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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Pasi’

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A Time for Course Correction?

I was amused the other day when a good friend told me that he goes to the office every day in suit and tie.  I found it humorous mainly because his office is no longer in downtown Minneapolis.  Rather, it’s two doors down from the kitchen in his home.  It’s a really short commute, and in the course of a day it’s usually only his wife who sees him.  All the same, he dresses on the theory that you never know who might come calling — or whether there might be a roll call on who is wearing shoes during a Zoom meeting.

I’m not entirely convinced of the old aphorism that it’s the clothes that make the person.  After all, clothes function mainly as veneer to keep us warm or publicly presentable.  However, there is something about dressing up that lends itself to a reflection on the word integrity.  Are we decent to the core?  Does our outward appearance and behavior project who we are, or do they mask an inner coldness or a calculating soul?

D4444DA0-ADF3-4666-A172-8B1DB7A02AD8In a similar vein, if no one were looking, would we still do the right thing?  Sooner or later all of us confront that question, and our answer is an expression of our character.  Are we people of integrity through and through?  Or does any expression of decency depend on whether somebody is watching or not?

In a time of isolation it’s pretty easy to let our personal standards go lax.  After all, who will ever know if we start to cut all sorts of personal corners?  On the one hand, I suppose, it’s fair to say that God would know.  On the other hand, so would we.

Jesus reserved some of his sharpest criticism for those with a deep disconnect between their inner motivation and outer behavior.  He called them whitened sepulchres, because their carefully crafted public image belied their blackened souls.  They were deadened within because of this radical inconsistency.

A venerable practice in the Christian spiritual tradition has been the regular examination of conscience.  Certainly that involves an effort to identify the sins and failings that have been part of our day.  But more deeply it’s a matter of checking the alignment between who we say we are and how we translate that into action.

That self-examination doesn’t always come easily, and a frenetic life can allow us to put off that sort of introspection for days and weeks and even years.  However, one of the great benefits of a time of isolation is the chance to take stock of ourselves and make course corrections.  These are the changes in trajectory that can make for full and beautiful lives.  On the plus side, it’s absolutely never too late to do this.  Even better, there’ll never be a time like the present for the leisure to do it.

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+On May 7th my mother Lenora passed away.  She was 96 and had enjoyed a wonderful life devoted to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  The only disruption to this came during the last two months, when her assisted living home closed the doors to all visitors.  The best our family could do was visit through her first-floor apartment window.  Unfortunately I was not able to see her during that time.  On her final afternoon everyone was allowed in, and I watched and spoke with her via FaceTime, which was a real consolation.  A few hours later she quietly slipped away.

+On May 9th after evening prayer Brother Jacob gave a short concert on the now-completed abbey organ.  With 3,000 new pipes installed, it is twice the original size.  Brother Jacob put it through its paces, beginning with a piece that relied solely on the old section of the organ.  He then incorporated the other pipes in three additional selections.  It was a wonderful moment for us monks, and our one regret was the absence of guests who certainly would have enjoyed the occasion.

+On May 10th, following the abbey Mass, Abbot John blessed the two builders of the expanded abbey organ.  This week Martin Pasi, master organ builder, will pack up his tools and return to his studio in Tacoma, WA.  Meanwhile Casey Marrin’s journey to his home in nearby Cold Spring, MN, will be much shorter.

+On May 10th we should have celebrated graduation at Saint John’s University.  For the first time in its 60+ years the abbey and university church stood empty, while students celebrated the day in their homes and who knows where else.  All the same, the flags were flying to mark this important milestone in the lives of our students.

+During the Easter season the exuberance of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona offers fodder for a meditation on the resurrection.  The photos in todays post offer a taste of that.

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An All Souls Reflection

”The souls of the just are in the hand of God….” (Wisdom 3:1)

I’ve always found today’s reading from the book of Wisdom to be a wonderful consolation.  It’s a consolation because these words remind us that at death life is changed not ended.  Death does not mean the obliteration of all that is significant about us, but rather it is only the next step in the great pilgrimage of life.

EBC62ADE-1154-4854-92EF-ECC34322C23DLife itself is God’s greatest gift to us.  Out of it flows other gifts like family and friends and creativity and all those other things that fill our days with meaning.  And so it is that when life seems to be snatched away from us it puts closure to everything.  That’s it.  That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.  But not so.  We as Christians believe that we’re just getting started when we cross the threshold into eternal life.  In fact, the best is yet to come.

I think what distresses many is the thought of a life that seems cut short.  When someone passes at the age of five or twenty or fifty or sixty, somehow they’ve been cheated.  On the other hand, to pass at 105 is to celebrate the fullness of years.  Such a life, we presume, is filled with potential that has been realized.  But to die before our time is to be denied the chance for a fulfilled life — or so we think.

The Book of Wisdom reminds us that our lives — whether short or long — have just enough time to accomplish something wonderful.  We have just enough time to do that one thing that we were put on this earth to do.  It affirms that God created us not to do everything, but to add one measure of value to the lives of others.  And so on All Soul’s Day we celebrate what our beloved friends and family have done.  As surely as each had a unique personality, each also accomplished something unique.  And for that we give thanks.

F63491DB-E38A-414D-BE4A-ED904E4DC85FIn the gospel reading from John 6: 37-40 Jesus says that he came down from heaven not to do his will but to do the will of the one who sent him.  Jesus is God’s gift to us, but if we think God hasn’t given us our own personal mission in life, then we are short-changing ourselves.  God has sent each of us to do something of value — to do that one thing that explains why we’ve been given a singular set of talents and gifts.

We often take for granted our privileged status as beings created in the image of God.  Unlike God’s other creatures, we have the capacity to be self-conscious about where we are going with our lives.  We can have a sense of purpose that sets us apart, and that sense of purpose comes from God who breathed life into us and sent us to do his work in our little corner of the world.

And so today on the feast of All Souls we remember all those who toiled in the vineyard of the Lord.  Let us thank God for them, as they were certainly God’s gifts to us.  But let us thank God for our own opportunity to do something of value this day and every day.  It’s what God has sent us to do.  May God who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion not just in this phase of our lives, but in the new and eternal Jerusalem.

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+On October 31st, at the vigil of All Saints, we hosted 150 visitors who joined us for evening prayer.  Earlier in the evening our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann hosted forty individuals who have been supporters of the addition to the abbey organ.  Several weeks ago the 3,000 new pipes had been stacked on the east pews of the church, but now the great majority have been hoisted up into the organ loft, where already some look quite stately.  Organ builder and designer Martin Pasi spoke about the expanded organ, and collaborator Casey Marrin demonstrated the sound of two of the tallest pipes.

+On November 2nd I presided and preached at the All Souls Mass at the Little Sisters of the Poor in San Pedro, CA, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered that day.  For decades members of the Los Angeles area of the Order of Malta have volunteered their services to the sisters and the elderly poor whom they host in their facility.  Following the Mass the Malta members served lunch to the residents.

ED207614-1EAE-4488-AC5A-1BF334A86C86+Travel certainly brings the unexpected, and I’ve always enjoyed the steady diet of little eye-openers that comes with it.  On the way to the airport in Los Angeles I and my friend and host from the Order of Malta stopped to enjoy the view at a secluded resort that came with its own beach and view of Catalina Island.  Our first surprise came from a dog walking with his owner.  “That dog’s wearing a Fitbit,” my friend blurted out.  The owner smiled and rather sheepishly owned up to this little doggie luxury.  As for me, I didn’t even know they made Fitbits for dogs.  But since I live in a monastery, how was I supposed to know?

A second surprise at that resort was a ritual that greeted every car at valet parking.  Once guests were out of sight attendants discreetly circled each car, pointing out any significant dents.  An unseen camera recorded the dents, for a purpose I had never thought of.  “It’s just part of the legal trade these days,” pointed out my lawyer host.

+Late medieval and early modern tomb designers raised funeral monuments to an art form, as the sculptures in todays post suggest.  The four individual mourners are housed at the Cluny Museum in Paris, which is pictured at top.  It was the late medieval residence of the abbots of Cluny, along with monks who were in Paris for university studies.  The tomb was commissioned by Philip the Bold in ca. 1435.  At bottom is the tomb of Philippe Pot, carved ca. 1480-1483.  Once housed at the abbey of Citeaux in Burgundy, it is now in the Louvre.  All of the images can be enlarged for more detailed inspection.

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Called to be Artists

Why in the world would Jesus propose an unreliable and dishonest servant as the hero of one of his parables?  Who really knows, but it’s exactly what Jesus did, according to the gospel of Luke, chapter 16.

According to the story a steward had “dissipated” the assets of his master, though it’s not explicit as to how.  Still, the suggestion is that he squandered rather than stole the funds, and it was enough to get him dismissed.  But in one last act of outrage he added insult to injury by doctoring the books.  He reduced the accounts of all those who were indebted to his master, hoping they might remember him when he landed on the streets.  Clearly this was not an act of affection, but rather a calculation that something good might come his way.

DD086A05-C9FB-4385-B3DF-25F99F84F05DWhat he did was blatantly dishonest.  But it was daring, and for that Jesus gave him credit.  But to add to the confusion, Jesus passed on the soft-ball opportunity to condemn stealing and instead praised the steward’s ingenuity in using ill-gotten gain.  Would that his own disciples might be equally resourceful in the service of God!

That’s the obvious moral to the story, but there’s something else that Jesus leaves to us to discover all by ourselves.  What does it take to wake up to what we’re doing with our lives?  Does it take a major illness?  Does it take a personal catastrophe or the loss of someone dear to us?  Does it take the wisdom that comes with age?  Or does it take a notice of termination, as was the case with the steward?

No matter when or if we each go through the shock of a personal Great Awakening, we all tend to waltz through long stretches of life on the assumption that there will be endless tomorrows.  It provides the excuse that the servant used to justify a wasted life, only to discover he didn’t have a lot of time to redirect it onto some thoughtful course.  As for us, we have the same opportunity, even if God doesn’t always send us ample notice on the termination of our pilgrimage.

5D44A3A1-DF0B-4A1B-BB18-98741A218320Recently a friend of mine sent a cartoon that showed a bewildered man standing at the gates of heaven.  Saint Peter reads from the ledger and then looks squarely at the recently-deceased.  “It seems you had a reasonably good life.  Unfortunately you missed most of it because you were staring into your cell phone.

That cell phone may be real or metaphorical, but the point is obvious.  To borrow from another medium, a painter has to work within the limits of a canvas, and so our lives too have limits marked by a beginning and an end.  They define our opportunity to do something singular with our lives, and they are part of the fine print in the contract God made with us at birth.  God then stands back to let us be the artist, and it’s the greatest commission we’ll ever have.  If we are imaginative and resourceful, and if we don’t put the work off until the last minute, our painting could very well become a work of art!

D7F86EA0-EB7C-4385-9E27-CD2B6FF73B8ENOTES

+On September 16th a van filled with 3,000 organ pipes arrived at Saint John’s after a ride from organ-builder Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  They were promptly unloaded and currently occupy one section of pews in the abbey church.  The church is a mess right now, but in a few months it will result in an organ that is twice the size of the current organ.

+On September 20-22 I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, at a retreat center in Mundelein, IL, located just outside of Chicago.

+This past week Abbot Jeremias Schroder from Germany visited us for several days.  He heads the Benedictine congregation of Saint Ottilian, which is a congregation of missionary Benedictine monasteries around the world.  Several of our Benedictine Volunteers currently work in some of those monasteries, and we’ve been fortunate to host monks from various of these abbeys studying at Saint John’s over the years.

+On September 22nd I attended a dinner and ceremony at which the president of Saint John’s Univeristy, Dr. Gene McAllister, conferred the Fr. Colman J. Barry Award on alumnus Ambassador Robert Shafer.  The award salutes unique contributions to religion and society, and Bob has certainly done that.  In addition to a long career at Pfizer Corporation, he has been a long-time member of the Order of Malta, and for many years served as the Order’s permanent observer at the United Nations.  He’s also served on the boards of Saint John’s University and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.

+I neglected in the previous post to note that we have welcomed two brothers into our community.  Brother Felix was clothed as a novice on September 11th, and Brother David  was welcomed for a probationary year.  He had already completed his novitiate and years in formation before taking a leave of absence to consider his vocation.  We are delighted to have him back with us, along with Brother Felix.

+The first photo in today’s post shows some of the 3,000 new pipes for the organ.  They will be fitted into the two spaces that flank the big red screen in the abbey church.  To get there they must go through one of two openings into the organ loft, shown in the third photo.  The event at which we honored Ambassador Shafer (below) began with a musical performance by students from Saint John’s University.

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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.

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+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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Vacation:  Doing the Work of the Lord

Jesus said to his disciples:  “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30)

If there’s a Bible passage made to order for the resort industry, this has to be it.  In fact, it also strikes me as an excellent addition to the Ten Commandments.  Though I don’t consider those ten to be all that onerous, adding a fun commandment could make it easier to buy into the whole package.  Plus, since many people already flee to cabins and lakes and resorts, it would be nice to get religious credit for things you had planned on doing anyway.

You’d think that an escape to an out of the way place would be a no-brainer for everybody;  but it’s not, and I know that from personal experience.  Last year Marie, the office coordinator where I work, pointed out that I had not been using my vacation days. Worse, she told me to forget about saving them for a rainy day.  It’s a strict policy of “use ‘em or lose ‘em.  Your choice.”

52FBACE7-14BE-41EA-A839-A98139A2E722Since then I’ve tried to sprinkle days off here and there, but recently I set aside five days, out of a sense of duty of course.  After all, I mused, it could be a sin to waste non-renewable resources like vacation days.  Besides, they might even do me some good.

So I packed, but in the process I caught myself stowing into the bag papers and notes that needed attention.  With free time on my hands, vacation would be the perfect time to catch up on office work.  But then the absurdity of that hit me, and I pulled out the papers and left the work at home.

The good news was that my travel bag was six pounds lighter than usual.  Better still, I didn’t die by going cold turkey on work.  In fact, I came back refreshed, with a boatload of new ideas that resulted from a mind left to daydream and wander.

Some people may be surprised to learn that the monastic tradition allows for vacations.  In his Rule Saint Benedict makes no provision for them, perhaps because there were no good resorts nearby — or anywhere, for that matter.  On top of that, it’s hard to imagine places more remote than Subiaco or Monte Cassino.  By definition they were “out of the way.”

74460939-230C-456C-AC98-4F472FAE30A4But if Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations, medieval monks did.  Sometimes this involved travel to other monasteries.  Sometimes it meant a short stint in the infirmary, where diet and schedules were relaxed.  It’s in that tradition that monasteries today make allowance for “time away” for monks.  It’s an accepted premise that it’s good for a monk to be away every now and again, and his absence can even come as a welcome relief to confreres left behind.

As a Christian and a monk I’m normally not inclined to be a biblical fundamentalist, but in the month of July I am sorely tempted to be so in the case of Mark 6:30.  First of all, it’s one of Jesus’ best comands, but it’s also grist for reflection on what “time away” is really all about.  Jesus does not explicitly say to leave business back at the office, but that’s a logical inference from the passage.  Likewise, its allegorical implications don’t allow equivalence between heavy remodeling at the cabin or serious boat repair with “time away.”  They just aren’t the same at all, at least in my book.

Anyway, a few days away didn’t do me any harm.  The monastery didn’t collapse in my absence.  My colleagues at the office didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs, pining for my return.  And on top of everything, I came back with a ready answer for anyone who asked how I spent my vacation.  “I was doing the work of the Lord.”

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+On July 17th, after evening prayer, the community and several friends of the abbey gathered for a briefing on the expansion of the pipe organ in the church.  Due to insufficient funds when the church was built, we only completed half of the planned pipes.  We are currently in the process of completing what we started nearly sixty years ago, and the work will double the current 3,000 pipes.  Austrian-born organ-builder Martin Pasi, whose workshop is in Tacoma, WA, detailed his progress, and he and his team have now finished 2,000 of the pipes.  For those unfamiliar with the abbey church, the original plan showed pipes spilling out on either side of a large red screen above the altar.  When finished in 2020, visitors will no longer need to ask where the organ pipes are, since they will flank the screen, as originally planned.  We were also delighted to learn that the abbey woodworking staff will be making the large 32-foot pipes.  It will be nice to have something locally made in the project.

+On 20 July I was in downtown Minneapolis for a long meeting that adjourned at 3 pm.  Alas, I got stuck in the Friday afternoon traffic to the lakes and cabins of northwestern Minnesota.  What normally should take an hour and fifteen minutes took two hours.  It did not change my mind about the need for travel to remote places, but I’m left wondering why everybody has to do it at the same time, on a Friday afternoon.

+Today’s reflection is on Mark 6:30, which was the opening verse of the gospel for this last Sunday.  The summer sun casts a unique light on the abbey church, as some of today’s photos suggest.  The photo of the pipes was taken at Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  By 2020 these pipes will be fitted into their new home at Saint John’s.

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The Wisdom of the Ancients

For as long as I can remember, history has fascinated me.  Perhaps because I grew up in a part of the country where even a late 19th-century building was a rarity, I envied places where tangible traces of history abounded.  But none were at hand, and so reading was the next best thing.

My earliest recollection of a history book that I personally chose to read was one on Aztec history and architecture.  The mere thought of discovering a lost city in some jungle stirred my imagination, and it probably explains my later receptivity to Indiana Jones movies.  Not everything about Aztec culture was riveting, of course, and that’s especially true for human sacrifice.  However, their accomplishments in urban planning were amazing, and a culture that was the first to make use of “zero” can’t be all bad.  On the one hand the latter didn’t inspire me to become a mathematician, but it did give me a useful term for understanding some people.

My dreams of becoming a Central-American archeologist never materialized, which is just as well.  Even now I’ve never visited one of their jungles, not least because I don’t do well with mosquitos and humidity.  Those weren’t the primary reasons for landing on medieval history, but they were considerations nonetheless.

7FD42978-1559-4BE5-87C9-41E59A1490BFThis brings me to the point.  Last week I was in Germany and managed to squirrel away some time for a side trip to Cologne.  I’d been there once before, twenty-five years ago, and I’d always wanted to return.  It never happened, until last week.

Cologne today is a shadow of its medieval self, thanks to the bombs that rained down in World War II.  Despite being next to a prime target — the railway station — bombers skillfully spared the gothic cathedral, but the ancient Romanesque churches weren’t so lucky.  Most of them have been rebuilt, however, and the chance to wander their aisles let me commune with long-dead citizens about whom I know a lot more now that I did twenty-five years ago.

For what do I admire these people most?  Certainly I admire them for their vision.   They may have lacked the presence of mind to begin a pharmaceutical industry or invent television sit-coms, but they had vision, in spades.  Specifically, they had the vision to build things that would last.  And endure those noble structures did, until the wars of the 20th century knocked them down.

I also admire them for their community spirit, to which some 15th-century statues testify.  Several figures of the prophets once perched in the medieval city hall, and to all and sundry they offered words of advice.  “The common good is to be preferred over personal good.”  “He who dies for the community shall live forever.”  I can’t imagine anyone proposing that for a government building today;  but there you have it:  naïveté in all its innocence.

Most of all I admire them for their faith.  They weren’t perfect, but they did their best, against the odds.  For centuries they read the Word of God and heard it preached, and it took centuries for them to internalize answers to questions like “Who is my neighbor?”  It was tough to get beyond the notion that neighborliness ended at the edge of the village, but they did.

24E1C3B5-97C8-4CC9-9F4A-CAF738F94AB8Would I want to go back in time and live in the 12th century?  Not a chance.  I may be a historian, but I’m not a hopeless romantic.  That said, I do love their Romanesque churches, much as I treasure their architectural descendents on the campus of Saint John’s.  But I also have a practical streak, and I happen to like indoor plumbing and central heat.  Long ago I realized that living in Northern Europe in the 12th century is much like living in a cabin in the north woods.  Year round.  For a life-time.  No thanks.

Beyond that, I appreciate the challenges that they faced, but I appreciate even more the wisdom that they bequeathed to us.  Today we have challenges that they could scarcely imagine, but they have wisdom that’s still useful — even to us.  Yet another of those 15th-century statues comes with this bit of sage advice for all citizens:  “First seek the kingdom of God and his justice.”  I — and we —could do worse.

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+As today’s post indicates, the major event of the past week was a trip to Frankfurt, with a side venture to Cologne.  The latter trip shattered my myths about the faultless reliability of German trains, alas.  My train left Frankfurt twenty minutes late, and at Koblenz — the half-way point — it stopped because of difficult weather further ahead.  The conductor announced a one-hour delay, and that morphed into two hours, then three, then four.  At that point they announced that, due to severe weather, no trains were going to Cologne.  Our train was cancelled, and so I had no option but to find another train and go back to Frankfurt.  What did I do for four and a half hours on a train parked in the Koblenz station?  Crossword puzzles.  Don’t leave home without them.

+From January 18-21 organ-builder Martin Pasi visited Saint John’s to begin work on the expansion and completion of the organ in the Abbey church.  On the 20th he joined the monks in the refectory for lunch.

+The photos in today’s post omit the obvious symbol of Cologne — the cathedral — simply because that will come in a future post.  For now I am content with a sampling of some of the Romanesque churches that sprinkle the core of the city.  At top is St. Maria im Capitol, followed by Great St. Martin and Saint Caecilia.  Today Saint Caecilia houses the Museum Schnütgen, which is a vast collection of medieval art.  In the collection are eight statues of prophets that used to stand in the medieval town hall, including the photo of one of them, holding a scroll which reads:  “No one shall gossip outside the Council.”  At bottom is the interior of St. Caecilia, which comprises one of the many galleries in the Museum.

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Wisdom:  The Icing on the Cake

Writing a sermon doesn’t come easily for me.  Sometimes that’s due to a text that doesn’t give preachers a lot to work with.  On other occasions the text can be a tough sell, such as when Jesus constructs a logical conundrum or when one of the cursing Psalms pops up.  But I suppose that’s why I’ve always thought of sermon-preparation and delivery as an art form — and a demanding one at that.  That’s why I try to pay attention to the reviews from the pews.  They come in real time, whether as a snore or a smile.

Last week I had the good fortune to work with a passage from the Book of Wisdom, chapter 7.  The book itself is nested in my favorite portion of the Bible, the wisdom books that include the Psalms and Proverbs.  As a monk I see that wisdom literature streaming through the entirety of The Rule of Saint Benedict, but on a macro level it’s always seemed to me to be the necessary spark of inpsiration for a life well-lived.  Sure, we need the Ten Commandments; but they merely provide the least common denominator, below which we slip into barbarism.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is the icing on the cake.  A life filled with wisdom is the highest art form that exists.  A life without wisdom is existence, in its minimal form.

What follows is the sermon on Wisdom 7 that I prepared for the Abbey Mass recently.  The writing came in one sitting, which in itself was a bit of a miracle.  Even better, fewer people than usual fell asleep, which was nice reassurance.

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“For she is the refulgence of eternal light,

the spotless mirror of God,

the image of his goodness”. (Wisdom 7: 22b)

My favorite image in The Saint John’s Bible is an illumination of this passage from the Book of Wisdom.  To illustrate it Donald Jackson borrowed the wrinkled face of an elderly woman — a face uniquely serene and beautiful.  She reminds us of the power of God to show himself in the least likely of people.

This is a vision that Saint Benedict also conveys when he urges us monks to be aware of the face of Christ looking out to us from the sick and the poor, the young, the abbot, and above all from the stranger.

All of this runs counter to the spirit of the times.  Today we tend to pay greater attention to bombast and pretension, to the flashy and the glitzy.  But the words of Wisdom remind us of the shallowness of such veneer.  They remind us that wisdom is a spirit that is “intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain.”  Wisdom is nuanced, to say the least.  What wisdom is not is a bull in a china shop.  Let us pray that to each of us the Lord will grant a full measure of this holy and life-giving wisdom.

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Notes

+On November 16th I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On November 16-17 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 14th the monastic chapter voted to approve a proposal to expand and complete the pipe organ in the Abbey and University church.  Walter Holtkamp was the designer and builder of the current organ, which has been in place in the Abbey church since its construction in 1959-60.  However, budget constraints at the time meant that the organ design had to be scaled back considerably.  In authorizing this initiative, the Abbey will contract with Pasi Organ Builders, a leading international firm headed by Martin Pasi, a native of Austria now living in the United States.  If all goes according to plan, and the fund-raising continues to be successful, we should see the dedication of the organ in two years, and it will be one of the premier organs in the country.  To say the least, we are excited about the prospect.

+In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving week, today’s photos show some of the produce from the monastery garden this year.  Once upon a time the monks grew most of the produce that fed the community and the school, and we still have three large storage cellars from that era.  The crop of squash shown in the photos in this post is stored in a ca. 1890 cellar, pictured at the top of the post.  I’m always amazed at the variety of the squash, which includes some squash that only a mother could love.  Gardener-monks estimate that they brought in three tons of produce this summer, and the rest of us monks continue to be grateful for their effort.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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