Posts Tagged ‘John Rutter’


Is Christ Our King?

Six evenings a week, during dinner, one of the monks reads to the rest of us as we eat.  He opens with a short chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict, during which we sit in silence.  Then he turns to some book, and as he begins to read we begin to eat.  And so it goes, and we usually go through that book cover to cover, no matter how many weeks or months it takes.

As you can imagine, it’s tough to find a book that suits every taste.  Still, every now and again there’s a text that grabs our collective attention, at least for a while.  This fall we read just such a book, one entitled The Pope Who Would Be King.

To me it was fascinating to learn how Pope Pius IX struggled to hold on to the Papal States in the 1860s, even as the Italian nationalist armies closed in on Rome.  For a thousand years popes had ruled a big chunk of central Italy, and they presided not so much as popes but as kings.  They administered justice, tried to keep the peace, and managed an economy.  A few of them even put on armor and led their troops in the field.    Likely the most famous of these was Julius II, who earned the title The Warrior Pope for wearing armor at the siege of Bologna.  And then there were the mixed messages that resulted from being both pope and king.  Just a few days ago Pope Francis spoke of the thief whom the papal executioner beheaded in the 1860s.  Francis recalled the story with regret, but he also noted that that’s the way it was back then.  For better and largely for worse, many in the Church could not imagine an independent pope without an independent papal state to protect him.

57C125FB-C6BB-421C-83D5-131150E5D696Well, the Papal States fell anyway, despite the prayers of Pius IX.  And if he never got over it, popes like John XXIII and John Paul II and Francis have never regretted the loss for a minute.  Who could possibly want the responsibility of governing central Italy?!

I bring all this up as a preamble to a few thoughts I’d like to share on the feast of Christ the King.  To me it’s always seemed oddly out of place to think of Jesus Christ as king.  Granted that there have been many good kings, it’s also true that the word king carries a lot of baggage.  So when I think of kings I recall Henry VIII and Louis XIV and the Russian tsars.  Their royal authority seemed to be all about power and its arbitrary exercise.  And as for the common people and individual rights, those concerns scarcely mattered.  This was the sort of authority that marched young men by the millions into the trenches of World War I, and it was a march from which those same millions never returned.  So for better or for worse, that’s what I think of when I hear the word king.  And king is a word I don’t usually pin on Jesus Christ.

In today’s gospel Jesus goes out of his way to stress that he is no earthly king.  To Pilate he protests that he has not come into this world to take and exercise power.  He has come neither to crush the opposition nor to force people to live by rules he would impose on them.  If he were a king, Jesus told Pilate, he would be a different kind of king and his kingdom would not be of this world.

BAE143F4-491A-4EA6-B1B2-55E2900D5D62If Jesus is king, then what in the world does that mean?  Is it merely longing for the good old days when churches exercised power in contests with secular authority?  Perhaps a few yearn for a return to those days;  but if we are to believe the words in today’s gospel, it cannot be that way for a follower of Jesus.

Obviously there’s a lot more to kingship than the exercise of raw power, and that’s what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Pilate.  The kingship of Jesus is an intangible one.  It’s one that looks forward to the day when Christ will be all in all.  Jesus anticipates the day when he as king will wipe away every tear and clothe each one of us in the dignity for which he created us.  And that is when we will finally set foot into the kingdom of God.

But if that describes the day of resurrection, what might the kingship of Jesus mean for us here and now?  Ought it make any difference when we walk out of this church?  Well, I’d like to offer two points for us to mull over.

First, as king Jesus asks us to take stock of the direction of our lives.  Down what paths have we chosen to walk?  What are our values?  To what or to whom do we orient ourselves?  Do we exploit other people?  Do we live mainly to acquire stuff and push other people around?  Do we live for the moment, with no regard for the feelings of others?  Certainly people choose these options, and I confess that there have been moments when I’ve been in that number.  But unfortunately these are traits of the kingship that Jesus rejects.

8F66A809-EF03-4747-AF09-117F1C74B381For his part Jesus as king offers an alternative model to earthly kingship, and it’s one that has a focus on the needs of others.  As king Jesus begins and ends by asking us to make the most of our talents — wasting neither the opportunity to develop them nor the chance to use them in service to others.  In short, Jesus invites us to share in his nobility, and it’s a nobility not of blood but of service.

Second, when Jesus asks us to clothe ourselves in a nobility of spirit, we must remember one important bit.  His is an invitation and not a command.  Jesus respects our freedom, and he does not determine in advance our success or failure.  Each of us must choose how to live our lives, and so we have the option to make the most of our lives or the option to choose blind alleys and dead ends.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, who as king awaits us with open arms at the end of time.  But life with Jesus also begins now, and he sets before us his invitation to live in a nobility that has little to do with power and everything to do with a service of love to one another.

So today let our prayer be simple and pure.  “Lord you have called each of us to share in your royal priesthood, and you have set us apart for sacred duties.  Be with us always as we try to translate into deeds the words with which you encourage us.  Amen.”


+On Sunday November 25th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered.  It is based on the gospel for the day, John 18: 33-37.  The book to which I refer is by David Kertzer and entitled The Pope Who Would Be King:  The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018.)

+On November 24th I attended the football game between Saint John’s and Whitworth University, which Saint John’s won 45-24.  Saint John’s now continues into the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.  That game will be in Texas, and I won’t be there.

+On November 24th we celebrated the memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac and his fellow Vietnamese martyrs.  Brother Emmanuel, a Vietnamese Cistercian monk studying with us, read the first text Vietnamese, which I think must be a first in the abbey church.  Then he and three of his confreres sang the meditation Psalm in Vietnamese, which also had to be a first for us.

+Thanksgiving, as usual, was a lovely day and dinner in the abbey refectory was both festive and good.  That afternoon I celebrated by taking a walk and by spending two hours watching and listening to John Rutter music videos.  I am a major fan of English choral music, and I thoroughly enjoy Rutter’s work.  And as for Thanksgiving, I count it as the official start of  the choral Christmas music season.

+The photos in today’s post all show images from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.  Typical of medieval cathedrals, Jesus sits in majesty in the tympanum over the entry, from which perch he greets pilgrims and reminds them that someday he will have the final word.


Read Full Post »

imageLead Us Not into Temptation.  We Know the Way Ourselves

Just for the heck of it, I leafed through the pile of inserts that came with the Thanksgiving issue of our local newspaper.  Of course we who are connoisseurs of marketing already know what to expect.  Literally overnight a predictable and not-so-subtle shift has taken place.  On the previous Sunday you could find dozens of bargains on vitamins, toothpaste, detergent and the like.  But come Thanksgiving  you will search in vain for discount coupons for things that you really need.  The Lord only knows where all those products go for six weeks, but in the world of advertising they no longer exist.

Taking their place is a dizzying array of electronics, novelty clothes, and other unnecessaries that visually scream at us.  They so rivet our attention that it has to be counter-productive for the merchants.  There’s just too much; and like Moses who could not stare at the face of God and live, my eyes cannot behold all those products and decide.

Good advertising is in some ways the product of the devil’s own workshop.  The facts of the matter are simple.  If you covet anything in those pages, you are damned.  And if you dismiss it all with a derisive wave of the hand, you are damned.  I may be indifferent to all that stuff in the stores; but unlike all those covetous people, my condescension has led me into the sin of pride.  That, of course, is the express route to the gates of hell.

imageThrough the years I’ve come to terms with this moral dilemma.  In my youth I devoured the pre-Christmas issues of The New Yorker, because I longed to own any of the items pictured on any of the pages.  Back then The New Yorker featured great stuff, and I wanted it all.  But The New Yorker has changed, and so have I.  Some years ago I owned up to my weakness and dealt with it.  And I owe my conversion experience to a prayer on a greeting card that read:  “And lead us not into temptation; we already know the way ourselves.”  I already knew where to find the entry ramp onto the highway into temptation.  So I stopped looking at the ads in the post-Thanksgiving issues of The New Yorker.

Of course one ought not get tangled up in your own thoughts too much.  That can lead to narcissism and the notion that I may be the only person in the world.  In fact, there are lots of other people out there, and I’ve discovered that not a few of them face personal dilemmas of their own.  We all confront choices, but the best of us try to be conscious when we make our choices.

imageIf there were no such thing as Advent, it would be a good idea to make it up.  Its value is enormous, which is why it’s a shame we run herd-like to the malls at this time of year.  Precisely at a time of year that calls for some introspection, we rush in the opposite direction.  The leaves have fallen, and the beginnings of a winter landscape remind us of the least common denominators of human life.  What’s necessary to sustain life?  What’s necessary to promote life?  What’s necessary to make me and my neighbor flourish in our lives?

It’s a little surprising that Saint Benedict doesn’t make reference to Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  He gives pride of place to another season when he advises that the life of a monk should be a Lenten observance.  Of course that’s an invitation to live in intensity rather than misery; but it contains at least a kernel of the spirit of Advent.

In the Prologue to the Rule, Benedict writes that “the labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you drifted through the sloth of disobedience.”  The him is Jesus Christ, and as far as I’m concerned the other key word here is drift.

imageDrift is the operative word because few of us have the presence of mind to get up and announce that henceforth we’ve decided to abandon Christ and head straight to hell  in a handbasket.  No, most of us are a lot less deliberate in our choices.  Instead, we mindlessly meander from day to day, not conscious of any direction in our lives.  But then we wake up to find we’ve drifted off course, sometimes by quite a lot.  And all too often we wonder how this drift has come to pass.  Well, as often as not we were asleep at the wheel.  We let marketing or peer pressure or sloth determine the decisions.  We took the path of least resistance, and now, at the end of the day, we discover what wonderful opportunities we’ve missed.

Advent is not a season for big-time penance.  That’s for Lent.  Advent is not a time to look back, take inventory, and repent for the poor decisions we’ve made up to this point.  That’s for Lent.  Advent, rather, is a time for looking to the future.  It’s a time to ask where we intend to go.  It’s a time to ask what we hope to find at the end of our journey.  It’s a time to begin making all those little and not-so-little course corrections that seem to make all the difference in the world.

imageThis is practical wisdom for any who would want to live life consciously.  But for Christians it’s a reminder that we are heading to Jesus, and that Jesus comes into our lives not just at the end of time, but daily.  For that reason Benedict quotes these words from Psalm 94:  “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.”

In the spare landscape of early winter in Minnesota one most definitely hears the voice of God calling.  But I have no doubt that God calls in the hearts of people wherever they are.  And God calls us to live with a sense of purpose, with an idea of where we’d like to be headed with our lives, and what’s really important in our lives.

Some religious traditions speak of this as enlightenment.  I like to think of it as the common sense that God tries to instill into each of us.  Whatever you may want to call it, Advent is a good time to give it a try.  So don’t be distracted by the tinsel, because there’s lots for us to consider this Advent.


+During the past week I did not walk through a single metal detector or airport portal.  The airlines did not miss me, and I certainly did not miss them.

+Thanksgiving was its usual warm celebration in the monastery.  Following Mass at 11 am, we adjourned to the refectory, where we dined on the fare typical of the day.  Topping my own list of favorite dishes was the squash that had come from our garden.

This year I had the forethought to volunteer to be one of the servers, with special attention to the bread detail.  Just before lunch I helped to load trays of rolls into the oven, and then filled a big wicker laundry basket with the finished product.  I must have looked rather quaint, dressed in a long white apron over my habit, toting the big basket from monk to monk in the refectory.

image+The Thanksgiving holiday marks a transition on several fronts.  Winter is now here to stay, and the lakes at Saint John’s are frozen solid.  You can see people out on them ice fishing, and at least one monk has already ventured out to skate on the glassy surface.  But impending snow threatens to ruin the ice as far as skating goes.

Thanksgiving also ushers in the preparations for Advent.  The Advent wreaths have now appeared, and the huge tree has appeared in the Great Hall.

+November 30th marked the last day of our All Souls observance.  During October friends of the Abbey sent in prayer requests for loved ones who have passed, and at each service throughout November individual monks have selected an individual request from the baskets.  It’s a touching way for us to remember our solidarity with deceased friends and relatives from across the country.

image+During Advent my tastes in music shift decisively to choral music, and it’s a shame to limit it to the handful of days following Christmas.  Given the commercial competition out there, you can’t start too early.  In the next few posts I will make reference to several videos, including Donkey Rider by John Rutter.  It’s among my favorites, and this performance at a concert in the basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi is very good.  But you must listen to a few seconds of Italian to get to it, and it is definitely worth the short wait.

Read Full Post »