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Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Men’s Breakfast’

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Blessed Are We!

”Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.”  This and the other promises that Jesus makes in the Beatitudes for a long time puzzled me.  To my literal way of thinking it all sounded like small consolation for having gotten the short end of the stick in life.  It also seemed to encourage passivity, suggesting that if we suffer patiently and with dignity now, then we’ll hit the jackpot when we reach the gates of heaven.  Conversely, wealth and happiness in the present life come with an ominous warning.  Enjoy them now because they’re not going to last forever.

I think the first time an alternate interpretation presented itself came as I watched a homeless person pushing a cartload of stuff down the street.  I assumed that cart held all he owned, and the Beatitudes seemed crafted precisely for someone like him.  But all the same there was a disconnect.  Clearly he was poor, and if the Beatitudes weren’t meant for him, then for whom were they meant?  But the nurture that he gave to his cartload of possessions gave a different message.  Was he in fact serving the stuff, rather than the other way around?  His possessions seemed to hold him captive, just as a bag of gold holds a miser in its thrall.  That’s when the light bulb came on.

04D4265C-690C-4C2C-BF7D-2EF2D34CD088I confess that for much of my life I thought of the Beatitudes as the promise of compensation for misfortunes suffered in the here and now.  Now I realize that Jesus probably didn’t mean it that way.  Nor did he ever intend that death open us to our first taste of the divine.  The experience of God actually begins in the here and now.

That, it seems to me, is the key to an appreciation of the Beatitudes.  So when Jesus blesses those who are poor he does not promise fantastic wealth in the hereafter.  Rather he says that an abundance or lack of stuff does not determine the value of a human being.  Whether rich or poor, all are created in the image of God.  All can experience the spark of the divine already, in this world.  Why would anyone want to wait?

The same holds for the other Beatitudes as well.  Each one sugggests that we should look at life from a broader perspective.  Each suggests that the opportunity to live a full life ought not be constrained by conventional wisdom.  Rich and poor can be sad, but rich and poor can be happy as well.  So much depends on whether we can take risks and open our eyes to life’s possibilities.

662C1934-8DD9-4D80-B986-45D51E5437A9Therein is the real value of the Beatitudes.  They are not a quid pro quo contract, with a promise and a reward.  Rather they are a code of wisdom to live by.  In them Jesus invites us to break out of the narrow band-width that determines how most of us choose to live.  Jesus invites us to cast aside those conventional views of wealth and happiness, and he invites us to take a chance on life.  Only then will the payback be enormous, and we should experience it now.

If we learn to relish the presence of God now, in both the best and worst of times, then the Beatitudes will start to make sense.  They are the promise that we can meet God now, and we need not wait until the end of time.  They are also the promise that when we do finally see God face to face, there will be no surprises.  The God we will meet then will be somebody we’ve already met before.

23E2F208-80E1-497F-B262-5507B669BEF6NOTES

+On February 12th I flew from Minnesota to Naples, FL, where I visited friends of Saint John’s.  After days of cold and snow in Minnesota it came as a bit of a relief, though winter did not let go of me so easily.  The last act before driving to the airport included sweeping the latest six inches of snow from the car and navigating through snow-filled streets to get there.  All the same, several days of snow have left the Minnesota landscape just beautiful.

+Among the highlights of my visit in Naples was attendance at the Minnesota Men’s Breakast, which despite its name does welcome women. The speaker to the 400 gathered that day was Saint John’s alumnus General Paul Nakasone.  Paul commands U.S. Cyber Security and heads the National Security Agency.  His presentaiton was a real tour de force, and he fielded the technical questions adroitly.  I think everyone in the room felt better just knowing that someone like Paul managed such responsibilities.

+On February 16th I flew to Boston, where I had the opportunity to visit alumni of Saint John’s.  That said, the absolute highlight of the trip has been the chance to visit Jon and Beth, whom I’ve known for ages.  My friendship with Jon goes back to school days in New Haven, and years later I presided at their wedding.  It was great to see them again.

+In a chronicle one normally talks about events in the past, but I’ll violate that rule by noting that today I will go to Kennebunk, ME, for lunch with an alumnus.  Then tomorrow I will leave for Amman, Jordan, where I will join members of the Order of Malta from California on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  I’ve not been there for a long time, and please say a prayer that all goes well.

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Falling Down, and Getting Up

After evening prayer on Ash Wednesday we monks gathered in the chapter house to hear Abbot John deliver a conference to us.  Normally we meet there on Tuesdays, and in that room we discuss everything from the sublime to the ridiculously mundane.  But Ash Wednesday is different, both for the day and for the topic.

As near as I can recall, this was Abbot John’s 17th Ash Wednesday conference to us.  And for those who can’t quite imagine what a conference is, it’s pretty much like a sermon that’s gotten out of control.  There’s no seven-minute limit with conferences, and they usually run 20-25 minutes.

After sixteen earlier conferences on the subject of Lent, I wondered what in the world the abbot could possibly say that we’d not already heard.  And as much as the abbot might want to rely on our collective short-term memory and recycle some previous material, he dares not.  We can count on at least one or two of our confreres to remember, and they’ll remind us.  So the pressure is on to come up with something fresh and original, or he’ll hear about it afterward.

9CCAFA7E-0FD5-4E81-BF59-7A0C2938C2DBDespite our expectations, we still cut the abbot some slack.  He’d be negligent not to recall for us Saint Benedict’s description of the monastic life as a Lenten observance.  He’d be remiss not to cite Benedict’s encouragement to make do with less food and drink, to restrain ourselves from excessive speaking, and to compensate with extra prayer and meditation.  It just wouldn’t be a Lenten conference without these old saws, and on this occasion Abbot John once again delivered.

He also repeated Benedict’s caution that we not let our Lenten observance inflate us with pride.  I’m particularly susceptible to this, and not just during Lent, and for one big reason.  I long ago conceded that I’ll never be as good a monk as many of my confreres.  But I’ve also convinced myself that I’m at least better than the worst monk in our community.  My favorite prayer has long been one that the Pharisees would have said with gusto:  “There but for the grace of God — and my own initiative — go I.”  That’s not necessarily a bad prayer, except when it’s said with a dollop of pride.

With all those niceties out of the way, Abbot John got to the central focus of his conference:  baptism and the baptismal font at Easter.  For starters he cautioned that we should never think of our baptism as some sort of personal achievement.  Baptism is not a membership badge indicating that we have chosen Jesus, with the implication that Jesus ought to be grateful for what we’ve done.  On the contrary, in baptism Jesus has chosen us, and not the other way around.  The business of baptism is God reaching out to us, and we feebly responding.

0304DEB6-6461-4A7F-B31C-1EDCEF7C62EEAbbot John said a lot more in the course of 25 minutes, obviously, but for me the most vivid image was his reference to the Olympic skater Scott Hamilton.  Hamilton once estimated that he had fallen down 41,600 times in the course of  his career.  He also estimated that he got back up 41,600 times.  That’s astonishing, and it reminds me that I’ve done the same thing in my life — metaphorically, if not literally.

I’m guessing that the Scott Hamilton bit was likely the biggest take-away for many of the monks gathered in the chapter house on Ash Wednesday evening.  As for me, I was away from the Abbey, but I was fortunate to get a copy of the abbot’s address via email.  And I count myself fortunate because this is exactly the sort of stuff I need to mull over.

This is not my 17th Lent as a monk, but after seventeen Lents and more, I’m sorely tempted to join the chorus of people who say that Lent is boring.  Like them I sometimes wonder what more I could possibly learn from one more Lent.  The answer?  A lot.

The image of Scott Hamilton falling down and getting back up 41,600 times is powerful.  I can’t imagine that he ever came to enjoy it, nor did getting back up become any easier with experience.  But for him the struggle must have become a moral imperative.

So this Lent I’ve decided to meditate on the fact that I keep falling down, and I do it fairly often.  But all the same, I take comfort in the thought that the Lord never seems to tire of reaching out to help me get back up.  Praised be Jesus Christ, and thanks be to God!

AFAA9F5E-BCB1-4542-865C-2C5D50FB4D67NOTES

+On 13 February I flew to Miami, where I and a colleague met with several alumni of Saint John’s University.  Two days later we drove across Alligator Alley to Naples, where we had scheduled more visits and two events.  To my great disappointment, I did not see a single alligator along the way.

+On Ash Wednesday I and my colleague attended Mass at Saint William’s Church in Naples.  It was notable primarily because the power went off ten minutes before Mass.  We proceeded anyway, and candlelight and the strong voices of the readers managed to prevail in the packed church.   As for me, I was disappointed when the  power came back on.  But not everyone shared my sentiment.

+On February 15th I attended a reception that featured Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough, who served as chief of staff in the White House during President Obama’s second term.  The next day I attended the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast, where Denis again spoke.  Women now attend, but for some reason they still call it the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast.  It meets for twelve Fridays every winter, and always includes some distinguished speaker — many of whom are women.  This week some three hundred attended to hear Denis speak.

+The first three photos in today’s post show a panel now housed in the Wallraff Richards Museum in Cologne.  It’s by the Master of the Heisterbach Altar, made ca. 1450 in Cologne.  The bottom two photos show the chapter house at Saint John’s Abbey.  It adjoins the church, on the east side.

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