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Posts Tagged ‘Frá Gerard’

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A Letter from Jerusalem

Ages ago I read the account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, written by the 4th-century Iberian nun named Egeria.  Over the course of several years she journeyed from Egypt to Constantinople in search of the holy sites, and among other things she left us one of the best and earliest accounts of the Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem.  She also salted her pages with a generous portion of credulity, and it’s fair to say that openmindedness was one of her chief virtues.

When she asked to see the burning bush of Moses at Mount Sinai, for example, the monks produced it on demand.  She got the same friendly service all along the route;  and if we can fault her gullibility, we have to give her credit for initiative.  She travelled;  she wrote about it; and her stories stimulated a pilgrimage traffic that shows no sign of letting up.

6A52E943-878D-4725-A3D8-8C16915C7B3AAt the moment I’m in the middle of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s been inspiring to see both the familiar as well as the less familiar sites.  As for the latter, most pilgrims would not take the trouble to find the church of Saint John, alongside which Frá Gerard ran a hospice for pilgrims in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.  He and his successors eventually became the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta;  and so it was a thrill to pose for photos at the door of this really really hard-to-find Orthodox Church.  It was closed, but that did not stop us from reciting the prayer of the Order while we stood outside.

As anyone who has visited Jerusalem can attest, this is a very crowded city that challenges the faint of heart.  Chief among the obstacles to contend with are the crowds, which makes negotiating the narrow streets both fascinating and an ordeal.  It’s also easy to get lost, which is why we were happy that forty-two of us went in and all forty-two of us emerged at the end — a little rattled.

AA1F757D-EB00-4DF8-8759-EA79CB684E22What makes it such an ordeal is not just the issue of too many people in too little space.  Added to that is the fact that there is the organized competition among groups, all trying to force their way through to the front of lines.  Naively we went to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and there our group had its first lesson in this sort of thing.  Once inside our guide quickly formed us into something of a military phalanx.  With precision he shaped us into a potent force as we maintained our place in a line leading to the cave where Jesus was born.  It took two hours to get there, and as we inched forward we kept in a disciplined formation that expanded and contracted at our guide’s command.  Our guide also advised us not to be shy about using elbows — “because that’s why God gave them to us.”  It was a triumph by the time we reached the grotto, but even there we were still fending off competitors.  All the same, after it was all over a few people came to me to ask if we had to do penance for behavior we would never tolerate in church at home.

The same sort of perseverance was a real asset at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but a dose of courage also came in handy.  It’s amazing that no one gets seriously hurt on the very steep steps leading to the site of the crucifixion.  All the same, some of us gasped as we watched a young woman slide down a few steps.  Thankfully she was unhurt.

C4CAC1E1-AE0C-415C-9448-662B78DF0C3CThe crush of pilgrims intensified as we entered the line to the shrine that encases the tomb of Jesus.  Advised that it would be another two hours of creeping along, prudence won the day.  That’s when we voted, unanimously, to retreat and try our luck another day.

In sum, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is strenuous business.  The crowds are formidable.  There’s lots to see.  And the Bible comes alive before your eyes.  At the same time, there are still the stories that beguile modern pilgrims, just as they did Egeria.  Not a few tested my credulity and required a healthy dose of the willing suspension of disbelief.  Once again I was impressed by the ready market for such material.  But then again I should not have been surprised, given what people will accept uncritically off of the internet.

Despite it all, or perhaps because of it all, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem both challenges and strengthens one’s faith.  Pressed together in a sea of humanity it dawned on me that people will never cease in their search for meaning in their lives.  Walking in the steps of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem is a reminder that faith can never be merely an intellectual enterprise.  Walking through life with fellow pilgrims requires patience, fortitude, courage, and along the way we may even have to resort to the use of our elbows.  But on such a pilgrimage we discover that if we fall, the Lord quickly sends a brother or sister to help us regain our footing.

1D961EB8-FAC6-4B98-B932-6C03ADAA5E7DNOTES

+It’s not possible to cite everything that has impressed me in the course of this pilgrimage, but a few sites are worthy of comment.  In particular, I had never visited the ancient city of Jerash, which is in Jordan.  Built by the Romans in the 2nd century, its array of architecture is nothing short of dazzling.  Unlike Rome, the modern city has not engulfed the ruins, and the result is a fairly complete cityscape.

+On March 2nd we had the opportunity to visit the Order of Malta maternity hospital in Bethlehem.  Each year the hospital welcomes 4,500 babies into the world, and the staff maintains the only neonatal intensive care unit in the region.  They provide a vital service to mothers who have few if any alternatives.  The French Association and the three US Associations of the Order of Malta share in providing the funds for the hospital.

+Our pilgrimage ends tomorrow, after which I have to get back to my day job.  All the same, it’s been an amazing experience, and if you’ve ever considered a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this is a good time to go.  It’s peaceful, and crossing the border from Jordan was smooth, as was the trip into the Palestinian Territories.  On the other hand, the relative quiet has encouraged the crowds to come.  All the same, it’s worth the effort.

+One of the unexpected benefits of standing in place for two hours in the church of the Nativity was the opportunity to take photos that might not otherwise be possible.  The photos in today’s post were the result of having nothing to do for two hours — except taking pictures and being vigilant that no one got ahead of us in line.

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We Belong to Each Other — and to God!

Every time I read I Corinthians 3, I get a good jolt of reality therapy.  This passage should be required reading, and specifically for those who assume that the Church has never been in more dire straights than it is today.

In that passage Paul takes the Corinthians to task for dividing themselves into factions — factions that have grown out of loyalties to Paul or Apollos or some other teacher.  In one sense it’s not a bad thing to admit one’s debt to a teacher who’s made a deep impression.  In fact it’s a mark of humility and gratitude, since such people can change the course of our lives.  I’ve acknowledged such debts myself, and the people to whom I owe a lot make for a very long list.

But Paul’s quibble is not with devotion to a particular teacher.  Rather, he’s concerned with anyone who would grant godlike status to such figures.  They cannot take the place of Jesus, and Paul implies that some of the Corinthians have done just that.  Some say they belong to Paul.  Others to Apollos.  But what’s happened to Jesus?

439796A2-ED98-49C4-85F5-96F87E11CB35As a historian I can be detached in my reading of the history of the Church.  As a believer, however, it can be painful to read about the conflicts that have dogged the Christian community.  No sooner had Jesus ascended than the apostles began to fuss and debate about all sorts of things.  Some topics certainly needed a good airing, like the retention of circumcision and other Jewish traditions.  Centuries later, arguments about the nature of Christ and the Trinity grew heated, to the point at which violence broke out at some of the early church councils.  Those were not pretty days, when passion would pit one set of bishops against another faction of bishops.  On the plus side, they cared.  On the minus side, they occasionally lost sight of what it was all about, and they sometimes left ordinary Christians scratching their heads.

Differences of opinion within the Church are as old as the Church itself.  Knowing that would be the case, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be a tether to the reality of God.  The Spirit acts subtly and sometimes not so subtly to remind people that they are the people of God — not the people of Apollos or Paul or whomever.

269990CB-B3FD-4B24-939B-9891DEF29355Every now and again the Spirit sends us gentle souls to remind us that it is Jesus who is our Lord.  The Spirit sends such prophets to serve as a wake-up call for us all.  An early example was the Roman deacon Lawrence.  When imperial officials demanded that he turn over the treasury of the Church, he stood a group of the poor in front of them.  Later still, Saint Benedict reminded people that God is present in every human being, and not just in the people who wield power and authority.  And from my later experience the words of Fra Gerard of the Order of Malta have touched me.  Like Benedict he teaches that Christ is in the poor and the sick who stand before us.  We will never run out of such people, he says, and so the work of service will never be complete.  But such people truly are “our Lords the sick and the poor,” as he puts it.  They are the heart and soul of the Church.

From my perch in a monastery I’ve often felt like someone on the sidelines, locked out of the power circles of the Church.  I can’t shape policy, and I have little or no impact on the official life of the Church.  On the other hand, I get to experience “Church” every day.   I have the privilege to see Christ in the people who walk into my life each and every day.  It’s a vision that is sometimes clouded by my own distractions, but it’s worth the effort to squint every now and again to see how creative the Lord can be when he tiptoes into my life.

That, I think, gets to the point that Paul makes in his words to the Corinthians.  It’s good to give credit to the work of Paul and Apollos, but they are not gods.  And so if we want to see the face of Christ in our midst, then we should look at the brothers and sisters with whom we rub elbows each day.  We belong to them and they to us because we all belong to God.  We are God’s treasure.

79C827D3-9D7E-4BB5-BA43-36768802A84FNOTES

+On September 5th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is a much-expanded version of the sermon that I presented that afternoon.

+The weather at Saint John’s during the past few days has been nothing short of stunning.  Fortunately I’ve been able to get out and enjoy it, and this week I took long walks through the woods and around campus.  So did many students and visitors, and on the weekend the place seemed like a resort, complete with hikers in the woods, canoes dotting the lake, and swimmers at the beach.  In the interests of full disclosure, one reason for my long walks this summer has been for health of mind and body.  But the other reason is utilitarian.  In October I will be going with a group of members of the Order of Malta to walk the last one hundred kilometers of the Camino to Santiago Compostela.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s the sort of thing that needs preparation.  I hope I will be prepared!

+At the abbey liturgies on Sundays we are often blessed with a variety of musical contributions, and I share the link to a piece performed by Fr. Bob (at the keyboard), Brother Jacob (with the viola) and recent Saint John’s University alumnus and singer, Kyle Lamb.

+On September 8th we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.  Lacking illustrations of that feast in my file folder, I decided to show photos of an altar frontal that is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  It was made in the 13th century for the Church of Santa María de Cardet in Catalonia.

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imageWas That Today?

Several months ago someone sent me a cartoon of two dinosaurs, smoking and chatting away as they stood on the beach.  Suddenly one spies a big ship sailing off, and poking from the deck and portholes are the heads of giraffes, horses, peacocks and two of every other kind of animal.  It’s just then that the awful truth dawns on them.  One turns to the other and in alarm asks:  “Rats.  Was that today?”

Actually, he used another expletive, though I forget which one.  But the point doesn’t depend on the naughty word in question.  These two dinosaurs were so caught up in their own little world that they’d completely forgotten about their tickets for Noah’s Ark.  Here it was, the biggest thing to happen in weeks, and they were lolling around on the beach, smoking.  Coincidentally, this may very well be the first documented instance that links smoking to mortality.

imageIt’s easy to smirk at the forgetfulness of those dinosaurs.  But how often do we do the same thing?  I bring this up because the opening reading for the liturgy of the first Sunday of Lent tells the story of God’s covenant with Noah.  Noah and the animals who remembered to keep their reservations on the ark had just survived the flood of the millenium.  Now God has promised not to do that again.  And so, what emerges is a covenant between God and people, and it would last for all time.

There are not a few of us who prefer to see this covenant as a contractual relationship between God and the entire human race as a species, or at the very least a bargain between God and a political entity like Holland or Canada.  But as near as I understand the current iteration of God’s job description, that contract binds God to each and every individual.  God loves us all, each and every one of us.  After all, we are created in the divine image.  Why wouldn’t God love us?

Still, like the dinosaurs, we forget.  How can anyone of us expect to remember our relationship with God for a lifetime?  In an era in which our attention span has slipped to less than twenty seconds, how are we supposed to remember the deal that somebody struck on our behalf at baptism?

imageI’m not sure I have the answer to that, but I would suggest that short-term projects may be the solution to long-term memory loss.  That’s where Lent comes in.  Lent is only forty days long.  I’ll grant that to some it might seem like an eternity.  But, compared to having a spouse or raising kids or doing college, it’s not all that long.  For many of us, forty days is doable.

So if some of us have the capacity to remember to do something for forty days, what might we do?  And why would we do it?  That’s the genius of picking some Lenten project.  It’s not too late, for instance, to commit ourselves to a daily reading from scripture.  It’s not too late to commit to morning prayer, a meditative rosary, or some other practice that won’t chew up the entire day.  And the point of all this?  The point is not to keep God happy.  God long ago gave up on animal sacrifices and the other chips we’ve used to curry divine favor.  Rather, we do it to remind ourselves regularly of God’s love for us.  That’s the point of God’s promise to Noah.  The sign in the sky is not a signal of a cease-fire from divine wrath.  Rather, it’s the promise of God’s love for each and every one of us.

imageIn his Rule Saint Benedict asks his monks to make of their lives a Lenten observance.  But for most monks that takes way too much long-term concentration.  So Benedict breaks the year down and asks each monk to do one project for Lent.  And even if forty days sounds like an awful lot, it’s something I can almost wrap my mind around.

So this Lent we shouldn’t get left behind, absent-mindedly smoking with the dinosaurs.  On Holy Thursday we shouldn’t be startled and have to ask “rats — was that Lent?  Where did it all go?”

imageNotes

+On February 17th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the University of Portland.  The next day, in the sacrificial spirit of Ash Wednesday, I acidentally offered up my cell phone somewhere in the Portland International Airport.  To my utter amazement, I did not die.

+On February 20th the Order of Malta celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the Order’s mother church in Malta, Saint John’s Co-cathedral.  It was built between 1573 and 1578, and it is gorgeous down to the least detail.  It earned World Heritage designation because of the inlay marble tombs that today form the floor.  Enclosed you will find a gallery of this magnificant church.  Adjacent to the cathedral is the palace of the grand masters of the Order of Malta.  Today the palace serves as the seat of the parliament and the offices of the president and prime minister.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the palace.

image+Also on February 20th, some 1,300 people gathered in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome for the Mass and opening of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God, Frá Andrew Bertie.  Frá Andrew is the first Grand Master of the Order of Malta to begin this formal process; and coincidentally he would become the first canonized saint to hold a degree from Saint John’s University.  In 2004 we hosted Frá Andrew at Saint John’s, and during his visit the University bestowed on him an honorary doctorate.  One highlight of Frá Andrew’s three-day visit to Saint John’s was the Mass said by Abbot John, attended by Frá Andrew and other guests, and a few of us monks.  That day we celebrated the feast of Blessed Frá Gerard, the early 12th-century founder of the Order of Malta.

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