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Posts Tagged ‘Hill Museum & Manuscript Library’

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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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One Step To Wisdom

Currently we happen to be reading in the monastic refectory at Saint John’s a book whose timeliness has been perfect for me.  The Pope Who Would Be King tells the story of Pius IX, who is a good example of the right man coming at the wrong time in history — or the wrong man at the wrong time.  Whatever may have been his talents, he had the misfortune to be pope just when the Italian nationalists liberated the Papal States and created a unified Italy.  Pius IX never got over it.

For over a thousand years popes had ruled a chunk of central Italy, and after a while they could not imagine a papacy without that secular base.  Not everybody agreed with that approach, but it didn’t matter to the ecclesiastics who ran Rome.  Popes needed royal power, they asserted, because it supported their spiritual power.  The truth, as it turned out, was quite the opposite, as later popes discovered.  Shorn of the Papal States, 21st-century popes have exercised a moral authority that was unimagined by their predecessors.

FCA5AA19-F5AC-4FE5-9697-6660F0D5D8F1I say that reading this book has been fortuitous because at the moment I am part of a Benedictine Heritage tour of Italy.  It helps to know that popes were monarchs for a millennium, because it’s hard to understand a lot of what we see in Rome without that tidbit.  Why would there be papal coats of arms emblazoned on fountains and buildings and walls?  Why would the pope need a fortress and an elevated escape route to reach it?  Why would the pope need a prison and an army and thick walls to defend the Vatican?  The answers make for great reading, but after 1870 even the popes came to realize that they didn’t need any of that to teach the gospel.  But that’s another story.

I never studied or lived in Rome, so I find it very easy to get lost in the labyrinth of streets in the center of the city.  That makes a trip here all the more enjoyable, if you have the leisure for getting lost.  But as beautiful as the street scenes can be, it’s the people who fascinate.  Rome is a stunningly diverse place, all overlaying a base of Italian culture.

This time I’ve taken some moments to listen to the chatter around me, and it can be both entertaining and inspiring.  Among the lighter moments was a conversation I overheard as several of us were walking down the avenue to Saint Peter’s.  Along the way one must run a gauntlet of hawkers and street peddlers who assault you with anything that will get a reaction.  “Are you headed to the Vatican?”  Of course we are, because that’s where the street goes.  “Are you from America?”  And on it goes.  I happened to be alongside a couple from Mexico, and soon it was their turn.  “Do you speak English?”  To which the Mexican husband looked up and deadpanned:  “No, no.  We’re Dutch.”  Everyone within earshot dissolved into laughter.  And the Mexican gentleman smiled the smile of triumph.

094C3EBE-955D-432C-8084-DF9CB4D730B2More serious was a conversation between a senior Irish priest telling a young counterpart what it was like to work at the Vatican.  “In some ways it’s not changed at all;  but one thing has.  When we used to go to one of the Dicasteries [the various government departments of the Curia], we’d pose a question.  And if they didn’t have an answer, they’d give you the answer to another question that they did know.  Nobody wanted to look uninformed or unauthoritative.  Now it’s different.  If you ask them something and they don’t know the answer, they say ‘Don’t know.’  It’s refreshing to hear, and it gives one hope.”

This week our group will visit Subiaco and Monte Cassino, where Saint Benedict lived out his years as a monk.  The salient feature of his early years was that he fled Rome to seek wisdom in the wilderness.  Happily, I will leave Rome with an unexpected nugget of wisdom and hope.  If not the first stage of wisdom, then at least one step to wisdom has to include the admission that if you don’t know something, you should not be afraid to say so.  How refreshing.  How honest.  It’s almost enough to give one hope!

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+On September 23rd I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  In addition to other members, we welcomed Fra Thomas Mulligan, the incoming President of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, and Michael Grace, president of the Western Association.  Also present was the retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations, Mr. Bob Shafer.

+On 23 September I presided at the abbey Mass.

+On 25 September I arrived in Rome as part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour, sponsored by Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+On 30 September our group went to Mass and visited at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome, the headquarters of the Benedictine Confederation.  Among those who welcomed us were Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, who lived with us at Saint John’s for three years while he studied theology.  Brother Joe Schneeweis toured us through the school at Sant Anselmo.  Brother Joe, a monk of Saint John’s, serves as head of the library there.  And joining our tour for lunch and some church visits was Saint John’s Benedictine Volunteer Kyle Munshower.  He is in residence as a volunteer for a year, and his duties include driving the Abbot Primate around Rome.  He will have nerves of steel after driving for a year in Rome.

+The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe, is by David Kertzer, who teaches at Brown University.  For the most part it has been an interesting book for us to read in refectory, though not all of the readers have equal facility in the Italian names and places.  But that has brought a few lighter moments, which is okay.

+The photos in today’s post show various scenes from Rome.  At top is the Castel Sant Angelo, the fortress where popes occasionally took refuge.  At bottom is the Farnese Palace, built by a powerful family that produced many cardinals and at least one pope.  Today it serves as the French embassy.  The other three photos show the sorts of scenes that make Rome so enchanting.

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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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We All Croak, So Live With Purpose

Last week my friend Kathleen Norris sent me the link to an app with the intriguing name of WeCroak.  For those who don’t know Kathleen, she’s a writer and poet, and she’s a friend to many monks in our community.  But despite living in Hawaii, I know for a fact that she’s not a biologist.  So I assumed, rightly, that WeCroak is not about frogs.  What it is about, however, is death; and it promises to send five messages a day to encourage us to stop and think about death.  And it does so on the premise that the truest path to happiness is to consider our mortality.

If you’ve never thought about your own death, then it’s probably time that you did.  You can never start too soon, and it’s something we monks try to do on a regular basis.  And we do that because Saint Benedict in his Rule urges us to keep death daily before our eyes.  It’s important to know, however, that Benedict is not trying to depress us or to throw us into a panic.  Rather, all he wants to do is remind us that our days on God’s green earth are numbered, and we should make good use of each and every moment of each and every day.  Anything less is to waste both our time and our lives, and these are two of the greatest gifts that God gives us.

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You and I can certainly choose to live as if there is no tomorrow.  We can also choose to live as if we’ll never run out of days.  But in fact our days are finite, and each day invites a response that is open and creative.  And so we should ask ourselves how we will use this day.  Will we have anything to show for it when we climb into bed tonight?  Will our lives matter to anyone this day?  These are just three of the questions that we can put to ourselves, and you will have your own variations on this theme.  But there’s always one thing to remember:  the unexamined life runs the risk of meaning little or nothing when it’s over.

In today’s readings we have two stark alternatives for shaping our lives.  The first reading, from chapter seven of the Book of Job, opens on this rather depressing note:  “Is not our life on earth a drudgery?”  And then Job goes on to point out that “my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;  they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; and I shall not see happiness again.”

There’s a lot more to the story of Job than this, and it remains one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned.  The good news is that Job’s life ends much differently than this, but these words suggest how illness and suffering and wasted days can all drain life of its positive meaning.  But life need not be that way.

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Today’s gospel passage from Mark chapter one provides an option that is clearly more hopeful than Job’s.  Mark recounts how the sick and the suffering came to Jesus for physical healing;  but the physically healthy came too — for spiritual healing.  To both the sick and the healthy Jesus gave a message of hope, and he reminded each and every listener that life does have meaning and purpose.  Such a life will not be without illness, nor will any of us escape death.  But Jesus urges all of us to live by hope — confident that our lives can and do have meaning, not only now, but in eternity.

I confess that I’ve not yet forked over the 99 cents that it takes to download WeCroak, but I’ll probably do so before the end of the day.  And I’ll do so for two reasons.  First, I hope it will give me timely reminders not to bury myself all day in useless trivia.  I hope it will remind me to look up from my iPad and pay attention to what’s going on around me.  And I hope it will remind me to be part of that scene.

But I’ll also do it to reinforce my Benedictine and Christian calling to keep death daily before my eyes.  That will underscore Benedict’s reminder that our days are limited, and each and every moment is something to seize and to treasure.  Any other response is to waste God’s greatest gifts.

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I don’t know that I have any good advice on how you can turn up the intensity in your life.  I do know it’s not a matter of being louder or more aggressive.  Nor is it a matter of taking reckless chances with our lives.  But it’s dawned on me that — at least for me — it’s good to inject a little bit of heart into what I say and do today.  Perhaps if I give a little bit of my soul to others, I will also make better use of my time and talent.

But above all it’s critical that you and I as Christians live deliberately, with intensity, with considered purpose.  Only then will we realize that the words of the Psalmist should be ours as well.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice.”  Knowing that our days are in short supply and that one day we too will croak, why would we not want to make the most of what we’ve got?  Why would we not grab hold of today and give of our heart?  This is the life to which God calls us.  Let us be glad and rejoice.  Amen.

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NOTES

+On January 29th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices.  It is the first of several classes that I will be having with them over the next few weeks.

+On February 1st I hosted Chorbishop sharbel Maroun on his visit to Saint John’s.  Abouna sharbel, as he prefers to be called, is the Maronite-rite bishop, resident at Saint Maron’s Church in Minneapolis, and he brought as his guests two priests and a deacon.  They were particularly interested in seeing the Bible Gallery as well as the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  HMML has done considerable work in Lebanon over the years, and by chance several texts in Syriac were on display in the library when we were there. For the record, Abouna sharbel prefers to spell his name in lower-case letters, out of respect for Saint Sharbel.

+On February 3rd our confrere Fr. Eugene passed away at the age of 86.  He served for much of his professed life in various parishes which the monastery has served.

+On February 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon which I preached.  Later that day, following vespers, the younger monks on the formation floor of the monastery hosted our annual Super Bowl dinner of chile and brats, and diehards watched the game.

+I took the photo at the top of today’s post in Vienna several years ago, and it’s one of the nicest clocks I’ve ever seen.  It reminds me of how elegant and imaginative clocks could be in the pre-digital era.  The next three photos are late 15th-century stained glass roundels depicting the life of Christ.  They are housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The fourth photo is a wood carving of Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child, made in the von Carben workshop in Cologne, ca. 1510.  It too is housed in the Schuntzen Museum.  That museum has incorporated the Romanesque church of Saint Cecilia in Cologne, and at bottom is a tympanum which once greeeted visitors as they entered the church.  It dates from ca. 1160.

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Memories:  the Measure of a Life

[Today’s post is a sermon on Matthew 21: 28-32, which I delivered at Saint John’s Abbey on 1 October, 2017.]

I seldom think of The New Yorker Magazine as the go-to place for theological reflection.  Better-known for its subtle cartoons, its thoughtful essays, and the ads for luxury items I couldn’t possibly afford, I just don’t think of it as a purveyor of religious insight.

But of course I’m wrong to assume that, as one of my favorite cartoons recently reminded me.  It’s a cartoon that definitely relies on some exposure to Catholic liturgy, and it shows two guys chatting away in the middle of the torments of hell.  Each laments his own fate, and each makes the case that his own suffering is worse than the other’s. It’s a contest in self-pity, but ultimately one guy wins with this bit of undeniable logic.  Looking his companion squarely in the eye, he reminds him that “at least you have memories.  All my sins were sins of omission.”

IMG_4531Those familiar with one form of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass can appreciate the pickle in which these two guys found themselves.  In that opening rite of the liturgy we confess what we have done and what we have failed to do — the sins of commission and the sins of omission.  And if such distinctions seem nit-picky to some people, consider this.  They do in fact get to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  It’s an admission, first of all, that we do sin.  We do wrong to one another; and sometimes it’s a matter of holding back when we should have acted.

Who’s to say which is worse — doing the evil we do, or failing to do the good we are capable of doing.  But both sins have something in common.  Both testify that we are not people of integrity.  Both say we are people who do not translate our fundamental belief into lived reality.  From that perspective it doesn’t really matter whether we commit sins of omission or commission; because in both cases we are not who we say we are.  In both cases we are destined to join that conversation in hell with the two convicted sinners.

That bit of background may help in our appreciation of the parable that we’ve just heard from the gospel of St. Matthew.  The story of the two sons is one of those classic conundrums that Jesus delighted in putting to people, and it’s a conundrum because each son exhibits some less than admirable as well as some noble qualities.

The first son, when asked by the father to go and work in the vineyard, basically told his father to take a hike.  He was not going to go.  But he gave it some thought, and he went.  So the son is guilty of disrespect and I suppose is also guilty of lying.  He said he wouldn’t work and then he worked.  But it was his considered response and action that ultimately win our sympathy.  He’s a good guy after all.

IMG_4546The second son, on the other hand, said all the right things.  He respected his father and showed to all and sundry that he was obedient.  But then his actions in fact told his father to take a hike.  He had no intention of going to the vineyard.

So just like his first audience, Jesus asks this of us.  Which son is worthy and which one is not?  And more precisely, in whose sandals do we find ourselves standing when push comes to shove?

It’s not wrong to reduce this parable to a matter of obedience or disobedience, but there’s something deeper here.  That becomes evident when Jesus launches into a comparison between the tax-collectors and prostitutes on the one hand, and the scribes and scholars of the law on the other.  On a scale of uprightness, the religious experts win hands down.  But this is not a matter of obedience or disobedience.  This is all about hypocrisy.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes are far worse when it comes to the gravity of their sins, while the upright people are guilty of little more than peccadillos.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes make no bones about their sinful ways;  but their repentance is authentic.  They are sinners and they freely admit it.  They are who they say they are.  But they also know who they want to become.

By contrast, the religious leaders need no such radical conversion.  They’ve committed no grave sins; they’ve lived upright lives; they’ve done nothing blameworthy.  Even so, they may have been obedient and upright, but to put a positive spin on it, Jesus hints that they have done little or nothing of value at all.  They have nothing to show for their lives.  They are not who they say they are, and for Jesus hypocrisy is the gravest sin of all.

IMG_4568Jesus offers this parable for us to chew on for our own reflection.  He’s not interested in beating us up or making us feel guilty about what we’ve done and what we continue to do.  Nor does he delight in wringing out of us a confession of the good we failed to do when the chips were down.  All that is secondary to the real issue he wants us to think about.  Are we really who we say we are?  Can people count on us to translate our beliefs into action?  Or are we all talk and no action?  Or as some like to say in Texas, are we all hat and no cattle?

I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day I don’t want to be the guy in hell who has nothing of value to recall from a life lived on the sidelines.  Of course Jesus doesn’t want us to go out and commit a bunch of sins so that we’ll have lots of good memories in hell.  Rather, Jesus asks something far simpler than that.  He asks that we strive to be who we say we are.  He asks that we love God and love our neighbor and figure out how that translates into a life well-lived.  And he reminds us that if we want memories of a life well-lived, the time to make those memories is today, not tomorrow.

Notes

+On 25 September I took part in the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  Among those in attendance were Mr. Bob Shafer, retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations;  Fra Tom Mulligan of Chicago and Fra Nicola Tegoni of New York.  Mr. Joseph S. Micallef and Steven Kennedy, both members of the Order of Malta, rounded out the contingent of members of Malta in attendance.

+On 30 September I attended the football game with Bethel University, which Saint John’s hosted.  The good guys won, 21-13.

IMG_4569+On October 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass.  I don’t know what a “typical Sunday” would be for me, but my day went something like this.  I got up at 4 am and finished my sermon for the Mass.  Then I attended morning prayer at 7 am.  Presided at Mass at 10:30 am.  Went to lunch with the community at noon.  At lunch I happened to sit with Brother Isidore, who among other things described his competition with the squirrels to gather black walnuts on the abbey grounds.  He shells and sells them in the abbey gift shop.  This fall he has collected 250 pounds so far.  The squirrels are not entirely happy, but there’s plenty for everyone.  In the afternoon I got some exercise and then watched as Fr. Lew loaded honeycombs into the honey-extracting machine.  I didn’t stay to watch, since it is pretty much like looking at the spin cycle on the washing machine.  Then I presided at Sunday vespers, and at the end of that I threw my alb in the washing machine.  The aroma of incense pervaded it, and I did not want that in my closet.  After dinner I finished my blog and then went to bed.  That’s one monk’s schedule on a Sunday.  Not terribly glamourous, but a great day nonetheless.

+Given the turmoil in Catalonia, I decided to adorn today’s post with photos I took of the medieval cathedral in Barcelona.  Barcelona was the port of entry on my very first visit to Spain, when I went to do dissertation research.  I’ve loved the place ever since and feel not a little distressed by the current situation there.

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The Church:  A Bit Chaotic at Times

Not surprisingly, we don’t host a lot of little kids at prayer in the Abbey church.  On any given weekday it’s faculty, staff, students and people from the guesthouse who occupy the visitors’ section of the choir.  But children?  Not so many.

But on a Sunday we do get a sprinkling of infants and toddlers, and we know they’re there because they make their presence known.  Few of the toddlers can resist the urge to run free-range up and down the expansive brick-paved aisles.  Still others quickly discover the bouncy accoustics.  Designed to blend the voices of us monks as we chant the Psalms, those same walls amplify the cries and screams of even the littlest tyke.  Because we monks aren’t used to those kinds of noises, we can find it all disconcerting.  But then again those same little voices remind us that we were all kids once, and if we live long enough we could very well revert to that uninhibited state in our dotage.

IMG_7013On Saturday Fr. Anthony preached on the gospel passage from Matthew 19 in which Jesus told the disciples to let the little children approach him.  Naturally I’ve thought of that episode as an encouragement to be as innocent and trusting as a child.  After all,  Jesus taught that a lack of such innocence will bar passage through the gates of heaven.

But Anthony pointed out a variant of this.  Whether we like to admit it or not, kids aren’t always the most focused participants in the liturgy.  His comment immediately brought to mind the only sermon I ever heard preached by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to the gills that Sunday, and I guarantee that no one can now recall the passage from scripture about which he preached.  However, everyone of us remembers the infant who screamed and cried through his entire sermon.  We all squirmed in our pews, and most had to wonder just how long Cardinal O’Connor could go before he lost it.

Finally he conceded defeat, paused, and pointed out the obvious.  “I’m sure everyone can hear that screaming baby.  But I just want you to know that I’ve heard worse comments on my preaching.”  With that the tension melted and the congregation dissolved into hearty laughter.  And that’s all any of us remembers from that Mass.

IMG_7008Obviously Jesus must have noticed that some kids ran around and played and yelled as he tried to preach.  How could he not notice as he taught a crowd of 5,000, outside?  The disciples certainly noticed, and they wanted to shoo the kids away.  But Jesus didn’t; and perhaps that’s because he saw those kids as a metaphor for all the needy and troublesome adults who would someday show up at the church door.  Such people sometimes destroy our peace of mind.  They have needs that make us uncomfortable.  Worse still, they seem to be the sort of sinners who shouldn’t be sitting next to me or even close to me.  After all, on more than one occasion I’ve given thanks to God that I’m not at all like them.

Sometimes I forget that church pews were first installed not to seat the strong but to support the weak and the ill.  They’re the ones who cannot stand through a long liturgy.  Ironically, Jesus came to save those very people.  He came to save those physically and spiritually weak people who’ve come to church in hopes that Jesus will give them rest and healing.  That’s when I recall that if I’m spiritually whole, then I have no business taking up valuable pew space.  It would be better to cede my spot to the spiritually poor and sick.

IMG_6990It’s on those occasions that I remember the words of Jesus about little children.  Little kids sometimes seem over-eager for attention and more than willing to assert their need for help.  Unless I become like a little child and admit my own need for Jesus, then I don’t belong in the pews with all those people who do.

Sometimes a church service — like the Church herself — can be a little too chaotic for my tastes.  But not so for Jesus.  Cardinal O’Connor closed his comments on the untidiness of a screaming child in church with one question that was rhetorical rather than open for discussion.  “Isn’t this what it’s all about?”  As much as I hate to admit it, he was probably right.

Notes

IMG_7038+On August 13th I and many others lost a dear friend, Nicky Carpenter.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years — dating to the time when we sat together on a committee that nominated a new president for Saint John’s University.  She was a fixture on the civic scene in the Twin Cities, serving with special distinction on the board of the Minnesota Orchestra.  As did her mother before her, she sat on the Board of Regents of Saint John’s University, and she later sat on the Board of Overseers of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library while I was director — a service which she continued to render through her last year.  She was an ardent supporter of The Saint John’s Bible, and I was delighted to have introduced her to the Order of Malta.  I was acting as her spiritual guide when she began preparation to take the Promise of Obedience, but sadly her health declined before she could get very far into the process.  She slipped away quietly, and we will all miss her.  She will be laid to rest in the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

+On 18 August I attended the annual summer picnic of the Trustees of Saint John’s University, held in Wayzata, MN.

+This month I begin the seventh year of publishing this blog.  I thoroughly enjoy writing the posts, and that exercise is a highlight of my week.  I hope I’ve not been overly repetitious, but by now readers must have picked up on some recurring themes.  Mainly I’m grateful to the 3,709 people who have subscribed to it, and I thank those who regularly forward posts to their friends.

+Today’s photos show the interior of the Abbey church.  Designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the hard surfaces of the concrete walls and brick floors are especially good at amplifying little voices, and the pews easily convert into playground equipment.  At bottom is the baptistery, where by now thousands of infants have made their debut as church criers.

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Conversation:  The Experience of Transformation

Last week I had the opportunity to preach once again on the Book of Exodus.  In the liturgy we’ve been marching through that text for several days;  but despite seeing The Ten Commandments as a kid and reading from Exodus more times than I can remember, this time I picked up on some things I’d not noticed before.

For one thing, I now realize that Moses spent a lot more time on Mount Sinai than I had once assumed.  I’ve always presumed that he had hiked up Mount Sinai for a brief chat and afternoon tea with God.  At the end of it he climbed back down — carefully — with two souvenir stone tablets.  Not so.

More likely, their exchange was not nearly so brief and dramatic.  For one thing, Moses was up there for a lot longer, and his chat with God was pretty wide-ranging.  It’s too bad we don’t have a complete transcript of their conversation, but it wasn’t all pyrotechnics, despite what the movie suggested.  That’s reinforced by the behavior of the Israelites, who were camped at the foot of the mountain.  There they waited for Moses, and while they waited and waited they got bored and got on with the business of making a golden calf and getting on with their lives.

IMG_6720Had Moses been gone for only an hour or two, the story would have ended differently.  For one thing, though I’ve never made a golden calf before, I’m guessing that even the most efficient goldsmith needs more than three or four hours to make one.  On top of that, preliminary design issues and discussion with the client would have chewed up all kinds of time.  Finally, there’s the business of finance.  Who’s ever run a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to make a thing like that?  Where in the desert would you find the campaign consultants?  And whoever heard of a capital campaign that would take only gold? — and no pledges please!

The New American Bible translation of Exodus describes the exchange between God and Moses as a “conversation,” which suggests this was a fairly benign encounter.  Still, there had to have been a few moments of high drama as Moses and God hammered out the details of the Ten Commandments.  In the process they created the template for all future negotiations in the Middle East.  But in between they did what all diplomats and politicians worth their salt do.  Who knows what was on God’s mind, but I’m certain that Moses digressed to the the weather, to the food and to a growing list of complaints.  To my mind at least, “conversation” sums up their encounter rather nicely.

IMG_6743Meanwhile, Moses had no inkling of what was happening to him, but the people waiting for him noticed the change in his face right away.  Moses hadn’t looked in a mirror, and so he had no idea that his face had become radiant.  Conversation with God had transformed him, but Moses had scarcely noticed the impact on him.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that there’s no fireworks when I pray to God.  I learned long ago not to expect it, mainly because God generally doesn’t work that way.  I’ve also come to realize that prayer doesn’t upend our lives in an instant, because that’s not how prayer and conversation work.  Prayer changes us over time, and sometimes it takes a lifetime to make a difference and a lifetime to notice the difference.

For all the times when we expect prayer to yield immediate and dramatic results then, it’s good to remember Moses.  He scarcely realized what had happened to him, even if the Israelites could see the transfomation more readily than he.  Therein I find a bit of personal consolation.

I’ve been going to prayer in the monastery for most of my life now.  With gratitude I can assert that never once have I levitated or slipped into some sort of ecstatic reverie.  However, I’ve also come to appreciate the way ordinary conversation with God has impacted my life.  I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty or thirty, and to that my brothers in the monastery would utter a hearty “Amen.  Thanks be to God!”  Happily, I can say the very same for them as well.

IMG_6748Notes

+On August 2nd I presided at the Abbey Mass and preached on the Book of Exodus.

+On August 4th I hosted two dear friends for lunch and a tour of Saint John’s.  This just happened to be the day when, ten years earlier, I had visited them at their home in New Brighton, MN.  Because of the stop at their home I ended up driving over the I-35 bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  I seldom take that route, but that day, exactly one hour after I crossed, the bridge fell into the river.  I’m glad to be alive today.

Our tour of Saint John’s was a bit surreal, and not just because it was a perfect day weatherwise.  As we walked around campus the music of the Eden Prairie High School marching band serenaded our every step.  The band was here for several days for its annual camp, and their music was terrific.  We ended the tour with something from the other end of the spectrum when we visited the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  There we stood outside two seminar rooms — one hosting a language program in Syriac and the other in Armenian.  That’s quite a contrast from the music of a marching band, but it makes for a very interesting summer day.

+On August 5th my mother and sister and brother arrived at Saint John’s for a four-day visit.  They’ve not been here for several years, and it has been wonderful to host them.

+The photos in today’s post show some of the flowers in the cloister gardens on either side of the Abbey church.  All are visible from the pews in the nave as well as from the choir stalls, and during the summer any flowers we might place inside the church are entirely superfluous.

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