Posts Tagged ‘Life of Saint Benedict’


Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.


Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.


Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.


+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.


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imagePope Francis: Do We Have a Verdict Yet?

Pope Gregory the Great has always been a favorite saint within the Benedictine tradition, largely because he was one of us.  Born into an aristocratic family in 6th-century Italy, he transformed one of his family estates into a monastery.  He lived in community thereafter, and this included stints as papal ambassador in Constantinople and then as pope from 590-604.

Gregory was among the most accomplished of popes, and few popes have been his equal in terms of impact on the Church.  He was a prolific writer, though no one thinks of him as an original intellect.  To him we owe the Life of Saint Benedict, as well as his treatise, On Pastoral Care, which became a favorite across Europe within a century.

He was also an able administrator, and he organized the lands of the Church so that they better-served the needs of the poor.  He was an accomplished diplomat as well.  At a time when the Byzantine government was unable to impose law and order in Italy, Gregory threw the weight of his office into negotiation with the barbarian tribal kings.  That initiative upset the bosses in Constantinople, but necessity trumped the niceties of protocol.

imageMost of all, I’ve admired Gregory’s insight in defining what became the diocesan and religious clergy.  Gregory provided no textbook on this, but in his hundreds of letters he formulated a consistent separation of responsiblities and duties.  The diocesan clergy were to dedicate themselves to parochial work; while the monks were to focus on life within the cloister.  In practice, the religious tended to schools and community-based apostolates, and that has served the Church well for centuries.  No wonder his portrait shows up on the walls of so many monasteries.

We celebrated Gregory’s feast day on September 3rd, and it struck me as an appropriate moment to formulate some thoughts on our latter-day religious pope, Francis.  He’s been in office for several months now, and he’s just come off an August of quiet work in his office in Rome.  Will he return to the headlines, or has his media star faded?

By now everyone has some sort of opinion about Pope Francis.  Many admire him for his love of the poor.  A few are disappointed that he’s not a clothes horse.  Many like him for his apparent simplicity.  Others fault him for not tackling the curia with guns blazing.  As for me, I think he’s done an enormous amount of good already.  But as the pundits have noted, Pope Francis is bound to disappoint virtually everybody, sooner or later.  But I think that may be a point in his favor.

imageUp to now a lot of what Francis has done is best understood through the lens of religious life.  Benedictines and Franciscans and Jesuits have distinct missions in the Church, but they all work out of some sense of community.  No wonder Francis preferred not to reside in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.  There he would live in a gilded cage, tended to by keepers who control any and all access to the pope.  His best option was the Casa Santa Marta, where he can mix with guests at will and can see people whenever he likes.  There he can be his own man, without courtiers guiding his every move.

History will likely judge his daily Masses as the defining element of his papacy.  His homilies in particular have been striking, because in them he gets to say exactly what’s on his mind.  But haven’t popes always gotten to say what’s on their minds?  You’d be surprised.

imageAll the recent popes have been nice guys, but can anyone remember a single line from any of their sermons?  I know I don’t.  In fact, I put those sermons in the category of “non-addictive sleep aids.”  And the reason for all that tedium is simple.  Papal sermons and documents are written for the archive, and have been edited accordingly.  Popes may start with good ideas, but between idea and finished product these documents go through several stages of editorial revision.  There can be no misunderstanding of a text, and hints of enthusiasm are the first things to go to the chopping block.  No wonder they’ve had so little to say that sparked people in the pews.

Pope Francis has side-stepped that process, rather cleverly.  He composes his thoughts in his study early in the morning.  Then he walks the short distance to the chapel to deliver them.  He meets no editors or censors on the way, and the thoughts on the readings  for the day are his thoughts.  This is strangely reminiscent of what parish priests do each morning!

Jesus got a lot of credit for speaking “with authority,” and I used to wonder what that meant.  I now have a better notion, thanks to Pope Francis.  When Jesus spoke he did not churn out commentaries and minute analysis of the Law and the Prophets.  Instead he drew from common experience.  His parables spoke to the imagination of ordinary people, and no wonder they still pique our curiosity after all these centuries.

imagePope Francis seems to do the same thing.  But where does he get his ideas?  Well, I suspect he reads.  He also prays.  And in the course of his life as a priest he’s listened to countless confessions.  Certainly he’s heard all the peccadillos that there can be, but he’s also heard all of the struggles that overwhelm ordinary people.  No wonder he promotes the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s reality therapy for the penitent, and it’s a genuine education for the priest.

My conclusion is that both Jesus and Pope Francis speak from authority.  Their’s is not the authority that derives from academic footnotes.  Nor does Francis lean on the authority that comes from his job as the occupant of the chair of Peter.  Certainly Pope Francis could speak that way, but he prefers to speak as he does because he knows where people are at.  They are pilgrims, and so is he.  And he is not the least bit afraid to speak from his personal experience.  We’re just not used to hearing popes speak that way.

imagePope Francis inaugurated the fall season on Saturday with a prayer service for peace in Syria.  It didn’t bother me in the least that he prayed for four hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, without benefit of red shoes or ermine-trimmed cape.  Nor will I leave the Church because he didn’t wear cufflinks.  By contrast, I was struck that 100,000 people would join him, and that in the group were many Muslims.  One could find that miraculous, until you realize the object of their prayers.  Such prayer becomes intensely personal when  your relatives run the risk of being killed and your world hurled into conflict.  Such prayer is no longer an academic exercise.

I’m under no illusion that Pope Francis will make the Curia perfect by October.  Nor will he complete all the other goals that you and I expect of him by November.  I’m confident that he’ll give it his best shot, however.  Meantime, I think that each morning Pope Francis will tend to his first and major goal, which is to lead people to an encounter with Jesus Christ.  If he’s successful, it won’t leave much of a mark in the archives.  But he will certainly touch an awful lot of human hearts.


+On September 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and I entitled my sermon Jesus Didn’t go into Private Practice.  That same day I began a several-day siege with allergies.  For the better part of three days I had no voice, which my confreres did not seem to mind at all.

+The new school year at Saint John’s University began on August 26th.  The return of the students always brings added excitement, and on the athletic front there were two innovations.  On August 30th we dedicated our new soccer field, and the team went on to win their first game on the new turf.  For me the Prayer of Blessing for a Soccer Field was particularly intriguing.  Though the prior read it in the rite of blessing, it was Fr. Michael Kwatera who authored the prayer.  He is among the most talented prayer writers anywhere.  As for football, our new coach won the first game of the season, and his first as head coach, on September 6th.  If he can keep up this unspoiled record, he could surpass the won-loss record of our retired coach in about fifty years.image

+In the monastic refectory we are reading a book by Elizabeth Rapley, entitled The Lord as their Patron: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World (Eardmans, 2011).  I find it extremely interesting, as do most of my confreres.

+While in Germany I had the opportunity to stay in a schloss that was originally built to house a community of Benedictine monks.  Its quadrangular architectural style is repeated in the design of the quadrangle at Saint John’s.  In many ways, then, I felt very much at home rattling around in the spacious halls.  Most of the pictures in today’s post come from there.  Also included are two pictures of a small chapel where we celebrated Mass every day.

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