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Posts Tagged ‘Monastic Culture’

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Sometimes God Makes No Sense

We’re so used to the cadence of some gospel passages that we sometimes miss entirely the occasional bits of odd logic that Jesus uses to make a point.  Take for example the two rhetorical questions that he poses in Luke 15: 1-10.  “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  He follows up with the story of a woman who’s lost a coin, turns the house upside-down in search of it, and then hosts a party when she finds it.  What woman wouldn’t do such a thing, he wonders aloud.

I’m neither a shepherd nor a woman, so I cannot speak with absolute certainty about the wisdom of either course of action.  All the same, it strikes me that no sensible shepherd would abandon ninety-nine sheep in the desert.  Losing one sheep may be bad, but to risk losing the rest of the flock for the sake of the one seems absolutely crazy to me.  If it were me I’d cut my losses and move the ninety-nine to safer pastures.

24F84D59-A0C4-4C69-A2C5-FEA897836C31The same goes for the woman and the lost coin.  I could see myself turning the house inside-out to find a sack filled with securities or bundles of currency, but not for a coin.  And as for inviting the neighbors in to celebrate, forget it.  The last thing I’d want to advertise would be my financial carelessness.

In fact, in both of these scenarios Jesus expects his hearers to react with incredulity.  Reasonable people simply don’t behave in these ways, and Jesus knows it.  But that’s his point.

God’s ways are not our ways, and what Jesus is trying to tell us is that out of love for us God will sometimes do what seems to us the irrational.  God will even send the Son to save us, undeserving though we certainly are.  And that point depends upon the absurd logic in the gospel passage.

God loves us more than we’ll ever imagine or deserve, and for that love we ought to be grateful.  In spite of everything, and whether in thick or thin, God promises to stick with us.  And even when it makes no sense to us at all, God will send the Son to fetch us when we stray or are lost.  Such is the nature of unconditional love.

45EEBDCF-75D3-493E-A723-F6485118E132NOTES

+Winter returned rather abruptly this past week and it managed to stretch my trip to the airport on November 7th from the more normal hour and a half to nearly four hours.  The snow amounted to a couple of inches, but it was enough to remind a lot of people that they had forgotten how to drive on ice and snow.  My first big white-knuckle moment came ten miles east of the abbey when I passed a major accident with three semis and a bunch of cars.  They looked like toys, strewn along the sides of the overpass.  It got better after that, but it was incredibly slow.

+On November 8th I spoke at the monthly meeting of Legatus on Long Island, New York.  Preceding the talk I presided and preached at a Mass for the members, held at Saint Joseph’s Church in Garden City, NY.  Today’s post is an amended version of the sermon I gave that evening.

+On Saturday the 10th I attended the final game of the football season, which Saint John’s won handily.  That capped a perfect 10-0 season.  It was cold, and in the second quarter it started to snow — so much so that they had to sweep the snow off the lines on the field.  In a pre-game interview a reporter asked the coach of Thomas More College whether he was ready to play in the cold.  To which he replied:  “We should be fine with that.  Last week we played in Cincinnati where it was 55.”  Somebody must not have told him that it was 17 outside.  I’m sure it had no impact on their ability to play well.

96769FE2-4EFB-4A57-BB8A-298151CA60CD+Also on Saturday I presided at the cemetery service for Saint John’s alumnus Don Coy.  Don lived a long and wonderful life, and we all pardoned the snow as Don’s last act of whimsy in a life well-lived.  The scene was beautiful, since the snow transformed the cemetery.  And when the soldier played taps as the snow fell silently, there was scarcely a dry eye among us.

+November 9th is the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome.  Most people are entirely unaware that it is the cathedral church of Rome — and Saint Peter’s is not.  But no matter.  It’s a great place to visit, and despite the fact that there is much to see, tourists largely bypass it.  What I love most about it, however, is not the huge church but the 13th-century cloister.  Once upon a time a community of Benedictine monks staffed the basilica, and their cloister is a medieval treasure.  The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into that scarcely visited space.

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Who Is My Neighbor?

I’ve always thought of the Ten Commandments as the be all and end all of Old Testament law.  They are clear, concise, and to some extent measurable.  Either you’ve killed somebody, or you haven’t.  Either you’ve stolen or you haven’t.  Either you’ve sacrificed to idols or you haven’t.  And as for the others, there may be some grey area, but for the most part people know where they stand vis-a-vis God, at least as measured by the Ten Commandments.

But when you factor in the Two Great Commandments it’s a whole new ball game.  How do you know if you’ve loved God with your whole heart and soul and mind?  Can you ever be sure if you’ve loved your neighbor quite as much as yourself?  Of course therein is the problem — you can’t be sure.  You can only try, and then you hope for the best.

6EFAD66C-3190-43E6-82B9-983D3B5BEBDBJesus cites the Two Great Commandments as the epitome of the law and the prophets.  He reaches back to Deuteronony 6 and quotes them word for word, and he exalts them — not as yardsticks by which to measure behavior — but as ideals through which we reach out to an infinitely loving God.  And as a necessary corollary we, as deeply flawed people, extend ourselves in love to our equally flawed neighbors.  Clearly it is a legal burden too much for us to bear, but that’s the point.  It’s really meant to be an invitation to share somehow in a communion with God, this side of paradise.

In some respects we can embrace the Two Great Commandments as ideals that are beyond us, and so we do the best we can.  After all, no one expects perfection from us.  But it also strikes me that there’s something here that can really disrupt our lives, and the issue relates to the second of the two commands.  Specifically it has less to do with the command to love and more to do with the definition of neighbor.  Who, exactly, are our neighbors?  Are they the people next door?  Are they the people down the block or across town or in another city altogether?  That’s the crucial question which we all must answer.

As a medieval historian I’ve often speculated on the reaction that the early missionaries elicited from the German villagers when they introduced the command to love one’s neighbor.  Cultural historians suggest that when the missionaries said the word neighbor that their listeners were not at all on the same page.  The preachers likely intended neighbor to mean the stranger or any human being, because in the Christian perspective all are created in the image of God.  In the language of those villagers, however, neighbor meant a person from their village.  Anyone from beyond the limits of the village did not count as neighbor.

FC9357FF-52C7-418E-A03E-ABA90548856CIt was a big cultural leap for these people to expand the boundaries of the word neighbor.  At first it must have been a stretch to accept as neighbor someone from a nearby village.  The next stretch was to include someone from the region and then someone speaking a related language.  Only after a few generations could people comprehend the notion that anyone and everyone whom they might meet is a neighbor.  But once they understood that, then much of the gospel started to make sense.  So it was that they could finally appreciate the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus said that a neighbor could even be someone whom people scorn and despise.

It’s a perennial temptation to shrink the boundaries of who it is that is our neighbor.  It’s much easier to think of our friends as the limit of the word neighbor.  It’s tempting to push out of that circle the stranger or the poor or the people with whom we disagree.  And when we go so far as to demonize such people, then we have dismissed the second Great Commandment as not applicable to us.

Now more than ever we as Christians need to reaffirm with our Jewish neighbors our commitment to the Two Great Commandments.  And more specifically we must live out practically and on a daily basis our belief that all people are created in the image of God.  All people deserve our respect and our love.

But living out such an ideal is not easy.  It takes determination.  Still, Jesus asks us to stretch ourselves.  He asks us to reach beyond ourselves.  And he promises that the Spirit will be with us in those moments when we prefer to close our eyes to our neighbor.

CDC0489A-CD18-49E4-96D3-18BB3E602F51All this can be done, and there are moments when we’ve all done it.  Now more than ever our communities, our nation and the world need people who will try to be a neighbor to all, and we are some of those people.  So let us pray today that God who has begun this good work in us will bring it to completion.

NOTES

+On 30 October I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+At evening prayer on the eve of All Saints we hosted a large number of friends, staff and students.  It’s always wonderful to fill the choir stalls on such an occasion.

+On November 2-4 I gave a retreat to the Allentown, PA, members of the Order of Malta.  Today’s post is the sermon that I preached to them on Sunday, and it is based on Mark 12: 28-34.

+The photos in today’s post are a real mix.  Autumn in central Minnesota went very quickly and it was not one of our best in terms of colors.  But my weekend in Pennsylvania seemed to have coincided with some of the best color there.  The photo at top shows a scene from the grounds of our retreat at Mariawald Retreat Center, outside of Reading.  Further down the page is a photo of the convent, where we took our meals.  The second photo shows some of the last lingering color at Saint John’s, and below that are some ivy vines on a wall outside of the abbey refectory.  At bottom is the great clock in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.  Over the years I’ve taken many photos of time pieces, and I include this one to note the passing of Daylight Savings Time this past weekend..

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What I’ve Learned on the Camino

Today marks my seventh day of walking on the Camino to Santiago Compostela.  I and my companions have walked nearly seventy miles, encountered a ton of people and seen some lovely landscape.  But by now there’s one thing that we’ve known for three days:  we will finish — all of us!  I’m not sure any of us realized what a toll ten to twelve miles a day would really take, but walking relentlessly up and down hills over a week does grind a person down.  But by day four I and my colleagues knew we could do it.  What else have I learned?

A560D901-3EF0-4F3C-A768-56AEF688C158First, there are some things we picked up as kids that can come in handy on the Camino.  For one thing, there are moments of heavy traffic on the Camino, though it’s made easier by the fact that everyone is going the same direction — save for the cows.  That brings up one bit of advice I learned from my parents early on that has come in handy:  don’t step in the cow pies.  Virtually every day the cows share the Camino with the pilgrims, and they tend to leave little tokens of their travel experience.  I’m now convinced that farmers actually bring the cows out to refresh the trails every morning, but I could be wrong on that.  Anyway, it pays to look where you step, and the few people who use cell phones or look at the scenery can pay a smelly price.  What I’ve missed in scenery I’ve more than made up for in peace of mind.  So watching where you step is an important bit of advice.

76194DA9-A356-4024-A35E-67464E672052I’ve also appreciated the total immersion in countryside and animal life.  Most of the Camino that we’ve walked has taken us through forests, pastures and small villages.  I’ve savored the aroma of eucalyptus trees and crunched bushels of acorns and chestnuts.  I’ve also seen lots of cows (see above), dogs, cats and chickens.  The dogs have been a special delight, and their response to the hikers ranges from total indifference to warm friendliness.  There’s no ominous barking or growling.  That explains the sign we saw early on:  “Please do not let the dogs follow you.  They already have homes.  If they follow you, they won’t find their way back.”  What a welcome change from the dog warnings at home.

A third item I’ve picked up is that people have lived along the Camino for ages.  That was evident in the Celtic earthwork fortress that we passed one day.  It also was evident in the stone villages that include lots of buildings that date well back into the Middle Ages.  In fact, a personal highlight of the trip was my concelebration of a Mass in an early 11th-century church built by monks of the French Abbey of Cluny.  They built priories with guest hostels along the way to encourage the pilgrimage, and it was great to see first-hand evidence of that.  The Mass had added significance for me when the local priest drafted me to read the gospel and to recite part of the canon in Spanish.  That afternoon I got to use my Castilian accent and did reasonably well.

823490EA-1BDE-4BEA-B181-7DF4193F5DAAI had anticipated that the Camino would be a cosmopolitan experience, and it did not disappoint.  While I have walked with each member of our group as well as alone, I’ve also had the chance to visit with other pilgrims along the way, and the first encounter surprised me the most.  He was a Lutheran pastor from Norway, and he was doing his second Camino.  On successive days I met all sorts of people, including Australians, Germans, Americans from all over the place, Japanese, Koreans, and so on.  People were there for all sorts of reasons, and it was a refreshing experience.

Finally, I was surprised at how quickly the worries and cares of home melted away as I walked along.  I stopped thinking about work at the office, though I did treasure thoughts of confreres and friends left behind.  I was not surprised to hear from fellow pilgrims that their foremost concern was on the steps we were taking, and that thought gave me comfort.  Our daily trek quickly came to focus on sure footing as we walked along.  The formula for success then boiled down to this:  avoid the cow pies and loose rocks and find the places where you can plant your feet firmly, one after another.  That’s what’s gotten us through each and every day and up and down each hill.  But that also strikes me as a good formula for getting through life.

NOTES

The photos in today’s post all show scenes from the pilgrimage walk through the region of Galicia in northwestern Spain.  At bottom is the 11th-century Cluniac church in the village of O Cebreiro.

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The Trek to Santiago Compostela

I’ve never done an eighty-mile walk before, and so today seems as good a day as any to start.  Actually, it’s the right day to do it because this morning I’m scheduled to join with a group to do the last 110 kilometers of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela.  I wouldn’t want them to leave without me.

It’s a thousand-year-old route, and through the Middle Ages only Rome exceeded Santiago in popularity as a destination in Western Europe.  With the Reformation the shrine took a big hit, and the numbers thinned out to a trickle for a long time.  But to people’s amazement, over the last fifty years it’s bounced back, and the last stretch of eighty miles alone gets an average of 300,000 in the course of the season.  And of course that does not count the even greater numbers that get there by bus or train or car.  Anyway, we won’t be alone as we walk this path.

8A1F8337-3A59-4444-9F1B-3A1E1B9ED021From the start the goal of the pilgrimage has been to venerate the relics of the apostle James, which tradition says are sheltered in the cathedral dedicated to his memory.  Even today people go there for that, but it is the journey as much as the destination that makes the whole thing worthwhile.  Today people go for all sorts of reasons, and for each there is something therapeutic about the experience.  I’ve been told that most everyone unloads their mental baggage — bit by bit — in the course of the journey.  What they are left with is themselves.  Slowly, in the course of the days of hiking through forests and fields and villages, people cast aside the worries about work and other such stuff.  Life is slowly reduced to the utter simplicity of individuals coming to terms with what is really essential in life.  Therein comes the growth.

I’m traveling with a group of members of the Order of Malta, which is quintessentially an organization oriented around pilgrimage.  The Order began in Jerusalem, where members served pilgrims who had fallen ill in the course of their time in the Holy Land.  Eventually the Order relocated to Rhodes and then Malta, and in both places the knights built and staffed giant hospitals that served the sick and the poor.  It’s in that spirit that members of the Order now go with the sick on a yearly pilgrimage to Lourdes.

The Order has never really had a strong association with Santiago Compostela, but there are chapels and fortified places along the way that the Order built or inherited from other Orders like the Templars. Today there are no members staffing these places, but lots of other people have stepped in to serve the streams of pilgrims who have once again populated the route.

495F148C-C3D3-4F78-95EC-0AC3AC43D006In the Middle Ages there were four trail-heads for the pilgrimage to Santiago, and all of them were in Burgundy and elsewhere in France.  It was a very long walk, filled with inconvenience and even danger.  Today the routes have multiplied, and the trails are much nicer; but it can still be a challenge, even on the shorter routes.  And despite all the options, purists insist on beginning the journey on the French side of the border with Spain.  That journey can take many weeks, and there’s one good reason why our group is not starting there.  We all have day jobs, and we don’t have that kind of time.

So today our trek begins in the town of Sarria.  An average day will take us about nine or ten miles, which is within my reach but paltry compared to those who will do 20+ miles per day.  In preparation I did lots of walking over the summer, though I never did ten miles a day for eight days in a row.  Still, I’m confident that I can get my left and right feet to cooperate with one another, and I’ve made it easier on them because this last leg of the route to Santiago has no mountains.

I first went to Santiago as a graduate student doing dissertation research in Spain.  That was ages ago, and I did the trip by train.  In physical terms I would have been better-suited for the pilgrimage back then.  But that was then and this is now, and I’m glad I’m doing it now rather than then.  And as the Scriptures say, “this is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be rejoice and be glad in it!”  So please say a prayer that each and every day of the trip counts for something good.  And while you’re at it, pray for yourself as well!

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NOTES

+I began the pilgrimage to Santiago with a flight to Madrid, and the photos in today’s post show scenes from that wonderful city.  There is a real elegance to Madrid, despite the rather crowded neighborhoods.  The photos in today’s post give a hint of that.

+On the eve of the pilgrimage I watched The Way, in which Martin Sheen plays a pilgrim to Santiago.  It is stunningly good and available on YouTube — for free.  Who would have thought.

+I had given some thought about more frequent posts in the course of the pilgrimage, but ultimately I decided to stick with my weekly format.  So in the post of October 22nd I will give an update on our progress through the fields and forests of Galicia in northwestern Spain.

+Today friends and alumni of Saint John’s University will gather for a funeral Mass in the abbey church to honor the memory of John Gagliardi, our long-time football coach.  In addition to articles that have appeared in newspapers across the country, this most recent Saturday the football team gave him their ultimate tribute with a 40-20 win over the University of Saint Thomas.  It was a great game.

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Called To Be a Witness, Not a Fossil

I’d never sat down for a long visit with an abbess before last Friday.  It’s not that I have deliberately avoided such contact, but rather it’s due to the scarcity of cloistered nuns in the United States.  In Europe such houses are more plentiful, though they are definitely not overcrowded.  In any case, I and my fellow pilgrims had come to the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria to visit with the abbess of the monastery which had founded our sister monastery in Saint Joseph, MN.

The abbey has its origins in an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon who came from the south of England.  She arrived as part of the same missionary migration to Germany that brought Saint Boniface, and together they put a Benedictine stamp on the Church in Germany.  Two hundred years later the founding nuns of Saint Walburga gathered her remains, and a thousand years later pilgrims still visit her shrine.  That in itself is remarkable, since most medieval shrines had male guardians.  That alone led me to conclude that the nuns at Saint Walburga have been a pretty tenacious lot.

2FE5D52F-D6A5-4FD5-8AFD-CE5927A5F479To be honest, I wondered what in the world we could talk about for an hour with the abbess.  What could we possibly have in common with someone in a cloistered community?  Would she and her community be something of a curiosity?  Would they be aliens in a modern era, untethered from their moorings in an ancient past?  Not so, we soon found out.

The abbess, Mother Francesca, surprised us with her wit, her wisdom, and her command of English.  We knew we were off to a good start when she gave a review of the restaurant where we had eaten the evening before.  “It’s overpriced and the portions are too small.”  How she knew that she did not say;  but my guess is that not much in Eichstätt escapes her notice.

Mother Francesca has seen a lot as she nears her thirtieth year as abbess.  For one thing, she noted, the abbey used to be much larger, and the huge complex clearly says that.  While she laments the passing of those days, she’s also happy that the community attracts a novice or two each year. Not all stay, but it ensures the future of the community.

CF5B0F89-D08D-45D5-93CB-3EECB3D11170To our surprise we discovered that these cloistered  nuns do not sit around praying and contemplating all day long.  They have a strong work ethic, she stressed, and several of the nuns teach religion in the grade school which they sponsor.  Another young nun, holder of a PhD in mathematics, teaches in the University of Eichstätt.  Still others help in the guest house and make crafts for the gift shop.  So there seems to be no twiddling of thumbs there.

Our conversation ranged all over the map, but Mother Francesca offered three comments that were great takeaways.  First, despite living in a monastery whose bones are medieval and whose façade is baroque, these nuns are not fossils.  “We are not a museum,” as she put it.  They are not relics of a bygone age.

49FEDA0E-5BEE-4C84-88AC-3035BD315289Second, she lamented the divisions that beset the Church today.  In response to this she and her fellow nuns deliberately stand squarely in the middle of the life of the Church.  “We must be here ready and open to talk with anyone and everyone, wherever they might be on the spectrum.”

Finally, she accepts her own lot in life as abbess.  Her sisters elected her for life, and she will serve as long as she is able.  Then she offered this important caveat:  “I may have some administrative responsibilities, but this is not an administrative job.  I am the mother of a family, and you don’t elect a mother for a term or two.”  It’s a vocation within a vocation.

This led nicely to her parting comment.  “All too often our spirituality suggests we become like angels, so much so that we forget to be human.  But Christ calls us to be human, and Saint Benedict calls us to be the best humans we can be.”

Pope Gregory the Great in his biography of Saint Benedict tells the story of the saint’s last visit with his twin sister Scholastica.  His description of their conversation is standard for the era, and he writes that they got so wrapped up in holy talk that they lost track of the time.  I have to admit that I’ve always been skeptical about that claim.  What holy things could be so interesting that they would lead us into overtime?  Well, last week at Saint Walberga I got a sample, and it made a believer out of me.

E13A1CFE-AF96-4C53-9B3A-4819EEE0F902NOTES

+During the past few days I have been part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour that took alumni and friends of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to monastic sites in Italy and Germany.  Chief among the monastic houses in Italy which we visited were Subiaco, where Benedict began his spiritual journey as a hermit, and Monte Cassino, where he built a large community.  Today the two places could not be more different, both architecturally and in terms of the life in their respective communities.

+In Germany we visited the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria, the place to which our sister community in Saint Joseph, MN, owes much of its heritage.  We then ended the trip with a visit to the Abbey of Metten, in northern Bavaria.  It was from that community that Abbot Boniface Wimmer came to the United States to minister to the German immigrants.  In his extensive work he was the founder of Saint John’s.

+The monks of Saint John’s and all associated with Saint John’s note with sadness the passing of John Gagliardi, who was a revered mentor and coach at Saint John’s University.  In his long career he built a record as the coach with the most wins of anyone in football.  Though in failing health for some time, this fall he still made an appearance at a Homecoming reception in his honor.

+The photos in today’s post show aspects of the Abbey of Saint Walburga.  At top is a statue of the saint that stands above her shrine, and at bottom is her shrine.  The fourth photo shows the choir chapel where the nuns pray the liturgy of the hours, and just above is a photo of Mother Francesca and Sister Martina, together with some of the members of our tour.

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One Step To Wisdom

Currently we happen to be reading in the monastic refectory at Saint John’s a book whose timeliness has been perfect for me.  The Pope Who Would Be King tells the story of Pius IX, who is a good example of the right man coming at the wrong time in history — or the wrong man at the wrong time.  Whatever may have been his talents, he had the misfortune to be pope just when the Italian nationalists liberated the Papal States and created a unified Italy.  Pius IX never got over it.

For over a thousand years popes had ruled a chunk of central Italy, and after a while they could not imagine a papacy without that secular base.  Not everybody agreed with that approach, but it didn’t matter to the ecclesiastics who ran Rome.  Popes needed royal power, they asserted, because it supported their spiritual power.  The truth, as it turned out, was quite the opposite, as later popes discovered.  Shorn of the Papal States, 21st-century popes have exercised a moral authority that was unimagined by their predecessors.

FCA5AA19-F5AC-4FE5-9697-6660F0D5D8F1I say that reading this book has been fortuitous because at the moment I am part of a Benedictine Heritage tour of Italy.  It helps to know that popes were monarchs for a millennium, because it’s hard to understand a lot of what we see in Rome without that tidbit.  Why would there be papal coats of arms emblazoned on fountains and buildings and walls?  Why would the pope need a fortress and an elevated escape route to reach it?  Why would the pope need a prison and an army and thick walls to defend the Vatican?  The answers make for great reading, but after 1870 even the popes came to realize that they didn’t need any of that to teach the gospel.  But that’s another story.

I never studied or lived in Rome, so I find it very easy to get lost in the labyrinth of streets in the center of the city.  That makes a trip here all the more enjoyable, if you have the leisure for getting lost.  But as beautiful as the street scenes can be, it’s the people who fascinate.  Rome is a stunningly diverse place, all overlaying a base of Italian culture.

This time I’ve taken some moments to listen to the chatter around me, and it can be both entertaining and inspiring.  Among the lighter moments was a conversation I overheard as several of us were walking down the avenue to Saint Peter’s.  Along the way one must run a gauntlet of hawkers and street peddlers who assault you with anything that will get a reaction.  “Are you headed to the Vatican?”  Of course we are, because that’s where the street goes.  “Are you from America?”  And on it goes.  I happened to be alongside a couple from Mexico, and soon it was their turn.  “Do you speak English?”  To which the Mexican husband looked up and deadpanned:  “No, no.  We’re Dutch.”  Everyone within earshot dissolved into laughter.  And the Mexican gentleman smiled the smile of triumph.

094C3EBE-955D-432C-8084-DF9CB4D730B2More serious was a conversation between a senior Irish priest telling a young counterpart what it was like to work at the Vatican.  “In some ways it’s not changed at all;  but one thing has.  When we used to go to one of the Dicasteries [the various government departments of the Curia], we’d pose a question.  And if they didn’t have an answer, they’d give you the answer to another question that they did know.  Nobody wanted to look uninformed or unauthoritative.  Now it’s different.  If you ask them something and they don’t know the answer, they say ‘Don’t know.’  It’s refreshing to hear, and it gives one hope.”

This week our group will visit Subiaco and Monte Cassino, where Saint Benedict lived out his years as a monk.  The salient feature of his early years was that he fled Rome to seek wisdom in the wilderness.  Happily, I will leave Rome with an unexpected nugget of wisdom and hope.  If not the first stage of wisdom, then at least one step to wisdom has to include the admission that if you don’t know something, you should not be afraid to say so.  How refreshing.  How honest.  It’s almost enough to give one hope!

1EAC533F-740A-4324-90C9-327942318A4DNOTES

+On September 23rd I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  In addition to other members, we welcomed Fra Thomas Mulligan, the incoming President of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, and Michael Grace, president of the Western Association.  Also present was the retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations, Mr. Bob Shafer.

+On 23 September I presided at the abbey Mass.

+On 25 September I arrived in Rome as part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour, sponsored by Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+On 30 September our group went to Mass and visited at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome, the headquarters of the Benedictine Confederation.  Among those who welcomed us were Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, who lived with us at Saint John’s for three years while he studied theology.  Brother Joe Schneeweis toured us through the school at Sant Anselmo.  Brother Joe, a monk of Saint John’s, serves as head of the library there.  And joining our tour for lunch and some church visits was Saint John’s Benedictine Volunteer Kyle Munshower.  He is in residence as a volunteer for a year, and his duties include driving the Abbot Primate around Rome.  He will have nerves of steel after driving for a year in Rome.

+The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe, is by David Kertzer, who teaches at Brown University.  For the most part it has been an interesting book for us to read in refectory, though not all of the readers have equal facility in the Italian names and places.  But that has brought a few lighter moments, which is okay.

+The photos in today’s post show various scenes from Rome.  At top is the Castel Sant Angelo, the fortress where popes occasionally took refuge.  At bottom is the Farnese Palace, built by a powerful family that produced many cardinals and at least one pope.  Today it serves as the French embassy.  The other three photos show the sorts of scenes that make Rome so enchanting.

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The Gift of Wisdom

As I’ve grown in experience I’ve come to appreciate the Wisdom literature of the Bible more and more.  Perhaps it’s the result of living by the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is deeply rooted in that tradition.  Perhaps too it’s the result of coming to terms with one reality in life:  many of life’s decisions are nuanced, complicated, and not at all easy.

To people who crave black and white answers, wisdom can be a major inconvenience.  It admits that some of our choices fall between shades of gray, or they’re a matter of opting for the greater or the lesser good.  Lives beset by these sorts of dilemmas require deep reflection.  They require wisdom.

If we examine the sweep of the Old Testament there is the Torah and the clarity of the Ten Commandments on the one hand.  At another point is the Wisdom literature.  Between the two is a world of Jewish experience.  When we read a passage like Proverbs 3, then, we get a glimpse into that evolution of thought.  Each verse of Proverbs makes sense, yet each makes reference to a complicating reality.  If, for example, it says that “the curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked,” we also recall the rhetorical question of the Psalmist who wonders why it is that the wicked always seem to prosper.

744B9A93-24D5-40FF-8CE4-669A0EFD94ADThese sorts of conundrums still puzzle us.  We prefer the easy answers for their clarity, and so we set up the Ten Commandments as a kind of idol.  But we know that Proverbs teaches us to demand more of life and more from ourselves.  To that deeper self-examined way of life Jesus also calls us.  And so today we could do no better than to pray for the gift of wisdom and for the patience to make the most of it.

NOTES

+Today’s post is a sermon that I will deliver at the abbey Mass later in the day.  It is based on the first reading, Proverbs 3: 27-34.

+On 20 September I attended the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.  For the current school year I’m serving as a board advisor.

+I’m not sure whether it was allergies or a response to a flu shot, but for two and a half days over the weekend I was out of action and unable to do much of anything.  I did finally manage to go to a small bit of Homecoming activities at Saint John’s University, but missed most of the football game and was a no-show at the dinner for the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  For better and for worse, I also had to sit on the sidelines for my birthday, which was on Saturday.

+In the Benedictine tradition monks pray for wisdom when we gather for deliberation in the chapter house.  Today’s post illustrates the 12th-century chapter house from the Cistercian abbey of Notre Dame at Pontaut in Bordeaux.  Today it is housed in the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Note the seating in the interior.  There were no cushions, perhaps on the assumption that wisdom comes a little faster when you’re sitting on stone.

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