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Posts Tagged ‘Lent’

Lent:  A img_5240Time of Renewal

How the hotel staff managed to miss the signs of decay is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps because they used the employee entrance in the rear they simply never noticed.  Meanwhile, the obvious stared at every incoming guest.  Some must not have cared and registered anyway, while others saw it as fair warning and walked on by.

What was the issue?  Through the ravages of time the Princesa Sofia Hotel had morphed into the Princesa So.  Worse, its treasured fifth star had begun to plummet comet-like down the facade, and two others had definitely lost their luster.  Most definitely this was not good advertising, but it certainly was truth in advertising.  It suggested to guests that what they saw on the outside was what they should expect to find on the inside.  Caveat emptor!

This may be an odd segue into Lent, but it does point out a seldom-appreciated reality that we all face as we make adjustments in our lives.  The view we have of ourselves by its very nature is going to differ from the perspectives others have of us.  From the inside looking out, we see ourselves as people of good intentions, highly principled, hard-working, and wonderful to be around day or night.

img_0079_2That said, no one should be surprised to discover that many of the people around us do not share that view.  From their position on the outside looking in at us, they see someone with gifts and foibles, with strengths and weaknesses.  For better and for worse, our wiser friends hesitate to share these insights with us, while we wave off the views of our harsher critics as gratuitous and mean-spirited.  That explains why so many of us conclude that there’s no need for us to change.  We’re fine, just the way we are.

Once such an attitude is entrenched, growth and improvement are much harder to come by.  We slip into ruts from which we cannot escape so easily, and we end up missing so much that life has to offer.

Ash Wednesday has its somber side with the reminder that we came from the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return.  But that’s not meant to depress or paralyze us.  Rather, it’s meant to be a clarion call to make the most of what God gives us — be it years, talents, and the capacity for growth.  That sometimes can involve the need to step back and appreciate what others might see in us.  But above all, it requires us to pause and inventory what God has invested in us and how well we are or are not using it.

img_0069_2In his chapter on Lent in the monastery Saint Benedict wrote that the life of a monk should be a Lenten observance.  Of course monks in the 6th century had no patience for that, nor can modern monks be convinced of that either.  But Benedict anticipated this, and so he prescribed some minor and distinctly non-showy things that monks could add as a Lenten supplement.  On a general level he suggested “refusing to indulge evil habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.”  He offered this not so that he could make life in the monastery drudgery, but so that monks could begin to anticipate the joys of Easter.

It occurs to me that one point of all this is the need to avoid the ruts that so easily stifle our personal growth.  Tweaking a schedule or shaking up a day can be disruptive, but it’s also a way to get a fresh perspective on our lives.  That in turn can give us the insight to change and to grow and to experience Easter — not just once a year — but every day.

My thoughts return to the staff of the Princesa Sofia.  In their use of the employee entrance they never had to confront the most obvious signal of the slow decay that was happening inside the hotel.  They got used to what was inside and learned to live with it.  Perhaps it never dawned on them that it didn’t have to go on like that.  It could be different, and both the hotel and they could flourish.

Lent invites us to break free from our customary ways of doing things.  As a time of renewal Lent encourages us to discover the possibilities in life that we’ve ignored all too often.  It’s a reminder that the point of Christian life is not the sobering reality of the cross on Good Friday.  Rather, we look beyond the cross to the resurrrection on Easter Sunday.  That resurrection is something we can celebrate every day of our lives.

img_0071_2Notes

+This was not the best of weeks for me.  Last weekend I pulled something in my back, which made getting around extremely difficult.  Then on Ash Wednesday I woke up, got out of bed, stood, took a step and fell down.  That had to be a fluke, I thought, but after another try I fell again.  Thankfully it is a pinched nerve that’s causing this, and I will recover, but only after six weeks of therapy.  The doctor advised me to eliminate airports and travel from my immediate plans, and that’s led to a complete rewrite of my calendar for the next two months.  (Actually, I have torn it up.). In the meantime, it is a little strange to have to rely on a walker to get around the monastery.  This too will pass, however.  So that is my Lenten observance.

+Readers of my notes are accustomed to seeing weekly travel reports, but there’ll be none of that for a while.   Thankfully I do other stuff too, including reading.  A couple of weeks ago I finished a book by Cambridge professor Mary Beard, on the history of the Roman Empire.  Entitled SPQR, it is easily accessible to the non-history reader, and it lingered on The New York Times Best Sellers list for weeks.  She gives an insightful overview while at the same time pointing out the cultural legacy of the Romans 2,000 years later.  For example, the political and social boundaries that the Romans set in Europe largely endure to this day.  We observe the month of July in honor of Julius Caesar, and August in memory of Augustus Caesar.  On something as benign as the moment when a new day begins we still follow the Roman custom of midnight.  Does it have to be that way?  In Jewish tradition the new day begins at sunset of the evening before.  This is a book I highly recommend.

img_5241+On March 2nd our confrere Fr. Bryan Hayes passed away at the age of 97.  To say the least, he led a varied life, and it’s worth noting a few bits.  He was born in Clarksville, TN, and he grew up with a fondness for music.  Before coming to the monastery he already was an accomplished composer, with some of his works played at Carnegie Hall.  Later he studied under Aaron Copeland, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and while studying in Italy he met and kissed the hands of the mystic Padre Pio.  That sparked his conversion to Catholicism.  At Saint John’s he taught French, but we will best remember him for the hundreds of hymns he composed.  We sing many of them, and they are among our favorites.  But there are hundreds yet to learn.  I would be remiss were I not to mention that we all considered him to be a “character.”

+I discovered the Princesa Sofia as I walked the streets of Barcelona one afternoon.  As the photo at bottom indicates, eventually someone told the manager about the sign, and he must have gone out and taken a look.  The place seems to be going through a complete overhaul.  One of the favorite Lenten disciplines in former centuries was the giving of alms, and Saint Martin of Tour was venerated for cutting his cloak in half to share with a beggar.  The next three images come from the cathedral of Utrecht in Holland.

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imageMake Lent the Cornerstone

Lent has a reassuring rhythm in the monastery.  We see it in little tweaks that carry through into Holy Week, such as a second reading at evening prayer.  We see it as well in the Friday menu in the refectory.  And then there is the gradual increase in daylight.  By Holy Week it’s almost too much to manage.

But it’s Ash Wednesday that sets the tone.  On that day hundreds of students will join us for Mass.  Many will return to the abbey church for evening prayer with us, and some will continue to do so through much of the season.  But at the end of evening prayer on that one sacred day, they will see us file off to the chapter house, where the abbot will offer a conference that he hopes will inspire us for at least the next hour or two, if not for the entire forty days of Lent.

After a hundred and fifty-nine years of Ash Wednesday conferences, none of us monks really expect to hear anything new, which is okay.  In some respects it’s reassuring to hear old themes brought out for a periodic airing.  But this year Abbot John tossed out a nugget that seemed to offer a new perspective, and that was okay too.

imageBy reflex most of us think of Lent as a time for giving stuff up.  In my youth that tended to focus on things like candy or desserts or smoking or some other simple pleasure that we coud live without for the duration.  In the spirit of the times today it might be hard drugs or Cheetos.  But whatever your fancy might be, Lent has always seemed to be the time for a cease-fire in the pursuit of pleasure.  During Lent this has been our simple gesture of giving to God what is God’s.  During the rest of the year we take it all back, and we resume giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

This year Abbot John counselled a different approach.  Certainly he didn’t want us to give up entirely on self-denial, but he did invite a reconsideration for Saint Benedict’s teaching on Lent.  If Benedict asks us to pursue our entire life in the monastery as a Lenten observance, then forty days as a sort of time-out from normal life doesn’t quite reflect that spirit.  If you give up something for forty days, with every intention of taking it up again after Easter, does that not seem to waste a good opportunity?  Does it make a mockery of the integrity that should mark the entire duration of our lives?  It might very well do just that.

imageSo it was that Abbot John encouraged us to make Lent a time of testing.  This could very well be the ideal time for a trial run of something we might continue to do long after Lent is over.  After all, if something is worth doing for forty days, it might be worth doing for a lifetime.  And conversely, if there’s something we ought to integrate into our routine for a lifetime, might Lent be the best chance we’ll ever have for a feasibility study?  After all, if I can’t do something for forty days, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll succeed in doing it for forty years.  What better time to test drive an idea that has rattled around in my mind for months, or even years.

imageWe all have our own short list of things we should have tried out years ago.  What better time than Lent to find out if we’re capable of a “new normal” in our lives.  What better time is there than Lent to discover whether something really will work for us?  And if nothing else, why go on feeling guilty for not trying?

I’m not about to publish my own short list of aspirations, mainly because Benedict admonishes his monks not to make a big splash about this sort of thing. This is a matter of personal growth and development, not an item in a personal public relations campaign.  So it is that I will keep this to myself.  Besides that, if I fail, who needs to know?

But I wil not keep to myself the one lasting piece of advice that I took away from the abbot’s conference this year, and it’s this.  This time around let’s not let Lent interrupt our year.  Instead, let’s let Lent be the cornerstone of our year.

imageNotes

+On February 24th the abbey concluded a four-day visitation by two abbots and two monks from other abbeys in our congregation.  This happens every three to five years, and it allows monks from other communities to make a formal visit, to interview the individual monks, and to offer an assessment to the community at the end of the visit.  Our visitors included Abbot Mark from Saint Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire, Abbot Lawrence from Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Oklahoma, Fr. Meinrad from Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas, and Brother Gregory from Saint Procopius Abbey in Illinois.

+On February 25th I taught a class on early medieval monasticism to the two novices in our monastery.

+On 26-27 February I attended the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On the afternoon of the 27th I flew with a group of alumni and friends of the University on a Benedictine Heritage tour to Italy, where we will visit Monte Cassino, Subiaco, Norcia, and other sites associated with Saint Benedict and the Benedictine tradition.  Our first stop was in Orvieto, which is one of my favorite towns in Italy.  The pictures in today’s post show the exterior of the medieval gothic cathedral, which has no peer in all of Italy.

Orvieto once again impressed upon me how small a world it is.  In the lobby of the hotel where we were staying I met a couple from Connecticut, and the husband had attended what was once our priory school in Puerto Rico.  Today San Antonio Abad is an independent abbey, but this gentleman knew several of my confreres who had taught there many years ago when it was still a new foundation from Saint John’s.

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imageWas That Today?

Several months ago someone sent me a cartoon of two dinosaurs, smoking and chatting away as they stood on the beach.  Suddenly one spies a big ship sailing off, and poking from the deck and portholes are the heads of giraffes, horses, peacocks and two of every other kind of animal.  It’s just then that the awful truth dawns on them.  One turns to the other and in alarm asks:  “Rats.  Was that today?”

Actually, he used another expletive, though I forget which one.  But the point doesn’t depend on the naughty word in question.  These two dinosaurs were so caught up in their own little world that they’d completely forgotten about their tickets for Noah’s Ark.  Here it was, the biggest thing to happen in weeks, and they were lolling around on the beach, smoking.  Coincidentally, this may very well be the first documented instance that links smoking to mortality.

imageIt’s easy to smirk at the forgetfulness of those dinosaurs.  But how often do we do the same thing?  I bring this up because the opening reading for the liturgy of the first Sunday of Lent tells the story of God’s covenant with Noah.  Noah and the animals who remembered to keep their reservations on the ark had just survived the flood of the millenium.  Now God has promised not to do that again.  And so, what emerges is a covenant between God and people, and it would last for all time.

There are not a few of us who prefer to see this covenant as a contractual relationship between God and the entire human race as a species, or at the very least a bargain between God and a political entity like Holland or Canada.  But as near as I understand the current iteration of God’s job description, that contract binds God to each and every individual.  God loves us all, each and every one of us.  After all, we are created in the divine image.  Why wouldn’t God love us?

Still, like the dinosaurs, we forget.  How can anyone of us expect to remember our relationship with God for a lifetime?  In an era in which our attention span has slipped to less than twenty seconds, how are we supposed to remember the deal that somebody struck on our behalf at baptism?

imageI’m not sure I have the answer to that, but I would suggest that short-term projects may be the solution to long-term memory loss.  That’s where Lent comes in.  Lent is only forty days long.  I’ll grant that to some it might seem like an eternity.  But, compared to having a spouse or raising kids or doing college, it’s not all that long.  For many of us, forty days is doable.

So if some of us have the capacity to remember to do something for forty days, what might we do?  And why would we do it?  That’s the genius of picking some Lenten project.  It’s not too late, for instance, to commit ourselves to a daily reading from scripture.  It’s not too late to commit to morning prayer, a meditative rosary, or some other practice that won’t chew up the entire day.  And the point of all this?  The point is not to keep God happy.  God long ago gave up on animal sacrifices and the other chips we’ve used to curry divine favor.  Rather, we do it to remind ourselves regularly of God’s love for us.  That’s the point of God’s promise to Noah.  The sign in the sky is not a signal of a cease-fire from divine wrath.  Rather, it’s the promise of God’s love for each and every one of us.

imageIn his Rule Saint Benedict asks his monks to make of their lives a Lenten observance.  But for most monks that takes way too much long-term concentration.  So Benedict breaks the year down and asks each monk to do one project for Lent.  And even if forty days sounds like an awful lot, it’s something I can almost wrap my mind around.

So this Lent we shouldn’t get left behind, absent-mindedly smoking with the dinosaurs.  On Holy Thursday we shouldn’t be startled and have to ask “rats — was that Lent?  Where did it all go?”

imageNotes

+On February 17th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the University of Portland.  The next day, in the sacrificial spirit of Ash Wednesday, I acidentally offered up my cell phone somewhere in the Portland International Airport.  To my utter amazement, I did not die.

+On February 20th the Order of Malta celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the Order’s mother church in Malta, Saint John’s Co-cathedral.  It was built between 1573 and 1578, and it is gorgeous down to the least detail.  It earned World Heritage designation because of the inlay marble tombs that today form the floor.  Enclosed you will find a gallery of this magnificant church.  Adjacent to the cathedral is the palace of the grand masters of the Order of Malta.  Today the palace serves as the seat of the parliament and the offices of the president and prime minister.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the palace.

image+Also on February 20th, some 1,300 people gathered in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome for the Mass and opening of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God, Frá Andrew Bertie.  Frá Andrew is the first Grand Master of the Order of Malta to begin this formal process; and coincidentally he would become the first canonized saint to hold a degree from Saint John’s University.  In 2004 we hosted Frá Andrew at Saint John’s, and during his visit the University bestowed on him an honorary doctorate.  One highlight of Frá Andrew’s three-day visit to Saint John’s was the Mass said by Abbot John, attended by Frá Andrew and other guests, and a few of us monks.  That day we celebrated the feast of Blessed Frá Gerard, the early 12th-century founder of the Order of Malta.

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Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 092How’d the Pope Do?

The shift from actual journalism to “news entertainment” in recent years has transformed the way we learn about events.  Talking heads now spend a few seconds reporting on an event.  Then they get about the business of canvassing opinion from people who scarcely know what they are talking about.  The more off-the-wall the comment, the greater its power to amuse or enrage.  That’s good for ratings.

An event like a papal retirement is a perfect case in point.  Reporters have waited breathlessly for six hundred years for this to happen.  So you can forgive them for a bit of fuzziness on the facts.  I’ll also concede that specialists on the history of papal retirement are in short supply.   However, the inclusion of any and all opinions — no matter how ridiculous — suggests the priority is to entertain, rather than to inform.

Take, for instance, the newspaper report that “more than 120 cardinals will gather in Rome to elect the next pope.”  Since current Church law caps the number of electors at 120, this was a factual error, albeit a minor one.  To my knowledge the paper printed no correction, but I praise the editors for not taking this to the next level of controversy.  Armed with this new bit of data, someone could have penned a fiery editorial demanding to know why the election is restricted to 120.  Given that I am not well-read, that editorial may already have been written.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 018Then there have been the gratuitous appraisals of Benedict’s term as Pope.  Perhaps the most egregious of them came from the Swiss theologian Hans Kung.  In a piece in The New York Times he laid out an incontrovertable fact: the most promising thing Pope Benedict had done  during his entire papacy was to visit with Kung one afternoon.  I’d like to think that Kung intended to answer a different question: “what is your fondest memory of Benedict’s papacy?”  But alas, I have to take Kung at his word when he claims that the acme of Benedict’s papacy was his visit with Kung.

Of course the letter served to remind me that Kung was still alive, unless it was written posthumously.  But where was the de rigueur interview-in-the-street survey?  Someone should have asked puzzled pedestrians whether they agreed with the Pope or with Hans Kung.  A typical answer?  “Hans Kung, hands down!  Who’s Hans Kung?”

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 065I also couldn’t figure out how to process the various evaluations on Pope Benedict’s exercise of power.  Kung stated categorically that Pope Benedict had reverted to an imperious style of monarchy, not seen in the Church for a thousand years, more or less.  Since so many others have complained that Benedict had failed to act decisively on practically everything, I wondered if we were all thinking about the same guy.  Could both views be right?  The nice thing is that when facts don’t matter, then everyone can be right.  Everyone gets a trophy — except the Pope, of course.

On most of this I profess no opinion, save that I’m happy to hear that Hans Kung is still in the land of the living.  As for Pope Benedict’s on-the-job performance, I’ll leave that to the experts, whoever they are.  But when it comes to the fulness of papal power, I do have an opinion.  As a historian, I’ve actually read a book on the topic.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 010First off, about the only people who believe that the pope exercises absolute monarchical power are Hans Kung and the newspapers.  Not for a minute have the curial cardinals ever believed that, and I’m surprised that no one has bothered to ask them about it.  Of course when the cameras are rolling and the pope is in the room, they generously defer on any and every issue — and the smallest ones especially.  Then, when the room is empty, they get back to the daily chores of running the Church.

I don’t say this to be cynical or facetious, because I actually do subscribe to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  That was the 16th-century Church council that put its stamp on the organization of the Church.  The canons of Trent sought to establish a balance of power in the Church, so that no one pope or no one cardinal could set up his own dictatorship or run away with the store.  How did they do this?

Trent produced an organizational chart that for its time was a model of efficiency and the envy of many European governments.  Vatican business was divided into departments, called dicasteries, each headed by one cardinal and a small board of two or three other cardinals.  Each cardinal sat on two or three boards, but could only chair one.  This forced them to work cooperatively.  If you were the ambitious type, your chances of being elected pope increased if you worked amicably alongside your peers.  It stands to reason that the cardinals did not want to elect a would-be tyrant or a crazy man; so the default was set to elect people of poise and talent, who also had a record of collegial behavior.  And if by chance a newly-elected pope tried to make himself all-powerful, the cardinals could dig in their heels.  No one wanted to return to the age of the Renaissance popes.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 008This system tends to be a model of efficiency and continuity, and therein is its strength.  That also happens to be its weakness.  Few absolutist popes have emerged in the last five hundred years, because the cardinals have been there to prevent runaway tyranny.  But in times of crisis, that same Barque of Saint Peter can be very slow to turn.  And when the executive is weak or in ill health, there is little to hold in check one cardinal who wants to be first among equals.  Nor is there anyone to prevent the bureau heads from acting like a herd of cats, each doing his own thing.

That’s the theory behind papal government.  It has generally worked well, though on occasion it can be clumsy.  I’m not about to offer my evaluation of how this government worked during the papacy of Benedict XVI, since I’m saving my comments for when CNN and Fox News call me up.   But I will extrapolate and offer this bit of reflection.  Since all of us already know how the pope should exercise power, there’s no point in going on about that.  Instead, I’ll shift to a topic about which most of us are clueless: the exercise of our own power.

Many if not all of us have power, even if we think we don’t.  Each of us has the power to influence others.  By word and example each of us has the power to build people up or tear them down.  An encouraging word to a young person can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.  A careless or cruel remark to someone can  hurt them for years to come.  Each of us has the capacity to take action, in a way that will get others off the fence and act.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 041All these are ingredients that contribute to good and bad leadership.  But they are also some of the elements that go into a good life.  These few items can help determine whether we make any difference in our own world, or whether our absence will matter to anyone.  I’m hopeful that I’ve used what talents I have to make some little difference in the lives of others.  And I hope the same is true for you.

My advice on power stops there, and happily Pope Benedict needs no further advice from me on that subject.  But advice on his retirement is an entirely different kettle of fish.  So here goes.  First, now that you finally have some time to read, don’t believe everything you read.  Second, even though you used to Twitter, don’t believe everything on the internet.  And lastly, now that you are retired, get a membership in AARP.  They have great travel deals and insurance, and they don’t run surveys on how the pope did.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 015Notes

+On Feburary 27th I drove to Minneapolis to attend a meeting and to do some errands.  The high point of the day was lunch with a very good friend of mine.  The low point of the day?  Being stuck in traffic in downtown Minneapolis.  This was no ordinary traffic jam, because it began early in the morning when a tanker filled with milk overturned in the Lowry Hill  Tunnel, which tied up traffic for most of the day.  The word on the street is that it took a crew of 3,500 cats nearly eight hours to lick it up.  Cats will not be hurried.  Only in Minnesota.

+On Feburary 28/March 1st I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On March 2nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and preached a homily that I’ve entitled The Prodigal Son, Revisted, which is included under the heading Presentations.  My earlier sermon, Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has become the most visited page in the history of my blog.  There  must be a lot of prodigal sons and daughters out there — or brothers and sisters of prodigal sons and daughters.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 095+Also on March 2nd, Brother Walter led a crew in the tapping of one thousand maple trees in the Abbey forest.  Spring is just around the corner, and the ritual of making maple syrup has been a treasured memory of the monks at Saint John’s for generations.

+On March 3rd I presided at the Abbey Mass and delivered a sermon entitled Lent, a Pilgrimage of Self-Discovery.  I’m not sure I was back from the previous day by popular demand, but I got out of the Abbey church alive and in one piece.

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Crucifix, ca. 1150-1200, Leon-Castile, The Cloisters Museum, New York.

Crucifix, ca. 1150-1200, Leon-Castile, The Cloisters Museum, New York.

Lent: What’s a Person to Do?

I’m one of those people who never know what to do about Lent.  Should I deny myself and give up a whole bunch of things?  Should I do something proactive?  Should I do nothing, except pray and meditate on where I’m going with my life?  Or should I ignore Lent altogether and get on with things?  Given that life has challenges enough already, might the latter be the best course of action? (Or inaction, in this case.)

The first option is worthy of consideration because tales of heroic self-denial have been real crowd-pleasers through the centuries.  Of course everybody prefers horror stories of carnage and mayhem; but if we can’t get those, we’ll generally settle for the out-and-out bizarre.  Small wonder that the Lives of the Saints don’t bother to recount how some pious soul gave up candy for Lent.  Frankly, who cares if someone foregoes dessert on every third Thursday of Lent — especially if the alternative is a tale of some genuinely eccentric person.

Abbey chapter house, entranceConsider for a moment the fifth-century Egyptian monk who stood for all of Lent.  Assuming that he wasn’t a raving maniac, he at least expressed himself in a naively off-the-wall way.  I’ve never been sure how this effort nourished his spiritual life, but for his troubles he did get into the Church’s version of the Guinness Book of Records.  And I suspect he also got a case of fallen arches, and he likely racked up a big fat sin of pride as well.  After all, we’d never know about him except for his very successful public relations campaign.

There’s also the complication of conflict of interest — where you become the chief beneficiary of your own asceticism.  It would kill me to give up Cheetoes and shed fifteen pounds for Lent.  I would feel the pain of every bag left uneaten, and every ounce of weight lost.  But on the other hand there’s no denying the well-being that would come my way.  The value of Cheetoes stock might ebb if enough of us did this, but the health benefits could be tremendous, at least until Lent was over.  So I’m not at all sure that ascetic practices that align with pure self-interest get you anywhere either.

Walkway from chapter house to church.

Walkway from chapter house to church.

Switching to the proactive approach, I could elect to be nice for all of Lent.  I know full well that there are moments when this is a no-brainer (especially when I’m asleep); and even for much of waking time it’s easily done.  But when people are around, “being nice” can become a major chore.

So “being nice” would be an excellent resolution for Lent, were it not for my fear of falling into yet another terrible trap.  The fact of the matter is, a great many people assume that all Minnesotans are nice.  That’s why they coined the term “Minnesota Nice.”  So once again, what virtue is there in being merely who you are supposed to be already — even if you were nice with a vengeance? Worse still, if I were nice for all of Lent, I would only reinforce what many consider to be an unhealthy social stereotype.  I certainly don’t want to demean my fellow citizens of Minnesota any more than we are already.  “Nice” — what a put-down.

Stairs in Chapter House/Pavilian.  Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Stairs in Chapter House/Pavilian. Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Before I drive myself mad with logic-chopping, it’s good to remember that we humans have an excellent facility for rationalizing virtually anything.  We can transform the bad into good and the good into bad, with scarcely any effort.  Such is the power of spin, particularly when no objective principles hold sway to ground our ethical reasoning.

Lest we smugly think this is a byproduct of the modern political process, I like to keep myself humble by remembering that Saint Benedict has already written about this, fourteen hundred years ago.  He referred to the four kinds of monks, and the worst of these were the sarabaites, who were rationalizers par excellence.  “What they like they call good; and what they dislike they call bad,” Benedict wrote.  Therein is the challenge we all face when we try to find meaning in a world in which I am the measure of all things.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel.  Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Given that, Benedict’s advice that the entire life of a monk should be a Lenten observance can turn our attitudes about Lent upside down.  Lent for Benedict is no set of mental games played for a few weeks each year.  Rather, Lent serves to remind us of the seriousness of our lives.  We are not junk, because God never makes junk.  We instead are noble creatures, created in God’s image; and each of us is endowed with vast potential.

Lent then is not really a “time out” for doing less or doing more.  Instead, it is a season in which we do an inventory of our lives.  It’s a season when we recall that we were created from dust and will return to dust, and in the interval we are given a tremendous opportunity.  For Benedict, this “truce” in eternity is the gift of life that God bestows on each of us.  Why would we want to waste any of it?  Why would we not strive to rise above the merely mundane to become what God hopes for each of us?

This Lent I definitely will consider giving up Cheetoes and shedding fifteen pounds.  I will also try to be nice, even if people expect me to be so anyway.  But mainly I intend to give some thought to the kind of person God created me to be.  I’m fairly certain that God didn’t create me to be junk.  God has more thoughtful motives than that.  And I confess that I’m just a bit curious about what God may have in mind for me and for you.

Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Notes

+On February 8th I was the chief celebrant at the Abbey Mass.

+At Saint John’s we’ve always been concerned about the quality of our environment and the architectural design that shapes our lives.  This was true for the intricate brick-work in our nineteenth-century buildings, as well as in our contemporary structures designed by Marcel Breuer.

With this in mind, we were delighted to learn that on January 11th the American Institute of Architects announced that its highest award will be given to Vincent James and his Minneapolis firm, for their design of our Blessed Sacrament chapel and the chapter house addition and renovation.

Mosaic pavement, Saint Mark's, Venice

Mosaic pavement, Saint Mark’s, Venice

The project was complicated, to say the least.  We needed a Blessed Sacrament chapel for reservation of the Eucharist and private prayer.  We needed an elevator to access the lower-level parish church.  We also needed additional bathrooms for the Abbey church, as well as bride’s and groom’s rooms.  Uppermost among our goals was public access to the Abbey chapter house, and an entryway that would service all these objectives.  And finally, a pedestrian tunnel to connect the guesthouse to the church was an important feature.

The design by Vincent James was simple yet ingenious.  A two-level addition to the chapter house provided access to everything, and the results have been a structure that is seamless in its efficiency and beauty.

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