Posts Tagged ‘Mother Theresa of Calcutta’

imagePope Francis Revisited

I confess that I have long been a fan of the rather warped humor in The Onion.  For those unfamiliar with its unique brand of satire, it specializes in articles that open with a faint ring of truth, and then lead you on with a sense of plausibility.   Only after a paragraph or two do readers begin to question the veracity of what’s there.  And what’s there is some of the cleverest fiction you can find anywhere in the newspapers.

Among my all-time favorites was the headline Florida State Announces Phase-out of Academics.  The story sounded official enough, since it opened with a statement from the office of the University president, announcing that all degree programs would be phased out.  This would at last free the football program to be the sole remaining department in that venerable institution of higher sports and learning.  At a stroke, he asserted, this would solve all the problems that have beset the players, whose academic programs had served no useful purpose anyway.  Many a coach around the country was taken in by the article, no doubt.  Many must have wondered aloud how they could do the same with their sponsoring institutions.  But alas, it was all a clever fraud.

In recent years The Onion has lost its competitive edge, however, and the reason for this is no secret.  Mainline newspapers have struggled for readership, and not a few have begun to infringe on the format of The Onion.  If fake or scarcely-researched news sells better than the real stuff, then why not give people what they want?

imageI was reminded of this by the spate of articles that have offered analysis of the words of Pope Francis, and not a few of these deserve to be on the pages of The Onion.  I laughed out loud, for example, at the commentator who speculated that the pope might at last allow nuns to marry.  In the Catholic tradition, for those who don’t know, a nun is someone who does not marry in order to commit herself to the service of God.  Allowing nuns to marry — and remain nuns — is like declaring that from now on black will be white and white black.  Maybe I missed a key piece in the writer’s logic, or maybe there was no logic there at all.  After careful thought, I’m leaning toward the latter interpretation.

Yet another howler came under the headline The Pope is a Liberal.  Since in his recent interview Pope Francis denied that he had ever been a right-winger, the writer rushed to conclude that the pope must therefore be a liberal, obviously.  What else could he be?  Well, there are other choices, including moderate, slightly left or right-of-center, as well as my own personal favorite: None of the above.  The author then quoted snippets from Pope Francis that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the pope is a liberal.  In fact, the quotations demonstrated two things.  First, they showed the pope’s mastery of the theological tradition of the Church.  Virtually everything he said in the interview comes out of that deep tradition.  Secondly, the citations also proved that the author of the article knew about as much theology as a mushroom (to cite a blast from the past against Meister Eckhardt.)  The language of Pope Francis did indeed sound new, but only to the mind of this unlettered journalist.

imageI don’t want to be too harsh on journalists, since most of them are doing their best with very limited resources.  Years ago newspapers stopped hiring writers who knew much of anything about religion.   That’s why, despite two big wars, most Americans still cannot tell the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni.  Not surprisingly then, writers often borrow from what they know best and apply the template to Catholic theology.  If American politics is either liberal or conservative, then so must be the Church.  What else is there?

Attempts by the mainline press and other media to pigeonhole Pope Francis are ultimately futile because Pope Francis defies such simplistic categories.  His love for Jesus Christ is steeped in the tradition of the Church and ultimately rests on the Gospels.  His love for pastoral work is rooted in his own experience as a shepherd of souls.  His love for the poor rests on his daily experience of seeing the poor and suffering all around him in Buenos Aires.  In these concerns he is neither radically liberal nor modern, nor is he alone.  Bishops and pastors and Catholics in pews around the world share these same priorities.

imageWhat Francis does seem to bring to the table is a sense of urgency that one also finds in the New Testament.  To carry the metaphor further, there are indeed times when one should care about how the table is set, but there are other times when it is more important to invite people to the table.  In the mind of Pope Francis, these are those times.

There is nothing unconventional or radically modern about wanting to help those who are hurting.  Ever since Jesus preached the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christians have seen it as a biblical command to help their injured neighbor get out of the ditch.  The fact that someone is hurting is qualification enough.  One need not nor ought not take an inventory of the injured party’s political or religious beliefs.  That can come later, if ever.  But for now the image of the Church as a field hospital is a most vivid one that Francis gives to believers of all stripes.

In the minds of serious analysts, the pope’s recent interview is a real blockbuster, and I would heartily agree.  It’s a blockbuster in his admission of his own mistakes.  It’s a blockbuster in his admission that sometimes the Church has run off on tangents and left people in the lurch and in the ditch, hurting.  It’s a blockbuster in his candid assessment that there is tremendous work to be done.

imageBut therein is the incredible hope he extends to all Catholics.  Francis reaches into the deep tradition of the Church to assemble his recipe for the regeneration of the Church.  He reminds us that the Church only lives and flourishes when its members serve those in greatest need.  And when he does that, Pope Francis reminds me of that other truly modern yet ancient figure, Mother Theresa.  She went out to the streets to collect the people whom the world labeled junk.  But all she wanted was to do something beautiful for God.  I suspect that idea might also be rattling around in the head of Pope Francis.

imageFor the pundits who may have written off the Church as dead, Pope Francis will likely be difficult to understand, if not a bitter pill to swallow.  They may even have to read a little theology to figure out what is going on.  As for the rest of us, if we want to understand all this, it might be best to go straight to the horse’s mouth, so to speak.  If you want to appreciate the fullness of what Francis has to say, don’t rely on some arid or overly-enthusiastic commentary.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t take my word for it.  Read the entire interview for yourself.  It’s truly astounding — like nothing you’ve ever heard from a pope.

And while I’ll warn you that it may not be the equal of the humor you’ll find in the pages of The Onion and its gaggle of imitators, it’ll surprise you nonetheless.  Who knows, it may even entertain.

To read the article for yourself visit http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview.


+On September 16th I said Mass and spoke at a luncheon in San Francisco for members of the Order of Malta in the Bay Area.  We celebrated the feast of the patron of the Order, Our Lady of Philermo.

+On 20-22 September I gave a three-day retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta, held in Huntington, Long Island.  Besides the chance to meet 86 wonderful people, I also got to fulfill one of the items on my own to-do list.  For four years I lived in Connecticut on Long Island Sound, and for four years I looked across and wondered what was over on the New York side.  At long last I spent the night on the North Shore of Long Island and got to stare back to the Connecticut Shore.   From a distance, I am sorry to say, they both look the same.  The pictures in today’s post are from the site of our retreat, Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington.

image+After only one year and three months of prayer, on September 20th we received a new bishop in our diocese of Saint Cloud, MN.  For the monks of Saint John’s this was a very special surprise.  Our new shepherd, Bishop Donald Kettler, was born in Minneapolis, grew up and was ordained in Sioux Falls, SD, and later became bishop of Fairbanks.  In his first official interview he describes his move to Saint Cloud as a bit of homecoming.  Why?  He graduated from Saint John’s University in 1966, and he completed his seminary training at Saint John’s in 1970.  So he is twice a graduate of our school, and he lived with us for eight years.  He has visited Saint John’s many times since, but this time around we welcome him home!

Read Full Post »

The Palace of the Grand Master, Malta

The Palace of the Grand Master, Malta

The Parable of the Cheese Sandwich

This past week we were on our annual retreat at Saint John’s Abbey, and our director was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP.  Fr. Timothy was for many years the Master of the Dominicans, and he currently serves as the Master of Blackfriars at Oxford.  Of even greater import for our purposes, Fr. Timothy is an eloquent preacher and prolific writer, which one would hope to find in a member of the Order of Preachers.  Even better, he speaks in a lovely English accent, which should surprise no one, since he’s from England after all.

I say “even better” because long ago we monks discovered what suckers we are when it comes to foreign accents.  For one thing, people with foreign accents sound so much smarter than we, since by implication they know two or more languages.  That’s at least one more than most of us speak.  And if an English accent doesn’t necessarily imply two languages, at least it suggests a level of worldly sophistication that many of us envy.  All things being equal, we’ll sit and listen to an English accent without complaining for hours on end.  Not so the American accent.  After all, what could an American monk possibly tell us that we don’t already know?

photoNo doubt Fr. Timothy’s experience, learning and wisdom all contributed to the success of his conferences.  But he also likes to season them with stories.  So plentiful and so charming were his stories, that many of us were swept up by them and often forgot the point of a particular conference.  We forgot, that is, until he reeled us back near the end of each talk.  Then, all of a sudden, we’d see the carefully-cut path through the trees and behold the magnificent forest laid out before us.

My favorite of his tales involved a group of co-workers who paused each day to take their lunch together.  With a curiosity more intense than his peers, one fellow took out his sandwich, opened it, and with undisguised pleasure declared:  “Ah, Cheeeeese.”  On Tuesday, they repeated the ritual.  But this time the enthusiasm was toned down.  “Oh.  Cheese again.”   By Wednesday a note of disappointment had seeped in.  “Oh no.  Not cheese again.”  By Thursday it had become:  “Rats.  Cheese again.”  And by Friday he had become thoroughly disgusted.  “Cheese.  Why is it always cheese, day after day after day?”

photoHis co-workers had watched with amusement, until on Friday one ventured to ask:  “Why don’t you ask your wife to make some other kind of sandwich?”  To which came the reply: “Oh, but it’s my job to make the sandwiches.”

Like any good parable, the story of the cheese sandwich is capable of many applications.  But I’ll start with the monastic life, because it’s what I know best.  We world-weary monks are accustomed to seeing novices come to the monastery with all the excitement in the world.  For them it’s a heady time, and on the day they are clothed in the habit the intensity of the spiritual life is especially acute.  The future is incredibly promising, and what we call “first fervor” seems to be both boundless and endless.  But it’s neither, as we all know.

Sooner or later reality sets in, and all of us begin to notice the little failings in the people around us.  It’s never easy coming to terms with people whom you realize are prone to lots of mistakes and even a few sins.  But  you have to reconcile yourself with them, somehow.  It’s doesn’t mean that we lower our expectations of one another.  Rather, it is a process of identification with our brothers.  They are fallible.  But so are we.  And once we admit that we are on a pilgrimage to God, together, then  it’s easier to accept our common lot.  As brothers we strive to do our best, and we have to help each other along the way.  That’s the reality that blossoms when the innocence of first fervor peters out.

photoBut a few never make it.  There comes a day when life in the monastery makes no sense.  In the face of the human, nothing seems to matter any longer.  The spiritual quest that brought us to the monastery begins to seem pointless.  It’s scarcely worth the effort to get out of bed or show up for anything.  This surrender is what John Cassian and others have called acedia.  It’s the noon-day devil, the terror of the night, in which life in the monastery — and perhaps life itself — seems pointless.  It’s devoid of any and all meaning.

That “dark night of the soul” has also gripped the likes of Mother Theresa and Theresa of Avila, as well as a host of lesser lights.  That number may even have included us as well.  For a while, or for a long time, the God whom we thought was there seems absent.  And then we wonder if God has abandoned us — as Jesus did on the cross.  And more desperately, we question whether there even is a God.  Such is the scourge of the noon-day devil.

photoThat experience is not isolated to our relationship with God, nor is it found exclusively in monasteries.  It happens to people in parish churches;  and it happens within marriages and friendships.  I presume, for example, that people marry for the best intentions in the world; and they do so in the full flower of love.  Then something happens, and the life drains out of the relationship.  The other person seems distant and alien, and it’s easy to believe that there was never any love there from day one.  Worse still, there’s no hope of repairing the relationship.  So why even try?

But the parable of the cheese sandwich suggests that our fundamental assumptions can sometimes be wrong.  What if our downward spiral is not someone else’s fault?  What if God is not the one who moved away?  What if it was not our spouse who did the changing? What if it was not our friend who was the one who grew cold and indifferent?  Does it ever occur to us that perhaps it was we who did the changing and the drifting?  At what point did we become so negative?  Could it be that we were the ones who blinded ourselves to the beauty of life?

photoThere’s no easy cure for acedia.  Waiting is part of the therapy, as is opening our eyes.  “Listen” is the first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and I think that too is a key ingredient.  Common to all is an openness to see God alive and working in our world, as well as in the people who mean so much to us.  Very often this means stretching ourselves to see God and others in new ways.  And it can mean seeing them as they are, rather than as we would like them to be.

I’ve long been fond of the movie “Babette’s Feast.”  In it an entire town seemed caught up in one grand case of acedia.  At the end, after a feast that was so transformative that it’s best described as Eucharistic, the townspeople wander out and behold the night sky.  One woman marvels at the bright stars, which never seemed so vibrant as on that night.  To which another woman responds:  “Perhaps they were always there, but we just never saw them.”

As for the guy who made the cheese sandwiches, I give thanks to God that I am not like him.  I definitely would have made the cheese sandwiches, all right.  But on Monday it would have been brie; on Tuesday gouda; on Wednesday cheddar; and on Thursday Stilton.  I’d let Friday be a surprise.


+Last week I hosted two individuals for private retreats at Saint John’s.  Fra Jeffrey Littell made a three-day retreat in preparation for the renewal of his temporary vows as a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta.  Fra Jeffrey is from Orange County, CA, and is a member of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, to which I am a chaplain.  Mr. Stephen Klimczuk is from Santa Fe, NM, and a member of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  His five-day retreat began his year of preparation to become a Knight in Obedience in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes.

photo+Last week friends of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University embarked on a tour to Malta.  The Knights came from Rhodes to Malta in 1530, and remained there until Napoleon conquered the island in 1798.  The buildings left behind by the Knights are impressive, and include the Grand Master’s Palace, which serves today as the seat of government of the nation of Malta.  But the spiritual heart of their presence in Malta remains the hospital, whose enormous wards housed hundreds of patients.  The Knights served the patients as “Our Lords the Sick and the Poor,” and in that spirit served their patients’ food and medication on silver plates.  Since they saw Christ in all the sick and the poor, the hospital served people of all religions, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew.  The pictures in today’s post come from Valletta, the capital that the Knights built.  For forty years the Malta Study Center at  HMML has worked to preserve the archives of the Order of Malta, housed at the National Library of Malta.

Read Full Post »

photo (73)The Dictator and the Doubter

Travel has its surprises, and certainly one of the biggest for me happened on a trip to Albania three  years ago.  Our small group had come to Albania more as an afterthought than as a destination, and it did not fall short of our expectations.  Albania may have been a vibrant place once upon a time, but Communist dictator Enver Hoxha had taken care of that.  In his forty-year reign he had convinced his citizens that their country was the envy of the world, and he left the countryside dotted with pillboxes and airfields to defend against invaders coming from every direction.  He also left the country impoverished and dispirited.  But during his rule the isolated citizens knew no better, and the cult of his personality allowed for no other domestic or foreign gods.

Sewing a gathering of folios

Sewing a gathering of folios

When our guide announced a visit to the National Museum, we balked.  There we’d see an exhibit on “the most famous Albanian of all time,” she promised.  We expected the worst, and we steeled ourselves for a half-hour of mindless  propaganda.  You can imagine our shock when we entered the galleries, and there, staring down at us, was a portrait of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, “the most famous Albanian of all time.”  Our guide smiled.  Behind that smile was an unspoken joy and pride.  Plus, she had fooled us, royally.

Sherrie Schmidt, Arizona State University, examines sewn gatherings

Sherrie Schmidt, Arizona State University, examines sewn gatherings

Mother Theresa came to mind on the second Sunday of Easter, when we read the gospel of the doubting Thomas.  It’s the story of the one apostle who remained unconvinced of the resurrection of Jesus.  Unless he could touch the wounds of Jesus and see for himself, he would not believe.  Until then, he would remain a skeptic.

It seems a bit blasphemous to put Mother Theresa in the category of a serious doubter of the divine.  She who did so much to help the poorest of the poor — could she have ever doubted? Of course she did.  And she said as much in her diary.

Italian leather for binding

Italian leather for binding

When her diary appeared in print it caused a major sensation.  After all, if anyone was a true believer, it had to be Mother Theresa.  To question her faith seemed disrespectful, to say the least.  But in those pages, in her own words, she wrote of the years when God seemed to be not just distant, but entirely absent.  Could there possibly be a God in the midst of such grinding poverty and meaningless death?  If there was a God, where in the world might that God be?

This certainly has been the experience of many a saint, including John of the Cross, whose Dark Night of the Soul details his own suffering at the absence of God.  And it certainly was the experience of many Jews in the Holocaust, who wondered in their hearts why any God would allow a people to suffer so.  Mother Theresa was scarcely unique in her experience, and a truckload of biographies will attest to that.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many of us should find ourselves kindred spirits with her and with all the other notorious skeptics who have gone before us.

Religious doubt afflicts the best of believers, sooner or later.  And it does so because of a lively mind.  Who hasn’t thought about all the evil in the world and wanted to despair?  Who hasn’t felt lonely and wondered if there was no one out there who cared?  Who hasn’t felt just a bit worthless and insignificant as we gaze at the expanse of the universe?  Who hasn’t succumbed to the material allure of the world, in the belief that such things give us meaning?

photo (83)Saint Thomas Aquinas once included among the attributes of God the good, the true and the beautiful.  And it strikes me that once we know what to look for, then it is a little easier to push our doubts aside and forge ahead in faith.  Have you ever seen someone do a random bit of kindness that somehow renewed your faith in humanity?  Have you ever seen beauty and innocence in the eyes of a child?  Have you ever marveled at the structure of the universe?  Have you ever surprised yourself by the urge to love or help someone in need? If so, you’ve been privileged to glimpse the face of God in the faces of those around you.  What you’ve come to see, in them and in yourself, is nothing less than the presence of God.

It’s natural to doubt, because we have critical minds that God has given us to use.  But if doubt produces a life-time of fence-sitting, then we’ve made a poor choice indeed.  If we conclude that doubt equals disbelief in God, then our reasoning is a little off.  Doubt is healthy, but it doesn’t take us off the hook from responsibility for our lives.  If we opt for materialism or the quest for power or nihilism, so be it.  But from my vantage point those are choices that ultimately yield neither personal meaning nor much of a return.  As for me, as much as I may have my own personal doubts, I see the irresistible logic of throwing in my lot with the good, the true and the beautiful.  If they prove illusory, I’ve really lost nothing at all.  If they prove to be that glimpse into the eternal, then I could very well be the big winner, both now and in eternity.

photo (84)Meanwhile, I remain amused by the contrast between those two Albanian icons.  Together, in fact, they are almost allegorical in their meaning.  Enver Hoxha convinced everyone in Albania that they were wealthy and the envy of the world.  He was a skilled marketer, but at the end of the day the Albanians were not rich, as any naive child could point out.  Meanwhile, Mother Theresa collected the refuse of humanity off of the streets of Calcutta.  They were her riches, and in them she saw the face of God.  That’s not such a bad way of looking at creation, and I think I’ll keep struggling on in that view, despite my own occasional doubts.

Doubt is natural, because we are thoughtful and questioning  human beings.  Indecision, by contrast, is failure.  For better and for worse, I think that the good, the true and the beautiful are the better choices.  For me they are the poetry and the mathematics that make life worth living, and eternal life worth seeking — both now and hereafter.

Fr. Eric (l), and Mike Roswell

Fr. Eric (l), and Mike Roswell


+On April 10th I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 11th we were surprised to receive nearly a foot of snow.  Actually, “crestfallen” and “disappointed” might better describe the reaction of most of us.  Once again I had to shovel out my car.  This time it was the heavy wet snow of early spring — the kind of snow that gives the omnipotent shoveler a heart attack.  If this were January, I would have taken pictures and posted them.  In April such snow tends to be both prettier and far less attractive at the same time.  I have chosen to spare you (and me) the agony of looking at it.

+On April 11th our beloved confrere Brother Gregory Eibensteiner died peacefully.  For much of his life in the monastery he worked in the carpenter shop.  And his great hobby was building the birdhouses that served as home for the purple martins.

Volumes ready for delivery

Volumes ready for delivery

+While in Arizona a few days ago I had the opportunity to visit Roswell Bindery, where the pictures in today’s post were taken.  It is there that the volumes of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible are being bound.  Second-generation owner Michael Roswell led the tour, and we were joined by Sherrie Schmidt, Director of Libraries at Arizona State University.  One set of the Heritage Edition now calls ASU home.

In many respects the process of binding a book has scarcely changed over the centuries.  But the Heritage Edition harks back to an earlier time of intensive labor and quality materials.  From the hand-sewn gatherings, to the Italian calf-skin that covers the quarter-inch maple boards, each volume is a real work of art.

Read Full Post »