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Posts Tagged ‘Garrison Keillor’

IMG_5645Serving the Niche Market

He was a fixture on campus during my first years at Saint John’s.  Each morning, like clock-work, with measured steps he strode up to Wimmer Hall and disappeared into the building.  Never did I meet him, nor did I ever get to hear his voice live.  But Garrison Keillor’s electronic voice was a daily presence in my life — as well as in the lives of many of my confreres.

I recall wondering at the time whether Keillor would ever make something of himself.  Certainly I was of the opinion that he was a scream, what with his ads for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique and Jack’s — “All tracks lead to Jack’s.”  I longed to walk the streets of Lake Wobegon, though I knew it was a fictional amalgam of several nearby towns.  Then there was his approach to sports, which I very much appreciated.  It was Keillor who had introduced Jim Ed Poole to the world of sports broadcasting, and when Keillor turned to Jim Ed for the scores, that’s precisely what he got.  “7-3.  8-2.  10-5. Etc.”. Then there were the days when Keillor asked about the previous day’s games, and Jim Ed happily obliged with the same spare style.  “The Detroit team played the Boston team.  The Kansas City team hosted the Los Angeles team.”  That pretty much satisfied my interest in sports, and I often wondered why the NFL never drafted Jim-Ed to do the color-commentary for Monday Night Football.  I speculated that Minnesota Public Radio had Jim Ed locked into a lucrative multi-year contract.  If so, it was the NFL’s loss.

IMG_5603Fr. Colman Barry, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, had an amazingly productive imagination.  During his tenure as president of Saint John’s University in the late 1960s he presided over a campus building boom and a range of projects that continue to this day.  Under his aegis came the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and its mission to preserve manuscripts from the Middle Ages and beyond.  The Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies was the first such initiative at a Catholic college, and the Collegeville Institute promoted ecumenical relations.  All are in the midst of celebrating milestones in their existence, and each has made a singular contribution to religion and culture.  Their endurance argues that Fr. Colman’s ideas were anything but frivolous and ephemeral.  But if there was one idea that exceeded his wildest dreams, it was Minnesota Public Radio.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, last week MPR returned to its birthplace at Saint John’s and for two days resumed broadcasting.  This time around Sexton Commons served as the makeshift studio rather than Wimmer Hall, and spliced within its staple of recorded classical music were live performances by our music faculty and students, as well as interviews with various local notables.  In the course of the broadcasts all sorts of people dropped in to watch and listen, and it was a festive experience of arts and culture and ideas.  Fr. Colman would have been delighted.

IMG_5668When Fr. Colman started a campus radio station at Saint John’s his goals were modest.  At the very last he wanted to supply central Minnesota with classical music — something that tended to be in short supply on the radio dial across much of the country.  It was a niche market that had potential; nor was potential lacking in Bill Kling, the student to whom Fr. Colman entrusted leadership.  Under Kling MPR has grown into a national force, and at 50 years it now has 21 million listeners.

In retrospect Fr. Colman’s effort was unusual for its lack of confessional orientation.  For many years MPR did broadcast the Sunday Mass at the abbey, but absent was the spiritual didactic that has become the staple of religious radio and television today.  Fr. Colman’s goal was cultural enrichment for everyone, and it didn’t bother him in the least if the audience included Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, agnostics and atheists.  The irony of course is the fact that it came from a Benedictine abbey, and from the Benedictine perspective it all glorified God.

There is nothing in the Rule of Saint Benedict about radio stations or even cultural life.  Still, Benedict’s blessing of daily work and his reverence for the tools of the monastery can embrace any creative human endeavor.  Not surprisingly then, monasteries through the centuries have engaged artists and architects to design work that has inspired not just the monks but also the visitors to their monasteries.  From a larger perspective, they have stretched their musical talents even as they have honed their agricultural skills.

IMG_5586That helps to explain the character of a Benedictine house.  Certainly we pray, and we do so in formats that have scarcely changed through the centuries.  But monasteries continue to evolve because individual monks bring unique talents with them when they come knocking at the door.  That suggests that each monk is himself a unique gift from God, meant to enrich the lives of the monks and the people they serve.  That’s the theory at least, and often enough it works.

The campus radio station at Saint John’s was meant to serve a niche market.  Who knew that the niche would grow to include 21 million listeners by its 50th birthday?  Obviously it has met some need.  But then Saint Benedict wrote a rule for a group of monks at Monte Cassino in central Italy.  How could he possibly have known that someday somebody would be following that rule in Lake Wobegon?  He didn’t know, of course, but it was still another niche market that had potential.

IMG_5687Notes

+On 24 April I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On 25 April I sat in its makeshift studio as Minnesota Public Radio did its broadcast from Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.

+On 29 April our confrere, Fr. Mark Thamert, passed away at age 66 after a long struggle with cancer.  Fr. Mark was a gifted teacher and an imaginative individual, and we will miss his enthusiasm for life.  He earned a doctorate in German from Princeton University, and he came alive in the classroom and particularly when leading student groups to Europe.

+As I write this I am in Paris waiting to join the annual pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes.  I have come three days early, and the Metro with its challenging stairs have proven to be excellent therapy for the recovery of my back.  Lourdes, with its marathon processions and endless milling around, will be the big test.

+Today’s is the 300th post in this blog.  Thankfully I have not yet run short of ideas.  Thank you for reading, and I’m grateful for the comments and ideas that people have sent in the course of five and a half years.

IMG_5584+The photos in today’s post illustrate the broadcast day of Minnesota Public Radio at Sexton Commons at Saint John’s University.  The photo of the building shows Wimmer Hall, and its third floor housed the broadcast studios for Minnesota Public Radio in its earliest days.  In the photo at bottom a technician puzzles over all the stuff it takes to broadcast, even from the road.  Gone are the simple days.

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imageBehold the Rosy-fingered Dawn

I’m no meteorologist, but then again anyone who lives in Minnesota for long enough becomes one anyway, honoris causa.  Experience makes you something of an expert, and it’s why those of us who live in the shadow of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon appreciate the weather report that opens his weekly monologue on our venerable town.  It’s the one element in his oral essay that’s non-fiction.  And it’s a vital part of the story because weather shapes the lives of everyone in Minnesota.  It keeps us from getting bored, and it builds character.

I raise this issue because last week we witnessed a change in the behavior of the monks.  In the summertime, in that space between morning prayer and breakfast, many monks instinctively take the outdoor route from chapel to refectory.  It takes us through the monastery garden and sweeps by the overlook to the lake.  En route we hear birds and see the dew on the grass and savor the moist early-morning air.  It’s an exhilarating wake-up call, and die-hards will continue in this routine  until Thanksgiving.  After that only the crazies will venture out.

imageBut something happened last week.  After weeks of cold we sensed a change in the air.  I first noticed it on Wednesday, when light filtered into the church as the 5 pm Mass began.  Even slightly longer days are enough to stir the blood.  But it was also getting warmer, and on cue the next morning quite a few of us monks instinctively walked out without coats into the bracing 30-degree air.  It was wonderful.  What’s more, already at 7:30 am there was some light, and not just ordinary light.  “Behold the rosy-fingered dawn” came the words from one monk a few steps behind me.  And he was right.  It was gorgeous all the way around, and none of us needed to do any calculations to realize that better times were on the way.

We’re way ahead of the robins, but these glimpses of spring give me hope, and they remind me of two things that stick with me through all these years.  First, colleges in Minnesota have the longest freshmen orientation programs of any in the country.  At Saint John’s it begins when students from places like California and Texas arrive in late August, vaguely aware that it will get chilly sooner or later.  50-degree days soon come, and they wonder  how they will survive.  Then it’s 30, and then 0, and life seems impossible.  Then comes 37 and they’re out in shorts and t-shirts, playing frisbee and catch on a sunny afternoon.  That was the case last Friday, and there was no stopping them.  Orientation was over, and they had become one of us.

imageThat brought to mind one of my students from Scottsdale who years ago asked me to take a picture of him, in shorts and t-shirt, perched on a six-foot pile of snow in a parking lot.  He planned to send it home as proof that all was well — and normal — in Lake Wobegon.

The second point is my appreciation for what monks and everyone else had to go through for centuries before central heat came along.  Ever practical, monks in the 6th century built their churches on an east-west axis.  In southern Europe the cloister would spread out on the north side of the church, where it would enjoy cool shade and protection from the hot winds.  In northern Europe it was the opposite.  There the church shielded the cloister from the cold north winds and reflected the warmth of the sun down into the cloister.  Today we call this discovery passive-solar.  Back then they called it common sense.

Needless to say, the early monks at Saint John’s put our cloister on the south side of the church, where it still stands today.  Who knows how many BTU’s of energy that arrangement has saved.  But for decades it spared literally tons and tons of firewood.  And it eased a lot of aching backs as well, I would imagine.

imageWe’re almost to the point at which few in this country remember the pioneers who braved the heat of the south and the cold of the north to create new lives.  I suspect those entrepreneurs didn’t think of their efforts as extraordinary, because that was what you had to do back then.  Today, of course, we can take their efforts for granted, but we shouldn’t.  Whether in north or south, the weather shaped their character, and people lived wonderful lives because of it, or in spite of it.

I’m under no illusion that winter is gone for good this year in Minnesota.  But the signs of change are in the air and on the horizon.  In fact, the great harbinger of spring — Lent — is just about three weeks away.  I know that Lent is supposed to be penitential, but how can you get down about something that portends rebirth — both in nature and in the spiritual life?  I guess I’ll just have to take it as it comes.  I plan to be stoic on the outside and joyful on the inside.

Notes

+On January 25th I spoke at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, CO.  That evening I attended a reception for prospective students and their parents in Denver, hosted by the Admissions Office of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+Last year one of our younger alumni from Saint John’s University, along with his high school classmate from Denver, won a Grammy Award for their work in children’s music.   Known as the Okee Dokee Brothers, they’ve been nominated yet again for a second album.  This week I’ve included a link to a song in the album that won them their first Grammy, Can You Canoe?  Their music may be geared for the very younger set, but they’ve also sung to older audiences across the country, and I occasionally discover that this particular song rattles around in my mind.  Next week I will provide a link to the album that I hope will earn them a repeat of last  year’s honors.

+On January 21st Pope Francis named Fr. Daniel Elias Garcia as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Austin, TX.  As the announcement from the Vatican Information Service duly noted, Bishop-elect Garcia earned an MA in Liturgical Studies at Saint John’s University in 2007; and of course we are delighted that someone who has studied with us would assume such a responsibility in the Church.

Of personal significance is Bishop-elect Garcia’s home-town of Cameron, TX, which scarcely anyone has heard of.  My father grew up just a few miles from Cameron;  my great-grandparents are buried in nearby Westphalia; and my grandparents are buried in even-closer Burlington.  On visits to my grandparents we always went to Cameron, where my father’s cousin owned the local Dairy Queen.  It’s a small world, at least for some of us.

image

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imageLent and the Winter of Our Life

There’s no denying that we’ve had a rather bracing winter in Minnesota this year, complete with numbing temperatures and daunting snowfall.  Still, when we reached into the 40’s a few days ago I thought that the worst was sure to be over. The melt began, and spring seemed just around the corner.  But last Tuesday another nine inches plopped down on us, giving Collegeville the coveted title of “most snow in Minnesota for the day.”  We basked in the state-wide recognition, and then moved on.  Glory is a fleeting thing, and who knows what the morrow might bring.

Ever the optimist, I go against the grain in my conviction that it’s bound to get warmer, and even greener, eventually.  That puts me at odds with Garrison Keillor, who long ago theorized that “bad weather is punishment from God, and good weather is a sign that bad weather is on the way.”  I’ve never subscribed to such Calvinist determinism, though my dissenting views provided scant consolation when the nine inches piled on last Tuesday.

imageAs many of my confreres in the monastery would be quick to point out, I probably lost my right to complain about the winter long ago.  So let me be the first to concede that work has caused me to miss a lot of the less clement weather in Minnesota this year.  For better and for worse, duty has taken me to places where the climate is at best benign, though not always as nice as some might think.  Whatever other benefits such places may offer, in those paradises there often can be scant opportunity to develop one’s character.  In an Eden like San Diego there is no testing of the spirits; and not surprisingly, the lack of adversity leaves little room to grow in wisdom and self-discipline.

For that reason, and despite the opinions of a few, my travels during February and March have not been an unmitigated bed of roses.  Just a few days ago, for instance, I flew to Lynchburg, VA, and on the day of my arrival it had reached into the 70’s.  At last I could get out for a walk and enjoy the beauty of the landscape.  What joy, I thought.  The next day it snowed.  And then the day after that it snowed.  Mind you, these were the snows that Minnesotans might scoff at initially, but ones they would learn to respect pretty quickly.  These storms blended ice and snow, and they were the sort that break bones and send cars careening into trees and ditches.  There were no walks for me in Lynchburg, and that was a keen disappointment.

imageThen I went to Florida, which promised no snow whatsoever.  Finally, there would be the chance to get outside without dressing like Nanook of the North.  So on the morning after my arrival I woke, dressed for a walk, and marched out to greet the sunshine and 70-degree temperatures.  I had gone an eighth of a mile when it started to rain, heavily.  Perhaps Garrison was right after all.

Weather is certainly one of the realities that most of us have to contend with.  For better and for worse it shapes our outlook on life and very often determines the quality of our day.  On the negative side it can ruin a day, but on the flip side it gives us something to talk about.  That’s why I pity the poor people of San Diego.  They enjoy picture-perfect weather each day and every day, so what in the world do they have to talk about?

imageWeather is also a metaphor for life.  Throughout life there is a constant parade of challenges and joys, but how we deal with all that is the expression of our true character.  With grim determination and resolve we can turn all those challenges to our advantage.  Or we can cave in and give up and declare the battle of life a total loss.

Lent is the time of year when we ought to stand back and assess how we are addressing life and all its storms and gentle springs.  Have we become passive onlookers?  Do we live in a world in which we let ourselves be swept along by the currents?  Or have we taken charge, confident that we are headed for something truly interesting?

imageIf we take proper advantage of Lent, we come to realize that its forty days are symbolic of the ongoing struggle that we all have to face.  But the days of Lent also point to something ahead and beyond.  They point to Easter.  If the days of Lent are the days the Lord has made, then we should be glad and rejoice in them.  At the very least, we ought to be grateful for each and every one of them.  But we should also be glad to emerge from this winter of our lives all the  better for the struggle.  We should also be firm in the conviction that we are on the way to something really important.  Not only do the joys of Easter await us, but so does the joy of springtime.  And when those days finally come, it’ll be no time to be passive onlookers.

Notes

+From March 16th through the 18th I was in Lynchburg, VA, where I gave several retreat conferences at Saint Thomas More Church.  Despite the snow and ice, I received a very warm welcome from the pastor, Msgr. Michael McCarron; and I thoroughly savored the beautiful landscapes of a part of Virginia that I’d not seen before.   It was a delight to meet so many wonderful members of the parish, and I was honored by the presence of several oblates from the community of the Benedictine Sisters in Bristow, VA.

+On March 20th I was in Bonita Springs, FL, where I attended a gathering of alumni and friends of Saint John’s University.  The star of the evening was Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University.

image+On March 21st Michael and I drove to Palm Beach, FL, where we attended the opening reception for an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Society of the Four Arts.  On the 22nd we hosted a gathering of alumni and friends of Saint John’s, during which I gave tours of the exhibit.  The pictures in today’s post well illustrate the beauty of the complex, located in downtown Palm Beach.

+On March 21st the monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrated the Feast of the Passing of Saint Benedict.  There are not many saints in the liturgical calendar who get two days, but clearly he deserves it.   We celebrate his memory yet another time on July 11th.

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February 25, 2013 051The Vatican Diaries

I was not the first to dream that particular dream.  As a lowly graduate student, toiling away on my dissertation, I entertained the highest of hopes.  If I wrote well, mine would be among the few dissertations that got read.  No dust would bury it on a shelf with countless other unread tomes.

That was not to be, of course.  I did finish it, but along the way I picked up a few nuggets of wisdom.  The first came from reading a dissertation by a wunderkind of the medieval studies world.  I was shocked when I read it, because it was so awful.  “I can do better than that,” I thought to myself.  But it was a real eye-opener because of one simple fact.  The writer adhered to the old saw about dissertations:  “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

That was something that my own advisor had drilled into all of his doctoral students.  “If you’re destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life’s work.  And if you’re not destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life.”  Sustained by that thought, I finally got it done.

February 25, 2013 058Sad to say, the world was not waiting for my work on 13th-century Leonese history.  Medieval Spain was not on anybody’s radar screen, and no political turmoil since then has caused CNN to call me up for expert commentary.

I’ve grown to accept my place in academic oblivion; but every now and again envy raises its ugly head.  I gazed in awe when my colleague who wrote on Kossovo became the go-to guy during the Balkan Wars.  For a brief span, he showed up regularly on National Public Radio and some of the other networks.  What a lucky break — his day in the sun had finally come.  But when the war ended, so did his celebrity.  Today no one remembers Kossovo.  Nor can anyone remember Professor What’s-his-name, the expert on that obscure place.

More recently the networks have beaten a path to Norman, Oklahoma.  It’s not the logical place to find out about Syrian politics, but one professor at the University of Oklahoma has hit the jackpot.  He had studied the arcana of Syrian political divisions; and now he too enjoys the briefest of moments in the sun.

February 25, 2013 062I say all of this by way of introduction to John Thavis, a 1973 alumnus of Saint John’s University.  For thirty years John worked as the bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service.  Through all those years, he kept eyes and ears open, and he met some of the most interesting people on the planet.  On retirement he penned a volume on the inner workings of the Vatican, and months ago his publisher decided to release the book on February 20th.  And so, a few days after Pope Benedict announced his retirement, The Vatican Diaries hit the bookstores.  John had won the lottery.  Now the interviewer has become the interviewee.

John’s points are few and simple.  First, if you think the Vatican is a monolithic absolutist state, you are laughably wrong.  If you assume that all members of the curia speak from the same page, you have lots of homework to do.  Lastly, if you imagine that everyone in Rome is a rabid careerist, you’ll be surprised.  John maintains that an awful lot of people in the curia go about their business trying to build up and serve the people of God.  And they do it quietly, to the best of their ability.

February 25, 2013 028John does not expect the reader to take this on faith.  In great detail he recounts various episodes, being careful to weave into them his primary theses.  His chapter on the Lefebvrites and the Tridentine Mass is an excellent case in point.

To the outside world, Pope Benedict’s decree that re-authorized the use of the old rite of the Mass appeared to be a case of turning back the clock.  And it provoked howls of protest in certain quarters.  In context, however, he had something entirely different in mind.  In one fell swoop he broke the monopoly on the Tridentine Mass held by the ultra-conservative Lefebvrites.  If you could attend the rite in a church in communion with Rome, why would you go to a schismatic church?  Benedict shrewdly gambled that most old-rite enthusiasts did not especially care for the right-wing political and social baggage of the Lefebvrites.  On this he is likely correct.

February 25, 2013 075Meanwhile, Pope Benedict also guessed there would be no stampede back to the Tridentine rite by mainline Catholics.  And to put his own money where his mouth is, Benedict has let his actions speak in tandem with his words.  As Thavis notes, Benedict has had eight years as Pope to celebrate his own Tridentine-rite Mass.  He has yet to do it.  And he’ll never do it while he’s pope.

Throughout his book Thavis knits together a fascinating tableau of gifted and inept individuals who serve at the highest levels of the Church.  Some are unabashed careerists.  Some worry about the welfare of their individual departments, oblivious to the bigger picture.  And not a few get so wrapped up in local issues that they forget how the public forum might misread their words and actions.  In short, Thavis suggests that hasty generalizations about Vatican policies can easily miss the mark.  When it comes to the Vatican, there is always more than meets the eye, except when there is less.

February 25, 2013 006Of course there’s lots more to the Vatican than just politics.  To the world it can appear to be a well-oiled machine.  But from the inside there are elements of a Marx Brothers movie. To cite but one example, Thavis narrates the return flight of a papal trip to Africa.  As a storm delayed flights, the vintage 707 carrying the pope and his entourage of tired aides and journalists circled the Rome airport, with little prospect of landing.  Dangerously low on fuel, the pilot decided to fly to Naples.  No one in Naples was expecting the Pope at 1 am.  From the airport they went to the train station, where they boarded a two-car train back to Rome.  Meanwhile, one can only imagine what the homeless in the Naples rail station thought.  At 2 am they had just seen the Pope and a pack of tired reporters straggle through their station.  Who would ever believe a story like that?

Then there is the delightful chapter on Fr. Reginald Foster, the papal Latinist.  He remains the world’s greatest Latinist, and certainly was among the least pious employees at the Vatican.  While he loved his work of translating papal encyclicals, he’d tell anyone within earshot that “no one will ever read these things.”  His unauthorized tours of the Vatican offices became the stuff of legend, not least because he worked just down the hall from the Pope.  I can only guess what went through Garrison Keillor’s mind when Fr. Reginald pointed to a door down the hall — “The Pope works there.”  For that courtesy Reginald got honorable mention on A Prairie Home Companion.

February 25, 2013 032I don’t want to spoil The Vatican Diaries for you, because you should read it for yourself.  It’s engaging and entertaining; and it will upend your stereotypes about the Vatican.  It really is a trove of information, presented with not a little affection for the subject matter, and with no hint of an ax to grind.

So I applaud John Thavis for his career and for this new book.  And I congratulate him for his incredible timing.  How in the world John got the Pope to announce his retirement just days before the publication of The Vatican Diaries is beyond me.  Now if I could just prevail on John to get the new pope to move to Leon, or even Castile, I would owe him big.  Maybe then my own day in the sun might finally arrive.

February 25, 2013 015Notes:

+Last fall I had the opportunity to make a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible, at Saint Mary’s University College in Calgary, Alberta.  While there I participated in the making of a video on the Bible at Saint Mary’s, and only recently did I obtain the link to the video.  The president, one faculty member and I all speak on The Saint John’s Bible, and I thought perhaps you might enjoy seeing what I do with some of my time when I am away from the monastery.

+During the past week I was home at the abbey the entire time.  I filled my time by catching up on work in the office, by doing laundry, by ironing, and by reading The Vatican Diaries.  What a great week it was.  I also enjoyed the snow.  As the pictures hint, we are running out of places to put it.

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The Lake Wobegon Trail: Highway to Excellence?

The Quest for the Ordinary

It has been many years since Garrison Keillor trekked to the studios of Minnesota Public Radio at Saint John’s.  In my first years in the monastery, Keillor was a familiar figure on our campus, and a Prairie Home Companion was a daily event.  Back then the sponsors were a bit more eccentric, but consistent through the years has been the character of Lake Wobegon, the mythic town which neighbors Saint John’s.  Then, as now, all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average.

I used to think that this must be an exceptional place, until I recently recalled its sister-city in New England, Stepford.  In Stepford all the women are lovely, all the children are obedient, and all the men are heavily bruised from pinching themselves all day.  Then the light bulb came on, and I began to wonder if average people are an endangered species in America.  If they aren’t yet, they will be soon.  The overabundance of superlative grandchildren argues that in our lifetime the average kid will go the way of the polar bear.

No business, no institution and no person wants to be thought of as merely average any more.  You need only look at the ubiquitous persuit of excellence to realize where we are headed.  Universities have Centers for Excellence in Everything, and companies have eighteen-point plans to achieve excellence in the mail room.  Excellence is the buzz-word which drives us all,  and it will continue to do so until someone points out that excellence has become the new Gentleman’s C.  Then we will all stampede in pursuit of some new fantasy of self-delusion.

The fact of the matter is, we are a people obsessed with image, and in the pursuit of persona we are subject to the same inflationary spiral that sometimes bedevils the economy.  To cite but one example, there was  a time when a young actress aspired to be a starlet.  Then “star” became de rigueur.  But one glance at the award shows reveals that it is the superstars that radiate above the galaxies of stars.  What’s next?  So far only Dame Edna has staked a claim to Megastar, but you see where this is headed.

Given all this hoopla over excellence, has the Church made a terrible mistake when it begins Ordinary Time on January 10th?  Is it not demeaning to invite an entire population of overachievers to live in ordinary time?  Just hours after Saint Valentine has banished Saint Nicholas from the stores, and when the Easter Bunny is only days away from hopping down the bunny trail, has Christianity once again failed to stir the imagination?

In his Rule for Monasteries, and in his biography by Gregory the Great, it is the ordinary which seems to grab Saint Benedict’s attention.  He doesn’t schedule any big Christmas bashes; and as for Lent, he writes that our entire lives should be a Lenten obsevance.  While he certainly is aware of the cycle of seasons and the liturgical year, it’s the daily grind that transforms us.  It’s the task of seeing Christ in one another, on the weekdays, that is life’s biggest challenge.  It is the monotony of showing up for prayer and work, day in and day out, that is far more taxing.  That’s what really tests the metal of the monk.  It’s on those days when we see any real progress in the spiritual life; while the feasts are merely the bookends in life.

So what should be our resolution for Ordinary Time?  I would contend that it is the ordinary which is most important.  It is in the ordinary that we see the hand of God stirring the pot, whether it be in our neighbor or in the routine of our lives.  To discount these moments in favor of the few super-blowout-days in the year is to miss the greatest gifts God has in store for us.

But what about the pursuit of excellence?  Well, I for one have chosen to exit from the overcrowded highway to excellence.  In 2012 I’ve set my sights on nothing short of eminence.

The Nativity, icon by Aidan Hart, Abbey church

Monastery notes

Today, January 9th, marks the last day of the Christmas season, no matter what the malls may have said last week.  By sunset the trees in the monastery will be down, and the decorations will once again be in storage.  The three magi will have made their visit to the new-born savior, and many of us will begin our atonement for the cakes and candies that modern magi have brought.

On January 2nd, the feast of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazienzen, I celebrated the Abbey Mass.  While Basil in particular was an important influence on Saint Benedict, I opted to preach on the gospel of the day from John 1: 19-28.  You may read that sermon, Who are you? John the Baptist’s Response, in Presentations.

The Epiphany, Abbey church

During the Christmas holidays we began a new book in the Abbey refectory: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  For those  unfamiliar with Bryson’s work, I’m happy to say that you have some wonderful reading ahead of  you.  I had already read this book, and before that I had gone through two others by Bryson:  The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away.  From my perspective his dry wit and spare writing style are nothing short of hilarious at times.  While Saint Benedict discourages laughter in the monastery, one evening the reader choked on his own laughter, and soon most of us yielded to uncontrolled laughter.  At that point the abbot rang the bell, and that was the end of table reading for that evening.  I recommend Bill Bryson highly, but merely for your reading pleasure and not for your spiritual edification.

Years ago someone ruined my Christmas holiday by giving me Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  I spent all of my free-time reading it, only to emerge bleary-eyed for church and for meals.  I spent this Christmas in 18th-century Russia, reading Robert Massie’s new book, Catherine the Great.  I had enjoyed two of his previous books: Peter the Great, and Nicholas & Alexandra, and this book is equally fascinating.  When a German-born empress (Elizabeth) names her German-born nephew (Peter) her heir, and then marries him to a German-born wife (Catherine), you logically assume that you would not be in Russia.  Wrong.  Though Catherine did close several hundred monasteries, that’s as close as this book comes to the topic of monastic spirituality.  But if  you want to be glad you’re alive today, read this terrific book.

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