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Posts Tagged ‘Library of Congress’

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Wake Up!  (a bit of advice for Advent)

Once a month we monks at Saint John’s set aside a day for reflection.  From rising until dinner we are silent — save for prayer — and the abbot convenes us for a spiritual conference in the chapter house.

Given that we already live in a monastery, it’s fair to ask why in the world we’d need to do this extra stuff.  Aren’t twenty-nine or thirty days a month in church enough already?  Well, the answer is yes, and no.

Monks follow a religious regimen that most people would consider more than adequate.  But for a moment consider where we’re coming from.  Just because we go to church several times a day, and just because we practice all sorts of other rituals, that doesn’t keep us from turning it all into a numbing round of activity.  And therein is the value of an occasional day off to get a grip on ourselves.  Whether we do a lot or a little or nothing, slippping into an unexamined routine can rob life of its intensity.  That’s why we — and anybody — should do this sort of thing.

794354BC-0C9A-472B-9CEC-AB17E8FB850AFrom a seasonal point of view Saturday’s conference had real possibilities.  Advent was to begin the next day, and in the gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus urges people to “be awake.”  It’s just the sort of advice we need to hear once in a while, and it was the theme that Abbot John chose to focus on, in hopes of stirring us on a sleepy Saturday morning.

However, I began to wonder if he was about to fritter the opportunity away with his opening comment.  He reminded us that Saint Benedict says nothing about Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  On the other hand Benedict does say that the lives of monks ought to be like a Lenten observance.  But as for Advent, Benedict says nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  It’s like the season doesn’t even exist, which naturally made me wonder.  Was it because in 6th-century Italy they didn’t have Black Friday or the pre-Christmas shopping season?  Or was it because there were as yet no shopping malls to give meaning to the season of Advent?  We’ll likely never know.  But having mulled over Saint Benedict’s telling omission, I began to wonder why the abbot had roused us out of our reverie on a Saturday morning.  Did he do it just so he could tell us that Advent was unmonastic?

Abbot John did not choose to go in that direction.  But his opening bit did succeed in priming the pump for my own sometimes irreverent thoughts.  And so, once again, last Saturday morning I reaffirmed the value of an Advent observance, even in a Benedictine monastery, and even for me.

7BF6B804-B562-4AE8-A538-B7EA19C19FDEIn the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus makes this point:  “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you like a trap.”  (Luke 21: 34).  Drowsiness is the problem, and the  day to which Jesus refers is the day of the coming of the Lord.  And if we let the complexities of daily life overwhelm us then there may be unintended consequences.  The Lord will come, but we’ll be the last to know that he had been standing right in front of our noses and we hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe that’s why Saint Benedict doesn’t bother to write anything about the season of Advent.  Maybe it’s because he presumes that monks — and all Christians for that matter — should be aware that Advent goes on around us all the time.  Granted, the gospel speaks of the day when we will stand before the Lord at the end of time;  but all the same the Lord isn’t exactly hiding from us right now.

In fact, Jesus is in front of us, in plain sight, each and every day.  For that reason Benedict writes that the monk should see Christ in the guest, in the elderly and sick, in the abbot and in the youngest monks.  And the same applies to everyone else.  Whether it’s in the poor and sick, in the lonely or struggling, or in the person who needs our kind word or smile, the Lord makes cameo appearances all the time.  So it is that the Lord’s advent is present to us every day;  and if once a year we need a season to serve as a reminder to us, then so be it.

That explains the urgency in the words of Jesus.  He’s coming, but not just at the end of time.  Advent is the season when we deliberately rouse ourselves from our routine and admit how incredibly blessed we are.  We have the chance to meet the Lord — today.  Why wouldn’t we want to stay awake for that?

3F972559-CFD9-4B8A-A48C-9899BE27BCE1NOTES

+On November 27th I presided and preached at the Eucharist for members of the San Francisco area Order of Malta, who had gathered for their annual meeting.

+On December 1st we had our monthly day of reflection, and we assembled for a conference written by Abbot John.  Because that morning the abbot was away to preside at the funeral of his aunt, Brother David-Paul was delegated to read the abbot’s conference to the community.

+On December 1st the football team of Saint John’s University ended its season with a loss in the NCAA Division III playoffs.  The game took place in Belton, TX, which is a small town in central Texas.  Oddly enough, I’ve been there a few times.  My grandparents lived near there, and my father was born in nearby Westphalia, TX.

+A few days ago the nation and Saint John’s lost a wonderful scholar and friend.  Dr. James Billington served as the Librarian of Congresss for ages, and he was generous in his energy and expertise in arranging an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Library of Congress.  He also spoke at an event at Saint John’s, and our last encounter took place when he gathered in the office of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis.  In the presence of Pope Francis, the Speaker, Abbot John and a few others, Dr. Billington accepted a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, to mark the occasion of the Pope’s visit.  That set now resides in the Library of Congress.

+At the top of this post is a photo of the Advent wreath in the abbey church.  We also have a second large wreath in the refectory.  Below that are two photos of the abbey chapter house, where we gather for spiritual conferences and meetings.  While it may seem a substantial building, it’s dwarfed by many of its medieval counterparts, as illustrated by the two photos of the chapter house at Canterbury Cathedral.  As you might imagine, I prefer our cushioned seats to the stone benches at Canterbury.

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IMG_0968Who Thought to Ask?

For historians of the Catholic experience in the United States, the prospect of Pope Francis standing before the Congress last week had to be nothing short of incredible.  What 17th-century Catholic in Maryland could ever imagine such a scene?  What 19th-century German or Irish or Italian immigrant could conceive of the day when the pope would occupy the moral high ground as he stepped out onto the balcony of the Capitol to address tens of thousands gathered outside?  Well, for some it’s stranger than fiction, and it stirred even the stony hearts — my own included.

I leave it to the professionals to analyze the significance of the pope’s visit, but what really matters is the experience of the tens of millions who participated in this.  Somehow the pope managed to bypass the talking heads and cut through into the hearts of so many, and the welcome they offered to the pope was intensely personal and genuine.

IMG_0964At Saint John’s we too shared in the curiosity, a curiosity which some of us acted upon.  Our monks in formation and the monk-seminarians endured a long bus-ride to Washington to see for themselves.  Later in the week a large group of our college students flew off to Philadelphia to attend the conference on the family.  And on the home front clusters of monks gathered in front of the television to take in as much as they could.

I didn’t go to Washington or New York or Philadelphia, but all the same there was an element of this that touched both the historian and the working professional in me.  Certainly the enthusiastic crowds amazed me, but what moved me most was a very quiet interlude in the middle of the papal visit to Washington.  Shortly after the appearance on the balcony of the Capitol, Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner stopped briefly in the latter’s office.  Waiting there was a small group that included Abbot John, Dr. Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, and Amy Rauenhorst Goldman, the president of the GHR Foundation.  In a gesture made possible through the generosity of the GHR Foundation, Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress accepted an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, given to mark the visit of Pope Francis to the United States.

IMG_0965Volume one, The Pentateuch, was open, and Pope Francis studied the illumination of the Days of Creation.  Perhaps that was chosen with an eye to the pope’s concern for creation.  Abbot John broke the silence and asked the pope to bless the Bible, and Pope Francis then placed his hand on the illumination for a moment of quiet prayer.  Then, as quickly as it had all begun, it was over.  The pope was off to the next appointment.

Though I was a thousand miles away, I certainly appreciated every bit of the moment.  Twenty years ago we commissioned the making of The Saint John’s Bible to mark the day when the monks first came to central Minnesota.  1856 was not the best of years for monks or Catholics to set foot in the United States; but neither a tepid welcome on these shores nor the wilderness deterred them.  As for the monks, they persevered.  They worked and they prayed; and 150 years later The Saint John’s Bible commemorates their determination to seek God in the wilderness.

IMG_0967We had always hoped that this Bible might stir the spiritual imagination of people around the world.  Now, from its new home at the Library of Congress, we hope this set of the Apostles Edition will pique the curiosity of an entirely new audience.  And in one respect it is a little extension of Saint John’s and the bell tower that greets all visitors to the campus.  Symbolically the pedestal of the tower holds up the book of the gospels, and The Saint John’s Bible carries that theme even further afield.

So whatever else may come from this quiet moment in the heart of Washington, there’s this delicious thought to mull over.  When the first five monks arrived on the shore of Lake Sagatagan, they must have wondered what life would bring in such a difficult place.  Could they make a home here?  Would it last?  Would it make any sort of difference to people?  But one question would have brought chuckles, had someone thought to ask.  “When will the abbot be meeting the pope in the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives?”  Who would have thought?

IMG_8963Notes

+On September 24 the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible was presented to Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress, in the presence of Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner.  The generosity of the GHR Foundation made this presentation possible, and in the room for the occasion were members of the Rauenhorst family from Minnesota.  To be honest, this moment was something of a miracle in itself.  Weeks ago it looked like it was going to happen.  But various issues intervened, and as the day approached it seemed less likely.  On the morning of the 24th I was resigned to the fact that it was not going to happen.  But whether it was divine intervention or something else, it did.

+Earlier in the day our president, Michael Hemesath, along with Bishop Kettler of Saint Cloud and President Mary Hinton of the College of Saint Benedict, sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives to hear the pope speak.  This was courtesy of Representative Tom Emmer, our congressman.

IMG_1170+On the evening of 24 September I attended the annual Junior Achievement awards dinner in Minneapolis, at which Saint John’s alumnus Prince Wallace and his wife Sandra were inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.  The evening was a delight, and my only regret was that some of my colleagues who should have been there were detained by stuff in Washington that day.

+As if we did not have enough going on this week, on 26 September ESPN Sports Center on the Road broadcast its Game Day program live from the football stadium at Saint John’s University.  This meant that we had to muster a crowd of several thousand for the opening of the program at 6:00 am.  For many of our students it was the first time they had ever been up at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.  As for the monks, we listened to their cheers from the stadium as we prayed morning prayer.  Later in the day a huge throng of 17,000 attended the football game, and in the crowd was our congressman, Rep. Tom Emmer.

+The pictures of the presentation of the Apostles Edition in today’s post come courtesy of the GHR Foundation and Mark Rauenhorst.

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