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Christmas at Saint John's

Christmas at Saint John’s

The Humble and the Proud

I’ve wondered over the years what Elizabeth might have thought of her son, John the Baptist.  At first blush he’s not what many Jewish mothers wanted in a son.  He was a rather unconventional guy.  He ate a poor diet, and he definitely was not a clothes horse.  But it was his professional path that might have disappointed Elizabeth, if anything did.  He didn’t become a rabbi, and he didn’t hang around the movers and shakers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  In fact, baptizing fallen-away Jews in some second-rate river may not have been in her plans at all.

John the Baptist.  Stained glass, Emmaus Hall.

John the Baptist. Stained glass, Emmaus Hall.

But far worse than that was John’s deference to Jesus. The gospels quote him as saying he was not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus; and Jesus must increase while he must decrease.  I can just imagine Elizabeth yelling at him from the front porch:  “Your father and I didn’t raise you to be a doormat, you know.”  Or maybe she didn’t.  But it’s nice to speculate.

There’s no getting around the fact that the gospel writers attribute an over-healthy dose of humility to John the Baptist.  Quite possibly they did this deliberately, wanting to make sure that  no one thought of John as a rival to Jesus. Editors get to call the shots, and that may have been their purpose.

But for the sake of argument, I’d like to assume that John really was a self-effacing guy.  He really didn’t mind stepping into the shadows to give the limelight to Jesus.  Perhaps he really didn’t mind being #2.  Perhaps he was the consummate “company man.”

Our society does not look kindly on also-rans and humble types.  Instead, we lionize the successful moguls and the rampaging overachievers.  Only those at the pinnacle of power deserve our unqualified respect; while losers and the quiet ones merely serve in the cast of thousands that flank the great ones.

Before the concert.

Before the concert.

Not surprisingly, humility as a virtue has slipped way down in most popularity polls.  To many it signifies weakness and poor self-image.  It leads to self-destruction, and who wants to hang around such people?  They are useful only to fill in the chorus of yes-men that many corporate suites require.  But as one of the leading figures of Advent, John the Baptist deserves rescue from this judgment, at least in my humble opinion.

One of the challenges of the English language is the ever-shifting meaning of words.  And while some may consider humility as a sign of softness, in fact it had a rather different tone in its original meaning.  Derived from the Latin word for earth — humus — it conjures up earthiness and groundedness.  Far from being out of touch with their own reality, humble people are strong enough to own up both to their strengths as well as to their faults.  It is the ill-informed and clueless people — the ones who live only from strength to strength — who are the oblivious ones.  They are blind to their own reality, while the humble person has in many ways thought things through.

19, relaxed singersWhat also gives a humble person — and John the Baptist — a leg up is their willingness to accept the notion that they are not the be-all and end-all of the entire universe.  Such a notion is anathema to the egomaniacs, and that is their Achilles heel.  The one who imagines no personal flaws is only waiting for the inevitable fall.

Herod and John the Baptist epitomize the two extremes.  Herod’s strength was self-derived, and so it must have occured to him that he could erase John the Baptist with a wave of his hand.  John, on the other hand, drew his strength from outside of himself.  He recognized his debt to God, and from God came his message.  His principles derived from God, and they sustained him on the best of days and on the worst of days.  And that laid the groundwork for his attitude to Jesus.  Jesus was no threat to him, even if Jesus were to lure away some of his disciples.  Jesus was the embodiment of all that John stood for, and the appearance of such a figure did not threaten John in the least.  Here, after all, was one also sent by God.

14, small groupA little bit of humility can be a good thing, and it can go a long way to making our lives full and complete.  In humility we recognize our own limits, and we more readily lean on others for support.   In humility we recognize our strengths, and we realize they are given for the benefit of everyone, and not just for ourselves.  Humility allows us to see people not as threats to our power and influence, but as teammates in the game of life.  Humility lets us see our gifts and realize that they come from God.  What could be more reassuring than to know that the Life-force of the universe has entered into my very soul?

So there you have it.  As we begin Advent and behold John the Baptist walking toward us, I think it might not be so bad to take his advice to heart.  If John must decrease and Jesus must increase, perhaps that’s a good formula for me.  At the end of the season we might just be better-grounded and stronger people for taking that route.  Maybe I should ask for a dollop of humility this Christmas.  It could very well become one of my greatest assets and the key ingredient for a happy life.

29, singers dressed+Personal Note

On November 29-30th I attended the regular fall meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  Then, with two hours for the transition, I switched hats and began a two-day retreat for members of the Order of Malta in Minnesota.  They stayed in the Abbey guesthouse, and in addition to the three conferences that I gave, we visited the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  Within its vast collections it houses the Malta Study Center, the largest repository on the history of the Order of Malta outside of the National Library of Malta.  In the course of the retreat we joined the monks for the liturgy of the hours, and on December 1st I presided at the Abbey Eucharist.

+Christmas at Saint John’s

While we’ve scarcely begun Advent, in at least one area Christmas cannot wait.  By Christmas classes at Saint John’s University will be out and students gone.  So any Christmas celebrations that involve them must begin now.  One of our great traditions is an annual Christmas concert that the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict present on our respective campuses, as well as at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis.  The pictures in today’s post detail some moments during their many practice sessions, as well as at their concert on December 1st.

copper roof+Roof Repair

The roof repair on the east wing of the Quadrangle seemed to take forever, and the noise was the bane of the summer for many monks — myself included.  Though it did not take forever, the seven months it did take certainly seemed that way.  For me it was a special experience, since the workers climbed the stairs up the scaffold, where they had an unobstructed view into my fourth-floor window.  Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving, they dismantled the scaffold, leaving our beautiful brick walls unencumbered.  For now the copper roof looks like a shiny new penny.  Sadly, it will never get the green patina that such roofs used to get.  Today’s air lacks the pollutants that trigger the chemical reaction.  We will have to be satisfied with a shade of deep bronze.

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The Abbey Gardens

What do you want for Thanksgiving?

As many stores prepare to open on Thanksgiving Day, a few people wonder whether someday the Christmas season will gobble up this holiday entirely. Will historians a century from now theorize that this annual festival of football and merchandising had its roots in a moment of collective gratitude? Quite possibly.

In recent years I’ve had a bit of unease about this holiday, and not because we shouldn’t give thanks for blessings received. Rightly, we should be grateful to live in liberty, to dwell in a land of immense beauty and wealth, and to have basements and garages bulging with stuff that the pilgrims could only dream of. But what about all those people who don’t share in this bounty? Does God not favor them? Does God like us better?

Last week a friend of mine asked me about the parable of the talents, and he wondered if we’ve been reading it in the wrong way. Had the guy who had ten talents lost five of them, would the master have been just as angry as he was with the guy who had one, risked nothing, and neither gained nor lost anything? My friend thought not, and for a very novel reason.

We’ve tended to equate the talents with money or some sort of personal gifts. But what if we thought of them as challenges? What if God actually blesses us with obstacles that are too much to overcome? What if God lets us encounter challenges that are scarcely more than we can bear? That might help explain why bad things happen to good people.

We’ve all fantasized about a life of comfort and ease, one in which everything is handed to us on a silver platter. Conversely, I know I’m not the only one who’s prayed that tough predicaments will go away. Even Jesus prayed that His cup of suffering would pass. But He accepted His cup, and I suppose His is a good example for us all.

As much as we all might prefer the life of Riley, we know all too well what happens when you never have to work or struggle for anything. Without struggle there is no growth. Without hurdles to overcome, there is no sense of accomplishment. Without mighty effort or even a bit of suffering, we uncover neither our own limits nor our own true gifts. Without the supreme personal test, we never learn to stretch or flourish, despite everything.

It might be helpful, then, to turn that parable on its head. Imagine the servant who received ten talents as a symbol of all those who face frightful circumstances in life, and yet rise dramatically to face the occasion. Imagine the servant with one talent as representative of those who face little or no challenge, and who avoid personal risk at all cost. In which servant is true character to be found?

Saint Paul speaks of fighting the good fight and finishing the race, and by that I understand that he tried to meet every challenge that came his way. He wasted not a minute, not an opportunity, not a difficulty. And Saint Benedict takes the same approach when he speaks of monks enduring in the monastery until death. It is a race of discovery.

It’s in that vein that we might consider our own soul-searching this Thanksgiving. Are we grateful that the past year was easy beyond our wildest dreams? Were we able to coast — and not to grow in the process? Or are we thankful that we faced challenges of every stripe, and with God’s help we at least tried to face them with a grain of nobility? If we did the latter, we can thank God this Thanksgiving for the greatest of gifts: we’ve grown not only in age, but in wisdom.

Calendar

On November 15th I celebrated the Eucharist for the semi-annual meeting of the members of the Order of Malta in San Francisco. I have included the sermon, Holy, or Holier than Thou?, under Presentations.

On November 19th it snowed six inches at Saint John’s. It was our first snow of the season, and I simply did not have the heart to include a picture of the snow in this posting. After all, I had just returned from San Francisco, and it is Thanksgiving.

On November 17th Dr. Theresa Vann of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library delivered a paper entitled Catholic Pirates: A Revisionist Look at the Hospitallers of Rhodes and Malta. She is the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, and she oversees the vast archives of the Order of Malta on film and in digital form at HMML. She is pictured here with Mr. Charles Farrugia of the National Library of Malta.

In her talk Dr. Vann made an important point in stressing labels as reflections of political attitudes and propaganda. To western Europeans the galleys of the Order of Malta in the Mediterranean carried crusaders. In the eyes of the Turks, they carried Catholic pirates.

Of course that game goes on endlessly. For centuries the Byzantines and Arabs both thought of the Turks as barbarians. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Turks became the powers-that-be, and all who opposed them were terrorists. Needless to say, that sentiment was not shared by the Arabs who joined with Lawrence of Arabia to drive out the Turks in the early twentieth century. As is often noted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Charles Dickens: Pictures from Italy

I thought I knew all of the books of Charles Dickens, and that I had read most of them in high school. But recently I stumbled across one I had not known: Pictures from Italy. It recounts Dickens’ sojourn through Italy in the early 1840’s, and you may be surprised to discover that even then Italy was “ill-governed”, as Dickens commented. But he loved the place, the people and the food. What Englishman wouldn’t!

His description of Holy Week in Rome is particularly interesting, and I close with a long excerpt for the benefit of all those who have been caught in crushing crowds of tourists in the Vatican. In the following passage he describes a ceremony immediatley following the Holy Thursday foot-washing, at which the pope hosts the Thirteen at a dinner in the Vatican.

“As the two large boxes, appropriated to ladies at this sight, were full to the throat, and getting near was hopeless, we posted off, along with a great crowd, to be in time at the Table, where the Pope, in person, waits on those Thirteen; and after a prodigious struggle at the Vatican staircase, and several personal struggles with the Swiss guard, the whole crowd swept into the room. The body of the room was full of male strangers; the crowd immense; the heat very great; and the pressure sometimes frightful. It was at its height, when the stream came pouring in, from the feet-washing; and then were there such shrieks and outcries, that a party of Piedmontese dragoons went to the rescue of the Swiss guard, and helped them to calm the tumult.

“The ladies were partucularly ferocious, in their struggles for places. One lady of my acquaintance was siezed round the waist, in the ladies box, by a strong matron, and hoisted out of her place; and there was another lady (in a back row in the same box) who improved her position by sticking a large pin into the ladies before her.”

May your Thanksgiving table have more decorum!

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