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Posts Tagged ‘College of Saint Benedict’

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Are We Citizens of Nazareth?
On Sunday morning Abbot John performed a ritual that’s been repeated for 160 years at Saint John’s Abbey.  At morning prayer he clothed our friend Jeremy as a novice, and so that day Brother Jeremy began his quest to see whether life in our monastic community is the vocation to which God calls him.

Having been a monk for more than a few years now, I can say for myself that it’s been a fulfilling experience.  But I also have to say that I’m not the same person I was when I first came to this place, and I’m glad about that.  I hope that along with age I’ve also grown in wisdom.  Some of my talents I’ve developed, and some are still dormant, unused and perhaps unneeded.  But along the way I’ve come to realize that my fellow monks have respected my individuality even as they’ve nudged me to grow.

061A77FE-B389-4A87-8E3C-7E0ABB700CA5If there’s one thing I now realize about monastic formation, it’s this.  We as a community are not interested in creating clones of some idealized monk.  And so eventually Brother Jeremy will have to come to terms with a community of wildly contrasting individuals.  In our community we subscribe to the advice that Oscar Wilde offered, and it’s the advice I would give to Brother Jeremy.  “Be yourself.  Everybody else is taken”

I bring all this up in the shadow of today’s gospel passage about the return visit of Jesus to Nazareth, the place where he had grown up.  In brief, the people of Nazareth didn’t like what they saw, and they rejected Jesus.  I can only speculate about what it was that irritated them, but it’s clear that Jesus had grown up into someone they no longer recognized.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to concede that as a youngster Jesus was not hell on wheels, or they would have been happy to see some maturity in him — at last.  At the other extreme, I can imagine the possibility that they recalled the young Jesus as a good boy, perhaps a bit shy, obedient and respectful to a fault.  Perhaps the young Jesus had given the impression that he would grow up into someone who would not rock the boat — someone who would blend quietly into the small-town society of Nazareth.  He would become a clone of everyone else, and no one need worry about him.

636C5C33-69D3-4488-9198-0244451E7434Well, it didn’t turn out that way.  Jesus left home and he had changed;  and for many in Nazareth the change was just too much.  Whatever Jesus had become when he returned to Nazareth, he wasn’t what many had expected.  And some were downright upset by what they saw.

It’s also possible to assume that Jesus had grown up and changed, and the best term to describe what had happened to him was that he had blossomed.  He had grown in age and wisdom, as the gospels say, and the seeds of his vocation had taken root and sprouted.  He now knew that he had come to do the will of his Father, and not the will of the people of Nazareth.

That scenario, of course, leaves us with a rather unflattering portrait of the people of Nazareth.  They had created a stifling social environment that left little room for the kind of maturity that they now saw in Jesus.  Whether Jesus had come to do the will of his Father or not, there was no longer room for him in Nazareth.

If all of this matters in the life of Jesus, then it also matters in our lives as well.  In the monastery, to take the example with which I started, we test a novice to see if his calling is from God.  But the clothing of a novice is also a test of the community.  Are we senior monks still prepared to grow?  Are we willing to stretch ourselves just as much as we are asking a novice to stretch?  How we respond to these questions determines whether we flourish as a community, or whether we stagnate or become a clone of the town of Nazareth.

C0CE6599-42C2-43F5-8578-A39DC1F41670But just because you may not be a monk doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.  Until your last day the Lord continues to introduce people into your life.  Be that new person a friend, a spouse, a child, or merely a stranger on the street, all come as gifts from God.  Some will be brand new to you, and some will be people who’ve grown up and changed before your very eyes.  If, like the people of Nazareth, you choose to reject such gifts from God, then you may be choosing an early death — metaphorically at least.

So what’s the take-away from today’s gospel story?  For my part I think it boils down to the issue of hospitality.  Can we be hospitable to all sorts of people and welcome them into our lives?  Or do we slam the door on them because they threaten our routine or our settled ways?  Can we accept others as gifts from God who can add something to our lives?  How we respond to such gifts spells the difference between life in the Spirit or life as a curmudgeon.

One of the first things we learn in the monastery is Saint Benedict’s advice that we are privileged to see the face of Christ in others.  But we have to be alert, and we have to look.  Sometimes Christ comes disguised as one of our sick or elderly monks.  Sometimes he’s disguised as a guest or as the abbot or even as a novice.  But Christ’s ingenuity doesn’t stop there.  He’s equally visible as a husband or wife, or as a child or a co-worker or a stranger.  But however Christ chooses to be present to us, he’s there to call out the best from us.

Sadly, Jesus once came as the Christ to the people of Nazareth.  He came disguised as their brother and neighbor, but all they could see was a stranger that they did not like.  And so Jesus could do no great works there.  That’s sad to consider, but it’s a wake-up call to us.  Let’s make sure we don’t make the mistake of the people of Nazareth.  When Jesus comes calling, may he not find us to be clones of Nazareth.  Instead, may Christ find in us his brothers and sisters, his sons and daughters.  Amen.

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NOTES

+Our July 4th celebration was rather different this year.  Normally we have a picnic outside, but the intermittent rains prevented that.  Even so, it was a pleasant day.

+On Saturday July 7th I witnessed the wedding vows of Paul Lundberg and Laura Posthumus, which took place in the abbey church.  Paul is an alumnus of Saint John’s, while Laura is an alumna of the College of Saint Benedict.

+On Saturday July 7th our confrere Fr. Julian Schmeising passed away in his sleep.  Born in 1931, he grew up in the nearby town of Meier Grove, and he was 66 years a monk and 60 years a priest.  Good-natured in his best years and long-suffering in his decline, his only complaint was that other monks kept slipping into the line for heaven before he could go.

+On Sunday July 8th Abbot John clothed Jeremy Welters as a novice in our community.  Brother Jeremy grew up in nearby Long Prairie, MN, and he is a graduate of Saint John’s University.  He then did a year as a Benedictine Volunteer at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, before returning to work last year in our prep school.  He is a runner and has run several marathons.  The other day he passed me as I was walking — definitely at non-marathon pace.  I later asked how far he had run.  “Only twelve miles today.”

+Also on Sunday the 8th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is the text of the sermon that I delivered.

+These days there are splotches of color wherever you look on campus, and in today’s post I’ve provided a sampling.  At top is Stella Maris Chapel, on the shore opposite the monastery on Lake Sagatagan.

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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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IMG_3065The Qualities of a Monk

Last week a friend of mine emailed to ask what qualities we should expect in a candidate for the Order of Malta.  I’d not really thought about it in great detail, so I decided to reply with some random ideas about membership in the Order of Saint Benedict.  Of that I’ve had lots of personal experience; and in some respects the two orders have similar expectations of their members.

So what exactly do we look for in someone who wants to be a monk?  An essential prerequisite, as Benedict lays out in his Rule, is that someone comes to the monastery to seek God.  That’s a good start, but if that’s all one brings to the door of the monastery it will earn the caller a warm welcome and best wishes for a good life — somewhere else.

It’s not that monasteries try to be overly fussy, in spite of the fact that Saint Benedict wrote that admission should not be easy.  Still, there are hopes and expectations that every community has for its candidates.  For instance, most Benedictine communities want someone who is spiritually in the mainstream of the Church.  That’s practical, because we don’t need monks who are willing to speak with only two or three percent of our guests.  We have to see Christ in all of our guests, and not just in the few who meet our personal standards.

IMG_3151Next, we don’t need big egos.  Monasteries really don’t need anybody whose working principle is “my way or the highway.”  We need people who can respect not only their brothers but also the leadership in the community.  Of course that doesn’t mean a monk has to agree with every last word that comes from the mouth of the abbot.  But a monk has to accept the proposition that somebody has to represent Christ and that somebody has to be in charge.  He has to live with the thought that until the community elects him as the next abbot, he has to live with the guy who currently has the job.

A newcomer has to accept the mission of the community, as it exists when he enters.  Of course he has the right to hope for some gradual change, but there are limits.  If, for example, a community sponsors a school or some other particular ministry, a novice cannot reasonably demand that the monks chuck everything and become hermits.  It’s just not fair to everyone else to expect overnight change.

IMG_3154St. Benedict also expects his monks to respect the elders and to love the juniors.  That roughly translates into acceptance of the people who got here first and some confidence that the newcomers didn’t come here for the sole purpose of wrecking the place.  To be blunt, monks need to welcome and gradually share responsibility with those who come after them, simply because one generation of monks cannot rule future generations from the grave.

There are a few other things we hope to see in someone who intends to become one of us.  For one, they should be even-tempered and have pleasant personalities.  They should have the potential to show up for important stuff, regularly.  They can’t be set in their ways, because the rest of the community simply won’t adjust to the most recent person to come in the door.  Candidates should also be capable of growth.  They need to be adaptable and tolerant of some change.  This takes tangible form in a willingness to make room for new people who may have slightly different gifts or personalities.

This brings me back to where I started on the discernment of a vocation to the monastic life.  Such a person must truly seek God, and that candidate must be willing and able to translate this spiritual aspiration into visible practice.

IMG_3164I sent this list off to my friend, and only then did I realize that I don’t know anybody in the monastery who has all of these qualities.  In fact, I’m fairly sure that even I don’t have all these qualities.  So are we all pious frauds?

Actually, we’re not pious frauds, because we are only people who continue to seek God.  We’re pilgrims en route to God, and along our way we continue to discover faults that need paring away and virtues that need shoring up.  In short, we are works in progress rather than finished products.  Only when we’re ready for the cemetery is our work of self-improvement done.

This brings me to a last point, which is of great personal comfort.  Jesus Christ did not come to save those who are already perfect and have no need of him.  Rather, he came for the imperfect — to those who have need of serious growth and know it.

Coincidentally, these are exactly the people that St. Benedict had in mind for his monastery.  Not surprisingly, these are the sort of people we need in the Church and in groups like the Order of Malta.  These imperfect people are kindred spirits whom Jesus came to gather in.  They’re his kind of folks.

IMG_3161Notes

+I managed to stay home for the entire week, and I will continue for yet another one this week.  I did not miss the security gate at the airport, and it gave me the chance to enjoy the landscape as summer winds to an end.  On September 3rd I took the opportunity to attend the Saint John’s/College of Saint Scholastica football game.  8,000+ people came, including Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud.  He is a regular at these games when he’s able to make it, and it is always great to host him.  Saint John’s managed to win, 49-7.

+The new school year sees the return of Fr. Nickolas Becker, who this spring completed his doctorate in theology in Rome.  He takes up teaching in the theology department and in the School of Theology.  Meanwhile, Fr. Michael Hahn continues his doctoral studies at Boston College, while Brother Daniel Morgan begins graduate studies at the University of San Diego.  Fr. Columba Stewart left this week for a year of sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ.

IMG_3187+Autumn is approaching, and there are hints of color in some of the leaves.  But the lush green of summer persists, as the photos in today’s blog illustrate.  I’ve also included several photos in a Game Day Gallery, which gives a portrait of a lively weekend at Saint John’s.  The link will connect to twenty-one photos.

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IMG_1160Monks and Civilization

I don’t think that monks originally set out to save civilization.  I realize they get credit for this in some circles, and a few still think that’s part of our mission statement as monks.  All the same, if monks did make some contribution to the preservation of culture through the centuries, it was not a self-conscious decision.  If anything, it was just the byproduct of showing up for work every day to do what had to be done.

Saint Anthony, who wandered off into the Egyptian desert in the 4th century to pursue life as a hermit, had no idea he was saving civilization.  As much as anything he fled the complications of civilization and a church hierarchy that had begun to blend all too seamlessly into the ranks of the famous and powerful.  Anthony would have none of that, and when he did finally abandon his hermitage, he returned to Alexandria to serve the poor and imprisoned.  Who knows what belongings he toted back with him to the city; but there likely were few if any books.

Saint Benedict had an equally inauspicious start when it came to preserving civilization.  As a student in Rome he found the cultural environment terribly unpleasant, and he fled to the wilderness outside of Rome.  In his cave at Subiaco there was no need for a library, because like Anthony learning was not high on his list of daily activities, at least according to his biography.

IMG_1226Somewhere along the line Benedict had a change of attitude, and with one simple prescription in his Rule for Monks he set a course for his own community that has impacted monks in the west ever since.  His was a literate community, as evidenced by the recitation of the Psalms and readings from the Bible.  But he took it one step further with the command that during Lent each monk should read at least one book.  That meant that every monk had to be literate, and it meant there had to be enough books and a variety of books to go around.  Thus was born the library that every monastery worth its salt had to have.

Despite the Hollywood portrait of the vast library at the abbey of Melk in The Name of the Rose, monastic libraries tended to be quite small through much of the middle ages.  In the year 1,000 scarcely any monastery had a collection approaching even a thousand manuscripts.  Common to them as well was the location of these collections.  For the most part they tended to be housed in the sacristy, where they sat alongside the tomes necessary for Mass and the liturgy of the hours.

IMG_1245For much of the middle ages manuscripts were rare and the monks venerated the most ornate of them as both sacred and material treasures.  We get to enjoy them today on visits to the abbeys of Saint Gall in Switzerland and Melk in Austria, though most monastic treasures now reside in the national libraries of Europe.  There these manuscripts still intrigue the imagination and sometimes even dazzle the eye.

This is the tradition from which American Benedictines descend.  To no one’s surprise, when the first five monks steamed up the Mississippi to Minnesota in 1856, they brought with them five trunks filled with books from Germany.  It wasn’t much of a collection, but in the minds of those five monks those books were as necessary as habits, a roof over their head and a wood fire in winter.  Books were an essential part of life, even if they were not scholars.

That initial collection acted as a seed, and in the mid-1960s Saint John’s commissioned architect Marcel Breuer to design Alcuin Library, which now houses the descendants of the original five trunks.  Today the collection has grown to the point at which the University library, in tandem with Clemens Library at the College of Saint Benedict, comprises the 11th largest liberal arts college library in the country.  That’s a  huge accomplishment, considering that those first monks and nuns came to Minnesota with so little.

IMG_1197Last week we broke ground on an addition to Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  Given the advent of the electronic book, a renovated and expanded library may seem counterintuitive and even wasteful.  But of course it’s not if you’re interested in the future of civilization.  God forbid that an electronic burst would obliterate all the e-books, but you never know.  And you can never be too careful.

Beyond that, I was cheered by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.  It noted both a slight decline in the sale of e-books and a revival of independent booksellers in the US.  That just confirmed my own conclusion of several years ago.  I remain convinced that paper books will never go the way of the dinosaur as long as people continue to read in the bath tub.  They’d never dare take an electronic book into the water.

In the interests of full discloser, I am currently reading two e-books and two “real” books. My arms like the e-books when I travel, and my eyes like the paper when I read in the evening.

IMG_0041Notes

+On April 18th I said Mass and gave a presentation at the monthly gathering of the Order of Malta members in San Francisco.

+On April 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+Also on April 22nd I took part in the activities of Saint John’s Day, when we welcomed supporters of the University and Abbey to campus.  That afternoon we broke ground for the expansion of Alcuin Library and the addition of a new wing, to be named the Brother Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons.  As president of the University, Brother Dietrich appointed the first of many committees that planned this project — and that was nearly 25 years ago.  No one can say that monks rush into things.  The latter three photos include one that depicts the addition, while the others give a sense of the location next to Alcuin Library.

IMG_1165+The weather has reached the point of no return in regard to spring, as the enclosed pictures illustrate.  This also has meant the end of the maple syrup season, and Brother Walter reported that they were able to make 382 gallons this spring.

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IMG_0025_2We Know Neither the Day Nor the Hour

I met Elizabeth Swenson nearly thirty years ago.  Known to her friends as Betty, she lived in Washington, where she’d spent a career in the office of a senator from New England.  She was perfectly suited to those more refined days in the nation’s capital, and her trademark red-framed glasses said “welcome” to anyone who caught her eye.

In her volunteer work she was involved with an organization called The American Friends of Caterbury Cathedral.  While there was a fund-raising side to the mission, their heart had its focus on the Benedictine character of the Anglican tradition.  To that end they organized pilgrimages to sites both in England and on the continent, and that’s why Betty first reached out to me.  Perhaps a real live Benedictine along for the ride might add value to the experience.

I never quite knew what I added to the mix, but what I received still resounds in my imagination.  For starters, I experienced Canterbury Cathedral for the first time as a monk rather than as a tourist.  Compline in the crypt of the cathedral was a goose-bump experience, for example.  Hours earlier the ushers had escorted everyone out, and there we twenty were, with the vast and silent expanse of the cathedral all to ourselves.  It was awesome to climb the steps that led from the crypt up into the nave, where the only light came from the stained glass — lit dimly from the outside.  For four nights we had this routine, and it gave me a glimpse into the days when this was a working monastery.  For nine hundred years the monks had prayed by candlelight.  People like Lanfranc and St. Anselm and Thomas Becket had walked those very precincts, doing the daily things that we all must do.

IMG_0024Other moments were less dramatic, but common to each was the transformation of the ordinary into something special.  Because of Betty I got to spend my fortieth birthday deep in a forest in Burgundy at the abbey of Pierre-qui-Vire.  We prayed late in the evening — by candlelight — with the nuns of Bec in Normandy;  and we tromped through the ruins of the romanesque abbey of Jumieges.  We listened spellbound as the monks of Chevetogne recorded a CD of their Byzantine chant, and we groaned along with them when a NATO jet swooped low and ruined the entire session.  Oh well.

The latter moment reminded us that we all had to make room for the unexpected, and at this Betty was a true Benedictine.  None of us will forget the lunch under the trees at a restaurant in Luxembourg.  It was all lovely until a big bird in the tree let loose and the bomb landed in the hair of an English lady.  Betty graciously soothed her and then moved us all to table across the courtyard.  There it happened again — same lady, different bird.  What were the odds?

IMG_9821One of Betty’s finest moments came at the venerable abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  Before the pilgrimage she had visited an island off the coast of Scotland, where she had purchased a bottle of an expensive single malt.  She had cradled that bottle every step of the pilgrimage, intending to share it back home in Washington.  As we stood on the steps of the guesthouse, she held aloft her prize, for all to admire.  Then it gently eased through her fingers and shattered on the pavement below.  In stunned silence she froze, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  She laughed, because that’s what Betty did best.

In later years The Friends of Canterbury Cathedral morphed into The Friends of Benedict, and Betty and her colleagues hosted a yearly “Benedictine Experience” at the Episcopal House of Prayer at Saint John’s.  It was a treat to see her, and as time rolled by I came to appreciate what a singular impact this stately lady had had on my life.  She wasn’t a nun, but certainly she was a true Benedictine, and as a Benedictine Betty gave me glimpses into the monastic way of life that have made all the difference in the world.

IMG_9820A few days ago Betty passed away, unexpectedly.  Like all the rest of us, she knew neither the day nor the hour, but to her credit she savored each and every thing that came her way on the pilgrimage of life.  Like any true follower of Saint Benedict, she lived with intensity, and perhaps because of that even the little things counted for a lot.  They were gifts too.

Every now and again God sends such people into our lives.  God means them to be teachers of wisdom to us, and it’s important that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear.  After all, they are speaking on the Lord’s behalf.  Betty was that sort of person for me, and I’m absolutely certain that she did the same for many others.  For the gift of God that she was, I give thanks.  And for all the other surprises that God continues to send into my life, I also give thanks.

IMG_9819Notes

+For more than a week I have been dogged by a cold, and last week it was especially ferocious.  For that reason I had to leave off class with our novice on Tuesday, in hopes that I could spare my throat and recover for two talks I had to give later in the week.  By week’s end I was not cured, but it was a lot better.

+On February 17th-18th I attended a series of events and gave two talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Mt. Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh, NY.  As speaker I was hosted by the Catholic and Dominican Center.  The college occupies a gorgeous perch overlooking an expansive bend in the Hudson River, and I was quickly reminded that Dr. Mary Hinton, who is president of our sister College of Saint Benedict, had been vice-president there.

IMG_9817+The first two pictures in today’s blog show a tower in Trier, Germany, with a wonderfully appropriate inscription below the clock.  The clock may remind us of the time, but as the inscription says, we know not the hour of the Lord’s coming.  The next four pieces of stained glass actually come from one window that today resides in the V & A Museum in London.  It was made for a church in Troyes in France, ca. 1170.  The first two panels depict the temptation of Jesus.  Particularly charming is the scene in which the devil carries Jesus to the brow of the hill and is ready to throw him off.  The third photo depicts the feeding of the five thousand, while the last shows St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) as he is being drafted as bishop of Myra.

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imageChristmas: God With Us

As we approach the final days before Christmas, the Magnificat takes on special significance.  We speak of it as Mary’s song, and rightly so it is.  As the opening lines proclaim, God has lifted up someone of no particular significance and elected to accomplish great things through her.  Holy is God’s name; but holy too is the person through whom God works.

Sometimes the focus of the Magnificat can remain so much on Mary that we forget that it is a prayer that has a cosmic dimension to it.  It’s not just the story of one person, because it reminds us that God has mercy on those of each and every generation who fear him.  Through each and all of them God also accomplishes great things.  Holy are they too, in their unique ways, just as Mary was holy.

During the season of Advent we look forward to the coming of Christ at Christmas, but the Magnificat reminds us that the incarnation of Jesus Christ does not exhaust itself on just one day of the year.  Perhaps that’s why we say the Magnificat 365 days of the year, just to remind ourselves of that.  It’s a gentle hint that Mary’s encounter with God took place long before the birth of her son; and like hers, our own encounter with God is an ongoing and even daily experience.

The cosmic dimension of this prayer is clearest when it speaks of the conceit of the proud and the weakness of the downtrodden.  It gives a nod to those who put their trust — metaphorically at least — in horses and chariots, only to discover at the end of the day that true strength is to be found in the name of the Lord.  And whether we take them literally or symbolically, those final words of the Magnificat have a haunting quality about them:  in every generation the Lord fills the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends empty, away.

imageChristmas is both a test and a reminder.  It’s a test of whether gifts and material items exhaust the meaning of the feast, or whether Christmas is more than that.  If Christmas is merely a day to celebrate merchandise, then we will all go away on the 26th, empty.

On the other hand, for those who see Christmas as the celebration of God with us, they will rise on the 26th filled with good things.  Christmas is a reminder that the greatest gift is the awareness that God does not leave us orphans.  God always walks with us, every day, even to the ends of the earth.

Notes

+On December 16th I attended the annual Presidents’ Christmas Dinner, hosted by the presidents of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  It’s held annually at the Town & Country Club in St. Paul, and this year I delivered the invocation at the beginning of the meal.

+The two photos in today’s post show work from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Annunciation, by Juan de Flandres, ca. 1508-1519.  The lower photo is Expectant Madonna with St. Joseph, French, ca. 1450.

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imageCome Lord Jesus!

I don’t often draw inspiration from comedians, but you have to give them their due.  Great comics succeed because of their keen insight into human behavior, and they get us to laugh at ourselves, even when it hurts.

A case in point is a guy I heard recently who built his routine around the noxious things people say when they get behind the wheel of a car.  His point was simple.  There’s stuff people say in a car that they would never think to say in the aisle of a market or in a library.  In the privacy of a car mild-mannered grandmothers become raging beasts, and lambs send wolves running for cover.  At the mere hint that someone is about to inch into their lane, for example, some people will unleash a torrent of naughty words that would make sailors blush.  Perhaps people feel free to do this because they think no one will hear.  And it’s good that people don’t hear, because most drivers are not saying the rosary or the Jesus prayer.  It’s usually quite the opposite, and it’s just better that people not hear what’s really being said.

IMG_9806This might seem an odd start to a reflection on Advent, but it’s not.  On the 1st Sunday of Advent the gospel passage from Luke quotes these words from Jesus:  “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent….”

When Jesus speaks these words today, he means to address them to each one of us, and not just to the so-called important people.  In a world that seems ready to plunge off the cliff, it’s easy to assume that Jesus is talking about big things like the bombings in Paris, wars all over the place, and catastrophes everywhere.  In the face of such horrors it’s tempting to freeze in our tracks and assume that there’s nothing we can do.  In fact, we should not even feel responsible, because Jesus is speaking only about the important people.

Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus notes that those who do well with the little things will be entrusted with even greater responsibility; and that brings us back to the business of driving.  Jesus speaks to us, and for not a few of us the time behind the wheel is the litmus test for the kind of lives we choose to lead.  If, on reflection, we are shocked by some of the things we say while we’re driving, then it’s important to realize that this is part of who we are, whether we like it or not.  It’s the personal baggage we tote around wherever we go.  If in other circumstances we keep this anger safely under wraps, then good.  But such tendencies are still there, lurking just behind the serenity of our faces.  It’s part of the complete package of who we really are.

imageSo what is the recipe for a successful Advent?  First of all, don’t expect God to delegate to us any of the huge issues facing the planet.  Chances are slim that the world will turn to us to solve a single international crisis.  Nor will people call on us to ease any of the nation’s problems.  Nor will they ask us to take the lead in bettering the culture of our town or community.

But we are not off the hook just because we’ve not been delegated any of the big items.  In fact, Jesus has given each of us lots of work to do, and for me it begins with the management of everything within a two-foot radius of my person.  That includes the space inside my car, and it also includes the many people who will come close to my circle in the next few weeks.

It may seem like Jesus has entrusted very little to us, but in fact he expects a great deal from us.  Our personal space may not seem like much, yet it’s what God has given us to manage.  For most of us, including myself, it’s sometimes even more than we can handle, but it’s what we’ve been given.

Advent, then, is our moment to wake up and see about managing our personal responsibilities.  And if by chance the inside of a car is what brings out the worst in us, then that’s where we need to begin on day one of Advent.  For starters, just imagine if, the next time someone cuts me off, I dispensed with my customary words and instead screamed out “Come Lord Jesus!”  Better still, imagine a highway filled with people shouting “Come Lord Jesus!”  It would be stranger than fiction and grist for a new comedy routine.

IMG_0124_2Notes

+Recently the monastic chapter of Saint John’s Abbey voted to accept Brother Efraín Rosado as a monk in our community.  Brother Efraín first professed as a monk at the abbey of Tepeyec in Mexico City.  But after living with us for some time he applied to transfer his vows to our community.

+This fall we were delighted to have on sabbatical with us Fr. Colman O’Clabaigh of Glenstall Abbey in Ireland.  As a parting gift he spoke to the community last week, on the topic of “50 Ways to Cleave Your Brother: Mischief, Mayhem and Misfits in Medieval Monasteries.”

+We were recently delighted by the news that one of our recent graduates has been named a Rhodes Scholar.  She is an alumna of our sister school, the College of Saint Benedict.

+On Thanksgiving Day I presided at the Abbey Mass.  Normally I would include a link to that sermon, We Are the Ten Lepers, but yet again WordPress, which manages this site, has “upgraded” the site without telling the users how to adapt.  They won’t deign to tell us until they figure out their own errors, but for now if you go to the homepage of A Monk’s Chronicle and click on the tab “Presentations,” you will find the sermon as the last selection in the series.  I am truly sorry and personally frustrated.  It reminds me of the columnist who recently noted that he had forgotten the password to the windshield wipers on his car.   Such is life in the technological fast lane.

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