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Posts Tagged ‘Museo Nacional de Escultura Valladolid’

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Thank you Russell Baker!

I lost a good friend last week.  Russell Baker was for years a feature writer for The New York Times, and I was saddened to read of his passing.

I never met Mr. Baker, but all the same I once decided to write to let him know that he saved my sanity during a summer in Spain.  I was in the city of León, doing dissertation research, and for two and a half months I neither heard nor spoke a word of English.  Mr. Baker’s column, filled with wit and whimsy and rendered in beautifully-crafted English, was my lifeline to the world I had left behind.

León was a bit of a backwater back then, and Americans had not really discovered it yet. Like much of Spain, León was still trying to figure out how to behave in the aftermath of Francisco Franco.  In America we had timely announcements from Saturday Night Live, reassuring us that Francisco Franco was still dead.  But many in Spain were not so sure.  That may explain one thing that unnerved me on my first day in León:  copies of Mein Kampf were on sale at a few of the book stalls.

f7c78cfc-5686-49f2-aaf4-6b47fc95a03aI survived my time in León thanks to the hospitality of the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Santa María de Carvajal.  Their warmth was my haven in an unfamiliar culture, but my guest room did come with a price.  First, the nuns locked the front gate at 5 pm.  That meant that I could not enjoy the evening paseo that is the custom in Spain.  My room also looked out over a small plaza that included a noisy bar.  Five nights a week it belted out American country music, a genre for which I had not yet acquired a taste.  But two and a half months of it led to a change of heart.  After all, it was a touch of home, and I also saw it as the harbinger of change in León.  Hitler could never win against country music.

By the end of my first week in León I was desperate to speak some English, but it was a full month before I finally spied my chance.  Across the plaza mayor was an American couple, and I knew so because of his powder-blue leisure suit and her lime-green pant suit.  100% authentic polyester, if I’m not mistaken.  They clutched each other for dear life, while the Leonese stared as if they had come to announce the circus.  That was the day when I realized that dignity was more important than my need to speak English.  So I walked on by, hoping that everyone would take me for a Leonese.

That’s the context for the deep affection that I developed for Russell Baker and his writing.  His column appeared in The International Herald, and only one newsstand in León carried it.  So early each day I threaded my way through the narrow streets to buy one of its two copies.  But one day I was too late, and I came up short.  Some tourist must have snapped up the second copy, and I was devastated.  It was like losing a friend.

Today León is a lively and beautiful city, due in part to its niche on the revived Camino to Santiago.  Tourists and pilgrims now crowd the streets, and the news stalls bulge with an array of lurid magazines that are enough to raise Francisco Franco from the dead.  But a copy of Mein Kampf cannot be had.  Nor will you see pastel-hued leisure suits.  Just as I had foreseen, country music was indeed the death of it all.

8e465faf-a438-4089-868f-3a7787d17949With news of the passing of Mr. Baker, I must own up to one sin of omission.  I should have written him years ago, just as I had intended.  I should have told him what a good friend he became to me that summer.  I should have told him how I savored all his delicious turns of phrases and delighted whenever he plucked from his memory just the right underused word.  He was an artist in words, and he was the consummate gentleman when dealing with people who did not share his views.  He was the picture of civility, and with that he was generous to a fault.

The latter is one of two takeaways for me.  First, it’s never a good idea to trash people with whom I disagree.  I’m always amazed to recall that there are still ample supplies of civility and courtesy in storage, so there’s plenty to go around.  It does me no good to hoard them, and it’s better to give them away.

Second, I should never wait to thank people for their kindness until after they’ve died.  By that point it no longer does them much good.  On the other hand, it’s never too late for me.  Clearly, someone of the stature of Russell Baker didn’t need to hear my thanks all those years ago.  But I still feel the need to give them.  So here’s to you, Russell Baker!  Thank you for being a creative genius with your words.  And thanks for an amazing summer together in Spain.

a3330c18-9aef-430f-b23a-d369181b8c71NOTES

+On January 23rd I attended a talk delivered by Zach Vertin, who graduated from Saint John’s University in 2005.  Since graduation he has worked in the foreign service and spent considerable time in South Sudan, about which he has written his first book.  Today Zach is a lecturer at my alma mater, Princeton University, and he is a fellow at the Brookings Institution.  I’m always amazed at the prodigious accomplishment of such youngsters and wonder what in the world they can do for an encore.

+On January 26th I was in Atherton, CA, where I gave a morning session to incoming members of the Order of Malta of the Western Association.  I spoke on the history of the Order and the development of its mission in the course of 900 years.

+Alas, I searched my photo files to find something to show what a lovely city León is, but the cupboard was bare.  So I pulled up the file for Valladolid, which is located to the southeast of León.  The Museo Nacional de Escultura has some remarkable items, including sculptures of three of the evangelists, sitting at their desks besieged by writer’s block.  They were carved in the first quarter of the 16th century by Felipe Vigarny (d. 1542).  (Click on the photos to savor the fine detail.)  The photos at top and bottom show the façade and the cloister of the Museo, a former monastery.

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The Spirit Stirs in Us

It isn’t often that the weekday Mass readings keep you coming back for more, but five successive passages from the Book of Tobit last week did just that.  This sequence told the story of Tobia, who lived in the Jewish community in exile in Nineveh in Assyria.  A righteous man, Tobia still managed to stir up all sorts of trouble for himself.  But the worst of it was almost comical.  As he napped one afternoon beneath a tree, droppings from some birds perched above fell onto his eyes, and they left him with cataracts.  How he slept through a bunch of bird droppings is beyond me, but clearly he was a much sounder sleeper than I.

As a last resort he sent his son Tobit off to a distant land for some healing ointment, and along the way Tobit visited the household of their kinsman Raguel.  The text suggests they had never met, but that didn’t stop Tobit from asking for Raguel’s daughter — sight unseen — in marriage.  The latter had had seven husbands, each of whom had died before the consummation of the marriage.  These were not good odds, and I’m a little surprised that Tobit didn’t withdraw his request once Raguel had briefed him on her history.  But things worked out anyway, and Tobit returned to Nineveh with the ointment and his new wife following up behind.

IMG_0370Altogether it’s a nice, feel-good, story.  And if I weren’t living in the 21st century I might be willing to overlook one little item.  As the text suggests, Sarah married eight men, and she had absolutely zero say in any of it.  In each case her father Raguel did all the bargaining, and presumably she’d never even laid eyes on any of her suitors prior to the wedding night.  In fact, in the case of her eighth and most successful marriage, I’m left with the impression that Raguel must have surprised his daughter with the unexpected news.  “Hey, Sarah.  Come on out and meet husband #8.  He’s our closest relative, so I have no right to refuse him.”  The latter sentence is his, by the way, not mine.

It probably wasn’t quite as crass as that, but that was the gist of it.  As for Sarah, it was all a total surprise, and I’m left to ponder what she thought of the idea of moving to Nineveh.

My point in bringing this up is rather obvious, or at least it is to me.  Once upon a time there were things that people in the Bible did that were perfectly acceptable, but we frown upon them today.  Today the Catholic marriage rite inquires whether both parties have come freely to the marriage.  And in the Catholic tradition a six-month’s marriage prep insures that the two have at least met each other before the wedding day and gauged the odds of compatibility.  They even go so far as to ask if the bride is old enough to get married.

IMG_0372Anyway, this episode demonstrates how the Bible outlines the slow progression of people as they come to terms with the revelation of the divine will.  Once upon a time arranged marriages were the norm, but today they scarcely qualify as sacramental.  Once upon a time, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Christians practiced circumcision and kept Jewish dietary laws.  But by the end of the Acts of the Apostles they did not.  And the key ingredient that explains all this is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the Spirit the Christian community grew in age and wisdom, and it’s safe to say that we as individuals do so as well.

The feast of Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the Spirit the Church lives and moves and has its being.  In baptism the priest or deacon breathed the Holy Spirt upon us, and so we should never be surprised that the Spirit stirs in us every now and again, just as the Spirit does in the Church.  Through and in the Spirit we grow, we change, and we become repositories of the wisdom of God.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Tobias, but it is that same Spirit that stirs in us and in the Church.  It’s an exciting concept to consider, but it’s even more exciting to yield to the Spirit who pulls us forward in remarkable and surprising ways.

IMG_0371Notes

+On May 8th I spoke at a reception for donors to Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.  What made it particularly poignant for me was the student speaker, who in fact was the headliner.  Alex will be a junior at Saint John’s this fall, and he is a graduate of Immokalee High School in Florida.  Two friends of mine have set up a scholarship to fund students from Immokalee who come to Saint John’s, and on that evening Alex gave a superb presentation.

+On May 11th I attended and gave a short tribute at a luncheon at Saint John’s that honored a dear friend of Saint John’s, Jo White.  We’ve termed Jo “the mother of The Saint John’s Bible,” because she has inspired the project and championed it through the years as no one else has.  Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath bestowed on Jo the President’s Medal, in recognition of her extraordinary devotion to Saint John’s.

+Last week we welcomed seven monks who will be living with us for about two months as they participate in a course of English as a Second Language.  They’ve come from as far afield as India, Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, Arkansas and Alabama.  I realize that the latter two do not qualify as foreign lands, but they are still a long way off.  Along with three monks from Vietnam and one from Korea who are studying theology with us, the number of Asian monks has reached the point that the monastic refectory now stocks chopsticks.  For those of us who are on diets — like me — they are remarkably effective.

IMG_0373+The photo at the top in today’s post is of the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid, Spain.  The photos below illustrate four depictions of the evangelists, and they are housed in the Museo.  They are all by early 16th-century sculptor Felipe Vigarny.

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IMG_0413The Man Born Blind

It’s a question that sounds almost bizarre to modern ears.  Sitting near Jesus was a man who had been born blind, and someone posed to Jesus what seemed a rather innocent query.  “Who had sinned, the man or his parents?”  “Neither,” was all Jesus had to say about it, and that was that.

It’s hard to imagine a modern equivalent to that scene; but if it had to be, I would conjure up the image of a doctor who pauses in the middle of the examination of a child who is seriously ill.  “Is there a history of mortal sin in this child’s family?”  I leave it to the reader to come up with a suitable response.

John chapter 5 is the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent.  It’s a long passage, filled with all sorts of diversions, and it’s clear that John is trying to kill several birds with one stone.  He begins with the potential link between sin and illness, and we have to assume there were still people around who believed in a direct connection between moral culpability and disease.  To our scientific mind-set such causality seems absurd, but on another plane we still deal with the question, but from the other side of the coin.  When the ancients noticed that bad things happened to good people, they simply revised their estimate about the relative goodness of the person involved.  All evil had to have a cause, and people must somehow deserve what the cosmos sends their way.

IMG_0424Even today we struggle with the very same issue of the suffering of the innocent.  Like the ancients, we’ve come up with no satisfying answer, but at least we don’t lay the blame for disease on moral turpitude.

Anyway, Jesus brushed off the issue of sin and disease, but many among his listeners proved unable to give it a rest.  Like a dog with a bone, they finally branded the formerly blind man a sinner, and for good measure they labeled Jesus a sinner too, because he had cured on the sabbath.  That set things up for a wonderful conclusion to the story.

There’s some terrific irony here, which John picks up on and exploits to the fullest.  The episode had opened with a man who had been born blind.  He’d never seen a thing in his life, and it was even a while before he finally got to see Jesus, who had cured him.  But finally he saw Jesus standing before him.  But by then he saw him not only physically but also spiritually.  There stood the man who had counted him among the saved, despite being a sinner.

IMG_0426By contrast, the audience of religious professionals had eyes that let them see physically, but spiritually they had become blind.  On an allegorical level the scene has been upended by this turn of events.  The blind man sees and the sighted people are blind, and this recalls the words of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels.  “They have eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear” — all this despite the fact that they were experts in the scriptures and the law.  Clearly they had missed something along the way.

I’m not entirely sure how this might apply to each one of us today, but there is a take-home that can be of some benefit.  At the very least, we should not aspire to be people with eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear.  We need to be open as best we can to the reality around us.  That means, first of all, that we admit our solidarity with both the blind man and the scribes and Pharisees.  We are all sinners, no matter what excuses we make for ourselves.  Certainly each of us has gifts and talents, and there are moments when we use them well.  But at times we also fail, and it’s not healthy to deny it.  The admission of our failings means that Jesus comes for us too, and not just for everybody else.

IMG_0427It’s equally important that we avoid becoming people who have eyes but cannot see.  Sadly, on a moral level we are often the last to know that a little blindness clouds our vision now and again.  And so the need is acute that we compensate for this through regular prayer, sacred reading and service to the people around us.  All of these activities draw us into communion with our brothers and sisters in the Church and remind us that together we are pilgrims on the way to the Lord.  As pilgrims then, it’s always good to rely on the eyes and ears of our neighbor to supplement our sometimes faulty vision.

This is the point of Christian life, and it’s the message of Lent in particular.  We don’t pray and read in order to ingest material that will bolster our preconceived notions.  We pray and read and serve regularly so that we can listen to what the Lord has to say to us each day.  And having listened to the will of the Lord, we then set out with confidence to do his work.

IMG_0437Notes

+The last week was very quiet for me, and I left the campus only twice.  One of those excursions was a visit to the doctor to find out the results of my recent MRI.  I read the report but could make neither heads nor tails of it.  The good news is that I do not need surgery this time around.  The bad news is that someday I will.  The challenge is to put as much distance between today and that day as I can.  Meanwhile the pain in my back has gone way down.  I’m also hoping that this is the last medical report I will give for a good long while.  During a visit with some friends this week someone noted that during the first twenty minutes the conversation turned on our respective medical conditions.  We all laughed, and then we changed the subject.

+This week Fr. Benedict Fischer of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota arrived, and he will stay with us for nearly three weeks, doing research on his doctoral dissertation.  A few years ago he lived with us for four years while he studied for the priesthood in our School of Theology and Seminary, and it is great to have him back.  He is doing his degree at Louvain in Belgium.

+This last weekend the Abbey Guesthouse hosted a three-day Lenten retreat, given by our confrere Fr. Joseph.  It was a wonderful group that included friends of the abbey and alumni of the University, some of whom I knew.  Their presence swelled the attendance at the liturgy of the hours.

IMG_0348+The photos in today’s post show sculpture housed at the Museo Nacional de Escultura, in Valladolid.  Most pieces in this amazing museum are from religious houses in the area of Valladolid, and the museum itself is the former Colegio de San Gregorio.  At top is The Burial of Christ, by Juan de Juni, ca. 1540, polychrome wood.  Next is a tabernacle from León, ca. 1575, polychrome wood.  The following two panels are by Pierre Picard, ca. 1560, polychrome wood.   The last piece is a Calvary by Pompeo Leoni, ca. 1605, polychrome wood.  At bottom is the courtyard of the Museum.

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