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Posts Tagged ‘Monastic Culture’

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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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Show Your Gratitude in Deeds

For three years as a graduate student I had the opportunity to live as a student-chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale.  That experience shaped me forever after, and I’ve always been grateful to those students and faculty who patiently bore with me in my first years as a priest.

By any measure it was an intimidating experience, for one big reason:  my dissertation director came to Mass there regularly.  The thought of preaching to him was terrifying at first, but after a while I got used to it.  And so I convinced myself that if you could preach to your director, you could pretty much preach to anybody.

Also in the congregation was the dean of the law school. That was equally scary, or at least it was until I got to know him.  After Mass he would offer a word of encouragement as well as his insights on the readings, and to an impressionable graduate student that was hugely important.

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Saint Scholastica

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection to twenty-five people at Saint Thomas More, and on Sunday I spoke to a much larger group.  For me it was something of a homecoming, and happily one friend from former days was there to greet me.  But everyone else was new.

Memories swirled through my mind, and I realize now how much I owe to the many people who did so much for me at Yale.  I certainly absorbed a lot of information while there, but it has been the wisdom that’s mattered most.

For example, early on I and my classmates in medieval studies were puzzled by the comment of one professor.  He was a stand-out both as a historian and as a curmudgeon, and it seemed out of character when he offered this:  “When it comes time to write your dissertation, choose a destination for your research where you’ll like the food.”  We wondered about that, because this guy didn’t have a reputation as a gourmand.  But there was wisdom there, and it was his way of saying “Don’t make writing your dissertation any harder than it has to be.”  His advice dovetailed nicely with another bit I picked up during my first year.  “The only thing better than perfect is done.

My dissertation director later gave similar advice.  John Boswell was a brilliant historian of medieval Spain, and his oft-repeated advice consoled more than his fair share of graduate students.  “If you’re going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.  And if you’re not going to become a great writer, then don’t delay your life’s work by spending too much time on your dissertation.”  Unfortunately I should have taken this to heart much sooner than I did, but at least I learned a lot about myself in the process.

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Saint Benedict

What mattered most to me was the fact that my teachers put into practice these bits of wisdom, as one instance in particular demonstrated.  I had first heard Jaroslav Pelikan, the historian of Christianity, when he spoke alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium at Riverside Church in New York.  I was in college, and you can imagine my reaction when Professor Pelikan answered a question by citing from memory a long passage from a 17th-century theologian — in Czech!  I was not the only one in the audience left breathless, and then and there I decided that I wanted to study with this man someday.

Years later Professor Pelikan headed the readers’ committee for my dissertation, and he wanted to announce its acceptance during a visit he was to make to Saint John’s in November.  Unfortunately, the registrar had moved up the filing date for dissertations from September to the end of July, and I only found out in early July, much to my dismay.  There was no way I could possibly make that new deadline.  But Professor Pelikan, who was no slave to rules for rules’ sake, had an instant solution.

”Turn in your dissertation in September, just as you planned.  At the registrar’s office they’ll tell you you’re five weeks too late and that they can’t accept it.  Tell them you’re turning it in 47 weeks early — for next year.  They’ll have to take it.”

1E7B4E84-C7C0-406B-9FB0-E3962FB4820DNo one I ever met turned in a dissertation 47 weeks early, so this was likely a first for that office.  But an hour later they got a call from Professor Pelikan asking them to send it on to the committee.  Six weeks later, in the Great Hall at Saint John’s, he announced to me the good news.  It had been approved.  And in the back of my mind was turning that wonderful bit of advice that I should have followed much earlier: “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

Since then that line has become my personal mantra, and it’s come in handy every time I’ve found myself bogged down in details.  Naturally I want everything to be perfect.  Because of that I’m hesitant to act.  But then I remind myself that there are times when it’s better to take the first steps, ready or not.  After all, I don’t have all the time in the world, so why not leave something to show for my time in this world.  It’s better than a resumé of buried talents and a long list of what-might-have-beens.

So those thoughts meandered through my mind as I returned to Yale.  Sadly, my two great teachers have passed, and so I can’t thank them personally for the wisdom they imparted to me.  Now I’m left with the next best thing.  If I can’t thank them in words, then I’ll just have to show my gratitude in deeds.

9780A5CF-AD21-49AF-8413-B6CB2F6717D5NOTES

+On February 5th I again gave a class to the novices, on the topic of Pope Gregory the Great’s Life of Saint Benedict.

+On February 8th the community celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Eugene.

+On February 10th I gave a pre-Lenten day of reflection for 25 people at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic Center at Yale University.  I had lived there for three years, and it was wonderful to speak there after all these years.  On the 11th I gave a talk to a much larger group at Saint Thomas More on the subject of The Saint John’s Bible.  In their meditation chapel they have a set of the trade edition of The Saint John’s Bible for students to meditate on.

+On February 11th a contingent of our monks traveled to nearby Saint Joseph, MN, where they joined the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in celebration of the feast of Saint Scholastica.

+This week our Brother Daniel Morgan returned from graduate work at the University of San Diego and began work in his new position in student affairs at Saint John’s University.  We are delighted to have him back home again!

+The photos in today’s post show frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began his life as a monk.  Noteworthy is the fourth photo, showing the last visit between Benedict and his twin, Saint Scholastica.  In the fifth photo Benedict sees a vision of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove.  As the photo at bottom indicates, Subiaco is an isolated place, and the medieval monastery encloses the cave where Benedict first lived.

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The Wisdom of the Ancients

For as long as I can remember, history has fascinated me.  Perhaps because I grew up in a part of the country where even a late 19th-century building was a rarity, I envied places where tangible traces of history abounded.  But none were at hand, and so reading was the next best thing.

My earliest recollection of a history book that I personally chose to read was one on Aztec history and architecture.  The mere thought of discovering a lost city in some jungle stirred my imagination, and it probably explains my later receptivity to Indiana Jones movies.  Not everything about Aztec culture was riveting, of course, and that’s especially true for human sacrifice.  However, their accomplishments in urban planning were amazing, and a culture that was the first to make use of “zero” can’t be all bad.  On the one hand the latter didn’t inspire me to become a mathematician, but it did give me a useful term for understanding some people.

My dreams of becoming a Central-American archeologist never materialized, which is just as well.  Even now I’ve never visited one of their jungles, not least because I don’t do well with mosquitos and humidity.  Those weren’t the primary reasons for landing on medieval history, but they were considerations nonetheless.

7FD42978-1559-4BE5-87C9-41E59A1490BFThis brings me to the point.  Last week I was in Germany and managed to squirrel away some time for a side trip to Cologne.  I’d been there once before, twenty-five years ago, and I’d always wanted to return.  It never happened, until last week.

Cologne today is a shadow of its medieval self, thanks to the bombs that rained down in World War II.  Despite being next to a prime target — the railway station — bombers skillfully spared the gothic cathedral, but the ancient Romanesque churches weren’t so lucky.  Most of them have been rebuilt, however, and the chance to wander their aisles let me commune with long-dead citizens about whom I know a lot more now that I did twenty-five years ago.

For what do I admire these people most?  Certainly I admire them for their vision.   They may have lacked the presence of mind to begin a pharmaceutical industry or invent television sit-coms, but they had vision, in spades.  Specifically, they had the vision to build things that would last.  And endure those noble structures did, until the wars of the 20th century knocked them down.

I also admire them for their community spirit, to which some 15th-century statues testify.  Several figures of the prophets once perched in the medieval city hall, and to all and sundry they offered words of advice.  “The common good is to be preferred over personal good.”  “He who dies for the community shall live forever.”  I can’t imagine anyone proposing that for a government building today;  but there you have it:  naïveté in all its innocence.

Most of all I admire them for their faith.  They weren’t perfect, but they did their best, against the odds.  For centuries they read the Word of God and heard it preached, and it took centuries for them to internalize answers to questions like “Who is my neighbor?”  It was tough to get beyond the notion that neighborliness ended at the edge of the village, but they did.

24E1C3B5-97C8-4CC9-9F4A-CAF738F94AB8Would I want to go back in time and live in the 12th century?  Not a chance.  I may be a historian, but I’m not a hopeless romantic.  That said, I do love their Romanesque churches, much as I treasure their architectural descendents on the campus of Saint John’s.  But I also have a practical streak, and I happen to like indoor plumbing and central heat.  Long ago I realized that living in Northern Europe in the 12th century is much like living in a cabin in the north woods.  Year round.  For a life-time.  No thanks.

Beyond that, I appreciate the challenges that they faced, but I appreciate even more the wisdom that they bequeathed to us.  Today we have challenges that they could scarcely imagine, but they have wisdom that’s still useful — even to us.  Yet another of those 15th-century statues comes with this bit of sage advice for all citizens:  “First seek the kingdom of God and his justice.”  I — and we —could do worse.

6474AD53-85BE-4331-AC68-3B5953EAEC83NOTES

+As today’s post indicates, the major event of the past week was a trip to Frankfurt, with a side venture to Cologne.  The latter trip shattered my myths about the faultless reliability of German trains, alas.  My train left Frankfurt twenty minutes late, and at Koblenz — the half-way point — it stopped because of difficult weather further ahead.  The conductor announced a one-hour delay, and that morphed into two hours, then three, then four.  At that point they announced that, due to severe weather, no trains were going to Cologne.  Our train was cancelled, and so I had no option but to find another train and go back to Frankfurt.  What did I do for four and a half hours on a train parked in the Koblenz station?  Crossword puzzles.  Don’t leave home without them.

+From January 18-21 organ-builder Martin Pasi visited Saint John’s to begin work on the expansion and completion of the organ in the Abbey church.  On the 20th he joined the monks in the refectory for lunch.

+The photos in today’s post omit the obvious symbol of Cologne — the cathedral — simply because that will come in a future post.  For now I am content with a sampling of some of the Romanesque churches that sprinkle the core of the city.  At top is St. Maria im Capitol, followed by Great St. Martin and Saint Caecilia.  Today Saint Caecilia houses the Museum Schnütgen, which is a vast collection of medieval art.  In the collection are eight statues of prophets that used to stand in the medieval town hall, including the photo of one of them, holding a scroll which reads:  “No one shall gossip outside the Council.”  At bottom is the interior of St. Caecilia, which comprises one of the many galleries in the Museum.

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A Career in Hypocrisy?

”When I grow up, I want to be an accomplished and respected hypocrite.”

I’ve not checked with many five-year-olds, but among the few with whom I’ve discussed career plans, becoming a hypocrite is an aspiration that I’ve yet to hear.  I’m tempted to conclude that no one at age five wants to grow up to become a hypocrite, and perhaps at that age they’re just too innocent to imagine it.  Yet, it happens anyway.

Hypocrites begin life meaning well enough.  Like others they have good insights.  They have the best of intentions.  But along the way something happens.  Perhaps it’s the weight of responsibility or the lure of power and influence.  Whatever it is that makes us jaded or cynical, like a thief in the night hypocrisy reaches out to snatch us.  Once in its grasp, it’s really hard to pry ourselves free.

2FE87E19-B1C5-44D1-8A5D-A975FF65B501In chapter one of his gospel Saint Mark doesn’t use the word hypocrite to define who Jesus is not, but clearly hypocrisy was the one thing that distinguished him from the scribes.  Jesus spoke with authority, and not like the scribes.  And when he did teach, he didn’t rely on the power of office.  Instead he taught as one who seemed to know God intimately.  He practiced what he preached, and not for love of gain.  Not surprisingly then, his words packed a punch that stopped people in their tracks.

The drift into hypocrisy can happen to any and all of us, at any time of life.  It can happen as we’re standing in a pulpit.  It can happen as we exercise even the smallest shred of responsibility.  It can happen in a monastery, in an office or in a home.  And it happens when we believe that power of any sort makes us better than others.

Saint Benedict in his Rule warned monks not to be kingdom-builders.  It’s good advice for monks, but it’s also good advice for anyone, because kingdom-building is a temptation for most of us.  And it’s certainly not the exclusive preserve of the high-born and powerful.  But it’s insidious, because for so many it’s the first step down the path to hypocrisy.

Jesus came to serve rather than to be served, and that may be the best antidote to hypocrisy that’s available to us.  Certainly Saint Benedict echos that suggestion; and if it’s good enough for monks, then there’s wisdom there for everyone.

As for me, I’ve not been five years old for some time now, but I still aspire to achieve an age when hypocrisy is beyond my reach.  That’s perhaps why Benedict’s wisdom is still a valuable commodity for me.  For the foreseeable future I will still need all the wisdom I can get.

7D49F8C7-85AF-47DB-A273-0AE60872393ENOTES

+On January 9-11 I attended the annual workshop that we schedule in the monastery.

+On January 10th I preached at the Abbey Mass.  Today’s post is a variation of what I preached that day.

+On Sunday the 14th I again presided at the Abbey Mass.  Someday I will harvest from those comments and you’ll see them reappear in this blog.  But not this time around!

+During the past week several trees were taken down in the monastic garden, due to age and disease.  The garden was planted in the 1920’s, and just about now the rows of spruce trees that form the perimeter have reached their life expectancy.  The ones that have not died or been toppled in storms are in their final years, and we are in the process of replanting the entire lot of them.

+On January 14th Brother Joe Schneeweiss left for Rome, where he will become the director of the library at the Collegio di Sant Anselmo.  Sant Anselmo is the international college of the Benedictines, and the abbot primate lives there.  Joe will be on loan to them for several years.

950E2D35-A5E5-4F82-A4C4-88F296D97CFC+This last week Brother Benedict Vuong Tran, O.Cist., arrived at Saint John’s to begin four years of seminary studies.  Brother Benedict is from an abbey in Vietnam, and he joins three other Cistercians from that country who are studying with us.  The Cistercians are an 11th-century off-shoot of the Benedictines.  The Trappists, in turn, are a 17th-century reform movement of the Cistercians.  We’re all relatives in following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

+On 14 January my guardian angel worked overtime.  That afternoon I drove to Minneapolis to catch an early morning flight the next day, and like everyone else I scoffed at the four inches of snow that we were getting.  Along the way I passed twelve accidents and narrowly missed a multi-car pile-up as it was unfolding right before me.  It was a harrowing experience.

+On a cold winter’s day it is always a comfort to recall warmer places, and the photos in today’s post are ones I took at the medieval abbey of San Miniato in Florence.  It has wonderful mosaics and beautiful architectural lines, and my favorite element is the stunning pulpit that sits on the wall that divides the choir from the nave.  San Miniato occupies a lovely perch overlooking the city of Florence.

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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.

NOTES

+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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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.

522D7BA7-EC9C-4D68-950A-45D3E6E92718NOTES

+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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I’ve Never Done That Before

“I’ve never done that before.”  That’s an excuse that I’ve used countless times, and I wish I had a dollar for each time I’ve relied on it to get me out of a jam.  Even richer would I be if I had a dollar for when I’ve been part of a group that collectively invoked it.

On the one hand, it’s certainly not a fib when I’ve resorted to that line.  It’s almost always been a statement of fact.  But it’s also served as justification for inaction, as in:  “I’ve never done that before, and I see no good reason to start doing it now.”

One of the central characters in the Advent story is Mary, who had to be stunned by the angel’s message.  She was to give birth to a son, if she said “yes.”  Who could blame her if she said “no” to this preposterous idea?  So Mary bought time to think by pointing out the obvious.  She was neither married nor living with a man, so how could this possibly be?  That, of course, was a statement of the obvious facts.  But equally obvious had to be her fear and reluctance, and nobody could have blamed her had she responded with a hearty “no way!”  But that meant saying “no” not just to an angel, but to God.  From that refusal Mary shrank.  So she gave it a few moments’ thought and then utttered words that for her were life-changing:  “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

IMG_4957God’s invitation to Mary was certainly unique, but never for a minute should we conclude that God has left us off the hook.  In fact, on any given day God puts to us all sorts of invitations.  A few are huge, and most are inconsequential.  Yet, after all these years and all sorts of missed opportunities, I’m still surprised by my own hesitation to dive right in.  Whenever that happens I remind myself that at core I’m risk-averse.  When God or anybody else asks me to step out of my comfort zone my immediate reaction is caution.  I hesitate to try new things.  I delay and mentally dig in my heels.  But when I do swing into action, I always wonder why I hadn’t done it sooner.

A key message of Advent is the story of someone who decided not to let fear paralyze her.  So it was that Mary threw in her lot with God.  Despite everything, she said “yes,” and life was never the same for her.

Sadly I, who am better-schooled and have advantages that Mary never had, fear to take the leap when God beckons.  Perhaps I’m just too good at thinking up great excuses, and sometimes I’ve even imagined that I have too much to lose.

But Mary teaches me and all of us a good lesson.  She was one of the first to act upon an idea that Jesus preached over and over:  those who lose their lives for his sake gain everything.   Could it be that was one of the things that Mary taught Jesus as he grew in age and wisdom?

IMG_4980In response to God’s invitation Mary threw all her caution out the window and said “yes” to God.   And that might shape the sort of advice she would give to us today.  She’d likely say that her “yes” made all the difference in the world for her.  Perhaps our “yes” might do exactly the same for us.

 

Notes

+On December 12th I presided at the Abbey Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

+On December 13th I fought the snow as I drove to the airport to fly to Fort Myers, FL.  There was no snow in Florida, but there was traffic, and lots of it.  On the first day I witnessed two accidents, one of which looked horrible.  Lest anyone conclude from today’s post that “caution” is a bad idea, I quickly affirm its value on the roads and highways in the run-up to Christmas.

+In today’s post I have images from two altar panels, housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  Both are of the Annunciation, and the first is a ca. 1350 panel made for the Church of Saint Vincent in Cardona..  The second is a 14th-century image from a church in Valencia.

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