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Posts Tagged ‘Jaroslav Pelikan’

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Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.

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Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.

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Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.

9780A5CF-AD21-49AF-8413-B6CB2F6717D5NOTES

+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.

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Several years ago a commercial paraded a group of pre-schoolers before the cameras to offer their life’s ambition.  “When I grow up I want to be overworked and underappreciated,” stated one optimistic youngster.  Yet another said that “when I grow up I want to be forced into early retirement.”  These are in the spirit of the deathbed confession of the man who wished he had spent more time at the office, or the other guy who regretted that he had not watched more television when he had the chance.

Sadly, all too often our worst dreams can come true.  Some people are indeed underappreciated for their dedicated work.  Some are forced into early retirement.  Some do watch way too much television, and some do invest too much of themselves in the office.  Whether by choice or by circumstance, these things happen to people.

However life may turn out, there prevails the gnawing suspicion that most people live lives that never seem complete.  This is painfully apparent with the death of a child or a rescue worker or an accident victim.  Even when people sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, there remains the lingering regret that lives have been cut short.  They did not flower into their true potential, and life was definitley unfair for these people.  Even a materialist would rationalize that there was so much shopping to do, and so little time at the mall.  How sad it is when people cannot contribute meaningfully to the gross domestic product.

The death of the young puts into bold relief the aimless lives and poor decisions that the long-lived sometimes make.  When we have all the time in the world, there is no real rush to make the difficult choices.  With the prospect of limitless years before us, it’s easy to put off until tomorrow some of the most important things in life.  We forget that, more often than not, tomorrow never comes.  So ironically, young people who die before their time give prophetic witness.  They put us on the spot — we who blissfully fritter away our days as if there is an endless supply.

In the apse of the Great Hall at Saint John’s is an overpowering Christ in Majesty who challenges anyone who would pause to meditate.  “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” proclaims Jesus the Christ.  It’s not meant to be a cheery slogan to sell another product.  It is a take-it-or-leave-it alternative that orders our life, one way or the other.  If you follow, then it becomes the bedrock of your existence.  If you choose not to, then you have every duty to find some other alternative inspiration to guide your life.

Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian at Yale, once remarked that “If Jesus rose from the dead, then nothing else matters.  If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then nothing else matters.”  For Christians Jesus is the point of reference that determines every moment of our being.  If you take that leap of faith, you can never be the same, as Pelikan pointed out on many an occasion.  When asked why he converted to Orthodoxy so late in life, he responded that “you can only circle the airport for so long.”  Whatever  you choose to do, there are obvious consequences.

To live a life filled with purpose is about as noble a goal as one can set.  In the Benedictine tradition the novice must commit to seek God, and to do so for a lifetime.  But this is only an echo of the baptismal vows that any Christian makes.  Baptism is certainly a rite of initiation into the Church, but it is also a commitment to a way of living that gives meaning to each and every day — including this one.

Monastery notes

In 1958 the monks of Saint John’s began construction of the new Abbey church, designed to accomodate the growing monastic community as well as the student body.  It has since become one of architect Marcel Breuer’s iconic works and a singular piece of American church architecture.  In 2011 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of its consecration, and in October there are several events that will commemorate this great occasion, to which the public is invited.

On October 5th, at 8 pm, in the Centenary Room at Saint John’s University, Bishop Bill Franklin and Dean Tom Fisher will speak on the enduring significance of this church.  Bishop Franklin is a former faculty member in the history department at Saint John’s University.  He went on to become professor at General Seminary in New York and Dean at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.  This year he was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York.  Tom Fisher is dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

Reading in the Refectory

“Reading will always accompany the meals of the Brothers.” (chapter 38, Rule of Saint Benedict.)

For nearly 1,500 years monks and nuns in Benedictine monasteries have listened to public reading during meals, and some might find it curious that at Saint John’s we continue this practice in the 21st century.  In part we do it because the Rule calls for it.  In part we do it to give all of the monks a common text to discuss — or not.  And we do it to vary our daily interaction with one another.

Our routine in the refectory is simple enough.  We take breakfast in silence, because (in my opinion) it is immoral to talk early in the morning.  At lunch we visit with one another, and that meal serves as common recreation for monks who might not have the chance to encounter one another socially during the day.  But at dinner the ancient ritual asserts itself.  The monks gather in silence, and at 6 pm the abbot rings the bell.  Following the meal prayer, the reader opens with a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict, and then he takes up the current book and begins at the point where he had left off the previous evening.

A small committee selects the books, and it is no easy task to find something that most people will either enjoy or tolerate.  We tend to read history, though spiritual texts will take over during Lent.  We generally prefer shorter books, because huge tomes can seem to go on forever.  And we will edit out sections that don’t seem to go well with dining.  That was the case when we read a history of the Mayo brothers and came to a  screeching halt at a chapter that described some of their pioneering work in surgery.

Monks are encouraged to suggest readings for refectory, and the committee has developed a good sense of what sorts of things will go over well.  Years ago we read an immense biography of Lincoln, and while I enjoyed it, I mused that Lincoln would die of old age by the time we finished.  More recently we enjoyed Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, and our memory of William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain influenced the selection of his book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.  This is our current reading in the refectory, and at the mid-point it has had mixed reviews.

Through the centuries the reader’s stand has appeared in all sorts of configurations.  In the photo above is the station in the Abbey refectory at Saint John’s, flanked by two tables.  In the photo at left is a medieval English monastic refectory that was recycled into a parish church at the time of the Reformation.  The refectory itself was quite large, and the intricately carved stone stairway lead to a nook that allowed the reader a panaroma of the room.

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