imaginative than what fifteenth-century pilgrims dreamed up.  For another, our stories tend to be a lot shorter, which counts for everything in an era of brief attention spans.  But the real nail in the coffin is this:  the very notion that tawdry tales could be told in poetic meter is off-putting.  Today’s trash cannot  hold a literary candle to its medieval counterpart; and that’s just the way we moderns like it, thank you.

Last week I had the opportunity to revisit Canterbury, which has always occupied a big space in my mental living room.  I hadn’t been there in years, largely because the train from London used to take forever — almost as long as one of Chaucer’s tales.  But the high-speed train from Saint Pancras now rushes you there in fifty-eight minutes — which to me seems nothing less than miraculous.

The Pilgrims’ Window, Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury has changed a lot since Saint Augustine and his monks settled there in 597.  Initially it was to be a temporary home, and the Roman missionaries carried with them an organizational chart that specified two archbishops in England:  one in London and one in York.  But the London part never quite worked out, and successive archbishops found it pleasant enough to stay put in Canterbury.  And that’s good for those of us interested in literature.  Andrew Lloyd Webber would have coopted “The London Tales” for himself, and Chaucer would be chided for not setting his poetry to music.

Since 597 the cathedral precincts have seen their share of drama, largely due to the figure of Thomas Becket.  His grotesque murder inside the cathedral shocked all of Europe, which was really hard to do in an age of pervasive social violence.  The act brought Henry II to his knees, literally.  And the lesson was not lost on Henry VIII.  The destruction of the shrine was high on his to-do list.  Today a simple candle on the spot of Becket’s shrine tells the tale, without any words.

The cathedral precincts had not changed much since my last visit.  The monastic refectory, kitchen and infirmary are still dreamy ruins.  The cloisters are still elegant and delicate, though many of the pillars seem on the verge of disintegration.  The chapter house, where the monks once met, is as striking as ever, though it might be a good idea to hide the folding chairs when they’re not needed.  And finally, the church itself simply overwhelms.  No wonder medieval pilgrims, used to humble villages and simple inns, thought they had passed through the portals of heaven.  In every respect, they had.

A few historians are hopeless romantics, and I don’t blush to put myself in their number.  While I have no desire to enjoy thirteenth-century medicine or hygene, I do appreciate the language of the monastic culture.  Initially, the cathedral and monastic precincts overwhelm.  But very shortly they embrace you.  They remind you that you are part of something greater than yourself.  You are one with the community of monks who once shuffled through these halls.  They ate and prayed and worked daily in these vast spaces,  much as modern monks do.  They welcomed guests and traded stories, just as we do.  And  they rest peacefully in the ground outside the church, awaiting the coming of the Lord, just as we will someday.  In sum, they lived full lives, just as we aspire to do.  And they left something of ultimate artistic value in the great church that welcomes modern pilgrims.

In a world in which we tend to think it is all about me, those stones preach that it is all about me, God, and my neighbors — past, present and to come.  And this is nothing less than the Church, writ local and small.

One last item brought this home very unexpectedly.  Like many historic churches in the United Kingdom, there is a not-cheap entry fee at Canterbury.  As I was about to pay, I asked if there might be a discount for Benedictine monks.  The young woman reacted as if she got this question every day.  “No”, was her firm and unflinching response.  “Benedictine monks get in free.”  And then she smiled and said “Welcome home.”

Ambassador Robert Shafer and friends at the Order of Malta Mission at the United Nations

A Personal NoteAs the topmost picture suggests, it snowed in England last week.  While we’ve not had much snow in Minnesota this winter, I didn’t fly off to England just so that I could get in on several inches of heavy wet snow.  On February 4th I said Mass and baptized the daughter of some friends of mine; and all this took place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception — better known as the Farm Street Church.  It is the Jesuit church in London, and it is tucked away off of a lovely square in Mayfair.  Inside, it is a real jewel, and it houses a lively congregation with a full schedule of services. Notes from Saint John’s+On February 6th The Czech Boys Choir began their American tour with a concert in the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  For a portion of the evening the members of The Saint John’s Boys Choir joined in the singing.+On February 8th Ambassador Robert Shafer hosted a reception for New York friends of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at the Mission of the Order of Malta to the United Nations.  In the course of its history, HMML has photographed nearly 120,000 manuscripts, includng major sections of the archives of the Order of Malta.  Through its Malta Study Center, HMML continues that work with projects at the National Library of Malta, as well as at the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta in Rome.  On a later occasion I will write on the extensive work that HMML currently pursues in Lebanon and Syria.In the picture above, Ambassador Shafer is flanked by Ms. Nicky Benz Carpenter, DM, and Fra Elie de Comminges, KJ.  Looking over their shoulders is a portrait of deceased Grand Master Fra Andrew Bertie.+On February 9th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey mourned the passing of our confrere, Fr. Arnold Weber.  The best way to describe Fr. Arnold is that he was a torrent of energy.  In his 86 years he never seemed to rest.  He taught in the Abbey prep school, was vocations director for many years, and served in various pastoral assignments away from the Abbey.  He thoroughly relished his years as president of Benilde-Saint Margaret High School in St. Louis Park, MN; and he was a beloved pastor at Holy Name Church in Medina, MN.  In his term as pastor the parish grew from 300 to 2,500 families.  It took that many people to keep up with him.  We will miss his vitality and his love of the Lord.

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