Posts Tagged ‘Feast of the Ascension’


Time Out of Joint

The picture that chapter one in the Acts of the Apostles provides is curious.  Gathered behind closed doors in an upper room in Jerusalem was an eclectic group of people.  Their leader and inspiration, Jesus, had just disappeared into the heavens.  He had warned them, yet they weren’t entirely ready for it.  He had also promised not to leave them orphans, but they must have felt very much like orphans that day.  And as people tend to do when they feel desperately at sea and puzzled about what comes next, they prayed.

Among the curiosities tucked into this narrative is the roster of those in the room.  Eleven of the twelve whom Jesus had chosen were there.  By any measure these were simple yet sturdy men.  But each was also flawed.  They may not have betrayed Jesus as had the twelfth disciple, but they had wavered in their loyalty to Jesus, and most of them had run away when the chips were down.

3575E362-B0B2-44CA-9290-FBF598DB5665With them were a few women, and their presence suggested that this might be a band of refugees rather than the core leadership in a religious movement.  Finally, almost as an afterthought, standing with them was the mother of Jesus.  With no visible means of support, she too likely wondered what would become of her.

In sum, Jesus had left behind a small and rather unpromising lot.  Yet, these were the people he expected to take his message to the ends of the earth.  Had he been wildly unrealistic in his hopes?  Couldn’t he have chosen better people?

The fact is, Jesus had been long on ideas but short on specifics;  and there was not a hint of the bits and pieces that we’ve come to take for granted as his legacy to us.  There was as yet not one word of the New Testament, save what existed in the memories of those present.  There was no blueprint on which to build what would be a Church.  Perhaps the most glaring absence was the one man who would make the critical difference in all of this.  Soon enough the voice of Jesus would knock off his horse a man named Saul.  For now, however, Saul was just one of many threats on the other side of the closed door.  Soon enough Saul would delight in harassing these people;  but in time, as Paul, he would become the most ambitious in the cause of Christ.  For now, though, that thought would have seemed ludicrous to those gathered in that room.

31AF8616-FE53-4D0F-A584-3B6987F34596Eventually the disciples of Jesus opened that door and stepped out to meet the world.  The Acts of the Apostles detail their journieys in service to the Lord, and from that narrative we glean a few grains that might be of comfort to us.  First, these were very ordinary people.  Jesus could have chosen the wisest or the richest or the most sophisticated people to be his messengers, but he didn’t.  Perhaps because they had little baggage nor personal empires to defend they were willing to take a chance on Jesus.  Other people might have melted into the woodwork after the crucifixion, but these people chose to face their demons.  Instead of retreating to their homes in Galilee, they returned to Jerusalem.  There they would cast their lot and seal their fate with Jesus.  Whatever else they might be, they demonstrated that they were not quitters.

In a few days we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and to us.  For now, however, we celebrate the calling of some very ordinary people who ended up doing extraordinary things.  In the process they discovered that the Lord had indeed not left them orphans, and that with God it was possible to do what they had never imagined.

All of us face watershed moments in our lives, and during those moments we agonize over what might become of us.  Who are we?  What ought we be doing with the time and talents that we have at our disposal?  Are we destined to nothing of importance, or might it be that the Lord Jesus calls us to do something wonderful, just as he did the disciples?

DD39766A-0551-47B6-8146-9A4CD3EA7415Such moments of testing occur at predictable and sometimes very inconvenient times.  Such is the case with the current stretch, which a friend of mine termed “a time out of joint.”  Whether we had big plans or no plans for the last few weeks, we all agree that we certainly did not budget time for hiding behind doors.  What good would that do us or anyone else?  Yet, if this has merely been an inconvenience at best or a nightmare at worst, we may have missed one of the watershed moments in our lives.  This could be our time when we stand with the disciples in the upper room;  when we walk with Jesus for forty days in the desert;  or when we, like Saint Paul, have to clear the calendar and live as if we were blind until the Lord opens our eyes.

In short, like the disciples we are pretty ordinary people.  But also like the disciples, the Lord calls us to do some pretty extraordinary things.  What a shame it would be to squander these days that the Lord has made.  What a shame it would be to stay behind the locked doors, paralyzed by our demons and afraid to take up the yoke of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphans, and he didn’t.  He then walked with them to the ends of the earth.  As the Lord did for his disciples, so in these days and weeks and months Jesus renews his promise, and this time he makes it to us.

For our part we can treat this “time out of joint” as a horrible inconvenience or as a welcome wake-up call.  Should we see it as the latter and answer “yes” to the Lord Jesus, then for us too the Lord will do great things.  He will transform each and every one of us.  He will leave us alone to continue as very ordinary people.  But he will also transform us into ordinary people who do extraordinary things.



+On May 24th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and the post today is the sermon I delivered.  However, there was a twist that I had not anticipated.  As Fr. Nick read from Acts 1: 1-11, like a bolt of lightning I realized I had prepared a sermon for Acts 1: 12-14.  Every preacher fears that day.  Horrified, I had no choice but to improvise.  On the spot I came up with a new introduction, which I grafted on to the text I was set to deliver.  No one seemed to notice the difference, or else no one seemed to care.  To the Holy Spirit I give thanks for this minor feat of dexterity.

+Once again the campus was quiet this week, and for the 9th week running I did not set foot off of the Abbey and University grounds. However, we were all rewarded with a stunning display of flowering crabapples and lilacs.  I was especially delighted by the blossoms on two trees I had planted many years ago.  The photo at top shows them reaching above the fourth-floor roofline of Emmaus Hall.

+For the last few days the elevator that serves the main residential floors of the monastery has been capricious, at best.  Consistently it stops at only the basement and fourth floor, which has been great for me and my confreres who live on the fourth.  We have enjoyed an express trip to the refectory on the basement level, but it was not so nice for those living in between.  Unfortunately none of us monks know how to fix a cranky elevator, and no elevator repair people want to make house calls on Memorial Day weekend.


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The Benefits of Online Trading

For those of you who assume that life in a monastery is routine and unchanging, I have news for you.  Yes, there is the regular schedule that varies little from day to day and week to week.  Yes, there are assigned tasks that include readers and servers and celebrants for Mass, and readers and servers for table, as well as sign-up sheets for other tasks and responsibilities.  Saint Benedict alluded to the need for this in his Rule, and these lists eventually get coordinated and posted on the bulletin board for all to see.  However, far from outlining some unchanging reality for the coming week, these lists merely suggest what ought to happen if this were the ideal world.

Like most every other place on earth, however, the monastery is not the ideal world, and that’s where email has become a great gift when the need to adjust comes up. Once upon a time, if I were assigned to be table reader and couldn’t make it, for whatever reason, this meant going from monk to monk to find a substitute.  Much like the mariner in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, I would have to explain my situation and humbly ask for help.  My hope, of course, was that I would eventually find some generous soul who could and would be willing to take my place.  And naturally this sometimes involved horse-trading of a sort, with me offering to take on some job assigned to the other monk.  Generally, however, we all have to rely on the good will of our brothers and hope for the best.

IMG_0659The internet has changed the entire dynamic, thankfully.  The advent of a Listserve which can reach every monk has introduced to the monastery our equivalent of electronic trading.  Pretty much every day there’s one or two appeals from monks who desperately need a substitute for something because their schedule has changed or because they’ve accidentally double-booked themselves.  Usually we get an answer within minutes, which strikes me as the greatest benefit of our unique form of electronic trading.

I cite all this as a preamble to a trade I made last week, and quite by accident I was the one who came out way ahead on the deal.  I had been scheduled to be the celebrant for Mass on Friday, and my confrere Fr. Nick was up for Mass on Thursday.  Nick had sent me an email, hoping against hope that I would be willing to trade days with him.  To his consternation he had two appointments for that date, both at the same time.  But since there was only one of him, this made for a difficult situation.  Much to his relief I was able to make the trade, and that’s how I gave to him Friday of the sixth week of Easter, while I came home with the memorial of St. Bede.  I was the clear winner in that deal, at least from my vantage.

St. Bede may matter little to most people, but I’ve always treasured this 8th-century Benedictine monk from the north of England.  In the 8th century most Europeans considered the north of England to be pretty much the edge of nowhere; but despite both the location and the relatively recent advent of Christianity, Bede had become one of the greatest scholars of the day.  And he has had an impact that reverberates even to this day.

IMG_0820Bede was a prolific writer, but he is best known for his History of the English Church and People, which I read for the first of many times in college.  It remains a fascinating text, all the more so because he pushed the envelop when it came to two ideas.  For one, in his day there was not yet an English church, and many of his Celtic neighbors would have taken umbridge at the thought that Bede had lumped them into it.  There also was no such thing as an English people just yet.  That reality was yet to come.  In Bede’s day there were Saxon and Angle and Jute and other Germanic tribes resident in what would become England;  but it would be a big stretch to call them a united English people.  That would come later, and English would emerge as a language only after many centuries.

Bede, however, was a visionary, and the fact that his vision became reality impacts us culturally and religiously to this day.  What brought all these tribes together was the preaching of the gospel in what became England.  In Bede’s thought the advent of Christianity made and shaped the English as a people, and Bede grafted this people onto the history of the Mediterranean homeland of Christianity.  Ironically, then, most of us Anglophones today can easily name one or more Roman emperors, but ask us to name the tribal kings of the East Anglia in the 5th century and we draw a blank.  Call it cultural imperialism or whatever you wish, but that’s the way it is, and Bede and his succession of readers are responsible for that worldview.

IMG_0660At his Ascension Jesus gave his final instruction to his disciples.  Included in that was the great commission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, which some of his followers took seriously enough to actually do.  Six centuries later that message reached the ears of a young man named Bede, who became a monk in a remote corner of England, far from Rome and even further from Jerusalem.  Bede grew up to be an extraordinary scholar, but he also became an example of what the gospel can do to energize the lives of any and all of us.

Today we may not have the opportunity to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, but we do have the chance to bring the face of Christ to the limits of our own little worlds.  And the lesson is clear for us all.  There are no geographic limits to where Christ can reach.  There is no aspect of our own lives which Christ cannot transform. And there is no limit to what Christ can accomplish through us if we but welcome him.  After all these centuries, Bede still reminds us of that — and more.


+On May 25th I presided at the Abbey Mass, which happened to be the memorial of St. Bede.

+On May 25th I also gave a conference to the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who on the 27th completed their two-week retreat and orientation.  In the course of the summer these nineteen graduates of Saint John’s will disperse to the four winds as they take up assignments at Benedictine communities around the world.

+Saturday May 27th was a busy day at Saint John’s.  It began with graduation for the seniors of Saint John’s Preparatory School.  Bishop Donald Kettler of St. Cloud presided and preached at the graduation Mass that preceded the commencement exercises.  That day there were two burial services in the cemetery, and we rounded out the day by hosting 250 alumni of Saint John’s University, who had returned for a two-day rugby reunion.  Thankfully none of these four events ran into each other.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the cathedral of Toledo (in Spain, not Ohio).  They show the late medieval reredos behind the altar, and they depict scenes in the life of Christ.  I especially like the image of the Ascension, in which Mary and the disciples look up as Jesus goes to heaven.  Note the bare feet, which indicates to me that there is no need for shoes in heaven.


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imagePearls of Wisdom

A few weeks ago the president of Saint John’s University posed to me and several of my colleagues a very simple question.  “What do you know now that you wish someone had told you at twenty-two?”  It’s the sort of thing for which everyone has an answer, and to no one’s surprise it prompted a lot of replies.  And even though the president had asked us not to give it much thought, clearly there was wisdom in the nuggets that came pouring in.

The fact that wisdom came back at all was reassuring, since it need not have been that way.  To cite but one example of the latter, I wish someone had told me to buy stock in Apple when I was twenty-two.  Of course it didn’t exist back then, but eventually it would have changed my life, for sure.  The same would hold for buying real estate on the Florida coasts.  I’m now on in years to the point at which I could have cashed in on a fortune, even with the paltry sum I could have invested at age twenty-two.

imageTo everyone’s credit, however, there were no self-serving bits like these, and it speaks to their altruism.  To no one’s surprise, most contributions were thoughtful, and they were of the sort that could benefit any and all twenty-two-year-olds, provided they were willing to listen.  The latter isn’t always the case, as many of us can attest from our personal experience.  But the probability of people listening to our ideas was not something the president had asked us to factor in.

I won’t itemize what my colleagues had to offer, but I will say that I had a tough time deciding between two of my own long-time favorites.  One adage has served me well for ages, and it really could have come in handy when I was twenty-two.  “The only thing better than perfect is done” was the best thing I learned in graduate school, and I’ve used it ever since to ward off procrastination.  It’s stood the test of time, at least most of the time.

But I finally went with a more noble sentiment that would have helped me a lot in my early years.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  Now at first blush that sounds terribly self-centered, but I don’t mean it that way.  It can sound like I’m driven by a fiercely competitive spirit, but that’s not me.  It can sound like the desire to manipulate people is topmost in my mind, but I hope that’s not me either.  And it can sound like I’m the person who likes the front row in synagogues and banquets, but that’s definitely not me.  Since the first grade I’ve preferred the third seat in the third row, since it’s the ideal hiding place for someone like me who used to be terminally shy.  No, this aphorism is about something else entirely.

image“If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  It can sound crass and opportunistic, but in fact it’s been a great prod to get me in gear and to show up at events and places where I’d rather not be.  It’s a reminder that if I don’t participate in discussions, then I lose the right to complain about decisions that don’t go my way.  It’s also a reminder that if I’m peeved that no one has asked for my wisdom for days, it may be because I’ve stayed in my room all that time.

These are compelling reasons for adopting this motto, but it still hasn’t touched the most important rationale.  That has to do with talents that are ignored or underused.  If I absent myself from human interaciton, then I end up hiding my talents under a bushel.  Now I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I have a ton of talents, but what few I do have are wasted if I don’t trot them out every once in a while.  Talents that are seldom used tend to atrophy, and eventually they are of no use to the owner.  Not surprisingly, they’re of even lesser value to the people around me, and they’re the ones who need them most.

imageThat, it seems to me, is the whole point of living in community.  Life in community, whether in a monastery or in a church or in a family, isn’t just a matter of shared goods.  It also involves shared talents, shared points of view, and especially shared lives.  It’s the latter in particular that makes life in the monastery potentially wonderful.

That was my contribution to the president’s request, and I’m curious about why he had asked for this.  He certainly didn’t mean to share it with his one-year-old twins, since they would have paid zero attention.  And I doubt that he needed it for personal use, since he has more than enough wisdom already.  Perhaps he meant it for our own benefit.  Perhaps he wanted us to realize how far we’ve each come since age twenty-two.

imageNow that I’ve had a chance to mull all this over, I’m glad that no one told me about Apple or Florida real estate when I was twenty-two.  It would not have been enough, because I would have been upset not to know about Facebook and Google and all the other stuff that would have made me even richer.  And even had Apple and Florida been enough, it likely would have ruined my life anyway.  After all, stock tips and insider information are no substitute for wisdom and all the other things that really matter in life.

In some respects it may be a fruitless exercise to tell a twenty-two-year-old something that only comes with age and grace.  After all, back then I knew amost everything there was to know.  Nowadays, I know a lot less, but I’m blessed to know a little bit about what really matters in life.  And these are pearls of great price, without a doubt.


+On May 17th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and via the link you can access my sermon: The Feast of the Ascension:  Let’s Be Moving On.

+Last week twelve graduating seniors of Saint John’s University began a two-week retreat at the Abbey.  This fall  they will each begin one-year terms as members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  In the course of the year they will spread to Benedictine abbeys across the world.

+Last week the rains came in abundance to central Minnesota, and on Saturday night we received over two inches.  It was a welcome relief for us, as well as for the neighboring farmers.  It also boosted the spring flowers, and it provided continued encouragement to the monks who are avid gardeners.

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