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Posts Tagged ‘Cathedral of Toledo Spain’

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Shaped by the Benedictine Tradition

Morning and evening prayer at Saint John’s Abbey may be as regular as clockwork, but summer provides almost daily surprises.  Those surprises generally have to do with guests who, as Saint Benedict pointed out, are never wanting in a monastery.  More precisely, the surprises have to do with the number of guests who join us in choir, and their number can vary dramatically from morning to evening and day to day.

It’s safe to say that while the roster of monks in most monasteries may be shorter than fifty years ago, the number of guests who show up at monasteries to join monks for prayer is up dramatically.  Part of that has to do with Latin, which in former times may have discouraged many lay people from attending.  Whether its absence matters today is debatable.  But of greater significance is the growing number of people who recite the liturgy of the hours on their own.  Not surprisingly that draws them to join us at prayer when they are at Saint John’s.

67A0E5EE-3905-428E-B895-BE9626FA724AAs a result, we monks at Saint John’s have learned to expect the unexpected when we enter the choir for prayer during the summer.  On some days there may be only a sprinkling of visitors.  But then there are days when there are more of them than there are of us.  Of course that can impact the quality of our recitation, but I personally contend that it’s a wonderful problem to have.

It’s also important to note the summer-time presence of a particular group of young men at prayer.  Unlike the other guests, they sit with us in the stalls reserved for the monks.  Dressed in distinctive black polo shirts with “Saint John’s Abbey” stitched on them in white thread, they are the incoming and outgoing members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corp (BVC).  For the new members their presence is a chance to experience a bit of Benedictine life before heading off to monasteries around the world for a year of service.  For veteran members it’s a chance to share their experiences of the last year, and we are always eager listeners.

Normally the Volunteers are recent graduates of Saint John’s University.  A few months before graduation they apply, and in practice the program has been able to accept roughly half of those who wish to go.  This year 26 will go off to serve, suggesting that there was an applicant pool of 50+.

Those numbers may not seem like much, but with a graduating class of 400+ at Saint John’s University, it’s a big deal.  It means that 12% of our graduating seniors apply to live and work for a year in a monastery somewhere around the world, and 6% actually follow through and do it.  In a society that assumes that young people are not the least bit curious about religious life, these are pretty astounding percentages.  What college sends 6% of its recent alumni to do a post-graduate year in a monastery?

8257666A-5657-4307-AC5E-18D09BCEF2AFOur Benedictine Volunteers serve literally around the world, and it’s fascinating to hear about their experiences.  Over the years I’ve had the chance to visit Volunteers on site at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where life is very different from what they knew at Saint John’s.  Volunteers at Montserrat outside of Barcelona have taught English to the Catalan-speaking students in the choir school.  Topping the list for sheer courage was one Volunteer at Saint Anselmo in Rome.  His duties included driving the abbot primate to the airport and to appointments around the city.  Rome may be the eternal city, but the eternally insane traffic helps it to maintain the title.  And I and my confreres have listened eagerly to stories from returning Volunteers who have been in Tanzania and Chile and India.  Theirs are experiences beyond anything that they will likely have in their professional careers, and they are transformative, to say the least.

At Saint John’s we’ve been fortunate to maintain contacts with monks in communities around the world.   All the same, the Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s have added a new and lively dimension to this network.  If most of us never quite imagined this twenty-five years ago when Brother Paul Richards began the BVC, it’s happened nonetheless.

When Sant Benedict cautioned that “visitors we will always have with us,” he never foresaw anything quite like the BVC.  And as the program has developed, however, it’s brought into being a group of young men who certainly are not monks, but who are more than our average guests.  They are young men who for one year immerse themselves completely in the Benedictine tradition.  I have to believe that somehow it shapes the course of their lives from that year onward.  And while the Volunteers realize the value they bring to the places where they serve, they probably have little clue of the delight that they bring to us monks at Saint John’s.

89EFD1DD-9AF6-4267-914B-71EA5CFC053BNOTES

+On June 27th I hosted two visitors at Saint John’s from the East Coast.  Both are members of the Order of Malta and devote their energies to prison ministry.  We talked about that, and lots more.

+Last week was very quiet for me, and I did not go near the airport.  In fact, the furthest I went from home was a visit to an alumnus and his wife in Lakeville, MN, a town which I had never visited before.  As always in summer, the trip back on I-94 was interesting.  Two minor car crashes managed to create miles-long back-ups in both directions.  Among the artifacts on view was a boat that had gotten away from somebody and which rested on the shoulder of the road.  But the prize from me went to the couch that sat serenely and stately in the median of the highway.  It was as if someone had set it up for the benefit of people caught in traffic jams with nothing else to do.

+On Friday June 28th our community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Jerome Coller.  Abbot John’s homily was particularly witty, noting that when Fr. Jerome returned from graduate school at Cornell he was eager to apply his compositional talents to our singing at Saint John’s.  His first major effort was a hymn which we sang at the blessing of the first Abbot John in 1971.  “That was when we learned that the community was not yet ready for an atonal Te Deum,” he noted.  That brought chuckles, as did several other comments.  But Jerome went on to compose many songs that we regularly sing today.

EE808153-B55B-443F-BDDD-31EDF6638497+On the evening of June 28th our confrere Fr. Meinrad Dindorff quietly passed away after a short illness.  Meinrad was involved in many activities at Saint John’s, but I remember him best from my days in seminary when he taught theology.

+On 29-30 June we hosted visitors for Family Weekend for the monks at Saint John’s.

+On 30 June I presided at vespers in the Abbey Church.

+It should not surprise anyone that the hours of standing in choir could tire medieval monks, and so they came up with a novel solution.  When the seat in a choir stall was folded up it revealed a small shelf underneath, and monks could perch on this while still appearing to stand.  This was called a misericord, or mercy seat, for obvious reasons.  Artists learned to take advantage of this new opportunity by carving all sorts of things underneath the choir stall, as these images from the cathedral in Toledo, Spain, illustrate.  Even today our individual stalls at Saint John’s have misercords; and while they are not decorated they provide the same service to monks who weary during long services.

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Hold Your Questions Until After the Ascension

Despite all the subtle hints that Jesus gave to his disciples, they were completely taken aback by his return to the Father.  Perhaps it’s just as well that they didn’t see it coming.  Had they known, they likely would have drawn up scrolls and scrolls of questions for which they wanted answers.  But there simply was no time for that sort of thing.

Whatever else there is to say about Jesus, he was definitely not a micromanager.  After all, many of his parables seemed more like riddles;  and the wisdom he imparted to his disciples tended to create as many questions as answers.  That, it seems to me, is precisely what Jesus intended to do.

BA6E5A56-D682-41A6-9AF5-EDA77EAA530EPerhaps a comparison between the Commandments and the Beatitudes sheds some light on this.  The Ten Commandments are quite specific.  It is wrong to kill;  wrong to commit adultery;  wrong to worship other gods.  By contrast the Beatitudes don’t even come packaged in command form.  They’re more like nuggets of wisdom.  “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Therein lies the quandary.  At the end of the day you pretty much know whether you’ve killed somebody or not.  But how sure can you be that you gave peacemaking an honest effort?

Jesus made that point throughout his teaching.  Again and again he stressed that God prefers a pure heart rather than birds and bullocks sliced open on an altar.  God also prefers a self-examined life over pretty much anything else.  Perhaps, then, that explains why Jesus made a surprise exit before the disciples could pin him down with all sorts of questions that required yes or no for an answer.

In four days we celebrate the Ascension, and perhaps what we should celebrate most of all was the decision Jesus made not to leave us with a block-long scroll of non-negotiable demands.  Far from it, and for very good reason.  Jesus didn’t answer all the questions before the Ascension because he expects us to ask them after the Ascension.

So the next time we wonder what God means for us to do with our lives, we might do what Jesus did when he was in a tight spot:  pray about it.  It’s certainly what the disciples started to do after the Ascension.

B1687FBF-A851-4B59-B3BE-35A547415094NOTES

+On May 23nd I made a brief trip to Long Island to give a talk on The Saint John’s Bible at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, NY.  I’d seen the church from the outside but had never been inside.  It’s an imposing gothic presence on a handsome site in the center of town.  The interior is equally beautiful.  While there I was surprised to discover that a friend and former history colleague of mine from Saint John’s University is now an assistant bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.  Before his retirement Bishop Bill Franklin served as Episcopal bishop of western New York.

+On May 25th Saint John’s Preparatory School celebrated graduation with commencement in the abbey church.  Presiding was Fr. Jonathan Licari, who is retiring after serving as head of school for several years.  However, monks never really retire, and this fall he will continue as a faculty resident in one of the residence halls of the University.

+I received several intriguing messages in response to last week’s post about my travels through Milan, Montevideo and Nassau.  My friend Don, who used to live in Austin, MN, wrote to describe one of his favorite bike rides.  He would start out in Austin, bike to London, and after breezing through Moscow he would finish in Austin, for a total of 35 miles.  That prompted my own questions about New London, MN, which is forty miles from Saint John’s.  Is it named for London, MN?  Or London UK?  Or New London, CT?  I’m sure someone knows the answer to that.

Long-time friend Jon wrote to describe a drive from Quincy, IL, to St. Louis.  En route he passed through Payson, IL, which he found “disappointingly rural given the august name” — Payson happens to be his surname.  From there he went through Mexico, Poland and Russia — all in the space of one day.

+The photos in today’s post show a fantastic reredos in the cathedral of Toledo in Spain.  When I saw it three years ago I was mesmerized by the depiction of the Ascension, which I have placed at the head of the post.  All the same I do not believe that it definitively answers the question of whether we will need shoes in heaven.

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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.

IMG_0657Notes

+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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IMG_0660The Resurrection:  A Life-changer

There’s something a little chaotic about the scene in which the disciples baptized 3,000 people in one fell swoop.  They had preached to these people all morning, and when they had heard enough they literally burst out with the question “what’s next?”  Baptism, on the spot, was what came next.

Because of the rush there was no time to check birth certificates, no time to line up godparents, and no questions about whether everybody was taking a proper Christian name at their baptism.  Nor was there any thought to starting up a lengthy RCIA program.  All those things would come later, in the fulness of time.

This episode from the Acts of the Apostles describes the scene at Pentecost, but we read it at Mass on Tuesday of Easter week.  Since I was slated to preside and preach at the Abbey Mass that day, I prayed for inspiration, and this was what the Spirit sent.  I grant the absurdity of projecting back into this scene practices from later centuries; but I also contend that the Holy Spirit sometimes makes good use of such silliness to make a point.

What the rush to baptize 3,000 people may have lacked in attention to the details of ecclesiastical process, it more than made up for with the sense of urgency and excitement.  Christ is risen, and that was the key difference in the lives of these new believers.  They could not put off acting on that belief until another day.  Rather, news of the risen Lord was a life-changer, and it did not take these 3,000 people several years to figure that out.  The insight seemed to come almost in an instant.

IMG_0659Interestingly enough, this was something that the disciples picked up on fairly quickly, and it’s a point that Saint Luke makes in the Acts of the Apostles.  Most of the disciples had been with Jesus for three years, and they’d heard pretty much all he had to say.  But his death and resurrection seemed to change everything.  Now they had to tease out the implications of his teaching and integrate them into the nooks and crannies of daily life.

Peter, James, John and the others did not cease being Jewish and become Christian overnight.  It was a painful process for them, even if from hindsight it was a spiritual revolution that evolved quickly.  In fact it came with a lot of soul-searching.  After all, their lives had been rooted in the law of Moses, and it was not immediately clear where the teaching of Jesus was going to take them.  In the process some critics dismissed them as crazy subversives, but they defended themselves by saying that this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

I shudder to think what might have happened had Jesus become incarnate in the 21st century.  Had he come to our monastery we definitely would not have crucified him, because we’d bottle him up in committee instead.  We would parse his words and offer amendments both friendly and unfriendly, and we’d likely borrow the words that the Greeks on the Areopagus addressed to Paul:  “Come back and we’ll hear some more about this sometime.”

IMG_0657Of course monks are no different than church congregations and families when we try to integrate the words of Jesus into our lives.  We hear and we read what Jesus has to say.  We mull it over; and to the extent that we domesticate his words we also diminish the impact they can have on our lives.  Small wonder that the teaching of Jesus can at times seem irrelevant to us.  In those instances it comes as no surprise that his teaching neither sustains nor energizes us.

The message of Easter, however, is one of excitement.  It’s not only about the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s about our own resurrection as well.  It’s about our resurrection to a life that suddenly has a meaning and purpose that it might have lacked before.  It’s about opening our eyes to what we can and ought to do with our lives — not just on the Sabbath but on every day.

The 3,000 people “got it” as soon as they heard it.  Perhaps the contrast with their previous lives was so intense that all they could do was to ask what to do next.  Of course we’ll never understand what got those people so stirred up in the first place, unless we let the Spirit in to surprise us.  And it’s true — the Spirit can be disruptive and disturbing.  But is everything we do more important than our own resurrection?

IMG_0656Notes

+On March 29th I began the day with a class with our novice, Brother Cassian.  Later I presided at the Abbey Mass, and following that it was my turn to help in serving dinner in the Abbey refectory.

+On March 30th I went to Boston to make a few alumni visits, and while there I met up with our confrere Fr. Michael-Leonard, who is in the middle of his doctoral studies at Boston College.  I also got to spend time with two monks from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland — Brother Colman and Fr. William.  Brother Colman spent the last semester teaching at Saint John’s, and this semester he is a visiting scholar at the Center for Irish Studies at Boston College.

+While in Boston I stayed at the Jesuit residence at Boston College, and there I had the chance to reconnect with one Jesuit with whom I was in school ages ago at Yale.  Quite by accident someone had not spelled my name correctly on the sign on my guest room door, and instead of OSB they had typed SJ after my name.  When the rector apologized for these not inconsequential errors, I told him not to worry.  “I’ve been called worse things than a Jesuit.”  That brought a hearty laugh.

+The images in today’s post are sculptures in the cathedral of Toledo in Spain.  I have put them in reverse order, with the Ascension at the top of the post.  In that image all you see are the feet of Jesus as he ascends into the clouds.

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