Posts Tagged ‘Cathedral of Saint John in Malta’

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

The Tyranny of Things

In 1961 Dom Jean Leclercq penned what has since become a foundational text on monastic culture.  A monk of the Benedictine abbey of Clervaux in Luxembourg, his Love of Learning and the Desire for God delivered exactly what the title promised, and it did so in beautiful prose.  So loving was his study, that it crossed the threshold from scholarship, to become spiritual reading.  It has since become far more than just another book about the learned monk and nun of history.

photoBooks have been essential to monastic life, and there’s no denying that monks and nuns have had a great fondness for them through the centuries.  In the popular imagination they sat at their desks, first copying and then reading the books they’d crafted.  In the course of centuries they amassed the greatest libraries of their time, and small wonder that we gaze in awe at their work.  Manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels still stir the imagination.  Likely, they always will.

The stereotype of the scholar-monk is useful, as far as it goes.  However, not everybody in a monastery was a scholar, and not a few of the non-scholars resented those who carved out time for books.  But before we canonize the academics as martyrs, it’s good to remind ourselves of the special challenges that they faced.  Chief among them, perhaps, was the temptation to private ownership.

photoSaint John Cassian wrote about “thoughts of things” — or better still, the “thoughts about the acquisition of things” — as one of the great distractions for everyone.  After food and sex, it ranked third on his ascending scale of “most frequent of daydreams.”  It should surprise no one that people in monasteries share the same sorts of thoughts as everyone else.  After all, despite what some may think, monks and nuns are people too.

And that brings me to the issue of books.  Given Saint Benedict’s caution about private ownership, you’d naturally assume that the library would eliminate the need for private books.  You’d be wrong.  For all sorts of very good reasons, monks have owned books, and they still do.  And I’m one of them.  But like anything else, too much of a good thing can come back to haunt you.  Just ask the monks who have lived in cells where the books became the monsters that took over their lives.

photoI speak from personal experience when it comes to owning too many books.  Through years of schooling and teaching, I amassed a respectable collection;  but the books finally began to assert themselves as master.  Then one day I awoke to the need to fight back.  I had lugged some of those books around for years, from one office and room to the next.  A few I had not touched since college.  Some were still boxed up from graduate school.  And each and every one of them had a countrpart in the library, three hundred yards away.  In a moment of insight, I realized I had no choice but to choose.  It was them or me, and one of us would have to cave in.  It was no longer a case of “love of learning.”  It had become a tyranny of things over my life.

I was reminded that others might share similar issues when I visited Malta recently, with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  The harbor at Valletta is a crossroads of the Mediterranean, and parked in one bay was the largest and grandest yacht any of us had ever seen.  Our guide pointed to it, and noted that the owner had two more, exact copies, parked elsewhere in the world.  Personally I would have opted for some variety if I had three yachts.  I would have made one a foot shorter, or color-coded them so I’d know where in the world I might be.   But maybe this guy had a thing about uniformity.  Regardless, I wondered whether it was the guy who owned the yachts, or whether the yachts had begun to own him.

photoMost of us won’t ever have the problem that comes from owning too many yachts, all of which are identical.  But we all have “thoughts of things” that run through our minds.  Some things are fun and frivilous; some are concessions to our place in a consumer society; and some are anxieties about our material future.  All are worth thinking about, but none are so important that we should allow them to take over our lives.

The tyranny of “things over people” has always been with us, but the struggle is especially intense for members of a consumer society.  When we define ourselves as economic units of consumption, then the amount we own is the measure of our greatness.  I gladly join with those who note we must consume things in order to live and thrive.  But when we value human beings in terms of what they own, or how much they buy, then we have gone into alien territory.  I would argue that you and I are far more important than the stuff we have stashed away in cupboards and garages and banks.  All those things have some value, but if they are what make us important, then life is not worth living.

photoFrom a Christian point of view, God did not give us life for the sole purpose of piling up more stuff.  Nor did God create us to think about acquisitions all day long.  Nor did God create us to be the servant of things.  Nor did God intend that we be consumed by anxieties about our material future.  All of that is easier said than done.  But God does not abandon us to wage our battle of interior wits alone.

As for me and my books, my battle is likely never to be finished.  It continues to be a work in progress, but in the last two years I’ve given an awful lot of them away.  And I’ve reclaimed for myself a major portion of my room.  But there have been surprises.  For one, I get to the library far more often than I used to.  I’ve since discovered that it has all sorts of wonderful books I’ve not met before.  And in a great irony, I’ve actually found more time for reading.  That suggests that I am actually using books as they should be, rather than they using me.

As for The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, that’s one book I intend to keep.  It’s a reminder of what life in the monastery can be like.  I need to let that thought run through my mind a little more often than it has in the past.


+On May 18th I gave a retreat day to members of the Order of Malta, who gathered in Pasadena, CA, for the occasion.

+Following our pilgrimage to Lourdes, I and nine other members of the Order of Malta spent five days on the Island of Malta.  Located fifty miles south of Sicily and a hundred miles from Libya, it served as the home of the Order of Malta from 1530 to 1798, when Napoleon conquered the island.

It was the Emperor Charles V who gave Malta to the Knights, in return for an annual rent of one Maltese falcon.  In the course of time the Knights developed Malta into a giant fortress that protected its magnificant harbor.  So important was the British naval base there, that the Germans made it the target of their most intensive bombing campaign of World War II.

photoThe first thing to catch the eye are the massive fortifications and walls.  You’re tempted to think that there must be more stone blocks in Malta than any place on earth.  One of our party marvelled that there was any island left after they quarried all that stone.  The second thing one notes are the magnificent buildings that the knights left behind.  Included among them are what was the largest hospital in Europe in its day, the Grand Master’s Palace, and a great many buildings that serve as offices for the government of Malta today.

The pictures in today’s post come from the co-cathedral of Saint John, which was the main church of the knights.  It is now  a World Heritage site, and a glance at the floor tells why. Nearly every square inch is covered with the inlaid marble tombs of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s just breathtaking.

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Icon of Saint John the Baptist, Abbey church

Writing the Job Description for Your Life

The eighth grade was without a doubt the apex of my athletic career. For seven years I was an also-ran on the track team, though I always finished respectably. But in those days there were no trophies or limosines for fifth-place finishers (known at the time collectively as the losers.) Then, in the summer after seventh grade, the keys to fame and fortune came at last. That summer I had a spurt of growth that left me tall and skinny and fleet-of-foot. But even better, the guy who had won everything for seven years moved to another city. That fall I shocked his heir-apparent and ran away with the ribbons for everything except the shot put. It was just too heavy.

In retrospect I realize that celebrity came too soon. Today I would be busy selecting a site for my own hall of fame and library. And I would fret over how many publicists would be enough. Back then no one knew we were due all that adulation.

Co-cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Malta

For some time David Brooks has been the writer I idolize, and I could listen to him talk about anything, all day long. Lately he’s commented on the lack of humility in our society, with the observation that people will now do stuff that would have mortified them fifty years ago. He includes, as an example, ceo salaries at $75 million per year.  But that scarcely exhausts the inventory.

Recently he cited a survey of young people, most of whom said they would prefer to be Justin Bieber’s agent rather than the president of Harvard. For my part I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they just don’t know what a president of a Harvard is. But Brooks was less forgiving. For him their choice was a sign of the times. Our popular culture sets a higher store on fame than on service to others. Sadly, for us it really is all about us.

On the second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist enters the scene, and he preaches the need for repentance and baptism. Given his clothing and diet, he’d never have a prayer of getting into GQ  or Cosmopolitan. But on one key ingredient he is even more hopelessly out of sync with the 21st century. After all, who would want a job description that reads: “he must increase, while I must decrease”?

The gospels cast John as the quintessential number two man. It’s not about him, because he literally points to someone else. He is the epitome of humility — the quality whose absence in our culture Brooks so laments. But John’s supporting role in the story doesn’t degrade him. In fact, his character is all the more noble since his life points to something of transcendent value. It wasn’t all about him, because it was all about the One who had given him life in the first place.

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

In his Rule Saint Benedict describes the degrees of humility, and that kind of language makes many cringe in mock horror. But Benedict has no desire to reduce the monk to worthlessness. Quite the contrary, if the monk is to see Christ in others, he also needs to see Christ in himself. He, like every seeker of Christ, is called to be a sacred person.

Benedict’s degrees of humility are a form of reality therapy, from which we learn a great deal. The monk has not brought himself into being. He did not bestow on himself a range of talents. His supreme importance is not self-derived. The humility to which both Benedict and David Brooks point is a grounding in the soil from which we all spring and to which we shall return. Humility is a reminder of the Source in whom we live and move and have our being.

To what do we want our lives to point? That’s the question we all answer with our actions. For my part I’m glad there is no shrine to my eighth-grade athletic prowess. It was a formative moment in my life, but it’s not who I am today. Fixating on one such episode strikes me as incredibly unhealthy. Everyone should celebrate such rites of passage, but then we need to move on to the next task. If we stop too long to extoll our own greatness, we risk stalling out. We become blind to what God still has in mind for us.

What then will be the job description we write for oursleves? Am I here solely to win some races in the eighth grade? To celebrate the cult of Justin Bieber? To make some impact on somebody’s life? To show the goodness of the God who gives us life?

Put that way, the options are more stark. At its fullest, life is not about me. Like John the Baptist, life is more about me and God and all the others in whom God dwells.

Practice for the Christmas concert: The Great Hall

John the Baptist

Since the early Church Saint John the Baptist has been a favorite patron, and as “a voice crying in the wilderness” he can be especially appropriate for our own day. More particular to me, he is patron of Saint John’s Abbey, as well as of our University and Prep School.  For the first few years John the Baptist literally was a voice crying in the wilderness of Collegeville, since the early monks had primarily birds, squirrels and deer as their neighbors.  He is also the patron of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, in which I serve as a chaplain.  For the sake of small envelopes, it is often abbreviated as The Order of Malta.  I have included two photos of the Order’s former headquarters church in Malta, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.  While the exterior of the church blends easily into the landscape of Malta, the interior is resplendent with the magnificent tombs of past members of the Order.

Because of his popularity, John the Baptist naturally shows up as a favored subject for artists, and at Saint John’s we have several renditions of him. At the top of this post is an icon which is enthroned in the Abbey church, below the lecturn. In it John points to Christ, in the upper left corner of the panel. The icon was painted by Aidan Hart, who did significant work in The Saint John’s Bible.

John the Baptist also figures in a very weathered statue that now sits behind the monastery. At first glance this terra cotta representation looks rather sad and depressed, with downcast eyes. It could be due to the flower bed at his feet, which is closed for the winter. In fact, however, he looks downward because he once greeted all guests arriving at the main entrance of the Abbey, and he did it from four floors up. Sometime around 1894 he was perched up on a ledge on the tower of the monastery, and from there he reigned supreme until 1954. In that year the Breuer wing of the monastery was built, and all of a sudden he looked out over a huge expanse of roof. Preaching to the roof did not suit him, or us, and he was relocated to the garden, where he now presides over the flowers — and the occasonal photographer. In the picture below you can identify the ledge on which the statue stood, just outside of an arched window.

The Calendar

On December 1st I was the presiding celebrant at the Abbey Mass, and I have enclosed in Presentations my reflection: Is God our Father, or is He Santa Claus? This was my first experience with the new Roman Missal, which had entered the scene on the previous Sunday. At the Abbey we had spent considerable time and work in preparation for it, and we’d begun to use the new sung propers two months ago. While the changes in wording are not radical, it took some basic preparation that had not been necessary for me for many years. Needless to say, I was nervous and careful, as if it were my first Mass all over again. But it turned out well.

On December 2nd the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict gave their annual Christmas concert in the Great Hall at Saint John’s. The next evening they gave the same concert at the massive Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis. It was the 25th anniversary of that concert, and as always the massed choirs sang to a very full church.

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