Posts Tagged ‘Malvern Retreat House’


From Tiny Acorns

When some people think of monks what generally pops into their minds are cowls, cloisters and books.  Eventually they think of chant, but then that’s it.  They’ve exhausted their imagination.

So it is that most people have little awareness of the importance of music in the monastery, and that goes especially for instruments like the organ.  Part of this is Saint Benedict’s fault, since he didn’t have one in his chapel.  But by the later Middle Ages most monasteries had at least some variation of that instrument at their disposal.

BCB3589D-D80A-4D53-8E8B-B830610E4ED4I’ve been fortunate to see a few early organs, and no doubt my favorite is the 15th-century instrument at the abbey of St. Savin, south of Lourdes.  It’s small and stubborn in its own way, which explains why it is among the oldest surviving organs in France.

In early modern times organs really came into their own, both in parish churches and in monastery chapels.  Some were astounding both in design and sound, and I count myself fortunate to have walked in and under one of the finest — the organ at the abbey church of Weingarten in Germany.

That brings me to the organ in the abbey church at Saint John’s.  It’s been nearly sixty years since the church was finished, and until now the organ has remained unfinished.  That explains why so very few people ever see it.  Through all those years a red cloth has screened the pipes from view, and first-time visitors often have to ask where all that sound comes from.  Soon enough they will wonder no more.

We monks finally decided to complete the incomplete organ, and later this summer designer and builder Martin Pasi will begin to install the pipes that will transform the organ into something truly extraordinary.  As a bonus, the abbey woodworking shop has been fashioning some of the largest pipes out of lumber harvested from our forest.  Not only have some of those acorns grown into mighty oaks, but a few select boards have become pipes weighing as much as 750 pounds.

52102235-048C-4854-8733-C1AF2DB3FDC9Last week some of us monks, donors and other guests gathered in the woodworking shop to watch as Abbot John blessed some of the largest pipes.   The staff also revved up a blower to pump air through two of them, and the deep tones literally shook the building.  Who knew the power of wind and wood!

In the common imagination there’s a lot about the monastic world that seems pointless and uneconomic.  Why would anyone want to search for God in relative obscurity in some cloister in the woods?  Why would anyone engage in an economically pointless exercise like prayer?  Why would anyone devote time, energy and resources to a musical instrument whose sole purpose is to transform air into sound, and all for a fleeting moment?

I’m not sure I have adequate answers for any of that, though I do have a question to counter the question.  “Why not?”  For centuries monks and nuns have devoted themselves to prayer.  They’ve worked and served guests.  And they’ve also devoted themselves to the pursuit of some very ephemeral experiences like music.  In the belief that traces of God can be found in the good, the true and the beautiful, Benedictines both ancient and modern have devoted their lives to that search.

115F89A8-F3DB-4D39-A56F-03B453A34350All things being equal then, the reasons for finishing the organ outweigh the reasons for not doing so, at least in my mind.  Not least of them is that its completion is a sign of hope.  There’s hope that in its majestic music we will catch a glimpse of God.  There’s hope that those pipes will inspire future generations of monks and visitors to thank us for the gift of music.

Finally, I should not forget to point out one practical benefit.  At long last the organ will be so large that the new pipes will flank the red screen that has always obscured the old pipes.  No longer will visitors have to ask where the pipes might be.  They’ll be obvious.  For our part we’ll be able to save some of our breath and devote it to singing the praises of God.


+On May 27th, Memorial Day, an honor guard from the local American Legion gave its customary salute to our deceased monks and neighbors who served in the military.  I find that service in the abbey cemetery to be a poignant ceremony, though the startled squirrels usually disagree.  I am always amazed at the number of our deceased monks who served as chaplains or soldiers in the military.

+On May 29th I gathered in the carpenter shop with fellow monks, friends and neighbors for the blessing of some of the pipes that will be installed in the organ in the abbey church beginning later this summer.  At the ceremony Fr. Bob Koopmann, who has led this project, spoke, as did Fr. Lew Grobe.  Fr. Lew and his colleagues in woodworking have had the honor of crafting some of these extraordinary pipes.

+On 30 May I flew to Philadelphia, and from that day through 4 June I am participating in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  This particular group comprises members from the American and Federal Associations, and the retreat has taken place at Malvern Retreat House, located outside of the city.

+Three of the photos in today’s post show scenes from the blessing of new pipes for the abbey organ.  Included among them is a signature board which will be fixed to the largest of the pipes.  The bottom two photos show the organ from the Abbey of Weingarten in Germany.


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IMG_1637God’s Sense of Humor

My confrere’s vocational story was not typical of most of our monks a few years ago, but I suspect it is a hint of things to come.  After college he decided to volunteer as a lay minister in a diocese far from his home and college.  He really had no idea what he wanted to do, but a religious vocation was about as far from his mind as a trip to the moon.  Still, a stint as a volunteer would buy some time as he tried to sort things out.

He showed up at his parish assignment and met with the pastor, who seemed nice enough.  For the next few days he began to acquaint himself with the lay of the land, and that’s when it began to dawn on him that he might be in the wrong place.  One morning, in the middle of a long chat with the pastor about the confirmation program, it hit him.  Without much thought he blurted out:  “I’m not sure I believe in all this stuff.”  To which the pastor replied:  “Well, sometimes we all have to do things we don’t believe in.”  That was when he realized that the pastor thought that the comment was about the right age for confirmation.  Aghast at the misunderstanding, the young volunteer didn’t have the heart to say that he couldn’t care less about the proper age for confirmation.  His doubts were about God.  Simply put, he wasn’t sure that he could believe in God.

IMG_1655One year stretched into four, and finally it was time to make a decision about the next stage of his life.  It was time to move on, but to where?  That was when he ran across a blurb about a program at Saint John’s Abbey, in which he could spend a few weeks living and working with the monks, with no questions asked.  It seemed like the perfect moment for an extended retreat to sort things out.

He applied and was accepted, and then one day the director of the program called with bad news.  They had accepted sixteen, but there was room for only fifteen, “and you are the only one in the group who has no interest at all in a monastic vocation.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond, but he decided not to take the bait.  It wasn’t his fault that they had too many people coming.  If they didn’t want him, then they were going to have to say so, explicitly, in words.  So he sat there with phone in hand, silent, waiting for the next shoe to drop.  And he waited.  And finally came the voice from the other end:  “Well, I suppose there’s always room for one more.”

IMG_1682In his Rule Saint Benedict advises that entry into the monastery should never be easy.  In this case it wasn’t exactly a warm welcome, though it’s important to note that this guy had no interest in becoming a monk anyway.  That said, for twenty years now he’s been a monk at Saint John’s, and he’s a self-described “ardent evangelist for the Lord.”  In fact, he’s a much-beloved pastor in one of the parishes that monks of the abbey serve.

I recount all this precisely because his vocational story seemed unconventional years ago.  He left college with doubts about God and no clue about his own future, and now he’s in a spot that never in a million years did he imagine for himself.  And as unusual as his story may have been a generation ago, it’s the story of many who find their way to God today.

Therein we find hope for ourselves.  I’ve met not a few parents and grandparents who worry themselves sick about their children and grandchildren.  And a further sign of the times are those who worry about their parents and grandparents, and their apparent lack of a religious anchor.  Naturally it’s disturbing for some to see relatives and friends who seem not to know God; and their worry reflects genuine love and concern.

Still, a bit of caution is in order here.  We should never give up on those who lack a religious foundation, but we should never try to railroad them into some sort of commitment to God.  The latter never works.

IMG_1678On the other hand, there are things we can do.  We can pray for others.  We can strive to live useful and noble lives.  We can show by our own happiness and our own love of others what God has done to transform our lives.

Then we should leave the rest to God.  Like a mother cat with kittens, God sometimes picks people up by the scruff of their neck and carries them off to God-knows-where.  And along the way of these unplanned pilgrimages the Lord opens up vistas and opportunities that people never anticipated.

So it’s important that we care about others and do what we can do to help; but then we need to get out of the way.  We have to let God do the whispering and nudging that changes a life.  Be assured that if we do our part, then God will someday produce results that can be stunning surprises.  Just ask my confrere, who’s still amazed at what the Lord has done for him.

Ironically, my confrere came to the monastery with absolutely zero intention of becoming a monk.  But God had other plans.  Today, of the original sixteen, he’s one of two who are professed monks.  Say what you will, but God certainly has a great sense of humor.


+Last week the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat.  Coincidentally, there was a group of 500 Buddhists at Saint John’s University for a two-week silent retreat.  As one would expect, they have been the best of guests, and their ability to keep silence puts us monks to shame.  In addition, participants in the US Catholic Conference Roman-Catholic/Methodist religious dialogue held their discussions at the abbey guesthouse for several days last week.

+On May 31st I attended the annual dinner of the Minnesota area members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  That evening we welcomed the new archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Archbishop Bernard Hebda.  The event took place in Mendota Heights, MN.

+On June 1st I went to Malvern Retreat House, just outside of Philadelphia, where I have been giving conferences at a five-day retreat for members of the Order of Malta.  I spoke to this group four years ago, and it has been pleasant to be back and see many long-time friends.  On a side note the grounds of the retreat house are just wonderful.

IMG_1692+On June 2nd our confrere, Brother Paul Fitt, passed away after a long illness.

+As the enclosed photos suggest, summer has come to stay at Saint John’s.  The landscape has been lush and green, and it has been a feast for the eyes to be outside and enjoy the soft green colors of spring.


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