Posts Tagged ‘Michael Casey’

imageSummer Time and Holy Leisure

Among the few serious complaints I have about monastic life, there’s this:  the schedule is horribly inefficient.  Consider that we drop what we’re doing, several times a day, to go and pray.  Consider that, depending on our jobs, we change into and out of our habits several times a day.  Consider that, during some of the most productive stretches of the day, we stop everything so that we can dine together, recreate together, and squeeze in spiritual reading and reflection.  What was Saint Benedict thinking when he organized this life?  How did he expect anyone to get anything done?

I’ve always cherished the strong work ethic that I inherited from my parents.  I’ve derived a lot of personal satisfaction from it, and because of it I’ve compiled a decent record of modest accomplishment.  Still, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of balance, even if it does eat into productive work time.  I’ve even accepted the possibility that there may be more to life than a full schedule — as much as I hate to admit it.

imageAs you might expect, of all the alternatives to work, it’s leisure that troubles me most.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I know too that I’m not the only one who is driven to cram activity into each and every moment of my day.   And I know I’m not unique in my suspicion that leisure is a personal indulgence, especially when there’s so much to be done.

You can imagine my unease, then, when I read this:  “The Benedictine vocation includes within its integrity an attraction to leisure….”  Who says so?   So writes Michael Casey, a Trappist from an abbey in the wilds of Australia.  He’s widely revered for his wisdom and insight into life, and not just monastic life.  Despite that, quite naturally my first impulse was to dismiss out of hand his comment on leisure.  After all, what else is there to do in the Australian wilderness anyway, other than to wait for the next sunrise?  But of course life there is much like life everywhere, and Casey is as busy as the rest of us.  So I have to give his words their due, even if I prefer to imagine monastic life as one long work period.

imageActually, Casey’s chapter on leisure in his book Strangers to the City makes a lot of sense, whether you’re a monk or not.  He argues, for starters, that leisure is not idleness.  Nor is it escapism.  Nor is it an indifference to the world around us.  Rather, leisure is a conversation with life.  Leisure involves climbing out of our self-enclosed existence so that we can listen to what people have to say, and be open to the lessons that life has to teach.  True leisure, in other words, is an activity in which we learn that we are not the measure of all things, nor are we the center of the universe.  Believe it or not, there are other people out there.

imageCasey goes on to note that leisure, in and of itself, is value-neutral.  But when we make time for leisure and use it well, it opens us up to growth.  Perhaps that’s why Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the invitation to Listen.  Listen thoughtfully to our brothers and sisters.  Listen to the sacred reading we do.  Listen and pay attention to God as God appears regularly in the people around us.  But the only way in which we can listen is to make room for leisure in our lives.  So it is that in the monastic tradition we speak of Holy Leisure, because it’s sacred and it’s transformative.

Given all that, it helps to explain why Saint Benedict breaks up our day so inefficiently. Left to my own devices, I’d keep my nose to the grindstone morning, noon and night — and I’d call it good.  But I’d likely live in oblivion to what’s going on around me.  I’d miss God present in the people and events around me.  At best, life would be white noise or muzak as I meandered on about my own business.  No wonder that Saint Benedict deliberately yanks us from this self-absorbed little world.

imageNow that we’ve reached Memorial Day, what are my summer resolutions?  For one thing, I’m going to listen intently to some music, for the sole purpose of hearing what the composer and musicians have to say.  I’m going to visit an art gallery or two, just to see how a few artists view life.  I’m going to make more time for reading, just to find out if there are people out there who see life differently than I.  I’m going to pay attention to my confreres and friends, if for no other reason than to savor the wisdom that God has imparted to them.

In short, I’ve decided that this summer I will try to experience life as more than one extended stretch of white noise.  And who knows?  If it works out, and I do hear something  useful, then I might very well engage in some holy leisure even after Labor Day lowers the curtain on summer.


+On May 19th-20th I took part in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  On the evening of the 19th the Trustees joined the monastic community for dinner in the abbey refectory.

+On May 19th, between sessions of the meetings of the Trustees, I rushed to the other side of campus to speak to a group of faculty and staff from Concordia University in Saint Paul.  They were at Saint John’s to participate in a day-long workshop on The Saint John’s Bible.

+On May 21st I attended the dedication of the new entry hall at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, MN.

+On May 22nd I spoke on “Leisure in the Monastic Tradition” to the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s.  For two weeks the twenty-two members are on retreat before heading off to year-long assignments at Benedictine abbeys across the world.  All are 2014 graduates of Saint John’s University, and this is the largest such group of volunteers that we’ve ever sponsored.

image+This last week, and for a while to come, the monks have moved out of the refectory, while its ceiling is being repaired and a few of the frescoes are being retouched.  In the interim, we are taking our meals in the basement recreation room of the monastery.  It’s tight, but the confined space builds community!

+While I was in Paris recently I had the chance to visit several churches that were new to me, if not to the Parisians.  Among the most impressive was that of Saint Eustace.  Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, it served the center of Paris, including Les Halles, for long the chief market of the city.  One is oblivious to the huge Metro station below; while the church itself is an island of tranquility.  Inside of the church is a wonderful sculpture that depicts the former market.

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The Abbey cemetery

Getting in Touch with Where you are Going

Two weeks ago I was driving along, minding my own business, when down the road I spied a big column of black smoke.  It turned out to be from one of those  huge garbage trucks, which was waiting for the light to change at the intersection.  But it wasn’t the smoke that had the neighboring drivers furiously waving, because the back of the truck was on fire.

This was serious fire — not one of those “flickering campfire” kind of fires that soothe us on a cold winter evening.  This was NASA booster rocket fire, and flames shot up fifteen feet into the air.  Unfortunately, the driver was on his cell phone, and it must have been a really important call.  He was completely oblivious to the roaring inferno just inches behind him.  Nor did he pay a bit of attention to the frantic motorists in the adjacent lanes.

Eventually the light changed and he tooled off down the road, still talking on the phone, looking every bit like a cartoon from Gary Larson’s Far Side.  Who knows whatever happened, but as the flaming truck rolled by, my only thought was this:  Now there’s something you don’t see every day.

Actually that last bit isn’t true, because the thought that really occured to me was not so benign.  How in the world could some moron drive a real live fire truck down the road and not know it?  How could anyone be so out of touch with reality?

Last week we celebrated Ash Wednesday, and if there’s one time of the  year that seems to scream out “self-awareness” it’s Lent.  At the very least, the ashes are a not-so-subtle reminder of where we are all headed — eventually.  And while there are various penances that many practice during Lent, we should never forget the real point of the season.  This is the one time in the Church calendar when we should all take an inventory of our lives.   This is a good chance to figure out where we are actually headed, as opposed to where we think we are headed.  Naturally we all believe we are on the path to success and glory.  but it might just be a good idea to look over our shoulder and check to see if our metaphorical truck is on fire.  And if it is, then this may just be a good time to make some serious changes.

The Trappist monk Michael Casey writes that the “monastic life is the diametric opposite of aimless living.”  It is goal-oriented, and it has a tried and true pattern of life to get to those goals.  “The train is running on tracks to a single destination”, he writes, and “if you don’t want to go there, you had better get off at the next stop.”

That’s actually not bad advice, particularly if you have a few things  you’d like to accomplish in your life.  If your to-do list is ambitious, and if you haven’t crossed anything off in a year or two, this Lent may be the chance you’ve needed to sit down and figure out what’s wrong.  Why is it that nothing gets done?  Why is it that I’m still unhappy?  Why is it that I think I’m headed in the best of all possible directions, but I’ve just noticed that my truck is on fire?  Sadly, we actually do see people driving by in burning trucks, every day.  And, unfortunately, I occasionally find myself in the truck with them.  And in my worst nightmare, I’m actually at the wheel, driving to disaster.

But despite popular perception, Lent is actually meant to be a season of  hope.  It leads to spring, and it leads to Easter.  And on a personal level it leads to our own renewal.  We participate in it, not to despair at where we are headed, but to make those course corrections that focus on the destination that we really want to reach.

So if you are at the wheel this Lent, be sure to check  and see if  you are on the right track.  If your life is on fire and on the verge of blowing up, stop and get some help.  If  you’re lost, ask for directions.  There’s lots of people willing to help, and one of them is the Lord Jesus Christ.

Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, Archbishop Harry Flynn, and Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB

Personal notes

+I received several very interesting comments on last week’s posting on the Theresa tattoo, and one in particular I would like to share.  A reader in San Francisco wrote to say that no one with a tattoo would ever be caught running around with someone named Edith.  She had a good point, but I still wonder aloud about Archie Bunker.  I will grant the statistical possibility that Archie did not have a tattoo; but he certainly did run around with a woman named Edith, his wife.  You just never know.

+On February 23rd I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.  Present for the occasion was Archbishop Harry Flynn, the retired archbishop of Saint Paul-Minneapolis.  A very generous couple from the Twin Cities had donated a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint  John’s Bible to The Mount, in his honor.  I had a delightful aftenoon and evening, which culimnated in a dinner with Archbishop Flynn, Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, rector of the Seminary, and my confrere Fr. Matthew Luft, who is a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America.

+On February 24-26 I delivered retreat conferences at the annual Lenten retreat at the Abbey guesthouse.  I spoke on the journey through Holy Week, with a special emphasis on the Passion narrative from the Gospels.

+Benedictine-Dominican Ecumenism.  One of the great Ash Wednesday traditions in Rome is the annual visit by the Pope to the Benedictine Abbey of Sant Anselmo, the headquarters of the Benedictine Order.  After a service there, Pope Benedict and the monks processed to the nearby basilica of Santa Sabina, the headquarters of the Dominicans.  At Sant Anselmo the Pope received the ashes, and later, at Santa Sabina, the Pope prayed along with the assembled Benedictine and Dominican communities.  My confrere, Fr. Nickolas Becker, who lives at Sant Anselmo and is a graduate student in Rome, reports that it was a very moving experience.

+On February 22nd the New Mexico History Museum announced the extension of its exhibit on The Saint John’s Bible.  Originally scheduled to close on April 7th, it will now continue through December 20th.  To date over 26,600 have visited the gallery.

The Abbey gardens: the hope of spring

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