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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher de Hamel’

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Saints Francis and Benedict

I found Pope Benedict’s reflection on Saint Francis that we heard at morning prayer to be a real spark for my imagination.  As he pointed out, Francis has transcended the centuries, and he’s done so because all sorts of people have found different reasons to like him.  Francis truly was and is a man for all seasons, a man for all times, and a man for all sorts of people.  And in that light I want to comment on Saints Francis and Benedict.

Most every Benedictine monk knows that Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Benedict began his monastic journey.  There on one of the walls is a fresco of Francis as a memento of that visit.  Clearly Saint Benedict must have meant a lot to Francis, and perhaps he saw something of himself in Benedict.  And if at first blush they seem to have little in common, I think we’d miss an element that is key to the story of each.  Both of them fled social environments that they found toxic.  For his part Francis fled the bourgeois wealth of his family, and Benedict fled the wealth of Rome.

E45B1A7C-8B38-4DA5-A825-FCC20E425617All too often we’ve assumed that Benedict sought escape from the dissipated student life of the city.  In fact it may have been more likely that he fled the wealthy ways of the Church in Rome.  So I’m not sure what Benedict expected to find when he got to Rome, but it may have been the wealth and growing power of the Church that sent him packing.  The churches that he entered looked every bit like the basilicas in which the emperors had presided, and where the emperors had once sat the leading clergy sat instead.  And manuscript historian Christopher de Hamel notes that illuminations of the day show the apostles and bishops clean-shaven and dressed every bit like members of the Roman senatorial class.  And so it’s entirely possible that the wealth of the Church sent Benedict into the wilderness, just as it did the Egyptian ascetics in the 4th century.

What might we conclude about Benedict and Francis?  For one, they were not Manichaean dualists.  For them neither wealth nor creation were intrinsically evil.  On the other hand they each had seen how wealth and power could transform even the best of people.   Neither wanted to be in the number of the latter.

And so, on the feast of Saint Francis may we celebrate with joy all of God’s creation, as Francis did.  And then let us remember that God has put us here not to be transformed by the good things of the earth.  Rather, let us transform all those good things and put them into the service of the Lord.

D1B03412-0813-41F6-913D-F36A2CBB282BNOTES

+On September 30th through October 2nd I hosted four supporters of the Immokalee Scholarship Program at Saint John’s University.  While at Saint John’s I got to spend some wonderful moments with John, Jack, Sandy and Bill, and certainly the highlight of the visit was the evening when we join nine of our students from Immokalee for dinner.

+On October 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the text of the homily that I preached that day.  In the monastery we began the day with a morning prayer reading in which Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the appreciation for Saint Francis through the centuries.

+On October 5th I flew to Omaha, NE, and the next day I gave a tour of an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible, now at the Joslyn Art Museum for the next few weeks.  On Monday the 7th I will give a lecture to Friends of the Museum.

+Readers may find it a surprise to learn that Saint Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began life as a hermit.  The fresco of Saint Francis was painted shortly after his visit, and the absence of a halo indicates that he was still very much alive at the time of the painting.  That fresco is included in today’s post, along with other photos of the abbey of Subiaco.

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Corpus Christi:  The Meal that Transforms

Several years ago I saw a movie that has since become one of my all-time favorites.  Babette’s Feast is the story of a young woman who had fled the political turmoil in her native France.  She found refuge in a Danish village, and there she lived among townspeople who were generous in giving her shelter and work.  On the one hand, however, they were stoic and humorless, and outwardly they were oil portraits of upright people.  But there was another side to them as well.  They were the sort of people who never forgot a personal slight and would happily spend half a life-time nursing a grudge.

Babette’s escape from this dreary existence finally came in the form of a lottery ticket;  but to everyone’s surprise she didn’t leave after all.  Instead, in gratitude I suppose, she used the winnings to prepare for her neighbors the finest feast of their lives.

31C9C0F2-5576-4029-922E-D27A0B8B5383So she sent away for all sorts of expensive ingredients, and along with them came fine French wines and champagne.  And with each delivery the suspicions of her neighbors grew darker and deeper.  They became the embodiment of the definition of Puritanism that H. L. Mencken once provided:  Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Not surprisingly, the villagers fit the definition.  And so as the day of the dinner approached they agreed among themselves not to enjoy a single morsel of food or sip of wine.  They were determined to resist any temptation to slip into joy.

None of this worked of course, and their iron resolve melted away as they began to taste the first bite of food.  They soon began to savor the flavor, and the wine began to bring color to their cheeks.  Even more shocking, they began to warm to each other.  They owned up to sins they had committed against each other and asked forgiveness.  They also forgave long-cherished hurts.  And by the time the dinner was over they had become new people.  The meal had transformed them because the meal was Eucharistic.

I’ve recalled this movie to some of my confreres on several occasions, and I do so again today for two reasons.  The first is personal.  Twenty-five years ago, at graduation in this church, Saint John’s conferred an honorary doctorate on Christopher de Hamel, who is a noted manuscript scholar at Cambridge University.  In the intervening years I became good friends with Christopher and his Danish wife Mette, whose family owned the property on which many scenes from Babette’s Feast were filmed.  Sadly, Mette died a few days ago.  Mette never fit that Danish stereotype, because in fact she was the most joyful Dane I’ve ever met.  So I hope that along with me you will remember Mette in this Eucharist today.

BD31C927-EB5D-40B2-A407-C19E5BC7427BThat’s the first reason for recalling Babette’s Feast.  The second reason is liturgical.  Today we celebrate Corpus Christi, the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  In that context it’s worth recalling what the movie has to say about the power of any meal, and about this meal in particular.  A meal can transform the lives of the people who eat it, and no meal has greater power to do that than the Eucharist.

I don’t know about you, but for me there are days when participation in the Eucharist can seem routine and empty.  It can seem lifeless and even boring.  When that happens there is no sense of the sacred.  And when that happens it’s a bit of a tragedy, I think.  At the very least we have to wonder what else in our lives has lost its meaning.  Have we lost any sense of ourselves as sacred people created in God’s image?  Have we lost our sense of wonder and awe about ourselves and God’s creation?

So it is that today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christ as a once-a-year reminder to take for granted neither the Eucharist nor anything else about life.  When Jesus gave himself for us he meant that gift to be life-giving and life-changing.  He meant it to be one of those moments when we pinch ourselves and realize what a privilege it is to savor life once more.  Life with all its gifts and opportunities and challenges is too short and precious to be wasted.  Every moment provides an opportunity to get the most out of the life we’ve been given.

C4C998C1-9990-4556-B992-4700A13F1F3BIn the final scene of Babette’s Feast the villagers step out into the crisp night air.  Physically they leave the meal every bit the same people they had been when they stepped into Babette’s dining room.  But spiritually and emotionally the meal had transformed them.  Fresh from the experience, one of the diners glanced up to the stars and marveled at what she saw.  “The stars seem brighter tonight,” she said.  To which another responded:  “Perhaps they always were, but we just never noticed before.”

Just as in Babette’s Feast, in this Eucharist we take the body and blood of the Lord and let the experience of that eating transform us.  In doing so the Lord invites us to open our eyes to possibilities within us that perhaps we’ve never noticed or forgotten about.  He then confirms that he walks with us until the very last step of our earthly pilgrimage.  Then he reminds us of our power — our capacity — to use or leave on the table the gifts we’ve been given.  And finally he calls us to use those gifts for the transformation of each and every moment of our lives.

You and I are most certainly biological creatures, but in taking the body and blood of Christ we confess that we are sacred creations as well.  You and I are tabernacles of the sacred.  We are temples of God’s life in a world that needs constant awakening to the sacred.

It’s a noble calling that the Lord extends to us.  But with that call comes a promise.  The Lord promises to walk with us every day.  And so we pray that God, who began this journey with us, will bring us safely home to a new and even more wonderful life with Him him his kingdom.  Amen.

DA5261E1-B359-437A-90C5-20090B7EED86NOTES

+On Sunday June 23nd I presided at the abbey Mass.  It was the feast of Corpus Christi, and today’s post is the transcription of that sermon.

+On June 16th I flew to New York to attend a meeting and visit with some friends.  The trip there was fine, but the trip home was anything but.  One highlight was a four-hour delay at LaGuardia, followed by another 45 minutes on the runway.  When we arrived in Minneapolis the pilot noted that they had added insult to injury by parking another plane at our gate.  Thankfully I will now be home for several weeks.

+On June 22st our confrere Fr. Jerome Coller passed away after a long battle with cancer.  Fr. Jerome grew up in St. Paul and received his Ph.D. in music from Cornell University.  For most of his career he taught piano and composed music for our liturgies.

+On June 21st and 22nd I participated in the reunions at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  Happily I got to visit with quite a few friends and spoke to the class of ‘64 at their class dinner.

+The grounds at Saint John’s are particularly beautiful these days, and topping the list of rarities is a clump of ladyslippers blooming in the abbey garden.

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