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Posts Tagged ‘Dumbarton Oaks’

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Staring Down the Darkness

If you want to know what tranquility looks and feels and sounds like, then a good place to start is a ruined English abbey.  Set in remote corners in parklike settings, many of them ooze peace and quiet, and they are reminders of what life was like before the industrial revolution.

There aren’t many places in the first world where people can escape the grip of industrial noise.  But there are those few moments when technology loosens its grip and we are left to our own devices to cope.  Just such an experience happened to me last Friday.  That afternoon I had flown to Irvine, CA, and the next day I was scheduled to give a retreat conference to members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  As I sat down to dinner in the hotel cafe, it happened.  The lights flickered and for a moment civilization hung in the balance.  Then the Middle Ages returned.  There were no lights, no whirring machines, and no power to open the doors.  Then I and my fellow diners began to discover just how gently electrical power coddles us.  The elevator would not take me back to my room on the tenth floor.  There was no air-conditioning.  And those who dined after us were treated to cold cuts and snacks.

BC61C80E-BD07-4DF9-86C1-4A064247873AWhat surprised me was my reaction to the absence of light.  At 6 pm, when all of this started, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  At that point the sun still shone brightly, but its gradual setting stirred me into a panic.  I had reserved most of the evening for some work, but then it dawned on me that when the sun went down the work would have to stop.  There would only be the primordial darkness.

Like monks had done for hundreds of years, I went to bed when the sun set.  There was nothing else to do.  Then I remembered that I am an early riser, and I prayed that the power would return by 3 am.  It didn’t.

When I woke up at 3 am my worst workaholic fears came true.  There was no point in getting up.  Short of a miracle it would be pitch dark until the sun rose just before 6 am.  So for three hours I stayed in bed, eyes wide open, staring at the darkness, waiting for something to happen.

For most of monastic history — and human history for that matter — monks lived in sync with the cycle of the days and the changing of the seasons.  They got by partially because they never saw electricity coming, so they didn’t know what they were missing anyway.  But still they coped, and one way to thumb their noses at the darkness was to recite the psalms of the night office by memory.  For the most part, however, they simply adapted because they could not control their environment.  It controlled them.

02878F3F-DB79-4FCF-827B-BBB5E5363008Of course electricity changed all that.  Still, twelve hours without it made me wonder whether we even realize what we’ve lost.  For one night I had to measure my steps because in my own room I couldn’t see where I was going.  There was neither radio nor television to keep me entertained, no light for reading, and my iPad could offer no solace because it was running low on juice.  The dimly-lit lobby could have been a haven, but the thought of having to climb ten flights of stairs to get back up was a real disincentive.  So I was left to settle in with my thoughts for company and with senses that were suddenly alert to even the faintest of sounds.

What surprises me most is that I’m grateful for the experience.  I discovered that I could live without access to light at the flick of a switch.  I could get around without an elevator, and I could make do with my thoughts as my only companion.  Life was possible, even without an iPad or a cell phone.  Who would have thought?!  In retrospect it almost seems like a revelation straight from the Almighty.

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+As the final weeks of summer rush on us, we’ve hosted a variety of groups at Saint John’s, and this week our featured guests were the members of the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  Every August they come for a one-week camp, and it’s always fun to listen as their music wafts across campus.  Also at Saint John’s this summer have been members of three seminars at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  Hosted in partnership with Dumbarton Oaks, the Byzantine research institute sponsored by Harvard University, we’ve marveled at scholars who would spend a chunk of their summer studying Armenian, Syriac and Coptic paleography.

+On 2 August I flew to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA.  Four hours after I landed an electrical fire in a transformer closed the airport and cut the power to the hotel where I happened to be staying.  I later heard that we were the lucky ones.  Our power was out for twelve hours.  Other neighbors lost it for two days.

+On 3 August I gave a conference at a retreat for Orange County members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  The event took place at Saint Thomas More Parish in Irvine.

+The photo at top is the view of sunset from my hotel window in Irvine CA, shortly before everything went dark.  The other photos in today’s post show the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, at the edge of York in the UK.

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A Little Silence Can Be Golden

I used to think that only other people got to see the unusual things, while my daily rounds were pretty boring.  Lately, however, I’ve had my share of sightings, and I’ve perked up a bit.

Probably the most startling thing I saw in the last week took place on Saturday.  I was at a lunch, sitting at a table outside, when I heard a crash and looked up with a start.  Somebody had just rear-ended a pick-up, parked a few feet from where I was sitting.   The good news was that neither the driver nor the cell phone she had been using were injured.  The same could not be said for her car, though.  The parked pick-up had won.

95DDE85D-F528-453B-9A54-D9F74A4164F1Things like that used to show up in News of the Weird, but no more.  That sort of stuff now happens with such regularity that it scarcely deserves attention, which explains why I so casually turned back to lunch.   After all, just two days earlier I had watched as a young man who was texting walked right into a post.  The post won, and I awarded the post extra points for that.

The prize for the most eccentric behavior of the week I bestowed on a person who talked non-stop for almost two whole blocks.  I was stuck on the sidewalk behind her and her friend, but when I finally had the chance to pass, I didn’t.  By then it had become hugely entertaining.  For upwards of four minutes she talked at a ferocious clip, without resort to a comma, a semicolon or any other sort of punctuation.  Just listening left me breathless, but she seemed not to be.

That performance brought to mind Saint Benedict’s chapter on the restraint of speech.  There he cites Proverbs 10:19 to this effect:  “In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.”  I’m not sure that this person meant any harm with her torrent of words, but the verdict belongs to her long-suffering companion who seemed so pained by it all.

By contrast Saint Benedict was a man of few words, which likely explains the brevity of his Rule.  It’s not that he was against speaking, but he honestly believed that the fewer the words, the better.   And when it came to prayer the same held true.  So it is that after several chapters dealing with the details of the prayer cycle in the monastery, he rewards the reader with this rather terse comment:  “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.  Prayer should always be short and pure….”  And then he concludes:  “In community, however, prayer should always be brief….”

CA2BA3DF-ED02-4D9F-9DE7-8188C3C75E2BFor those who assume that prayer should be super-dignified, ethereal and long-winded, Saint Benedict offers a different perspective.  He doesn’t exactly say that we should talk with God as we would with our friends.  But in fact we should.  It should be a conversation in which we don’t hesitate to tell God what’s on our mind.  We shouldn’t be bashful to tell God what troubles us and what makes us happy.  God wants to know.

But as in any good conversation, there need to be at least two parties, and everybody should have a chance to speak.  Perhaps with that in mind Benedict begins his Rule with the word “Listen.”  That’s a key element in any praying that we do, and it’s necessary for any fruitful conversation — be it with God or with our friends.

”Listen” is the word I wanted to share with that overly-chatty person on the sidewalk.  But had I had the nerve, it likely would have come out ”LISTEN!”  So it’s just as well that I took the advice of Saint Benedict that day and kept my mouth shut.  For that moment, at least for me, silence was golden.

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+Summer is winding down at Saint John’s and in two weeks the first of our students begin to trickle in for the fall term.  However, there are still groups visiting and working on campus, including several of our students who are doing individual research this summer.  In addition, HMML has hosted two groups for month-long sessions.  First, it hosted the NEH summer seminar entitled “Thresholds of Change:  Modernity and Transformation in the Mediterranean, 1400-1700.”  That drew 25 professors from across the country.  Most recently HMML hosted Dumbarton Oaks Research Library’s Syriac Summer Language School, which drew ten scholars from around the world.  Dumbarton Oaks is Harvard University’s Byzantine research library and institute in Washington, DC. At the other end of the spectrum, we hosted the annual camp for the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  For an entire week their music filtered through the campus, and it was a delight.

+The first three photos all show writers at their craft.  At top is Saint Ambrose, made by a Spanish carver, ca. 1500.  Next is Saint Bridget of Sweden, writing down her Revelations.  It was made in the Netherlands, ca. 1470.  Below that is John of Patmos, writing the Book of Revelation on a scroll (Burgundy, ca. 1450-1500).  Saint James the Greater I have included because his feast day was on July 25th.  All four of these items are to be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At bottom is a wrought iron panel, which has nothing to do with any of the sculptures here.  I just happened to like it and thought it would be a nice accent piece and serve as a period in today’s post.  It is housed in the V & A in London.

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