Posts Tagged ‘John the Baptist’


Baptism Begins Our Public Ministry

As rivers flow the Jordan is no Rhine or Amazon or Mississippi.  On rainy days it might qualify as a decent tributary, but even on those days it inspires neither poets nor painters nor boating enthusiasts.

Despite its shortcomings, however, the Jordan does play an extraordinary role in the gospels.  It was beside its waters that John the Baptist preached and baptized.  It was there that he had his first and perhaps only encounter with Jesus.  And it was into the meandering waters of the Jordan that John immersed the head of Jesus.

Last year on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I got to celebrate the Eucharist on a dock that extends out over the shallow waters of the Jordan.  While our small congregation sat on bleachers on dry land, I had to stick close to the altar, lest a misstep plunge me into the Jordan.  I’d already been baptized, so there was no need for another.  But praying out on that dock impressed on me the importance of that place for Jesus.  It was there that he began his public ministry.

C3758ED1-E5AD-4A52-AC17-15FD184DC811The feast of the Baptism of Jesus marks the end of the Christmas season, and in churches of the Latin tradition the decorations come down.  All the same, this action marks a new beginning.  It’s time to get on with the business of ordinary life.  But we do so with a twist.

If the baptism of Jesus inaugurated his public ministry, does our own baptism not do the same for us?  And if it does, what might be the nature of our ministry?  To what kind of life does Jesus call us?

For those who think that public ministry is reserved to the ordained, it’s time to think again.  The witness to Jesus is actually the vocation of the baptized.  To that creative witness Jesus invites us all.

In western culture today the practice of religious faith has become such a private exercise that sometimes one scarcely knows whether or not we’re Christian.  In fairness, part of this is due to our neighbors who share our values if not our baptism.  But all the same, if the nature of our lives remains a cypher or a mystery to our neighbors, then it may be time to evaluate how we are coming across.

Jesus does not ask us to wear our religious conviction on our sleeves.  Nor does he invite us to be Pharisees and dedicate our lives to pointing out the sins of our neighbors. Unfortunately, too many have already signed up for that work, and there’s no need for further volunteers.

Rather, Jesus asks that we rise from the baptismal waters and live with integrity and love.  And he asks us to invite others to share in the new life that he offers.  Our very way of life then should inspire curiosity in our neighbors, and therein begins our public ministry.

A4E68E6C-C251-4B16-9A96-EB87DAB94243To be blunt, in baptism Jesus does not propose that we follow the course of the Jordan as it lazily empties into the Dead Sea.  Rather, like him we need to rise from the waters, step ashore, and as consecrated people begin our public ministry.


+On January 6th and 7th I attended a meeting in Cincinnati to discuss the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+On January 12th we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and that evening the monks living on my floor in the monastery gathered to take down our Christmas tree and other decorations.  By nightfall all traces of Christmas had vanished from the monastery.

+On January 13th the new semester for Saint John’s University began, and with it life as we know it returned to normal.

+The photo at top is a wood carving of the Baptism of Christ, ca. 1480, made in Nuremberg, Germany, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Below that is a piece of stained glass made in 1520 for the Cistercian Abbey of Mariawald, located near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the V & A Museum in London.  Below that is an ivory panel carved in the 500s, in either Syria or Egypt, and now in the British Museum.  At bottom is a terracotta by Andrea Della Robbia, ca. 1500, now in the V & A in London.


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Are We the Less Fortunate?

What was it about John the Baptist that so attracted people?  By most any standard he didn’t have a magnetic personality.  In fact he was just plain strange.  His clothing was unkempt;  his diet was bizarre;  and the gospels are silent about his housing other than that he lived somewhere out in the desert.

Two things about John stand out in my mind.  First, he seemed not to have been in it for himself.  He certainly wasn’t in it for the money.  Nor did he try to con people with promises of social respectability.  On the contrary, in receiving baptism from John people ran the risk of compromising their social position.  Others would whisper and point fingers, identifying them as followers of John, the weirdo of the desert.

039B2AB6-29FB-4F38-8BAB-90785BB0385EThe second notable feature of John has to do with his personal charisma.  Everything about John should have sent people scrambling away from him.  Yet people lingered in droves to hear what he had to say.  Obviously they were curious about this social misfit, and they were also curious because John seemed to speak with authenticity.    Unlike many of the appointed religious leaders, he seemed to be someone who knew God personally.  And he preached not to win mobs of followers and the power that might come from that.  Rather he preached to stir his listeners to the potential for life that was latent within them.

Social standing has been important in every era of human history;  and we are kidding ourselves if we think that we’re untouched by peer pressure and the herd mentality today.  Ironically we’ve created a society that idolizes individual freedom, but we are simultaneously intolerant of any individual who would choose to swim against the current.  But in the process we risk the loss of our integrity, and we pay a heavy price for our indifference to those who are suffering around us.  We pay dearly for sticking with people who are exactly like us, even as it becomes a real stretch for us to reach out in love and friendship to those whose lives seem less fortunate than our own.

The inability to reach out to the poor and the suffering may actually indicate that it’s we who have become the less fortunate.  It’s we who have sold our souls for all sorts of things that don’t really matter.  It’s we who have become insensitive to the possibilities of a full life.

9AD6F7D0-31D9-4AC9-8F85-567CB86F053FIn the end I think that John spoke to an audience that represents people of every era.  On one level people fear that they might miss the boat that sails with the elite on board.  John, however, stirs within us an even deeper fear.  What if by choosing to book passage on the ship of the self-absorbed we actually miss the better boat — the boat that sails to a full and loving life?


+On December 2nd I attended the blessing of the Christmas tree in the Great Hall at Saint John’s University.  Once upon a time the tree was one cut from our forest and forced through the main door of the Great Hall.  The video of that yearly struggle is still available on You Tube.  Alas, the fire marshall put a stop to that not so long ago, mainly because if it ever caught fire it could take down the entire Quadrangle with it.  So today it is artificial, but splendid all the same.

+For whatever reason this was the week for an inordinate number of meetings, all of which I was expected to attend.  Oddly enough I enjoyed them, mainly because I learned a lot from my colleagues.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Matthew 3: 1-12, which was the gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.  The photo at top is a stained glass rendition of John the Baptist, and it greets people as they enter the Great Hall.  Below that is a photo of the Christmas tree and then a trio of angels.  At bottom is another stained glass window from the Great Hall, with Saint Benedict front and center.


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John the Baptist:  Eloquent to the Last Word

John the Baptist’s last hours are grist for one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible.  Here you have a man who once preached in a literal desert, but in his final days he sat in the middle of a moral desert.  From his prison cell he pondered what God might ask of him next.  Meanwhile revelers in a banquet hall treated John as some sort of a side-show, and his head on a platter became the ultimate in party favors.

There’s an irony that redeems this story, and it’s this.  John may have been absent from the banquet hall physically, but he was very much on the minds of many in that room.  And if they thought they were about to have the last word, they were mistaken.  They were powerful and ruthless people, but from the platter John preached to them — and to us — for one last time.

89F454E5-887E-46CA-81A3-2579ED274E1EDespite appearances John did not end up as some sort of hunting trophy.  His death in fact convicted everyone in that room, and in death John spoke even more eloquently than he had in life.

You and I — I hope — are certainly not the sort of people who would have somebody beheaded for our entertainment.  All the same, however, we do share temptations similar to what Herod and his guests experienced.  We do hold grudges, as did Herodias. We do care about saving face, as did Herod.  We do take lightly or even celebrate the misfortunes of others, as did Herod’s guests.

To Herod’s guests John appeared to be very dead and his life erased.  But all the same John’s last hours were not devoid of meaning or purpose.  In fact, on that evening he was the most eloquent person in the room.  Ironically, John had the last word, and he’s had it for twenty centuries and running.

Life has its tawdry moments, as Herod’s banquet hall suggests.  But in spite of it all our lives can have profoundly beautiful meaning, as did John’s.  So today we celebrate John’s passing in ways that are very different from those of the revelers in Herod’s palace.  Then in the spirit of John let us pray that his words will take root in our hearts.  May we prepare a way for the Lord, and like John may we too find welcome in the arms of the Lord.


+On 29 August I presided at the abbey Mass, which happened to be the feast of the Passing of Saint John the Baptist.  Today’s post, based on Mark 6:17-29, is the sermon that I delivered that day.

+From August 27 through 30 Saint John’s Abbey welcomed twenty-four pilgrims, most of whom were visiting Saint John’s for the first time.  On the evening of the 29th I and several of the monks hosted them for dinner in the Great Hall, at the end of which our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann played several selections on the piano.  Among the guests was a long-time friend of mine, Lin, who came from Ann Arbor, MI.  Fr. Geoffrey had planned this pilgrimage, the first of what we hope will be a series of such events.

+On August 30th one of my very first students at Saint John’s flew in from Luxembourg and stayed overnight with his family in the guesthouse.  John, his wife and two children live in Luxembourg, where their children have enjoyed a polyglot childhood that includes English, Mandarin, Luxembourgish, German and French.

+We were delighted to learn that Saint John’s University alumnus Fr. Anthony Yao was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of Jining in Inner Mongolia last week.  Along with Bishop Martin Wu, Bishop Anthony is now the second alumnus of our School of Theology/Seminary who now serve as bishops in China.

+In the Middle Ages John the Baptist was popular as a subject of religious art, and the images in today’s post suggest the different approaches that artists took.  All are now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The topmost originally was the frontal of an altar in Gésara, and dates from the 13th century.  Second is the baptism of Jesus, by Jaume Serra, c. 1390.  The portrait of Herod’s banquet is by Pere Garcia de Benavarri, ca. 1470.  At bottom in a panel from a retable made in ca. 1385, with John the Baptist at the left.


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Advent:  A Beginning, not an End

”Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”  Matthew 17: 13.

It seems odd to meditate on a gospel excerpt that deals with suffering as we prepare for Christmas.  After all, Advent is about eager anticipation.  It should be positive and joyful in spirit.  And yet in this passage Jesus reminds his disciples of the suffering that John the Baptist endured, and he hints at his own as well.  And so when we focus on this, rightly we ask the point of it all.

99CE3322-5C79-4EF3-9B4E-1CAE5CD277CFWell, I think the point is this.  Advent is not a stand-alone season.  Nor is Christmas an end in itself.  In fact they serve as the prelude to the entire life of Jesus.  The story of that life is what we recount in the course of the liturgical year, and it’s the story we embrace as the template for our own story.

In baptism we begin our life in the Lord, but like Advent it’s only the start of our pilgrimage.  And as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel, following in his steps will not be one running theme of sweetness and joy.  In fact he promises that we will have challenges galore.  But a life in which challenge is absent is reallly no life at all.

Advent then is the invitation to go on a life-long pilgrimage.  It’s a trek that will have its joys and difficulties, its opportunities and stumbles.  But as Jesus assures us, it will also be a journey that will have meaning and purpose.  And if we do choose to start that pilgrimage with the Lord, he gives us one assurance.  If we decide to walk with him, he will walk with us, every step of the way.


+On December 11th I attended a Christmas Social for trustees and friends of Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.

+On December 13th I spoke to the Senior Class Committee of Saint John’s University.  I described my work in the University Office of Institutional Advancement and encouraged their volunteer efforts on behalf of the University as they morph into alumni next May.

F438B625-F50F-4462-8E01-6EB7EEEB3C8C+On December 14th I gave a lecture to the cohort of staff and faculty who will be going to Italy and Germany next June on a Benedictine Heritage Tour.  They had asked me to address these two questions:  1.  What did Saint Benedict see and experience when he went to Rome to study; and 2.  What may have influenced him to give up on his studies and become a hermit in the wilderness at Subiaco.  I’d never thought of these questions before, and I suspect that I learned a lot more than my listeners did.

+On December 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and the post today is the sermon which I delivered that morning.

+On December 16th I assisted with a Penance service at Saints Peter & Paul Church in nearby Richmond, MN.  Like the parish in Saint Martin where I helped out a few days earlier, the monks of Saint John’s have served at this parish since its foundation in 1856.

+The photos in today’s post were the result of a visit to the library late one evening during finals week at Saint John’s University.  I have also included an impressive photo of the abbey church, which sits facing the library on the central mall of campus.


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Dinner Guests from the Bible

If I could host anybody from the Bible at a dinner party, whom would I invite?  Someone asked me that the other day, and I have to admit I’d not really thought about it before.  But it’s a great question because there’s such a wide range of characters to choose from.  Who would make my A-list, and who would be discreetly omitted?

It’s actually more fun to consider those whom I wouldn’t invite.  For sure Cain wouldn’t get an invitation, nor would Samson.  They’d be too rowdy.  Nor would most of the prophets, simply because so many of them were difficult to live with.  And it’s nothing personal, but I’d turn Herod away at the door simply because his presence could make the other guests just a little nervous.

F495F3EE-FE85-4EAF-BD8D-45A198CD5703My A-list would be surprisingly long.  David and Solomon would make it, most definitely.  Neither was perfect, but as kings they knew how to behave properly at dinners.  Rebecca would be there for her cleverness and Mary Magdalene for the wonderful stories I hope she would tell.  For his conversation Paul would be fascinating if not scintillating.  And Jesus would be at the top of my list.  He’d be there not because of favoritism on my part but based solely on his reputation.

The gospels portray Jesus as accomplished on the banquet circuit, and they provide lots of evidence to back that up.  At Cana, for instance, he helped out with the wine, which spared the hosts a lot of embarrassment.  He was a gracious guest at the home of Zachaeus and an equally gracious host at the Last Supper.  Clearly he had thought about the art of dining and conversation, as many of his parables suggest.

82F04CE0-6386-49FB-9AC1-070395C3E2EEThen there are a few individuals whom I would not have thought to invite, and John the Baptist is one of them.  It’s not because he was a nobody, because today we honor his memory all over the place.  My own monastery is dedicated to him, and the Order of Malta is actually the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — to name but two from a myriad of examples.  Still, I have to believe that John didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.  For one, the Bible makes no mention of any polished manners, and he seems to have had none of the savoir-faire of Jesus.  He didn’t care much about food, as his diet of locust and honey suggests.  Nor did he care much about fine clothes, because he was definitely not known as a snappy dresser.

More to the point, John was the sort of person who readily said what was on his mind.  It’s true that people went miles out of their way and into the desert to hear him, but it wasn’t because of any reputation for glamour.  All of that makes him a rather intriguing figure, but I wonder if people weren’t willing to risk having him at a dinner party.

D319D554-959D-48C1-91CB-17759C9C262EOn the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist steps onto the stage and into the story leading to the Nativity of Jesus.  He’s intriguing, but for reasons that distinguish him from Jesus.  He preached in the wilderness and not in synagogues or in Jerusalem.  He didn’t carry himself like a rabbi, in contrast to Jesus.  And while he too had disciples, he certainly didn’t run around with the smart set.  Yet, like Jesus, he was a powerful preacher.  Like Jesus he didn’t always tell people what they wanted to hear;  but also like Jesus he was not afraid to tell people what they needed to hear.

I sort of hate to admit it, but there’s real value in having someone like John the Baptist sit at our table.  He might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, but without someone to call us out of ourselves, how would we ever become aware of the larger world?  Without someone to awaken us to our potential for growth, how would we ever crawl out of our comfort zone and achieve the things we never thought possible?  Without someone like John the Baptist, how would we ever own up to the mistakes we make?  John, in short, is a mind-expander.  He urges us to examine ourselves and be self-aware.  He points to paths of which we are unaware, and he tells us that the Lord is waiting for us, just ahead.

When all is said and done I suspect that each of us needs someone like John the Baptist.  Such people help us to find our way through life.  They remind us that the path to a full life is one that includes God.  And if that sounds a bit difficult or inconvenient, consider the ultimate reward of a life well lived.

I suppose then that it’s worth the risk to invite John the Baptist to sit at our table.  He may not make our A list, but consider how wonderful it could be to host a guest who only wishes the best for us.


+As we progress through Advent many of our monks assist with penance services at area parishes.  On December 5th I assisted at the Church of Saint Martin, in Saint Martin, MN.  It’s a parish that the monks of Saint John’s have served since its foundation in 1858, and our confreres Frs. Edward and Julius serve there today.  Located about twenty miles west of Saint John’s, it was the first time I had ever visited the small town of Saint Martin.

+On December 6th I flew to Naples, FL, where I attended a meeting of supporters of our scholarship program that enrolls alumni of Immokalee High School at Saint John’s University.  This spring we will graduate our first two students from Immokalee, and it’s been a wonderful experience.  To say the least, their experience at Saint John’s has been transformative.

+On December 3rd we hosted the members of next year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps at evening prayer.  The 26 soon-to-graduate seniors of Saint John’s University comprise the largest group of Volunteers that we’ve ever sent out, and they will serve in thirteen monasteries in twelve countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

+The first three photos in today’s post are Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, a work of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Italian, ca.  1465-1501.  It is now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, as are the following two photos showing John the Baptist and the Last Supper.  The latter were originally part of an altar panel, and date from ca. 1490, France. At bottom is the cohort of Benedictine Volunteers for next year.  Our confrere Fr. Timothy supplied the photo.



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img_0012_2Advent:  A Luxury We Can Afford

I was surprised when a friend of mine told me the details of a three-day retreat he had gone on recently.  The fact that he’d made a retreat was no big surprise, since lots of people do them these days.  What caught my attention was the place where he went to do this.  He had just spent three days with the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur — the monastery — is quite a distance down the coast from San Francisco, and the place is exceptional both for its beauty as well as for its isolation.  The views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking; and as for its site, it’s best to say that it’s convenient neither to schools nor shopping.  It’s not near anything, and the occasional earthquake or forest fire has left both monks and guests isolated from the outside world.  Still, people keep coming, and reservations are a must.

In general people are familiar with Jesuit retreat programs and their regimen of structured activities.  Unlike them, however, retreats at Benedictine monasteries tend to leave people plenty of time to sort things out for themselves.  There may or may not be conferences to attend, and participants usually have access to one of the monks for spiritual guidance. But the biggest investment of time and energy goes into the round of liturgies that structure the lives of the monks.  In addition, there is encouragement to do some reading and meditation and walking.  And as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once pointed out, walking can be one of the great spiritual therapies in any program of renewal.

img_9825Not everyone is able to trek out to some isolated spot for a retreat these days.  Some simply don’t have the time.  Others may not have the resources to do it.  Still others have obligations from which there is no easy escape — or so they assume.  And therein is my bit of encouragement to anyone who could benefit from time away from the normal routine.  At first glance retreats can seem to be a luxury that most can ill-afford.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  Taking time to assess our lives is something most of us can ill-afford not to do.

On the Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps into the scene, and he pleads with his listeners to consider what they are about.  To translate into modern English, he’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody.  Rather, he challenges people to think about what they are doing with their lives.  Are they good stewards of their time and talent?  Do they care about one another?  Or are they chasing after material fantasies and other such delusions?

There are days when the pursuit of power and wealth and the exploitation of one another may seem what life is all about.  John would argue that these are dead-end activities.  For him what matters most is our creation in the divine image.  That’s what makes us noble, and with that comes the invitation to live wonderfully creative lives.

img_9826That reduces John’s message to its bare bones, and that was the takeaway for people who had hiked out to the desert to hear him.  John encouraged them to make good use of the brains that God had given them, and he urged them to put their brains to the task of producing good fruit.  Such lives reflect the vitality of God.

John was a powerful force in his day, in part because he did not preach in the temple in Jerusalem.  Instead he went to the wilderness along the Jordan River, and there people searched him out.  Ever since then, men and women in the Christian monastic tradition have gone out to the wilderness, and in imitation of John they are willing to share with any and all what they have learned in their spiritual journeys.  Far from wasting their lives, they try and replicate the message that John once proclaimed.  Like John, they try to live with intensity, and not because of any impending doom.  Rather, it’s a tragedy to waste a life that God has given.

img_0103_2Advent is no time for a guilt trip.  Rather it’s a wake-up call to consider what we’re doing with our lives  And in that spirit, if John the Baptist were to offer his recommendations today, this is what he might have to say.  First, it’s impractical for most of us to fly off to the Jordan River in order to repent, but that’s no excuse for doing nothing.  It’s impractical for most people to check into a monastery for a three-day retreat, but that’s no excuse either.  But there are things almost anyone can do.  First off, unless people are illiterate, it is possible to read a little bit of scripture and then pray.  That can be a bit of a retreat.  Attending a concert of sacred music can clear the mind and be something of a retreat.  Stepping out of the daily routine to volunteer in service to others can be a bit of a retreat.

These scarcely exhaust the options, but common to them all is this:  they give some equal time to the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Given the season, the screaming commercialism will always get plenty of air-time.  But stepping out of that noise gives God the chance to whisper into our ears a message whose time has come.  To our surprise, such a moment may not be a luxury after all.  By comparison, all else may be luxuries we can ill-afford.


+On November 30th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Currently there is a major exhibit of folios from the Bible through early January, and my talk was part of a series of lectures on the topic.  What made this different was the presence of my mother and brothers and sisters.  It was the first time my mother had ever heard me speak, and finally she’s learned something of what I do for a living.  It was especially nice that the museum director introduced her to the audience.  That evening she finally got to decide whether years and years of tuition were worth the investment.

+In the interests of full disclosure, I have never had the chance to visit the community of Benedictine monks at Big Sur, CA.  They belong to a branch of Benedictines that blend in an emphasis on hermit-life, and it was begun by St. Romuauld at Camaldoli in Italy.  Many of our monks have gone on personal retreats at Big Sur, and one of their monks is scheduled to give our community retreat at Saint John’s in June 2017.

+The photos in today’s post present stained glass from three different sites.  The first is of Saint John the Baptist, and it comes from the entrance to the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The next two photos are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and they are 14th-century Austrian glass now housed in the V & A Museum in London.  The two lower panels illustrate the Annunciation, and they were made in the Upper Rhine Valley in the 15th century.  They are now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

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imageAdvent: Pious Purposelessness?

Fr. Daniel Durken has not been gone from our midst all that long, so memories of him are still quite vivid in the monastery.  During a long and productive life he taught scripture to undergraduates at Saint John’s University, was editor at The Liturgical Press, and for a while served as novice master.  He excelled at all, but we remember him best for his love of the English language.

As a preacher Daniel had a unique style, and we looked forward to his displays of wit in the pulpit.  What was most remarkable was not just what he had to say, but how he said it.  For one thing, alliteration was the signature element in all of his homilies.  Effortlessly he could string together phrases and even sentences that hung on a single vowel or consonant.  I’m guessing he was predisposed to this, since his initials were DDD.  But his expertise didn’t end there, and many a well-crafted sentence became grist for thoughtful meditation.

A friend of mine reminded me of this last week when she wrote about the onslaught of work as Christmas approaches.  She knows from experience that the season can be too much for her, and that’s when she pauses to glance at a note that Daniel penned to her long ago.  “You can’t do everything altogether at the same time at once right now.”

imageObviously this points up the major shortcoming of multi-tasking.  We mere mortals can do one thing at a time, and if so we can do it pretty well.  Or we can try to do a bunch of things at the same time, and the results likely will be shoddy.  Less obviously, this is also a reminder of the impact of deadlines that come nearer and to-do lists that lengthen.  Ironically, those lists tend to grow longer at the very time of the year when the days grow shorter.  It’s a recipe for panic.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent John the Baptist makes his entrance into the Advent story.  The gospels portray him as a voice crying in the desert, and his message is striking for its simplicity.  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths.”  It’s all a very nice thought, but do any of us really have the time to add one more thing to our to-do lists?  Could this be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back?

The interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not a good practice run for the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.  Actually, for most of us it’s a crazy time of frenzied shopping, congested traffic, holiday parties and the like.  It’s a high-stress time when people and events can push many of us to the breaking point.  We do it all to promote goodwill and build community, yet some of us still find ourselves lonely and depressed.  We can often feel like we walk the paths of life alone.

It’s important to realize that John the Baptist is not asking us to add one more item to our to-do lists.  Rather, he suggests that this may be the best time to set everything aside for as long as it takes to make some sense of it.  Where is all this mindless activity taking us?  Do we even know what we want to do with our lives?

imageJohn the Baptist offers a way to deal with the season and the pressure, and it’s a matter of sitting down and sorting things out in the light of our gospel calling.  If tasks do not have some ultimate meaning or purpose, then chances are they lead to dead ends.  If hyper-activity leaves us dazed by mid-day, then it’s possible we’ve become little more than hamsters on a wheel.

Making straight the way to the Lord is not just another job.  It’s not pious purposelessness, to use some of Fr. Daniel’s alliteration.  A focus on the Lord gives perspective, and it helps us prioritize all the stuff we think we need to do.  A focus on the Lord provides the criteria for effective triage.  If something contributes to personal peace as well as to goodwill among family and friends, then it can stay on the to-do list until it finally gets done.  But if it doesn’t help us realize a vision of Christ in our lives, then off the list it should go.

So John the Baptist is not trying to choke us with one more assignment.  Rather, he urges us to simplify our lives.  Focus on the Lord, he suggests, and all the pieces will come together — eventually.

This Advent, then, if we have too much to do and we’re doing it all poorly, then let’s try to do at least one thing well.  Let’s heed John the Baptist and get a grip on ourselves and go out and get lives.  Preferably we should get lives rooted in the Lord; and if we do so, all else will come our way besides.  Of course this is easier said than done, until we finally start to do it.


+On November 30th we celebrated the lighting of the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  This year it was different for two reasons.  First, after umpteen years we finally had to dispense with a live tree in the Great Hall.  Our insurance company and the fire department had badgered us for years to stop dragging in a live tree, for fear of fire.  Because of that, long ago we stopped decorating it with lights.  This year we finally went with an artificial tree that should last us for years and years.  But with that came the opportunity to decorate it once again with lights.  So it really is a sight to behold.

+On December 5th the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict performed their annual Christmas concert at the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis.

+John the Baptist has been a favorite subject for artists for centuries.  At Saint John’s images of him abound, including the stained glass in the Great Hall and the sculpture by Doris Cesar in the abbey church.  The third photo is a mosaic from Lourdes, and at bottom is another mosaic, from the cathedral of Orvieto in Italy.

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image“Make Straight the Way of The Lord” — John the Baptist

“Eric, look out the window!”

The voice pierced the silence of the house as I sat reading in another room.  But curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the blinds.  And there it was: a huge truck wedged into an impossibly tight cul-de-sac.  Truly this qualified as one of  those things you don’t see every day.

It took nearly two hours for the driver to extricate himself and the truck, but not before he had done some serious damage.  For one thing, he tore up a major chunk of someone’s lawn, and he chewed up the sprinkler system for good measure.  He also grazed a mailbox, sheered off part of a hedge and some branches in a tree, crumbled the pavers in a driveway and clipped off a standing pipe.  All in all it was great entertainment, unless you were the owner of the lawn or the driver.  That poor driver sweat bullets the entire time, and it was no comfort to him that he had kept us amused for half the morning.  To be honest, I thought it was a scream; but ultimately I had to feel sorry for him.  There but for the grace of God — and a B+ in high school geometry — went I.

imageLeft unanswered was one simple question.  Why would a perfectly sane and seasoned driver ignore warnings and steer an extra-long rig filled with cars into a cul-de-sac that was impossibly small to manage?  There was no way on earth he could make that turn.  But he must have thought he could defy the laws of geometry by will-power alone.  He couldn’t, of course, and for his hubris he paid a hefty price.

Why any of us do stupid and irrational things is hard to understand.  Perhaps it stems from the overweening self-confidence that assures us we can do all things.  Perhaps we think we are exempt from the rules that govern normal society.  Or perhaps it boils down to the pride that says the laws of common sense exist for others but not for me.  I’m above all that, after all.  I am the center of the  universe and am bound by no constraints.

imageIn my personal journal of wonders, this qualified as one of the “great moments in trucking history,” and its timeliness could not have been better.  On the Third Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps onto the stage, and the question in everyone’s mind is his identity.  Who is he?  What has he come to do?  Is he the savior, or is there somebody else?

In short order John provides the answers.  His work points to another who is yet to come.  Life is not about him, but his life does have meaning because with his finger he points to God who is walking in their midst.  And, he concludes, “make straight the path to the Lord.”  That, by the way, was the advice the neighbors had given the truck-driver.  “Go straight down the this boulevard and stop.  But don’t you dare turn right into the street with the cul-de-sac.”

John the Baptist points to a fundamental choice we all have to make.  On the one hand the gravitational pull to an egocentric life is almost irresistible.   But the sooner we make room in our lives for other people, the better off we’ll be.  The sooner we allow God to tip-toe into our lives, the more quickly our lives begin to fill with wonder and beauty.  And the sooner we look for the direct path to God, the less likely we’ll be to wander off onto the byway and into the impossible cul-de-sac.

imageThe Bible is replete with stories of people who found themselves lost in  the desert, or built their houses on sand, or ignored the voice of God whispering in their ear.  Common to them all was the assumption that they did not need God.  God could add little value to their lives.  God was for the weak, but not for the strong and independent.  But soon enough they all discovered that they were not masters of the universe, despite the self-flattery that tickled their ears.

Basically that’s what John the Baptist said to his crowds, and it’s what he says to us as well.  We can try to hack our own path through the jungle of life, or cut corners through somebody else’s life, but those lead metaphorically and literally to some dead-end.  But if, on the other hand, we recognize our kinship with our neighbor and with God, we might very well find that the path to God is a lot easier than we thought.  If we can hear the voice of God speaking through John the Baptist, it’s also possible to hear God in our neighbor, telling us to take the high road.

We may get side-tracked now and again, but with the help of God and the support of our friends, we’ll never get stuck in a cul-de-sac.


+On Sunday afternoon, December 14th, the abbey hosted our Latino neighbors from parishes from around central Minnesota, in celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Abbot John presided at the Mass.

+There are a variety of ways to celebrate Advent, and across Europe the Christmas Market is among the most visible.  Little villages of shops sprout up in town squares, selling everything from food to gifts to Christmas decorations.  What makes them particularly pleasant is the unhurried nature of these gatherings.  Entire families go and take their time to browse, eat, and visit with neighbors and friends.  In this gallery I’ve provided photos that I took at a particularly impressive Christmas Market in Vienna, in the square that fronts the Town Hall.  It’s likely the biggest and best in the city, but it has competition in many other neighborhoods.

+In addition to the three photos of the truck in the cul-de-sac, I’ve included two that allow a glimpse into the festive character of Vienna in the Advent season.  Of course they have no monopoly on decorations, but in this season of Advent the center of the city is especially bright.  It helps them pull through the longest and darkest days of the year.  After New Year spring may not be just around the corner, but at least the days begin to lengthen.


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imageBe Watchful.  Be Alert.

You have to wonder what in the world the disciples were doing when Jesus pushed them to “be watchful.  Be alert.”  (Mark 13: 33).  Had they dozed off during one of his parables?  Had their minds wandered?  Did they assume that, as the ultimate insiders, there was nothing more to learn?  We’ll never know.  But I’m guessing they’d grown a little smug and thought they had nothing to worry about.  Life with Jesus was good.

Whether these words rattled them or not, we’ll also never know.  But one thing seems clear.  This was not an invitation to sit back, relax, and coast through life.  Jesus expected a little more out of them than waiting around for their turn to sit at his right in the kingdom.

What Jesus wanted from his apostles matters to us as well, since this gospel passage inaugurates the season of Advent.  And therein is a dilemma.  Is Jesus trying to scare us to death with talk about burglars breaking in when we least expect them?  Is he trying to make us paranoid with the thought that the loss of everything dear to us is just around the next corner?  Or does he recommend that his disciples and we dial down on the alarmism, but open our minds just a tad to what is going on around us?  It strikes me that we have two options here.  We can hit the panic button, or we can buckle down and tend to the quest of becoming Christian.

imageA popular stereotype of monks is that we are a dour and depressing lot.  People assume that we must worry constantly about our salvation, and that best explains why we spend all that time in church.  And Saint Benedict doesn’t help our public image when he tells  his monks to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  Who wouldn’t panic at the thought that today may see the end of everything.  I know I’d be anxious as heck at the thought that by nightfall I would pack it all in and face the grim reaper.

Most monks I know simply can’t and won’t live that way.  None of us can sustain that sort of emotional intensity for very long, because we’d either despair or go crazy.  On top of that, confreres who are like that are tough to live with.  That’s why we usually encourage them to search for God someplace else.  Life has enough difficulty without somebody constantly telling us that it’s going to hell in a hand-basket.

With all due respect, neither Jesus nor Saint Benedict were trying to have a little fun at our expense.  They did not intend to cry wolf and scare the daylights out of us, hoping to induce radical change in our behavior.  Instead, they both hoped we’d keep on searching for God, day in and day out.  No matter how boring it might seem.

imageThis point may be tough to tease out, but I think it goes something like this.  For those who expect salvation to be a personal big-bang moment, when God hits us on the head, they’re generally disappointed with the results.  Even Saint Paul, and even Martin Luther, had to deal with the realities of a long life after they fell from their horses.  Life proved too long to put all their eggs in the basket of a split-second conversion experience.  Life went on, and on.  And unlike so many other things for which life is too short, when it comes to the search for God, one life is more than long enough.  It’s a relationship that waxes and wanes through the years.  And like a marriage or a friendship, it’s something that requires regular investment.

So if Advent is an invitation to buckle down and be about our Father’s business, what exactly should we do?  Well, like New Year’s or Lent, one or two resolutions can be enough to nourish our relationship, at least for this interlude in our lives.  And as this passage from the Gospel of Mark suggests, our focus should be on the Lord in our midst.

imageOn the assumption that we should keep our eyes peeled to see Christ where we least expect him, I’ve decided to address one of my many pet peeves where my vision could use some improvement.  I know this sounds a little jaded, but one peeve results from years of experience with taxi drivers in New York.  If ever again a driver asks how to get where I hope to go (as two of them did recently), I’ve decided to take the question philosophically rather than literally.  “Let’s pray about this together, and I’m sure we’ll find the way.”  That’s definitely better than what I said two weeks ago, and on a few other occasions as well.  And the benefits of this approach?  I lower my blood pressure, and the driver is transformed before my very eyes.  He’s no longer the thief in the night, trying to lead me on a long and expensive diversion.  Instead, I realize that maybe he’s only trying to do the best he can.  In such a person it may be tough to see Christ at first.  But if you squint, it’s a real revelation when you finally spy Christ at the wheel of your taxi.

That, I submit, is the invitation Jesus puts to us in Advent.  This is no time to panic because we’ve not seen his face for ages.  Rather, it’s a few weeks when we buckle down and focus on someone who’s been there all along.  And so, if there are people on your list in whom you least expect to find the Lord, be watchful, and be alert.  The Lord may have been in them all along.  What a surprise to realize that — all this time — we’ve be gazing on the image of God.


+The monks of Saint John’s celebrated Thanksgiving with the customary festive meal.  Unlike in past years, however, the monks did everything, including the preparation of the refectory, the cooking, and the clean-up.  This gave the regular kitchen staff the day off, though from them it required an act of faith that we would not destroy the kitchen in their absence.  Actually, we are blessed to have several monks who have accomplished skills in the kitchen, and the meal was a great success.  At the end of the day the kitchen was in mint condition, much to everyone’s relief.

+On November 29th the University football team played its second game in the Division III national play-offs.  Sadly, they lost to Wartburg College, thus ending the season.  It was a great season though, and the final loss did come with a silver lining:  no more games in the cold of winter.  The winner gets to go on and freeze another day.

image+Over Thanksgiving I finished reading a book that I’d worked on for a while: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2013.)  As a medieval historian I found the narrative immensely interesting, as Heather traces the evolution of a new empire in the West and the development of the papacy from the 5th to the 12th centuries.  I had read a favorable review of it in The Wall Street Journal, which suggested its accessibility to the general reader.  It is accessible, but the novice historian will find the array of names of barbarian chiefs and kings bewildering.  The popes under discussion are slightly more familiar.  This is a terrific book for its narrative of how the Church and empire in western Europe became what it became.

+The prophet Isaiah shows up early in the readings for Advent, and the first photo in today’s post is of “Saint Isaiah”, from Oliva Cathedral in Gdansk, Poland.  The other photos are from the cathedral in Metz, France, which was near the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.

+In the post of 24 November I included a gallery of images of the Abbey church.  This week I’ve included selected photos of the Abbey church in use.


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Photo of window with wreathDoomsday is Just Around the Corner, Maybe

Just about the time you thought the Mayan calendar scare had gone away, it popped up again in the most unlikely of places. I’m not referring to the Australian prime minister, who solemnly announced on television last week that “the Mayans were right.” That was meant to be a joke. But I’m curious to know how many took her seriously, and what exactly they propose to do about it.

No, I’m referring to the myriad of Russians who are scared to death that the world will end in a couple of weeks — just as the Mayans have predicted. The hysteria has been sufficiently great that the Russian government has intervened to calm public nerves, which has likely compounded the problem. After all, who has ever believed the Russian/Soviet/Tsarist government authorities?

I have no idea why the hoopla died away in the United States, but hardly anyone discusses this topic anymore. Perhaps we couldn’t sustain the attention needed to span those extra weeks until the end came. Or maybe it was boredom with a topic that just couldn’t compete after a month in the marketplace of the news media.

For my part, I’d like to think that I took the rational approach in dealing with the Mayan prediction. Surely I’m not the only one to ask who put the Mayans in charge of deciding when the world would end. Surely I cannot be the only one who has wondered if the Mayans might have been wrong. After all, if they were so smart, why didn’t they predict the end of their own civilization? They should have seen it coming, you’d think.

Monastic Gazebo edAs bizarre as the Mayan affair may be, the human reaction comes as no surprise. We’ve always had a fascination with powers beyond our control, and to appease them we’ve offered bulls and goats and lambs. To get an edge on the future we’ve read the entrails of animals and divined the flights of birds in the sky. We’ve consulted astrologers and fortune-tellers, read horoscopes and palms, and practiced white and black magic. And we all have our private superstitions, which have an infallibility beyond anything the pope has ever claimed. But behind it all is the nagging fear that we have very little power to change the cosmos or alter the course of destiny. To use the frightening title of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, we are “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” And to buy our way out from under that God we will do most anything — anything except change our inner selves.

IMG_1305copy[1]As much as we might try to appease the gods, it’s never really brought much peace of mind. Historians have written of the age of anxiety — the centuries on either side of Jesus — when people sought to placate the gods, but could never be sure of success. Had they done enough? Had they performed the rituals exactly as prescribed? Had they inadvertently offended the deity? When you consider all that, no wonder people were anxious. And that scenario still drives the scrupulous person today — and not a few of the rest of us as well.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus rejected such an approach, and therein is the import of their message. Both taught that at the end of the day no bull or goat on the altar could do much of anything to appease God. Nor would any magic formula compel God to forgive us and leave us alone. None of that cause-and-effect religious system mattered, because what God wants is a pure heart. All God wants is repentance and a willingness to turn to God. And all we get in return is love.

Breuer ResidenceUltimately the apostles carried that message to the ends of the earth. And the message of repentance and love allayed the anxieties of an awful lot of people who had wondered what they could ever do to appease an irascible and unpredictable God. “Nothing” was the answer. “God saves you for free” was their consoling message. It’s still a challenge to believe that all God wants from us is a pure heart. It’s so much easier to try and strike a bargain with God. It’s so much more rational to make promises that we will keep, if God will only grant our wishes. But God must be chuckling as our proposals come wafting up to heaven. “Who do they think I am?”

Snow in the Church Cloister GardenOn the second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist urges people to make a path for the Lord to enter into their lives. That’s easier said than done, until you realize the futility of negotiating with God. God is not going to cede to us control of the cosmos, no matter what we offer in return. But in the meantime God is willing to love us, and therein is the path to true stability in our lives.

In some respects the Mayan scare comes as a refreshing break from the modern prophets of doom that crop up with boring regularity. Still, even if I did believe that the world was going to end on a set day, I’m not sure what I would do differently — other than try to believe God loves me. In fact, there’s little I would do proactively, though there might be a few things I wouldn’t do. On the outside chance that the Mayans accidentally got it right, I’m tempted not to do my Christmas cards until after their deadline. Other than that, I don’t know.

Emmaus Hall ed+Personal notes

On December 6th I and Dr. Michael Hemesath, president of Saint John’s University, were in Scottsdale, AZ, to attend a reception for friends and alumni of the University. It was a fine evening, with some sixty-five guests in attendance.

On that same day the Abbey church was the scene of the funeral for Officer Thomas Decker, of nearby Cold Spring, MN, who had been killed in the line of duty a few days before. He was a member of Saint Boniface Parish, where our confrere Fr. Cletus Connors serves as pastor. Because of the huge crowds that were expected, Fr. Cletus presided at the funeral Mass in the much larger Abbey church. In addition to the governor and one of our U.S. Senators, some 3,000+ people attended the service.

Quad Tower edOn December 5th His Beatitude Ignatius Hazim IV, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, died at the age of 92. Ten years ago I had the privilege of visiting with the Patriarch at his home in Beirut, and on the wall in my office hangs a wonderful photo of the two of us, taken that day. Through the years the Patriarch was very helpful and supportive of the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, which has now completed projects in Lebanon and Syria. In the course of those projects he visited Saint John’s to receive the Pax Christi Award.

On Saturday December 8th I had the opportunity to go and see the movie “Lincoln.” I found the first half of the film mesmerizing, and I recommend it highly. I cannot say as much for the second half, largely because the power in the theater went out and everyone finally gave up and went home. I am hoping that Lincoln succeeded in abolishing slavery and that the Civil War finally came to an end. But I don’t know for sure, since people have been kind enough not to tell me the ending.

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