Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Museum of Art’


God Is In the Traffic

I have no idea how many sermons I’ve given, but by now I have a pretty good idea of those themes I like to tackle and the ones I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.  In the latter category I put famines, wherever in the world they might be.  It’s not that I lack empathy, because I don’t.  However, most congregations I preach to in central Minnesota are singularly ill-equipped to plunk down money for an expensive ticket to Nairobi, solve the hunger problem there, and be back by the end of the week.

The same holds true for peace in the Middle East or Afghanistan.  Most monks I know — and I’m in that category — wouldn’t know where to begin, even if the abbot gave us permission.  So for that reason I prefer not to preach about things ordinary people can’t do much about anyway.  All it does is make some people feel guilty because they can’t do anything to help;  while others feel depressed because they can’t do anything to help.  It’s better to preach about things that people can actually do, rather than harangue them about things they can’t.

2C8DCA84-25D4-4AC2-BDA1-77485DA7700DSo it was that the words of Pope Francis on New Year’s Day were a delight to me.  Instead of pie-in-the-sky civilization-changing deeds, the pope spoke about stuff that almost anybody can do to make the world a better place.  Specifically, he spoke about driving a car.  Driving can set the tone for the health of a community, and whether people are considerate when they’re behind the wheel or whether they’re hell on wheels does matter.  Ask your typical Romans trying to get across the street, and they’ll tell you so.

Driving is something that touches nearly all of us.  Many drivers are thoughtful and generous.  Some should be locked up.  Still others shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.  Regardless of where we fit on the chart, time spent at the wheel gives us the chance to have at least some impact on our neighbors.  For better as well as for worse, every time we get behind the wheel we can make or ruin someone’s day.  It really is that simple.

Pope Francis didn’t mean to single out driving as the toughest challenge facing the world.  Anyone who’s read even a few of his sermons knows that he hammers away at war and hunger too.  But driving is a convenient example of how we can make a difference in the lives of others, virtually anywhere and at any time.

I thought the pope’s comments provided good fodder for those of us wondering what we might do to make the world a better place in 2018.  The good news is that we don’t have to fly 6,000 miles to accomplish something worthwhile.  Someday there may be the chance for that, but for now the really great news is that there’s plenty to do near at hand.  We need only open our eyes and see who’s standing in front of us.  There is our opportunity.  There stands Christ.

8A156C27-D60C-49C5-A981-0484066980F0I can’t help but think about the streets of Rome and what a harrowing experience it can be to cross them.  It’s a bit like what wildebeest confront when crossing a river full of crocodiles.  So I’m left wondering whether Pope Francis inadvertently got his listeners all stirred up on New Year’s Day in Saint Peter’s Square.  Just behind them roared a maelstrom of traffic, which each had to cross.  I’m guessing that more than a few prayed that the drivers of Rome were listening to the pope on the radio.

That’s when they — and we — begin to appreciate how important are the so-called little things in life.  They’re far more important than we might think, because in them we encounter the chance to do the serious work of the Lord.  Even in the traffic we find the presence of God.


+New Year’s Day came and went quietly in the monastery.

+On January 2nd I flew to New York for a series of visits with alumni of Saint John’s.  It was not the best week to be there, and the national news was not reticent about reporting it.  It was bitterly cold, and the big snow day saw the city grind to a halt.  I was surprised to note that the cars ground the fallen snow into the consistency of mashed potatoes, and it was really slippery.

+The storm gave me some time out to visit two of my favorite places in the world — the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum.  I last visited The Morgan when a dear friend of Saint John’s presented an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to The Morgan’s permanent collection.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At top is a limewood sculpture of the Adoration of the Magi, made in Swabia in Germany, ca. 1515-20.  Next is a stained glass of the Nativity, made in 1444 for a church in Boppard-am-Rhein in Germany.  Next is a Madonna and Child, made in Siena ca. 1440.  At bottom is a bicycle I saw in New York.  It was actually worse than it looks, and I can only pray that the drivers were kind and merciful to this poor cyclist.


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Gardening as a Vocation

It dawned on me the other day how barren the gospels are when it comes to wintertime imagery.  As near as I can recall, Jesus never told a single parable about shoveling snow or about the Samaritan whose cart slid off the icy road and into the ditch.  Did Jesus not care about believers who would one day live in Minnesota or Switzerland?  Or did winter leave Jesus cold, and he preferred not to deal with it?  We’ll likely never know until we meet him in the kingdom of heaven, where wintry landscapes await those who love to ski and skate.

Summer is Jesus’ strong suit, however, and it explains why we have a lot of readings in the liturgy about farmers and gardeners at this time of year.  Just recently, in fact, we’ve heard about the seed that has fallen on good soil, on rock-strewn soil, or on the beaten path.  We’ve also conjured up the image of the field in which weeds threaten to choke out the stalks of grain.  All of it raises the question of what a farmer should do when faced with such labor-intensive challenges.

IMG_1922Some gardeners today instinctively reach for the herbicides, firm in the conviction that chemistry can solve most any problem.  Of course there can be a price to pay for this, but a clean and bounteous garden seems to justify it.

That may be well and good in the modern garden, but it can cause us to miss some of the nuance in the parables.  The fact is, many of us live in a binary world of our own making.  It’s a world in which divisions into good and evil, black and white, and flowers and weeds make it so much easier to explain away our own reality.  So it is that  the field with neat rows of grain with nary a weed in sight is not only the ideal, but it should be within the easy reach of anyone.  This kind of perfection is achievable and in fact expected of all.  But as an experienced farmer or gardener can testify, real life isn’t like that at all.

There are practical consequences that follow from this binary world-view, and my own myopia is a prime example.  I  can readily appreciate the image of a garden with flowers and weeds, and in that garden I’m always one of the prized plants.  Furthermore, I’m more than willing to point out the weeds around me who need to be pulled and tossed on the compost heap.

IMG_2042The same holds true for the seed that falls to the ground.  In my own mind there’s not a shred of doubt that I’m the fertile soil.  In fact, I give thanks regularly that I’m not like those stony-hearted people in whom the word of God takes no root.  If only they would respond as I have responded, then they and the world would be much better.

My exercise in self-delusion sails right by an obvious point contained in these parables.  These parables aren’t about other people, because they’re really about us.  In fact, on any given day I’m the entire garden — weeds and flowers and all.  There are in me blossoms to be cultivated, weeds to be pulled, and soil to be fertilized and watered.  Still other plants in me need pruning but not uprooting.  Like any garden, then, I am a work in progress, and I need cultivating on a daily basis if there is to be a good harvest.

IMG_2040That’s also the case when it comes to my receptivity to the seed that falls on my soil.  There are moments when I eagerly accept the word of God, but there are situations when I’m as resistent as granite pavement.  But I only fool myself when I presume that I’m always good soil — a flawless and fertile seed bed for all that the Lord showers upon me.

As any gardener can tell us, running a garden is no easy business.  There are flowers to nurture and weeds to pull, and it all requires vigilance and hard work.  That’s the point of these parables, and that’s the challenge of the monastic vocation and of the Christian vocation.  That’s why Jesus doesn’t con us with glossy images of the lush garden that requires little or no work.  Rather, Jesus reminds us of the care and watering and pruning and weeding that every successful garden requires.  That, by the way, is not meant as a recipe for discouragement.  Rather, as any gardener can testify, that’s the plan for creating a work of art.


+I’m not in the least hesitant to admit that this post grew out of a conversation that I had with Fr. Lew after he preached on this topic two Sundays ago.  Any good gardener borrows seeds and cuttings and rootstock from other gardens, so I’m grateful for the ideas I’ve borrowed from him.

+I am no stranger to gardening, but it has been many years since I hung up my pruning sheers.  Years ago I built three expansive flower beds in the back of Emmaus Hall at Saint John’s.  The maintenance person regularly had mowed the lawn almost to the ground in hopes that the summer sun would scald it and reduce the work.  Its restoration and the flower beds that I put in were a work of sheer joy that I enjoyed for several years, until my time became too limited.  Today the beds are grassed in, but many of the trees that I planted have matured into fine specimens.  In future posts I hope to share photos of those trees.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from The Cloisters Museum in New York.  The Cloisters Museum houses the medieval art collections of the Metropolitan Museum, and they are encased in architectural elements that were purchased in Europe and carted off to New York ages ago.  It’s an island of tranquility overlooking the Hudson River, and I first visited The Cloisters when I was in college.  The gardens there recreate medieval counterparts, where weeding for the monks must have been a real chore — and a delight.


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img_0211_2Welcome the Savior

“Here’s the deal.  There is a savior; and you’re not the savior.”  This bit of spiritual advice came to me third-hand last week, and it’s the sort of statement-of-the-obvious that most of us could afford to hear now and again.

It’s not that we actually think we’re God that gets us into trouble.  Most of us aren’t that self-deluded.  Rather, the real problem is the assumption that we’ve been delegated to act on God’s behalf.  Why else would God gift us with certain divine qualities, such as omniscience and always being right?  Why else would we make our own that wonderful prayer of the Pharisee:  “I thank God that I am not like the rest of people!”  Ironically, if we say that prayer often enough, it actually comes true.  But that’s a topic for another day, because for now I want to focus on the savior business.

In just a few days we’ll celebrate Christmas, and despite the overemphasis on material gifts, the point of it all is the gift of Jesus as savior.  I know that can sound a bit like a cliché, but I’d also suggest it will remain just a cliché until we finally give up being personal saviors to ourselves and turn that job over to Jesus.  Only then will we discover what a radical difference Jesus can make in our lives.  But until then we are on our own — which is a scary thing when you think about it.

In the Advent readings we’ve met some pretty formidable personalities.  Isaiah and John the Baptist are nothing if they are not forceful and dynamic.  Mary too has a unique role in this narrative, but her charisma is of a very different sort than that of the prophets.  And then there’s Joseph, who’s the unsung silent figure in all of this.

img_0232_2Joseph is the featured personality in the gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent.  That said, you have to conclude that his agent did a lousy job in promoting Joseph’s on-stage presence.  For one thing, Joseph sleeps through his entire scene.  Later on, when he wakes up, he discovers that even then he didn’t get a speaking part.  Never, in any of the gospels, does he get to say a single word.  Despite everything God expects of Joseph, the gospel writers not even once do Joseph the courtesy of citing his reaction to all this.  There’s not so much as a “maybe I’ll do it” or an “okay, I’ll get right on it.”  Nope.  Joseph hears the message and gets straight to business.  And we’re left to wonder what sort of person Joseph really was.  Was he always the strong silent type?  Was he like that as a kid?  Was he the teacher’s dream student in kindergarten?  Was he always so poised and determined to do the right thing?  Did he ever have a moment’s doubt?

Christian tradition has given Joseph the short end of the stick and put him in the supporting cast of the Christmas story.  But we should know better, and we should never dismiss him as unimportant, because in many ways Joseph is the most practical role model that any of us could ever have.  He may have run under the radar.  He may have been quiet and reserved.  On the other hand, he did an awful lot of heavy lifting when called upon to do so.  No doubt even Mary, who gets most of the headlines, relied on Joseph for strength, guidance and support.  After all, like Joseph she had only the sketchiest of notions about God’s plan for her.  She had to lean on somebody’s shoulder, and that shoulder belonged to Joseph.

img_0092_2That makes Joseph a not-so-bad role model for those of us who’ve come to realize that we are not the headliners in life.  Despite not having speaking parts on the international stage or in the leading pulpits on the planet, God still has plans for us. God has work for us to do, even if at times we wonder whether our efforts matter.  In fact, like God did with Joseph, God has assigned to each of us some moments when we can really make a critical difference.  And like Joseph, we need to awaken to the possibilities and seize them.

I believe it was John Calvin who made a useful point that helps us understand the difference between the savior and the saved.  “Believe as if everything depends upon God; and act as if everything depends upon you.”  That’s definitely not an invitation to run the world, or even our little corner of it, as if we were God’s vice-regent.  Rather, it’s a reminder that we have a savior and that savior stands with us when we deal with our assigned tasks.  That’s the real message of Christmas, and it’s great news.


+I know I shouldn’t say this, but throughout 2016 I had great good fortune with the airlines.  I made it everywhere I needed to be, pretty much on time and intact.  But last week was different.  For the first time in years my checked bag failed to make a flight connection, and it stayed in Detroit a lot longer than I did.  Fortunately it caught up with me the next day.

Then, later in the week, I landed at noon in Detroit for a 1:10 pm flight, only to discover that it had been rescheduled for 3:30, due to weather.  But the gate agent quietly told me that the 10:30 am flight hand’t left yet, and there were two seats left.  The upshot was that my original flight left two and a half hours late, while I got to New York fifteen minutes ahead of my original schedule.  Even better, my bag made it along with me.  The lesson here?  Be  kind to the people at the airlines.  Like God did with Mary, they too  have the capacity to do great things.

+I was on my way to New York, where it was cold and snowy.  And to top it all off, I was not properly dressed for any of it.  Even so, I made it to my meetings.  I also had time to join two good friends for a foray to the Metropolitan Museum, where I got to see an exhibit entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400:  Every People Under Heaven.  It ends on January 8th, so this was my only chance to see it.  Even better, we got to hear a concert of Byzantine Christmas Music, performed by the Axion Estin Foundation Chanters.

img_0063If you’ve never heard Byzantine chant, you should.  The deep and resonant voices are dramatic, and you can appreciate the reaction of the envoys of the king of the Bulgars when they listened to it in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the early 9th century.  They thought they were standing in heaven itself.  Ironically, the chanters at the Met were perched in the Medieval Sclupture Hall, beneath a mosaic of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist.  That mosaic had once graced an apse in Hagia Sophia, and on earlier trips to the Met I’d never noticed it.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I am hugely sophisticated when it comes to chant.  Despite the grandeur and majesty of Byzantine chant, a little bit goes a long way — at least for me.  Plus, given that it was in Greek, Armenian Arabic and Russian, for all I know they could have easily slipped in some stuff for Lent or Easter.

+The first three photos in today’s post show works of art housed at the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Marriage of the Virgin, by Bernard van Orley, Netherlands, c. 1513.  Next comes The Expectant Madonna with St. Joseph, made in France in the 15th century.  The third image is The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio, Venice, mid-15th century.  The two images at bottom show the balcony and mosaic that originally was located in Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, now housed in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At the bottom of this post is Sandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi, Florence, ca. 1480.


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imageA Farm in the City

I was rather charmed by the news from Vatican City on January 17th, the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot.  While the talking heads sat around waiting for announcements about papal appointments and doctrinal dicta, people had gathered in Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate something not even remotely connected to the interests of the reporters.  This Saint Anthony is the patron and protector of animals, and an ecumenical menagerie had gathered in the Bernini Colonnade, creating for six hours what one announcer termed a “farm in the city.”

No description can ever be complete, but I assume that there was more there than the customary cavalcade of horses.  The Vatican announcement included on the guest list an array of cows, goats, rabbits, sheep and chickens.  I’m guessing that they also welcomed ducks and llamas; but I can only wonder whether the pigs were invited.  My sense is that under the benevolent gaze of Pope Francis no domestic animal was deliberately excluded.  But given Vatican politics, who’s to say for sure?

imageYou can imagine what fun it was for the children of Rome to wander through this farm in the middle of town.   By contrast, I’m not so sure that pious pilgrims who had saved for years for this were entirely edified.  After all, some of us already see stuff like this at state fairs across America.  Imagine shelling out money for a pilgrimage to Rome, and then have to step gingerly between cow pies as you enter Saint Peter’s.  On the other hand, that’s what it must have been like during the Middle Ages.

That said, it was not the animals alone that stirred my imagination.  It was also the patron of the animals who piqued my curiosity.  How in the world does a 4th-century Egyptian monk become the occasion for an annual assembly of farm animals at the Vatican?  Good question, and I’m not sure I’ve got an adequate answer.

imageGiven that it was the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot, you could probably make a better case for a congress of monks and nuns in the square, rather than animals. After all, that might be more appropriate, considering Anthony’s personal history.  In the course of his 100+ years he witnessed the remaking of the Mediterranean world.  In a time of religious persecution Anthony had turned his back on the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert.  Later he returned to society, planning to be a martyr for his faith.  But alas, he was too late.  In his absence Egypt had become largely Christian, and even the emperor in Rome had converted.  Lacking someone to put him to death for his faith, Anthony instead turned to serving prisoners and the poor.

Saint Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria, recounts this in his biography of Anthony.  His text took off in popularity, and it circulated widely in the east and the west.  For centuries it inspired men and women to leave all and to embrace the monastic way of life.  Not surprisingly, Anthony ever since has been revered as one of the founders of the monastic movement.  From there it’s an easy jump across 1,700 years to a herd of farm animals who have gathered in Rome in his memory.  And if you can figure out the thread of logic that connects those two points, be sure and write.

imageWhat really intrigues me, however, is a cultural and spiritual influence that  has almost entirely evaporated in the west.  In my years of museum and church visits, I’ve noticed pieces of western art that have centered on a great many eastern holy men and women.  But if you took a poll of average American Christians today, most would not have a clue about the identity of saints like Anthony of Egypt, Dorothea of Gaza, Mary of Egypt and Catherine of Alexandria.  Yet, not five hundred years ago these figures were staples of the religious and spiritual landscape of western Europeans.  As an abundance of western art testifies, these easterners at one time captivated the imaginations of Europeans, even if these saints had never set foot on the soil of Europe.  Clearly that is no longer the case.

I, along with many, regret the demise of the ties that once bound east and west together in spiritual vitality.  Of course this awareness of the east had its roots in the Bible.  It was reinforced by the adventures of people like Egeria, who travelled from Spain to Egypt and the Holy Land in the late  4th century.  Her diary sparked a veritable industry based on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Though the number of pilgrims has waxed and waned through the centuries, it still goes on.  But for medieval pilgrims who retraced her steps to Egypt, to the Holy Land and to places like Syria, it was like a visit to Oz.  These sites were the heartland of Christianity, and the saints there were larger than life.  No wonder that Europeans latched onto them for physical protection and spiritual inspiration.

imageNot so today.  We scarcely know who these people were, and it’s our loss.  It’s also our loss that we’ve let slip the links with the places where they lived and died.  It’s led to a spiritual disorientation on our part, and it no longer surprises me when people think that the Bible was written in English, and that it foretells events that would be fulfilled in places like Kansas centuries later.  With a tip of the hat to the wonderful people of Kansas, the Bible was not written specifically with them in mind, nor even about our entire country.  It was about all of God’s people.

Given all that, it’s important that we never lose sight of our debt to the eastern churches and their fascinating saints.  It’s important that we appreciate the efforts of Popes Benedict and Francis, as well as so many others, to work to solve the various crises in Syria and in the Middle East.  And it’s important that we cherish the spiritual gifts that we can receive from our brothers and sisters in the East.  If it takes a gathering of cows and goats and chickens in Saint Peter’s Square to start the ball rolling, then all the better.

On January 17th it was not the first time that God has used animals to communicate something important.  This time the message may be more important than ever.  Given our bent toward a materialistic worldview, Saints Anthony and Dorothea and Catherine may very well have some spiritual insights that can save us from ourselves.


+On January 14th I was in New York and met with Ambassador Robert Shafer, the ambassador of the Order of Malta at the United Nations.

+On January 15th fire pretty much destroyed the paint shop at Saint John’s .  It was a spectacular event, which began in the attic of the shop while the monks were at evening prayer.  The blaze ruined a lot of furniture that had been produced in the abbey woodworking shop, as well as the lids of two pianos from the music department.  The latter had suffered water damage last summer.  But the fire damage was not the finishing work they had had in mind.  The building itself was constructed of brick in 1912 and stood in what we term the “industrial zone” of campus.  Fortunately no one was injured.  The fire departments from nearby Saint Joseph and Avon helped our own fire crew, but it was too late to save the building.    For the photographs I owe a debt to Brother Nick Moe.

image+Over the holidays I completed A. Scott Berg’s recent biography of Woodrow Wilson, entitled Wilson.  I found it engaging, though the first chapters that narrate his years at Princeton and the later chapters on World War I were particularly interesting.  The text dealing with his illness while in the White House describes something that could not possibly happen today: his wife Edith pretty much shielded the president from prying eyes and ran the government herself.  I also found one of Wilson’s statements from his years as president of Princeton particularly apt:  “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

image+During my brief time in New York I was able to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was easy to discover instances of western art that touched on eastern saints and sites.  At the top of this post is a 16th-century panel of Saint Anthony Abbot, flanked by Saints Roch and Lucy.  The 15th-century English stained glass includes windows that depict Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria; while the bust/reliquary presents Saint Catherine once again.  Finally, the Spanish carving from ca. 1500 shows the flight into Egypt.

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