Posts Tagged ‘John Cassian’

photoLooking for Other Opportunities

We were standing at the edge of a big reception, and after a short introduction I asked how she was doing.  I was not at all prepared for the litany that followed, because it was not the usual chatter one expects in these settings.

“Not so good, Father.”  Clearly she was distressed, and it had to do with her husband.  There was no danger of divorce, she assured me; but the life had gone out of their marriage.  Her husband had retired after a terrific career, and things had never been the same since.

Then followed a listing of vague generalities, but she was hesitant to offer any specific criticism.  Still, the problem was simple enough.  Things had begun to turn south once he started spending most of his time at home.

I had no idea what to say, but I just blurted it out without thinking.  “He rearranged the kitchen cabinets, didn’t he.”

Her jaw just about fell to the floor.  “How could you possibly know that?”

photoActually, I didn’t know it; but it wasn’t a lucky guess either.  Just that morning I had read an article on the challenges that new retirees face.  Everyone assumes that it’s the financial issue, or what to do with all that free time.  But among the most difficult problems is the tension from the invasion of the sacred spaces where spouses had reigned supreme for decades.  With pent-up organizational skills and no other outlet for them, too many husbands have tackled kitchen cabinets and hall closets.  Who knows how many divorces that has produced?

Through years of rubbing elbows with one another, spouses and friends and co-workers develop patterns that seem to work well.  They nourish relationships through thick and thin.  What often results is a deepening of love and respect that bind people together beautifully.

But over time one can take those relationships for granted.  Marriages may be made in heaven, but they are worked out on earth.  Friendships may be forged in the heat of battle or in casual circumstances, but they endure because of the healthy give-and-take that nourishes them through the years.

photoBut the status quo seldom goes unchallenged.  All sorts of things threaten our relationships, but topping the list is the tendency to take one another for granted.  You may begin as equals, but pretty soon it’s easy to think of oneself as the senior partner, without whom the other would languish.  From there one jumps to the conclusion that the other would be nothing without you.  Then inject some life-changing event like a retirement, and those attitudes that had  simmered for  years suddenly boil to the surface.

It’s no accident that pride was the first sin documented in the Bible.  An easy life in paradise had lulled Adam and Eve into a false sense of security.  But on that fateful day when they dared to declare independence from God, the scales of self-delusion fell from their eyes.  If they thought that a bite into an apple would free them from their need for God, they were rudely shaken to the core.  They were not the free spirits they had thought.  They missed God immediately.  And then the next day Adam and Eve likely began a lifetime of bickering about which of them was superior.

photoOf course spouses and friends don’t sit down to deliberate on how they can make life a living hell for each other.  Rather, it happens slowly, over time, and we scarcely notice where we’re going until it’s too late.  But the root of drifting apart is the growing sense of independence from other people.  “I made myself into the person I am, and no one helped me along the way.”  “I owe no one any debt of gratitude, because I am the consummate self-made individual.”  “I need neither God nor anyone else.”  All of that may be true for awhile, but one day we wake up and realize that we really do need them.

No wonder John Cassian put pride at the apex of thoughts that can take root and destroy us from within.  As for Saint Benedict, the illusions that flow from pride destroy us first, and then they go on to take the community down with us.  On a practical level, we see it in the monk who need never obey the abbot, because the abbot is fallible, at best.  And he need not see Christ in the young or the old or the guest, because at best all they do is interfere with the course of his life.  And though he really doesn’t need God either, at least God plays by the rules that the monk sets.  Such is the destructive power of pride in the life of a monk, or in the life of any human being.

photoRetirement is not the only life-changing experience for people, but it’s enough to derail any solid relationship.  So if you are planning to retire, it might be good to approach it with the same thorough analysis that you applied to each step of your successful career.

First of all, don’t assume anything about the new job you want.  You may think  you are downsizing from twenty direct reports to one, but it might be a good idea to check in with your spouse before you impose a sweeping new business plan.  Wouldn’t it be a surprise if your spouse has assumed that you would be the new direct report.  How funny would that be.

Second, if you’ve been giving performance appraisals to your employees and now expect to give one to your spouse, check to see if your spouse has one ready and waiting for you. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if your goals for the next year didn’t match up at all.

photoThird, check to see if the areas of responsibility you’ve set for yourself correspond to the ones your spouse has drawn up for you.  Wouldn’t it be a scream if you put yourself in charge of the kitchen cabinets and the storage closets, but your spouse had assigned you to full-time work in the garage and dog-house.

Fourth, treat this whole process with the same effort you put into your first job application.  Show up on time for the interview.  Dress nicely.  Act like you really want this job, whatever it is.  You may think you don’t need this job, but later on you may surprise even yourself.

Finally, remember that you are the applicant, because you are the one proposing to change the status quo.  The last thing you want is to go in thinking you’ve got this job locked up, only to discover that you are now free to explore those infamous “other opportunities.”

Don’t be too proud to work, and don’t be too proud to compromise just a little on your demands.  With a little imagination, and a lot of hard work, this could very well lead to the best job you ever had.


+On June 17th I presided and preached at the Eucharist that opened the summer session of The School of Theology at Saint John’s University.  For the transcript of that sermon you can visit this link.

+On June 20th-21st I took part in the annual investiture of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The vigil service took place at the Catholic chapel at the University of Southern California, and the investiture liturgy took place the next afternoon at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.  Earlier in the morning, at the annual meeting of the members of the Western Association, I received the Cross  pro piis meritis of the Order pro Merito Melitense.  In the adjoining picture I am with fellow member Mathew McGrath, whose wife Ann was invested that afternoon.

photo+Today, June 24th, we celebrate the feast of Saint John the Baptist, who is the patron of Saint John’s Abbey and the University and Prep School which we sponsor.  Hanging in the Abbey guesthouse is a tapestry of the Baptism of Jesus, by John Nova.  The much larger and original version of this hangs in the cathedral in Los Angeles.  But in our guesthouse it greets guests in the lobby, and a photo graces the opening of today’s post.  Other pictures in this post represent views in and around the Abbey guesthouse.

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photoA Vainglorious Monk?

Fr. Mark was the sort of monk who made most of us cringe when he stood up to speak in public.  It wasn’t that he was dim or incoherent.  In fact, on occasion he could be quite charming.  Rather, it was his subject matter that strained both our patience and our credulity.  Invariably he told stories about great pastoral dedication; but more often than not, the hero of his stories was himself.

When guests were present for his sermons, we monks tried to hide under the choir stalls.  When it was just us, opinion was generally divided.  Some of us forced ourselves to daydream while he spoke.  The rest of us sat in eager anticipation — ready to savor the crazy yarns he would spin.

photoPerhaps Fr. Mark’s greatest coup was not a carefully-crafted story of his own exploits, but rather the staging for the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination as a priest.  For some reason Fr. Mark had begun his priestly ministry under the illusion that he was destined for ecclesiastical greatness.  But it never panned out.  He never became a bishop, or even an official in any diocese in which he had served.  Nor had he ever pastored a larger urban church.  In fact, he had been a decent and caring pastor in a succession of small-town churches and missions.  He had been a good priest, but not a successful careerist.  But Fr. Mark was nothing, if not creative.

photoAs the date for the celebration approached, invitations went out to members of his small-town parish, as well as to anyone within thirty miles who was deemed to be important.  He also sent invitations to half the bishops in the United States, plus a sprinkling of prelates in Rome and across Europe.  Most of them sent the invitations straight into the circular file, mainly because they had never heard of this guy.  But a few sent episcopal and archiepiscopal greetings, along with warm best wishes on Fr. Mark’s anniversary.  Actually, it was their secretaries who had sent those heart-felt form letters of congratulation.  But Fr. Mark didn’t care whether the letters were warm and fuzzy or detached and business-like.  What he wanted was at least a 5% return on his investment in invitations.

Fr. Mark then stitched together a modest press release for the local paper.  Attached to it was a listing of each and every prelate who had sent personal greetings on this momentous occasion.  From across the country letters from bishops and archbishops had streamed in.  Even a cardinal and a few other prelates from Europe had chimed in.  The implication was clear for all to see:  the eyes of the Church-world had carefully followed Fr. Mark’s career for the last fifty years and more.

photoIt didn’t matter to Fr. Mark one whit that these prelates would fail to show for the celebration.  The point had already been made, and more than enough people had seen the results.  A big stack of impressive stationary and some colorful foreign stamps had found their way to a sleepy outpost in the north woods of Minnesota.  The lone postal worker now had bragging rights over the no-name villages nearby.  Across Main Street, the newspaper editor could dispense with headlines of teas and parking violations for one week, while neighboring editors were green with envy.  And the local Catholics could bask in the celebrity of their pastor.  After all, Fr. Mark had devoted his career and his very life to their service, while the world had watched from afar.  Too bad for the Lutherans.  If they hadn’t saved their cardinals and archbishops for just such an occasion, whose fault was that?

Whatever else one may say about Fr. Mark, it’s a tough call to ascribe vainglory to him.  At root vainglory is a simple truism:  it means doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  It’s a matter of thinking about your thoughts and deeds, and then concluding you are one of the nicest people on the planet.  It’s a conversation inside oneself, in which each action is calculated to impress.  Given that, you realize the difficulty of judging another person, especially when you don’t have access to their inner thoughts.  Are they vainglorious?  Or are they authentically altruistic?  If we’re wise, we won’t sit on that jury.

photoJohn Cassian describes vainglory as the ultimate mind game.  Thoughts about food and sex and possessions are basic enough, but self-analysis of our thoughts requires mental dexterity as well as detachment.  And that self-analysis is especially tough when we refuse to permit a good guide to help us with the task.

As for judging others, that is even more difficult, given the fact that outward behavior doesn’t necessarily reflect inner motivation.  On one of his visits to the synagogue Jesus praised the humility of the publican and skewered the Pharisee for his pride.  But who knows what the publican really thought as he prayed?  He could just as easily have tried to look as humble as possible in order to gain public respect.  Conversely, the Pharisee could have gone through the motions of worship, knowing inside that this was merely an expression of his deep love for God.  Who is purer here?  That judgement I leave to God.

Many spiritual writers have tackled vainglory, including Saint Benedict.  Though one can accuse him of dealing only with the symptoms, he does stand out in the early spiritual literature.  In the monastic tradition there are great stories of monks and nuns who spent more time in church, who fasted beyond the norms, and who denied themselves of needed sleep.  Benedict, by contrast, forbade those extremes.  As far as he was concerned, they could easily devolve into an ascetic competition that was pointless.  For Benedict, about all these practices accomplished was to make you more tired and hungry than your brothers and sisters.  But they certainly did not make you any holier.  So he forbade those spiritual olympics altogether and called for an asceticism of equality.  The monk was to do the same things as his brothers.  His asceticism would entail the admission of kinship and solidarity with the brothers.  No one would stand head and shoulders above the spiritual herd.

photoIn such a regimen there would be no place for a prayer that reads:  “I thank God that I am not like the rest of people.”  Instead, one prays in thanksgiving that “in everything I am like my brothers and sisters, and Jesus has come for us all.”  That’s the theory, as I see it.

As for Fr. Mark, I came to a better appreciation for him during the years of his retirement in the monastery.  Many an evening at recreation he told outrageous stories about himself, and he would then glance out of the corner of his eye to see if anyone was laughing yet.  I could see his disappointment when people took his stories too seriously.  He was there to entertain, and his eyes twinkled when someone would laugh in disbelief.

So those moments are among my fondest memories of Fr. Mark.  Was he vainglorious?  Maybe, but not for the reasons that I first thought.  But happily, and not too late, I came to realize that he meant us to believe only half of what he had to say.  Now, in retrospect, I only wish I could figure out which half it was.


+On June 15th Abbot John blessed two recently-appointed members of the Abbey leadership team.  Brother David-Paul Lange had been named subprior of the monastery, while Fr. John Meoska became the novice master and director of formation.  Meanwhile, Fr. Jonathan Licari, who had held those two positions during the past year, is preparing to move to the Preparatory School, where he will become the president.

photo+We seem finally to have made the transition into summer, and the landscape shows it very nicely.  A few days ago the spring flowers gave way to the lilacs, and their scent reigned supreme for quite some time.  Years ago we planted large hedges of different varieties of lilac, and the result is a prolonged season of bloom and sweet fragrance.  Now the lush green of the trees has soothed our eyes, while we wait for the annuals to brighten the gardens.

+During the past week I did not darken the threshold of the airport, which was news enough for me.

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photoStaying in the Game

For years each group of novices in our community heard the story of the elderly monk, whose job included waking one novice early each morning.  That novice would then walk through the halls, ringing the hand-bell that called the monks to morning prayer.

One pre-dawn morning, as he made his rounds, the senior stopped to knock at the door of the novice who was the bell-ringer for the week.  But the door was open, the room was empty of personal belongings, and the novice was nowhere to be seen.  At a loss for what to do next, the senior ran into another monk, and asked him about the absent brother.

photo“Oh, he left yesterday,” was the reply.  “He wasn’t happy.”

“Happy?  Who’s happy?” was all the senior monk could think to say.

It’s sad but true that there are monks who go through life unhappy and depressed.  For the life of me I don’t understand why people would stay in a monastery if they didn’t find it to be an enriching experience.  But some do, because in their depression they see no way out. Nor can they envision any option that might be better.  In fact, they are caught in a Catch-22, where they are unhappy if they stay, and likely would be even unhappier if they were to leave.

Of course monks have no monopoly on unhappiness and depression, since those are pretty wide-spread conditions.  All over the place you encounter people who feel trapped by the hand that life has dealt them.  With no apparent exit strategy, they endure what seem to be lifeless marriages, tedious jobs, and aching loneliness.

photoI’ll be honest and say that so far life has spared me that sort of experience.  Though we all share moments of depression, mine have been brief and non-paralyzing.  Part of this is due to the fact that I am an incorrigible optimist, as I’ve noted in an earlier post.  But now I again admit that I have a really hard time finding the cloud that envelops the silver lining.  That makes it very difficult to nurture depression for long stretches, and that probably is a real gift that I’ve yet to understand.  But I appreciate it.  Such inveterate optimism provides the quick escape route I need when dark clouds threaten.  But that is not so for a few of my confreres, and certainly not so for many of our fellow citizens in the world.

There’s not a single one of us who hasn’t at times felt that life has not gone the way we wanted.  I’m the first admit my disappointment that the western world has yet to recognize my talents.  Others of us have dug themselves into a social hole because they think no one likes them.  Others have enjoyed little of the esteem or privileges that seem to shower down on the elect among us.  And on the most elemental of levels, virtually everyone, or most people, or a few people, or one person always does better than me.  What rotten luck always seems to befall me.  I have every right to be thoroughly depressed.

photoThese are the thoughts that percolate through our minds when we are tired or have our guard down.  Such thoughts come to all of us, but whether they reflect the truth is another matter entirely.  Granted, when bad things happen to good people, we do have a right to feel just a bit put out.  And when the wicked seem to prosper all the time, it’s enough to make one swear at the injustice of it all.  But sometimes we do get fooled by our self-pity and fall for it hook, line and sinker.

What surprises me most is that these thoughts creep into the minds of people who are talented and blessed in so many ways.  These people have absolutely no right to feel depressed about anything.  But on down days they do crash, and those dark  days can leach out from them any and all hope for the future.

photoIn her book on John Cassian, Thoughts Matter, Sr. Mary Margaret Funk gives a few strategies for pulling ourselves out of this dark hole and back into health.  But among her suggestions was one that caught my eye, because it sounded very familiar to me.  She recommends that one “stay in relationship with others.”  “If I begin to isolate myself, there is no end to the number of people I cross off my list.”

Years ago I adopted as my daily mantra one rule that I use to drag me wherever and whenever I don’t want to go someplace.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game” has served me well.  It’s been for me the antidote to occasional bouts of introversion.  It’s also been effective medicine for the days when I don’t feel like doing a thing, and for days when I’d rather stay in my room and hide.  But over the years I’ve learned this:  the longer I stay on the sidelines, the harder it is to get back out there and meet the world.  And after years of experience, I know that things always go much better when I do show up.

photoI had not realized that this was a good spiritual tonic.  Little did I know that the temptation to isolate myself could open me to all sorts of pitfalls .  Little did I realize that the antidote to such temptation was so close at hand.

I never did find out whether the novice who left did so because he was  unhappy, or because he had realized that this was not the life for him.  I hope it was the latter.   As for the senior monk, I have a feeling he was not being entirely honest that morning when he hinted at his own unhappiness.  After all, his quick wit that morning entered him into the ranks of the immortals in the monastery.  But beyond that, he continued to be the first to greet the dawn each day.  He must have had a lot to live for, because he never failed to show up to play the game.

Benedictine Volunteers

Benedictine Volunteers


+On Sunday, June 2nd, I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  For a transcript of my Sermon on Corpus Christi, click on this link or visit Presentations.

+In late May we hosted a cohort of recent alumni of Saint John’s University, who will serve as Benedictine Volunteers during the coming school year.  They were with us in the monastery for two weeks of orientation and retreat, and this September they will begin a year of service at Benedictine abbeys in South America, Africa, Israel, India, Europe and the United States.  This is the eleventh year of the program, and it continues to provide an extraordinary experience for the Volunteers.  As for the Abbey, we have been delighted to welcome into the Abbey four former Volunteers, who now live with us as young monks.

photo+On May 25th Saint John’s University alumnus Deacon James Peterson was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.  A native of Minnetonka, MN, Fr. Peterson was a theology major at Saint John’s and participated in track and field.  He also worked as a student ambassador in the Office of Institutional Advancement, which happens to be the office where I work.  Fr. Peterson is the second of two of our former student ambassadors to be ordained in as many years.  Congratulations to Fr. Peterson!

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Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

The Tyranny of Things

In 1961 Dom Jean Leclercq penned what has since become a foundational text on monastic culture.  A monk of the Benedictine abbey of Clervaux in Luxembourg, his Love of Learning and the Desire for God delivered exactly what the title promised, and it did so in beautiful prose.  So loving was his study, that it crossed the threshold from scholarship, to become spiritual reading.  It has since become far more than just another book about the learned monk and nun of history.

photoBooks have been essential to monastic life, and there’s no denying that monks and nuns have had a great fondness for them through the centuries.  In the popular imagination they sat at their desks, first copying and then reading the books they’d crafted.  In the course of centuries they amassed the greatest libraries of their time, and small wonder that we gaze in awe at their work.  Manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels still stir the imagination.  Likely, they always will.

The stereotype of the scholar-monk is useful, as far as it goes.  However, not everybody in a monastery was a scholar, and not a few of the non-scholars resented those who carved out time for books.  But before we canonize the academics as martyrs, it’s good to remind ourselves of the special challenges that they faced.  Chief among them, perhaps, was the temptation to private ownership.

photoSaint John Cassian wrote about “thoughts of things” — or better still, the “thoughts about the acquisition of things” — as one of the great distractions for everyone.  After food and sex, it ranked third on his ascending scale of “most frequent of daydreams.”  It should surprise no one that people in monasteries share the same sorts of thoughts as everyone else.  After all, despite what some may think, monks and nuns are people too.

And that brings me to the issue of books.  Given Saint Benedict’s caution about private ownership, you’d naturally assume that the library would eliminate the need for private books.  You’d be wrong.  For all sorts of very good reasons, monks have owned books, and they still do.  And I’m one of them.  But like anything else, too much of a good thing can come back to haunt you.  Just ask the monks who have lived in cells where the books became the monsters that took over their lives.

photoI speak from personal experience when it comes to owning too many books.  Through years of schooling and teaching, I amassed a respectable collection;  but the books finally began to assert themselves as master.  Then one day I awoke to the need to fight back.  I had lugged some of those books around for years, from one office and room to the next.  A few I had not touched since college.  Some were still boxed up from graduate school.  And each and every one of them had a countrpart in the library, three hundred yards away.  In a moment of insight, I realized I had no choice but to choose.  It was them or me, and one of us would have to cave in.  It was no longer a case of “love of learning.”  It had become a tyranny of things over my life.

I was reminded that others might share similar issues when I visited Malta recently, with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  The harbor at Valletta is a crossroads of the Mediterranean, and parked in one bay was the largest and grandest yacht any of us had ever seen.  Our guide pointed to it, and noted that the owner had two more, exact copies, parked elsewhere in the world.  Personally I would have opted for some variety if I had three yachts.  I would have made one a foot shorter, or color-coded them so I’d know where in the world I might be.   But maybe this guy had a thing about uniformity.  Regardless, I wondered whether it was the guy who owned the yachts, or whether the yachts had begun to own him.

photoMost of us won’t ever have the problem that comes from owning too many yachts, all of which are identical.  But we all have “thoughts of things” that run through our minds.  Some things are fun and frivilous; some are concessions to our place in a consumer society; and some are anxieties about our material future.  All are worth thinking about, but none are so important that we should allow them to take over our lives.

The tyranny of “things over people” has always been with us, but the struggle is especially intense for members of a consumer society.  When we define ourselves as economic units of consumption, then the amount we own is the measure of our greatness.  I gladly join with those who note we must consume things in order to live and thrive.  But when we value human beings in terms of what they own, or how much they buy, then we have gone into alien territory.  I would argue that you and I are far more important than the stuff we have stashed away in cupboards and garages and banks.  All those things have some value, but if they are what make us important, then life is not worth living.

photoFrom a Christian point of view, God did not give us life for the sole purpose of piling up more stuff.  Nor did God create us to think about acquisitions all day long.  Nor did God create us to be the servant of things.  Nor did God intend that we be consumed by anxieties about our material future.  All of that is easier said than done.  But God does not abandon us to wage our battle of interior wits alone.

As for me and my books, my battle is likely never to be finished.  It continues to be a work in progress, but in the last two years I’ve given an awful lot of them away.  And I’ve reclaimed for myself a major portion of my room.  But there have been surprises.  For one, I get to the library far more often than I used to.  I’ve since discovered that it has all sorts of wonderful books I’ve not met before.  And in a great irony, I’ve actually found more time for reading.  That suggests that I am actually using books as they should be, rather than they using me.

As for The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, that’s one book I intend to keep.  It’s a reminder of what life in the monastery can be like.  I need to let that thought run through my mind a little more often than it has in the past.


+On May 18th I gave a retreat day to members of the Order of Malta, who gathered in Pasadena, CA, for the occasion.

+Following our pilgrimage to Lourdes, I and nine other members of the Order of Malta spent five days on the Island of Malta.  Located fifty miles south of Sicily and a hundred miles from Libya, it served as the home of the Order of Malta from 1530 to 1798, when Napoleon conquered the island.

It was the Emperor Charles V who gave Malta to the Knights, in return for an annual rent of one Maltese falcon.  In the course of time the Knights developed Malta into a giant fortress that protected its magnificant harbor.  So important was the British naval base there, that the Germans made it the target of their most intensive bombing campaign of World War II.

photoThe first thing to catch the eye are the massive fortifications and walls.  You’re tempted to think that there must be more stone blocks in Malta than any place on earth.  One of our party marvelled that there was any island left after they quarried all that stone.  The second thing one notes are the magnificent buildings that the knights left behind.  Included among them are what was the largest hospital in Europe in its day, the Grand Master’s Palace, and a great many buildings that serve as offices for the government of Malta today.

The pictures in today’s post come from the co-cathedral of Saint John, which was the main church of the knights.  It is now  a World Heritage site, and a glance at the floor tells why. Nearly every square inch is covered with the inlaid marble tombs of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s just breathtaking.

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74.Town and ChurchOn a Second Thought

American culture fancies itself to be the most liberated in all of human history when it comes to sex.  With shows like “Sex and the City” and a myriad of parallel productions, we’ve constructed a self-image that puts us opposite the stuffy Victorians on the social spectrum.  When it comes to sex, we believe we are without doubt the most enlightened people in human history.  And therefore we must also be the happiest people ever.

This is cultural narcissism, and I would maintain that it is a fantasy of the first order.  First off, we may be very aggressive in flooding our culture with thoughts of sex, but we are not the first to notice its paramount place in human life.  John Cassian, the 5th-century spiritual writer, posited that after the quest for food, thoughts of sex are the next most potent force running through our mental universe.  With a nod to those who cannot believe that someone from the early 400’s could know much of anything, you still must give Cassian his due.  He definitely was on to something — despite being a stuffy monk.

The fact of the matter is, in our society sex sells big, and it plays on our mental preoccupations as few other forces do.  Take cars for instance.  While we may resort to the little old lady from Pasadena to sell “pre-owned” cars, we recruit only the most attractive people on earth to sell new cars.  You see it in the marketing of cigarettes as well.  Seldom in the media will you see the elderly smoking.  Rather, it’s always the young and the sleek who smoke in the ads.  The message is clear: the true benefit from smoking is linked to sexual attractiveness.

46. Church at Saint SavinWhen it comes to sex and the prescription medication industry, I’ve always been slightly amused by advertising’s resort to yet another human anxiety: the fear of missing out on something.  Ads for some prescriptions hint that you may be the only 16 or 95-year-old on the planet who’s celibate.  Horrors!  Who could possible want to be in that desperate situation?  How terrible it would be to defy the herd instinct and refrain from sexual activity, even at the most advanced of ages.  Or at the earliest of ages.  “Everyone does it,” and there ought not be a single exception.

The fact of the matter is, our society is virtually evangelical when it comes to sex, and we are deeply suspicious of people who are celibate.  I would submit that those same anxieties apply to those  who are monogamous — for they too are celibate when it comes to anyone other than their spouse.  In the popular imagination, both celibacy and even monogamy can be seen as basic denials of human freedom.  In this case, it’s the freedom to do any and everything you might want, whenever you want.

When marketers and others parade sexual fantasies before our eyes, they are of course reaching deep into our own minds to manipulate thoughts that are among the strongest and most vibrant.  Long before there was television or the print media, and even before the internet, there were such thoughts.  Perhaps because of that vast experience, some have dared to suggest that the most creative and happy people in human history have learned to master those thoughts.  To their way of thinking it may just be better to master them than be driven by them  into a crazed frenzy.

48.Chapter House DoorThere are any number of directions one could take this, but at the risk of seeming to be a Victorian, I’d like to make two points.

First of all, the need for social and spiritual intimacy is undeniable and good; but indiscriminate sexual activity is never a cure for lonelilness.  In fact, over time it may even create a pervasive loneliness.  Such activity becomes destructive, since it serves the self first and last, with little respect for others.  Ironically, then, there is no life-giving human connection in such indiscriminate relationships.  Genuine intimacy centers on the respect and love of the other, and that is true whether that other person is human or divine.

The second point has to do with commitment.  There’s no denying that we have a very difficult time making life choices and settling down.  We like to keep our options open, and God forbid that we make anything that smacks of a permanent commitment.  Such an act would violate our intrinsic freedom and independence.

37.Organ at Saint SavinBut as in so many cases, not to decide is to decide.  When we opt for “freedom forever,” we eventually lose it, simply because we’ve never invested ourselves in a life-giving relationship with any one person, or with God.  In that sense chastity is less a deprivation than it is a gamble.  It’s a gamble that God and someone else may be worth our love, and it may justify the sacrifice of our unlimited freedom.  They are worth the risk of organizing our thoughts and words and deeds so that we direct ourselves to another.  Could that be better than being constantly distracted and ultimately left adrift in a sea of confusion and loneliness?

That may very well be what Jesus had in the back of his mind when he offered up his great conundrum.  “Those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”

29.Townscape at Saint SavinNotes

+Post-script to Lourdes:  Still fresh in my mind is the pilgrimage to Lourdes which members of the Order of Malta completed a few days ago.  As I wrote in the post for May 7th, it’s an extraordinary experience, and if you’d like to read fuller descriptions that I wrote some months ago, please go to my posts of 31 October 2011, and 7 May 2012.

56.Windows at Saint SavinOn the lighter side, Lourdes has all the challenges that any complicated gathering of people has.  Typical of this is the Sunday Eucharist, in the Basilica of Saint Pius X, which holds 25,000+.  With more than twenty-five nationalities present, language is always an issue.  At past gatherings of the Order of Malta the Mass prayers have been in French, English, Arabic and Italian.  The music comes from all language groups, while the readings have been in a variety of tongues.  The prayers of the faithful this year were in Dutch and German, but they’ve been in a dozen other languages through the  years.  This year the celebrant was Cardinal Sardi, patron of the Order of Malta.  He presided in Italian, while translations projected onto the big screens were in French and German.  (I read the French, hoping it would be nicer.)  Cardinal Dolan of New York welcomed poeple in English.  The multiciplicity of languages, and the sound of 25,000 singing in unison, impressed on me once again the vast stretch of the Church. It really is the gathering of peoples from the ends of the earth.

Four Benedictine chaplains of the Order of Malta were at Lourdes this year.  In addition to me, in attendance were Abbot Placid of Belmont Abbey in North Carolina; Abbot Matthias of Sao Bento in São Paulo in Brazil; and Fr. Henry from Glenstal in Ireland.

68.Arcade at Saint SavinThe unofficial motto of Lourdes ought to be Festina Lente.  While literally translated as “Make Haste Slowly”, in the case of Lourdes it is better rendered as “Hurry up and wait.”  Were there a Lourdes Olympics, the main events would include “The Stand”; the “Marathon Stand”; “The Walk Very Slowly” (done in teams of 5,000); the “Stand and Walk”; and my personal favorite, “The 100-Yard Sprint for the Exits after a two-hour Mass.”  (Best done with 25,000 people.)  Of coure there are always special awards and honorable mentions.  This year’s award for the strongest cart-puller went to my teammate Tom, who pulled his cart for thirty-five minutes with the brakes on.  “Most-determined cart-puller” also went to Tom, for pulling his cart for thirty-five minutes with the brakes on.

65.Carolingian Chapel.Saint SavinFor the second half of the pilgrimage the sun came out and it was glorious.  It made our outing to Saint Savin especially refreshing.  In today’s post are pictures from that visit.  This was a Benedictine abbey dating back to Carolingian times (ca. 800).  It sits at the entrance to the Pyranees, overlooking one of the passes into Spain.  Spain sits just on the other side of the snow-capped peaks.

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6.LourdesFood: The Great Temptation

It all started with Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Theirs was a perfect life, but they were not alone with their thoughts.  It was in Eden that they encountered what likely was the first major distraction on record:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Accustomed to a daily round of walks with God, plenty to eat, and camaradarie with the animals, everything seemed to be as good as it gets.  Who would want to upset that apple-cart?

35.Mosaic of JesusIt should come as no surprise that the first temptation recorded in the Bible centers on food.  It’s a basic need, after all.  You can’t go for very long without it; and if you do so, body and mind will insist on doing someting about it.  Not surprisingly, the early ascetics experienced this, and John Cassian writes of it as the entry-level preoccupation of the human mind.

Still, the Book of Genesis reports that Eve’s focus on that tree was less about food and more about the desire to go beyond her current state.  The story implies that she couldn’t have been all that hungry, despite the absence of soft drinks and fast food.  Nor was she aware of impending famine and the need to store up for the future.  No, by the time she plucked the first piece of fruit from that tree, something else was going through her mind.  This was not about fruit.  This was about power and self-esteem.  That’s what pressed her buttons that day.

13.Candles at LourdesIn her book “Thoughts Matter”, Sr. Meg Funk reflects on John Cassian’s teaching about the  thoughts that run through the minds of us all.  Constantly, throughout our waking hours, a steady stream of thoughts prance through our imagination.  Who knows where they all originate, but thankfully our mental spam filter deletes a lot of it before it gets onto our agenda.  Yet, some still make it through into our consciousness.  There they disturb us and inspire us and incite us into further thought, word and deed.  In short, they press our buttons hard enough to take over our waking hours for just a bit, or for a long time.

Food certainly is the most basic of human needs, but it’s never as simple as it seems.  Sure, we all like to eat, and some of us love to eat.  Some of us even live to eat.  But when we think of that big bag of chips, or whatever it is that gets us going, it can become really complicated. Thoughts of hunger and the allure of food remind us of the need to eat to survive.  They remind us that food could run out some day, and it might be prudent to lay in a big supply to allay our fears about the future.  Those thoughts might remind us that eating some foods brings prestige to the diner, as do the select places where we might choose to dine. Thoughts of food also bring out the latent competitiveness in all of us.  In order for me to get more, someone else must get less.  Isn’t it better to get yours before all the greedy people get it first?  And on a more positive note, if I eat the right kinds of food, in proper balance, I just might live a longer and healthier life.

19.GrottoPretty soon the mere thought of food can trigger all sorts of responses in us.  We can stop in our tracks to get some; we can eat beyond what is reasonable; we can eat beyond our means; and we can do the completely irrational.  That’s one reason I avoid the snack food aisle like the plague.  I know that one small bag of Cheetos is a nice treat.  But  I also know that if they manufactured twenty-pound bags of Cheetos, I’d get several.  I’d lay in a big supply, because you never know.  All the Cheetos factories could burn down.  Or someone might corner the market on Cheetos and drive up the price.  Anyway, that’s how Cheetos have the power to press one of my buttons and send me off into a chain of  uncontrolled actions.  That’s why I’ve always had a special sympathy for Eve.  She may have started with an apple, but in her mind it was about far more than that.

If our thoughts are complicated and savvy enough to catch our attention, they are also persistent.  The first Christian ascetics learned this early on, and we need to own up to that as well.  If early monks and nuns thought they’d leave their troubles at the cloister door, they always got a big surprise when they walked into their cell for the first time.  No sooner had they settled in, then the old familiar friends popped up in their imagination.  What they wanted before, they still wanted — but now with a vengeance.  Their experience explains why so many of us go to church and immediately start thinking of everything but church.  Know it or not, we all bring an awful lot of baggage with us, and the quieter the place, the sooner those bags get unpacked.

36.Mosaic at LourdesWhen I was a young priest I was always a little put off when people confessed to distractions during prayer.  In those heady years when I knew nearly everything, I tended to dismiss such comments as scrupulosity or fluff.  Now I’m not so sure, because my own mind wanders when I’m in church.  What kind of medicine should I be taking?

Through the years I’ve learned from many who are far more experienced in using strategies to deal with distraction.  The first point I’ve drawn from them is not to treat distraction as if it were sin.  Think of a distraction as a button that is being pushed, and then step back to analyze it.  What’s the point of this thought?  Where does it lead me if I follow through on it?  How best should I deal with this distraction?

31.Church FrontOne should also keep in mind that not all “distractions” lead us down the wayward path.  Some thoughts point straight to God.  Some thoughts lead us into doing the right thing.  Some thoughts tug at our imagination and help us prioritize our lives.  All this happens when we don’t let our thoughts run away with us.  Rather, we are better off placing our thoughts and preoccupations at the foot of the Lord, and he will help us sort them out.

So one day I prayed to the Lord about the Cheetos.  “What about the Cheeetos?”  I asked.  “Well, what do you think you should do about the Cheetos?” was the response I got.  “Well, they’re nice enough, but I don’t live for them.”  And God said: “That’s what I was thinking too.”

Then I knew I was ready for the next big thought.

53.The streets of LourdesNotes

+This week I am in Lourdes with the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage.  It’s an extraordinary experience, and everyone should  consider it someday, whether they are a believer or not.  People come to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons, but spiritual healing ranks far above physical healing in the benefits that we all take with us when we leave.  Lourdes also reminds us of the contrasts between the sacred and the secular worlds.  At Lourdes one sees the sublime and the banal, and the edge of the shrine is the physical boundary.  On the other hand, one of the great lessons of Lourdes is that in all of our lives the sacred and the profane are not totally separate worlds.  They blend together in our own little world.  We also learn that one cannot live in a shrine forever.  You have to go home eventually, and you take a glimpse of the divine back with you to serve you at home.

Lourdes, like other pilgrimage destinations, is not all peaches and cream.  It rained for the first forty-eight hours after our arrival.  That was not fun.  But by far the biggest challenge to our psyche was our willingness to enter into sacred time and sacred space.  Upon arrival, quite a few people rushed down to the gates of the shrine to take it all in.  Meanwhile, a very unhealthy percentage of us (myself included) rushed to our rooms to turn on the wifi to connect with the world we had left behind.  The hotel wifi system promptly jammed for several hours.  I had to get up at 4 am to get access to the internet and get this posting out. Thank goodness all the greedy people were still asleep.

22.Bridge at Lourdes

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Stained glass E Pluribus UnumDo Thoughts Count?

Pope Francis continues to provide heathy grist for our musings, and I especially appreciated his use of a comment from Saint Francis.  “Preach always.  If necessary, use words.”

That’s an important point to keep in mind, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time preaching and writing.  Both genres depend on words, and there isn’t a lot we can do to make up for that.  One could, I suppose, sing and dance in the pulpit, or use other ploys to hold a congregation’s attention.  But more often than not such stunts leave people amused at the ineptitude they’ve just witnessed.  Most walk out convinced that the performer really shouldn’t have tried it.  As for a blog, I suppose I redeem myself by using pictures, which in theory count for more than words.  Plus, I send something every Monday morning, thereby demonstrating reliability by my deeds.  So there may be some hope for me.

Stained Glass 25Still, there’s a serious message in the words of Saint Francis.  At the very least, they presume that we are, or ought to be, more than mere talk.  Within Christian tradition we’ve always recognized this, even if at times we’ve only paid lip service to the ideal.  In the Confiteor, for example, we speak of sins of thought, word and deed.  That implies that what we often use in a perverse direction can also be channelled for the good.  But what it also speaks to is the integration that should exist in our lives.  Thought, word and deed are not individual items with nothing in common.  They are, instead, expressions of the core of our being.  And you cannot specialize in one or two and forget about the other entirely.

For once this sacred notion has some good crossover with popular wisdom.  “Talk is cheap,” and the need to “walk the talk” are but two examples of a commonsense parallel.  Both aphorisms point out the schizophrenia that results when there is a disconnect among thought, word and deed.  Even secular society sees the  hypocrisy in the person who is long on talk but lacks the ambition to translate that talk into action.

Stained Glass 27On the other hand, popular wisdom can also be self-contradictory.  Take as an example one phrase that we often lean on when deeds don’t materialize:  “It’s the thought that counts.”  Does it really?  I hope not, because if it’s the thought that really counts, then a lot more of us should be going to jail.  If the thought does count, then there are far more serial killers around than anyone ever imagined.  And you and I might even be among them.  Thank God the legal code demands that we walk the talk before we’re convicted for murder and similar such deeds.

I write all this by way of introduction to a weighty but very succinct book that I am currently reading.  With a title like “Thoughts Matter” you would suppose that Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, was coming down firmly on the side of just one of the various choices we might consider.  But in fact she too argues for an integration in our lives, and she offers a much deeper analysis of the nature of the thoughts that flow through our minds.

Stained Glass 29Sr. Meg bases her work on the writings of the early 5th-century monk, Saint John Cassian.  Arguably one of the greatest authors in the spiritual tradition, Cassian knew the desert fathers and mothers personally.  He traveled widely, and systematically sought out hundreds of ascetics.  From his many interviews he distilled a series of reflections that went on to become a major source for Saint Benedict when he composed his Rule for Monks.

Sr. Meg writes about the thoughts that pass through our mind as chatter.  And as Cassian has outlined them, they congeal around eight common themes: food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory and pride.  I’m not going to explain or elaborate on them now, because in coming weeks I want to attend to those themes individually.  But significant to all of them is the pull that they exert on our attention.  Each draws us in its own direction, for good and for ill.  And whether pope or nun, or layman or laywoman, that chatter runs through all of our minds.

Stained Glass 30If you’ve ever wondered whether you’re going crazy because of all the stuff churning through your mind, be assured you are not alone.  The ascetics in the Syrian and Egyptian deserts faced the same chatter.  All we’ve done is accelerate the pace.  While we watch the news on television, we’re also glancing at the headlines that stream across the bottom of the screen.  While we are listening to commercials.  While we are texting and thinking about email.  While we are listening to someone trying to compete for our attention.  While we are remembering stuff we should have done.  And worst of all, while we are driving.

Who has time for deeds when all this chatter is running through our minds?  Those who install a good spam filter in their mind, that’s who.

Stained Glass 32Notes

+On Sunday April 21st I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Minnetonka, MN.

+On Monday April 22nd it snowed another nine inches.  Happily, by the following weekend it soared past 70 degrees and much of the snow simply slipped away.

+While the maple syrup harvest is not yet complete, the cooks have made over 400 gallons.

+In anticipation of the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes, I escaped the snows and arrived in Paris on the 26th.  The early arrival gave me the chance to visit several medieval sites, pictures of which will show up in this blog in coming weeks.  I also had the opportunity to visit with one of my former students, who now lives with his wife and daughter and son in Luxembourg.  We met in Metz, which allowed me to visit that city for the first time. It also let me catch up on Jack’s life in Europe.  True to his imaginative approach to life, he and his wife have raised their two children in a bi-lingual household: English and Chinese.  But classes for the youngsters are in Luxembourgish, French and German.  What a world they will enjoy!

+There are many nooks and crannies around Saint John’s that reward the attentive explorer, and the most interesting collection of stained glass is to be found in Emmaus Hall, home of the School of Theology.  The pictures in today’s post all come from there, and they speak far more eloquently than my mere words.  But to show you this, it was absolutely necessary to use just a few words.

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