Posts Tagged ‘Cloisters Museum’


The Gift of Wisdom

As I’ve grown in experience I’ve come to appreciate the Wisdom literature of the Bible more and more.  Perhaps it’s the result of living by the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is deeply rooted in that tradition.  Perhaps too it’s the result of coming to terms with one reality in life:  many of life’s decisions are nuanced, complicated, and not at all easy.

To people who crave black and white answers, wisdom can be a major inconvenience.  It admits that some of our choices fall between shades of gray, or they’re a matter of opting for the greater or the lesser good.  Lives beset by these sorts of dilemmas require deep reflection.  They require wisdom.

If we examine the sweep of the Old Testament there is the Torah and the clarity of the Ten Commandments on the one hand.  At another point is the Wisdom literature.  Between the two is a world of Jewish experience.  When we read a passage like Proverbs 3, then, we get a glimpse into that evolution of thought.  Each verse of Proverbs makes sense, yet each makes reference to a complicating reality.  If, for example, it says that “the curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked,” we also recall the rhetorical question of the Psalmist who wonders why it is that the wicked always seem to prosper.

744B9A93-24D5-40FF-8CE4-669A0EFD94ADThese sorts of conundrums still puzzle us.  We prefer the easy answers for their clarity, and so we set up the Ten Commandments as a kind of idol.  But we know that Proverbs teaches us to demand more of life and more from ourselves.  To that deeper self-examined way of life Jesus also calls us.  And so today we could do no better than to pray for the gift of wisdom and for the patience to make the most of it.


+Today’s post is a sermon that I will deliver at the abbey Mass later in the day.  It is based on the first reading, Proverbs 3: 27-34.

+On 20 September I attended the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.  For the current school year I’m serving as a board advisor.

+I’m not sure whether it was allergies or a response to a flu shot, but for two and a half days over the weekend I was out of action and unable to do much of anything.  I did finally manage to go to a small bit of Homecoming activities at Saint John’s University, but missed most of the football game and was a no-show at the dinner for the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  For better and for worse, I also had to sit on the sidelines for my birthday, which was on Saturday.

+In the Benedictine tradition monks pray for wisdom when we gather for deliberation in the chapter house.  Today’s post illustrates the 12th-century chapter house from the Cistercian abbey of Notre Dame at Pontaut in Bordeaux.  Today it is housed in the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Note the seating in the interior.  There were no cushions, perhaps on the assumption that wisdom comes a little faster when you’re sitting on stone.


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Gardening as a Vocation

It dawned on me the other day how barren the gospels are when it comes to wintertime imagery.  As near as I can recall, Jesus never told a single parable about shoveling snow or about the Samaritan whose cart slid off the icy road and into the ditch.  Did Jesus not care about believers who would one day live in Minnesota or Switzerland?  Or did winter leave Jesus cold, and he preferred not to deal with it?  We’ll likely never know until we meet him in the kingdom of heaven, where wintry landscapes await those who love to ski and skate.

Summer is Jesus’ strong suit, however, and it explains why we have a lot of readings in the liturgy about farmers and gardeners at this time of year.  Just recently, in fact, we’ve heard about the seed that has fallen on good soil, on rock-strewn soil, or on the beaten path.  We’ve also conjured up the image of the field in which weeds threaten to choke out the stalks of grain.  All of it raises the question of what a farmer should do when faced with such labor-intensive challenges.

IMG_1922Some gardeners today instinctively reach for the herbicides, firm in the conviction that chemistry can solve most any problem.  Of course there can be a price to pay for this, but a clean and bounteous garden seems to justify it.

That may be well and good in the modern garden, but it can cause us to miss some of the nuance in the parables.  The fact is, many of us live in a binary world of our own making.  It’s a world in which divisions into good and evil, black and white, and flowers and weeds make it so much easier to explain away our own reality.  So it is that  the field with neat rows of grain with nary a weed in sight is not only the ideal, but it should be within the easy reach of anyone.  This kind of perfection is achievable and in fact expected of all.  But as an experienced farmer or gardener can testify, real life isn’t like that at all.

There are practical consequences that follow from this binary world-view, and my own myopia is a prime example.  I  can readily appreciate the image of a garden with flowers and weeds, and in that garden I’m always one of the prized plants.  Furthermore, I’m more than willing to point out the weeds around me who need to be pulled and tossed on the compost heap.

IMG_2042The same holds true for the seed that falls to the ground.  In my own mind there’s not a shred of doubt that I’m the fertile soil.  In fact, I give thanks regularly that I’m not like those stony-hearted people in whom the word of God takes no root.  If only they would respond as I have responded, then they and the world would be much better.

My exercise in self-delusion sails right by an obvious point contained in these parables.  These parables aren’t about other people, because they’re really about us.  In fact, on any given day I’m the entire garden — weeds and flowers and all.  There are in me blossoms to be cultivated, weeds to be pulled, and soil to be fertilized and watered.  Still other plants in me need pruning but not uprooting.  Like any garden, then, I am a work in progress, and I need cultivating on a daily basis if there is to be a good harvest.

IMG_2040That’s also the case when it comes to my receptivity to the seed that falls on my soil.  There are moments when I eagerly accept the word of God, but there are situations when I’m as resistent as granite pavement.  But I only fool myself when I presume that I’m always good soil — a flawless and fertile seed bed for all that the Lord showers upon me.

As any gardener can tell us, running a garden is no easy business.  There are flowers to nurture and weeds to pull, and it all requires vigilance and hard work.  That’s the point of these parables, and that’s the challenge of the monastic vocation and of the Christian vocation.  That’s why Jesus doesn’t con us with glossy images of the lush garden that requires little or no work.  Rather, Jesus reminds us of the care and watering and pruning and weeding that every successful garden requires.  That, by the way, is not meant as a recipe for discouragement.  Rather, as any gardener can testify, that’s the plan for creating a work of art.


+I’m not in the least hesitant to admit that this post grew out of a conversation that I had with Fr. Lew after he preached on this topic two Sundays ago.  Any good gardener borrows seeds and cuttings and rootstock from other gardens, so I’m grateful for the ideas I’ve borrowed from him.

+I am no stranger to gardening, but it has been many years since I hung up my pruning sheers.  Years ago I built three expansive flower beds in the back of Emmaus Hall at Saint John’s.  The maintenance person regularly had mowed the lawn almost to the ground in hopes that the summer sun would scald it and reduce the work.  Its restoration and the flower beds that I put in were a work of sheer joy that I enjoyed for several years, until my time became too limited.  Today the beds are grassed in, but many of the trees that I planted have matured into fine specimens.  In future posts I hope to share photos of those trees.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from The Cloisters Museum in New York.  The Cloisters Museum houses the medieval art collections of the Metropolitan Museum, and they are encased in architectural elements that were purchased in Europe and carted off to New York ages ago.  It’s an island of tranquility overlooking the Hudson River, and I first visited The Cloisters when I was in college.  The gardens there recreate medieval counterparts, where weeding for the monks must have been a real chore — and a delight.


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IMG_1272The Terms of the Covenant

There’s no denying that we live in a culture that worships at the altar of rugged individualism.  Given that frame of mind, what are we supposed to do with the covenant that God and Abraham made, which Genesis succinctly describes?  How could one man possibly commit generations of his descendants to an agreement in which they had no say?  Was there no wiggle room for his children and grandchildren — to say nothing of all of his descendants to the thousandth generation?  And if even one person had the nerve to walk away from the covenant, was that the end of the deal for everybody?  Was the pact annulled from that day forward?

Had Abraham’s commitment been binding on all of his offspring, then the failure of one might have invalidated the whole thing.  Had that been the case, the story would have ended with Abraham, and the Bible would have been a lot shorter than it is.  Meanwhile, the other party to the agreement — God — could have wandered off in search of a more loyal flock.

Fortunately it didn’t work out that way, and Genesis gave way to Exodus and so on down the line through to the Book of Revelation.  Throughout all this, generations of individuals came to terms with the implications of the covenant.  Some followed it, and some did not.  But the covenant endured, and the biblical narrative continues beyond Abraham and tells the story of all those successes and failures.

In the first grade we used as our religion textbook a short book with the rather focused title of Jesus and I.  Ever since then I’ve been tempted to think of my relationship with God in rather exclusive terms — something strictly between me and God.  How things were going between me and God was nobody else’s business; just as someone else’s religious situation was none of my affair.

IMG_0061_2In time I did grow beyond this slightly warped view.  My viewpoint began to change as I realized that the “Jesus and I” relationship was a necessary first step, but it was not the goal.  I began to understand that I have to respond to the call of Jesus to live with and in him, but that’s only the start.  Life in Christ necessarily takes into account the people with whom I make my earthly pilgrimage to God.  Frail and prone to failure as we all might be, we are still in this together, like it or not.

As much as I may resent that Abraham dragged me into his covenant without consulting me, I do have to give him credit for reminding me and everybody else of the social dimension of the covenant.  We may make it with God, but we live it out with one another.  We weave the covenant into our friendships and into our marriage commitments.  And for those of us who have chosen to make vows in a monastery, it permeates our lives together.  As a result, the monastery can never be just a residence hall where we as rugged individuals go about our business.  We commit ourselves to seek the presence of God and to get a glimmer of God in one another.

Holy Week presents us with the chance both to renew and to participate in the covenant.  Of course there’s nothing wrong with praying in solitude.  But imagine a Holy Week schedule that catered to individual tastes.  So the schedule on the monastery bulletin board might read thus:  “Br. Edwin will celebrate the liturgy of the Lord’s passion at 3:00 pm.  Fr. Rudolf will do it at 3:47 pm.  Fr. Peter will celebrate it at 10:45 am.  Br. George will celebrate it at a time yet to be determined, if and when he gets to it.  Reservations are highly recommended.”  Then add one hundred more entries, and you get an idea of the chaos that would ensue in my own community.  Inevitably that would say more about the dysfunction in a community than it would about any belief in the saving action of Jesus Christ.

IMG_1292So it is that monks and other Christians don’t celebrate the Triduum as solitary pilgrims, at their individual convenience.  Rather, we gather together as friends and spouses and families.  We monks even go to the trouble of lining up and then processing in together, and that’s not just to insure there’ll be only one official starting time for everybody.  We do it so that we can begin each service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — together.

There is in this a certain irony of course, because whether we are monks or members of a congregation, our decision to be there is quite personal.  Once gathered, however, we belong to each other and to the Lord.  We’ve gathered as friends, family and as a community of monks to search for God, together.  And together, in a renewal of the covenant, the object of our search becomes tangible.  We truly seek and experience the risen Lord.

Palm Sunday 003Notes

+On April 6th I was the celebrant for the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and for me it was a personal accomplishment.  It was the first time to be celebrant since I pulled my back several weeks ago, and I managed to stand up without a walker or cane.  Nor was there any mishap on the steps.  I continue to make progress on my back and am grateful to all those who have offered their prayers.

+Every now and again I am reminded of just how long I have been at Saint John’s.  Last Saturday I had dinner with one of my very first students, and the previous week I had met his son for lunch.  His son is a senior at Saint John’s University and will graduate in May.  From my own perspective I do not think of them as father and son, since I have not known them that way.  Rather, they are individual friends of mine.  The second son will be a freshman at Saint John’s this fall, so I will add a third friend to the mix.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items from the Cloisters Museum in New York.  At top is a Palmesel (Palm Donkey, 15th-century, German), which was pulled in Palm Sunday processions in many German-speaking villages until the Reformation saw the practice fade away.  Below that is a silver-gilt chalice, made in Northern Europe in 1222.  It is among the few signed works of the time; and the inscription on the base — “Bertinus me fecit” — identifies Brother Bertinus as the maker.  Next is a lindenwood Pietá, made in Germany ca. 1440.  The Calvary is by the contemporary artist Gerald Bonnet, and it hangs on a wall outside of the chapter house at Saint John’s.  At bottom is the crucifix in the Abbey refectory.  The mural was painted by Br. Clement in the 1930s.


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