Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Breuer’


Lives Shaped by the Seasons

Every time winter settles in I muse on what life in the monastery would be like if we followed Saint Benedict’s Rule literally.  Summer at Saint John’s would be a delight.  Winter, however, would be another story.  For most of winter, dark and cold would be the order of the day.

In chapter 41 of his Rule we get some inkling of how Benedict allows the seasons to dictate the daily round of life.  Here he legislates the time for eating during Lent, and it rings strange to modern ears.  “Let Vespers be celebrated early enough so that there is no need for a lamp while eating, and that everything can be finished by daylight” (RB 41.8).  Would we really want to finish supper and call it a day before 5:00 pm?

Of course, Benedict did not mean “everything.”  The night office, for example, still took place at night, even in winter.  But since monks generally recited those psalms from memory, they needed only a cue from the reader, who was the only person who needed a candle or lamp.  Obviously, Benedict made no provision for a brilliantly-lit church.

31EE15CB-59EF-4773-9303-DA68707A5CE8As a medieval historian I appreciate how different life was for Benedict and his monks.  There was little illumination at night, though he did allow for one lamp in the dormitory (RB 22.4).  I also presume that lamps lit steps and sharp edges to avoid accidents or injuries.  Despite that, nights were dark in medieval monasteries — and everywhere else for that matter — and moonlight offered the only relief from the inky blackness.

If Benedict is sparing in his use of artificial light, he’s nearly silent in reference to the cold.  He comments on the oppressive heat of summer, which comes as no surprise from a resident of Italy.  But about the cold of winter and the occasional need for snow removal, he is reticent.  Later, medieval monasteries in Northern Europe indulged in one heated room — the calefactory (sitting room).  All the other rooms ranged from stifling to bone-chilling, depending on the season.

What might Benedict think of modern monks and nuns with their electric lighting and central heat?  At the very least he’d be puzzled by the rhythm of our lives.  For one, artificial light pierces every corner, and the days are as long as we choose to leave the lights on.  Meanwhile, central heat allows for the possibility that a blizzard might rage outside while we might be too warm within.

While nature dictated the terms of life for monks and nuns in the Middle Ages, modern followers of Benedict live in perennial greenhouses.  As a consequence, the horarium never varies, and nature no longer is the decisive factor that it was in Benedict’s day.


+Today’s post is an article that I wrote and which appeared in the winter 2019-20 issue of The Abbey Banner.  The latter is the magazine published by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.

+On January 18th I attended the wedding of Bill and Kate in Minneapolis.  Bill is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and I have known him and his family since he was a kid.  He and his wife live in Washington, DC, and they met while working for politicians of different parties.  They are living proof that you can come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and still thrive together.  Their experience gives hope to the world!

+Beginning this month the majority of our monks will go into exile for the next year.  The reason for this is the renovation of the wing of the monastery that Marcel Breuer designed in the mid-1950s.  Since its construction we’ve done precious little to update the building; and finally the single-pane windows, the original heating and electrical systems, and the need for serious noise abatement have finally caught up with us.  That means that for a year the monks who live in that building will reside in other spaces on campus.  Happily I do not have to relocate because I live in the wing that was constructed in the 1880s.  All the same, we’ll all feel the effects of the relocation of our community gathering spaces, and no doubt we’ll be delighted when all of this is over.

+Heading today’s post is an altar frontal made in the 13th century for the monastery of Sant Serni de Tavernoles in Cataluña.  On 17 January we celebrated the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot, an early 4th-century ascetic from Egypt.  He is a good example of how the popularity of saints can wax and wane.  Not widely known today, he was immensely popular in the Middles Ages, and the second and third photos hint at that.  The first was made in ca. 1375, and attributed to Mestre de Rubió.  It too is housed at the Museum of Catalan Art.  The second was made in Alsace and attributed to Nicolaus of Hagenau.  It is in the Cloisters Museum in New York.  At bottom is another altar frontal from the Museum of Catalan Art, dated ca. 1200.



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The Church:  A Bit Chaotic at Times

Not surprisingly, we don’t host a lot of little kids at prayer in the Abbey church.  On any given weekday it’s faculty, staff, students and people from the guesthouse who occupy the visitors’ section of the choir.  But children?  Not so many.

But on a Sunday we do get a sprinkling of infants and toddlers, and we know they’re there because they make their presence known.  Few of the toddlers can resist the urge to run free-range up and down the expansive brick-paved aisles.  Still others quickly discover the bouncy accoustics.  Designed to blend the voices of us monks as we chant the Psalms, those same walls amplify the cries and screams of even the littlest tyke.  Because we monks aren’t used to those kinds of noises, we can find it all disconcerting.  But then again those same little voices remind us that we were all kids once, and if we live long enough we could very well revert to that uninhibited state in our dotage.

IMG_7013On Saturday Fr. Anthony preached on the gospel passage from Matthew 19 in which Jesus told the disciples to let the little children approach him.  Naturally I’ve thought of that episode as an encouragement to be as innocent and trusting as a child.  After all,  Jesus taught that a lack of such innocence will bar passage through the gates of heaven.

But Anthony pointed out a variant of this.  Whether we like to admit it or not, kids aren’t always the most focused participants in the liturgy.  His comment immediately brought to mind the only sermon I ever heard preached by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to the gills that Sunday, and I guarantee that no one can now recall the passage from scripture about which he preached.  However, everyone of us remembers the infant who screamed and cried through his entire sermon.  We all squirmed in our pews, and most had to wonder just how long Cardinal O’Connor could go before he lost it.

Finally he conceded defeat, paused, and pointed out the obvious.  “I’m sure everyone can hear that screaming baby.  But I just want you to know that I’ve heard worse comments on my preaching.”  With that the tension melted and the congregation dissolved into hearty laughter.  And that’s all any of us remembers from that Mass.

IMG_7008Obviously Jesus must have noticed that some kids ran around and played and yelled as he tried to preach.  How could he not notice as he taught a crowd of 5,000, outside?  The disciples certainly noticed, and they wanted to shoo the kids away.  But Jesus didn’t; and perhaps that’s because he saw those kids as a metaphor for all the needy and troublesome adults who would someday show up at the church door.  Such people sometimes destroy our peace of mind.  They have needs that make us uncomfortable.  Worse still, they seem to be the sort of sinners who shouldn’t be sitting next to me or even close to me.  After all, on more than one occasion I’ve given thanks to God that I’m not at all like them.

Sometimes I forget that church pews were first installed not to seat the strong but to support the weak and the ill.  They’re the ones who cannot stand through a long liturgy.  Ironically, Jesus came to save those very people.  He came to save those physically and spiritually weak people who’ve come to church in hopes that Jesus will give them rest and healing.  That’s when I recall that if I’m spiritually whole, then I have no business taking up valuable pew space.  It would be better to cede my spot to the spiritually poor and sick.

IMG_6990It’s on those occasions that I remember the words of Jesus about little children.  Little kids sometimes seem over-eager for attention and more than willing to assert their need for help.  Unless I become like a little child and admit my own need for Jesus, then I don’t belong in the pews with all those people who do.

Sometimes a church service — like the Church herself — can be a little too chaotic for my tastes.  But not so for Jesus.  Cardinal O’Connor closed his comments on the untidiness of a screaming child in church with one question that was rhetorical rather than open for discussion.  “Isn’t this what it’s all about?”  As much as I hate to admit it, he was probably right.


IMG_7038+On August 13th I and many others lost a dear friend, Nicky Carpenter.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years — dating to the time when we sat together on a committee that nominated a new president for Saint John’s University.  She was a fixture on the civic scene in the Twin Cities, serving with special distinction on the board of the Minnesota Orchestra.  As did her mother before her, she sat on the Board of Regents of Saint John’s University, and she later sat on the Board of Overseers of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library while I was director — a service which she continued to render through her last year.  She was an ardent supporter of The Saint John’s Bible, and I was delighted to have introduced her to the Order of Malta.  I was acting as her spiritual guide when she began preparation to take the Promise of Obedience, but sadly her health declined before she could get very far into the process.  She slipped away quietly, and we will all miss her.  She will be laid to rest in the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

+On 18 August I attended the annual summer picnic of the Trustees of Saint John’s University, held in Wayzata, MN.

+This month I begin the seventh year of publishing this blog.  I thoroughly enjoy writing the posts, and that exercise is a highlight of my week.  I hope I’ve not been overly repetitious, but by now readers must have picked up on some recurring themes.  Mainly I’m grateful to the 3,709 people who have subscribed to it, and I thank those who regularly forward posts to their friends.

+Today’s photos show the interior of the Abbey church.  Designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the hard surfaces of the concrete walls and brick floors are especially good at amplifying little voices, and the pews easily convert into playground equipment.  At bottom is the baptistery, where by now thousands of infants have made their debut as church criers.


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IMG_5558Alcuin Library Revisited

For hundreds of years people have spoken of monks and books in the same breath.  This is largely due to Saint Benedict, who assumed that each monastery would have to begin a collection of manuscripts from the day of its foundation.  For one thing a monastery needed books for the liturgy, and this would include missals, lectionaries, antiphonals and the like.  Secondly, monasteries needed books for lectio divina — the sacred reading expected of every monk.  At the very least Saint Benedict wanted each monk to read one book during Lent, though most did a little better than that.  As a result, however, for centuries the prime spot for the storage of books was the sacristy, until finally some monastic collections grew to the point at which the non-liturgical books began to find a home in a purpose-built room called the library.

It was a long time before monastic collections grew to the size of the library described in Humberto Eco’s great novel, The Name of the Rose.  That library seemed massive, or at least it seemed so in the movie.  In fact few monasteries had such sizeable collections, and in the year 900 it was the rare monastery that had more than a hundred books.  By the end of the Middle Ages, however, it was a different story, and large monastic collections paved the way for a 17th-century scholar-monk named Jean Mabillon.  While his fellow French monk, Dom Perignon, stole the limelight for putting the bubbles in champagne, Mabillon cemented the popular image of the monk poring over manuscripts.

IMG_5404That was the legacy that the monks brought with them to central Minnesota in 1856. As they steamed up the Mississippi, they brought with them clothing and vestments and tools for the monastery, but books were equally necesssary.  Those few books became the nucleus of the vast collection that students and scholars at Saint John’s page through today.  Of course the library developed in directions that those first five monks could scarcely have imagined;  but they also would be stunned at the size of the collection today.  They would also be startled to behold the home of those books.

For decades the Abbey and University library resided in Wimmer Hall, named for the founding abbot of Saint John’s, Boniface Wimmer.  Then during the Christmas break of 1965-66 the books were transferred to the newly-constructed Alcuin Library.  Today no one seems entirely sure whether the building was named for Abbot Alcuin Deutsch of Saint John’s Abbey or Alcuin of York, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk who headed Emperor Charlemagne’s palace school in Aachen.  These days most patrons of Alcuin Library seem not to care, though many pause to consider the painting of Abbot Alcuin that greets visitors.  Still, I’m happy that the name Alcuin has stuck.  It’s a fine yet seldom-used name today.  And the name has been on the building for nearly fifty years.

IMG_5542That building seemed to serve student and faculty needs for decades, but at long last it has gone through a major transformation.  For nine months it’s been closed, and in January and February it finally reopened after a complete overhaul.  Marcel Breuer’s original design for Alcuin Library is intact but enhanced, and the two concrete trees that support the roof are much more prominent than before.  The removal of the wall that cordoned off the entrance has opened up a spectacular vista of the abbey church across the plaza.  Even better, it has visually sparked a conversation between faith and reason — something that architect Breuer would have appreciated.

This August Alcuin Library will be joined to a new structure — the Brother Dietrich Reinhardt Learning Commons.  Together they will provide five high-tech classrooms and a range of rooms to serve individual and group study.  Also included will be a new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible and direct access to The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  In sum, it’s a spectacular development, at least in my humble opinion.

And what about the books?  Do they still have a place?  Happily, the books that the monks brought up the Mississippi now reside in a new special collections department, which includes a dedicated reading room.  Meanwhile, the collections that the University has accumulated in the course of 160 years now rest on compact shelving, easily accessible to students.

IMG_5524And is there room for growth?  Happily too the electronic book has not nor will ever replace the hard-copy books, and the collections continue to expand.  Alumni and friends of Saint John’s feed that growth with the donation of their prized books, and Alcuin Library adds newly-published works to the shelves.  And then there are treasures that appear unexpectedly, like the eight hundred books donated recently by the special collections library at Brigham Young University.  Over the years that library had grown its own collections through the purchase of entire libraries.  Two years ago I spoke at that library’s annual friends’ meeting, and at the end of the day the director approached me with an offer I could not refuse.  Among the collections were several items of Catholic interest that did not quite match the interests at BYU.  Would Saint John’s be interested in eight hundred books, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries?  I did not want to appear to be too eager, but I’m afraid I may bave been.  Through the kindness of Brigham Young University those books now share shelves in the special collections department at Saint John’s with the seed collection that arrived in 1856.

No doubt the story of Alcuin Library and its great collection is scarcely over.  There’s more to come, and it’s quite likely that ours today is the largest collection in the history of the Benedictine tradition.  Would Saint Benedict be proud?  Perhaps.  But at the very least he would be pleased by the thought that the monks of Saint John’s are still reading.


+On April 18th I spoke to the monastic chapter on the First Generation College Student program at Saint John’s University..

+On April 21st I attended the annual Saint John’s Day gathering, held at the headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.  Fr. Colman Barry, president of Saint John’s University, started an FM radio station at Saint John’s fifty years ago, and since then it has morphed into MPR.  No doubt it remains one of the most original and influential initiatives of the University.  On the occasion of MPR’s 50th anniversary Saint John’s president Michael Hemesath conferred on MPR the Fr. Colman Barry Award for distinguished contributions to religion and society.

+On April 22nd our Brother Lucian departed for Germany, where he will study German, in preparation for doctoral studies which he will begin at the University of Notre Dame this fall.

+Brother Walter reports that the maple sap harvest netted 272 gallons of syrup this spring.


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img_3580Called to be Pharisees?

I’m sure the Pharisees never set out to be the bad guys of 1st-century Judaism.  But here we are, two thousand years later, and scarcely anyone has a good thing to say about them.  Is there anything anyone can do to rehabilitate their public image?

On the positive side, the Pharisees are a reminder of the diversity within 1st-century Judaism, just as 21st-century Judaism has its own diversity of tradition and interpretation. For their part, the Pharisees emphasized the importance of an ethical life — which I’ve always considered to be a good thing.  They were observant in the law, and to a certain extent they represented a relational rather than a mechanistic approach to God.  On this they were on pretty much the same page as Jesus.  Like Jesus they contended that God preferred upright behavior over the sacrifice of bullocks and goats and birds.  Conversion of life was prized over burnt offerings; and here the Pharisees — like Jesus — parted company from those who managed the temple and its daily sacrifices.

That shared perspective may explain why Jesus was so critical of the Pharisees.  It wasn’t that Jesus thought they were wrong when compared to the keepers of the temple.   Rather, the Pharisees were right, but they just weren’t completely right.  So it was that both Jesus and Paul parted company from a group which had come so close but didn’t follow through to the logical conclusion.

img_3621Jesus may have had much in common with the Pharisees, but he found fault with them on at least two important items.  In Sunday’s gospel passage (Luke 18: 9-14) Jesus took the Pharisees to task for their haughtiness, because they exalted themselves in the eyes of others.  In contrast to the tax-collector who humbly admitted his sinfulness, the pride of the Pharisee blinded him to his own faults.  The result?  He logically concluded that he was far superior to the hordes of people who stumbled daily in their religious observance.

Secondly, Jesus called the Pharisees on the carpet for their lack of mercy for those less observant than they.  Pharisees added to the religious burden of others, but in fact they had chosen the high ground for themselves.  They devised rules that were easier for themselves but more difficult if not impossible for others.  They then turned around to condemn the others for their failure.  As Jesus pointed, they made burdens for others to carry, but they were not willing to help others to carry those burdens.

img_3593What the Pharisees seem to have forgotten is that it is God who initiates everything, and it is God alone who redeems.  That redemption is never self-derived, even if you are a Pharisee.  So it is that neither a herd of bulls sacrificed on an altar nor the strictest daily practice will seal the deal with God.  Redemption is a gift from God, and anything we do is merely a response to God’s generosity.

Yet another reason why Jesus is so tough on the Pharisees shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us.  The Pharisees may have been a distinct party within 1st-century Judaism, but the inclination to be a Pharisee is the sort of behavior that is latent within each of us.  Every now and again we all imagine that the good we do will somehow earn points with God, and God will have to honor those points when we turn up to cash them in at the end of our lives.  The good we do can also tempt us to compare ourselves with others.  It allows us to mouth that self-justifying question:  “Why can’t others do even half the things I am doing for God?  If people only knew all the good I do for humanity!”

img_3627But it doesn’t work that way, because God plays by a different rule book.  The good we do is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work within us.  The good we do is an answer to God’s call and gift of grace.  It’s the response we give to the vocation that God has crafted and given to each of us.  So it is that the good we do is actually an expression of our discipleship to Jesus Christ.

When you boil it all down, I think there’s a huge advantage for us to play by God’s rule book rather than our own.  As crypto-Pharisees we can do all sorts of good deeds, but at the end of the day we always have to wonder whether we should have done more.  By God’s rules, however, we’re spared that doubt.  God loves us despite the fact that we could never have done enough.  Does that mean that the Lord loves us in spite of ourselves?  No.  It only means that the Lord loves us because of ourselves, warts and all.


+On 23 October we celebrated the feast of the dedication of the abbey church, which was blessed fifty-five years ago.  Some seventy-five friends of the abbey joined us for Mass and a luncheon; and afterward Brother David-Paul Lange gave a wonderful presentation on the renovation of the Breuer wing of the monastery as well as plans for the preservation of the abbey church.

+Autumn is my favorite time of the year at Saint John’s, and on these days I especially like to take the outside route to get from my room to the church for evening prayer.  At that time of day it is nearly dark, and the cold crisp air is exhilarating — at least to me.  Visitors to campus also notice that the fall colors are in their last hurrah, and many if not most of the leaves have fallen.  Today’s photos are evidence of that.

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imageA House of Prayer/An Architectural Treasure

A few years ago I was delighted to host at Saint John’s an abbot whose monastery was in the planning process for both a church as well as a monastery.  He’d never been to Collegeville, and though his community intended to build something in an architectural style very different from our own, he was still curious.  And so, after he had settled into the guesthouse, we met for the tour; and naturally the first stop was the abbey church.  He was bowled over by what he saw, and his spontaneous comment was one of astonishment:  “Good grief, you got it!”

The “it” was the goal of building something of enduring value, and that had certainly been our intention when we built the church fifty-five years ago.  The commission to architect Marcel Breuer had been simple and straightforward:  “Design an architectural monument to the service of God.”  He succeeded beyond our dreams, on many fronts.  But above all he conceived of something that would have lasting architectural merit, as well as something that would endure physically for centuries.  It was the latter especially that captivated the imagination of my abbot-friend.

The steady stream of visitors to the abbey church regularly reminds us of its architectural significance; but we who worship in it several times a day, year in and year out, can get just a little bit used to it.  That’s why two items during the past summer reminded us not to take for granted the handiwork of our predecessors.

imageThe first happened in early June, when the International Committee for the Documentation and Preservation of the Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement made a one-day visit to Saint John’s.  For brevity’s sake they refer to themselves as DOCOMOMO, and I can appreciate why they do so.  Plus, it’s just a lot more fun to say that.  This year they held their meeting in Minneapolis, and delegates from as far afield as France and Brazil came to Saint John’s to see something that very much surprised them.  All marveled as monk tour-guides led them through the dozen or so Breuer buildings that we have on our campus.  I suspect that they marveled as well at the care we continue to bestow on these structures.  After all, a prime directive of DOCOMOMO is the survival of a whole era of significant architecture.  I’m sure they were reassured to see that our buildings were not falling into ruin.

imageThe second item came as something of a surprise, when The Getty Foundation invited us to apply for a grant that would enable us to detail a plan for the long-range preservation of the abbey church.  Such grants are a prized commodity, and in the award of the grant The Getty Foundation noted that ours was the largest concentration of Breuer-designed buildings anywhere on the planet.  Preservation efforts at Saint John’s would benefit Breuer buildings around the world.  In effect, this grant was a recognition of the unique value of the abbey church, as well as a reminder of our responsibility to preserve it for generations to come.  Coincidentally, saving the church just happened to be our intention all along; but this initial grant spurs us to be deliberate about getting this work underway.

On October 24 we celebrated the anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church, and we begin it every year with a wonderful vigil service the evening before.  In the darkness the candles at the consecration stones remind us that first and foremost the building is a place of prayer, even if it is also an architectural treasure of international significance.  For fifty-five years it has helped to shape our prayer life at Saint John’s; and, God willing, it will continue to nurture it for centuries to come.

imageThose familiar with the Benedictine tradition realize that the contemporary architecture of the abbey church may be breath-takingly unusual, but it is not an anomaly within that tradition.  Benedictines have always sought to put current aesthetic style into the service of practical need, and testimony to this can be seen across the landscape of Europe.  Due to the Reformation and the French Revolution, a huge variety of monastic buildings have survived well beyond the communities that they once served; but today they serve another purpose.  Today those towers and vaults remind people of the presence of God in our midst.  In a throw-away world in which most everything has a short shelf-life, they give prophetic witness to the eternal value of the sacred.

That’s also the case with our abbey church and the bell banner that presents the gospel to the world.  Not by accident is it visible to the tens of thousands of cars that pass by on I-94 in the distance.  For those who take notice, it is a greeting of peace.  But it has an even greater value, because it proclaims that Jesus came for those driving by — and not just for the monks inside.


+From October 20-25 I participated in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, in the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  As has been our practice for several years, we met at San Damiano Retreat House, run by the Franciscan Friars in Danville, CA.  It was a  wonderful retreat, though I confess that I was thoroughly relieved when I finally gave the last of seven conferences that I had to deliver.

imageEach year during the retreat we have a meeting of the chapter of the subpriory, which includes all who have taken the promise of obedience.  At this year’s meeting I was completely surprised by the announcement that last month the Sovereign Council, the governing body of the Order of Malta in Rome, had named me a Conventual Chaplain ad Honorem.  It comes with a wonderful decoration; and true to my own theories on the subject, when one wears such a thing it indicates to those in need that I am one of those people from whom they can expect help.

+In addition to the seven conferences that I delivered, I preached at three of the six Masses.  You can access one of the sermons, The Moral Imperative: Bringing Our Gifts to Maturity, by consulting this link.

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imageCelebrate Thanksgiving Every Day

It would be nice to celebrate Thanksgiving more often than once a year.  Actually, we wouldn’t need to do the entire thing, because major chunks of the feast seem destined to be with us for all time.  We already have a glut of football for months on end.  Nor do we need to take to the next level our indulgence in food.  As for shopping, I’ll admit that an entire season devoted to it is a welcome relief from endless political campaigns.  But my own sense is that we don’t really need much encouragement in that department, though you’d never know it from all the advertising.

However, what I think we could use more of is the “giving thanks” part.  It’s that ever-so-brief ritual in the holiday when we acknowledge our debt to somebody other than ourselves.  It’s the slice of the Thanksgiving  holiday that is edging closer to extinction; and that, I think, is a shame.

imageI would submit that giving thanks gets shorter and shorter shrift these days, and there’s lots of reasons why.  For one thing, it’s not so easy any more to see the connection between people’s toil and our own life. When goods travel thousands of miles piled up on a huge container ship, it’s often tough to know where our stuff comes from, much less figure out who made it.  And in an era of massive and anonymous production, we lose track of whose creative talent makes all this possible.  We just go to the big-box stores and expect it all to be there.  After a while it becomes so easy to take it all for granted.

Yet another impediment to heart-felt thanksgiving is a core value in our own culture.  We live in a society that prizes independence and personal initiative, and we lionize the self-made person.  I for one would prefer not to live under some other arrangement, but there’s a price to pay for all of this.  It’s very easy to toy with the idea that I earned all this myself and owe no debt to anyone for it.  Never mind the creativity and toil that so many other self-starters invested to make possible my own independent life.  No, it’s pretty much me and me alone who made me who I am today.  So goes the conventional wisdom, and that’s a dead end.

imageIn a monastery, as in any community for that matter, you simply cannot run the risk of reserving thanksgiving to one prayer at one meal a year.  Thanksgiving has to be woven through the entire fabric of community, or you end up with a bunch of rugged individualists who see no debt to or dependence upon anybody else.  Perhaps that’s why it never occurred to Saint Benedict to schedule a special feast of thanksgiving in the monastic calendar.  He presumed that giving thanks had to permeate the entire regimen of the monastery.

The fact is, instances of thanksgiving are sprinkled generously through the monastic day, so much so that we tend to overlook them.  Our prayers are only the most obvious place where we find them, and  meal prayers come to mind most quickly.  But the theme of thanksgiving runs through the whole of the liturgy of the hours, and many of the Psalms are specifically prayers of thanksgiving.  Likewise in our petitions we pray regularly for “those who do good to us,” simply because their generosity makes our lives together possible.

imageBut certainly not the least important act of thanksgiving is our appreciation for the work and talents of others.  As I’ve matured I’ve become increasingly appreciative of what my brothers do to enhance our life in the monastery.  At the very least, their gifts mean that I don’t have to do everything myself. At best, I realize that they do so many things far better than I, given the meager state of my own talents.  For their sakes and mine, not only do I have to be grateful to them, but I am also obliged to give them my thanks every now and again.

In Benedict’s thinking, thanksgiving is more than acknowledging a debt to others — and to God — for what they have done.  Something more dynamic is at work here, as Benedict suggests in his Prologue to the Rule.  There comes a moment, after all this work and prayer and life together, when a monk finally realizes that something astounding has been going on, just beneath the surface and often beyond our notice.  And about this moment of insight Benedict has this to say: “These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds;  they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them.  They praise the Lord working in them….”

imageThanksgiving then is a hugely important act, and because it is we can’t reserve it to just one meal a year.  In giving thanks we confess the abundance of goodness around us, and we recognize the power of God stirring not only in our neighbor but deep within ourselves.  How extraordinary that God would be so mindful of us.  And if God takes the time to do great things in us each day, then why would we not want to give thanks, each and ever day?


+On November 17th I presided and preached at a Mass for the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University.  You can access the sermon, Leading People to Jesus, in the section marked Presentations.

+On November 21st I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY.

+Last week the weather and the success of our football team conspired to make necessary a unique cooperative venture.  This fall our football team won the conference title, meaning that they would play their first play-off game at home this past Saturday.  With 8,000+ visitors expected, somehow we had to move fourteen inches of snow from the seats in the stadium and off the field.  A great team of people, including a few monks, accomplished the feat.  Saint John’s went on to beat the College of Saint Scholastica from Duluth, securing a victory over a fellow Benedictine college and a place in the next round of the play-offs.

image+A recent book on the abbey church has been published by University of Minnesota Press.  This fall author Victoria Young has made several appearances on campus, recounting the research that helped her to produce Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space.  For those unfamiliar with the architecture of the abbey church, I have put together a gallery of photos that illustrates both the vastness of the building and the attention to detail that is its hallmark.

+I have finally owned up to the fact that winter is here to stay, as the pictures in today’s post suggest.  However, we in Minnesota lost the right to feel sorry for ourselves when Buffalo accumulated more inches of snow than anyone could measure.  I have since realized that Buffalo’s mission statement includes a provision to make Minnesota’s weather seem benign.

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The Paper Chase

imageI’ve often bemoaned the Niagara of books and  journals and junk mail that’s besieged me through the years.  Only constant vigilance and an occasional drastic measure have kept me from being edged out of my room, to say nothing of the office.  But I have to own up to the fact that much of this is my own fault.  I love books.  I enjoy magazines and periodicals.  And a stationery store that features fine Italian card stock sends me over the top.

So you can imagine my ambivalence when a couple recently made me the proud owner of a book with the seductive title “Paper: An Elegy.”  It’s not a book I would have bought, but a title like that is hard to resist.  I could not leave it an orphan, unread, in some hotel room, because this book was right up my alley.  But of course this was no random selection, and the donors knew that.

In this short and nicely-printed tome, author Ian Sansom writes less about the technology of making paper, and instead devotes his prose to the cultural impact that paper has had through the centuries.  Paper is definitely one of those things we take for granted.  Yet, as Sansom demonstrates, it is omnipresent.  It turns up not only in the things we touch but in our very language and habits.

imageThe widespread use of paper was both the product of social change as well as the catalyst for social change.  In the medieval West, parchment (animal skin) was the medium of choice for manuscripts.  But paper and printing became not only the solution to the demands of rising literacy rates, but they accelerated those literacy rates.  Though some purists may have hated the new medium, there was no turning back.  And the Gutenberg Bible was but one example of this cultural shift.  For those who preferred the old and elegant ways, there were sets printed on vellum.  For those who welcomed the new technology, there was paper.  But despite any lingering nostalgia for kinder and gentler days, paper was the wave of the future.

Since then paper has had an impact far out of proportion to the cost of making it.  Thankfully, a hundred dollar bill is still not worth the paper it is printed on.  Paper has become art and sculpture and clothing.  Paper has been fashioned into dolls and puzzles and other playthings.  And paperbacks became an economic force that changed publishing, until the electronic book showed up.

The very word paper, embedded in our language, can be confusing in its meaning.  “To deliver a paper” can recall a youngster tossing the morning news into the bushes in front of  your house; or a scholar standing at a podium droning on to a room filled with dozing colleagues.  To “do paperwork” evokes an office-worker mired in stacks of letters and memos, though as often as not we do paperwork electronically these days.  That evolution is reminiscent of the changes in clerical work.  I’m one of the few clerics I know who still does traditional clerical work.  Strangely enough, most clerics I know think it means “pastoral work”, to the near total neglect of real clerical work.

imageOne of the best features of Sansom’s book is the variety of topics to be addressed in its chapters and sections.  This makes it ideal for plane-rides and short snippets of reading at home.  It also increases the likelihood that you will find something of special interest.  In my own case there was nothing that even hinted that chapter 7, “Constructive Thinking”, would deal with the Bauhaus, a design school located in Dessau in Germany.  But Sansom opens the chapter with Josef Albers standing in front of a class of budding architects, asking them to design something with a piece of paper.  Most of us think of paper as two-sided, when in fact an 8×11 piece of paper has six sides.  Albers encouraged his students to use the often-neglected four edges, and in the process he pushed the envelope of their creativity.

Albers may not ring any bells for most people, but at Saint John’s he left his own creative imprint in the form of stained glass.  His colored-glass skylights adorn the roof of the Abbey chapter house.  Yellow and orange windows fill the lantern of the Abbey church with golden light that is especially welcome in mid-winter.  And a lovely grey and white window faces out from the Bishop’s Suite in the monastery.  Architect Marcel Breuer, who also studied at the Bauhaus, had pegged Albers to build the giant north window of the Abbey church.  Sadly, it never got translated into reality, though his design would have transformed the interior of the church with its golden hue.  Happily, his plans for the huge window still exist, in case we ever decide to revisit the issue.

imageIn the monastic tradition, paper has had an impact that we often overlook.  In the heyday of expensive vellum books, it was far cheaper to have one giant book from which several monks could chant.  Individual books were far too expensive, and so monks shared books and memorized prayers.  Not so during the last five hundred years, when communities could finally afford to supply each monk with the books necessary for choir.  With that came the gradual disappearance of the giant stands that held the giant books.  And if they still stand in sanctuaries, they stand unused except by the occasional reader.

Abbey of San Giorgio, Venice

Abbey of San Giorgio, Venice

Sansom’s book is filled with interesting detail that rewards the reader, and his occasional sidebars can entertain.  For one, he writes of the persistence of cigarettes rolled in paper.  “Nothing says ‘I’m a despairing intellectual’ like sucking on flaming paper,” he notes archly.  But left unaddressed is the failed prediction that the computer would lead to the paperless office.  Far from it.  Just ask the makers of filing cabinets and printers and storage facilities.  And architects must now calculate the added weight of massive amounts of paper in their buildings.  It is not insignificant.

As for me, paper is as important as ever.  For one thing, nothing incites writer’s block quite like a blank yellow pad of paper staring up at me from my desk.  On the other hand, I can write quickly and endlessly on an iPad, but the overabundance of verbage is just too much.  And nothing brings out the creativity quite like paper.  A first draft of pen on paper is agony.  A second and even a third draft are ecstasy.  Turning it into electronic images on a  screen is icing on the cake.  But I always allow myself the comfort of a paper copy when it’s all over.  It’s such a satisfying object to behold, even if it does add to the mountain on my desk.

Virgin with Child, reading. 1543.  Cluny Museum, Paris.

Virgin with Child, reading. 1543. Cluny Museum, Paris.


+On August 3rd we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Alexander Andrews.  Fr. Alex was born in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois before serving four years in the military.  He then went on to receive an MA in history at Columbia University, and still later studied Russian and Eastern European history at Berkeley.  As a monk he taught in the history department at Saint John’s University, and he was one of those teachers that people never forgot.  Both in the monastery and outside Fr. Alex was known as a real character, and we will miss his wit and good nature.

+A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune detailed the resurgence of the Canada goose population in Minnesota during the past fifty years.  In that time they’ve rebounded to the point at which they’ve become pests.  And while they may be graceful and beautiful, their gifts on the lawn leave a bit to be desired.

imageWe’ve shared in this abundance at Saint John’s, though numbers in their favorite gathering space are down considerably this year.  Dozens of them would congregate  on summer evenings on the narrow strip of land between Gemini Lakes.  There they warmed their feet on the pavement of the entry road into Saint John’s, spending their time and energy hissing at oncoming traffic.  It was generally their last hiss, since they forced drivers to choose between hitting the geese or careening off into one of the lakes.  That was when I began to understand what people meant when they pointed out that so-and-so “didn’t have the good sense that God gave geese.”

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