Posts Tagged ‘Kathleen Norris’


We All Croak, So Live With Purpose

Last week my friend Kathleen Norris sent me the link to an app with the intriguing name of WeCroak.  For those who don’t know Kathleen, she’s a writer and poet, and she’s a friend to many monks in our community.  But despite living in Hawaii, I know for a fact that she’s not a biologist.  So I assumed, rightly, that WeCroak is not about frogs.  What it is about, however, is death; and it promises to send five messages a day to encourage us to stop and think about death.  And it does so on the premise that the truest path to happiness is to consider our mortality.

If you’ve never thought about your own death, then it’s probably time that you did.  You can never start too soon, and it’s something we monks try to do on a regular basis.  And we do that because Saint Benedict in his Rule urges us to keep death daily before our eyes.  It’s important to know, however, that Benedict is not trying to depress us or to throw us into a panic.  Rather, all he wants to do is remind us that our days on God’s green earth are numbered, and we should make good use of each and every moment of each and every day.  Anything less is to waste both our time and our lives, and these are two of the greatest gifts that God gives us.


You and I can certainly choose to live as if there is no tomorrow.  We can also choose to live as if we’ll never run out of days.  But in fact our days are finite, and each day invites a response that is open and creative.  And so we should ask ourselves how we will use this day.  Will we have anything to show for it when we climb into bed tonight?  Will our lives matter to anyone this day?  These are just three of the questions that we can put to ourselves, and you will have your own variations on this theme.  But there’s always one thing to remember:  the unexamined life runs the risk of meaning little or nothing when it’s over.

In today’s readings we have two stark alternatives for shaping our lives.  The first reading, from chapter seven of the Book of Job, opens on this rather depressing note:  “Is not our life on earth a drudgery?”  And then Job goes on to point out that “my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;  they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; and I shall not see happiness again.”

There’s a lot more to the story of Job than this, and it remains one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned.  The good news is that Job’s life ends much differently than this, but these words suggest how illness and suffering and wasted days can all drain life of its positive meaning.  But life need not be that way.

Today’s gospel passage from Mark chapter one provides an option that is clearly more hopeful than Job’s.  Mark recounts how the sick and the suffering came to Jesus for physical healing;  but the physically healthy came too — for spiritual healing.  To both the sick and the healthy Jesus gave a message of hope, and he reminded each and every listener that life does have meaning and purpose.  Such a life will not be without illness, nor will any of us escape death.  But Jesus urges all of us to live by hope — confident that our lives can and do have meaning, not only now, but in eternity.

I confess that I’ve not yet forked over the 99 cents that it takes to download WeCroak, but I’ll probably do so before the end of the day.  And I’ll do so for two reasons.  First, I hope it will give me timely reminders not to bury myself all day in useless trivia.  I hope it will remind me to look up from my iPad and pay attention to what’s going on around me.  And I hope it will remind me to be part of that scene.

But I’ll also do it to reinforce my Benedictine and Christian calling to keep death daily before my eyes.  That will underscore Benedict’s reminder that our days are limited, and each and every moment is something to seize and to treasure.  Any other response is to waste God’s greatest gifts.

I don’t know that I have any good advice on how you can turn up the intensity in your life.  I do know it’s not a matter of being louder or more aggressive.  Nor is it a matter of taking reckless chances with our lives.  But it’s dawned on me that — at least for me — it’s good to inject a little bit of heart into what I say and do today.  Perhaps if I give a little bit of my soul to others, I will also make better use of my time and talent.

But above all it’s critical that you and I as Christians live deliberately, with intensity, with considered purpose.  Only then will we realize that the words of the Psalmist should be ours as well.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice.”  Knowing that our days are in short supply and that one day we too will croak, why would we not want to make the most of what we’ve got?  Why would we not grab hold of today and give of our heart?  This is the life to which God calls us.  Let us be glad and rejoice.  Amen.


+On January 29th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices.  It is the first of several classes that I will be having with them over the next few weeks.

+On February 1st I hosted Chorbishop sharbel Maroun on his visit to Saint John’s.  Abouna sharbel, as he prefers to be called, is the Maronite-rite bishop, resident at Saint Maron’s Church in Minneapolis, and he brought as his guests two priests and a deacon.  They were particularly interested in seeing the Bible Gallery as well as the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  HMML has done considerable work in Lebanon over the years, and by chance several texts in Syriac were on display in the library when we were there. For the record, Abouna sharbel prefers to spell his name in lower-case letters, out of respect for Saint Sharbel.

+On February 3rd our confrere Fr. Eugene passed away at the age of 86.  He served for much of his professed life in various parishes which the monastery has served.

+On February 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon which I preached.  Later that day, following vespers, the younger monks on the formation floor of the monastery hosted our annual Super Bowl dinner of chile and brats, and diehards watched the game.

+I took the photo at the top of today’s post in Vienna several years ago, and it’s one of the nicest clocks I’ve ever seen.  It reminds me of how elegant and imaginative clocks could be in the pre-digital era.  The next three photos are late 15th-century stained glass roundels depicting the life of Christ.  They are housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The fourth photo is a wood carving of Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child, made in the von Carben workshop in Cologne, ca. 1510.  It too is housed in the Schuntzen Museum.  That museum has incorporated the Romanesque church of Saint Cecilia in Cologne, and at bottom is a tympanum which once greeeted visitors as they entered the church.  It dates from ca. 1160.



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Cardinal Richelieu: Bishop or Duke?

Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642): Bishop or Duke?

If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Cardinal Richelieu, Jean-Vincent Blanchard’s recent biography provides just the introduction you didn’t know you needed. In Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France (Walker & Co., 2011), Blanchard details the life of the man who was a fixture on the political stage for nearly twenty-six years. Born Armand-Jean du Plessis, the third son of a provincial noble family of modest means, he was consecrated a bishop at age twenty-two and created a cardinal at thirty-seven. During a brilliant career he accumulated a host of church offices and enormous wealth, and at his death he was abbot of the influential monasteries of Cluny, Citeaux and Premontre. The man must have been a saint, you might conclude. But you’d be ahead of the Vatican on that one.

Richelieu did have a streak of piety, as Blanchard points out, but he rarely if ever showed up at the churches and monasteries from which he drew income. Rather, it was the allure of the political arena that mesmerized him. He clawed his way to the top, and during his years of service to Louis XIII he helped to redraw the map of Europe and give shape to modern France.

Richelieu’s fellow citizens were often ambivalent but never neutral in their feelings for him. He was single-minded in the pursuit of power, and he sent more than a few rivals to the gallows. He waged wars that caused severe hardship to his own people, but he secured the borders of France. And perhaps his greatest legacy was the transformation of the noble classes. At the onset of his career the powerful nobles treated the king as first among equals. By his death France was ready to bow at the feet of the almighty Sun King, Louis XIV.

Well into his narrative Blanchard pauses to wonder how Richelieu could reconcile his priestly vocation with the surgical ruthlessness he demonstrated as chief minister. In fact, there was no inner contradiction at all, writes Blanchard. Richelieu worked in the conviction that the king ruled by God’s will and divine right, and the defense of royal absolutism was his own priestly duty.

Many years ago I was invited to participate in a panel on whether priests and religious should hold public office. The question arose in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s directive that they should not, and feelings on this ran deep in some circles. The organizers asked me to defend the new decree, perhaps because I was the only one they could find who would do so publicly. I remember making a spirited case, but the show of hands by the audience sealed my fate. I consoled myself with a polite round of applause, and with the three other neanderthals in the room I retired to lick my wounds.

The years have helped to clarify the issue, and I remain convinced more than ever of the dangers of blending ministry and politics. It is such an awesome responsibility to serve the spiritual needs of others, with challenges galore. To add political authority to spiritual authority clouds the role of the minister. And when the world needs to hear the prophetic voice, that voice ought not be hobbled by any political baggage.

The Collegeville Institute

Throughout the centuries monasteries have been places for reflection and sanctuary. In them people have sought refuge from political and social squabbles, and in that solace they have found the opportunity to be nourished, to think and to grow. In such places people of similar and differing views can meet in mutual respect, drawn by the shared search for God; and they should expect an unconditional welcome from those who live within the cloister walls.

The need for oases of peace has not receded, despite the passing of the middle ages. At Saint John’s we try to follow Saint Benedict’s maxim to receive all guests as Christ, and as often as not those guests have helped us in our own search for God. It’s in this spirit that for many years we have hosted an annual meeting of the Catholic and Lutheran bishops of Minnesota. As one bishop pointed out in a recent article, they gather to share ideas and not-always-the-same perspectives. But they pray, and we are honored to be a place where they can do so together.

So in a world of non-stop politics, what can we learn? First, the world continues to need places where political intrigue is checked at the door. Sacred spaces ought to be just that. And the same is true for our hearts. While politics may be a noble profession, we can never let that supercede the Lord’s command to love others as He has loved us.

Second, some divisive issues never seem to go away. But I hope we’ve made some progress on the question of combining political and religious authority. I lost on this issue many years ago — big time. But I’d like to reconvene that panel, and as a good sport I would let Cardinal Richelieu sit with my colleagues on the opposing side. I might just win this time.

Cardinal Kasper at Saint John’s

The Collegeville Institute

In the picture above, Cardinal Walter Kasper visits with Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. Clearly, this cardinal is cut from a different bolt of cloth than his seventeenth-century counterpart, and in his former work with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity he had vastly different responsibilities.

Since 1968 the Collegeville Institute has been a familiar presence at Saint John’s. Located on the shore of Lake Watab, opposite the University campus, the Institute describes itself as a “meeting place…where a diverse mix of people from various faith communities, including scholars, writers, professionals, artists and corporate leaders, gather to connect faith to the world and its pressing social issues.”

The Institute complex was designed by campus architect Marcel Breuer, and it bears a striking kinship to his design for the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. The Institute provides housing and offices for visiting Fellows, whose presence has enriched our life at Saint John’s throughout the years.

Among the current Fellows of the Institute is writer Kathleen Norris. In previous stints at Saint John’s she completed work on Dakota, and she then went on to write her widely-revered Cloister Walk. On November 28th at 8:00 pm, in Quad 268 at Saint John’s, she will give a presentation entitled “Got Acedia? Who Cares?”

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