Posts Tagged ‘David Brooks’


Vocation:  A Personal Transformation

In his book The Second Mountain David Brooks offers a helpful distinction between a career and a vocation.  They’re very different, he writes, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that each requires a very different kind of preparation.

When we’re searching for a career, he suggests, we draw up an inventory of our talents.  As best we can we identify those things that we’re good at.  Then we weigh those talents and decide which are likely to get us a decent-paying or satisfying job.  Once we’ve done all that, we dedicate a chunk of time and energy that will prepare us for that career.

A vocation is something entirely different.  It’s not something that we can prepare or study for, and in fact it can seem almost unplanned.  And it can be something as simple as this:  some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of our nature and demanded an active response.

D428367B-BFCB-4184-AB38-459D92FE9568When Brooks muses about vocation, one caveat matters.  Vocation is not confined to a monastic or religious vocation, as we reflexively might think in the Catholic tradition.  Brooks is Jewish, and he thinks of vocation in almost existential terms.  Common to all who search for their vocations is a fundamental set of questions.  What do we want to do with our lives?  To what will we dedicate our lives?  Will we be content to compile what is essentially a résumé of activities — a curriculum vitae?  Or do we want to create a legacy — a legacy of service and love that makes some small difference in the lives of others?

How we come upon a vocation is unique to each of us, and if we’ve been blessed with the discovery of a vocation we know it.  Brooks suggests that it’s the response to some person or event or ideal that has touched us and changed our lives completely.  After that experience we can never be the same because some sort of epiphany has altered the fabric of our being.

Brooks doesn’t use the word “epiphany,” but it’s a useful term, particularly on the day when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany to me suggests a second stage of Christmas.  If the Nativity proclaims Emanuel — God with Us, then Epiphany asks what difference this is going to make in our lives.  If we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, then what if anything do we intend to do about it?  Will the Nativity be the equivalent of a television show which we passively watch and then turn off?  Or will it reach to the core of our being?  That there is a choice to be made is obvious but also uncomfortable — both for Christians in general and even for monks.  At Epiphany the birth of the Lord cries for some visceral response from us.

It’s interesting to see how the characters in the Epiphany story responded to the birth of Jesus.  Forever after Mary pondered all these things in her heart.  She was never the same again.  As for Joseph, the events were equally jolting.  I’ve always believed that all Joseph really wanted was to get married, have some children and grandchildren, and live quietly under the radar.  That’s not what happened.  He went on to play a decisive role, and if at first an angel gave him all sorts of advice, Joseph eventually was on his own.  After all, the decision to settle into safety and security in Nazareth was his decision and his alone.

B6906C70-C563-4964-B6B4-9E6EC72864E2That was their Epiphany, and so today we ask what will be ours.  What is it that might change the course of our lives?  What is that unique experience or who is the person or what is the idea that will help us make sense of our lives?  Will we or can we be open to an epiphany?

Our moments of epiphany can be great or small, but they will certainly come if we keep our eyes and minds open.  As for me, a few days before Christmas I had just such an experience, for which I was totally unprepared.  I was at a gathering of friends of Saint John’s in Florida, and the host couple mentioned to me that the next day they’d be joining a group from Catholic Charities to deliver food baskets to migrant families.  I’d never done that before, and without thinking I invited myself to come along.

To say that the experience was an epiphany for me is an understatement.  That day I walked out of my comfort zone and discovered something profound.  First of all I had no idea that some people in America lived like that.  Whole families lived in two-and-a-half-room cottages.  Unrelated adults shared trailer homes that should have been recycled years ago.  That was the deeply disturbing part of this epiphany.  But there was something that was also puzzling.  Early on I met an elderly woman who was riding herd over seventeen kids.  The moms of these seventeen were at work in the fields, and the kids were running around like free range chickens.  What struck me was the sense of joy that pervaded the scene.  But it was a joy that seemed out of place.  After all, these people were desperately poor, and they should have been sad.  But they weren’t.  They celebrated the gift of life, and joy was etched into their faces.  And to me none of this quite computed.

639C1C6E-59D1-4DBC-B6EC-30202679A94EThere’s two things I took home with me that day.  First, that small epiphany reminded me that all people are the handiwork of God.  Be they poor or rich, migrants or exiles or homeless or comfortable homeowners — all are made in the image of God.  As such each needs to be loved and each deserves reverence and respect.  And this is the commitment that I make as a baptized follower of Jesus Christ.

The second item has to do with my own vocation.  There are days when my life as a monk seems like a job and a career choice that was right for me.  Then there are the days when it seems like a vocation, and those are the days with touches and even streaks of joy.  I and my confreres know the difference, and we know that the vocation days are far more exhilarating.  Those are the days when we feel the hand of God tugging at our sleeves.  Believe me, those are the better days by far.

On the feast of the Epiphany we make an act of faith.  We affirm that God loved the world and sent the incarnate son to be with us.  That son Jesus walks with us every day.  But Epiphany presents us with a challenge.  Will that pilgrimage with the Lord be a job or a good career choice?  Or will it be a pilgrimage that transforms us completely?  If it’s the latter, then our lives will never be the same again.



+New Year’s Eve was the highlight of the social scene in the monastery this past week.  We gathered in one of the recreation rooms in the monastery and played cards and board games, visited, and shared home-made pizza made by several of the monks.

+On Sunday January 5th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered that day.  As noted in the text, I have been deeply indebted to David Brooks for ideas he has shared with his readers through the years.  Through those years I’ve become one of his most enthusiastic fans.

+It seems a little odd to use the Roman numerals MMXX for the new year.  But there you have it.  Happy new year to all my readers, and thanks for the many helpful comments I received during MMXIX.

+The wood-carving in today’s post was made by Master Arnt of Kalkar and Zwolle, in the Lower Rhine, c. 1480.  Today it is housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The photo at bottom shows a clock attached to the wall of a modern municipal building in Worms, Germany.


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Letting Go of Spiritual Baggage

[The following is a sermon that I gave at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, on 2 May.]

One of the consistent refrains we’ll hear this week is that Lourdes changes all who come here.  I know that might sound trite, but it’s true.  Through our encounters with people, through the liturgies we share, and through the experience of the place, we all change in ways we might not have expected.

Now that we’ve gathered for our first liturgy our education has already begun.  The first lesson we all have to absorb is this:  Lourdes is the land of hurry up and wait, and there’s a reason for that.  With so many people to move around, that has to be the way it is.  But it’s also the chance for each of us to be sensitive to our neighbor.  This is one place where being ready and on time is one of the highest forms of virtue.  It is our chance to show respect and charity for our neighbor.

ECD3CF40-ACCB-4683-919F-808475A2D763Lourdes is also a place where the sacred and the secular stand in sharp distinction.  To get to this chapel we ran a gauntlet of shops that cater to all tastes and none.  But it all stopped once we reached the gates of the shrine.  Nowhere that I’ve ever been have I seen such a sharp contrast between the material and the sacred.

More than anything else, however, Lourdes is a place where we take time out from the routines that shape our lives.  Whether we like it or not, Lourdes has a way of calling the question on the meaning of our lives.  It’s different from any place we’ve been, and it forces us to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we are going with our lives.  Eventually we all have to ask whether and how we will be changed when we return home.  Will we return to lives that are in a metaphorical desert, or will we return to lives of renewed intensity — lives we’d not thought possible?

Lourdes touches all who come here, and experience forces us to confront our own mortality.  When we leave this place how do we intend to use the years and weeks and days that God has reserved for us?  Will we fritter our time away?  Or will we resolve to use our time wisely and treat it for what it really is —a wonderful gift from God?  Only we can answer that, but I hope it’s a question we’ll all mull over during our days here.

Tucked away in the materials that prepared us for this pilgrimage was a very simple warning.  “Don’t bring too much stuff.”  For those who thought they couldn’t live without the extra four or five pounds of stuff, you’ve already begun to pay the price.  It may have seemed to be indispensable, but it also turned out to be heavy and bulky.  I know that experience, because I’ve had it too.  But I quickly learned I never need as much as I think, and if I forget something there are always stores, even in France.  But more than that, I’ve learned to keep asking one question of myself:  will my stuff serve me, or will I serve my stuff?

7479A1F1-96B9-418C-952E-19B09C1FCA9ABut that stuff is not the only baggage that we brought along.  Certainly we brought material baggage, but we’ve also brought along spiritual and emotional baggage that can be both very heavy and very distracting.  Perhaps even at this moment you’re sorting through some of the emotional baggage you’ve brought along.  If so, that’s okay, because in Lourdes we want to pay special attention to all the baggage that can so easily become a ball and chain on our emotional lives.  It’s a part of us; and while we could leave our material baggage in our hotel rooms this morning, this spiritual burden is something we’ve dragged along with us into the shrine.

I like to think of my mind as a warehouse, and in it I carry all sorts of stuff that gives me life but also burdens me enormously at times.  Included in its inventory are memories of good times and bad;  the experience of sickness and health;  and the joys and sorrows of life.  In that mental storage bin I carry the scars of sin — sins that I’ve committed and sins that have been committed upon me.  I know that I’m not alone in this experience, because these things haunt you as well.  It’s the price we pay for the knowledge of good and evil which we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve.  And if rightly we cherish the good memories, we can also let the negatives become a cancer that turns us into people we never imagined we would be.

One of my favorite stories from the gospels is the parable of the prodigal son.  It’s the story of one son who wasted his inheritance and finally came back to beg forgiveness from his father.  Most of us don’t identify with this son, but sometimes we should.  The fact is, we all have stuff from which we should repent.

Then there’s the older son.  He’s done everything right, and he’s the perfect son in all things but one.  As the writer David Brooks once pointed out, that son has no empathy for his younger brother.  There’s no forgiveness in his heart.  On occasion we all share his resentment, but we shouldn’t.  We shouldn’t because not one of us is as good as we think.

4B4A8CDF-056C-48F7-9A49-7712D1097CD4Finally there’s the father who has to forgive two sons.  As Brooks also observes, each of his sons is deeply flawed, but he forgives them because he loves them.  He wishes each was better, but they are who they are.  And who knows, perhaps his own love might have the power to transform hem.

To my mind the parable invites us to take the father as our model.  He too may have once stood in his sons’ shoes, but he also knows how powerfully sin can grip us and transform us into people we never intended to become.  Still, he refused to let hurt and resentment burden him.  He refused to let it transform him.  Sin — whether it was his own or that of his sons — would not become baggage he would carry through life.  So he walked away a free man.

Senator George McGovern of South Dakota once remarked that he gave up holding grudges because he couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be mad at.  Whether he did it for religious reasons or not doesn’t really matter, because the result was wonderful.  He was free to get on with life, and the burden of at least some evil lost the power to call the shots in his life.  And that, I would submit, is part of the reason we have come to Lourdes.

D36C2FE1-5755-44EA-818A-7EBF3293D81AIn a few moments we will participate in the sacrament of reconciliation.  This is our chance to let Jesus wash us free from sin.  It’s our chance to leave all sorts of spiritual baggage behind us as we put it in the hands of Jesus.  It’s the chance to move on with our lives.

At every turn Lourdes reminds us to leave behind that burden of sin.  In the baths we let the water wash away the memory of sin. And if need be, when we cross the river each time it’s a good idea to toss in the worst of our memories and let the waters wash them out to sea.  It’s futile to chase after them, and it’s a sign that that sort of baggage no longer has a place in our lives.

And so, I would conclude, if you resolve to leave all your heavy stuff in the hands of the Lord and in the care of Our Lady of Lourdes, you’ll go home with a lot less baggage.  You’ll go home a free person.  You’ll realize that this pilgrimage was worth every minute and every step that it took to get here.


+On April 30th I arrived in Paris, where I stayed the night before continuing on by train to Lourdes.  As I realized too late, this was taking a big chance, since May Day — May 1st — is usually reserved for raucous demonstrations in the city.  Sometimes the trains are on strike as well, as was the case last year.  Thankfully I made it to Lourdes with little difficulty.

+On May 2nd I delivered a homily at a penance service for members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  Some 350 gathered in the chapel of Saint Bernadette.  I’ve presented this homily in today’s post, and I apologize for the length.  I didn’t know what to cut out, so I leave it to readers to figure that out for themselves!

8D1ABBA1-DE50-4551-9BBC-8049714EA2E7+As I noted in the sermon, in Lourdes there are shops for every taste and none, and so far one friend of mine has come up with two champion gifts.  First prize goes to the inventor of the Lourdes combination back scratcher and shoe horn.  It’s the gift for someone who thought they had everything.  The second item falls into the category of the slightly bizarre.  In one shop my friend found a tiny statue of Mary that had been carved from a bullet, and the casing was highly polished to provide housing for the statue.  I tried to put the best face on it, by thinking of the exhortation to beat swords into plowshares, but I’m still not quite sure what market niche this gift intends to fill.

+Alumni of Saint John’s University pop up everywhere, and I was surprised to meet up with Lino Rulli.  Lino has a radio program — The Catholic Guy — that airs across the country on Sirius Radio.  He was at Lourdes with Cardinal Dolan of New York, who was also part of the Order of Malta pilgrimage.


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Who Stole My Sundays?

It was a nightly ritual in their household.  Jake gave the signal when he walked to the door and stared through his dark brown eyes.  Finally someone came to throw the tennis ball far into the darkness outside.  Then out he bolted, eyes fixed on the ball.  Only after he had pounced on the ball did he do his duty, and at last it was time for bed.

I think that was the first serious lesson I ever learned from a dog.  For Jake there was no physiological connection between throwing that ball and doing his business.  Nor was it a feature at any other time of day when he needed to relieve himself.  Only at bedtime was it part of his routine, and it seemed that for Jake it was the last joyous affirmation of a day well-lived.  That day I learned from Jake the importance of ritual, even in the lives of some of our animal friends.

IMG_0020_2In a few days comes the First Sunday of Advent.  For some it will occasion little or no response;  for others it may elicit memories of religious obligations that were more onerous than life-giving.  For still others it will resurrect thoughts of a more innocent age, before Black Friday side-tracked it into a seasonal frenzy of consumerism.  But for the lucky ones, Advent will be a time of renewal that reminds us of an inner transcendence that we all share.

Jesus often spoke about the importance of the sabbath, and in well-chosen words he reminded anyone who would listen that they were not made for the sabbath.  Rather, the sabbath was made for them, and it was meant to recall our intrinsic value as people made in God’s image.  We need not be pawns of marketers or slaves to unrelenting schedules.  There’s more to life than mindless activity, because there is in fact purpose to our lives.

A recent column by David Brooks reinforced this point for me when he quoted the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel.  “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build,” he wrote.  “It is made of soul, joy and reticence.”  Brooks paraphrased Heschel when he concluded that “we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living.”

IMG_0024_2I find it interesting that in our march toward a more secular worldview we’ve managed to repurpose the point of Advent and decorate it in the trappings of merchandise.  We’ve supplemented it with what some have labeled the nightly liturgy of the talking heads.  Even as our eyes are glued to the televised politicos, we hold cell phones as if they were life-support, and in effect we make of ourselves appendages of technology.  Ironically, we’ve come to believe that all these things are here to serve us, when in fact it’s become the other way around.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the first time in the human experience that this has happened.  It’s merely the modern iteration of the eternal quest to achieve sanity and to attain the inner peace that makes life worth living.  Not surprisingly, our sabbath and Advent observances are part of that ritual effort to transcend the mundane.

I’m not about to advocate that we take these religious observances to some extreme.  But what I do suggest is that we take them for what they are worth.  And therein I draw one more lesson from Jake.  Jake didn’t need to chase tennis balls all day long to find meaning in life.  Once a day was enough to affirm the value of his life in a routine of eating, chasing squirrels and barking at the UPS people.  Life was good for Jake, and life can and ought to be good for us, no matter the tedium and challenge that fills the spaces between successive Sundays and Advents.

IMG_0022_2This Sunday I’ve resolved to set aside one activity and elevate it as a symbol of the transcendent value of my life.  I was made for God, and not for online shopping or the cell-phone or rush-hour traffic.  Sure, these are struggles with which we must contend, but they are not the ultimate good in and of themselves.  They are no more than the means to a greater good.

Finally, when the last Sunday of Advent dawns, I hope I don’t find myself wondering what happened to all those Sundays.  Nor do I want to be asking “Who stole my Sundays?”  For better or for worse, if I have nothing to show for my efforts, I hope I’ll have the honesty to say that I’ve given all my Sundays away.  If, on the contrary, I’ve made something of them, then I’ll have the joy of singing with the saints:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice!”


+Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was serenely quiet at Saint John’s over the holidays.  Now the rush to the end of the term has begun, and the starting gun has signaled to our students the opening of the camping season in the library.

+In a recent post I presented a photo of a fresco of Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, on the walls of the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  I noted that it was the first time I’d seen such an image, and one of my confreres graciously pointed out that it is in fact a common image in Italy, Spain and the Latin countries in the Americas.  There it is referenced as La Divina Pastora.  My previous encounters with similar images have been in manuscript art, and from one of my files I have retrieved a stone carving of that scene.  It is entitled the Madonna of Mercy, done in the first half of the 15th century in Tuscany.  It is housed in the Fondazione Salvatore Romano in Florence.  The photo is at the bottom of today’s post.

+The stained glass in today’s post all come from a rose window in the church of Saint Eustace in Paris.


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imagePrepare Your Eulogy

If you’ve not paged through The Road to Character, by David Brooks, it’s definitely worth your while.  By now there have been plenty of reviews, and perhaps you’ve read one.  But as an inveterate Brooks fan, let me add to the chorus of appreciation for his latest book.

In it Brooks laments the change in personal ambition that’s taken place over the last fifty years,  For too long now, he notes, increasing numbers of people have spent the bulk of their lives compiling resumés.  To their regret, as they sometimes discover in their twilight years, they should have spent more time on the qualities better-suited for a eulogy.

The root cause of this change in direction is an infatuation with what Brooks calls “The Big Me.”  If, once upon a time, people espoused ideals that tilted toward altruism, that’s simply not the case any longer.  Today “it’s all about me,” and we value others primarily for what they can do for me.

imageHe devotes the bulk of his book to sketches of several gifted individuals who each faced a crisis of character.  Because he’s assembled such a diverse pool of personalities, you wonder what all of these people could possibly have in common.  But the thread that runs through all of them was the dawning awareness that life and civilization and the universe itself was not all about them after all.  In fact, life only began to have meaning when they made room for others in their own lives.  To borrow from the gospels, which Brooks does on more than one occasion, they discovered the nugget of wisdom that Jesus pointed out about those who lose their lives for the sake of others.  Only when they they lose their lives do they begin to regain them.  Only then do they acquire a real sense of purpose.  Only then does life begin to have some semblance of meaning.

If I may be so bold, this is a variation of a theme that I have  hammered away at in retreat conferences for a few years now.  I’ll grant that the point is not unique to me, but my self-interested approach may be a bit on the singular side.  It’s this.  For years I’ve pleaded with people to keep me in mind when they consider end-of-life plans.  “Don’t make me have to tell a pack of lies at your funeral.  For heaven’s sake, and for mine too, give me something to work with.  Think ahead, and give me and your friends some material we can use in your eulogy.”

imageIt strikes me that this is a useful complement to the advice Brooks has to give.  It’s also a chance to leverage self-interest and put it at the service of others.  This is one case in which being considerate of others means doing a big favor for yourself as well.

As a case in point, I cite the eulogy that the abbot has to give on the death of each of our monks.  He usually begins with material that Brooks labels resumé, and he lists the assignments and jobs of the deceased.  What we monks all realize is that these responsibilities were held by monks who went before the deceased, and now that he’s gone we’ll have to find someone else to do them.  So these initial comments of the abbot say little or nothing about the monk whom we remember that day.  It’s not that these things don’t matter;  its just that a resumé does not describe a real human being.

The abbot then shifts to speak about the qualities that this particular monk embodied in his life.  He tries to describe the character and the soul of our confrere, and this is what occasions wistful memories and an occasional chuckle.  This is the description of a real live human being.  This is the monk who loved and prayed and worked and walked alongside us.  This is the man who did some things well and others less well as he joined us in the search for God.

And all the while, as the abbot goes through this exercise, each of us knows that someday our turn will come.  As for me, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve given the abbot enough material for a decent eulogy.  Or will it only be data for a resumé?

imageWhen Brooks points to The Big Me as the root of the problem, it occurs to me that this business has been around for a long time.  Perhaps the first instance of it was the offer that the snake made to Adam and Eve.  Since then a myriad of thoughtful people have reflected on this, including Saint Benedict.   His teaching on the need for humility suggests that The Big Me was alive and well in the sixth century.  More recently I’ve been struck by a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta.  We pray that we be “forgetful of ourselves,” so that we mgiht be clear-eyed to see the needs of the sick and the poor.

The battle with The Big Me rages on within most of us, and as a culture we seem to be losing ground each day.  Given that, it’s helpful to keep one thing in mind.  It wasn’t all that many centuries ago when most people believed that the universe revolved around the sun.  Today we mock them for living in their heliocentric world.  But are we really any smarter for living in an egocentric world?  Only time will tell, and so will our eulogists.  And if we see them heading for the confessional after our funeral, we’ll know we didn’t give them enough to work with.


+On July 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Sheep with a Shepherd, through this link.

+In addition to reading The Pursuit of Character, by David Brooks, I also recently completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2015.)  I enjoy all of McCullough’s work, and I would only fault this book for being too short.  In the Abbey we are reading in the refectory the new encyclical by Pope Francis.

+The summer continues to be lovely at Saint John’s, and in today’s post I have included photos of the gardens inside the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

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imageAm I the Prodigal Son?

I’ve commented often on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because I find the contrast among the characters so striking.  First on the stage is the younger son, who seems unable to do anything right.  Third to emerge is the older son, who seems unable to do anything wrong.  Caught right in the middle is the father, who does his level best to balance his love for two very different offspring.  But his dilemma is painfully obvious to any parent.  Is he too indulgent with one son, while unappreciative of the other?  What’s a father to do in such a situation?

I thought I had this parable all figured out, simply by looking at the people around me and applying a little common sense.  For one thing, nobody I know even remotely resembles the rakish wastrel that is the younger son.  Certainly such people exist, because we read about them all the time.  But they are not us, and those people don’t read parables anyway.  Certainly Jesus didn’t intend to lump me and my friends into that category.

Long ago I also realized that I and most of my friends don’t identify with the father either.  For one thing, I just don’t have the emotional capacity to dole out buckets of forgiveness to the ungracious clods around me.  And even if I did, I still wouldn’t have the time.  I’m way too busy doing all the right things, all the time.

imageThat leaves the elder brother.  He was obedient, hard-working, reliable, and an all-round goodie-two-shoes.  That’s me to a T; and if the truth be told, an awful lot of people relate to him as well.  His is our story, and after each reading of this parable I always know that he and I are kindred spirits.  But then I ran across David Brooks’ recent column on the Prodigal Son, and I shrank back in horror.  As Brooks points out, beneath the upstanding veneer of the older brother lurks some really disturbing qualities.  Could that be me as well?

Brooks makes several points, but two especially resonate with me.  First, this is not necesssarily a bad son/good son story.  “The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every heart.”   If only life were so clear-cut; but we’re all more complicated and nuanced than we had thought.

Brooks also posits that neither son was a paragon of virtue.  There is no doubt that the prodigal son got away with murder, at least figuratively, and I always found it a little disconcerting that the father’s forgiveness let him off scott free.  Still, I’ve prayed that he was tormented with remorse for the rest of his life.  But what if he was only faking it?  Too bad Jesus didn’t do a follow-up parable to let us know what happened to that guy.

imageWhat really jolted me, however, was Brooks’ analysis of the senior son.  To all appearances that guy may have been upstanding and reliable, but he too was riddled with faults.  He may have done everything right, but there’s no denying that it was in his material self-interest to do so.  Worse, there is no generosity of spirit in him; and there is zero inclination to give his brother any benefit of the doubt.  Small wonder, Brooks observes, that the father didn’t put the older son in charge of the “welcome home” party.  There would have been no party.

From this Brooks extrapolates one important conclusion.  Any society that rests itself on one class of wastrels living alongside another class consisting of unforgiving overachievers is doomed.  There can be no successful community when virtually everyone acts entirely in their own selfish interest rather than for the good of their neighbor and community.  That, ultimately, is what the father tries to teach his deeply flawed sons.

I leave it to others to figure out how best to apply this, but for me life under the Rule of Saint Benedict creates the perfect lab conditions for testing this parable.  First off, unlike contemporary society, Benedict does not give absolute importance to individual rights, to the detriment of the good of the community.  Secondly, he also runs counter to contemporary culture with its assumption that personal sins and vices are just that — personal matters affecting no one else.  On the contrary, virtually anything a monk does has a social consequence.  Everything he does or does not do impacts the monks around him, and that goes double for sin.  Ironically, this puts a premium on the individual.  Individuals matter, but only in relationship to the others in the community.

imageBecause all sin has a social dimension, Benedict proposes solutions that are social.  If a monk has done some wrong, it is important to deal with it, first on a person-to-person level.  If that fails, Benedict prescribes the equivalent of an intervention in which two or three senior monks confront the individual.  And if worse comes to worse, the abbot must resort to the “knife of amputation.”  In short, it’s time for the errant monk to “pursue other opportunities,” to borrow a phrase from the business world.  All this rests on a world-view that the abbot shares with the forgiving father: he does not want to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him.  Naturally he wants each monk to be a healthy and constructive member of the community.  But no one monk has the right to put his personal welfare above that of the community.  There’s no room for the prodigal son who refuses to change his ways.

On the other hand Saint Benedict is equally determined to root out any self-righteousness among the monks.  He most certainly prizes hard work, sincere prayer, and the many talents that each monk  brings to the community.  But no monk can become puffed up with pride by the thought of his own greatness.  Such a monk shares the destructive potential of the unforgiving older brother.

imageAll of this is great in theory but a huge challenge in practice.  This explains Benedict’s concern that the abbot be a wise physician to his monks.  Each monk is a gift from God, and each monk matters.  But on any given day each monk has the capacity to be the prodigal son or the self-righteous brother, or both.  I know I see those tendencies in my brothers all the time; and I suspect they’d be more than happy to say the same for me.  Fortunatley, on most days restraint of speech is the better part of valor.

This brings us round to the original challenge of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I always knew I never aspired to be the wastrel son.  Who does?  But after reading David Brooks I certianly don’t want to be the smug older brother either.  I also know that no monastery can long survive with a cloister full of both types living side by side.  Nor can the Church or society, for that matter.

imageThe solution may entail a middle course to which the forgiving father hints.  Perhaps in all  humility each and every one of us needs to admit we are a smidgen of both.  On any given day I will commit my sins, just like everybody else.  And on any given day I can also be self-righteous and point out how different I am from the rest of people.  But if, in fact, I am both of these people, then the line between good and evil runs right through my heart.

Is there a happy moral to this?  Yes.  The good news is that I guess I’ll never run out of work to do when it comes to putting my life in order.  The even better news is that God need never go looking for “other opportunities.”  God will always have more than enough to do with the likes of me, and maybe even you.


+On February 19th I gave two presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Mary’s College of California.  In the afternoon I spent two hours with faculty members from the Department of Theology, and in the evening I spoke to an audience of ca. 150.

+It’s nice to know that not all of the difficulties of travel relate to airports and weather.  At Saint Mary’s this week I put my watch down on the tech cart at the start of my talk.  At the end of the presentation I visited with several members from the audience, while a superefficient student rushed the cart off to storage in another building.  We retraced the path of the cart and eventually located it, but there was no watch to be seen.  I resigned myself to never seeing it again and drove off.  The next day someone pried open the inside of the cart, only to discover that my watch had slipped deep into the bowels of the equipment.  Happily, we hope to reunite when we both return to Minnesota.

Yet another inconvenience involved a dinner meeting with a member of the Order of Malta.  We had hoped to visit at an event weeks earlier, but we sat opposite each other at a round table of ten, in a huge and noisy room.  Frustrated, we rescheduled, only to have the restaurant catch fire the afternoon of our dinner.  I genuinely fear the results of any future attempts to meet.

image+Last week I wrote about John O’Malley’s book on the Counciil of Trent.  Among the myths that have grown up in its wake has been the assertion that Protestants got the pulpit and Catholics got the altar.  In fact, O’Malley points out that there was a significant emphasis on preaching in Catholic churches in the centuries following Trent, as the architectural evidence gives witness.  What happened in the 19th and 20th centuries is another story.  In the last two years I’ve taken photos of various pulpits for just such a post as this.  At top is Saint John’s Cathedral in Malta; second is St. Sulpice in Paris; next is the cathedral of Oliva in Poland; and then are several from south German churches.  They support O’Malley’s contention quite dramatically.

+On the morning of February 17th we were stunned to learn that Br. Aelred Reid, OSB, had died of a heart attack in the course of the night.  Brother Aelred was a monk of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND, and he had been studying theology at Saint John’s for the last two years.  May he rest in peace.

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The Cloisters, Canterbury Cathedral

The Theresa Tattoo

Last summer I saw a tattoo unlike any I’d seen before.  It was on the young man’s neck, above the collar line.  There, where few collars could reach and hide it, were letters in stately German gothic script that spelled out a single word:  “Theresa.”

It was not the fine calligraphy that hit me, nor even the location.  Rather, it was the name itself.  Assuming that Theresa was not his name, it was likely the name of his beloved.  Obviously, she had made a deep impression on him; and just as obviously, he had declared his eternal love for  her in a way that said “I’ll never get this off, no matter how hard I scrub.”  Sadly, he had failed to remember that in modern America “forever” means a week or two, tops.  He was now stuck with this Theresa tattoo for the rest of his life.  And to him it would likely feel like a personal eternity.

Saint Benedict healing a child, glass from Abbey of Saint Denis. Now at V & A, London

David Brooks has pointed out that at nineteen or twenty all of us have to make decisions that determine the rest of our lives.  Unfortunately, at that age we lack the information that could really inform our decisions.  That information only comes later, after many years of experience.  In the meantime, we make our decisions, and we must learn to live with them.

Of course the young man with “Theresa” emblazoned on his neck did not have his entire future closed off.  If this one Theresa hasn’t worked out, there are certainly a lot more Theresa’s out there.  And he could even widen the pool by exploring the hyphenated name market.  It might not be so bad to find a descendant of the great Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, for example.  But if an Edith or a Rachel were ever to ensnare his heart, he could have some real trouble on his hands.  Or on his neck.

There are  other ways to deal with a situation like this, short of despair.  Several summers ago I was waiting at the tube station at Kew Gardens in London.  On the platform was a woman in a sleeveless dress, with a child in tow and a young man by her side.  At the top of her arm was the tattoo of a heart, with the words “Sue and Steve” inscribed inside.  Below it was another heart, inscribed with “Sue and Bob.”  A third followed.  And there were two companions on the other arm.  For all I know these were the names of her five children.  But since jumping to conclusions is my favorite form of exercise, I fished for the worst options I could think of.  Was this child a product of one of the hearts?  Was this guy on the list?  And did the list continue elsewhere?  I did not know.  But what I did know was that before me stood a person who refused to let previous relationships hem her in.  Instead of removing the first tattoo, she added on.  Her arms became her autobiography, and quite possibly it is still a work in progress.

The fact of the matter is, our lives continue to be works in progress as long as we choose to make them so.  We all made fateful decisions when we were twenty, but God gave us each a brain, and He expects us to use it.  Hopefully we’ve used our brains to adapt and grow.  Hopefully we’ve not let mistakes of the past paralyze us.  Hopefully we’ve not rested on the laurels of past success.  If we’ve used our brains well, we’ve learned from our own past, and we’ve been able to pick up our mats and walk on.

Abbot John VI of Steinfeld Abbey, Germany, ca. 1522. Now at V & A, London

Seldom do people live lives of uninterrupted happiness.  Such bliss simply does not exist on this side of life’s great divide.  And so, if we are to cope, we must make use of all the gifts God provides.  And no greater gift does God give to us than our brains.

There is a notion in some circles of society that when you enter the church to pray, you have to check your brain at the door.  But a mindless follower is the one thing that irritates God most, I contend.  God gives each of us a mind, and He expects us to keep using it, whether at nineteen or ninety.  It’s that mind that allows us to recover from poor decisions and mistakes.  It’s that mind that causes us to own up to our failings and sins, and it helps us move on to the next stage of life.  It’s that same mind that God has given us to make the most of life’s opportunities.

I’m still haunted by the  memory of the guy on the street with the Theresa tattoo.  If he were here, standing before me, I’d like to tell him that “Theresa” was not the end-of-the-line mistake he may have thought it was.  I would tell him that he is not consigned to a  life-time of dating women named Theresa.  Nor is he restricted to Maria-Theresa’s or Sheryl-Theresa’s.  If he just used his brain, he’d see the brilliant solution that could turn everything around.  If he just added “Mother” to “Theresa,” overnight he could become the most sought-after son-in-law in America.

Shrine of Saint Potentius, Steinfeld Abbey. V & A, London.

A Personal Note, and Reading

+On Sunday, February 19th, I presided at the community Eucharist at Saint John’s Abbey.  For the text of the sermon, you may connect directly to Speaking: the Key to Death and Life. or visit the section headed Presentations on the homepage of this blog.

+Lent begins in two days, and if you are looking for something to read for practical spiritual reflection, I would recommend Michael Casey’s Stranger to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of The Rule of Saint Benedict, (Paraclete Press, 2005.)  Fr. Michael is a Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, and he has spoken on several occasions at Saint John’s.  His book provides an accessible and very interesting perspective on monastic values vis-a-vis the world.  I plan to read through this once again this Lent.

Cover of the Lorsch Gospels, Lorsch Abbey, 810. In the V & A, London

+If you are at all inclined to think that there is nothing new under the sun, you might turn the pages of Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe, (Cambridge University Press, 2003.)  Editors Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser have brought together twelve essays that detail the struggles of the Kulturkampf throughout western Europe.  I’ve generally assumed that this was primarily a conflict between Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia and the Catholic Church, but in fact there were local manifestations of it throughout Europe.  In certain locations the struggles even engulfed the established Protestant churches.  While I found the initial chapter rough going, the sections on Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria especially interested me.

In addition to their relevance to modern cultural conflict, the essays provide background for understanding the roots of monasticism in the United States.  Many European monasteries made foundations in the New World in the nineteenth century, which could serve as places of refuge in case the religious/political upheaval forced the monks and nuns into exile.

+Recently Loyola University Maryland acquired a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  Last week officials dedicated the display that will house the Bible in the entrance gallery of the University library.  Visitors and students will be able to see all seven volumes, and one volume will always be open for reading.

Loyola University Maryland, library.

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