Posts Tagged ‘Hill Museum & Manuscript Library’

imageThe Great Siege of Malta, 1565

My first trip to the island of Malta was a real eye-opener.  I’d been director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University for only a few months, and I had to get up to speed on the various projects on HMML’s plate.  So I flew to Valletta to visit the National Library, where HMML had assisted in photographing the archives of the Order of Malta.  Since I’d been to other islands already, I assumed that this one would be like all the rest, save for the library.  I was completely wrong about that.

Physically, Malta is not very big, and from its medieval capital of Medina you can see the whole thing spread out around  you.  And it’s crowded — really crowded.  There’s also a lot of stone there.  From stately buildings to the simplest homes, the tan-colored stone gives it the feel of the Middle East.  And the landscape is so strewn with stones that you quickly understand why the Maltese have to import most of their food.  In fact they import nearly everything, except for capers.  Those bushes grow everywhere, like weeds, and they’d take over if people didn’t chop them back.  The latter seems a shame, because I love capers.

For what Malta lacks in vegetation it more than compensates with its history.  In fact it wears the past on its sleeve, and everywhere you turn it tells a larger-than-life story.  Its neolithic temples are among the most ancient structures on the planet, and traces of a succession of foreign rulers show up all over the place.  The fact that outsiders like Romans, Arabs, French and English occupied the place continuously for 2,000 years means that Maltese self-government is a very recent experiment.

imageUndeniably it is the Order of Saint John that has left the greatest mark on the island.  Now known as the Order of Malta, it began in Jerusalem as a hospice serving sick and poor pilgrims, run by the monks of a Benedictine abbey.  From Pope Pascal II in 1113 Blessed Frá Gerard received a charter that brought formal recognition as a religous order, and in Jerusalem it served Christians, Muslims and Jews.  Later, after the Order’s expulsion from the Holy Land, the knights ended up on the island of Rhodes.  There they stayed until 1523, and in 1530 they settled on Malta, where they remained until Napoleon dislodged them in 1798.

As an influential and accomplished group in the Middle Ages, the Knights of Saint John earned both admirers and enemies, as did their peers in the Order of the Temple.  But they fared better than did the Templars and were never suppressed, though they came perilously close to extinction in the early 19th century.

imageAlong the way there were days when members must have wondered why they’d ever signed up for such a life. One such occasion was the siege of Rhodes in 1480, when the Ottoman Turks came close to dislodging them.  The Turks finally did succeed in 1523, but as a gesture of respect the sultan gave the knights honorable passage off the island and into exile.

The sultan’s successors came to regret that decision, and in 1565 the Turks sailed to Malta to rid the Mediterranean of the knights once and for all.  What followed was one of the nastiest sieges ever, and I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood has never made a movie about it.  It would be a blockbuster, with violence and bravery scarcely imaginable.  But the knights held out against huge odds, until on September 8 the Turks lifted the siege and sailed away.

The knights learned several things during that siege, and among them was the disadvantage of defending lower ground in an artillery duel.  The Turks had commanded the high ground, and after the siege the knights hastily moved their capital to those heights.  And they named the city after Grand Master Jean de la Valette, who had led them through the crisis.  Today Valletta’s stately government buildings are the visible record of the knights’ 268 years of residence in Malta.

imageOn September 8th the Order of Malta celebrates the 450th anniversary of the lifting of the siege.  Both Maltese citizens and members of the Order will gather in Valletta to mark the occasion and to celebrate what has happened since.  After all those centuries the Maltese at last rule themselves, and the knights and dames of Malta have rededicated themselves to their original charism of service to the sick and the poor.  The festivities in Malta will remind them of that latter commitment when they tour the vast 16th-century hospital in Valletta.

Meanwhile, at HMML the work of the Malta Study Center continues, as does its efforts in various archives in Malta and more recently at the Grand Magistry in Rome.  This week HMML marks the event with the opening of an exhibit of books and documents on the history of the Order of Malta, as well as a lecture on the siege by Dr. Emanuel Buttigieg of the University of Malta.

imageSince my first visit to Malta I’ve had the chance to lead several tours to the island, and to a person the place leaves each and every visitor in awe.  Each invariably has the same reaction as I did when I first looked down from the bastions of Villetta to an aircraft  carrier docked directly below.  And for knights and dames who visit Malta, there’s a sense of respect for what their predecessors in the Order sacrificed.  Thankfully we no longer serve on the battlefield or on the seas, because at our age and physical condition we wouldn’t last ten minutes.  But we can be grateful for what others did to keep the ideal of service alive.  Those who sacrificed their lives in 1565 ensured that later generations in the Order would continue their care of the sick and the poor.  Thankfully the siege did not mean the end of the history of the Order;  rather, it was the opening of several new chapters.

To all this I must append a footnote.  Some people find history boring and tedious, but at the end of my first trip to Malta I learned how important it is to remember the lessons of history.  As we drove our rental car onto the highway to return to the airport, the three of us were chatting away as we breezed down the road.  Suddenly one of our number pointed out one great legacy of the English occupation.  Had it been Minneapolis, driving on the right side of the road would have been just fine.  But this was Malta, and just as in England they drive on the left side of the road.  There we were, tooling merrily down the wrong side of a divided highway.  We all shreiked and sweat bullets, and I thought of Saint Benedict’s advice to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  That morning history was no longer an academic exercise.


+On August 28th the freshmen at Saint John’s University joined the monks for vespers.  And as is the custom of many years, they broke into small groups afterwards in order to “meet a monk” and learn about our life in the monastery.

+On September 1st I presided at the burial service of Mary Foley, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Dr. Bob Foley.  The burial took place in the abbey cemetery.

+On September 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access the sermon through this link to The Lord’s Demands on Us.

+On September 5th I attended the opening game of the Saint John’s University football season.  We hosted the University of Dubuque, and happily our team won the game rather handily, 45-9.

image+Dr. Daniel Gullo, the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, kindly supplied five images from HMML’s current exhibit of books and documents illustrating the history of the Order of Malta.  The first is a book of Statutes of the Order, printed in 1556.  The second is a map of 1597, showing the harbor of Valletta, with the new city scarcely developed on the left of the map.  In the map of 1762 you see the fully-developed city, built on a modern grid pattern.  The fourth page opens the 1480 edition of Pierre D’Aubusson’s narrative of the siege of Rhodes; while the fifth image is taken from the Statutes, printed in 1588.  All are in the collection of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  In a separate gallery I have presented some of my favorite photos, illustrating the architecture of the Island of Malta.

Read Full Post »

imageSaint Benedict and the Command to Love

I came way too late to the monastery to experience those first heady days of ecumenical encounter in central Minnesota.  To be clear, I’m not writing about the dialogs among Catholics and Lutherans and Episcopalians.  Those talks came much later, and they were possible only because of the earlier breakthrough between the German Catholics and the Polish Catholics.  It’s hard to imagine the day when a mixed marriage in Stearns County, our county, was the term for a union between members of those two communities, and people spoke of such marriages in whispered tones.

Given that disquiet about Catholics of non-German extraction, you can just imagine the level of enthusiasm that our early monks brought to the triad of feast days that sit squarely in the middle of Lent.  On March 17th, the feast of Saint Patrick, the more daring of the monks admitted to trace elements of Celtic blood flowing in their veins; while the more cautious among them owned to having met someone of Irish heritage, once.  Then, on the 19th, came the feast of Saint Joseph.   Way back then there was little of anything Italian in our community, save for the decrees that came by boat from Rome.  Then, in the next breath, the monks celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict on the 21st.  Now that was a feast they could sink their teeth into, despite the glaring note of his accidental birth in Italy.  In fact, he may have been born Italian, but there was something wonderfully German about the man that more than compensated.

imageOur community, since day one, has had a strong work ethic.  This turned out to be a strategic advantage in the pioneering days of Minnesota.  In the days when the option for everybody who came here was hard work or freezing to death, our founding monks came well-disposed to make the right choice.  And so a man like Benedict, whose motto was “work and pray,” had to have at least a little German in him, or so they must have thought.

As for the Italian DNA in Saint Benedict, everyone knew it was there, though they must have hesitated about it.  Here I’m not referring to the strain of legalism that has coursed through the Roman bureaucracy for centuries.  Rather, I speak of the reputation for creativity that Italians have earned as they’ve applied the ideals of Christian doctrine to its lived expression.  To say the least, I’ve always admired them for their genius at sorting out issues of law and love.  But of course they are artists at heart.

Nowhere is the tension between law and love better expressed than in the last visit that Benedict paid to his sister Scholastica.  On the prescribed day they left their respective monasteries and met at some spot halfway in between.  But as the visit stretched beyond Benedict’s self-imposed curfew, the latter grew antsy to get home.  Scholastica was not so eager to call it a day, and she dismissed out of hand her brother’s insistence that his own Rule forbade an overnight absence from the monastery.

imageScholastica then went on the offensive, and in as many words she let her brother know that “we’ll see about that.”  So she prayed and shed copious tears, until finally God got the message.  It rained cats and dogs, and Benedict was forced to admit defeat.  “What  have you done, sister?”

That evening Scholastica got the better of her brother, and Benedict’s biographer, Pope Gregory the Great, did not hesitate to say so.  “Surely it is no more than right that her influence was greater than  his, since hers was the greater love.”  So it was that the writer of the Rule lost out to his sister, and that day her great love trumped his excellent laws.

Stories such as this one abound in the early monastic tradition, and I’ve fondly recalled one that amused us to no end when we read it at evening prayer many years ago.  In that episode an Egyptian monk was walking down a road when he spied a group of nuns headed his way.  Worried that he might compromise his integrity, he hid in the ditch and covered his face until they had walked by.  Then he stood, brushed off the dust, and walked on with more than a smidgen of self-satisfaction.  But while he was still within earshot, the abbess called out to him and stopped him dead in his tracks.  “If you were a real monk, you’d never have even noticed that we were women.”

imageThe monastic tradition has delighted in these sorts of stories, partly because they owe so much to the spirit of the parables in the gospels.  Common to them all is the suggestion that every now and then God really does raise up the lowly to confound the proud.  They also warn that a healthy reserve of humility can come in handy, just when you need it most.  And last but not least, they offer this one bit of wisdom:  law has primacy, and the greatest of the laws is the command to love.  Teasing this wisdom into everyday life is not easy, of course, but that’s what monks and nuns try to do.  It’s also what thoughtful Christians do.

All this is a little disconcerting for those who would like to put law and wisdom into opposite corners and dispense with one or the other.  The fact is, we  need a healthy balance of both.  For its part, law is the practical embodiment of Christian ideals, and they lead us on the path to God.  But the Holy Spirit grants us wisdom for those cases when we’re tempted to walk a straight line down a twisting road.  Weaving the two together, it seems to me, is the challenge of Christian life.  It’s also what makes it wonderfully beautiful.

This March 21st I plan to celebrate the memory of the Benedict who wrote the Rule that still guides the lives of me and my brothers.  But I also plan to celebrate the man who could look squarely at the command to love, and be wise enough to adjust his plans accordingly.


+On March 15th I gave a conference to the Benedictine Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, who had gathered for the Abbey Mass, lunch, and lectio.  At the conclusion of the day, five individuals made their oblation, completing a year of study and prayer.

+I neglected to mention in the last post that during our visit to Norcia, the city of Benedict’s birth, I was named a citizen of the town.  To my great surprise I received a document signed by some civic official, suitable for framing.  Only later did I have the presence of mind to ask our guide whether this entitled me to any special rights or privileges. “Do I qualify for a pension?” I asked.  “Oh, I guess they forgot to tell you.  We’re broke.  Flat broke.”  I’m now going back to read the fine print and find out whether I’m the first and only citizen of Norcia required by law to pay taxes.

+I’m reaching back a bit to mention that on February 26th I attended a lecture at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University, entitled Templars, Hospitallers and 12-century Popes.  The Malta Study Center at HMML sponsored the talk, delivered by Dr. Jochen Burgtorf.  Dr. Burgtorf is Professor of Medieval History at California State University at Fullerton.

+The photos in today’s post all come from Monte Cassino.  At top is a wonderful modern sculpture, depicting two monks who support Saint Benedict as he surrenders himself to God.


Read Full Post »

imageInaction Is Never an Option

There’s likely no silver lining to be had anywhere in the Middle East as a result of all this chaos.  Yet, if we are to salvage even a shred of inspiration it has to be in the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  Despite logistical nightmares and the possibility of genuine danger, teams of photographers from HMML have worked for nearly a decade to capture the images of manuscript pages from sites in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere.  The result is a vast trove of images that will serve scholars for generations to come.  But of even greater significance, these images will remind us of a culture and a Christian community of ancient lineage that will soon disappear.

HMML began its work in 1965, in response to a plea by Pope Pius XII.  Noting that we could restore buildings destroyed in war, he encouraged the Benedictines — any Benedictines — to preserve the manuscript heritage of Europe before the next war obliterated everything.  So it was that the Library began its efforts in Austria, and from there it expanded into Spain, Portugal, Germany, Malta and Ethiopia.

imageWith the specter of instability lurking on the horizon, HMML turned its efforts to the Middle East, and the results there have been beyond impressive.  Yet, despite the great accomplishment, there is a sad note.  Who would have imagined that events would prove the value of that initiative so quickly?  Teams in places like Syria and Iraq worked at a fevered pace, and they managed to finish their work just as violence began to erupt all over the place.  Now, with images safely stored away on servers at Saint John’s and elsewhere, worry has shifted to the safety of HMML’s local partners across the region.  Some have barely managed to escape the carnage, at least physicallly unscathed.  Others have not been so lucky.

imageDuring my last year as director of HMML, I had the chance to visit Lebanon and Syria for what likely will be the only time in my life.  This was twelve years ago, and Lebanon was still recovering from its civil war.  Syria, by contrast, was the picture of serenity.  It was enjoying the peace that often comes in an absolute dictatorship.  Still, I recall vividly our party of three’s astonishment when an armor-plated car and two armed guards met us planeside on the tarmac in Beirut.  Of course we were surprised by the lavish reception by our hosts.  But eventually I began to wonder.  Have they gone overboard on the security business just to impress us?  Or might there be a genuine need for such a vehicle?  Back then I wasn’t sure.  Today, in answer to the second question, I would give a resounding “Yes!”  Still, I recall when the reality of it all registered for the first time.  One day I had a chance to open the car door all by myself, before either of the guards had a chance to jump out and get it for me.  “I’m not that helpless yet,” I thought to myself.  But I couldn’t get the thing to budge even an inch.  It was just too heavy.  “This is our little secret,” explained the genial driver.

imageIf there was a peak moment that has stuck in my memory, it was a visit with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV.  There I was, chatting with him in his study, astonished that I sat alone with the successor of Saint Peter in a community whose roots went back into the Acts of the Apostles.  But that day, years before civil war would come to Syria, there was even then a grim foreboding in the words of the Patriarch.  Antioch, one of the five great patriarchates of the Church and once a distinguished city in Syria, has for generations rested within the borders of Turkey.  As a result, he scarcely got to go to visit his see city.  Meanwhile, much of his flock was scattered across Syria and Lebanon.  But he could see the writing on the wall.  For more than a generation increasing numbers of the Syrian Christian community had been relocating to places like Argentina and the United States.  What was to become of those who remained?  With resignation written all over his face, he knew there would be a day when he might be the only one left.  Of course at that moment he scarcely imagined how quickly things would spiral out of control, and how suddenly his worst fears would materialize.

imageMy one memento of that visit is a framed picture of the two of us, and it now hangs in my office at Saint John’s.  Patriarch Ignatius died two years ago, but he lived long enough to see the Christian exodus accelerate.  He also lived long enough to see his concern about the survival of their cultural heritage diminish somewhat by the work of HMML.  At that time he wondered aloud about the safety of their manuscripts and where they would go when the people had left.  Today it’s likely that no one knows the fate of all of those collections and their contents.  But at least the images on those pages have endured, thanks to the dogged effort of the staff of HMML.  And thanks too to their local partners in Iraq and Syria, who now must flee for their very lives.

Even the shortest reflection on the Middle East makes one wonder about the fragility of civilization.  With barbarism at the gates, cultural life can vanish almost in an instant.  So it is that the cradle of civlization that was once the Middle East now seems poised to throw away thousands of years of creativity.  Likewise, we are not far from the day when the only Christians to be found in the homeland of Christianity are tourists.

imageThere’s a range of emotion that comes calling in such a meditation.  Depression is one of them.   Horror is another.  But indifference and resignation are unforgivable.  They are not options in the Middle East nor in any of the other challenges that we encounter in life.  And I believe this to be so because in the worst of situations there’s always some glimmer of  hope and some faint opportunity to which thoughtful people can hold tightly.  Happily, our colleagues at HMML have done their bit, against steep odds.  That in itself serves as an example of the power that dedicated and determined people still have.

And what ought we to do when life throws us our own curve balls?  Something.  That’s why God gave us brains, imagination and energy.  They are among the most precious of the gifts we have.  But of course all gifts come with the obligation to do more than store them away.  God actually expects us to use those gifts, in whatever endeavor we are engaged.  Not only is that the least we can do, it is exactly what God calls us to do.


+On September 25th and 26th I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, in Collegeville.

+On September 27th I gave a talk on the spirituality of the Order of Malta at the orientation for candidates for membership in the Western Association, held in Los Angeles, CA.

+On September 28th I was in Oklahoma City to take part in the celebration of my mother’s 90th birthday.  I had the chance to visit with cousins I had not seen in ages, and enjoyed meeting the next generation of relatives whom I had yet to meet.  Some eighty people attended the reception,  held at our parish church of Christ the King.

+This last summer the staff of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library vacated their offices, while a destruction and construction crew came in and completely rebuilt the interior of the Library.  The results are nothing short of astonishing, as the pictures in today’s post suggest.  They are a preview of the renovation of Alcuin Library, in which HMML is located.  They show what you can do with a building that is in desperate need of renewal.

image+If you are wondering how I managed to make the flight schedule implied in the travels above, I too wonder.  This was not the best of weekends to travel, but it all worked.  Despite disruptions due to the fire at the air traffic control center in Chicago, I managed to make it to everything on time.  The kid in the seat behind me made the trip to Los Angeles particularly memorable.  He kicked my seat for much of the way.  At the last judgement may God have mercy on his soul.  By then I’m sure he will have built up quite a resumé.  Finally, I vowed years ago never to take the red-eye again.  But that’s exactly what I had to do to make it from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City in time for my mother’s birthday.  Never again.

Read Full Post »

imageTell No Tall Tales

Saint Benedict tells his monks that they are not to discuss with fellow monks what they’ve seen and heard on a journey.  I’m not entirely sure why, but it serves as a good reason for why I’m not going to talk about two little episodes I had on a trip to Indianapolis last week.

The first involved a connecting flight through Detroit.  For those who flew through the old airport and vowed they’d never set foot in that terminal again, I’m happy to report that for a few years now it’s been safe to fly through Detroit.  They must have sold the old terminal to a third-world country, or put it in a museum.  Anyway, it’s long gone, and in its place stands a sight to behold.  It’s shiny and sleek, and its main concourse is ideal for long-distance runners.  But since I’ve seen that new terminal before, that’s not what caught my eye this time around.  Rather, it was a magazine.  Or to be more precise, it was two successive issues of a magazine.

imageWe’ve all seen those glossy magazines that toot the glories of every hamlet and burg across America, so it should come as no surprise that Detroit would have one too.  However, it was not the magazine, but the lead story on the cover, that caught my eye as I sped along.

That issue had a headline that boldly compared Detroit to Paris.  This came as a surprise to me, to say the least.  I’ve been to both places, and up to now the resemblance had completely escaped me.  They don’t even speak the same language, for heaven’s sake.  But beyond that, evidently there’s a lot I’ve missed in my visits to those two cities, but I’m willing to give them both a second review.  Maybe someone will point out what I failed to see the first time around.

Three days later the return flight to Minneapolis also connected through Detroit.  My number one goal this time was to find a copy of that magazine on Detroit and Paris.  Without proof, my confreres would never believe my claim to have seen such a story.  So I searched high and low, but alas, there was no trace of a copy to be found anywhere.  Clearly, other equally stupefied travelers had snapped them all up, or the Chamber of Commerce had impounded them all, to avoid further embarrassment.

imageAll was not lost, however.  In its place was a new issue that proclaimed Detroit to be the 9th most creative city in America.  Actually, it could have been the 9th most creative city in the world, but I didn’t have time to read the fine print.  And again I didn’t have the presence of mind to grab a copy.  All that means that if I talk about this at home the abbot might conclude that I’m delirious and won’t let me off the property again.  And at best, my confreres will tease me for reading back-issues of Mad Magazine or The Onion once again.

The second notable experience took place in a rental car in Indianapolis.  Before I got into this particular vehicle I used to think that our abbey cars were pretty modern.  They all have roughly the same number of wheels, brakes, seats and a steering wheel on the left side.  And they all operate pretty much the same way.  But this car was unlike anything I’d sat in before.

imageFor one thing, it took me quite a while to start it.  It’s not that I’ve not driven a push-button car before.  It’s just that in this car I couldn’t figure out which button I dared to push.  Finally I tried one, and nothing happened.  Then the second one worked, and I felt a great sense of relief.  How would it look to go back to the rental desk and ask how to start their car?  I’ll tell you how it would look:  not good.

After that I spent quite a while figuring out how to turn on the radio.  That done, it took another thirty miles on the road before I discovered how to change stations.  It happened when my hand brushed against something and the music changed from country to rock.  Desperately I retraced the movement of my  hand to recall what I’d done to make this happen.  I figured it out at last, and I then had the luxury of choosing among twenty-five country and rock stations.  I never did find the classical or jazz, however.  For all I know, despite all the techno-gadgetry, maybe this car didn’t play that kind of music.

imageI never did learn how to adjust the side-view mirrors, but in true Minnesota fashion I decided they were just fine the way they were.  Nor did I dare try and find out what a lot of those other buttons did.  “Let sleeping dogs lie” is always a good motto to follow.  But in all this I did have one personal triumph.  All by myself I finally found the magic button that opens the flap to the gas tank.  Given the lengths to which car-makers go to hide that thing, I should have gotten some sort of prize, like a free trip to Detroit, where I could practice my French and eat croissants.

Anyway, for obvious reasons these are the kind of things you can’t talk about when you go home to the monastery.  For one thing, the monks will think that all I did was read humor magazines while I was gone.  For another, after that episode with the car in Indianapolis, the prior might very well ask me to turn in my driver’s license.  And I just got a new one a week ago.

Some tales are best left untold.  And so, out of respect for my confreres, I will not tell them that Detroit and Paris are a lot more alike than they had ever imagined.  And I’ll spare the nerves of the prior with my harrowing story of the car of the future.  And once again I will heed Saint Benedict’s sage advice.  He gave it for just such occasions.


+On September 15th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.   Among the distinguished members of the committee present were Fra Emmanual Rousseau of Paris, Fra Thomas Mulligan of Chicago, and Ambassador Robert Shafer, the Order of Malta’s representative at the United Nations in New York.

+On September 16th and 17th I gave talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Anderson University in Anderson, IN.

image+On September 19th through the 21st I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  This took place at Cardinal Stritch Retreat Center on the campus of Mundelein Seminary, in suburban Chicago.  You can access a copy of my sermon on Sunday, Understanding God’s Ways, in the section marked Presentations.  This turned out to be an interesting weekend to be in Chicago, since Cardinal George presented his successor, Bishop Blase Cupick.  We adjusted our retreat schedule so we could watch the news conference, which was quite interesting.

+I took the pictures in today’s post several months ago in Paris.  Unfortunately, I do not have a similar batch from Detroit.  However, since I’ve read that the two cities are very similar, these should serve for both.

Read Full Post »

imageThe Feast of Saint Clare

When it comes to Saints Francis and Clare, there’s no denying that Francis hogged the limelight.  One big reason for this has to be his undeniable charisma, and even at a remove of eight hundred years Francis tugs at the heart-strings.  And if people were surprised that Cardinal Bergolio would take the name Francis, we should be equally amazed that no one had taken that name sooner.  After all, sixteen popes have taken the name Benedict so far.

But leaving aside the issue of personality, Francis did a few things that Clare never dared to imagine.  For starters, it was Francis who reportedly stripped off his clothes in front of his father and the bishop and townspeople of Assisi.  Had Clare pulled a stunt like that, it would have been equally shocking, but not quite for the same reasons.  It was Francis and not Clare who went to Rome and knelt before Pope Innocent III.  It was Francis and not Clare who preached to the sultan of Egypt.  In fact, it was Francis who did all sorts of things that pushed the envelope; and not surprisingly, even in the 21st century, Francis looms large.  Meanwhile, Clare seems to be a member of the supporting cast in Saint Francis: The Movie!

imageThere’s no need to rehash the social and economic situation that confronted both Francis and Clare.  Many have done that already.  But suffice it to say that 13th-century Italy allowed men like Francis a lot more leeway when it came to lifestyle.  Francis was a free spirit who captured the popular imagination.  Meanwhile, what people found charming in someone like Francis, they could not and would not abide in a woman like Clare.  They seemed willing to let Francis wander, depending on the charity of others.  But Clare was another matter.  The streets were not safe for women then, just as they are not safe in some cities of the world today.

imageWhether the citizens of Assisi thought Clare was mad or naive we can only guess.  What we can imagine, however, was their initial reaction to her proposal to gather a community of women and live entirely on charity.  They would not own land to support themselves, nor would they make stuff to sell.  Rather, they would devote their lives to love of God and neighbor, and somehow God and neighbor would provide.  “What joy,” a few of the cynics must have thought to themselves.  “It’s what this town has always needed.”

Clare proposed a monastery that was unlike any other at the time.  Undoubtedly all monasteries depended  on some measure of charity, but most made an honest effort to do some work, just as Saint Benedict had demanded in his Rule.  But Clare, like Francis, marched to the beat of a different drummer.

As a monk I’m tempted to join the chorus of the more skeptical citizens of Assisi.  Not a few of them could see where this was going, and sooner or later Clare and her sisters would join the growing ranks of unproductive mouths to feed.   They would depend on the kindness of others, but they would offer nothing in return.

imageClare spoke in an entirely different language,  however.  Certainly she knew the social and economic realities of Assisi, yet she forged ahead and pushed a message that she thought the world needed to hear.

In my mind Clare brought two important ideas to the table.  First, she relied literally on the providence of God.  Just as God cares for the sparrows and the lilies, so God would care for her and her sisters.  God would sustain them in good times and bad, come what may.  But the takeaway here is that God does this for everyone, including the cynics in Assisi.

Second, in order for her vow of poverty to work, Clare would have to depend on the kindness of others.  In this scenario her neighbors became the chosen instruments of God.  Through them God showed lovingkindness to the world, and on such people Clare depended for her very life.  But the same is true for all of us, she would be quick to point out.  We don’t exist in isolation, complete unto ourselves.  For Clare it was important that people know how important they are in the lives of their neighbors.

imageNo wonder some of Clare’s fellow citizens thought her naive.  But to their suprise, people seemed not to tire of Clare and her sisters after all.  Her life spoke to the people of Assisi, and she reminded them that they too were important in the larger scheme of things.  They were more than mere economic units, because their real value derived from God.  They were God’s instruments in the world.

In hindsight I’m glad that Clare never went to the center of town to strip off her clothes, as did Francis.  She didn’t need to do that to make her point.  I’m glad she didn’t kneel before Pope Innocent III.  I’m glad too that she never wasted her time preaching to the sultan of Egypt.  Ironically, Clare had a profoundly important message to deliver, but her message was too important to rely on theatrics to make her point.  The very simplicity of her life, and the surrender of her life to God, spoke eloquently enough.

And what about the cynics of Assisi?  I’m sure they’d be miffed at how everything has turned out.  Today, eight hundred years later, we don’t know their names and we’d all yawn if we recounted their concerns — if we even knew them.  But ironically we do know what Clare cared about.  Clare reminded all of her fellow citizens of their intrinsic worth in the eyes of God.  Such a message was naive and uneconomic then, and it remains so today.  But it’s one we need to consider more often than merely once a year.


+On August 7th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access my sermon, Who do you say that Jesus is? in Presentations.  I remembered at that Mass Mr. Edmund L. Luzine, a member of the Order of Malta who lived in Albany, NY, and who died recently.  I had met Mr. and Mrs. Luzine many years ago at a Saint John’s University event in New York.  Subsequent to that they flew to Saint John’s to be present for the award of an honorary doctorate to Fra Andrew Bertie, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta.

+On August 8th I visited with a former student and friend who now lives in Luxembourg.  He and his family stayed at the Abbey guest house, as part of their annual vacation with family and friends in Minnesota.  That evening, as we walked around the campus, we ran into Bishop Donald Ketler of Saint Cloud, who was showing the campus to a priest-friend from Iowa.

image+On August 9th I said Mass for a gathering of alumni from the class of ’58 from Saint Saint John’s University.  The liturgy, and the dinner afterward, took place in Edina, MN.

+The horrible news from the Middle East has affected so many, but this week it touched our colleagues at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  For some time they have worked with the Dominicans in Iraq, in an effort to digitize the Christian manuscripts in that troubled part of the world.  Not so long ago the Dominicans had moved from Mosul and found refuge in a Christian town that they assumed to be safe.  Sadly, like most of the Christians of that town, they had to flee this week after it was overrun by the militants.  But to where will they go?

image+The pictures in today’s post all come from the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  Dating to the 19th century, this is the oldest building on campus.  For many years the courtyard sat neglected, but it has become the site of a vibrant garden, as the photos indicate.  In particular, it’s been a great year for the hydrangeas there.

Read Full Post »

imageThe Last Day of Christmas

On Sunday we celebrated the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist.  That feast obviously has deep religious significance in the life of Jesus, but it also serves an important liturgical function.  If you take your cues from the malls,  you might conclude that Christmas is all but over on December 26th, but that would be a big mistake.  In fact, at least in the Catholic tradition, the season ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year fell on January 12th.

If you want an easy way to distinguish monastic culture from the commercial world, look no further than the celebration of Christmas.  Long before monks even think about that season, stores have been decked out in Christmas attire for weeks and sometimes even months.  We’ve all seen stores offering Christmas stuff in July, and I know for a fact that these are not post-Christmas sales.  Apparently you can never be too early when it comes to Christmas — or so it seems in some quarters.

imageAll of this is a far cry from the monastic time frame.  Simple wreaths will show up on the 1st Sunday of Advent, but nothing even remotely festive appears until Christmas Eve.  By secular standards we’re ridiculously late.

But the contrast doesn’t end there.  By December 26th the stores are desperate to get the last of the Christmas merchandise moving.  Out it must all go, and with it go all the decorations as well.  I assume that Saint Valentine must be knocking on the door, while the Easter Bunny is thumping impatiently on the loading dock.

Not so in the monastery.  Since we only put up the decorations on the 24th, we’re not about to pack it all away after only two days.  It all stays up through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, after which it’s toast.  By Monday we’re full-throttle back into the liturgical non-season known as Ordinary Time.  What joy.

I  mention all this not to begin a reflection on the liturgical year, but rather as an issue of things and the meaning of things.  Since most of us have a tough time deciding when it’s time to let go of things, it strikes me as wonderfully convenient to have a particular day that puts limits on the useful life of things.  So it is that up through Vespers on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, all those Christmas things are wonderfully useful.  But by the time we process out from Vespers, those same items have become trash.  And by the next day it’s long gone.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a holiday like that for the entire nation?  I know I could use it for my room.

imageLast week I was lamenting to a colleague the mess in my office and in my room, but he cut me short with a suggestion.  Some time ago he had read a book entitled Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui.  He quickly assured me that feng shui wasn’t anything athletic, and that it would change my whole approach to clutter.  I promised to give it a try.

I’ve not yet finished the book, so perhaps it has still more magic to work on me.  But for now, a few things already have struck me.  First of all, whatever feng shui may be in its fullest articulation, some of it sounds suspiciously like common sense.  On the other hand it’s taking me a bit to shift into unfamiliar terminology.  Up to now the junk in my room has merely gotten on my nerves.  I now understand that that junk is in fact clutter.  And it’s not bugging the heck out of me.  Instead, it’s sending out negative energy, which is adding to the clutter in my mind.

I know that further ecumenical dialog is needed here, but given Saint Benedict’s teaching on things there may be the potential for a meeting of minds.  First of all, Benedict doesn’t see things as intrinsically evil.  In fact, the shared tools of the monastery should be treated as if they were the vessels of the altar.  But when it comes to individual ownership, Benedict shows his true colors.  In theory monks are not to own any private property.  In practice, however, that’s never really worked out.  Instead, Benedict allows that some monks will need more and some less.  But all should be given what is necessary to do their work well and to meet the needs of each day.  Here, however, Benedict goes against the flow of modern culture, because he clearly praises the monk who can get by on less.

imageWhere Benedict might be on common ground with the enthusiasts of feng shui is on the issue of mental clutter.  Property may not be evil, but it can easily play tricks on the mind of the monk.  The few possessions can easily become the great treasure that needs protecting.  In such a case, no wonder a monk might be distracted from the search for God.  So it is that Benedict saw the link between things and the mind.  And whether you call it negative energy, the influence of the devil, or simply driving you crazy, it’s there.

Anyway, my irritation at the junk that cluttered my room finally got the better of me.  Two days before the end of the Christmas season I carted off magazines and papers and many items that had no business being in my room.  For the sake of argument I now assume that the feng shui is flowing a lot better in my room.  I also know that I have a lot less clutter in my mind and a lot more peace of mind.  Now I’ll need all of that as I face the rigors of Ordinary Time.


+On January 5th I flew south and was able to spend two days with my mother and brothers and sisters in Edmond, OK, before going to Dallas for a series of meetings.

image+On January 7th I had the opportunity to visit the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.  Founded by monks who had fled Hungary after the revolt in 1956, they conduct a highly-regarded prep school in Irving, TX, only a short bit from the airport.  I was welcomed by Abbot Peter Verhalen, O.Cist., who gave me a great tour of the monastery and the school.  The enclosed pictures illustrate their church, which reflects the spare lines of the Cistercian monastic tradition.  For those unfamiliar with the Cistercians, they are an early 12th-century reform movement following the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Still later the Trappists emerged as a reform group of the Cistercians.  The Cistercians were quite deliberate in their emphasis on artistic simplicity, as a comparison with the images from churches in Munich (above) make abundantly clear.

image+On January 8th I had dinner with and spoke to a gathering of alumni of Saint John’s University who live in the Dallas area.

+On January 12th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and you may see the text, The Baptism of the Lord, in Presentations.

+This last week we welcomed as our guest in the monastery Fr. Roger Akhrass, a Syrian Orthodox monk from Lebanon.  He will be with us for the winter/spring semester as he pursues research at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.

image+After a rather lengthy cold snap (understatement), the temperatures finally climbed up to 30 late in the week.  That warming trend in no way threatened those who enjoy the pleasures of ice-fishing, since the lake ice is estimated to be nearly two feet thick.  But it did allow us to ring the abbey bells once again.  When it gets too cold we’ve had to leave off ringing them, since we’ve cracked more than one in recent years.  It was great to hear them again.

Read Full Post »

imageIn Search of the Authentic

My heart gave out a quiet cheer for the Benedictine monks of Montmajour last week.  They hadn’t caught any breaks in ages, so they were long overdue when a bit of recognition finally came their way.

Founded in the 10th century near the southern French town of Arles, the monks occupied a prominent site, and on it they built an impressive complex that dominated the landscape.  The centuries were not kind, however, and in later years a succession of non-residential abbots exploited the monks and their property.  But in 1639 the last of the worst of these abbots, Charles Bichi, lost his iron grip on the revenues and the monastery came under the control of a group of reforming Benedictines from Paris.

With a surname like Bichi, and a demeanor that may have matched, you have to wonder why some of the old monks hated to see him go.  Maybe they didn’t want to be reformed.  Maybe they thought that an abbot a hundred miles away was better than one just down the hall.  Anyway, M. Bichi got his walking papers, and the monks got a relatively tranquil life until the place was secularized in 1786.  Then the place went to rack and ruin, literally.  And that’s when Vincent Van Gogh enters the story.

imageVan Gogh loved the place, and in one particular painting the abbey of Montmajour figures in the background.  Unfortunately, for nearly a century the experts considered this piece to be a fake, and through much of that time it led a rather obscure life in somebody’s attic.  It continued to do just that until last week.  That’s when a few art historians announced that Van Gogh had indeed painted this canvas after all.  It was authentic, and it dated from his years as a mature artist.  It was, they concluded, the first such Van Gogh to surface since the 1930’s.

Eighty years is no big deal to a medieval historian like me, but it’s an eon in the world of art historians.  Not surprisingly, many of them could scarcely contain their excitement, and rivers of hype and superlatives have followed.  Naturally, I’m happy for them.  And I’m happy for the owner of this painting, who stands to reap a wheel-barrow load of Euros at the cash window.   But I’m happiest for the monks.  On September 10th the entire community, long-deceased and for the most part resident in heaven, got to see their monastery cited on page one of the Arts Section of The New York Times.  They also got an honorable mention in The Wall Street Journal.  Their work has not been in vain, and it had to be gratifying to them.

imageDespite the Cinderella slant to this story, there’s something that unsettles me just a bit.  For fans of The Antiques Road Show, this is the mega-jackpot, of course.  We’ve all dreamed of dragging our aunt’s old teapot out of the attic, only to have it appraised at $10,000.  And who hasn’t fantasized about the true value of those old, in-mint-condition magazines stacked in the basement?  But a forgotten painting in the attic that could fetch $50 million at auction?  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like no attic I’ve ever been in.  This is not your average attic, and you have to wonder what other auction-monsters the owner will drag out in the years to come.

Still more troubling is the sudden reversal of fortune for this painting.  One day it is a useless piece of junk, good for nothing save collecting dust.  The next day it is worth untold millions.  What changed here?  Certainly it was not the painting itself.  Either it was as lovely on Tuesday as it was on Wednesday, or it wasn’t.  This was definitely not a case of an ugly duckling evolving into a graceful swan in the course of a few hours.

imageThere’s only one thing on which I can pin any change in character, and it’s this.  It was the same painting before and after; but on one day it was a worthless forgery, and the next it was a $50 million Van Gogh.  It’s as simple as a change of label.  The subject may be anything from a landfill to a stray dog or a pick-up truck at a stop sign.  But if it is a $50 million Van Gogh painting of a truck at a stop sign, it is breathtakingly beautiful.

I don’t mean to sound cynical here, but how else do you explain this?  People could care less about a nondescript painting stored in the attic.  But we will line up for twenty minutes and more to see a painting with a famous name on it.  The fact is, we adore celebrities, and we love items with big price tags on them.  And I suppose it’s also safe to conclude that anything expensive must also be beautiful.

Deep down I’m glad that the experts declared this to be an authentic Van Gogh.  I’m delighted too for the owners and their lawyers, who no doubt watched from the sidelines with detached curiosity.  I’m sure all were driven by their altruistic love of art in their quest to solve the mystery of this painting.

imageConversely, I’m not at all surprised by the alacrity of the media in picking up on this story.  It’s a good tale, and one that piques the imagination.  But while it answers the question of authenticity on one level, it raises it on another.

For better and for worse, trend-setters do exactly that: they help us decide what we like, even before we know what it is we would like to like.  It’s peer pressure and social convention that encourage us to ignore the beautiful fake in the attic, while we flock to see the famous mediocrity in the gallery.  Too often we let others decide for us, when we should be making those judgments for ourselves.

That strikes me as the moral to take from all this.  As people who aspire to be mature human beings, we must be the ones who decide what we like and dislike, and we ought not cede that to some expert.  If something or someone is beautiful, they will be beautiful no matter what price tag the appraiser sticks on it.  And if something means a lot to us, we need to cherish it now, rather than wait for an expert to tell us when it’s cool to do so.  This too is a form of authenticity, and we are being authentic when we make decisions for ourselves.

imageAt the end of the episode the owners of the new Van Gogh come out way ahead.  Their lawyers come out way ahead.  And perhaps a few art historians get a big boost to their careers.  As for Van Gogh, he doesn’t get a penny from the upgraded sale price. With a well-established reputation, he scarcely needs the additional fame.  But perhaps he gets some amusement from all this, because the whole thing has confirmed his appreciation of human nature once again.

But it’s the monks of Montmajour who must be pleased as punch.  They went to Montmajour to seek God and not celebrity.  But even a small appearance in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal has to be savored.  And they can take solace in knowing  that a few people have enjoyed a peek into the ruins of their monastery.  But most of all, I hope they take pleasure in knowing that they’ve struck the spiritual imagination of at least somebody out there.  If even one person joins them in the spiritual quest for authenticity, then those monks continue to fulfill their mission.


+Recently I took the opportunity to visit our confrere, Fr. Edward Vebelun, OSB, who in July became pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Richmond, MN.  The parish is just a few miles from Saint John’s, and monks have served as pastors there since 1856.  It’s a lovely church, and the statue of Saint Benedict on the main altar shows the Benedictine connection clearly.  It is noted for its huge German-style stations of the cross, as well as for the paintings that grace the ceiling of the church.  The cycle of paintings include both men and women, saints and biblical figures.  But it is the stained glass which I find stunning.  The pictures in today’s post all come from Saints Peter and Paul Church.

image+On September 9th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  We were joined by three new members, including Fra Emmanuel Rousseau, KJ, of Paris; Fra Thomas Mulligan, KJ, of Chicago, and Mr. Michael Grace, a member of the Order of Malta from Pasadena, CA.  Currently the Center assists in archival preservation projects in Malta as well as at the archives of the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta in Rome.

+On September 14-15th I made a brief trip to Seattle, where I gave talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Epiphany Episcopal Church.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »