Posts Tagged ‘Monte Cassino’



So blared the headline on the front page of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune last Saturday.  Below it was a photo that should have shown the thoughtful response of normally sober and often stoic Minnesotans.  Instead, however, it showed store-length lines of people waiting to buy cartloads of toilet paper at a local Costco.  Who would have guessed?!

I almost laughed out loud, but later in the day my brother confirmed that this wasn’t a one-off.  At the Home Depot in Oklahoma City where he works pallets and pallets of tissue had sat, untouched, for months.  Then, all of a sudden, customers rushed in like a plague of locusts and stripped the pallets bare.

DC3DDE5B-660A-4CA7-A835-DAF68B4C669ECrises tend to produce unusual reactions, but this was something I never saw coming.  I was completely taken aback that a pandemic would lay bare a pervasive anxiety over toilet paper as a major social issue.  How did all the social scientists miss this?

The responses to the Coronavirus have ranged from the serious to the ridiculous, but most see the need to do something.  In our monastery at Saint John’s we’ve revamped our refectory service, and we’ve spread ourselves out in the choir stalls.  We’ve also limited access to our elderly monks in the abbey health center.  And while I cannot speak for everyone, my own hands are starting to chap from too much washing.

Still, the image of people in desperate search for toilet paper in a time of crisis sticks in my mind.  Is it time to dust off those old Fellini films about the absurdities of life?  Could it be time once again to do some soul-searching and decide what values — if any — should shape our lives?

For monks this situation evokes a treasured bit of wisdom from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  “Keep death daily before your eyes” was Benedict’s advice, and by it he meant to drive us neither to despair nor pious escapism.  Rather, he meant to encourage us to set personal priorities that would define our lives.  Among those, love and respect for others should top the list.  Commitment to mutual service should count for something as well.  A certain graciousness should also pervade our lives, and all this rests on a vision of Christ whom we see in our fellow monks and in virtually everyone else.

4B25A7DA-1B29-4F8B-B620-37AED37DC89AOther religious orders and traditions have their variations on this theme, but one ideal from the Order of Malta has long intrigued me.  For much of the Order’s history nobility meant nobility of blood.  In modern times the nobility of spirit and conduct has come to replace it.  The Statutes and Commentary go on to explain that “nobility in this deeper sense means:  carrying more responsibility than others; [and] knowing that one exists to stand up for the glory of God and for the God-given dignity of every person….”  Underscoring all this is a fundamental vision that drives the behavior of all members:  in the faces of the sick and the poor we see the face of Christ.

The feast of Ash Wednesday reminded us that our pilgrimage in this life is finite.  Ironically, the Coronavirus does the very same thing.  But there’s one critical difference between Ash Wednesday and this latest reminder of our mortality.  Lent reminds us that our end is indeed temporal, and we each have an expiration date.  That said, we also have an end that is eternal.  May we continue to pray about the purpose to which God calls us.



+On March 11 our confrere Fr. Don LeMay passed away at the age of 97.  Fr. Don was an extraordinary individual, and he had a facility with names that astonished all who knew him.  Always gentle and possessed of a positive spirit, he was fond of noting that “every day is a great day!”

+On March 13th we sent our students home and will shortly initiate online classes for them.  For the moment the plan is to ask them to return on Easter Monday to resume classes on campus.

+The last few days no doubt have seen great upheaval for most everyone.  In my case it has included the cancellation of every talk and meeting that I was to be involved with for weeks to come.  Now I do not need to go near the airport until mid-May, and so I feel like I have gone on summer vacation.  But of course I know it’s not quite the same, because there are still piles of snow here and there.  One other byproduct of a free schedule is the ability to be prayer leader at the community liturgy of the hours.  This weekend I realized that for the first time in ages I would be able to be present for every bit of the prayer schedule this week, and so I offered to help out Fr. Cyril, this week’s leader, if and when he needed a substitute.  His response?  “Why not take the whole week!”  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and so I accepted.

+On March 21st we celebrate the feast of the passing of Saint Benedict.  In his honor I have selected photos from Monte Cassino, where he founded his community of monks.  The site itself has seen more than its share of emergencies, having been sacked and destroyed several times in its history.


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Saint Martin of Tours:  A Survivor

Modern visitors to the cathedral of Utrecht may find it slightly odd that Saint Martin of Tours is there to greet them.  It’s odd because this church built in his memory has been Dutch Reformed since 1580.  How in the world did Saint Martin make the cut?  Why is it that he’s still around when the Dutch Republic pulled his peers down from their pedestals and banished them into exile?

Martin is a survivor in part because he was unconventional.  First, Martin had been a soldier in the Roman imperial legions.  After his baptism he resigned his commission because he would only fight for Jesus Christ and no longer for the emperor.  Coincidentally that’s what the Protestant Dutch were doing when they rebelled against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor.  Did their devotion to Martin serve double duty as an ironic poke in the eye of their modern emperor?  Probably.

328E7938-1A4F-4C2C-B011-68564A604136Then there is Martin’s identification with the poor.  In an act that made him a favorite for artists for centuries, Martin cut his cloak down the middle and shared half with a beggar.  The story is that Jesus came disguised as the beggar, and it underlined the notion that what we do for the least of people we do for Christ.

Martin eventually became a hermit, and to his hermitage flocked droves of young people.  So great was his reputation for holiness that the local Christians drafted him as bishop.  Reluctantly he accepted, but he did so only on his own terms.  Forced to be bishop, he still lived in his monastery, surrounded by his monks.

All this sounds like just another innocuous life of a saint, but embedded in it is yet one more poke in the eye.  By Martin’s time many of the bishops in Gaul were aristocrats who preferred life on their estates.  Martin’s way of life was a deliberate affront to them.  What rubbed salt in their wounds was one item that’s easily overlooked.  Many of those who joined Martin at his hermitage were the sons of those same aristocrats.

So there is in Martin’s story all sorts of countercultural symbolism.  He was a military man who swore off allegiance to the emperor.  He was oblivious to his own creature comforts and preferred to tend to the poor and suffering.  And while he finally caved in to the demand to become a bishop, on some things he would not compromise.  Power and luxury and aristocratic status were okay for other bishops, but that was not the kind of bishop he felt called to be.

EAAB366E-39B4-4C23-8B8F-514A7CA6AB45I used to wonder why Saint Benedict dedicated a chapel at Monte Cassino to Saint Martin.  Eventually I concluded that it was Benedict’s nod to Martin as a monk who was willing to combine service to the people of God with life in a monastery.  But now I think there’s more to it than I had thought.  Could his respect for Martin be a veiled warning to his own monks to be wary of both secular and ecclesiastical power?  It’s entirely possible.

Today I regret Saint Martin’s relative obscurity in the Catholic world.  If Martin had so much to say to Saint Benedict and to some Dutch Protestants in the 16th century, has he nothing to teach us today?  I certainly hope not, because what Saint Martin had to say then is what we need to hear now.


+On November 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Martin of Tours.  Quite by chance this year November 11th happened to fall on the Monday when we celebrate Veterans Day in the US.  Today’s post was not a sermon I gave that day but rather comes out of my memory as a teacher who has learned quite a lot since I left the classroom.

+On November 12th I celebrated the Eucharist for the annual meeting of the San Francisco area of the Order of Malta.

+On November 15th I attended the meeting of the Board of Directors of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+The photos in today’s post show the cathedral of Utrecht in the Netherlands, which I visited many years ago.


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Vacation:  Doing the Work of the Lord

Jesus said to his disciples:  “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30)

If there’s a Bible passage made to order for the resort industry, this has to be it.  In fact, it also strikes me as an excellent addition to the Ten Commandments.  Though I don’t consider those ten to be all that onerous, adding a fun commandment could make it easier to buy into the whole package.  Plus, since many people already flee to cabins and lakes and resorts, it would be nice to get religious credit for things you had planned on doing anyway.

You’d think that an escape to an out of the way place would be a no-brainer for everybody;  but it’s not, and I know that from personal experience.  Last year Marie, the office coordinator where I work, pointed out that I had not been using my vacation days. Worse, she told me to forget about saving them for a rainy day.  It’s a strict policy of “use ‘em or lose ‘em.  Your choice.”

52FBACE7-14BE-41EA-A839-A98139A2E722Since then I’ve tried to sprinkle days off here and there, but recently I set aside five days, out of a sense of duty of course.  After all, I mused, it could be a sin to waste non-renewable resources like vacation days.  Besides, they might even do me some good.

So I packed, but in the process I caught myself stowing into the bag papers and notes that needed attention.  With free time on my hands, vacation would be the perfect time to catch up on office work.  But then the absurdity of that hit me, and I pulled out the papers and left the work at home.

The good news was that my travel bag was six pounds lighter than usual.  Better still, I didn’t die by going cold turkey on work.  In fact, I came back refreshed, with a boatload of new ideas that resulted from a mind left to daydream and wander.

Some people may be surprised to learn that the monastic tradition allows for vacations.  In his Rule Saint Benedict makes no provision for them, perhaps because there were no good resorts nearby — or anywhere, for that matter.  On top of that, it’s hard to imagine places more remote than Subiaco or Monte Cassino.  By definition they were “out of the way.”

74460939-230C-456C-AC98-4F472FAE30A4But if Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations, medieval monks did.  Sometimes this involved travel to other monasteries.  Sometimes it meant a short stint in the infirmary, where diet and schedules were relaxed.  It’s in that tradition that monasteries today make allowance for “time away” for monks.  It’s an accepted premise that it’s good for a monk to be away every now and again, and his absence can even come as a welcome relief to confreres left behind.

As a Christian and a monk I’m normally not inclined to be a biblical fundamentalist, but in the month of July I am sorely tempted to be so in the case of Mark 6:30.  First of all, it’s one of Jesus’ best comands, but it’s also grist for reflection on what “time away” is really all about.  Jesus does not explicitly say to leave business back at the office, but that’s a logical inference from the passage.  Likewise, its allegorical implications don’t allow equivalence between heavy remodeling at the cabin or serious boat repair with “time away.”  They just aren’t the same at all, at least in my book.

Anyway, a few days away didn’t do me any harm.  The monastery didn’t collapse in my absence.  My colleagues at the office didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs, pining for my return.  And on top of everything, I came back with a ready answer for anyone who asked how I spent my vacation.  “I was doing the work of the Lord.”


+On July 17th, after evening prayer, the community and several friends of the abbey gathered for a briefing on the expansion of the pipe organ in the church.  Due to insufficient funds when the church was built, we only completed half of the planned pipes.  We are currently in the process of completing what we started nearly sixty years ago, and the work will double the current 3,000 pipes.  Austrian-born organ-builder Martin Pasi, whose workshop is in Tacoma, WA, detailed his progress, and he and his team have now finished 2,000 of the pipes.  For those unfamiliar with the abbey church, the original plan showed pipes spilling out on either side of a large red screen above the altar.  When finished in 2020, visitors will no longer need to ask where the organ pipes are, since they will flank the screen, as originally planned.  We were also delighted to learn that the abbey woodworking staff will be making the large 32-foot pipes.  It will be nice to have something locally made in the project.

+On 20 July I was in downtown Minneapolis for a long meeting that adjourned at 3 pm.  Alas, I got stuck in the Friday afternoon traffic to the lakes and cabins of northwestern Minnesota.  What normally should take an hour and fifteen minutes took two hours.  It did not change my mind about the need for travel to remote places, but I’m left wondering why everybody has to do it at the same time, on a Friday afternoon.

+Today’s reflection is on Mark 6:30, which was the opening verse of the gospel for this last Sunday.  The summer sun casts a unique light on the abbey church, as some of today’s photos suggest.  The photo of the pipes was taken at Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  By 2020 these pipes will be fitted into their new home at Saint John’s.


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Saint Benedict:  Seeker of God in Ordinary Things.

Saint Benedict never struck me as the sort who aspired to have his own feast day in the liturgical calendar.  Nor would he have taken well to the title “Patriarch of Western Monasticism.”  On the contrary, all of this likely would have left him slightly embarrassed, because none of it squares with the simple life that he chose.  For someone who sought the presence of God in the ordinary, such grand gestures would have seemed entirely superfluous.

That said, there’s no denying the enduring influence of Saint Benedict.  Born in Umbria in the late 400’s, he went to Rome for studies.  There he found the social scene repugnant, and soon he fled to the mountains outside of Rome, where he began his search for God.  From his experience as a hermit and then as an abbot, he drew the principles that undergird his appreciation of human behavior.  From Eastern sources like Saints Basil and John Cassian and especially from his meditation on the Scriptures, he knit together a spirituality that puts him squarely in the Wisdom tradition of Christian writing.

E6D23A48-6235-44E5-8285-382FDEC17E48From all this Benedict distilled the elements that went into his Rule for Monks.  Today, nearly 1,500 years later, his Rule still guides men and women living the monastic life.  That might not surprise him all that much.  But his popularity among many outside of the cloister would likely astound him.

For modern readers there are passages in the Rule that may seem hopelessly dated.  But peel those away and you find a spiritual vision that centers on one fundamental goal.  People come to the monastery to seek God, and around that aspiration Benedict structures an experience that reveals God at every turn.

Benedict writes that the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.  All you need to do is to open your eyes.  First you will see God in the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community.  The monk also sees Christ in the sick brethren and in the guest and in the poor.  And in a departure from his sixth-century neighbors, Benedict writes that one can find wisdom (and God) even in the youngest of the brothers.  I’m tempted to say that if Benedict were writing today, in our youth-centered culture, he would have to reverse the teaching.  Only then would we understand the counter-cultural statements he often made.

59087894-7378-46E7-9D0B-280396B38F37In the monastery Benedict proposes a balanced life which is neither harsh nor burdensome.  Monks are to work and pray, but they are not to engage in the competitive ascetical practices that distinguished earlier generations of monks in Egypt and Palestine.  His monks were to have enough to eat, sufficient sleep, decent clothing and all the other things that were necessary for life — in proportion to each monk’s need.  In fact, Benedict discouraged any self-denial that might stir up pride.  His asceticism was not a regimen of doing without, but rather doing pretty much the same as everyone else.

While prayer and meditation predominate in his monastic schedule, Benedict’s emphasis on the importance of work was unusual for Roman society.  For him all work was noble and all monks should work.  Neither should they take pride in their talents, nor should they denigrate those who labor at menial jobs.  Every task and every person has value in the monastery.

So what does Benedict have to offer to the 21st century?  First, and despite our tendency to think otherwise, Benedict reminds us that God is not absent from our world.  God regularly appears in the poor and the sick, and in the faces of our family and friends.  And perhaps God even shines forth in our own faces when we serve others.

When it comes to a balanced life, Benedict is equally pointed in his critique.  Contemporary culture tends to value work above all else, and the highly-paid are the most respected of all.  But in Benedict’s estimation all work is noble, and all who work for the good of others deserve our respect.  Nor should we dismiss non-economic activity as worthless.  Prayer has no monetary value, nor do music and recreation and time spent with family and friends.  But in so many ways those are the activities that make life worth living.

We shouldn’t need a saint to remind us of this.  But on the other hand, someone who does recall us to these priorities has to be among the saints of God.  Maybe that’s why we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict.  He certainly doesn’t need this feast day;  but we do.


+On July 11 we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  Today’s post first appeared in 2013 in The Abbey Banner, which Saint John’s Abbey publishes for its friends.  To my knowledge I’ve never used this article in this blog before, so in the interests of conservation (my time and wits, primarily) I decided to recycle it as today’s post.  It worked in 2013, and not all that much has changed in our appreciation of Saint Benedict since then.

+On July 11th we witnessed the first profession of vows by Brother Jacob Berns, as well as the renewal of vows by several of our confreres.  To cite the youngest and oldest of them, Brother Simon-Hoa celebrated his 25th anniversary, and Fr. Hilary marked the 70th anniversary since his first profession.  Brother Jacob grew up in Perham, MN, and is an alumnus of Saint John’s University.  After graduation he worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, and then worked in music ministry in his parish.  He plays the viola and organ (not simultaneously), and I look forward to hearing him at the organ console soon.

Likely the highlight of the profession Mass was a communion hymn sung by Brothers Andrew, Thomas, Emmanuel, and Benedict — the four Cistercian monks from Vietnam who have been living and studying with us.  They were joined by a Florida priest-friend of Brother Simon-Hoa.  With four of them singing in Vietnamese and Brother Benedict playing the flute, their voices literally stole the show.

8EC0EF55-3234-482B-904D-56E4FF8CEECD+On July 14-15 we hosted 75 oblates of the monastery, who returned to Saint John’s for the annual oblate retreat.

+On July 15 we hosted at Mass and lunch some 30 Abbey volunteers who generously contribute their time and energy in a host of activities around the monastery.

+Saint Benedict wrote that “guests are never wanting” in a monastery, and that has certainly been the case this summer.  For several days we have been blessed with the presence of Bishop Felipe Estévez, from Florida.  The bishop of Saint Augustine, he prayed with us and joined us for meals in the monastic refectory.  We thoroughly enjoyed his company.  Currently we are hosting Frs. Efrem de Montellá and Bernat Juliol from the Abbey of Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  They direct the Escolonia, the choir school at Montserrat; and they have been here to talk about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  For several years we have had graduates of Saint John’s working there as volunteers, and they continue a relationship between our two abbeys that stretches back nearly a century.

+The top three photos in today’s post show the site of Benedict’s first monastery, at Subiaco, outside of Rome.  At Saint John’s images of Saint Benedict abound.  The stone etching of Benedict’s motto — “Work and Pray” — is embedded in the exterior brick of the Quadrangle, while the granite carving of Saint Benedict is mounted on the wall inside of the east cloister walk of the monastery.  Benedict’s preference for remote locations is confirmed by the view from Monte Cassino, at bottom.  The monastery is renaissance in design, but the view of the clouds and countryside is as Benedict left it.


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Christmas:  An Everyday Feast

“The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance.”

So wrote Saint Benedict in chapter 49 of his Rule, and I confess up front that I’ve always had problems with this.  For one thing, it conjures up a way of life that is monochromatic.  It seems cheerless.  It appears to be an endless cycle of drudgery, day in and day out.  It also makes Lent the sole season of the church year, with gray chosen as the liturgical color.  Given all that, what about the other seasons of the year?  And specifically, what happened to Christmas?

I don’t want to get too detailed about this, but Saint Benedict lived on the eve of a critical transition in the liturgical practice of Western monasteries.  Whatever Christians may have done elsewhere, the celebration of great feasts in the monastery was not yet what it was to become.  Saint Gregory the Great provides good insight into this when he writes of an instance when a visitor called on Benedict in his hermitage.  The visitor was astonished to discover that the holy man had no idea that it was the Easter season.

DFABBC6E-6B2C-42B5-8F01-6C179961DC3FI can’t fault Benedict for the simplicity that marked his years as a hermit.  You can’t do much when your processions are one person long, and a cave scarcely provides the setting for an elaborate liturgy.  However, his move to Monte Cassino provided both the community and the liturgical space that started the ball rolling.  In time the observance of an elaborate liturgy that included Christmas became the thread that set the tone for their lives.

So how do we monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrate Christmas?  For one thing, Saint Benedict would wonder where all those decorated trees came from, but at least he would appreciate their contrast with the darkness of the season.  Beyond that, our Christmas Eve liturgy is solemn, and the Christmas Day feast in the refectory is distinctive, both for its menu and its ritual.  It’s both a joyful and strenuous regimen, and more than a few of us close the feast with a nap.

Certainly Benedict did not legislate for this, but there’s another point to consider.  Benedict may have characterized the life of a monk as a Lenten observance, but it is a way of life that makes vivid the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.  At every turn monks should see the face of Christ — in the abbot, in the novice, in the sick or elderly, and especially in the guest.  Perhaps for this reason Benedict did not see the need to restrict the celebration of the Incarnation to one particular day.  In fact, in the monastery we should strive to celebrate that feast every day.

This being January 1st — yet one more day which Benedict did not observe — it’s a traditional time to make resolutions for the new year.  No doubt most monks will set one or the other personal goals, but one goal for us all is to live the Incarnation every day.  Even though our lives may have the character of a Lenten observance, one bit should pervade it all.  The Lord still comes, just as he did at Bethlehem.  The only difference is that he now comes every day.


+On December 26th I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I saw a special exhibit of 17th-century cityscape paintings, primarily of Venice and Rome.  Most of the canvasses were monumental in size, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people rushed out afterwards to buy plane tickets to Italy.

+The next day the weather became far more severe, and the cold has become a cruel jailer.  I did not venture out of doors for several days, but on New Year’s Eve I finally caved in and drove to St. Cloud to buy a new battery for my watch.  It had died four days earlier, and it was a little odd wandering around without knowing the time.  In a monastery monks can rely on the bells for time — in theory — but when it gets very cold we turn off our bells to avoid cracking them.  That was the case for our bells this week, and so for a few days my life was timeless.

+On December 31st we monks celebrated the eve of 2018 with our traditional gathering, which includes various games, visiting with one another, and pizza made by our Brother Dennis.  A few hardy souls stayed up to greet the new year;  but as is my custom, I brought in the new year in solidarity with the people living two time zones to the east of Minnesota.

+To all who read my blog I thank you for your occasional messages and comments.  I continue to enjoy writing this, and it’s an important part of my routine.  But it’s always encouraging to know that faithful readers continue and new readers subscribe to it.  Thank you, and I wish you all a happy New Year!

+The early 16th-century stained glass in today’s post originally came from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the Victoria & Albert in London.


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imageThree Days, Three Monasteries

Most tours to Italy try to carve out overly-ambitious itineraries that include way too many stops.  After all, the logic argues, if you go all that distance, why wouldn’t you want to cram in as much as possible?  But of course you can never see even a fraction of what’s there; so you have to choose, whether you like it or not.

My just-completed visit to Benedictine sites in Italy must seem like gross underachievement to some.  Our group could have seen a dozen sites a day.  We could have raced through churches, palaces, ruins and the like until we choked.  But we didn’t.  On the principle that more is actually less, I decided to focus on less when I built the schedule.  So we ended up — not with a blur of too much information — but with the memory and insight that come from seeing just a few things well.

So it was that we twenty-five visited the monasteries of Norcia, Monte Cassino, and Subiaco, in as many days.  All are in the region of Umbria; each played a distinctive part in the life of Saint Benedict; and each today houses a community of monks.  But to the surprise of many in our group, all similarities ended there.  Last week many learned that if you’ve seen one monastery, you’ve not seen ’em all.  Nor is there such a thing as the stereotpyical, one-size-fits-all, monk.

imageTradition says that Saints Benedict and his twin Scholastica were born in Norcia.  A monastery has stood in the center of town for ages, but only in 2000 did a community return to set up shop after a hiatus of nearly two hundred years.  Today the town still owns the monastery, but it has welcomed the monks with open arms.  For ages the town has staked its reputation on hams and sausages, which are truly excellent.  But in a tough economy many of the civic leaders decided that a restored monastery might be good not only for the spirit but for business as well.  Time tells all, but I think their judgement is sound.

Monte Cassino sits in solitary splendor on top of its mountain, just as it has since Saint Benedict set up shop there in the early 500’s.  Unlike the modest buildings at Norcia, Monte Cassino overwhelms visitors with its renaissance arcades and its baroque interior.  It’s huge and imposing, and it just swallows you up.  Perhaps that explains why it’s been such a tempting target ever since the Lombards destroyed it in the 6th century.  Each time it has risen from the ashes, in tribute to the grit and determination of the monks.

Finally, Subiaco is the place where Benedict began his search for God.  He found refuge in a cave high in the mountains, and today the monastery encases the cave as it clings to the side of the mountain.  Here it’s not the exterior that impresses, however.  Instead, the building protects a collection of frescos that any museum would covet. Among them is the only life-portrait of Saint Francis, painted shortly after one of the monks recognized their famous guest.

imageThese monasteries each merit a visit, but our group learned something that most tourists fail to notice.  Monasteries may or may not have great art or great geography, but that’s not what really distinguishes them.  After all, there are monasteries with no monks that are equally impressive.  Instead, it is the community that makes the monastery, and no two communities are alike.  Some communities are tired and barely cling to life, while others are marked by warmth and vitality.  And they thrive or decline not because of any magic formula in their way of life.  Rather, it all depends upon their willingness to search for the face of God every now and then.

The second lesson is this:  monasteries differ because no two monks are alike.  Perhaps this was the biggest discovery for many in our group.  Those among us who had spent time at Saint John’s already knew this, but others were surprised by the unique personalities we encountered.  At Norcia the prior came after Mass to offer warm words of welcome.  Later, guestmaster Brother Ignatius let his lunch go cold as he went from table to table to speak with each person individually.  Quiet enthusiasm radiated from his face, and each of us easily imagined spending more time with him.

imageAt Monte Cassino the 90-year-old monk who greeted us did not have quite the same energy, and his words of welcome reached only a few ears.  Perhaps he had seen way too many a tour bus in the course of his life.  By contrast, Fr. Mauricio at Subiaco seemed to possess boundless energy.  Who knows how many groups he had ushered through those halls as he explained one fresco after another?  He was an over-the-top guide that day, as he probably was the day before, and will be tomorrow.

So what were our take-aways from visits to three Benedictine monasteries in three days?   For one thing, no one left with the impression that if you’ve seen one monastery you’ve seen them all.  No two are alike.  Nor did anyone leave thinking that monks come from cookie-cutters.  Each monk comes to the monastery with a distinct personality, and each remains a unique gift to his community.

imageI hope my fellow pilgrims picked up on one last insight that most tourists scarcely grasp.  People do not join monasteries because they have a calling to be a monk.  Rather, they enter because they have a calling to be a monk within a particular community.  This is what sets Benedictines apart from Franciscans, Jesuits and all the rest.  The latter go where the needs of the Order might dictate.  For us monks, place is all-important.  In one place, and in one family, monks pursue the face of God.

Happily, at Norcia and Monte Cassino and Subiaco the monks see the face of God in each other, and I hope they do so every day.  But they also get to see Christ in the visitors who climb out of the fleet of coaches that pull up every day.  Perhaps they even saw Christ in us last week.  And, in return, I believe we glimpsed the face of Christ in them as they welcomed us.


+On March 3rd I and my fellow pilgrims visited the monastery of Norcia, in Umbria, where tradition says Saint Benedict was born.

+On March 5th we visited the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where it rained torrentially.  It was the only foul weather of our trip.

+On March 6th we visited the Abbey of Subiaco, where glorious sunshine and high winds greeted us.

+On March 4th the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s University joined our group as we visited three Roman churches.  Mark Greci and John Dube are spending a year of service at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo, the Benedictine headquarters in Rome.

+On March 8th several volunteers joined several monks in tapping over 1,000 maple trees at Saint John’s.  This marks the beginning of the maple syrup season, and it also allows us to  hope realistically for spring.

+The first two photos in today’s post come from Norcia, followed by two from Monte Cassino.  The last three come from Subiaco, where the fresco cycles are among the finest in Italy.


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imageContext is Everything

For years one of my confreres at Saint John’s had on his office wall a framed piece of embroidery.  It was plain and homespun, and the dark blue thread on white cloth suggested that it had once hung by the hearth in a colonial New England farmhouse.  It was no great piece of art, and certainly it was not the child-like quality of the stitching that stopped people in their tracks.  No, that honor went to the message, which was a one-word quotation from the Gospels.  “Sin. (John 8:11)”  That was it.  No gospel passage could speak more eloquently — not least because it had an unfamiliar ring to it.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there was more to this message than met the eye.  Even the novice scripture scholars knew instinctively that this passage had been taken out of context.  And if they were industrious enough to look it up, they quickly discovered that John the Evangelist did not intend to encourage more sinning.  Neither then nor now do people need any encouragement in the sinning department.  And for his part John was encouraging quite the opposite.

imageThis may seem an odd lead-in to a reflection on Pope Francis, but perhaps it’s not so inappropriate after all.  We recently observed the first anniversary of his election as pope, and that day yielded a flood of words from pundits all over the place.  Not a few comments were especially cogent, while much of the rest ranged from blatantly self-serving to wildly speculative.  But the one element common to much of this was the eagerness to take the pope’s words out of context.

Despite first impressions, the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks are not mere blathering and unscripted asides.  Rather, they derive from a rich intellectual and pastoral underpinning, and most commentators have neither the time to research it nor the space to include it in their columns.

Remarkably, the honeymoon period for Pope Francis has yet to dry up, and he remains one  of the most fascinating persons on the planet.  Despite that popularity, however, there are not a few who’ve begun to entertain their doubts about him, perhaps because he has yet to deliver on the wish lists that they’d sent in the day after his election.  As far as I can tell, Francis has yet to become the puppet of any one pundit, and that has to be a little disconcerting for the talking heads.

imageThat brings me to the main point as I reflect on the pope’s first year in his no-longer-new job.  If there’s one sure way to understand Pope Francis just a bit better, then I would recommend that you go and read his work directly, rather than read what someone else says he said.  Gleaning snippets of his thought from secondary sources really is no substitute.  From them you will get phrases taken out of context, as well as ideas that are untethered from the principles that have guided the pope through much of his life.

So as the confetti settles after the party, I’ve recommitted myself to two courses of action.  First off, if I’m going to take Pope Francis seriously, then I may as well go straight to the horse’s mouth.  His sermons and talks are readily accessible on the web site of the Vatican Information Service, and that’s the best place to start.  And should I choose to read someone else’s reflection on Pope Francis, it’s always important to consider the source.

imageSecond, as important a figure as Pope Francis may be, knowing about him is no substitute for actually going out and living my own life as a Christian.  I’m indebted for that insight to Cardinal Francis George, who has lamented the fascination with all things Roman as sometimes a little unhealthy.  To that I would add that not a few people seem to hang on every word that emanates from the halls of the Vatican.  Scholars have written about the “creeping infallibility” that has caused some ecclesiastics to doubt the pope’s infallibilty but not their own.  To that I would add that in some minds even the Vatican janitors speak with apostolic authority.  But if the pope is the “servant of the servants of God,” then who might these other people be in the larger scheme of things?

What Cardinal George cautions against is a steady disengagement from parish life, as creative minds wander the Vatican halls, at least in their imaginations.  At the end of the day, this is just another case of fascination with celebrities, but it’s a fascination with an unintended byproduct.   It detaches us from the parish and religious communities where we are most likely to encounter the face of Christ.

imageNow that I think about it, I’ve never found Christ on the internet, nor in the pages of a journal, nor on the radio.  In fact, when I’ve been privileged to see the face of Christ I’ve always been standing next to ordinary flesh-and-blood people.  When I’ve seen Christ in my fellow monks and in my neighbors, I once again realize how important those relationships really are in building the kingdom of God.  That’s where I and all of us show the love and mercy and support and all those other things that Pope Francis speaks about so regularly.  That I suppose, is the real context of our lives.

So I may be citing Pope Francis out of context, and if I’m putting words into his mouth I apologize.  But on his first anniversary as pope, I suspect that Pope Francis might borrow freely from the words uttered by the angel to the apostles, as they scanned the heavens for the ascended Lord.  “Why are you standing around looking up to heaven, or to anywhere else for that matter?  Go out and do the Lord’s work, and get a life while  you’re at it.”


+On March 24th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, FL.

+On March 29th I gave a day of reflection for area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  The event took place at the Newman Center at the University of Washington, which is staffed by the Dominicans.  They kindly offered me gracious hospitality while I was in Seattle, and the day allowed me to reconnect with many local friends from the Order of Malta.

+On March 19th we were delighted by the announcement that our confrere, Fr. Matthew Luft, had successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in liturgical studies at The Catholic University of America.

+On March 21st our confrere, Brother Liting John Chrysostom Long, pronounced his solemn vows at our priory in Japan, Holy Trinity Monastery.  Abbot John was there to receive his vows.

image+On March 26th Bishop Denis Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and chair of the US Bishops Committee on Ecumenism & Interreligious Affairs, spoke at Saint John’s University. His presentation dealt with the anniversary of Vatican II and the document Lumen Gentium.

+On March 29th we were saddened by the passing of our confrere, Fr. Daniel Durken.  Fr. Daniel taught scripture to generations of students at Saint John’s University, and also served for several years as director of the Liturgical Press.  We will miss his wit and wisdom.

+The first five pictures in today’s post come from Monte Cassino, Saint Benedict’s monastery outside of Rome.  During World War II it was completely destroyed, and on March 21st, the feast of Saint Benedict, the monks and friends of Monte Cassino celebrated the anniversary of its restoration.  The next two photos show Brother John Chrysostom pronouncing his vows before Abbot John, and the community following profession.  No doubt Saint Benedict would be more than amazed at the thought that monks would be following his Rule in Japan in the 21st century.


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