Posts Tagged ‘National Gallery Washington DC’


Lent:  What’s a Monk to Do?

Lent’s back, and with it comes the annual challenge it always poses.  What can a monk do that hasn’t been done before?

Part of my problem is that I can’t remember most of the resolutions I’ve made through the years.  Obviously they succeeded in changing neither my life nor my mind.  Still, two experiences stand out, and the first was the Lent when I gave up candy.  For some kids that can be truly heroic, but for me it wasn’t.  I’m a saver by nature and a life-long believer in the virtue of delayed gratification.  Even back then, as a child, I knew that on Easter Sunday that candy would still be there, augmented by a nifty delivery from the Easter Bunny.

9A7D23C2-E440-4427-B9F3-A8E8458DEE61Years later as a young monk I began to read Genesis and the New Testament during Lent.  In fact I did that for three Lents running.  Then one day my dissertation director told me he read the New Testament in a different language each Lent.  Deflated, I gave up the practice;  but I shouldn’t have.

For many years the issue of self-denial during Lent didn’t get much attention in our monastery.  Of course we noticed Lent’s presence in the liturgy, and desserts disappeared from the refectory.  But benign neglect of self-denial remained in place until just a few years ago, when the abbot began to encourage monks to do something special to observe the season.  That at least got us to thinking, but thinking about something isn’t quite the same as actually doing something.  This year, in keeping with the Rule of Saint Benedict, what had begun as the abbot’s suggestion morphed into an expectation.  This year, by Ash Wednesday each of us must turn in a written statement noting what we intend to do.

Recently a priest-friend told me how he deals with people who shy away from the confessional because they have nothing to say.  “I wish I had that problem” has become his stock reply.  By extension I think the same is true for me when it comes to Lent.  What could I possibly do that would be original?  How could I come up with a fresh idea that would both impress the abbot and change my life?  Then I thought of something that could hit me where I live — literally — and get me to thinking long-term.

FB15FFB3-BD03-49D8-A877-EB953A72B677For years I’ve fought the battle against excess baggage in my life.  However, when it has come to books I’ve generally drawn the line.  Now it’s time to pare back on books too, for a lot of good reasons.  Saint Benedict may have written that monks should have what they truly need, but books that haven’t been touched for twenty years probably  don’t fall into the category of things I cannot live without.  So the specifics of my Lenten resolve this year include recycling four shelves of books and the book-case that holds them.  To let go of those books will be painful, at least until they’re gone.  But the exercise will strike a blow for simplicity;  the books will benefit the readers who will end up with them;  and I’ll gain four square feet of floor space in my room.

Even better, there’s an added benefit here.  In another of his maxims Saint Benedict urges his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  In our monastery it falls to the prior to clear out the rooms of monks who have died.  So even as I keep death daily before my eyes by discarding stuff, the prior will someday thank me for it.

Finally, there’s another positive from this Lenten resolution.  When Saint Benedict asked his monks to inform the abbot of their resolutions, he told them to share the news with neither the rest of the monks nor the whole wide world.  This avoids pride, and I certainly want to avoid that sort of thing.  But all the same, true to the law of unintended consequences, there is yet one more benefit from the announcement of my Lenten observance and violating Benedict’s command.  At least now I’ll have something to say when I go to confession.


+On February 10-11 I attended the annual meeting of the chaplains of the American Association of the Order of Malta, held in New York.  I participated in the presentation made by the spirituality committee of the Association.

+On February 11th I was able to meet and have dinner with our three Benedictine Volunteer Corps members who are spending the year at Saint Benedict’s Prep and Newark Abbey in Newark, NJ.

+On February 15th I gave a presentation on the history of the Order of Malta at a retreat day for provisional members of the Western Association of the Order.  It was held in Menlo Park, CA.

+While in New York I was able to meet with a long-time friend, Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic.  Ours is an annual visit, and this year we celebrated the publication of her memoirs, entitled Lost Without the River.  In it she tells the engaging story of growing up on a farm in South Dakota.  Life was not easy for her family, but she proves the maxim that life without challenge can become a life impoverished.

+The photo at top in today’s post is Fra Filippo Lippi’s portrait of Saint Benedict speaking to his disciple Saint Maurus, painted ca. 1445.  It is now in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  The next four photos show works housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  They are part of a current exhibit that deals with the cost to buy or commission art in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Lacking a unifying monetary unit like the euro, and with fluctuations in the price of gold, silver and other materials used to create works of art, the curators finally came up with a single unit of monetary value that could faithfully compare the relative costs. So, for instance, Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in his Study, made ca. 1514, had a relative value of one-half cow.  Next, the alabaster figure of Charity by the circle of Jacques du Broeucq (ca. 1580) was valued at 40 cows.  The chalice by Otto Meier (?), ca. 1604, had an approximate value of 255 cows.  At bottom the stained glass of the Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabee by Dirck Vellert (ca. 1530) would have set the buyer back for all of 12 cows.  I can only imagine what shopping would have been like in the 16th century if people had to pay in cows.  Thankfully credit cards came along as a tidier replacement.


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The Lord Comes in Disguise

”Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up;  while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.”  (John 5:7)

I can’t imagine what it must be like to sit and wait for help for 38 years.  So there’s a part of me that pities the crippled man sitting beside the pool of Bethesda.  But then there’s also part of me that wants to suggest to him that after 38 years it may be time to try a new strategy.

Because the man had been ill for 38 years, we might assume that this story is not about us.  We’ve all had our illnesses, but most of us haven’t had anything like that.  But what if the story really is about us?

B2F32306-18BF-4DEE-9B36-0397DA8BB251Metaphorically we can all waste big chunks of our lives.  Metaphorically we can all sit around and wait for the dramatic intervention that will change the course of our lives.  And when that doesn’t seem to happen, we just sit and wait some more.  And all the while Jesus walks by, day by day, quietly inviting us to get up from our mats and do something.

If we don’t see or hear the Lord’s invitation, is it because we’ve become blind or deaf on top of everything else?  Or is it because we expect the Lord to barge into our lives with a trumpet blast or a gold-embossed invitation?  I would offer that it’s pointless to wait for those, simply because the Lord generally doesn’t do business that way.

The fact of the matter is, Jesus tends not to make dramatic guest appearances.  Rather, as he said on more than one occasion, he will be coming in the form of the least of our brothers and sisters.  So the next time we look up from our mats to see who’s walking by, it may very well be the Lord — in disguise.


+On April 2nd I presided at the abbey Eucharist.  Today’s post is a variation of the homily that I delivered that day.

+Currently I am in the course of staying away from the airport for an entire month.  Months ago I knew that February and March would be hectic, and so I marked off the month of April to stay home and get other things done.  Among those “other things” has been a thorough cleaning of my office, which I try to do at least once a year.  This spring my goal is to clear everything off of the floor, except for the furniture.  In the course of that I’ve found some neat stuff, and also a bunch of stuff that has made its way to the dumpster.  This exercise is a good parallel for what we might consider doing with our lives during Lent.  With several days left in the season, there’s still time to do something.

This also turned out to be a fortuitous time to stay home because my car got recalled for the repair of the air bags.  Since I never use them I hadn’t realized that they were not well.  Anyway, for seven days my car has been in the car hospital, but the prognosis is good.  I’ve not visited it, but the mechanic says it will need neither intensive care nor hospice.

+On April 6th sixty students and faculty from Saint Olaf College visited the abbey and while here joined in our Saturday Eucharist.  It was nice to add their voices to ours when it came to singing.

+It should not come as a surprise that nearly-contemporary artists should render sacred themes with different emphases.  In today’s post I’ve included four paintings from the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  At top is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John, Saint Jerome and Saint Mary Magdalene, (1480), by the Umbrian artist Pietro Perugino.  Second is a crucifixion by the German Mattias Grünewald (ca. 1475).  Below that is one by the Venetian artist Paulo Veneziano (ca. 1340); and at bottom is a work by Francesca del Cossa (Ferrara, ca. 1473.)


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