Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Monastic Culture’

79ba24a6-744b-433e-9c54-e0298e05cb65

They Went Home by Another Way

Last week’s post on the Epiphany generated quite a lot of comments, and I was grateful to know that it had resonated with so many.  Most of those who emailed did so to say that they too had wondered what had become of the gifts that the magi had delivered.  One, however, speculated that Mary and Joseph had politely thanked the magi for their thoughtfulness but had then refused the gifts.  Gold, frankincense and myrrh were just a bit over the top for people like them, and they knew it.

Two friends of mine shared a different approach to the story, and their comments gave me pause.  One wrote to say that every time he hears the story of the Epiphany he thinks of a song about the magi by James Taylor:  They Went Home by Another Way.  I could not recall that song, so I googled it, listened and immediately recognized the tune.  That’s also when I realized I’d never paid much attention to the lyrics.  Now that hauntingly lovely song is firmly fixed in my mind, and the next time I hear the story of the Epiphany I’ll access my mental link to the song.

a7794815-6bf6-4490-9cca-f689c8e22122A second friend, Eddie from New Mexico, wrote in the same vein, but with a nod to the Holy Family.  After the Epiphany Joseph and Mary also had a change of travel plans.  It was no longer safe for them and their child, and tradition says that they went into exile in Egypt.  There they stayed put until Herod died and it was okay to return.  And so Eddie offered this meditation:  “I wondered where they must have gone and how that must have been such an unexpected twist for them.  Yet, it was necessary.  So it is with us in so many ways.  Twists and turns in life, and some of them so unexpected.  Some good and some bad.  Through it all God is there.”

That’s a great take-away to draw from the Epiphany.  We don’t know how it impacted the shepherds, but it changed the lives of everyone else involved.  “They went home by another way” is just a more poetic way to say that after Bethlehem the lives of the magi, Joseph and Mary were never the same again.  For them the encounter with Jesus was life-changing.  They could not nor would not go on with life as it had been.  The circumstances demanded something new, and they rose to meet the challenge.

That, I think, is what can happen to us in the Epiphany.  When we encounter the Lord, be it in a conversion experience or in the daily twists and turns of life, we can never be the same.  Certainly we have to go back to our routines, but the routines demand something better of us.  Happily, that’s what the Lord likely had in mind for us all along.

7d2e1e6c-da40-4524-8eeb-822ecbfc8010NOTES

+On 7-9 January I participated in the annual community workshop of the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.

+On January 9th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to faculty and staff from Saint Edward’s University in Austin, TX, who were visiting as part of a program entitled “A Year With The Saint John’s Bible.”  Following lunch and my talk they visited the new Bible Gallery in Alcuin Library.

+Not quite worthy of inclusion in my post today is a reference to a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  Anyone who’s seen the movie can never forget the moment when the magi mistakenly present the gifts to the parents of the newly-born Brian.  The mom greedily grabs for the gold, and in a parting comment she thanks them for the gold.  “But next time just leave off the frankincense and myrrh.”

+The photos in today’s post are of medieval mosaics in the baptistery of the duomo in Florence.  At top the magi present their gifts to Jesus.  The second photo shows the magi being warned in a dream, and in the third photo they return home “by another way.”  Below is a scene in which the Holy Family goes into exile in Egypt.

7692c6cd-4fef-4605-abaa-7a551eb6eb19

Read Full Post »

b77054fc-6c2d-49d6-af4a-a79395f87444

Jesus:  His Kingdom is not of this World

I find it curious that the gospels begin and end the story of Jesus with references to kingship.  The visit of the magi and their presentation of royal gifts clearly allude to the hopes of many who looked for a messiah who would be king.  Later, in the course of his ministry, Jesus consistently brushed aside those who would make him king.  Then, as Jesus endured the worst of his agony, Pilate mocked those aspirations with the sign he had fixed to the cross:  Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.

For those who still try to leverage Jesus into power over others, the words of Jesus serve as a timely reminder:  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  On the contrary, his is a message of love, which after nearly 2,000 years is still capable of inspiring some people and disappointing others.

4d845af6-5ae1-4386-928f-48256b4ef549Every now and again I’ve wondered what in the world Mary and Joseph decided to do with the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi dropped off.  Regardless of what became of those royal gifts, however, they were symbols of what Jesus chose to reject.  They disappear from the narrative, never to reappear.

The story of Epiphany has one other important element that provides a good takeaway for us.  The magi came looking for a king, but they ended up finding the object of their quest in a very unkingly place.  Bethlehem was not the setting for royal births, then or now.  Bethlehem was definitely no Jerusalem.  But if it was no place for the birth of a king, it was suitable enough for the birth of a messiah.

Bethlehem then serves as a reminder that there are simply no excuses for backing away from doing the work of the Lord.  We may think we were born in the wrong place, that we are too poor, too young, too old, that we don’t speak well, or that we have no influence.  But the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem dismisses all that with a wave of the hand.

That’s the way the Lord does business.  Consistently the Lord still chooses to do great things through the least likely of people who hail from the least likely of places.  Given that, why would the infant of Bethlehem pass over the chance to do great things through us too?  For that I have no answer.  And so I pray that the Lord, who could turn water into wine, can work a similar transformation in us.

32886ef3-ca8b-49d0-b98a-14fccfc8f3eeNOTES

+At Saint John’s we only had a dusting of snow for Christmas, and so it was a stretch to call it a white Christmas.  However, we more than made up for it by New Year’s.  In fact, we got several inches, along with bitterly cold weather for a couple of days.  So it was that I celebrated New Year’s afternoon by clearing the snow off of my car.  It took twenty minutes, and by the end of it my fingers were stinging from the cold.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the beauty of the landscape that day.

+On January 3rd I flew to Phoenix for a short trip to visit with several alumni of Saint John’s University.  I also celebrated Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany for a small group, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered that day.

+On January 5th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Kieran Nolan.  Fr. Kieran was born and grew up in the Bronx, New York, and among other things he served as rector of the seminary at Saint John’s and pastor of Saint John the Baptist Parish in Collegeville.  For several years he served at our priory in Fujimi, Japan, and he nobly endured a long illness before his passing.  Fr. Kieran was one of those larger than life characters whose mind was always churning with ideas, and some of them were even practical!  I and my confreres will miss him dearly.

133c6a16-54b8-4772-96ef-e68f0a9861b4

Read Full Post »

33601263-FE81-45E0-9F07-8DE81B2E60F6

Be It Resolved:  In 2019 Remember to Consider the Lilies

The other day I ran across a slip of paper I’d stuffed into a book several months ago.  On it I had written a portion of verse 28 from Matthew 6:  “Consider the lilies….”

I recalled immediately why I’d written that down, and it had nothing to do with running outside to see if I could spy any lilies in bloom.  Rather, I thought of the potential to recast the teaching of Jesus into a more congenial light.  For better and generally for worse, many people who are tired of religion pigeonhole Jesus as just one more negative guru who’s heaped impossible demands on people.  For the moment I’ll set aside Jesus and concede that there is a grain of truth here.  After all, “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” are serious restrictions on our personal freedom.  I don’t like those restrictions any more than the next guy, but that’s part of the price that both Jews and Christians pay for sticking with the Bible.

874F9A70-648A-4EF0-B86E-8BF6C5E108F8Anyway, skeptics do sometimes tar Jesus with the same brush of negativity, and to some extent it’s his own fault.  After all, he did say that he hadn’t come to abolish either the law or the prophets.  So he too is partly responsible for the onerous baggage that we have strapped to our backs.

That’s why I wrote down “consider the lilies.”  Jesus said that too; and while the phrase doesn’t have the gravitas of the Ten Commandments or the commands to love God and neighbor, it’s a command all the same.  And it’s unlike many of the others that we chafe under.  In fact, there’s something delightfully wonderful here.  For one thing, there’s a touch of whimsy about it, particularly if we take it literally.  But lilies also conjure up a certain innocence and playfulness and beauty.  And on a symbolic level the command to consider them suggests a certain opportunism.  After all, lilies don’t grow year-round except in greenhouses.  If we’re going to consider the lilies, especially in places like Minnesota in the winter, then we need to keep our eyes peeled for the moments when they go to the trouble of blooming.  But beyond the literal meaning, then, those lilies symbolically represent all the glimpses of innocence and beauty and playfulness that come our way each day.

1AE17F35-7DEA-406F-8198-D8C612F59C56Purists will note that I have failed to provide the full context of “consider the lilies.”  Actually the verse is less about lilies than it is about us.  It concludes with the observation that God loves us even more than those lilies.  For all their simple beauty, lilies still can’t hold a candle to one of the most beautiful of God’s creations.  That creation would be we.

By tradition New Year’s Day provides an excuse to begin again, and in that spirit I’ve jotted down at least a few resolutions I’ll try to honor in 2019.  First, I’ve resolved neither to kill anyone nor steal anything.  Nor am I going to grumble about these onerous restrictions on my personal freedom.  Of course success will require an entire year, and so I’ve also resolved to consider the lilies every chance I get, starting on 1 January.  On the morning of 1 January I’m going to welcome into my life every bit of gratuitous joy and beauty that I can.  And there may be a bonus — it may even make loving God and neighbor not just less annoying, but perhaps even life-giving.

43685329-0794-432F-AE45-04DB80789BC5NOTES

+Christmas eve Mass in the abbey turned out to be a real tour-de-force, musically and otherwise. Among other things, our confrere Brother Lucian returned from gratudate studies at Notre Dame to join us, and he read the second reading in Spanish, which was a first for the Christmas liturgy.  Later, with a nod to tradition and the origins of our comminity, we sang one verse of Silent Night in German.

+On 29-30 December several alumni of last year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps joined us for a weekend retreat.  Fr. Nick presided at the liturgy on December 29th, which featured the gospel that contains the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, which is sung at compline.  Himself a former Benedictine Volunteer who served in Tanzania, he concluded his sermon by singing the Nunc Dimittis in Swahili.  As near as I could tell, his pronunciation was flawless.

+On 30 December in the abbey church I baptized Luke Chaphalkar, infant son of my colleagues and friends Rajiv and Emily Chalphalkar.  Luke was a real trooper, and in fact he had been in training for this for weeks.  When the water washed over his head he quite naturally assumed it was time for his bath, which he loves.  Happily, several of the monks provided musical support for the service.

+We were saddened a few days ago by the passing of Sister Wendy Becket.  Sister Wendy became an unlikely celebrity through her PBS series on art history.  But more particular to us, we honored her with the Fr. Colman Barry Award at the opening of an exhibit of folios of The Saint John’s Bible at the V & A Museum in London in 2006.

+The photos in today’s post show the abbey church during the Christmas season, including the tree at the baptismal font.  Below is a photo of Sister Wendy with calligrapher Donald Jackson, Brother Dietrich and Abbot John, taken by Edmond Terkopian/PA Wire, at the V & A Museum in London in 2006.

1FB19715-31C5-4ADE-8CB6-B2EC3663041D

Read Full Post »

CB8107C3-CAA9-4BC8-A7D5-C4D85945A2ED

Advent:  A Beginning, not an End

”Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”  Matthew 17: 13.

It seems odd to meditate on a gospel excerpt that deals with suffering as we prepare for Christmas.  After all, Advent is about eager anticipation.  It should be positive and joyful in spirit.  And yet in this passage Jesus reminds his disciples of the suffering that John the Baptist endured, and he hints at his own as well.  And so when we focus on this, rightly we ask the point of it all.

99CE3322-5C79-4EF3-9B4E-1CAE5CD277CFWell, I think the point is this.  Advent is not a stand-alone season.  Nor is Christmas an end in itself.  In fact they serve as the prelude to the entire life of Jesus.  The story of that life is what we recount in the course of the liturgical year, and it’s the story we embrace as the template for our own story.

In baptism we begin our life in the Lord, but like Advent it’s only the start of our pilgrimage.  And as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel, following in his steps will not be one running theme of sweetness and joy.  In fact he promises that we will have challenges galore.  But a life in which challenge is absent is reallly no life at all.

Advent then is the invitation to go on a life-long pilgrimage.  It’s a trek that will have its joys and difficulties, its opportunities and stumbles.  But as Jesus assures us, it will also be a journey that will have meaning and purpose.  And if we do choose to start that pilgrimage with the Lord, he gives us one assurance.  If we decide to walk with him, he will walk with us, every step of the way.

NOTES

+On December 11th I attended a Christmas Social for trustees and friends of Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.

+On December 13th I spoke to the Senior Class Committee of Saint John’s University.  I described my work in the University Office of Institutional Advancement and encouraged their volunteer efforts on behalf of the University as they morph into alumni next May.

F438B625-F50F-4462-8E01-6EB7EEEB3C8C+On December 14th I gave a lecture to the cohort of staff and faculty who will be going to Italy and Germany next June on a Benedictine Heritage Tour.  They had asked me to address these two questions:  1.  What did Saint Benedict see and experience when he went to Rome to study; and 2.  What may have influenced him to give up on his studies and become a hermit in the wilderness at Subiaco.  I’d never thought of these questions before, and I suspect that I learned a lot more than my listeners did.

+On December 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and the post today is the sermon which I delivered that morning.

+On December 16th I assisted with a Penance service at Saints Peter & Paul Church in nearby Richmond, MN.  Like the parish in Saint Martin where I helped out a few days earlier, the monks of Saint John’s have served at this parish since its foundation in 1856.

+The photos in today’s post were the result of a visit to the library late one evening during finals week at Saint John’s University.  I have also included an impressive photo of the abbey church, which sits facing the library on the central mall of campus.

98FBC0B1-B739-4358-9A87-8AE99F2AECE3

Read Full Post »

0BE313A2-A359-4B0F-A003-9E1F27F0FA30

Dinner Guests from the Bible

If I could host anybody from the Bible at a dinner party, whom would I invite?  Someone asked me that the other day, and I have to admit I’d not really thought about it before.  But it’s a great question because there’s such a wide range of characters to choose from.  Who would make my A-list, and who would be discreetly omitted?

It’s actually more fun to consider those whom I wouldn’t invite.  For sure Cain wouldn’t get an invitation, nor would Samson.  They’d be too rowdy.  Nor would most of the prophets, simply because so many of them were difficult to live with.  And it’s nothing personal, but I’d turn Herod away at the door simply because his presence could make the other guests just a little nervous.

F495F3EE-FE85-4EAF-BD8D-45A198CD5703My A-list would be surprisingly long.  David and Solomon would make it, most definitely.  Neither was perfect, but as kings they knew how to behave properly at dinners.  Rebecca would be there for her cleverness and Mary Magdalene for the wonderful stories I hope she would tell.  For his conversation Paul would be fascinating if not scintillating.  And Jesus would be at the top of my list.  He’d be there not because of favoritism on my part but based solely on his reputation.

The gospels portray Jesus as accomplished on the banquet circuit, and they provide lots of evidence to back that up.  At Cana, for instance, he helped out with the wine, which spared the hosts a lot of embarrassment.  He was a gracious guest at the home of Zachaeus and an equally gracious host at the Last Supper.  Clearly he had thought about the art of dining and conversation, as many of his parables suggest.

82F04CE0-6386-49FB-9AC1-070395C3E2EEThen there are a few individuals whom I would not have thought to invite, and John the Baptist is one of them.  It’s not because he was a nobody, because today we honor his memory all over the place.  My own monastery is dedicated to him, and the Order of Malta is actually the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — to name but two from a myriad of examples.  Still, I have to believe that John didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.  For one, the Bible makes no mention of any polished manners, and he seems to have had none of the savoir-faire of Jesus.  He didn’t care much about food, as his diet of locust and honey suggests.  Nor did he care much about fine clothes, because he was definitely not known as a snappy dresser.

More to the point, John was the sort of person who readily said what was on his mind.  It’s true that people went miles out of their way and into the desert to hear him, but it wasn’t because of any reputation for glamour.  All of that makes him a rather intriguing figure, but I wonder if people weren’t willing to risk having him at a dinner party.

D319D554-959D-48C1-91CB-17759C9C262EOn the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist steps onto the stage and into the story leading to the Nativity of Jesus.  He’s intriguing, but for reasons that distinguish him from Jesus.  He preached in the wilderness and not in synagogues or in Jerusalem.  He didn’t carry himself like a rabbi, in contrast to Jesus.  And while he too had disciples, he certainly didn’t run around with the smart set.  Yet, like Jesus, he was a powerful preacher.  Like Jesus he didn’t always tell people what they wanted to hear;  but also like Jesus he was not afraid to tell people what they needed to hear.

I sort of hate to admit it, but there’s real value in having someone like John the Baptist sit at our table.  He might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, but without someone to call us out of ourselves, how would we ever become aware of the larger world?  Without someone to awaken us to our potential for growth, how would we ever crawl out of our comfort zone and achieve the things we never thought possible?  Without someone like John the Baptist, how would we ever own up to the mistakes we make?  John, in short, is a mind-expander.  He urges us to examine ourselves and be self-aware.  He points to paths of which we are unaware, and he tells us that the Lord is waiting for us, just ahead.

When all is said and done I suspect that each of us needs someone like John the Baptist.  Such people help us to find our way through life.  They remind us that the path to a full life is one that includes God.  And if that sounds a bit difficult or inconvenient, consider the ultimate reward of a life well lived.

I suppose then that it’s worth the risk to invite John the Baptist to sit at our table.  He may not make our A list, but consider how wonderful it could be to host a guest who only wishes the best for us.

BA9617E4-BED2-47BD-9427-74FB7BCD8A6FNOTES

+As we progress through Advent many of our monks assist with penance services at area parishes.  On December 5th I assisted at the Church of Saint Martin, in Saint Martin, MN.  It’s a parish that the monks of Saint John’s have served since its foundation in 1858, and our confreres Frs. Edward and Julius serve there today.  Located about twenty miles west of Saint John’s, it was the first time I had ever visited the small town of Saint Martin.

+On December 6th I flew to Naples, FL, where I attended a meeting of supporters of our scholarship program that enrolls alumni of Immokalee High School at Saint John’s University.  This spring we will graduate our first two students from Immokalee, and it’s been a wonderful experience.  To say the least, their experience at Saint John’s has been transformative.

+On December 3rd we hosted the members of next year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps at evening prayer.  The 26 soon-to-graduate seniors of Saint John’s University comprise the largest group of Volunteers that we’ve ever sent out, and they will serve in thirteen monasteries in twelve countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

+The first three photos in today’s post are Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, a work of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Italian, ca.  1465-1501.  It is now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, as are the following two photos showing John the Baptist and the Last Supper.  The latter were originally part of an altar panel, and date from ca. 1490, France. At bottom is the cohort of Benedictine Volunteers for next year.  Our confrere Fr. Timothy supplied the photo.

284C3E9B-C024-499C-BD27-9159356ED787

 

Read Full Post »

CB43FB01-C646-4CB2-B7A5-4DDA34F71CCE

Wake Up!  (a bit of advice for Advent)

Once a month we monks at Saint John’s set aside a day for reflection.  From rising until dinner we are silent — save for prayer — and the abbot convenes us for a spiritual conference in the chapter house.

Given that we already live in a monastery, it’s fair to ask why in the world we’d need to do this extra stuff.  Aren’t twenty-nine or thirty days a month in church enough already?  Well, the answer is yes, and no.

Monks follow a religious regimen that most people would consider more than adequate.  But for a moment consider where we’re coming from.  Just because we go to church several times a day, and just because we practice all sorts of other rituals, that doesn’t keep us from turning it all into a numbing round of activity.  And therein is the value of an occasional day off to get a grip on ourselves.  Whether we do a lot or a little or nothing, slippping into an unexamined routine can rob life of its intensity.  That’s why we — and anybody — should do this sort of thing.

794354BC-0C9A-472B-9CEC-AB17E8FB850AFrom a seasonal point of view Saturday’s conference had real possibilities.  Advent was to begin the next day, and in the gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus urges people to “be awake.”  It’s just the sort of advice we need to hear once in a while, and it was the theme that Abbot John chose to focus on, in hopes of stirring us on a sleepy Saturday morning.

However, I began to wonder if he was about to fritter the opportunity away with his opening comment.  He reminded us that Saint Benedict says nothing about Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  On the other hand Benedict does say that the lives of monks ought to be like a Lenten observance.  But as for Advent, Benedict says nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  It’s like the season doesn’t even exist, which naturally made me wonder.  Was it because in 6th-century Italy they didn’t have Black Friday or the pre-Christmas shopping season?  Or was it because there were as yet no shopping malls to give meaning to the season of Advent?  We’ll likely never know.  But having mulled over Saint Benedict’s telling omission, I began to wonder why the abbot had roused us out of our reverie on a Saturday morning.  Did he do it just so he could tell us that Advent was unmonastic?

Abbot John did not choose to go in that direction.  But his opening bit did succeed in priming the pump for my own sometimes irreverent thoughts.  And so, once again, last Saturday morning I reaffirmed the value of an Advent observance, even in a Benedictine monastery, and even for me.

7BF6B804-B562-4AE8-A538-B7EA19C19FDEIn the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus makes this point:  “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you like a trap.”  (Luke 21: 34).  Drowsiness is the problem, and the  day to which Jesus refers is the day of the coming of the Lord.  And if we let the complexities of daily life overwhelm us then there may be unintended consequences.  The Lord will come, but we’ll be the last to know that he had been standing right in front of our noses and we hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe that’s why Saint Benedict doesn’t bother to write anything about the season of Advent.  Maybe it’s because he presumes that monks — and all Christians for that matter — should be aware that Advent goes on around us all the time.  Granted, the gospel speaks of the day when we will stand before the Lord at the end of time;  but all the same the Lord isn’t exactly hiding from us right now.

In fact, Jesus is in front of us, in plain sight, each and every day.  For that reason Benedict writes that the monk should see Christ in the guest, in the elderly and sick, in the abbot and in the youngest monks.  And the same applies to everyone else.  Whether it’s in the poor and sick, in the lonely or struggling, or in the person who needs our kind word or smile, the Lord makes cameo appearances all the time.  So it is that the Lord’s advent is present to us every day;  and if once a year we need a season to serve as a reminder to us, then so be it.

That explains the urgency in the words of Jesus.  He’s coming, but not just at the end of time.  Advent is the season when we deliberately rouse ourselves from our routine and admit how incredibly blessed we are.  We have the chance to meet the Lord — today.  Why wouldn’t we want to stay awake for that?

3F972559-CFD9-4B8A-A48C-9899BE27BCE1NOTES

+On November 27th I presided and preached at the Eucharist for members of the San Francisco area Order of Malta, who had gathered for their annual meeting.

+On December 1st we had our monthly day of reflection, and we assembled for a conference written by Abbot John.  Because that morning the abbot was away to preside at the funeral of his aunt, Brother David-Paul was delegated to read the abbot’s conference to the community.

+On December 1st the football team of Saint John’s University ended its season with a loss in the NCAA Division III playoffs.  The game took place in Belton, TX, which is a small town in central Texas.  Oddly enough, I’ve been there a few times.  My grandparents lived near there, and my father was born in nearby Westphalia, TX.

+A few days ago the nation and Saint John’s lost a wonderful scholar and friend.  Dr. James Billington served as the Librarian of Congresss for ages, and he was generous in his energy and expertise in arranging an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Library of Congress.  He also spoke at an event at Saint John’s, and our last encounter took place when he gathered in the office of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis.  In the presence of Pope Francis, the Speaker, Abbot John and a few others, Dr. Billington accepted a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, to mark the occasion of the Pope’s visit.  That set now resides in the Library of Congress.

+At the top of this post is a photo of the Advent wreath in the abbey church.  We also have a second large wreath in the refectory.  Below that are two photos of the abbey chapter house, where we gather for spiritual conferences and meetings.  While it may seem a substantial building, it’s dwarfed by many of its medieval counterparts, as illustrated by the two photos of the chapter house at Canterbury Cathedral.  As you might imagine, I prefer our cushioned seats to the stone benches at Canterbury.

C09A7580-0C0D-44B3-A430-89C70131C0E9

Read Full Post »

8AFDDC45-DCE9-496A-912A-9A4BDD1EF433

Is Christ Our King?

Six evenings a week, during dinner, one of the monks reads to the rest of us as we eat.  He opens with a short chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict, during which we sit in silence.  Then he turns to some book, and as he begins to read we begin to eat.  And so it goes, and we usually go through that book cover to cover, no matter how many weeks or months it takes.

As you can imagine, it’s tough to find a book that suits every taste.  Still, every now and again there’s a text that grabs our collective attention, at least for a while.  This fall we read just such a book, one entitled The Pope Who Would Be King.

To me it was fascinating to learn how Pope Pius IX struggled to hold on to the Papal States in the 1860s, even as the Italian nationalist armies closed in on Rome.  For a thousand years popes had ruled a big chunk of central Italy, and they presided not so much as popes but as kings.  They administered justice, tried to keep the peace, and managed an economy.  A few of them even put on armor and led their troops in the field.    Likely the most famous of these was Julius II, who earned the title The Warrior Pope for wearing armor at the siege of Bologna.  And then there were the mixed messages that resulted from being both pope and king.  Just a few days ago Pope Francis spoke of the thief whom the papal executioner beheaded in the 1860s.  Francis recalled the story with regret, but he also noted that that’s the way it was back then.  For better and largely for worse, many in the Church could not imagine an independent pope without an independent papal state to protect him.

57C125FB-C6BB-421C-83D5-131150E5D696Well, the Papal States fell anyway, despite the prayers of Pius IX.  And if he never got over it, popes like John XXIII and John Paul II and Francis have never regretted the loss for a minute.  Who could possibly want the responsibility of governing central Italy?!

I bring all this up as a preamble to a few thoughts I’d like to share on the feast of Christ the King.  To me it’s always seemed oddly out of place to think of Jesus Christ as king.  Granted that there have been many good kings, it’s also true that the word king carries a lot of baggage.  So when I think of kings I recall Henry VIII and Louis XIV and the Russian tsars.  Their royal authority seemed to be all about power and its arbitrary exercise.  And as for the common people and individual rights, those concerns scarcely mattered.  This was the sort of authority that marched young men by the millions into the trenches of World War I, and it was a march from which those same millions never returned.  So for better or for worse, that’s what I think of when I hear the word king.  And king is a word I don’t usually pin on Jesus Christ.

In today’s gospel Jesus goes out of his way to stress that he is no earthly king.  To Pilate he protests that he has not come into this world to take and exercise power.  He has come neither to crush the opposition nor to force people to live by rules he would impose on them.  If he were a king, Jesus told Pilate, he would be a different kind of king and his kingdom would not be of this world.

BAE143F4-491A-4EA6-B1B2-55E2900D5D62If Jesus is king, then what in the world does that mean?  Is it merely longing for the good old days when churches exercised power in contests with secular authority?  Perhaps a few yearn for a return to those days;  but if we are to believe the words in today’s gospel, it cannot be that way for a follower of Jesus.

Obviously there’s a lot more to kingship than the exercise of raw power, and that’s what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Pilate.  The kingship of Jesus is an intangible one.  It’s one that looks forward to the day when Christ will be all in all.  Jesus anticipates the day when he as king will wipe away every tear and clothe each one of us in the dignity for which he created us.  And that is when we will finally set foot into the kingdom of God.

But if that describes the day of resurrection, what might the kingship of Jesus mean for us here and now?  Ought it make any difference when we walk out of this church?  Well, I’d like to offer two points for us to mull over.

First, as king Jesus asks us to take stock of the direction of our lives.  Down what paths have we chosen to walk?  What are our values?  To what or to whom do we orient ourselves?  Do we exploit other people?  Do we live mainly to acquire stuff and push other people around?  Do we live for the moment, with no regard for the feelings of others?  Certainly people choose these options, and I confess that there have been moments when I’ve been in that number.  But unfortunately these are traits of the kingship that Jesus rejects.

8F66A809-EF03-4747-AF09-117F1C74B381For his part Jesus as king offers an alternative model to earthly kingship, and it’s one that has a focus on the needs of others.  As king Jesus begins and ends by asking us to make the most of our talents — wasting neither the opportunity to develop them nor the chance to use them in service to others.  In short, Jesus invites us to share in his nobility, and it’s a nobility not of blood but of service.

Second, when Jesus asks us to clothe ourselves in a nobility of spirit, we must remember one important bit.  His is an invitation and not a command.  Jesus respects our freedom, and he does not determine in advance our success or failure.  Each of us must choose how to live our lives, and so we have the option to make the most of our lives or the option to choose blind alleys and dead ends.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, who as king awaits us with open arms at the end of time.  But life with Jesus also begins now, and he sets before us his invitation to live in a nobility that has little to do with power and everything to do with a service of love to one another.

So today let our prayer be simple and pure.  “Lord you have called each of us to share in your royal priesthood, and you have set us apart for sacred duties.  Be with us always as we try to translate into deeds the words with which you encourage us.  Amen.”

7BEE6903-076A-49E2-B4E1-BE90D460F054NOTES

+On Sunday November 25th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered.  It is based on the gospel for the day, John 18: 33-37.  The book to which I refer is by David Kertzer and entitled The Pope Who Would Be King:  The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018.)

+On November 24th I attended the football game between Saint John’s and Whitworth University, which Saint John’s won 45-24.  Saint John’s now continues into the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.  That game will be in Texas, and I won’t be there.

+On November 24th we celebrated the memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac and his fellow Vietnamese martyrs.  Brother Emmanuel, a Vietnamese Cistercian monk studying with us, read the first text Vietnamese, which I think must be a first in the abbey church.  Then he and three of his confreres sang the meditation Psalm in Vietnamese, which also had to be a first for us.

+Thanksgiving, as usual, was a lovely day and dinner in the abbey refectory was both festive and good.  That afternoon I celebrated by taking a walk and by spending two hours watching and listening to John Rutter music videos.  I am a major fan of English choral music, and I thoroughly enjoy Rutter’s work.  And as for Thanksgiving, I count it as the official start of  the choral Christmas music season.

+The photos in today’s post all show images from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.  Typical of medieval cathedrals, Jesus sits in majesty in the tympanum over the entry, from which perch he greets pilgrims and reminds them that someday he will have the final word.

F9288199-8AF2-4D5E-B7BE-F82A6C2EEF85

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »