Posts Tagged ‘Into the Great Silence’

img_3993Jesus Blesses and Keeps Us

[Today’s post presents the sermon I gave on New Year’s Day in the Abbey church.]

A few years ago the movie Into the Great Silence gave a glimpse into life in a Carthusian monastery.  To the surprise of many, those Carthusians may have been silent, but their world was anything but.  In fact, their silence allowed them to hear the ordinary things that many of us never hear.

That movie also reinforced the stereotype that all monks keep silence.  That may be true for Carthusians, but it’s certainly not the case with Benedictines; and at Saint John’s I dare say we can chatter away with the best of them.  Still, Saint Benedict did give silence a priority in his Rule, and he outlines it in chapter six.  “So important is silence,” he wrote, “that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written:  ‘In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.'”

Right now some of you may be thinking that maybe it’s time for me to be a good monk and sit down and shut up.  I have to admit that I too was tempted by that thought.  And after all the noise of the last year perhaps it would be a good thing to ask Pope Francis to dedicate 2017 as The Year of Silence, starting now.  But then it occurred to me that on the Feast of Mary the Mother of God I should at least say something, and it need not be a “flood of words.”  And so, in the interest of brevity, I offer these few thoughts.

img_2102First of all, I find the blessing from the Book of Numbers chapter 6 really curious.  Remember that Moses was not allowed to look at God lest he die.  To reinforce that, the law of Moses banned the worship of graven images.  And yet the Book of Numbers asks us to imagine the face of God and the eyes of God and the voice and hand of God raised in blessing.  These are the very human and material attributes that the Mosaic Code bent over backward to avoid.  Was this a concession to a people who could not imagine a relationship with an abstract being or some mystical force pervading the universe?

Then we turn to the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, where we continue with the story of the birth of Jesus.  Mary is indeed the mother of Jesus the man, which all of the gospels stress emphatically.  But she is also the mother of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Like Mary, we are left to ponder what all of this might mean.  How could this possibly be, since it runs counter to the ban on graven images in the Ten Commandments?  Has God defied his own laws?

img_2103Whatever else the mystery of the Incarnation may suggest, it does say one thing quite explicitly:  God so loved us that he sent his son to be one of us.  Jesus has not only become like us;  he has become our very brother.  And in the process Jesus becomes the embodiment of what God promises in the Book of Numbers.  In Jesus God blesses us and keeps us.  In Jesus God lets his face shine upon us and is gracious to us. It is Jesus who looks kindly upon us and gives us peace.

So what does this mean to us on a practical level?  For one thing it means that Jesus reaches out to touch us in order to transform us.  In the Orthodox tradition theologians have termed this divinization.  Plainly stated, in Jesus God became human so that humans might become God.  And it’s a transformation that begins here and now, and not someday, later on.  Even now the life of God enters us, and we have life in abundance.  It’s life that we share and celebrate now.

img_2104The Incarnation of Jesus says yet one more thing that we can appreciate.  Jesus did not become the Son of Mary in order to be some abstract life force in the universe.  He does not intend to remain aloof and irrelevant to our lives.  And unlike the Carthusians, Jesus does not take a vow of silence.  Instead he walks with us; he speaks to us; he listens to what we have to say; he stands beside us in good times and in bad.  In short, Jesus reaches out to be one with us.  He reaches out to be our brother.

That, it seems to me, is what the mystery of the Incarnation is all about.  Jesus came to share in our humanity and to share with us his divine life.  He came to transform us so that we might live life to the fullest.  But of course on this feast of Mary the Mother of God I’m not asking you to take my word for it.  Ask Jesus yourself, and you’ll be more than surprised by what he has to say to you.


+On December 26th, the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr, I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass.

+On January 1st I was again the main celebrant at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon from that occasion.  In case you think it odd that I preside twice in such a short span of time, the logic is simple.  Because of my travels I am acutely aware that I don’t take my fair share of household duties in the monastery.  So when I’m home I try to squeeze in as much as I can.  But I’ll never catch up, and I have to acknowledge my debt to generous confreres who do so much.  They do far more than I, and I am grateful.

+Every now and again a comment will elicit an interesting response from readers of this blog.  Last week I noted that in the Christmas pageant that preceded the Christmas Eve children’s Mass at the Abbey parish, the staging gave mixed impressions.  To those sitting in the front pews Mary had a baby, while two shepherd beside her held dolls that were clearly lambs.  To those of us in the back pews, however, they all looked like baby dolls, suggesting that Mary had given birth to triplets.  One friend shared the story of his granddaughter who played Mary.  Unfortunately, en route to the manger the head of baby Jesus fell off.  That too was not in the script, and my imagination has run wild with that thought ever since.  Hopefully the trauma did not discourage the little girl from becoming a mother — or an actress.

img_9756+It’s just about time to put away my favorite CD of all time — Holly and the Ivy, by John Rutter and the choir of Clare College at Cambridge.  Over the holidays I’ve listened to it at least twice a day.  I confess that I’ve also listened to it in July.  It never tires!

+The first photo in today’s post is of an icon by Aidan Hart, in the Abbey church.  The next photos are of pieces housed at the V & A in London.  First are three glass windows (ca.1520) crafted for the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Next is a Virgin and Child in limestone, Italian, ca. 1160.  At bottom is a Virgin and Child, also Italian, ca. 1450.

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IMG_9353Holy Leisure — A Waste of Time?

Like so many people, I grew up nourished by the maxim that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  My parents and teachers reinforced this whenever they could, and perhaps that’s why I internalized it so well.  Anyway, by age thirty I had already compiled an impressive list of tasks accomplished.  But I also knew that this sort of attitude about life brings its special problems.  Specifically, for people like me and others I know, we can never really do enough.  It was nice that we had managed to use most of our time wisely, but ultimately what we’d done in the past mattered little compared to the challenges yet to come.  Before us stretched the years, and the potential to waste any or all of that time was something to fear at all costs.

For years I thought I had been pretty industrious in the use of my time, but then smart phones came along.  Those little machines made me painfully aware of just how many minutes and seconds I had frittered away through the years.  With a smart phone I could put my life on track, and I could wring every opportunity from every minute.  With even modest diligence I could reduce wastage to mere seconds a day.

IMG_9264In a recent essay in The Week, managing editor Carolyn O’Hara describes her own discovery of how much time she had wasted before the advent of the smart phone.  Like me she had learned early on about the inherent sinfulness of boredom and idleness, and she too discovered the exhilaration of filling every waking moment with work.  For a while, then, the smart phone transformed her life.  But then it happened.  Eventually it dawned on her that non-stop business was not the virtue she had once assumed.  In banishing quiet and empty time from her life, she had lost something very important: her creativity.

“Truly empty time is vitally important” she writes.  “When not distracted, our brains are free to wander off on creative tangents, as feelings and thoughts bubble up in the silence; there’s a reason bright ideas and breakthroughs tend to come in the shower or on long walks.”  (16 October, 2015, p. 3.)

IMG_9285It’s amazing how easy it has been for the smart phone to upend our lives.  In fact, most of us have surrendered without much of a fight, on the assumption that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  You see examples of this surrender in restaurants and on the streets, where people prefer to talk with a disembodied voice rather than with the flesh and blood human being in front of them.  And I’ve seen a variant of this in many first-time visitors to the abbey.  On arrival they are struck by the silence, both in the guesthouse and also in the abbey church.  Many of them find the silence intimidating, because they’ve never really experienced silence in their lives.  For them the big test comes especially during the recitation of the psalms at morning and evening prayer.  We monks are accustomed to one full minute of silence between each psalm, but visitors find that one minute to be a novel experience.  For a few it’s almost too much to bear.  Those interludes seem to give new appreciation for the line from the psalm that reads “one day within your courts is like a thousand elsewhere.”  In our choir many discover how infinitely long one minute of silence can seem, and for a few it is just too much.  But if they keep it up, in time they discover how exhilarating it is when time seems to stand still.

IMG_9316Long ago we monks got used to these meditative pauses, and now I assume all of us savor the chance to sit, to be silent, and to indulge in what the world considers to be an idle waste of time.  But idleness it is not.  Nor is it a waste.  With smart phones silenced and the absence of chatter, and with nothing else to do but sit there waiting for the next psalm, we experience the chance to listen to what God has to say.  That’s when we experience the Spirit stirring within us.

When the movie Into the Great Silence made its debut, its portrait of life in a Carthusian monastery drew mixed responses.  I fondly recall one reviewer from The Minneapolis StarTribune, who took umbrage at the absence of a sound track that could have carried the film through the slow parts.  He didn’t go so far as to recommend an orchestral overture to introduce the movie, but he was moving in that direction.  Obviously, however, he missed the point of the movie entirely.  Granted, there was no musical background; and there was indeed a scarcity of words,  But there was more than enough to listen to, because in their silence the monks heard things that most of us miss completely in our day-to-day craziness.  .

IMG_9367The silence and holy leisure that allow us to listen is the point of monastic life, and of Christian life as well.  Jesus often commented on how people had ears to hear but never seemed to hear anything.  Echoing this, Saint Benedict urged his monks to listen, and in fact those are the first words in his Rule.  Clearly he did not intend to banish sound from the monastery; rather, he preferred quality over the the quantity of sound.

Sadly, what makes listening so difficult these days is not the quality of the sound, but the quantity.  Our world is inundated with noise, and smart phones compete furiously for whatever attention they can get.  Not surprisingly, then, despite having ears to hear and more stuff to hear than ever before in human history, we generally miss out on what is truly important.  We fail to pay attention to what really matters.

It’s never too late to make space in our day to be silent and to listen.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it may even be good to silence our smart phones once in a while, just to better hear the ordinary stuff that’s been going on around us.  Who knows what great things we’ve been missing?  And if we run the risk of not hearing as much stuff as before, we might very well have those creative insights that will make for us all he difference in the world.


+On October 14 I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access my sermon, Did Jesus Have Bad Days? through this link.

+On October 15 I attended a reception for alumni of Saint John’s University, held in Dallas, TX

+On October 16-18 I gave a retreat to the Dallas/Houston area members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  We held the retreat at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, in Lake Dallas, TX.  The members made for a wonderful time, and I look forward to meeting with them again someday.  In my conferences I spoke on the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+I took the photos in today’s post last week.  At the end of the summer the prognosticators had promised an autumn filled with glorious color.  We’ve had some, but not quite as much as what we had expected.

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Easter Vigil: blessing of the fire

Easter Vigil: blessing of the fire

What is a Crotalus?

1,400 years ago Saint Benedict wrote that the ways of the world should not necessarily be the ways of the monastery.  Of course he never meant to take that to the extreme, even if some monks on occasion have tried to do so.  Still, the Benedictine tradition has crafted a culture that is distinctive after all these centuries; and a whole range of rituals and symbols distinguish us markedly from our neighbors.  The use of the crotalus is one such instance.

Now the vast majority of people haven’t the faintest idea what a crotalus is or what it does.  What it is is a wooden clapper.  What it does is wake us up and call us to pray during the 48-hour interval between the Holy Thursday Eucharist and the Easter vigil.  During that span the bells of the church fall silent, marking the period of the passion of Christ.  Only at the Gloria of the vigil service at Easter do they peal out again in joy.  In the meantime, the crotalus does duty for the bells.

Lighting of the Easter candle

Lighting of the Easter candle

Once upon a time the majority of Catholic Churches used the crotalus during the Triduum, but by and large the crotalus has fallen out of general  use, except in monasteries.  And so, during this two-day window, the crotalus summons us to prayer with its distinctive wood-on-wood clapping sound.  There is no mistaking it, and for monks it is the once-a-year sort of sound that threads the years together.  But what gives it a special eloquence is its ability to pierce through the many sounds that pervade the monastery during these holy days.

The thought of noise in a monastery may come as a shock, since many assume that this must be a pretty quiet place — sort of like a tomb.  I’ll grant that there are silent places like that in the monastery, but they tend to be few and far between.  And they are quiet because, to borrow the words of Yogi Berra, “nobody goes there anymore.”  The hall outside my room tends to be one such place.  As fortune would have it, my room is at the end of a hall that is a dead end, or cul-de-sac, to put it more elegantly.  As a result, very little traffic goes by, and noise is at a minimum.  As for the rest of the monastery, sound is rarely absent.

For those who expect monks to keep absolute silence, it seems like we must be falling down  on the job, and I’m sorry to disappoint them.  But I need to remind them how difficult it is to eradicate sound, except in those hyper-expensive sound labs.  Meantime, like everyplace else, sound seeps into a monastery, because you can’t banish it entirely.

DSC00186In fact, the ubiquity of sound was the major point of Into the Great Silence, the movie that offered a tableau of life in a Carthusian monastery.  While one reviewer in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune panned it for its lack of a sound track, slightly more alert viewers saw it for what it was.  Far from banishing sound, the monks opened themselves to hearing sounds that the rest of us scarcely imagine.  They hear sounds that motors and air-ducts and muzak long ago crowded out or masked.  Their monastery is a world replete with sound;  but it is the sound of nature and their own breathing and footsteps.

Theirs is also a world in which a thousand voices rush in to take advantage of the silence.  Those who regularly meditate know the true work it takes to keep these voices at bay.  A novice at meditation assumes it’s easy to clear one’s mind of alien thoughts; but they are always surprised when dozens of long-lost neighbors show up and demand to be taken seriously.   People often refer to these intruders as “distractions,” but they are part of the baggage that we all carry around.  They are those little things that nag at the back of our mind until given leave to rush into our silence.  They force us to deal with them directly.  Ironically, that may very well be one good use of our quiet time.

DSC00208So what voices competed for my attention during this Triduum?  Well, there were certainly the usual holy day visitors.  One whispered that someone read the lesson rather poorly.  Another reminded me that a particular piece of music did not justify the time and effort it took to learn it.  Other voices reminded me of the onset of spring and the chance for a nap later in the day.

In addition to the imaginary voices, however, I heard other voices that were quite real and spoke far more eloquently.  For one thing, I listened one morning as two of my neighbors practiced the Exultet in ther rooms down the hall from me.  That Easter chant is a most challenging bit of music, and one neighbor would sing it at a convent liturgy later that evening.  The other would sing it at a parish in nearby New Munich , MN.  (Yes, there is such a place.)

Not a few times during Holy Week as I walked by the Abbey church, I heard the strains of choirs and soloists in rehearsal.  Each time I chuckled to myself.  If only the movie critic could be here now, he’d know that at least my monastery did come with a sound track.  Maybe we’d even get a decent review.

Fr. John Meoska and crotalus

Fr. John Meoska and crotalus

And this brings me back to the crotalus.  There’s no denying that the crotalus serves many useful purposes, one of which is quite secular.  For those hard-to-shop-for people who seem to have everything, the crotalus is the answer to a prayer.  I can almost guarantee that if you give a crotalus this Christmas, they likely won’t have one.  And if it deflates their ego that you found something they did not have, it could very well be the wake-up call they’ve been needing.

But in the context of Holy Week, the crotalus serves another useful purpose.  Just when spring seems hopelessly out of reach, and just when it seems like we’ve heard it all before,  it cuts through the white noise around us.  Both the crotalus and the Triduum remind us that, in the dead spots of life, there is resurrection and renewal.  And they serve to remind us of one thing that Jesus continues to say to each of us:  “Let those who have ears to hear, listen.”

Good Friday: veneration of the Cross

Good Friday: veneration of the Cross


+At the Easter Vigil Service Abbot John received into the Church and confirmed Sara McGill, Professor of Geology at California State University.  This year she is a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute.

+The ritual of making maple syrup began several days ago with the tapping of over 1,000 maple trees in the Abbey forest.  For better and for worse, the sap only flows when it freezes at night and climbs above freezing during the day.  Unfortunately, that second key ingredient has been missing this spring — meaning sap collectors and cookers have had very little to do.  However, warm teperatures on Holy Thursday finally coaxed the sap out of the roots, and the trees began to yield a steady flow.  To learn more about this rite of spring at Saint John’s, click here for a wonderful video.

+On March 25th The Morgan Library & Museum in New York announced that it will exhibit one volume from its Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  From May 7th through August 25th it will have on display the Prophets volume, along with Donald Jackson’s preliminary study for the illumination of the opening of the Gospel of John.  For The Morgan’s announcement, visit this page on its website.

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