It was my first morning as chaplain on a cruise ship. How I got that plum job is a story for another time; but in return for a daily Mass, Sunday services for the crew, and availability to one and all, I got passage from San Francisco to Alaska and back. The gorgeous scenery was merely a free extra, as were moments of quiet time.
I was seated in a cafe, sipping coffee and trying to compose a sermon for the Mass I would say later that morning. Despite the hour, the place was surprisingly full, and when one white-haired gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly welcomed him. I could figure out a sermon later, I hoped.
So began a friendship that has developed in the course of over ten years. Soon enough I and my friends John and Rose Lyden were on a first-name basis, and an encounter that began at sea took root on land. Later I did a two-week stint at their home parish in Bridgehampton, NY, and still later I witnessed the renewal of wedding vows by them and nine other couples on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. Last May I had the honor and the sad duty to preach at Rose’s funeral. In the course of all that I recognized that in some way I had become part of the family.
Gradually John and Rose learned about my life as a monk at Saint John’s, and they also learned about my work at Saint John’s University. It was after their first visit to Saint John’s that John stunned me with a question. He knew we had done great work in partnership with St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ. Graduates from that inner-city school had come to Saint John’s for college, and the results have been extraordinary. For his part John had worked with an organization to improve graduation rates at Immokalee High School, situated at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from nearby Naples, FL. Many there were now ready for college, and he wondered if Saint John’s might be the right place for some of them. The light bulb went on in my head, and my quick response was “Yes!” John would help to make their education at Saint John’s possible, if we would extend to these guys the same sort of moral support we have given to the guys from Newark.
This year, two years into the project, we have four guys from Immokalee at Saint John’s. This fall and next we expect to add two more per year. Our goal then is to have eight students at any given time, with two students in each class. We hope to see each graduate within four years, with little or no debt to encumber them as they embark on their post-college careers. Considering the challenges of life in Immokalee — a community of migrants that struggles mightily — this is nothing short of a God-send. It’s the chance for these young men to shape lives in which poverty will no longer be the major factor. They can be who they choose to be.
John is nothing if not persistent and high-energy, and as we began the project he enlisted the partnership of his college classmate from Brown University, Jack Marshall. The goal was to support a rotation of eight students and in time to have those eight scholarships fully endowed. Obviously we need the help of others to make it happen, but ours is a noble objective. We hope to shape the lives of some promising young men and to give them the chance for a future beyond anything they might have imagined.
Not a few people thought we were crazy. Could a kid from Florida find happiness in Minnesota? I pointed out that for decades Saint John’s has hosted students from the Bahamas, and none has ever died of the cold. Of course there would be cultural differences between Immokalee and Collegeville. But would they be insurmountable?
Last fall, a month into the school year, Osbaldo, a freshman from Immokalee, stepped out of his dorm room and ran into some of his floor mates. He had just cut his own hair, and some asked if he might cut theirs. Later a freshman who had graduated from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles asked if he might cut his hair too. Osbaldo hesitated, then said he was self-taught and had never cut black hair before. “Go for it,” replied the Angelino. A month later he was back at Osbaldo’s door. “I have an interview for an internship tomorrow. Can you cut my hair again?”
There you have completely non-scientific proof that such a crazy idea just might work. Anytime a Latino from Immokalee, FL, cuts the hair of a guy from Los Angeles in a dorm room in Collegeville, MN, something good must be happening. It may be community; it may be friendship; but whatever it is, it isn’t bad. In fact, it may just be a bit of the magic that Saint John’s can work.
Saint Benedict in his Rule wasted no time writing about transformative experiences on top of a mountain. For him most anything of value takes place slowly and deliberately, and generally in the most ordinary of times and places. So it was that I was blessed to be having coffee one morning off the coast of California. I thought I had sat down to write a sermon, but God had other plans. Because I welcomed another person to sit at my table, I ended up knowing two and then three terrific people. Then one thing led to another. What came of it all was the chance for a few kids from Florida to come to work their own magic and to create new lives for themselves at Saint John’s.
+On March 11 St. Martin’s Voices, a choir of ten from the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, joined us for evening prayer. They sang two psalms as well as the Salve Regina, and we listened in awe to the beauty of their voices. Saint John’s has had a long relationship with St. Martin’s, and this was not the first visit of their choir to Saint John’s. A set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible sits on permanent display in their educational center, and they’ve hosted an exhibit of the Bible. More recently the former vicar of St. Martin’s, Bishop Nicholas Holtam of Salisbury, joined us at Westminster Cathedral in London when Cardinal Vincent Nichols invested our scribe Donald Jackson as a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.
+About two weeks ago Brother Walter led a group that fixed 1,100 taps to maple trees in one section of the forest. For the sap to flow well it must climb above freezing in the day and go below freezing at night. Since then we have had rollercoaster weather. Twice we we’ve gone into the 60s, and on the 12th it snowed. Who knows whether the sap will flow today.
+I have much improved since I pulled something in my back a few days ago. I have stayed at home, save for trips to the doctor, and later this week I will have an MRI, which I dread. This is an irony worthy of Dante, in that someone who lives in a cloister should be claustrophobic. But I will survive.
+There is a postscript to the story of the cruise worth sharing. At that first Mass cheers erupted from the back of the room when I introduced myself. “What’s that about,” I thought to myself. They came from two alumni from Saint John’s — one from Atlanta and the other from Danville, CA. We’ve been friends ever since.
+In today’s post I have a variety of images from two museums. At top are two stained glass windows, each from the 16th century. The first is French glass, and the second Italian. Both are from the Civic Museum in Bologna, Italy. Below them is an ivory image of the Arrest of Jesus, made ca. 1320, in Paris. Following that is a Crucifixion by Leonard Limosin, made in Limoges ca. 1552. At bottom is Christ in Blessing, Byzantine, 10-11th c. The bottom three pieces are housed in the Louvre in Paris.