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Posts Tagged ‘Montmartre’

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Pentecost:  An Everyday Sort of Feast

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the great parables of the Old Testament.  In brief, it describes a group of people who assumed they had no limits, and they expressed this in a tower that would reach endlessly upward.  But of course they failed;  and as the tale concludes, God frustrated their designs through the introduction of languages that disrupted their common purpose.

I call it a parable because that’s really what it is.  On the one hand it certainly does try to explain the variety of languages that impedes seamless communication among people.  On the other hand, it’s a parable that explains why humans as a group have such a hard time staying on topic and on mission.  One day we all agree on a common goal, but the next day rugged individualism and tribalism interfere with the best of common pursuits.

2A7EC61B-1D14-4A61-B2A7-D371C0D189C8Beyond that, the Tower of Babel is a parable of hubris.  Somehow people had come to the conclusion that they had created themselves.  In a flight of fancy they believed that they were like God or perhaps no longer needed God.  They imagined themselves to be almighty; and the Tower of Babel was only one of several instances in which God disabused them of that notion.

That’s a key bit of context for Pentecost.  Gathered in an upper room and afraid of the world on the other side of the door, the disciples were paralyzed with fear.  They locked the door, I suppose in hopes that the world might go away.  Then came the Spirit, and with the Spirit came the power to break free of the consequences of Babel.  Variety of languages no longer constrained them.  They spoke of the Lord in all languages, and in their new-found freedom the sky was the limit.

In retrospect it’s easy to appreciate how all of this energized the apostles.  On the one hand, they were the same people as before.  They still had their limits, and they knew them.  But the Spirit breathed new life into them, and the apostles then earned the right to take as their own the words of Mary.  The Lord began to do great things through them, just as he had done with Mary.

I suspect most of us don’t think about how the Spirit can work through us.  Most days I assume that the Spirit works primarily through other people.  Leadership is the responsibility of others.  Action is the responsibility of people of talent and energy.  And the works of the Spirit are for people far better positioned than I.  But of course on all counts I’m wrong.  All of these items are in my job description too.  As God did with Mary and the apostles, the Lord does with me:  the Lord can and will do great things.

6282581C-AF49-4349-8CB9-D00BC479D7CEFor centuries preachers have spoken of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, and that’s certainly true.  It’s the day on which the Spirit came to rest on the apostles and told them to stop sitting around and get on with life.  Jesus had come to give life, and to give it in abundance.  It was the job of the apostles to carry on with that work.

But the gifts of the Spirit did not end on that one day.  I give the apostles credit for realizing that the job was far bigger than they, and they immediately went off and shared responsibility.  They breathed on others the life of the Holy Spirit when they baptised.  They conferred the Holy Spirit when they imposed hands on others in confirmation.  They were the first to recognize that the Spirit was not meant for them alone.  The Spirit is meant for all, and the Spirit is a gift that speaks across any and all human boundaries — and not just the linguistic ones.

For the disciples Pentecost was the beginning of a strange and wonderful pilgrimage, and that same Spirit animates us as well.  That same Spirit urges us to step out from the sidelines and engage in life to the fullest.  The Spirit invites us to let the Lord accomplish some pretty significant things in us — things that could very well surprise us.

So it is that it’s nice to celebrate Pentecost once a year.  Still, the point of Pentecost is this:  it’s an everyday sort of feast.  It’s a reminder of how the Spirit empowers us to reach out and accomplish the impossible, even if it has to be on a weekday.

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+This past week we hosted in the Abbey the twenty-two individuals who will comprise this fall’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  All graduated from Saint John’s University on May 13th, and so this marked their first week out of school since kindergarten.  It was a real delight to have them with us during their weeklong retreat in preparation for service next year in Benedictine monasteries around the world.

+I just finished reading a book which a good friend gave me for Christmas.  Now that I’ve finished it, I realize it did not really reflect anything of the Christmas spirit, but it was entertaining, to say the least.  Jeffrey Lee’s God’s Wolf tells the story of Reynald de Chatillon, who turned out to be one of the most unscrupulous of the 12th-century crusaders in the Holy Land.  To his credit, Reynald did succeed in bringing Christians and Muslims together in a common appreciation for him.  It seems that people on all sides came to mistrust him.  And it likewise seems that he was noted for his indiscriminate violence, if both Christian and Muslim sources are to be trusted.  The book reads almost like a novel, and it illustrates how complex politics in the Middle East can be, even in the 12th century.

+In last week’s post I showed illustrations from the Abbey of Saint Pierre on top of Montmartre in Paris.  I noted that most of the people who trek up the hill rarely visit the abbey, but they flock in droves to Sacre Coeur, its more famous neighbor.  It truly is an impressive edifice, as these photos suggest.

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Will the Stones Speak of Us?

The landscape of Europe is littered with monastic establishments.  Some are ruins, whose skeletons reach up to the open skies.  Others are fragments of their former selves, and they long ago surrendered most of their stones to builders of cottages and manor houses and garden walls.  But every now and again there’s an impressive remnant to remind us modern folk of the Spirit that once animated the people who lived in these sacred spaces.

At the end of my recent pilgrimage to Lourdes some friends and I passed through Paris, and one morning we visited the stately basilica of Sacre Coeur.  It perches on the highest point in the city, and there it stands as something of a poke-in-the-eye of the Revolution in France.  It’s stately and amazing, even to a jaded critic like me;  and I was glad to have the chance to wander its aisles once again.

C4589408-1357-454A-85F3-079FBB06D06AHowever, I have to confess that I and my fellow pilgrims were there for different reasons.  They had come to see the late 19th-century basilica in all its glory.  I, on the other hand, came to get a peek once again at its lowly neighbor — the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre.

My first and last visit to Saint Pierre was in the 1980s.  When I walked through its doors back then it turned out to be a huge disappointment.  The church was filled with dust that I assumed had accumulated since the monks had vacated the place in 1789.  Still worse, it was dark and decrepit and seemed ripe for the wrecking ball.  Given those times, that seemed a likely fate.

I returned wondering whether there was anything left of it, and I dreaded the sight of the tourist outlet that must have replaced it.  To my surprise, however, the church was still standing.  Even better, it had gone through a metamorphosis.  The dust was gone.  New stones had replaced the battered ones.  And signs of rejuvenated pastoral activity were everywhere.  Once again it was in the business of serving the spiritual needs of the denizens of Montmartre as well as the herds of tourists who accidentally wander in.

10E149F3-94C7-4211-BFE0-A39DF139AF6BThe most striking elements were the new stained glass windows.  There were also a few new statues, including one of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris.  He was beheaded on Montmartre, and according to legend he picked up his severed head and walked away.  In this rendition the headless bishop couldn’t look more casual and relaxed.  And as for me, I thought of all those skeptics who naturally scorn such stories.  In answer to them Saint Denis stands there with his head and a nonchalant “so what!” on his lips.  After all, his story is no more far-fetched than most of the urban legends that we swallow uncritically today.

I left Saint Pierre with a comforting sense of reassurance.  While individual souls may be granted eternal life, God makes no such promises to monasteries.  Monasteries come and go, in response to the changing times.  That said, the monks who lived at Saint Pierre in the course of 850 years have every right to savor the legacy they have left on Montmartre.  After all these years their silent witness still touches the lives of all sorts of people.  And even if it was never their original intention to draw tourists from around the world, that’s okay.  That part of their legacy may have been unintentional, but God works in mysterious ways.

Here I find a certain consolation as I try to live my own life as a Christian and a monk.  Who knows how many lives any of us touch?  Who knows whether we do so for good or for ill?  All the same, it seems to me that we all ought to work with whatever resources God has given to us, and to let God figure out what sort of legacy we will leave.  And whether the stones will speak of us fondly a hundred years from now is a matter for future generations to decide.  But in the meantime, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be of some service to our neighbors in the here and now.  That in itself is legacy enough.

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+The conclusion of our Order of Malta pilgrimage was anything but uneventful.  For days some of us who planned to return through Paris watched the train schedule with apprehension.  Sure enough they were true to their word and the train operators went on strike on the day we had to return to Paris.  Our only recourse was to hire a van and drive from the south of France to the north, which made for a very long day.  What made it personally excruciating were the exit signs on the freeway.  Every few miles we passed a place that that I had read about for years, but of course there was no way we could stop and see even a single one.  That was a tough experience for me, but at least I now know where all those places are.

+Fortunely Air France was not on strike on the day of my departure.  I was to connect with a Delta flight in London, but alas the Air France and Delta computers were not speaking with one another on the morning when I checked in at the Air France desk.  They told me that my London flight had been cancelled and that I had to go to the Delta desk to find out what to do.  It was early in the morning, and the Delta desk was not open yet.  When it did open they told me the flight was not cancelled, and that I would have to return to speak with the people at Air France.  By then we had frittered away two hours, and with 45 minutes before departure I still had not checked in or gone through security.  It turned out that everyone was a little right and a little wrong.  The flight did depart from London, but it was several hours late.  Thankfully I made it through security in Paris and met the connection in London, but I also vowed never to construct such an itinerary again.

+The photos in today’s post show the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre, that sits next to Sacre Coeur on top of Montmartre.  Needless to say, the abbey runs a poor second in attracting visitors, but that makes it a more awesome place to visit.

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