Posts Tagged ‘Minneapolis Institute of Art’


Christmas:  An Everyday Feast

“The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance.”

So wrote Saint Benedict in chapter 49 of his Rule, and I confess up front that I’ve always had problems with this.  For one thing, it conjures up a way of life that is monochromatic.  It seems cheerless.  It appears to be an endless cycle of drudgery, day in and day out.  It also makes Lent the sole season of the church year, with gray chosen as the liturgical color.  Given all that, what about the other seasons of the year?  And specifically, what happened to Christmas?

I don’t want to get too detailed about this, but Saint Benedict lived on the eve of a critical transition in the liturgical practice of Western monasteries.  Whatever Christians may have done elsewhere, the celebration of great feasts in the monastery was not yet what it was to become.  Saint Gregory the Great provides good insight into this when he writes of an instance when a visitor called on Benedict in his hermitage.  The visitor was astonished to discover that the holy man had no idea that it was the Easter season.

DFABBC6E-6B2C-42B5-8F01-6C179961DC3FI can’t fault Benedict for the simplicity that marked his years as a hermit.  You can’t do much when your processions are one person long, and a cave scarcely provides the setting for an elaborate liturgy.  However, his move to Monte Cassino provided both the community and the liturgical space that started the ball rolling.  In time the observance of an elaborate liturgy that included Christmas became the thread that set the tone for their lives.

So how do we monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrate Christmas?  For one thing, Saint Benedict would wonder where all those decorated trees came from, but at least he would appreciate their contrast with the darkness of the season.  Beyond that, our Christmas Eve liturgy is solemn, and the Christmas Day feast in the refectory is distinctive, both for its menu and its ritual.  It’s both a joyful and strenuous regimen, and more than a few of us close the feast with a nap.

Certainly Benedict did not legislate for this, but there’s another point to consider.  Benedict may have characterized the life of a monk as a Lenten observance, but it is a way of life that makes vivid the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.  At every turn monks should see the face of Christ — in the abbot, in the novice, in the sick or elderly, and especially in the guest.  Perhaps for this reason Benedict did not see the need to restrict the celebration of the Incarnation to one particular day.  In fact, in the monastery we should strive to celebrate that feast every day.

This being January 1st — yet one more day which Benedict did not observe — it’s a traditional time to make resolutions for the new year.  No doubt most monks will set one or the other personal goals, but one goal for us all is to live the Incarnation every day.  Even though our lives may have the character of a Lenten observance, one bit should pervade it all.  The Lord still comes, just as he did at Bethlehem.  The only difference is that he now comes every day.


+On December 26th I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I saw a special exhibit of 17th-century cityscape paintings, primarily of Venice and Rome.  Most of the canvasses were monumental in size, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people rushed out afterwards to buy plane tickets to Italy.

+The next day the weather became far more severe, and the cold has become a cruel jailer.  I did not venture out of doors for several days, but on New Year’s Eve I finally caved in and drove to St. Cloud to buy a new battery for my watch.  It had died four days earlier, and it was a little odd wandering around without knowing the time.  In a monastery monks can rely on the bells for time — in theory — but when it gets very cold we turn off our bells to avoid cracking them.  That was the case for our bells this week, and so for a few days my life was timeless.

+On December 31st we monks celebrated the eve of 2018 with our traditional gathering, which includes various games, visiting with one another, and pizza made by our Brother Dennis.  A few hardy souls stayed up to greet the new year;  but as is my custom, I brought in the new year in solidarity with the people living two time zones to the east of Minnesota.

+To all who read my blog I thank you for your occasional messages and comments.  I continue to enjoy writing this, and it’s an important part of my routine.  But it’s always encouraging to know that faithful readers continue and new readers subscribe to it.  Thank you, and I wish you all a happy New Year!

+The early 16th-century stained glass in today’s post originally came from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the Victoria & Albert in London.


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IMG_1636Silence Can Be Nourishing.

It had been two years since I last stood next to this particular priest.  Once again we were at the funeral of a mutual friend and, after the greetings were out of the way, I got down to business.  Were we going to have a repeat of the refrain he had given during the homily at the last funeral?  He smiled, and his smile said it all.

At the last funeral a bishop-friend of the family had presided and preached, and he’d done a more than adequate job of it.  But the local pastor was miffed at being sidelined and out of the limelight, so he made up for it at the end of the service.  What began as a simple farewell morphed into a second and even longer sermon.  Worse still, he punctuated each sentence with a dramatic pause, by which he meant to underscore the  importance of his words.  That bit of theater was too much for the cluster of priests stuck in the sanctuary.  Some needed to go, and all knew there was no need for a second homily.  Suddenly inspired, my friend cut through the tension with a stroke of divine inspiration.  Into each silent pause he inserted the one thing we now remember from that liturgy two years ago.  Within earshot of us all (but  unheard by the congregation) came a steady chorus of “sto-o-o-p…sto-o-o-p…sto-o-o-p.”  We all managed to appear stoic, but it was a struggle to contain ourselves.  It was just the right touch.

IMG_1622We live in a time when people seem to think there can never be enough words.  In love with the sound of their own voices, people will drone on, oblivious to the possibility that they have already said everything that was useful to say in the first minute of their discourse.  Politicians blather on in a Niagara of words.  Advertisers cram more words into a commercial than we can absorb.  And worst of all, people talk at each other, all speaking at the same time.  There are simply too many words, and too many people don’t have the self-discipline to stop.

First-time readers of the Rule of Saint Benedict are often surprised that he did not demand a vow of silence from his monks.  Despite the stereotype, monks do speak, but St. Benedict cautions monks about how much they should speak and the quality of their speech.  He quotes Psalm 10, which gets right to the point.  “In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.”  Then he concludes with a bit of wisdom from Proverbs 18:21:  “The tongue holds the key to life and death.”

IMG_1624Custody of the tongue is something that even monks find challenging.  We too can carry on too long in sermons, for example.  At Saint John’s that may explain the periodic reminders from the liturgy committee that “a few well-chosen words usually suffice” for week-day homilies.  In addition, like everybody else we’re prone to gossip, despite Benedict’s explicit ban on that sort of thing.  And we too tell stories at the expense of our brother, which Benedict also frowned upon.  But of course we monks are only human, which is why we have to try and limit the damage via a periodic day of silent reflection and the silence that pervades the night.

Most people, including monks, can’t maintain silence for an entire day.  Still, there are things we each can do to let silence work its magic in our lives.  Given that noise seems all-pervasive, even when we are alone, we can rein in the endless din.  To my own surprise, for example, I discovered that I could drive with the radio off.  Not only was I calmer, but I began to hear the little things that I never noticed before.  I found the same could be true when there was no radio or electrical devices running in my room in the monastery.  That was when I discovered that silence could even be nourishing.

IMG_8779All this may seem pointless and self-absorbed, but Benedict’s caution about too much speaking actually relates back to the first word of his Rule:  “Listen.”  If we’re too busy talking with one another, all at the same time, then we can’t listen.  If noise pervades our every waking moment, we can’t listen.  And if we can’t listen, we’ll never learn.

We live in a world in which the flood of words has become not only normative but the presumed ideal; and Saint Benedict is neither the first nor the last sage to warn us of the results.  Essentially, that flood of words can shape who we are and who we will become.  Just as a small stream and the wind created the Grand Canyon, so can a torrent of words shape us into people we might not want to become.

So the next time you realize the onslaught of words is about to overwhelm you, you might do well to recall that one word of advice from my priest-friend:  “Sto-o-o-p.”  And once you’ve stopped and allowed a toe-hold of tranquility into your life, then comes that second word of advice:  “Listen!”  You may discover that the silence can be nourishing.


+This was a quiet week for me, and  I spent nearly all of it at home at Saint John’s.  Much of the time was spent sitting at my desk, catching up on office work.  So the time was spent well.

+This last week and through the next week we have been hosting twenty recent graduates of Saint John’s University who will be working next year as Benedictine Volunteers at abbeys literally around the world.  This is a combination retreat and a bit of orientation, and it has been a delight to have them join us for prayer and meals in the abbey refectory.

IMG_8783+On Sunday May 15th I attended the unveiling of the Book of Honor of The Saint John’s Bible.  The Book of Honor lists the 1750+ individuals and groups who helped to support the creation of The Saint John’s Bible, and it is a piece of art in its own right.  Calligrapher and artist Diane von Arx, who had done illumination in the Bible, did this work as a solo project, and it is terrific.  Some 160 individuals attended the event, which took place in the Target Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  Since the first folio of the Bible was unveiled there, it was only appropriate to return there.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate folios from the Book of Honor.  Virtually the only outside work in the Book of Honor was my signature on the introductory sheet.  I’ve included that photo, since it is the only time I will ever fit the image of the monk-calligrapher.

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