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Posts Tagged ‘College of Saint Scholastica’

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Every Day is Labor Day

What’s a monk to do on Labor Day?  Logically it seems like a day when I should go all out and work overtime.  But then again, it’s a national holiday, which suggests I should labor as little as possible.

Faced with this conundrum, I tend to do what I always do on a stray holiday such as this.  I just put together an extra-long to-do list, do about a quarter of it, and end the day frustrated because once again I’ve squandered a golden opportunity to catch up on things.  Assuming that this is what will happen today, once again I will end up promising to do better next time.

Saint Benedict spilled a lot of ink on the importance of work in the monastery, and in his Rule he devoted an entire chapter to the topic.  However, it was a complex issue for him, and for that reason his comments on it pop up all over the place in the Rule.

IMG_7183It’s undeniable that Benedict had a healthy respect for work, even if it was and is an unavoidable part of life.  “They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands,” he wrote, and elsewhere he asked his monks to treat the tools of the monastery with the same respect that they would show to the vessels of the altar.

But work is more complicated than that, and Benedict realized it.  He knew that some monks would grumble about the work assigned to them, while others would flourish and be grateful for the chance to do work that they really enjoyed.  Some would take inordinate pride in their skills, while others would grab for the chance to convert their responsibilities into little fiefdoms.  All of this suggests one fundamental point:  when it comes to work monks then and now share pretty much the same attitudes that pervade the general population.

In addition to that reality, Saint Benedict conceded that work is a necessary part of life in the monastery — and it was so every day.  Whether he and his monks liked it or not, there were no days off — and that went for Sunday as well.  After all, even on the holy days somebody had to prepare and serve the food.  Somebody had to clean the dishes, set the tables, and sweep away the mess.  Others had to tend to the guests and prepare the church for the liturgy.  Somebody else needed to see to emergency repairs so that the buildings wouldn’t burn up or fall to the ground.  Others had to take care of the sick and elderly.  With these sorts of responsibilities there could be no days off, nor could the monks delegate much of this stuff to outside contractors.

IMG_7186In sum, in Benedict’s day every day was Labor Day.  It’s also safe to say that life for his monks paralleled life as it prevailed throughout society.  The same is the case today.  For better and for worse, we all know what would happen if everyone decided — for one whole day — to do absolutely nothing.  For starters, we’d all wonder who would wait on us.

So on this Labor Day the best course for me is to keep in mind the balanced life that Benedict proposed for his monks.  I should do some sacred reading and go to pray with my brothers.  I should take my meals with them and recreate with them.  I should rest.  And I should do some work.  And as I do my work I need to do my very best and at the same time remember two important points.  First, my value as a human, being created in the image of God, rests on a lot of stuff, and not just on the job that I have.  I am more than what I do.  And second, I should always be grateful for all the work that others do.  Without them, I’d have to do absolutely everything myself.  I just don’t have that kind of time.

IMG_7153Notes

+August 28th marked the first day of the new school year at Saint John’s University.  It began, as is customary, with an academic convocation in the Abbey and University church.

+The only official act on my calendar last week was to attend the first football game of the season, at which Saint John’s hosted the College of Saint Scholastica, from Duluth.  It took place on September 2nd, and it was a beautiful day but a lop-sided game.  Saint John’s set a record by winning 98-0.  To be fair, they did not try to run up the score, and practically everyone on the team of 180 players got to play — including two first-year quarterbacks.  It just was not Saint Scholastica’s day.

+Every now and again a piece of work comes up for which there is no mention in The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Such was an instance last week when one of the bells needed repair.  Brother John fearlessly stepped forward to do the work, and in the top three photos in today’s post you can see him perched at the top of the ladder.  You can click on the photos and enlarge them, and the third one of Brother John in the basket gives an idea of just how huge the cross is.

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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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imageCelebrate Thanksgiving Every Day

It would be nice to celebrate Thanksgiving more often than once a year.  Actually, we wouldn’t need to do the entire thing, because major chunks of the feast seem destined to be with us for all time.  We already have a glut of football for months on end.  Nor do we need to take to the next level our indulgence in food.  As for shopping, I’ll admit that an entire season devoted to it is a welcome relief from endless political campaigns.  But my own sense is that we don’t really need much encouragement in that department, though you’d never know it from all the advertising.

However, what I think we could use more of is the “giving thanks” part.  It’s that ever-so-brief ritual in the holiday when we acknowledge our debt to somebody other than ourselves.  It’s the slice of the Thanksgiving  holiday that is edging closer to extinction; and that, I think, is a shame.

imageI would submit that giving thanks gets shorter and shorter shrift these days, and there’s lots of reasons why.  For one thing, it’s not so easy any more to see the connection between people’s toil and our own life. When goods travel thousands of miles piled up on a huge container ship, it’s often tough to know where our stuff comes from, much less figure out who made it.  And in an era of massive and anonymous production, we lose track of whose creative talent makes all this possible.  We just go to the big-box stores and expect it all to be there.  After a while it becomes so easy to take it all for granted.

Yet another impediment to heart-felt thanksgiving is a core value in our own culture.  We live in a society that prizes independence and personal initiative, and we lionize the self-made person.  I for one would prefer not to live under some other arrangement, but there’s a price to pay for all of this.  It’s very easy to toy with the idea that I earned all this myself and owe no debt to anyone for it.  Never mind the creativity and toil that so many other self-starters invested to make possible my own independent life.  No, it’s pretty much me and me alone who made me who I am today.  So goes the conventional wisdom, and that’s a dead end.

imageIn a monastery, as in any community for that matter, you simply cannot run the risk of reserving thanksgiving to one prayer at one meal a year.  Thanksgiving has to be woven through the entire fabric of community, or you end up with a bunch of rugged individualists who see no debt to or dependence upon anybody else.  Perhaps that’s why it never occurred to Saint Benedict to schedule a special feast of thanksgiving in the monastic calendar.  He presumed that giving thanks had to permeate the entire regimen of the monastery.

The fact is, instances of thanksgiving are sprinkled generously through the monastic day, so much so that we tend to overlook them.  Our prayers are only the most obvious place where we find them, and  meal prayers come to mind most quickly.  But the theme of thanksgiving runs through the whole of the liturgy of the hours, and many of the Psalms are specifically prayers of thanksgiving.  Likewise in our petitions we pray regularly for “those who do good to us,” simply because their generosity makes our lives together possible.

imageBut certainly not the least important act of thanksgiving is our appreciation for the work and talents of others.  As I’ve matured I’ve become increasingly appreciative of what my brothers do to enhance our life in the monastery.  At the very least, their gifts mean that I don’t have to do everything myself. At best, I realize that they do so many things far better than I, given the meager state of my own talents.  For their sakes and mine, not only do I have to be grateful to them, but I am also obliged to give them my thanks every now and again.

In Benedict’s thinking, thanksgiving is more than acknowledging a debt to others — and to God — for what they have done.  Something more dynamic is at work here, as Benedict suggests in his Prologue to the Rule.  There comes a moment, after all this work and prayer and life together, when a monk finally realizes that something astounding has been going on, just beneath the surface and often beyond our notice.  And about this moment of insight Benedict has this to say: “These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds;  they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them.  They praise the Lord working in them….”

imageThanksgiving then is a hugely important act, and because it is we can’t reserve it to just one meal a year.  In giving thanks we confess the abundance of goodness around us, and we recognize the power of God stirring not only in our neighbor but deep within ourselves.  How extraordinary that God would be so mindful of us.  And if God takes the time to do great things in us each day, then why would we not want to give thanks, each and ever day?

imageNotes

+On November 17th I presided and preached at a Mass for the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University.  You can access the sermon, Leading People to Jesus, in the section marked Presentations.

+On November 21st I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY.

+Last week the weather and the success of our football team conspired to make necessary a unique cooperative venture.  This fall our football team won the conference title, meaning that they would play their first play-off game at home this past Saturday.  With 8,000+ visitors expected, somehow we had to move fourteen inches of snow from the seats in the stadium and off the field.  A great team of people, including a few monks, accomplished the feat.  Saint John’s went on to beat the College of Saint Scholastica from Duluth, securing a victory over a fellow Benedictine college and a place in the next round of the play-offs.

image+A recent book on the abbey church has been published by University of Minnesota Press.  This fall author Victoria Young has made several appearances on campus, recounting the research that helped her to produce Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space.  For those unfamiliar with the architecture of the abbey church, I have put together a gallery of photos that illustrates both the vastness of the building and the attention to detail that is its hallmark.

+I have finally owned up to the fact that winter is here to stay, as the pictures in today’s post suggest.  However, we in Minnesota lost the right to feel sorry for ourselves when Buffalo accumulated more inches of snow than anyone could measure.  I have since realized that Buffalo’s mission statement includes a provision to make Minnesota’s weather seem benign.

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