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Posts Tagged ‘Monastic Culture’

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Don’t Get Lost in the Wilderness

”Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?”  So protested the Hebrews in Exodus 17: 3-7.  It wasn’t the first time that they’d cornered Moses with their complaints, and it wouldn’t be the last.  This time it was about the water, and the lack thereof.  Other times it was about the wretched food.  But I think more than anything else it was uncertainty about the future that fed their discontent.  Where in the world were they going?  When would they get there?  Would they ever get there?  Who knew?

Moses felt the stress too, and so it should come as no surprise that he repackaged their complaints and passed them on to God.  “What shall I do with this people?”  Clearly forty years in the desert were no picnic, and even Moses had to wonder how it would end.  Had he known that he would never set foot on the promised land he might have turned around and gone back to Egypt.  But he didn’t.

359E78ED-67A4-40AF-A4BA-DBE6095AEC8FWe all have our moments of uncertainty.  We have our doubts.  We have our spoken and unspoken fears about what will become of us.  And concern for the future can easily transform our days into aimless wandering through a metaphorical desert of our own making.

These moments dog the firmest of believers, but all the same many people are stunned when they realize that the most respected of saints can share the doubts of the ordinary believers.  People should not have been surprised to learn that Mother Theresa wandered through her own spiritual desert, for example; and yet they were.  In her letters and diaries Mother Theresa described long stretches in which God seemed absent from her life.  It left her desolate and spiritually alone;  and yet she kept up her routine of serving the poor and those in their final moments of life.  And in those determined moments she finally glimpsed once again the God who had been beside her all along.

Lent can be our own wandering in the desert.  It’s that planned digression during which we refocus on the source of meaning in our lives.  Are our days pointless?  Do the little decisions that we have to make each day have some purpose or direction, or not?  Lent is when we learn once again that even the baby steps and the smallest of gestures matter — and they matter because we are indeed headed somewhere with our lives.

1F59AAA8-5554-4747-8D70-9325598CC1DDOne of the great ironies of their forty-year trek through the wilderness was likely lost on the Israelites.  Most of them, like Moses — were not destined to set foot into the Holy Land.  But as sad as that may seem, what really matters is that they wasted so many of their days on complaining.  They frittered away the hours, because they never quite realized that the journey has as much meaning as reaching the destination does.

The same is true for us.  Easter is an ultimate goal, but walking with the Lord in the here and the now is when the path to meaning and fulfillment first takes on some clarity.  It’s when we slowly open our eyes to our destiny to be with God.  But we need not wait until Easter for the full vision of the risen Lord.  Why?  Because it’s on the paths of Lent where we discover that the Lord already walks beside us.

NOTES

+On March 24th I make a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Philip in the Hills Church in Tucson, AZ.  It was a nice experience, though my only regret was that it had not come a month earlier when it was really cold in Minnesota.  This time I hated to leave, since this weekend the temperatures inched toward 50 degrees for the first time since November.  It was too nice to go.

43E140B2-66D3-4164-B063-6505A387489D+In the popular imagination Lent is a time for the doldrums, matching the dreary pre-spring landscape.  However, there are moments when deliberate breaks come in the liturgical calendar, and mid-March offers three feast days that effectively call a time-out in the season of penance.  On March 17th we celebrated the feast of Saint Patrick, with all the gusto that a once-German community of monks can muster.  On March 19th we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph, and on March 21st we celebrated one of the two feast days of Saint Benedict.  There can never be enough of the latter in a Benedictine monastery, and so we also celebrate his memory on July 11th.

+March 25th just happens to be the feast of the Annunciation, which once again takes the liturgical focus away from Lent.  At the top of today’s post is a stained-glass panel of the Annunciation, made in the Lower Rhine, in ca. 1520.  Below that is a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, carved in the Eastern Alps, ca. 1220-1230.  Next is Christ on the Cross, carved in Cologne in ca. 1370.  Finally, the bottom two photos are The Golden Panel from Saint Ursula, made in Cologne ca. 1170.  All of these items are housed today in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.

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God Asks More of Us

Fans of Mel Brooks fondly recall the movie scene in which Moses has just descended to the foot of Mount Sinai and he’s eager to tell everyone about his chat with God.  Toting three bulky stone tablets on which are inscribed the law, he excitedly announces the terms of the covenant to his fellow Hebrews.  “Behold, the Lord has given us these FIFTEEN — (crash) — TEN commandments!  Who knew that Moses could think so quickly on his feet?

For the record I want to assert that I don’t believe that this is how Moses edited the commandments down to ten, but that’s where it’s been ever since.  It’s a convenient number;  they’re not too complicated;  and for the most part those ten are not all that hard to follow.  I for one have had no trouble with killing people or major theft, but I’ll admit some difficulty with calling down the wrath of God on certain other people.

05B9F330-E6F0-4B45-A217-A41960B78017However, the relative ease of keeping those ten has always troubled me.  Why did God set such a low bar for us?  Why didn’t God ask a little more of us?  Did God in fact expect more us and only intended that the Ten Commandments be little more than a good start?

A few days ago I happened to read Leviticus 19: 1-2, 11-18, and then it hit me.   God did have bigger plans for us, and the Ten Commandments were merely the start of some much more demanding standards.  The passage begins with commands that the Hebrews already knew.  “You shall not steal.  You shall not speak falsely to one another.  You shall not swear falsely by my name.”  But then come some real surprises that weren’t in the original agreement with God.  “You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer.  You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.”  Moses goes on to list several others, but two in particular stand out as pretty demanding, at least in my books:  “Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty….Nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake.”

2FF7DFB7-FF25-4895-A7E6-8A8547F95799Had those been in the final draft of the commandments I’m not so sure I would have rubber-stamped them.  Those require a level of self-awareness that challenges the best of us.  Therein is the point of the covenant.  God doesn’t want a bare minimum of observance but prefers instead a commitment that is transformative for us.  God asks the best of us, and the Hebrews should not have allowed themselves to be lulled into thinking that God would stop with the first edition of the Ten Commandments.

Of course Jesus took it all one step further.  While ten was a nice number, he was content to pare back the number to two.  And if by chance that sounds like a pretty good deal, consider this.  Is it easier to refrain from killing and stealing, or easier to love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself?

If Jesus sets a pretty high bar for us, it’s good for us to take that into account in our Lenten observance.  On the one hand it’s important to set achievable goals, and if refraining from treats or one of life’s other little pleasures is part of your Lenten regimen, well and good.  But a bit of perspective is always in order.  Those little disciplines serve to remind us of the noble and beautiful lives to which God calls each of us.  God expects more of us than we might imagine, but that merely shows God’s confidence in us.

85198045-9288-435D-80A1-C3BF2B2E86A6NOTES

+On 11 March I flew to Fort Myers, FL, where I spent the week visiting friends and alumni of Saint John’s.  The week began with a reception which highlighted our Immokalee Scholarship Program.  This May the first two students from Immokalee will graduate from Saint John’s, and one of those seniors — Alex — spoke to our group on March 12th.  As he has on other occasions, he did a superb job.

+On March 17th I said Mass at the home of an alumnus in Naples, FL, and twenty-five people were in attendance.  This is the second year I’ve done this, and we are now scheduled to do it again next year.

+The photos in todays post show some of the extraordinary scenery of Petra, in Jordan.  It is  a 1st-3rd century city, with a half-mile canyon entrance that was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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We All Have Too Much Stuff

Recently a friend of mine shared a photo of a sign announcing a yard sale.  The wording was brief, unsentimental and to the point:  “Our stuff can be your stuff.”

Actually the composer of the message economized by resorting to a nice four-letter word rather than the five letter stuff, but all the same the message came through loud and clear.  The owners seemed determined to get rid of a truckload of junk, and if pressed they might even pay browsers to cart it off.

Those homeowners are not alone in having too much stuff, because it’s true for the vast majority of us.  Most of us accumulate and hoard, even if done unconsciously.  Left unchecked, however, the gradual accumulation of stuff can enslave us and even squeeze us out of our homes.

E85EE367-F9A8-4638-B9A9-A73CCF01215AMy own need for stuff hit home on the eve of my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  In the days leading up to departure I agonized over what I should take along.  After all, I had no idea of what I might need to survive two weeks in the Holy Land.  Only later did it dawn on me how silly my fears were.  Why would the part of the world that invented international trade no longer have stores?  How absurd to think that I needed to assemble a miniature caravan to drag all my possessions along!  Needless to say, I convinced myself that there were no stores in the Middle East and that I needed clothes and a personal pharmacy worthy of long-term residence abroad.

Not for the first time did I return from a trip with half the stuff in my bag unused and untouched, save from what comes from packing and repacking a half a dozen times.  Once again, I realized, I had been the person who accompanied my baggage on a trip, rather than the other way around.  Nonetheless, I thought, the trip would have been impossible without all that stuff in tow.

Last Wednesday we began the season of Lent.  Like my sojourn in the Holy Land Lent is every bit a pilgrimage.  It’s a time when Jesus invites us to take an inventory of our lives and dispense with some of the self-imposed burdens that can make life so difficult.  During Lent we can rediscover that it really is possible to get by with a lot less than we had imagined, and we can appreciate the benefits that come from traveling through life with less.  When we travel unencumbered we actually get where we’re going more quickly.  Even better, we travel less distracted by the burden of all that material and emotional stuff that we tote around with us.  That’s when we begin to realize the reality of what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  It really is when compared with the burdens we like to impose on ourselves.

C1D426D9-DAD9-4A7D-9CF9-1C951A7DFF13If we begin Lent with the depressing thought that we are carrying around just too much emotional and material baggage, then it’s time for housecleaning.  After all, life doesn’t require that we travel like beasts of burden.  We should never assume that all that stuff is absolutely indispensable and that our lives would be impossible without it.  Jesus in fact suggests otherwise.

On our recent pilgrimage we made a stop at Mount Nebo, where Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the promised land which he was never to enter.  Moses was the quintessential pilgrim, and as a nomad he had little choice but to travel lightly.  So it’s a real stretch to imagine him dragging a U-Haul with a ton of possessions necessary for life in the desert.  It just didn’t happen like that, and it would have been impractical anyway.  He was too busy serving others.  He simply had no time to be a beast of burden in service to his own stuff.

So what’s the take-home from all of this?  If our lives may be too cluttered with stuff, and if we’re dragging around way too much personal baggage, then it may be time to have a mental or even physical yard sale of our own.  And there’s no better time to do so than on our pilgrimage through Lent.

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NOTES

+In last week’s post I mentioned several unexpected encounters with friends during a short stay in Boston.  The trend continued once I arrived in the Middle East.  You can imagine our mutual surprise when I and a fellow board member from Saint John’s came face to face at a hotel restaurant in Jerusalem.  That evening the world became smaller than we ever imagined.  On the plane back to the US I got to meet the president of Sierra Leone, and I even invited him to visit Minnesota.  That in turn led to a pleasant conversation with the shuttle driver at the Minneapolis airport.  He too had been born in Sierra Leone; and while he had not met the president, he had a few choice adjectives to offer about him.

+On 9 March I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible at Chapman University in Orange, CA. I was honored to be the main speaker at their annual Founders Day celebration.

+One of the most pleasant surprises of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land was an introduction to the Roman city of Jerash, located in Jordan.  It’s one of ten cities built by the Romans in the region, and for that reason they were collectively called the Decapolis.  There are references to them in the New Testament, and Jerash is the best-preserved.  It is worthy of a visit because it shows the outlines of a Roman cityscape better than Rome itself.  I was mesmerized.

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A Letter from Jerusalem

Ages ago I read the account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, written by the 4th-century Iberian nun named Egeria.  Over the course of several years she journeyed from Egypt to Constantinople in search of the holy sites, and among other things she left us one of the best and earliest accounts of the Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem.  She also salted her pages with a generous portion of credulity, and it’s fair to say that openmindedness was one of her chief virtues.

When she asked to see the burning bush of Moses at Mount Sinai, for example, the monks produced it on demand.  She got the same friendly service all along the route;  and if we can fault her gullibility, we have to give her credit for initiative.  She travelled;  she wrote about it; and her stories stimulated a pilgrimage traffic that shows no sign of letting up.

6A52E943-878D-4725-A3D8-8C16915C7B3AAt the moment I’m in the middle of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s been inspiring to see both the familiar as well as the less familiar sites.  As for the latter, most pilgrims would not take the trouble to find the church of Saint John, alongside which Frá Gerard ran a hospice for pilgrims in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.  He and his successors eventually became the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta;  and so it was a thrill to pose for photos at the door of this really really hard-to-find Orthodox Church.  It was closed, but that did not stop us from reciting the prayer of the Order while we stood outside.

As anyone who has visited Jerusalem can attest, this is a very crowded city that challenges the faint of heart.  Chief among the obstacles to contend with are the crowds, which makes negotiating the narrow streets both fascinating and an ordeal.  It’s also easy to get lost, which is why we were happy that forty-two of us went in and all forty-two of us emerged at the end — a little rattled.

AA1F757D-EB00-4DF8-8759-EA79CB684E22What makes it such an ordeal is not just the issue of too many people in too little space.  Added to that is the fact that there is the organized competition among groups, all trying to force their way through to the front of lines.  Naively we went to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and there our group had its first lesson in this sort of thing.  Once inside our guide quickly formed us into something of a military phalanx.  With precision he shaped us into a potent force as we maintained our place in a line leading to the cave where Jesus was born.  It took two hours to get there, and as we inched forward we kept in a disciplined formation that expanded and contracted at our guide’s command.  Our guide also advised us not to be shy about using elbows — “because that’s why God gave them to us.”  It was a triumph by the time we reached the grotto, but even there we were still fending off competitors.  All the same, after it was all over a few people came to me to ask if we had to do penance for behavior we would never tolerate in church at home.

The same sort of perseverance was a real asset at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but a dose of courage also came in handy.  It’s amazing that no one gets seriously hurt on the very steep steps leading to the site of the crucifixion.  All the same, some of us gasped as we watched a young woman slide down a few steps.  Thankfully she was unhurt.

C4CAC1E1-AE0C-415C-9448-662B78DF0C3CThe crush of pilgrims intensified as we entered the line to the shrine that encases the tomb of Jesus.  Advised that it would be another two hours of creeping along, prudence won the day.  That’s when we voted, unanimously, to retreat and try our luck another day.

In sum, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is strenuous business.  The crowds are formidable.  There’s lots to see.  And the Bible comes alive before your eyes.  At the same time, there are still the stories that beguile modern pilgrims, just as they did Egeria.  Not a few tested my credulity and required a healthy dose of the willing suspension of disbelief.  Once again I was impressed by the ready market for such material.  But then again I should not have been surprised, given what people will accept uncritically off of the internet.

Despite it all, or perhaps because of it all, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem both challenges and strengthens one’s faith.  Pressed together in a sea of humanity it dawned on me that people will never cease in their search for meaning in their lives.  Walking in the steps of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem is a reminder that faith can never be merely an intellectual enterprise.  Walking through life with fellow pilgrims requires patience, fortitude, courage, and along the way we may even have to resort to the use of our elbows.  But on such a pilgrimage we discover that if we fall, the Lord quickly sends a brother or sister to help us regain our footing.

1D961EB8-FAC6-4B98-B932-6C03ADAA5E7DNOTES

+It’s not possible to cite everything that has impressed me in the course of this pilgrimage, but a few sites are worthy of comment.  In particular, I had never visited the ancient city of Jerash, which is in Jordan.  Built by the Romans in the 2nd century, its array of architecture is nothing short of dazzling.  Unlike Rome, the modern city has not engulfed the ruins, and the result is a fairly complete cityscape.

+On March 2nd we had the opportunity to visit the Order of Malta maternity hospital in Bethlehem.  Each year the hospital welcomes 4,500 babies into the world, and the staff maintains the only neonatal intensive care unit in the region.  They provide a vital service to mothers who have few if any alternatives.  The French Association and the three US Associations of the Order of Malta share in providing the funds for the hospital.

+Our pilgrimage ends tomorrow, after which I have to get back to my day job.  All the same, it’s been an amazing experience, and if you’ve ever considered a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this is a good time to go.  It’s peaceful, and crossing the border from Jordan was smooth, as was the trip into the Palestinian Territories.  On the other hand, the relative quiet has encouraged the crowds to come.  All the same, it’s worth the effort.

+One of the unexpected benefits of standing in place for two hours in the church of the Nativity was the opportunity to take photos that might not otherwise be possible.  The photos in today’s post were the result of having nothing to do for two hours — except taking pictures and being vigilant that no one got ahead of us in line.

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Moses:  He Let His People Go

I’d not been to Mount Nebo in Jordan in many years, and I was unaware of the changes that had taken place there.  Located on the east bank of the Jordan River, it was the place from which Moses gazed into the promised land, and on the earlier occasion I had left with memories of the great views across the Jordan and a real empathy for Moses.  After all, it had to be bittersweet as he bade goodbye to the people he’d led for more than forty years, while he stayed behind to die.

Moses was a singular figure in history, but like most whom God chooses he wasn’t perfect.  Whatever gifts he may have had, he could also be angry and headstrong, and he was a murderer.  He had killed an Egyptian who had mistreated an Israelite slave, and that would always be a mark against him.

590C123E-124D-4FA5-B8B5-5B80A459539CMoses was not destined to be a leader, but against his own will he emerged as God’s chosen representative.  That said, his work was not a piece of cake.  He managed to anger God, and on many occasions he angered his own people.  But transformation happened anyway, and not just in spite of those conflicts but perhaps because of them.

What might have been his salient features?  Curiosity might have headed the list.  After all, it was curiosity that caused Moses to detour and visit the burning bush.  Curiosity led him to gaze long and hard into the fire, and in search of understanding it was his curiosity that finally led him to transformation.

Perseverence might have been next on the list.  When Yahweh asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt I’m sure Moses had no idea of what he was getting into.   All the same, if he thought it would take a few months at most to reach the promised land, then he was badly mistaken.  It took 40+ years.  That required incredible patience and perseverence.  Along the way the journey took on the character of purification of a sinful people.  It was also a period of uneven growth both for Moses as well as for the people;  and wandering in the desert was symbolic of the wisdom and maturity that come only with time and experience.

Finally, I have to admire Moses for his readiness to let go.  He had served his people for forty years, but they were God’s people and not his own.  As much as he must have relished the thought of leading his people across the Jordan, it was not to be.  He had to let go of the reins of leadership, and like Pharoah before him, he too had to let the people of Israel go.  They left for the promised land west of the Jordan River, while he stayed behind, prepared to die, east of the Jordan.

88113F95-2C1C-4951-9434-38B9EFCAEB79So what — if any — are the lessons we draw from the life of Moses?  First of all, we all need to cultivate our own sense of curiosity.  The minute we start to believe that we know everything is the moment when we need to go back to school.  We’re only fooling ourselves if we think we deserve to have the last word on everything.

Second, we can all use a little perseverance when it comes to our relationship with the Lord.  Like it was for Moses, our own path to God can be rocky, circuitous, surprising and disappointing.  But that’s the story of any relationship that is meant to grow.

Finally, a healthy sense of detachment is important for us all.  Serving others does not mean we can put them in our debt.  It doesn’t mean we help others and then demand the right to make the major decisions for their lives.  Authentic service means that we help others — not because they are Christian but because we are Christian.  And then we let go.  We help others because we see in them what Christ sees in them:  people created in the image of God.

Ironically, then, Moses as leader and servant is one of the best examples we can choose as our model.  After forty years of service in the desert he let his people go, and there are moments in life when we have to do the same.  As parents, teachers, mentors and friends we must learn to let go of the people whom we serve.  It’s the very least we can do, because very likely God has plans for them — plans of which we can only imagine.

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NOTES

+On Tuesday 19 February I left Boston for Amman, Jordan, where I met up with a group of members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, to begin a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  However, my final hours in Boston reminded me once again  that the world can be a small town.  On Sunday I traded texts with a couple from Minneapolis with whom I’d hoped to meet for months.  It turned out that we were four blocks away from each other in downtown Boston.  Then on Tuesday, as I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for a taxi to go to the airport, I looked up to see a friend from Minneapolis.  Minutes later I met unexpectedly with another friend, this time from Seattle.

+On 20 February I arrived in Amman, Jordan.  After a tour of the city our group left for Petra, and en route we visited Mount Nebo, where tradition says that Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the Holy Land which he would never enter.  Since my last visit the Franciscans have built a church on top of Mount Nebo that lovingly encases the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church.  The photos in today’s blog show the results of their work, and we were privileged to celebrate Mass there.

On 24 February we visited Petra, a truly over-the-top and extraordinary place.  In a future post I will include photos of that amazing place.

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Blessed Are We!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Monks Stay Warm

A friend of mine from Honolulu wrote recently to ask how we monks stay warm.  He’d read the reports about our chilly weather in Minnesota, and so I assumed he asked out of curiosity rather than desperation.  Still, I’ve never been to Hawaii in the winter, and I’ve always assumed that winters there are not so bad.  But perhaps they’re not as nice as I have imagined, so what follows is drawn from the monastic tradition and will conclude with my best advice for my friend trying to survive another winter in Hawaii.

How we monks stay warm in the winter has become in most monasteries a question for the history books.  After all, today we simply turn on the heat, like everybody else.  But it wasn’t always that way, even at Saint John’s.  For starters, the remaining chimneys that spike the roof of the quadrangle at Saint John’s testify that our fireplaces were once considered state-of-the art.  On the other hand, there’s no denying that it was a real chore to keep them stoked.  A framed photograph that hangs outside of our refectory is a sobering reminder that the “good old days” should always be qualified with a firm “so-called.”  In that photo teams of horses are working their way across Lake Sagatagan, pulling wagons piled high with wood destined for hungry fireplaces.  It must have been tedious, back-breaking and cold work, but but once inside the wood kept everyone warm — sort of.

F3213A4B-3F03-4641-B86B-C48E5D2AB22DBy medieval standards our fireplaces were luxurious, however.  The fact of the matter was that the great monasteries of the middles ages usually had only one heated room, called the calefactory.  There the monks gathered to warm themselves before heading back into freezing churches and unheated dormitories, refectories and cloisters.  And the further north in Europe they went, the colder it got, both outside and in.  Small wonder that medieval monks and their neighbors packed down as many calories as they could, because those calories spelled the difference between life and death.

Staying warm wasn’t a lost cause, however, and there were positive steps that monks took to keep winter at bay.  Architecturally monasteries employed passive solar techniques to harness the sun, and the design of cloisters tended to be standard across much of Northern Europe.  In those regions, and at Saint John’s in the nineteenth century, the church was placed on the north side of the cloister.  From there it would block the cold north winds and reflect the rays of the winter sun down into the cloister on the south side.  Monks also planted wind-breaks, and where the site made it possible they would nestle the monastic complex into the south side of a slope.  Taken together, these practices made quite a difference, and modern architects have begun to resort to these once again.

D0AFB1C3-2443-49AD-8115-80001604FC2BBut if there is one item that made all the difference in the world, it was clothing.  If “clothing makes the man,” as the old saw went, then it was clothing that kept medieval monks alive through harsh winters.  For good reason monks in previous generations wore heavier habits in the winter, except in places like the tropics.    But they also wore the cuculla — or cowl — and this made life possible as they chanted away in cold and drafty churches.  These were ample robes that slipped over the habit, giving a layered effect that worked really well.  At Saint John’s many monks — including me — still wear the cuculla on the coldest days, and we’re grateful to our medieval brothers for bequeathing to us this gift.  At Saint John’s the abbot clothes us  in the cuculla when we make solemn vows.  However, since this usually happens on July 11th, the feast of Saint Benedict, we have to take it on faith that someday these things will come in handy.  But on July 11th they tend to be sweltering.

It suffices to generalize that winter in the Middle Ages was tough for everybody, be they monks, nobles, serfs or animals.  So it was that Easter joy was honest and not feigned in the least.  People celebrated not just the risen Lord but also their personal survival through another tough winter.  So if there is one negative about modern central heat, it’s this.  Easter doesn’t have quite the personal punch that it once had.

So how do we monks and our neighbors in Minnesota stay warm in the winter?  Well, we give winter a poke in the eye by going ice-fishing, skating on the lake, snowmobiling and hiking.  And we dress appropriately when it gets down into the 20s.

And what’s my advice to my friend in Honolulu?  First of all don’t let winter hold you hostage.  Dress in layers.  Don’t go out when the wind-chill drops to -20.  And buy some ice-skates and skate while the skating’s good.  It works for us in Minnesota, and it should work equally well for people in Hawaii.  And lastly, on Easter morning celebrate the fact that you’ve survived yet another winter in Hawaii.

41BAADD1-C4B0-4952-851C-02CDB0E174DBNOTES

+On February 6th I flew home to visit with my mom and brothers and sisters and their families in Edmond, OK.  Expecting something a little better than the snow and cold I had left behind, it snowed on the first day at her home.

+I received several nice messages in response to my post on Russell Baker two weeks ago, and the most surprising came from an alumnus of Saint John’s University who had graduated in 1976.  That year Russell Baker happened to be the commencement speaker, and at the end of the ceremony the alumnus asked Mr. Baker for a copy of his speech.  The latter obliged him by thrusting forward the copy he had used for his delivery, complete with his hand-written edits.  The speech opened with a demonstration of Mr. Baker’s wry sense of humor.  He warned his audience that he was opposed to capital punishment, and that he considered commencement speeches to be a form of capital punishment.  But contrary to his warning, the speech was not torture at all.

+I’ve assembled a rather eclectic group of photos to illustrate the point about monks keeping warm.  At the top of the post the photo shows my favorite tree at Saint John’s.  It sits in the monastic garden, and one giant limb rests on a stone wall.  Next is a 17th-century engraving of the Abbey of Saint Serge in Angers, France.  Below that is a 17th-century engraving of the 13th-century monk and chronicler Matthew of Paris, modeling his cuculla.  At bottom are two photos that remind us that we still have three working fireplaces in the monastery.  Fortunately we have lots of fallen trees to harvest each year.  Equally good is the fact that we don’t have to rely on them to stay warm through an entire winter.

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