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Posts Tagged ‘Monastic Culture’

Prayer: One of Life’s Little Inefficiencies?

Every now and again the gospels give a glimpse into a Jesus who seems rather conflicted, and Mark 1 seems to present just such a case. There it states matter-of-factly that people brought to Jesus “all who were ill and possessed by demons.” In the next breath, however, it goes on to say that Jesus cured “many who were sick” and “drove out many demons.” That naturally leaves on the table the question “Why?” Why didn’t Jesus cure everybody? Why didn’t he cast out all the demons as long as he was at it?

Jesus seemed to leave some of that work unfinished, and on more than one occasion he withdrew to pray. And while that may fly in the face of the workaholism that most of us brought with us to the monastery, it suggests that Jesus recognized the need for a balanced life. Certainly he came to heal and to cast out demons and to preach and to teach. But he also took time out to pray, even if it seemed to leave undone work that we might consider vital.

On many a day we conclude noon prayer with a simple petition that begins thus: “God of mercy, this midday moment of rest is your welcome gift.” I’m not sure I’ve always believed that time out for noon prayer was really a welcome gift. All too often there have been occasions when those pauses seemed instead to be terrible interruptions. Too often they felt like little inefficiencies that were anything but welcome in a busy day. But age and a dash of wisdom has caused me to realize that perhaps those moments of prayer really are gifts from Jesus. Quite possibly they are also what keep us sane.

NOTES

+On January 13th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a slight variation of the homily I delivered that afternoon. It is based on Mark 1: 29-39.

+On January 16th we monks and our co-workers in the abbey health center received the covid vaccination. Since the beginning of the pandemic only five of our monks have tested positive for the virus, and none suffered the terrible effects that have gripped so many others. While this does not end the safety protocols that we have in place, it does portend some light at the end of the tunnel.

+Every now and again the elevator that links the basement to the 4th floor in the monastery asserts its mastery by going on the fritz. Generally it is a minor inconvenience that reminds us of our human frailty. But the recent ten days out of service for a complete overhaul were a game changer. To great rejoicing it went back on line on Friday the 15th.

+Since late December the days have gradually begun to lengthen, and we now welcome the glow of the setting sun as it reaches into Mass time, which on weekdays is at 5:00 pm. All the same, the last few days have been overcast and gloomy, and they suggest to me what our medieval confreres had to endure with only candlelight to pierce the darkness. It’s why for them stained glass became one way to add life to the day. In today’s post are three examples of contemporary stained glass that replaced their medieval predecessors after WW II. They are in the cathedral of St. Peter in Worms, Germany.

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What Did You Get For Christmas?

That’s a question that we usually answer on December 26th. However, now that the feast of the Baptism of the Lord has brought down the curtain on Christmas, perhaps January 11th is the better day to address that. By now we’ve carted off some gifts to the dumpster, and others we’ve stored away in the attic. But from all we may have gotten, is there anything that we cherish or even remember on January 11th?

I was lucky this year. Two gifts in particular register in my mind, and I hope that they will inspire me for a long time to come. The first was tangible, in the form of a little book by manuscript scholar Christopher de Hamel. I’ve been blessed to call Christopher a friend for more than a few years, and he’s let me gaze on texts at the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge that I’d scarcely imagined I would ever see.

Last fall Christopher sent me a copy of his latest work, entitled The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket. In it he details his quest to locate the psalm book that Becket clutched as four knights hacked him to death in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. It was a murder that shocked all of Europe, mainly because the knights had killed a monk/archbishop in hopes of pleasing the king, Henry II. Just as horrible, however, they had done this in a sacred space and during the sacred season of Christmas. So strong was the memory that nearly four centuries later Henry VIII commanded that the shrine of Becket be hacked to pieces, lest Becket inspire similar opposition in Henry’s own time.

When the book arrived I had to put it in reserve, but eventually I decided to save its reading for the feast of Becket’s martyrdom. For me it was one of the few times in my life when procrastination paid big dividends. So on the afternoon of December 29th I cracked it open, and I managed to finish it just before I left my room for vespers that evening. Besides the sheer drama of Christopher’s narrative, two things struck me. First, I had just read a book about Becket, 850 years to the evening after his murder. Second, both Becket and I planned to be at vespers. Becket never made it to the choir stalls. By the grace of God I did. Both of us were blessed.

The second gift that Christmas brought was an idea, sent by my friend Fr. Colmán from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland. In an Advent conference to his fellow monks he spoke of the magi, and he offered one point worthy of daily meditation. Just as the magi brought gifts to the stable at Bethlehem, we monks are latter-day magi who bring our own gifts to the monastery. It then occurred to me that if we freely lay our gifts at the feet of our brothers and our guests, then we walk in the sandals of the magi. If we clutch our gifts tightly to ourselves, afraid to let go of them, then those aren’t gifts at all, nor do we end up with much of a life.

For me the take-away from these two Christmas gifts seems simple. What we say and don’t say matters; and what we do and don’t do matters as well. That’s the recipe for a life well-lived, and it’s also the formula for a life stored away in the attic.

That’s wisdom worthy of recollection long after we’ve turned the page on the last day of Christmas.

NOTES

+On January 4-6 the monks of Saint John’s Abbey met for our annual monastery workshop. This year the menu for consideration was eclectic, with some topics interesting. But of course a few issues fell into the category of non-addictive sleeping aids.

+On a regular basis we monks pray for our civic and elected leaders, but at vespers on Wednesday January 6th those prayers seemed particularly poignant. The knowledge that, even as we prayed, many of our leaders were in seclusion while a mob ransacked the capital was numbing.

+On a visit to Canterbury Cathedral in 2013 I took the photos in today’s post. At top the candle marks the spot where Thomas Becket’s shrine stood until Henry VIII ordered it destroyed. Below that is the spot where four knights, thinking they were doing the king’s work, hacked Becket to death. Immediately above is one of my favorite scenes from Canterbury. As a major pilgrimage site Canterbury inspired visitors from all over England and Europe. In the center of the photo is the almoner’s porch, where daily one of the monks distributed coins to poor pilgrims. (Tap on the photo to enlarge.). Of course not everything about Canterbury is stately and somber. At bottom is one scene whose whimsy struck me on the day of my visit.

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What’s in a Name?

I’ve always enjoyed the amusing exchange that produced the name for John the Baptist. On one side were his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, who stunned everyone with the choice of this name. On the other were their well-intentioned neighbors and family members, who correctly pointed out the obvious. No one in their family had ever had the name “John”, so why would they choose it now? Certainly the objectors had tradition on their side, but I can’t help but observe what they were saying about themselves. They declared themselves members of the chorus of those who chant, day in and day out, that old saw: “We’ve never done that before.”

Two things strike me about all this. First is the importance of a name. John the prophet was destined to be a one-of-a-kind, and the deliberate choice of that kind of name foretold something unusual for this infant. For the same reason, many of us took a new name when we entered the monastery; and all of us prefixed “Father” or “Brother” to it. It serves to remind ourselves — if not others — that we’ve set ourselves apart for sacred duties — and in our case that means a deliberately different way of life.

Second, we have to credit Elizabeth and Zechariah for the courage to strike out in a different direction. That, it seems to me, is part of the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation and our own. If in the course of Christmas we emerge the same people as before, then we’ve merely maintained our good standing in the chorus of those who dread anything new — especially for ourselves.

Meeting the Lord Jesus at Christmas should not leave us unchanged, bored or insensitive. Rather, it should lead to growth and transformation, as we continue our metamorphosis into sacred people.

NOTES

+On December 23rd I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a variation of the homily I delivered that day. It is a reflection on Luke 1: 57-66.

+On the evening of December 24th we celebrated the vigil of the feast of Christmas, and at 10:00 pm we celebrated the vigil Mass. The next day we celebrated the morning Mass, with Prior Brad presiding. Unusual for this Mass was Fr. Efrain’s sermon in Spanish and a second sermon in English by Fr. Brad. If memory serves, we had not done that before. To the surprise of some, however, no one died from listening to two sermons.

+At the beginning of Advent we had installed above the Abbot’s seat a new triptych painted by Fr. Nathanael. His original plan had included side panels, which were not quite ready at the time, but which were complete as Advent concluded. In the finished ensemble the central panel shows the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the style of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The side panels carry excerpts from the conversation between Mary and Juan Diego in English, Spanish, and Nahuatel. The latter was the language of Juan Diego.

+In last week’s post I noted that, absent any intervention, we were headed for a brown Christmas. However, at the last minute we did experience a blizzard that was long on wind and very short on snow. But it was enough to count, as the photo of the monastery wall below suggests.

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Bring Christ Home for the Holidays

It had to come as a complete surprise when Yahweh turned down David’s offer to build a temple. After all, for hundreds of years the people of Israel had gone without, and David likely saw it as some sort of crowning achievement to his career. What could possibly please God more? What could be better for the Israelites than at last to have a place where together they could sacrifice to the Lord?

As Romans 11:34 asks rhetorically, “Who knows the mind of the Lord?” I can’t imagine what was going on when the Lord passed over David and gave to Solomon the honor of building a temple. Still, I’ll hazard a guess, and it has to do with the domestication of God. When Yahweh had no temple, the presence of God in the lives of the Israelites knew no limits. With a temple, however, came the temptation to lock God away in some building. With Yahweh safely tucked away, the Israelites could visit God at will and when necessary. At other times they were on their own, and that suited some people just fine.

This Christmas an awful lot of people will not be able to go to church to celebrate the birth of Christ. As regrettable as that may be, it’s no cause for despair. It gives us instead the chance to speak with God as David spoke with God. With no temple where David could meet with God, he instead met God anywhere, especially because there was no building where God was supposed to live and stay put, on call 24/7. The conclusion I draw from this? If David walked and talked with the Lord, then so can we.

I’ve always thought that it was meant as a major statement that Jesus was born in a stable and not in a grand basilica or even in a hospital. His birth was and is a reminder that the son of God is at home anywhere and everywhere.

If by chance you can’t get into a church this Christmas, don’t make the error of thinking you can’t see Christ this Christmas. And if by good fortune you can be in church, then don’t make the mistake of leaving Christ there at the end of the service. Take the Lord home with you when you leave. Let the Lord live in your heart and in your home. The Lord is perfectly happy to be with you, for the whole of the holidays and beyond.

Notes

+Today’s post derives from a reflection on II Samuel 7:1-16. That happened to be the first reading from the liturgy on Sunday, December 20th.

+As was the case last week, this was a relatively quiet week for me as far as meetings were concerned. The week ended on a note of domesticity as we in the monastery began preparations for the celebration of Christmas. Christmas trees have gone up in the monastery, and the bakers seem to be hard at it. On Sunday the 20th the monks on our floor in the monastery gathered for the decoration of a tree in our recreation room, followed by singing, pizza and conversation.

+On Sunday the 20th I began my turn as the weekly reader at morning prayer.

+On Friday the 18th we celebrated something of a milestone with the completion of the semester at Saint John’s University. When the school year opened in August there were those who rightly feared that on-campus classes would not last more than a month. But two factors helped us see it through. First, the students rose to the occasion and took seriously the protocols that were put in place. Second, the faculty and staff made significant personal sacrifices to make it all work. It did work, and for that we are all grateful this Christmas.

+From this vantage it appears that we are going to celebrate a beige Christmas at Saint John’s. After Thanksgiving our snow melted and has not yet been replaced. But perhaps the skies will come to the rescue in time. In the meantime, however, we will celebrate, no matter the weather! To all who read this blog, please know how grateful I am for your continued interest and the comments that you send. May you have a blessed and happy Christmas, and welcome the Lord into your hearts and home as your personal guest!

+The photos in today’s post show the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Included is a photo of the entrance to the crypt, where tradition says the birth of Jesus took place. Since the church has historic value and is under the jurisdiction of several Churches, it can sometimes seem like a chaotic jumble. But it is still a deeply moving place.

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What’s on your Advent To-do List?

The other day someone asked what I had put down on my Advent to-do list. Since I have to-do lists for all sorts of things, except for Advent, I sheepishly had to admit “nothing.”

Were I to compile one, I certainly wouldn’t include the conventional items. Trips to the mall? No. Stockpiling groceries for the holidays? No. Buying lots of presents? No. In my defense, my fellow monks don’t do these sorts of things either. In our defense, a lot of other people this year have deleted them from their lists. May God have mercy on us all.

Still, the question got me to thinking, and I finally came up with something that probably could go on that list, if I decided to have one. It’s an idea that comes from the Rule of Saint Benedict, and it appears in the Prologue. “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to God most earnestly to bring it to perfection.” (Verse 4)

Every now and again I recall this bit of advice, but I tend to translate it from the more elevated language of the Rule into something better-suited to the situation. After all, Benedict’s intent was to convert the ideal into the lived reality of spur-of-the-moment activity. When I lack the time for extended pre-meditation or editing, then I resort to keeping my prayer simple.

Most of my variants on this advice from Saint Benedict are short and sweet. When I don’t feel like doing something, or doing it well, I pray: “Lord, help me do a good job of this.” When I lack the determination to see something through, I have my personal prayer for procrastinators: “Lord, help me finish this.” When I have no ambition to change the world, I ask the Lord to help me set my sights on something achievable: “Lord, let me focus on helping one person today — you choose who it is.” All these variants lead me to one awesome conclusion. “I am doing the Lord’s work, not my work.” Of course the Lord is going to lend me a hand. But it’s probably a good thing if I ask for help in the first place, and then chip in and put my own hands to it.

Why focus now on my neighbor rather than world peace or an end to hunger? Well, it has something to do with one of the peculiarities of Advent and Christmas. Together they make for a wonderful season, but that’s not the case for everybody. Some people miss friends and family they have lost, at this time of year particularly. Some people are lonely. Some are depressed. I figure there’s no better time to be aware of all this.

So there you have it. This Advent I will have a to-do list, but there’s going to be only one item on it. It won’t be in elevated language; but it will at least be a compound sentence, befitting the nobility of the season. “Lord, let me focus on one person today — you choose who it is — and if it’s not too much to ask, help me finish.”

NOTES

+There was nothing particularly dramatic in my schedule during the past week. It consisted mainly of office work and getting out seasonal correspondence.

+On December 11th, at the conclusion of morning prayer, Abbot John prayed for and blessed four students from our School of Theology/Seminary who have completed their studies and have now departed. Brothers Andrew, Thomas and Emmanuel are members of a Cistercian abbey in Vietnam, and they have lived with us in the monastery for six and a half years. In preparation for graduate studies they had spent a year learning English at a Trappist abbey in Colorado. While they enjoyed being there, someone had neglected to take into account the fact that the Trappists practice silence. That makes for a very unproductive environment for learning a language. At Saint John’s they became revered members of our community, and we will miss them dearly. Eventually they will return home, once they can get on a plane that will take them to Vietnam. For the time being they will stay at a Cistercian house in California. For the record, the Cistercians are a 12th-century reform branch of the Benedictines. The Trappists are a 17th-century reform branch of the Cistercians. We all follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and therefore in the daily rhythm of our lives we live the same language. Fr. Vincent was the fourth member to complete his studies. He too is Vietnamese, but he will remain in the US for PhD studies.

+On December 12th we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. During Advent we have enjoyed the prospect of Fr. Nathanael’s work as an artist. At the request of Abbot John he has embarked on the creation of a tryptic whose central panel is of the Virgin and Child. Abbot John asked that the Virgin recall Our Lady of Guadalupe, and since the first Sunday of Advent we have enjoyed this work. In time two panels will flank the central panel, but those await completion.

+Cities across Europe note the connection between long dark days and depression, and the Christmas markets are one antidote to this. Vienna is particularly delightful at this time of year, and several years ago I took the enclosed photos as a reminder of how glorious the season can be. Below is Fr. Nathanael’s panel of the Virgin and Child, which now hangs in the abbey church.

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Jesus Trades Burdens With Us

In a gospel passage that stitches together several miraculous cures and the feeding of 5,000 people, it’s the latter that wins the visibility contest. Whether taken literally or metaphorically, it’s a spectacular feat. Jesus fed a multitude, from pretty much nothing. By implication he still does so today at this altar.

That said, I think the various cures that precede this story deserve equal attention. Unlike the feeding, in which everybody got fed all at once, the healing miracles were quite personal. They were individual encounters between Jesus and that one person. One was deaf; one was lame; one was blind; and so on down the line. Each had some illness or disability that weighed heavily; and as Jesus dealt with each person, we have to believe that he addressed that person by name. He spoke to them out of respect and even love. That person, at the moment of healing, was more than just part of a crowd of 5,000. That person, for that one moment, had the total attention of Jesus Christ.

We all have our individual problems that weigh on us, sometimes heavily, sometimes even painfully. That, I think is the point of each cure. Whatever it is that cripples us, the Lord reaches out to us just as he reached out to those suffering people on the mountainside.

The miracle for us is that Jesus never tires of reaching out to us. No matter the weight of the burdens we carry, Jesus offers a deal that is pretty simple. If we welcome him into our lives, he will trade burdens with us. In return for ours he will give a burden that is easy and life-giving. I can’t help but imagine that that was the more impressive miracle on the mountain that day.

NOTES

+On November 30th, Interim-President Gene McAllister of Saint John’s University hosted the lighting ceremony of the University Christmas tree. Each year the tree dominates the Great Hall, standing as it does in the apse of what was once the abbey church from 1879-1961.

+On December 2nd I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon I delivered that day. The gospel for the day was taken from Matthew 15: 29-37.

+On December 5th I delivered via Zoom a conference to ca. 75 Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey. The topic selected for the day was The Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Since some readers prefer to get right into the chapters of the Rule, my point that day was summed up in the title of the talk: The Prologue to the Rule: Read Me First! What surprised me about the experience was the geographic diversity of the participants. They ranged from Florida, North Carolina, and New England to California, Washington, Arizona, Ontario and points in between. It was the sort of gathering that the era of the pandemic has now made commonplace.

+On December 6th we celebrated the Second Sunday of Advent, and in its gospel Saint John the Baptist makes an appearance. The Great Hall references our patron in several ways, most visibly in the rose window above the entry portal. On the facade, to the right of the entry, is a cornerstone on which is inscribed the name of Saint John the Baptist, in Latin. The third photo in today’s post, at bottom, shows the Christmas tree standing in apse.

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Our Own Peculiar Martyrdom

Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is a play and movie with more than its share of intensity. But there’s one scene in particular that I often recall, especially when I need to calm myself in times of trial. With furrowed brow, in sotto voce, the Duke of Norfolk pulled aside his friend Thomas More to warn him of impending danger. More in turn sought to reassure Norfolk with one pithy line. Speaking of himself, he confided simply: “This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”

Of course Thomas More eventually did suffer martyrdom, but that was never his goal. Like all true martyrs, Thomas More did not seek martyrdom. By dint of circumstance, however, he was backed into a corner and martyrdom in a sense sought him out.

In the gospel of Luke 21: 12, Jesus warns his disciples of the rough times they will have to endure for their faith. Many did suffer martyrdom, and even today many still surrender their lives at the hands of executioners. For most of the rest of us, however, that simply isn’t in the cards. Rather, our own martyrdom will consist of small and great inconveniences that we’ll suffer for one another. Our martyrdom will not involve the sword but rather will consist of sacrifices of little and sometimes not so little consequence that we will make for one another. What Saint Benedict terms the degrees of humility will likely be our path to martyrdom, and through those steps we will recognize the intrinsic value of our brothers and sisters in community and the people we serve.

Such service does not usually come with high praise or a certificate of merit. In fact, there are times when the sacrifice seems just too much as we strive to decrease so that others might increase. Yet, that is the life to which Jesus calls us, and it’s the duty we accepted in our baptism. Wonderfully, it’s ironic that through our own peculiar martyrdom we make not only our community but the world a better place.

NOTES

+On November 25th, in my first trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul since March 6th, I attended the funeral of Mrs. Irene Okner. It took place at Saint Joseph’s Church in West St. Paul, with a small congregation in attendance. I had the privilege of giving the blessing at Irene’s 90th birthday celebration, and at the time I commended her for having achieved a certain level of immortality. That evening I pointed out that very few people die in their 90s. True to expectation, Irene did not pass away in her 90s, because she died just weeks ahead of her 104th birthday. May she rest in peace.

+Following the funeral I rushed back from St. Paul to Saint John’s in order to preside at the abbey Mass. I arrived in plenty of time to review my homily, only to discover that I was actually not scheduled to be the celebrant and preacher at the Mass. Never one to let a sermon go to waste, I have presented it as the reflection in today’s post. It was the sermon never delivered.

+On 26 November we celebrated Thanksgiving, and since it was my turn in the cycle to serve lunch that day, I was in charge of calling the individual tables of monks to go through the buffet line. It was a pleasant day for all.

+On 27 November twelve of us monks took a three-mile hike through our woods at Saint John’s. It was a crisp morning, and we tromped along one trail that I had never seen before. It makes me realize that I still have much to learn here!

+On 28 November Abbot John lit the first candle of the Advent wreath at evening prayer.

+During the month of November we pray for the people whose names are inscribed on many hundreds of prayer requests sent to us at the abbey. The second photo shows them gathered at the altar for our remembrance.

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Climbing Down from our Tree

“Now a man there named Zachaeus, who was a tax-collector and a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was.” (Luke 19:2.)

I’ve always thought of Zachaeus as an example of an instant conversion experience. Like Saint Paul and Augustine of Hippo, one minute his life was a mess, and then all was put right. In the case of Zachaeus, he was despised as a tax-collector and a collaborator with the Romans. All assumed he had been dishonest, and Zachaeus implied as much when he met Jesus. There was plenty for which he had to atone.

Then, in the next scene Zachaeus hosted Jesus at his home. Almost in an instant he repented of everything and put on a new life. It was out with the old man and in with the new.

It’s a great story, and the drama of a life turned around in an instant is intriguing. Yet, we ought not overlook what likely happened deep within Zachaeus. First, the about-face may seem sudden to us, but he had been stewing about the meaning of his life for a while. He had been looking for something. Something was missing from his life; and when Jesus invited him down from the tree Zachaeus was more than ready to make the leap. What Jesus offered was merely the final nudge for which he had been waiting.

It would also be a mistake to write off Zachaeus’ life up to that point as a total waste of time. I say that because Zachaeus had for quite a while pondered the course of his life. On the one hand he had become painfully aware of his sins and mistakes. On the other he contended with an emptiness and absence of meaning. Something was missing, and when Jesus stood at the base of the tree the missing piece of the puzzle suddenly snapped into place. A conversion experience that likely had been slow and laborious suddenly had clarity and direction.

Perhaps that provides a nugget of insight into our current situation. It’s tough for people who walk in the steps of Jesus Christ to sit still. As people who live by the Beatitudes we’re committed to serving others. When we don’t or can’t, something seems missing — sometimes painfully so.

For most of us it’s been quite a while since we’ve been on the front lines in service to others. We can’t reach out to strangers like we had done so easily before. With masks on we can’t even offer a smile to the one who needs to see it most. We sometimes haven’t even been able to go to church. For people accustomed to being busy this has been painful, and perhaps we’ve even felt useless at times.

But we should not dismiss these past few months as a waste of time. These months have in fact been our time in the desert. They have been our time to heal, to grow and to prepare to climb back down out of our own tree, as did Zachaeus. It’s our time to prepare ourselves to get ready for the business of life. All the same, however, we need to remember that for the last eight months we’ve actually been about the business of life.

It’s good for us to recall that Jesus spent forty days in the desert in fasting and prayer. Was it a total waste of his time? After all, there was so much for Jesus to do. Yet, when called to act he had the courage to remind his mother than his time had not yet come.

Before we bemoan our isolation too much, it’s good to pause and give thanks for our own time in the desert. This too will pass, but this time is also a gift from God. It’s our time for preparation and renewal. It’s no time to despair or give up, because like Jesus our time will come. And when that time finally comes, we will be ready to act as never before. With clarity and conviction we will climb down from our tree and once again be the hands of Christ, doing his work in our corner of the world.

NOTES

+On November 17th I participated in a meeting of the Regent’s Council of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. Later that evening I celebrated Mass for the annual meeting of the San Francisco area of the Order of Malta. All this was done via zoom, and today’s post is a slightly amended version of the sermon that I delivered.

+November 19th can only be described as insanely crazy here at Saint John’s. I spent quite a bit of my day in zoom meetings, while around me Saint John’s University and Saint John’s Preparatory School and the monastery were on lock-down from 10 am to 6:15 pm. The day began with a high-speed car chase on I-94, and the state patrol managed to stop the driver at the north end of our property. There the driver assaulted the officer and ran into our woods. He made his way to the prep school, where he robbed a student and tried to steal his car. Then, until his final surrender at 6:15 pm, a retinue of twelve police jurisdictions with ca. 200 officers secured our property and buildings, while drones searched the woods from above. The highlight for me was opening my door in the monastery to see four officers in fatigues and carrying weapons, there to check our rooms. I thanked them for protecting us and wished them well — and it was a heartfelt greeting! There was a certain irony about all this, however. For eight months of corona-virus we had never missed Mass for a single day in the abbey church. But for this day, on the advice of the police, the abbot had to cancel Mass. It was all stranger than fiction.

+On November 20th I participated in the annual retreat of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+We ended the week with a moment of the sublime. On November 21st Brother Jacob gave an organ recital as part of his MA in Theology with a concentration in church music. It was the first concert using our expanded Holtkamp-Pasi organ, and it was a real tour de force. The 36-inch pipes made in the woodworking shop at Saint John’s performed as planned, and at one point my spine vibrated for as much as thirty seconds. Brother Jacob earned his MA that day!

+The Mass via zoom on November 19th took place in Saint Francis Chapel, which campus ministry makes use of for student Masses, Eucharistic adoration, rosaries and an occasional morning or evening prayer. It is located in the garden adjacent to Saint Francis House, which is a student residence tucked away in the southwest part of the campus at Saint John’s. The photos in todays post show the chapel and the garden in which it sits.

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Seize the Opportunity

For two weeks I had intended to give Carl a call. He’d been ill, as I had learned from a mutual friend, but there seemed to be no hurry. Finally, however, I resolved that I had waited long enough. “Today is the day,” I said to myself.

That morning I learned that Carl had died the night before.

Why I put things off is beyond me, but the results are usually the same: a big helping of regret. And in Carl’s case it meant that I had missed the chance to say goodbye. It was a lost opportunity that I will always recall with sadness.

The story of the ten lepers cured by Jesus is the tale of an opportunity lost by nine and seized by one. In failing to thank Jesus the nine committed no sin. Just as ordered, they presented themselves to the priests and then went about their business. No doubt they were glad to be cured, but did they ever realize the opportunity they had passed up?

Only one leper returned to thank Jesus. Driven by curiosity, his second encounter with Jesus deepened the relationship, and he walked away transformed.

It’s no sin to lack curiosity or initiative. All the same, the person who urged those with ears to hear and eyes to see invites us to take advantage of every chance we have to meet him. It’s the chance to see the face of Jesus at every turn. And to see Jesus even one more time is an opportunity not to be missed.

NOTES

+On November 11th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass. The sermon I gave that day was an abridged form of today’s post, which in turn is a reflection I wrote for the November issue of Give Us this Day. Published by The Liturgical Press at Saint John’s Abbey, Give Us this Day is a monthly publication with Mass texts, an abridged form of the daily Liturgy of the Hours, and reflections by contemporary and ancient authors. I write occasionally for that publication.

+On November 12th at the end of evening prayer Abbot John blessed the members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, who have been with us since the end of August. Because of the pandemic, most of them were not able to go immediately to their assignments around the world, and while many will leave shortly a few will continue to do service on campus at Saint John’s. We have appreciated their presence at prayer and Mass, and they have filled up a nice gap in the pews in the church. The photo at the bottom shows them at their morning gathering, which takes place after morning prayer. Brother Paul is the director of the program, and it continues to provide an extraordinary experience to about twenty alumni of Saint John’s University each year.

+On the evening of November 13th monks and many guests gathered in the abbey church to hear a concert of organ and sung hymns that served as the first major musical program to highlight the expanded organ. It was a wonderful evening.

+The top photo in today’s post is an example of one time when I was there and seized the opportunity. On the way to morning prayer last Tuesday I glanced out the window to see an extraordinary sunrise, which I knew would not last long. I hurried to the vantage where I could get this shot. The second photo was one I took at the end of morning prayer, and by then the sky had turned a dull gray. But at least the snow was fresh.

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Speak Lord, Your Servant is Listening

First-time readers of The Rule of Saint Benedict are often surprised that Benedict expected one monk to read to the rest of us during dinner. Guests in the abbey refectory at Saint John’s are equally startled to discover that we still do it. Why would we do that after all these centuries?

There are a few monks who ask that too, but that’s a topic for another day. For now it’s enough to say that table reading provides one of the few occasions outside of Mass when we as a community can encounter a broad range of ideas and narratives. It provides some common intellectual input, be the book tedious or fascinating. But my own argument in favor of reading is that it’s way better than watching TV or talking politics during breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Right now we’re reading a book entitled Minnesota 13, which tells the story of corn liquor in Stearns County during Prohibition. For those who may not realize it, Saint John’s Abbey sits near the center of Stearns County, so the protagonists in this book are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

During Prohibition Minnesota 13 was lumped in with what people inelegantly called moonshine. Today we would call it craft whiskey and triple the price, but that too is another issue. Author Elaine Davis interviewed survivors of that era and put together a fascinating collection of stories that we’ve enjoyed hearing. There are tragic stories of homes and barns that burned to the ground when stills caught fire. There are tales of local citizens trying by every which way to evade federal agents. Then there are descriptions of ingenious ways of disguising “product” on the way to market. There was one bootlegger, for instance, who always took a Roman collar along on his deliveries. There was the farmer-distiller who drove his bull to market to Saint Paul every day for weeks on end. The bull was the decoy that distracted curious eyes from the load of whiskey stashed away in the truck. Above all, however, these are the stories of our neighbors.

My personal favorite involves the case of a newly-ordained priest who had just finished with confessions. Puzzled about the right penance to give a bootlegger, he touched base with the pastor. “This bootlegger came to see me,” he said, “and I wasn’t sure what to give him.” The pastor paused and then offered this advice: “Well, if it’s really good, then I’d give him $10.”

You might be wondering right about now what this has to do with today’s gospel, but there is a connection that I hope you will appreciate. As entertaining as Minnesota 13 might be, running through the book is an undercurrent of struggle and desperation. These people were trying to feed their families. They were farmers who worked long hours but rarely reaped a reward that matched their labor. They were people who went to prison while their families suffered. They were people who resented one another because some tried to abide by the law while others saw no other option to doing what they were doing.

More than anything else, however, these are stories of people who lived every day in fear of being caught making or selling or possessing illegal alcohol. They lived with intensity and in anxiety, and rarely could they let down their guard. Those were far from ordinary times, and they knew neither the day nor the hour.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and he concludes with this bit of advice: “…Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Through the centuries preachers have legitimately thought of that hour as the hour of death. All too often death can come like a thief in the night, and so the best preparation is a life lived to the fullest. We must stay awake and alert to the chance that death might come calling today.

But Jesus also means for his disciples to stay awake and alert to the possibilities that life throws our way each day. In this respect it’s key to take note of the oil in the lamps of the foolish and wise virgins. Literally the foolish ran low on oil, but metaphorically that was the story of their lives. They had fallen asleep and died long before before their bodies died. Meanwhile the wise ones had oil enough to keep the fire inside of them burning. They missed no opportunity in life. They made the most of the time that they had at their disposal.

Part of life involves our endurance during difficult times. That suggests to me that life without any challenge is no life at all. Whenever life seems to be too much for us, then, we ought to stand back and reflect on what kind of opportunities those challenges throw out to us.

Right now most of us have been living in some degree of suspended animation for nearly nine months. If at this point we are tempted to give up or despair, it’s good to remember that these times are an extraordinary chance to rebuild ourselves. These need not be wasted days, because these are the days the Lord gives us to accomplish great things —whatever they may be.

In Psalm 95 we pray these words: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Whether we listen or not, the Lord’s voice still calls out to us. We can respond by making the most of this day — or not. How we respond will become the story of our life.

If today you hear God’s voice, find out what it is that God calls you to do and do it. Don’t wait until the coast is clear and the challenge is over. I guarantee that by then the best of times will be long gone. By then, as the foolish virgins found to their regret, the chance to live will have slipped away. Choose to live, and when the Lord calls out you’ll be more than ready to respond. Like the young prophet Samuel, you too will be able to say “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

NOTES

+On November 5th I had my weekly day of endless Zoom meetings. At least they tend to be interesting, which is compensation enough.

+On Sunday November 8th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered. It is based on Matthew 25: 1-13.

+This past week we enjoyed seven days of nearly flawless weather in the high 60s and low 70s. This will not last, which is why we have savored every moment of it. My personal achievement of the week occurred on November 3rd, when I hiked for 6.5 miles. That likely will not happen again until spring.

+Since reverting to standard time it has been especially dark when we gather for evening prayer, as the photos in today’s post suggest. The lower two photos show us as we gather for noon prayer in the cemetery on the feast of All Souls, November 2nd.

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