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Posts Tagged ‘Lourdes’

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Why We Feebly Struggle

Chapter 11 of the Acts of the Apostles describes a group of Christians in Jerusalem, irate that Peter feels free to eat anything he pleases.  Even worse, he has welcomed Gentiles into their community.  By whose authority did he do this, they demanded to know.

Peter’s explanation was simple:  the Holy Spirit told him to do it.  And their response?  It was the equivalent of saying: “Oh that’s wonderful.  Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

I have a hard time believing that Peter escaped their wrath so easily, because in fact he didn’t.  What Acts 11 fails to tell us is that the Christian community argued about these sorts of things for decades. Such questions were at the heart of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

953E75EC-1CEA-47F1-9899-6373B04F6704It’s tempting to wax nostalgic for a strife-free Church, but such nostalgia would be misplaced.  It would be misplaced because there never really was such a Church.  When Jesus ascended he didn’t leave behind a community that had all the answers.  In fact it was a community with too many questions.  But that was the whole point behind the gift of the Holy Spirit; and through the centuries the Spirit has guided the Church in its quest for the truth.

We primarily have Jesus to blame for the struggles we’ve faced over 2,000 years.  After all, his original point was that the sacrifice of birds and bullocks may be a nice gesture, but what God really prefers is purity of heart.  That purity of heart comes from the daily struggle to understand and follow through on God’s will for us.

If the Church has struggled for 2,000 years, we should not lament that we also feebly struggle at times.  It might be nice were life to have no challenges, but such a life would not be real.  Struggle is a sign that the Holy Spirit works within us.  As gold is refined in the fire, so the Spirit nudges and sometimes even pushes us around.  And the Spirit does so to awaken us to the presence of Christ within us.

NOTES

+My return trip from Lourdes last week was largely uneventful.  Last year’s return was also uneventful, but mainly for the lack of an event that was supposed to happen.  Last year a strike meant no trains, and that left some of us stranded in Lourdes.  This year the French trains ran efficiently and at a steady 300 kpm, and they are a marvel to ride.

AFB10947-CCDB-495F-9820-2AC1085C28E1+On May 12th we celebrated graduation at Saint John’s University, and for me it represented a milestone.  Six years ago two friends of mine, John Lyden and Jack Marshall, conceived the idea of bringing students from Immokalee High School, FL, to Saint John’s for college.  Our first two students, Alejandro and Jaime, graduated this Sunday, and it was a great day for them and their families.  For their support of these great students Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on Jack and John honorary B.A.s.  What made it even better was the fact that neither John nor Jack saw this coming.  It was a total surprise.

+Following graduation ceremonies we monks hosted the newest group of Benedictine Volunteers, as well as their families, at a reception and dinner in the courtyard of the Quadrangle.  Save for the chill in the air, it was a delightful event.

+On May 13th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered.

+It was a bit of a shock to record an inch of snow earlier in the week, but green is now the dominant color in the landscape at Saint John’s, as the photo of the monastic garden at the head of this post illustrates.  The second photo shows senior Alejandro Guzman from Immokalee, FL, with Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath.  Below that is a photo of my friends Jack and John after receiving their honorary degrees.  At bottom is a photo of four of our Cistercian student-monks from Vietnam, who received Master of Divinity degrees on Sunday.  They are pictured with a confrere from California and a friend from Minnesota.

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Thomas and the Virtue of Doubt

Among the apostles I find Thomas to be perhaps the most curious and thoughtful.  While the others quickly confessed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, Thomas alone hesitated.  Unless he touched his wounds he would not believe.  And furthermore he wasn’t about to believe solely on the testimony of his fellow apostles.  After all, could anyone really trust the word of disciples who had run away when the chips were down?

But was there more to Thomas’ doubt — something he did not share with his more impetuous colleagues?  It’s entirely possible, and it had to do with what might come next.  It was all well and good to affirm his belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but what might come next?  Would there be other shoes to drop?  Would Jesus ask of him things he was not yet prepared to do?  Would Jesus ask too much of him?  That may help explain why Thomas doubted.  Certainly he had doubts about the risen Lord.  But Thomas had doubts about himself too.

A5C6B58B-532D-4C6C-8C57-90282ACBD891At the Easter Vigil we participants in the liturgy renewed our baptismal vows, and in the creed that we profess on Sundays we do much the same.  And while those statements were crafted long after Thomas professed his faith in the risen Lord, they mirror the words of Thomas.  They are our way of saying “My Lord and my God.”  They are our way of saying “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”  They are our confession that we don’t always know what the Lord has in mind for us; but despite all this we believe that the Lord will walk alongside us on our earthly pilgrimage.

In our culture doubt can seem to be a flaw.  When unquestioned self-confidence seems to be the ideal, we often see doubt as a sign of weakness.  And yet I would submit that doubt is actually a gift.  Doubt is part of any solid relationship — be it with a spouse or a friend or even with God.  Doubt is part of any pilgrimage that is going somewhere wonderful, because when there is no doubt then there is no adventure.  And there are certainly no surprises.  Do we really want to live a life in which there are no surprises?

The Acts of the Apostles demonstrate that it’s okay and perhaps even wise for us to doubt now and again — or often.  Thomas doubted and on that doubt he built a relationship that blossomed and flourished.  As for us. If we had certainty about everything and doubts about nothing, then we might misunderstand what it is the Lord asks of us.  Given that, we could very well panic and look for some sort of detour.

So it seems to me that doubt is not so bad a thing.  There is virtue to be had in doubt.  However, there is one doubt that Jesus invites us to put aside, and it has to do with his promise to be with us —  always.  Never for a moment should we doubt the word of Jesus, who plans to walk with us, even until the end of time.

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+My week began quietly and ended with a flurry of activity.  On April 25 I flew to White Plains, NY, located a stone’s throw from my destination, Stamford, CT.  In the umpteen years of flying to Connecticut for school and then for work on behalf of Saint John’s it had never dawned on me to fly into that airport.  I am truly amazed at how oblivious I was to geographic reality.  But this discovery also shows that learning is a life-long opportunity, with lots of rewards.

+On April 28th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Darien, CT.  Following that I preached at one of the services, and today’s post is an excerpt from that sermon.  I have passed through Darien many times but had never stopped there.  It turned out to be a wonderful experience, and among others I met a couple whose grandparents are buried in the abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.  I would go back to Darien in a heartbeat!

+While the fire at Notre Dame deeply touched me and all those who revere that church, it also served as a reminder of the great architectural heritage that France shares with the world.  Among my favorite churches is the medieval abbey of Saint Remi, in the city of Rheims.  The cathedral there overshadows this Romanesque structure, and visitors seldom walk the half-mile to see it.  But like so much in France, it is well worth the extra steps.

+Today I leave for the annual pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes.  That may explain my preoccupation with France of late.

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Will the Stones Speak of Us?

The landscape of Europe is littered with monastic establishments.  Some are ruins, whose skeletons reach up to the open skies.  Others are fragments of their former selves, and they long ago surrendered most of their stones to builders of cottages and manor houses and garden walls.  But every now and again there’s an impressive remnant to remind us modern folk of the Spirit that once animated the people who lived in these sacred spaces.

At the end of my recent pilgrimage to Lourdes some friends and I passed through Paris, and one morning we visited the stately basilica of Sacre Coeur.  It perches on the highest point in the city, and there it stands as something of a poke-in-the-eye of the Revolution in France.  It’s stately and amazing, even to a jaded critic like me;  and I was glad to have the chance to wander its aisles once again.

C4589408-1357-454A-85F3-079FBB06D06AHowever, I have to confess that I and my fellow pilgrims were there for different reasons.  They had come to see the late 19th-century basilica in all its glory.  I, on the other hand, came to get a peek once again at its lowly neighbor — the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre.

My first and last visit to Saint Pierre was in the 1980s.  When I walked through its doors back then it turned out to be a huge disappointment.  The church was filled with dust that I assumed had accumulated since the monks had vacated the place in 1789.  Still worse, it was dark and decrepit and seemed ripe for the wrecking ball.  Given those times, that seemed a likely fate.

I returned wondering whether there was anything left of it, and I dreaded the sight of the tourist outlet that must have replaced it.  To my surprise, however, the church was still standing.  Even better, it had gone through a metamorphosis.  The dust was gone.  New stones had replaced the battered ones.  And signs of rejuvenated pastoral activity were everywhere.  Once again it was in the business of serving the spiritual needs of the denizens of Montmartre as well as the herds of tourists who accidentally wander in.

10E149F3-94C7-4211-BFE0-A39DF139AF6BThe most striking elements were the new stained glass windows.  There were also a few new statues, including one of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris.  He was beheaded on Montmartre, and according to legend he picked up his severed head and walked away.  In this rendition the headless bishop couldn’t look more casual and relaxed.  And as for me, I thought of all those skeptics who naturally scorn such stories.  In answer to them Saint Denis stands there with his head and a nonchalant “so what!” on his lips.  After all, his story is no more far-fetched than most of the urban legends that we swallow uncritically today.

I left Saint Pierre with a comforting sense of reassurance.  While individual souls may be granted eternal life, God makes no such promises to monasteries.  Monasteries come and go, in response to the changing times.  That said, the monks who lived at Saint Pierre in the course of 850 years have every right to savor the legacy they have left on Montmartre.  After all these years their silent witness still touches the lives of all sorts of people.  And even if it was never their original intention to draw tourists from around the world, that’s okay.  That part of their legacy may have been unintentional, but God works in mysterious ways.

Here I find a certain consolation as I try to live my own life as a Christian and a monk.  Who knows how many lives any of us touch?  Who knows whether we do so for good or for ill?  All the same, it seems to me that we all ought to work with whatever resources God has given to us, and to let God figure out what sort of legacy we will leave.  And whether the stones will speak of us fondly a hundred years from now is a matter for future generations to decide.  But in the meantime, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be of some service to our neighbors in the here and now.  That in itself is legacy enough.

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+The conclusion of our Order of Malta pilgrimage was anything but uneventful.  For days some of us who planned to return through Paris watched the train schedule with apprehension.  Sure enough they were true to their word and the train operators went on strike on the day we had to return to Paris.  Our only recourse was to hire a van and drive from the south of France to the north, which made for a very long day.  What made it personally excruciating were the exit signs on the freeway.  Every few miles we passed a place that that I had read about for years, but of course there was no way we could stop and see even a single one.  That was a tough experience for me, but at least I now know where all those places are.

+Fortunely Air France was not on strike on the day of my departure.  I was to connect with a Delta flight in London, but alas the Air France and Delta computers were not speaking with one another on the morning when I checked in at the Air France desk.  They told me that my London flight had been cancelled and that I had to go to the Delta desk to find out what to do.  It was early in the morning, and the Delta desk was not open yet.  When it did open they told me the flight was not cancelled, and that I would have to return to speak with the people at Air France.  By then we had frittered away two hours, and with 45 minutes before departure I still had not checked in or gone through security.  It turned out that everyone was a little right and a little wrong.  The flight did depart from London, but it was several hours late.  Thankfully I made it through security in Paris and met the connection in London, but I also vowed never to construct such an itinerary again.

+The photos in today’s post show the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre, that sits next to Sacre Coeur on top of Montmartre.  Needless to say, the abbey runs a poor second in attracting visitors, but that makes it a more awesome place to visit.

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The Christian Vocation:  To Be a Pilgrim

You’d be right to wonder how in the world anyone could keep busy for six days in a place like Lourdes.  Is there any decent shopping?  Are there great restaurants?  Is there much of anything else to do?  The answers to these three questions are short and sweet:  not much; no; and it depends.

First of all, I can assure you that no one on a culinary tour of the south of France makes a detour to Lourdes.  The restaurants are adequate, but the market for fine dining just isn’t there.  As for the shops, it’s fair to say that Lourdes caters to all tastes and none, but I can only think of four shops that I wouldn’t mind being photographed in.  As for things to keep you busy, there can be a surprisingly lot of stuff to chew up hours and hours.

097EFACE-14AA-4023-9890-D555C59EF61FFor starters, there is no such thing as an express Mass in Lourdes.  I can’t think of a single one that was over in less than an hour — and those were the weekday ones.  As for our Sunday liturgy for 25,000, that took over two and a half hours.  A close second in the time department was the candlelight procession that takes place every evening.  On the night we processed, we did so with 20,000 companions, and a procession of that magnitude simply cannot be hurried.  But to be fair, with 350 in our group, even a walk down the block takes planning.

I’m not going to recount the entire schedule, but I will note the two moments when I made my own particular contribution to the program.  On one afternoon I moderated a two-hour session with the care-givers in our group.  It was a moving experience for us all, and by the end of it I had a profound respect for these people who have given so much love and service to the people for whom they care.

A second instance came on the morning I led the stations of the cross for a large group.  It took place outdoors, across the river from the shrine.  There we walked from one stone-carved station to the next, mentally retracing the passion and death of Jesus.  In the past when I’ve done that I’ve always been conscious of the layers of meaning that this exercise evokes; but this time the circumstances compounded it.  As a spiritual meditation it is a substitute for a trip to Jerusalem and walking the Via Dolorosa.  But that morning it was also an abbreviated pilgrimage within the pilgrimage to Lourdes.  And finally, it serves as a reminder to all of us who are Christian that our fundamental vocation is to be pilgrims.  As Saint Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless, until finally they find their rest in Jesus.

43B8EFC6-5AA2-4D83-B920-BF67738B18FFAs you can imagine, six days of pilgrimage also bring a flood of words, much of it in the form of sermons.  I’m relieved to report that most of them were relatively benign, but I must cite Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit for the most down-to-earth and moving words of the entire journey.  At the Lourdes grotto, where tradition says that Mary gave her message to Bernadette, he pointed out an obvious truth that had never occurred to me.  “Mary came to Lourdes, and not to Paris.  Mary chose to appear in the town garbage dump, and not at Versailles.  Mary spoke to an unlettered young woman, and not to some sophisticate.”

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict notes the awe with which we approach the wealthy and powerful, and he urges his monks to bend over backwards to pay equal attention to the poor and powerless.  In her appearance to Bernadette, Mary makes the same point.  She provides a not-so-subtle reminder that in our pilgrimage of life we’d be well-advised to pay our respects to any and all fellow travelers.  If the scriptures relate the stories of people who unknowingly entertained angels, then they suggest that we can never be too cautious ourselves.  There’s always the outside chance that we could be walking with the Lord.  Given that, none if us can be too careful.  After all, we could miss something really important.

A6C5E5E3-1D6B-4FD3-974F-002632DF48FANOTES

+The first full day of our pilgrimage to Lourdes did not begin auspiciously.  It rained the entire day, and it was cold.  The second day it rained too.  Then it got progressively better, until by Sunday it was gloriously sunny and even warm.  It was the first day on which most of us shed our coats.  That lifted everyone’s spirits and made it a lot easier for people to get around.

+On May 5th several of the monks as well as volunteers gathered to plant the first of 500 fruiting trees and shrubs in the Abbey Arboretum.  This wild orchard will serve both the wildlife as well as those in the community who make jams and jellies for our table.

+The photos in today’s post all show scenes from Lourdes.  Certainly the oldest structure in town is the medieval fortress, that was built on Roman ruins on top of the hill that dominates the town and the river Gave that flows through it.  The shrine that greets visitors dates from the 19th century, while the enormous basilica that hosts Masses for up to 25,000 is underground.  Given that space is tight at the shrine, the location  underground preserves a valuable plaza that sits in front of the shrine.

Lourdes is not a big town, but it hosts around 5 million visitors during the peak months of the pilgrimage season.  That makes it the biggest tourist destination in France after Paris.   In winter the town shrinks down to a few thousand, and most of the hotels close.  And as a footnote, after Paris Lourdes has the greatest number of hotel rooms of any other city in France.

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To Lourdes Once More

Why would anyone want to go to Lourdes for a tenth time?  Since I’ll be going this week as a chaplain in the Order of Malta’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, and since I’ve done so nine times already, I guess I’m one who will have to cough up an answer by pilgrimage’s end.

I remember well my first pilgrimage to Lourdes.  It seems so long ago, and by now nine pilgrimages have blurred into one, simply because the routine has scarcely changed through the years.  Each year some 350 of us from the Western Association arrive and join three or four thousand other Malta members from around the world.  Together, as members and volunteers and the sick, we gather to pray and process and dine and do other pilgrim things for a week.  Then we pack up and go home.  Fifty-one weeks later many return to do it all over again.  And if ten times seems like a lot, it’s small potatoes compared to the 25 or 30 trips that some have made.

A8EC2DBF-607B-42C6-A1E1-3F25CFF218DBPeople go to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons — and for no good reason at all.  What stands out from my own first pilgrimage was my hesitation.  Being of a more stoic temperament, and working from the vantage point of a medieval historian, I entertained a lot of personal caution.  Would this be too devotional for my tastes?  Would all the religious trappings leave me cold?  Might it all prove to be some form of escapism from the real challenges that people face?  These may seem like strange questions to come from a monk, but those were mine.

Those fears were tucked into the baggage that I took to Lourdes, but by the end of my first pilgrimage I realized how wide-of-the-mark my apprehensions had been.  Lourdes, it turned out, was no place for religious or emotional escapism.  Nor was Lourdes in the business of promising physical healing.  Unexplained healings do occur now and again, but spiritual healing is what Lourdes is about.  So people arrive expecting all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all.  But people go home touched intimately by the spiritual healing that takes place.

E2A5FA47-C7B7-4C50-AC56-6AF33D08E09EI’m under no illusion that this week’s visit to Lourdes will replicate my first.  It will be more like the next eight of them.  It will reflect my hard-won opennesss to seeing Christ in the sick and the poor.  It will reflect my appreciation for Christ working through the hands of the members of the Order and the volunteers.

I already know why I’m going to Lourdes for a tenth time, because my early skepticism opened my eyes to things I’d not seen so clearly before.  People come to Lourdes gifted with all sorts of talents and burdened with foibles.  People also come with ailments that range from the physical to the spiritual.  But everybody leaves Lourdes a little better than when they came.  They leave with a little or a lot of growth behind them.  They’ve experienced something that is sacramental in its widest sense, because they’ve seen the Lord at work all around them.

That’s not what I expected to see when I first went to Lourdes;  but it’s what I’ve been privileged to see every time since.

2170FD2F-70D3-4B73-BEAA-B81933FA83B0NOTES

+Last week was rather quiet until I arrived in Paris on Saturday the 28th.  The charter flight that most in our group took leaves from Los Angeles, and it has the virtue of landing near Lourdes.  But it adds two days to the trip if I go to Los Angeles to meet it.  So I go from Minneapolis to Paris directly.  And I go a bit early so as to be alert when the group arrives.

+On Sunday the 29th I joined a quarter of the population of Paris and its entire inventory of tourists for a visit to the Louvre.  I’ve never seen such mobs in a museum before, and one hopeful note was the thought that at least in Paris a museum can be bigger than even the NFL.  There’s a glimmer of hope there, somewhere.

The galleries were jammed, and one moment of triumph came when our small party glimpsed the Mona Lisa, who gazed at us over the heads of several hundred gawkers.  One in our group even got a picture — using his telephoto lens.

Museum-going these days is not what it used to be, and not for the better.  The Louvre is massive, and it’s easy to get lost and a challenge to locate a particular piece of art.  Complicating the scene are the herds of people whose eyes are glued to their cell phones.  Two things eventually dawned on me.  One, these herds went where their apps told them to go.  Second, most weren’t looking directly at the art.  For all they knew they could have been in a train station or out on a street.  But at least they got to check off the Louvre from their to-do lists.

As for me, I had taken my camera along, but the place was just too crowded to take good photos.  However, I added two bits to my personal storehouse of wisdom.  Visit the Louvre in the off-season, when the crowds thin out.  Second, try and look directly at the art.  Sometimes it can be even more interesting than a cell phone.

+The first three photos in today’s post are exterior shots of the Louvre.  It’s always good to remember that it was built to be a royal palace, but when the French ran out of kings they turned it into a museum.  Among the more neglected galleries are the medieval, which is fine by me.  Above is a 13th-century stone fragment of Saint Matthew writing his gospel, under the direction of an angel.  It used to be in the cathedral of Chartres.  Below is the tomb of Philip Pot (1428-1493), grand seneschal of Burgundy.  It once stood in a chapel at the Abbey of Citeaux.  I had that sculpture all to myself.

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The Lord Takes His Time With Us

With the hindsight of Easter it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Peter in the Gospels is the very same Peter whom we read about in the Acts of the Apostles.  After all, as a disciple Peter had had his doubts about Jesus.  Then came his denial of Jesus three times on the eve of the crucifixion.  Finally, almost miraculously, Peter seemed to mature as an entirely different person in the Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts Peter does not hesitate to confess his faith in Jesus.  He becomes a take-charge sort of guy.  He heals;  he preaches;  and he’s not afraid to go out on a limb and lead the followers of Jesus far beyond the Jewish customs that had tethered them to the temple and synagogue all of their lives.  In short, he and the disciples gradually create a church.  And we’re left to wonder where all that gumption came from.  What could have transformed this timid soul into a bold prophet?

378D8DF0-E65C-4B3E-99B9-53AEA1B848B3We’re now a few days into the Easter season, and the references to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles serve as a reminder of the power of the risen Jesus.  The risen Lord transformed the disciples, and if he could do that with such a motley crew, then he’s probably capable of doing the same with you and me.  Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him, because you and I are the very people whom the Lord came to save.

It’s entirely possible that by now our only souvenir from Holy Week is the memory of some beautiful and sometimes overly-long liturgies.  But it’s also possible to detect the hand of God at work, gently shaping and transforming us.

I for one would be naturally suspicious if Jesus were to turn my life upside-down, inside-out, in an instant.  He may have done that with Peter, or the writer of Acts may have instead compressed Peter’s long spiritual journey into a matter of a few days.  But whatever the Lord may have done with Peter, he’s taken an entirely different approach with me.  I for one know for a fact that the Lord has taken his own sweet time with me.  God’s given me length of years precisely for that reason.

92C6EAA3-A8EB-4C65-8CA3-D47C1F8B1FB1The same may be true for you as well.  If so, you’ve probably noticed how gradual and tentative your journey to the Lord has been.  And you’ve probably wondered why the Lord has not blesssed you with the audicity that Peter had.  Well, one reason for that is that the Lord deals with each of us differently.  But for most of us there is an air of deliberate calculation about it.  We may resist on certain days, but the Lord continues to chip away and sculpt and polish us into his good and faithful servants.  That, I think, shows just how persuasive the risen Lord can be.

In my own humble opinion God generally prefers not to bowl most of us over or hurl us to the ground.  That’s a lot of work for God, and besides, it’s the sort of stuff God reserves for those who are particularly stubborn.  As for me, I suspect, Jesus prefers to be patient and kind, and he draws me to himself in his own good time.  For that I am grateful.

That’s why I think it’s a good idea in this Easter season to pray that the Lord, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to completion.  But there’s no rush.

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+During the past week I taught two classes in the novitiate.  My main theme was the monastic tradition of the abbey of Cluny, which in time had some 350 priories within its orbit.  It was a major booster of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, and it built priories and hostels along the Camino.  Its 12th-century church was the largest in Western Europe, and it remained so until the construction of the new St. Peter’s in Rome in the 16th century — the one we see today.  In the middle of the design of St. Peter’s the architect had to add fifty feet just to make sure it was longer than the abbey church at Cluny.  Cluny is in Burgundy.  It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but as of now it is still on my bucket list.

+From 3-8 April I gave a private retreat to a member of the Federal Association of Order of Malta from Chicago, who is preparing to make his Promise of Obedience in May during the Order’s regular pilgrimage to Lourdes.  It was his first visit to Saint John’s, where he stayed in the guesthouse.

+On April 5th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to a group that included the president, some faculty and staff from Caldwell University, in New Jersey.  They stayed in the guesthouse at Saint John’s, and among other things I toured them through the new Bible gallery in Alcuin Library.

+On April 5th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expansion of the sermon that I gave that day.

+On April 6th I hosted Paul and Laura, graduates of our school, at whose wedding I will preside in the abbey church at Saint John’s this summer.  I don’t get to preside at many weddings, and so this will be a treat for me.

+Today, April 9th, is the feast of the Annunciation.  It’s a reminder that Christmas is upon us, at least in nine months, and we should prepare.  The photos in today’s post are from the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and the uppermost is of the Annunciation.  If you’ve not seen Sagrada Familia, you definitely should put it on your bucket list.

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Lourdes Revisited

In my last post I wrote about Lourdes and commented that it tends to put front and center the fundamental issues of our lives.  In part, I think, the place reminds us of our mortality.  Just as the ashes of Ash Wednesday vividly point out our earthly destiny, so does Lourdes with its focus on the ill and the suffering.  Sooner or later we will all be in that boat.

Given that, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Lourdes as an exercise in religious escapism, divorced from the realities of daily experience.  Two incidents from this last pilgrimage made that abundantly clear, at least to me.  Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I flew into Paris and then took the six-hour train trip south to Lourdes.  Generally it’s a pleasant enough journey, with some interesting though not spectacular scenery until just before arrival in Lourdes.  Four hours into this trip, however, there was an incident.  It began with a sharp application of the brakes, followed by a slight jolt that most of us felt.  Then the train ground to a halt.  Some poor soul had hurled himself in front of the train, and for nearly three hours we sat on an isolated stretch of track while the police sorted things out.  None of us actually saw the damage, but we did see the van that carried the body away.

IMG_6099It was sobering, and I naturally wondered why someone would be so desperate that he would give up on life entirely.  Did the man leave behind friends and family?  How might they respond?  I could only speculate, but I also realized that one lonely man had given us a dose of reality therapy.  Already this was no ho-hum pilgrimage.

It was something else entirely that impacted most everyone in Lourdes, even if many were blissfully unaware.  Lourdes is a high-profile place, since it is one of the most visited spots in France and it is a religious shrine that attracts considerable attention.  Not surprisingly, there are always security issues, which the French handle discreetly and adroitly.  Still, when you add to the mix four or five thousand members and volunteers with the Order of Malta, the stakes are a bit higher.

There were special concerns for our safety this time around, as was evidenced by the presence of a few plain-clothes security people who shadowed us.  God bless their souls, but their efforts to blend in just didn’t work.  Not a few in our group noticed the strapping men who seemed to follow us wherever we went.  These guys must spend half their waking hours in the gym, and physically they looked like the last people on earth who needed the healing springs of Lourdes.  Still, we were happy to have them with us, even if they made all the rest of us look like wimps.

IMG_6138No one seemed to be particularly alarmed, but the situation did raise one point for reflection.  Why would anyone want to harm us?  There wasn’t a single person in our group who had international stature, and yet there were those who wished us ill.  That’s a difficult pill for anyone to swallow.

These kinds of events inevitably raise for discussion the problem of evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do a few people despair enough to give up on life?  Why do some think that they do deeds of valor when they do harm to others?  Why do the innocent have to suffer?  To these questions there are no tidy answers.  Even the questions are a problem, because they fall outside the pale of science and are a conundrum for philosophy and theology.  Yet, ironically, they are at the heart of the human experience.

Lourdes offers its own take on these issues.  It may not  have the definitive answer to the question of why evil exists, but it does show that love is the proven antidote to evil.  The love of God, the love of neighbor and the support we offer to one another all counteract evil, and they extend hope to someone whose life seems devoid of meaning.  They offer hope to the hopeless.

IMG_6131This explains why someone might go on pilgrimage to a place like Lourdes.  It also explains why we might want to join with neighbors to approach the altar of the Lord to be renewed by God’s Word and sacrament.  Such fellowship asserts that we are not lone travelers, adrift in the world.  Rather, we are part of the community of the Lord.

We act on these spiritual impulses because of one primal urge, which Saint Augustine once described.  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  That helps to explain why we, imperfect though we may be, still try to do our best.  And we do our best both for God and for one another.  Coincidently, all this helps to make some sense of the world.  Having embraced the Lord in faith, in love we joyfully embrace the world which God has created.

Notes

+On Saturdays we celebrate the Eucharist in the monastery at 11:30 am.  That’s a useful point to note as I confess that on this last Saturday I was standing at the community bulletin board at 11:27, when someone paused to remind me that I was the celebrant for the Mass.  In panic I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there my name was down for Mass, in three minutes.

IMG_6092+On Sunday May 14th we celebrated the graduation Mass for the seniors of Saint John’s University and their families, with Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud as celebrant and homilist.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of the college as well as of the School of Theology and Seminary at Saint John’s, and he welcomed everyone with these words:  “On this day in 1966 I was sitting exactly where you are sitting today.  Things happen,” he deadpanned.  All appreciated his dry humor.

+My reading companion on the trip to and from Lourdes was a book entitled How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland.  It is a fascinating and entertaining book, which analyzes the development of English-speaking in the Middle West.  Scattered through it are allusions to the kind of humor that has emerged from the region, including one item he heard years ago on A Prairie Home Companion.  It seems that a Minnesotan married a Palestinian, and to take note of their respective nationalities they named their first-born son Yassir Yewbetcha.  My laugh-out-loud response drew polite stares on the train to Lourdes.

+Near the end of our pilgrimage to Lourdes it has been the custom for our members from the Western Association of the Order of Malta to make a visit to the village of Saint Savin.  The abbey there dates to 945, and the scenery is just gorgeous.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the visual delights that await travelers.

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