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Posts Tagged ‘Cardinal Leo Suenens’

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We Are People of he Resurrection

“If Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, then nothing else matters.  And if Jesus Christ died and did not rise, then nothing else matters.”

So wrote Jaroslav Pelikan, and his application of logic to the life of Jesus has profound implications for the direction of our lives.  Believe in him or not, Jesus was one of the central figures of human history.  But for Christians Jesus is more than an historical figure.  He is in fact the central figure of our lives.

I fist met Professor Pelikan when I was in college, and he was already an eminent historian at Yale.  The occasion was an appearance he made alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium, and together they made for a striking duo in the gothic sanctuary of Riverside Church in New York.  In his red robes Suenens contrasted sharply with virtually everybody else;  but it was Pelikan who dazzled me.  During the exchange that followed their talks, someone posed a question to Pelikan.  Without a moment’s hesitation Pelikan referenced a Czech theologian, whom he quoted at length, without notes, in Czech.  Then and there I decided that someday I would study with that man.

6862A6D6-A078-4157-8421-30AA5D90AFCAYears later Pelikan was the main reader for my dissertation and, true to his sense of the dramatic moment, he announced at a dinner in the Great Hall at Saint John’s that he had signed off on my work two days earlier.  It was an energizing moment for me, as you can imagine.  But that gesture underscored for me how important people can be in our lives.  Be they teachers, parents or friends, we do not walk this earth alone.  Such people are gifts from God to us.

I’ve often mulled over Pelikan’s words on the resurrection, not just for what they say about Jesus, but for what they say about us.  If Jesus did die and rise for us, then each one of us has intrinsic value.  As sons and daughters of God, each one of us matters, and each of us is a gift sent to our brothers and sisters to accomplish something important.

So the upshot of all this should be life-changing.  If Jesus Christ did die and rise from the dead, then nothing else matters.  That means that God loves each of us and to each of our brothers and sisters you and I are a gift.  It’s an extraordinary vocation that the Lord has given us, and nothing else matters.

30B89EBF-7CD3-4198-8FF7-557F02A55148Notes

+Not surprisingly, I did not leave the abbey grounds last week.  However, I am learning once again to appreciate the value of Benedictine stability and claustral life in the monastery, though the first couple of weeks away from the airports did not come easily.  Now I’m getting used to it and have enjoyed the chance to go for long walks on the abbey grounds.

+On April 8th my dear friend Fra Carl Noelke passed away suddenly, though not unexpectedly.  Fra Carl was a Knight of Justice, that is, a member in the Order of Malta who had professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  To look at Fra Carl’s face was to get a glimpse of the beatific vision, and he was a joy to be with.  He was widely respected within the Order, and all who knew him will miss him dearly.

On April 11th I led the Office of the Dead for Fra Carl, which we conducted via Zoom.  Ca. 60 of us joined together, and participants included members of the Order in Rome, Paris and London, across the United States, and in New Zealand.  Given my total lack of technical expertise, we were fortunate to have someone other than me to manage the entire exercise.  Following the service individuals were able to offer their personal tributes in memory of Fra Carl.  All in all it was a remarkable experience.  Fra Carl practiced law in San Francisco and was a member of the Bohemian Club, to which he contributed his deep booming voice.  He will be buried in his hometown of LaCrosse, WI.

+One of the surprises of the Triduum was the installation of an icon painted by our confrere, Fr. Nathanael Hauser.  At 7×12 feet it is certainly large, and it almost did not fit through the door of his studio.  It sits above the Abbot’s throne and dominates the space.  The last two photos in today’s post show an icon by Aidan Hart, commissioned for Saint John’s Abbey.  Aidan did significant work in The Saint John’s Bible.

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Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.

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Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.

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Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.

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+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.

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