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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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Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.

IMG_0021_2Notes

+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.

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imageIn Search of the Authentic

My heart gave out a quiet cheer for the Benedictine monks of Montmajour last week.  They hadn’t caught any breaks in ages, so they were long overdue when a bit of recognition finally came their way.

Founded in the 10th century near the southern French town of Arles, the monks occupied a prominent site, and on it they built an impressive complex that dominated the landscape.  The centuries were not kind, however, and in later years a succession of non-residential abbots exploited the monks and their property.  But in 1639 the last of the worst of these abbots, Charles Bichi, lost his iron grip on the revenues and the monastery came under the control of a group of reforming Benedictines from Paris.

With a surname like Bichi, and a demeanor that may have matched, you have to wonder why some of the old monks hated to see him go.  Maybe they didn’t want to be reformed.  Maybe they thought that an abbot a hundred miles away was better than one just down the hall.  Anyway, M. Bichi got his walking papers, and the monks got a relatively tranquil life until the place was secularized in 1786.  Then the place went to rack and ruin, literally.  And that’s when Vincent Van Gogh enters the story.

imageVan Gogh loved the place, and in one particular painting the abbey of Montmajour figures in the background.  Unfortunately, for nearly a century the experts considered this piece to be a fake, and through much of that time it led a rather obscure life in somebody’s attic.  It continued to do just that until last week.  That’s when a few art historians announced that Van Gogh had indeed painted this canvas after all.  It was authentic, and it dated from his years as a mature artist.  It was, they concluded, the first such Van Gogh to surface since the 1930’s.

Eighty years is no big deal to a medieval historian like me, but it’s an eon in the world of art historians.  Not surprisingly, many of them could scarcely contain their excitement, and rivers of hype and superlatives have followed.  Naturally, I’m happy for them.  And I’m happy for the owner of this painting, who stands to reap a wheel-barrow load of Euros at the cash window.   But I’m happiest for the monks.  On September 10th the entire community, long-deceased and for the most part resident in heaven, got to see their monastery cited on page one of the Arts Section of The New York Times.  They also got an honorable mention in The Wall Street Journal.  Their work has not been in vain, and it had to be gratifying to them.

imageDespite the Cinderella slant to this story, there’s something that unsettles me just a bit.  For fans of The Antiques Road Show, this is the mega-jackpot, of course.  We’ve all dreamed of dragging our aunt’s old teapot out of the attic, only to have it appraised at $10,000.  And who hasn’t fantasized about the true value of those old, in-mint-condition magazines stacked in the basement?  But a forgotten painting in the attic that could fetch $50 million at auction?  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like no attic I’ve ever been in.  This is not your average attic, and you have to wonder what other auction-monsters the owner will drag out in the years to come.

Still more troubling is the sudden reversal of fortune for this painting.  One day it is a useless piece of junk, good for nothing save collecting dust.  The next day it is worth untold millions.  What changed here?  Certainly it was not the painting itself.  Either it was as lovely on Tuesday as it was on Wednesday, or it wasn’t.  This was definitely not a case of an ugly duckling evolving into a graceful swan in the course of a few hours.

imageThere’s only one thing on which I can pin any change in character, and it’s this.  It was the same painting before and after; but on one day it was a worthless forgery, and the next it was a $50 million Van Gogh.  It’s as simple as a change of label.  The subject may be anything from a landfill to a stray dog or a pick-up truck at a stop sign.  But if it is a $50 million Van Gogh painting of a truck at a stop sign, it is breathtakingly beautiful.

I don’t mean to sound cynical here, but how else do you explain this?  People could care less about a nondescript painting stored in the attic.  But we will line up for twenty minutes and more to see a painting with a famous name on it.  The fact is, we adore celebrities, and we love items with big price tags on them.  And I suppose it’s also safe to conclude that anything expensive must also be beautiful.

Deep down I’m glad that the experts declared this to be an authentic Van Gogh.  I’m delighted too for the owners and their lawyers, who no doubt watched from the sidelines with detached curiosity.  I’m sure all were driven by their altruistic love of art in their quest to solve the mystery of this painting.

imageConversely, I’m not at all surprised by the alacrity of the media in picking up on this story.  It’s a good tale, and one that piques the imagination.  But while it answers the question of authenticity on one level, it raises it on another.

For better and for worse, trend-setters do exactly that: they help us decide what we like, even before we know what it is we would like to like.  It’s peer pressure and social convention that encourage us to ignore the beautiful fake in the attic, while we flock to see the famous mediocrity in the gallery.  Too often we let others decide for us, when we should be making those judgments for ourselves.

That strikes me as the moral to take from all this.  As people who aspire to be mature human beings, we must be the ones who decide what we like and dislike, and we ought not cede that to some expert.  If something or someone is beautiful, they will be beautiful no matter what price tag the appraiser sticks on it.  And if something means a lot to us, we need to cherish it now, rather than wait for an expert to tell us when it’s cool to do so.  This too is a form of authenticity, and we are being authentic when we make decisions for ourselves.

imageAt the end of the episode the owners of the new Van Gogh come out way ahead.  Their lawyers come out way ahead.  And perhaps a few art historians get a big boost to their careers.  As for Van Gogh, he doesn’t get a penny from the upgraded sale price. With a well-established reputation, he scarcely needs the additional fame.  But perhaps he gets some amusement from all this, because the whole thing has confirmed his appreciation of human nature once again.

But it’s the monks of Montmajour who must be pleased as punch.  They went to Montmajour to seek God and not celebrity.  But even a small appearance in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal has to be savored.  And they can take solace in knowing  that a few people have enjoyed a peek into the ruins of their monastery.  But most of all, I hope they take pleasure in knowing that they’ve struck the spiritual imagination of at least somebody out there.  If even one person joins them in the spiritual quest for authenticity, then those monks continue to fulfill their mission.

imageNotes

+Recently I took the opportunity to visit our confrere, Fr. Edward Vebelun, OSB, who in July became pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Richmond, MN.  The parish is just a few miles from Saint John’s, and monks have served as pastors there since 1856.  It’s a lovely church, and the statue of Saint Benedict on the main altar shows the Benedictine connection clearly.  It is noted for its huge German-style stations of the cross, as well as for the paintings that grace the ceiling of the church.  The cycle of paintings include both men and women, saints and biblical figures.  But it is the stained glass which I find stunning.  The pictures in today’s post all come from Saints Peter and Paul Church.

image+On September 9th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  We were joined by three new members, including Fra Emmanuel Rousseau, KJ, of Paris; Fra Thomas Mulligan, KJ, of Chicago, and Mr. Michael Grace, a member of the Order of Malta from Pasadena, CA.  Currently the Center assists in archival preservation projects in Malta as well as at the archives of the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta in Rome.

+On September 14-15th I made a brief trip to Seattle, where I gave talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Epiphany Episcopal Church.

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Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 092How’d the Pope Do?

The shift from actual journalism to “news entertainment” in recent years has transformed the way we learn about events.  Talking heads now spend a few seconds reporting on an event.  Then they get about the business of canvassing opinion from people who scarcely know what they are talking about.  The more off-the-wall the comment, the greater its power to amuse or enrage.  That’s good for ratings.

An event like a papal retirement is a perfect case in point.  Reporters have waited breathlessly for six hundred years for this to happen.  So you can forgive them for a bit of fuzziness on the facts.  I’ll also concede that specialists on the history of papal retirement are in short supply.   However, the inclusion of any and all opinions — no matter how ridiculous — suggests the priority is to entertain, rather than to inform.

Take, for instance, the newspaper report that “more than 120 cardinals will gather in Rome to elect the next pope.”  Since current Church law caps the number of electors at 120, this was a factual error, albeit a minor one.  To my knowledge the paper printed no correction, but I praise the editors for not taking this to the next level of controversy.  Armed with this new bit of data, someone could have penned a fiery editorial demanding to know why the election is restricted to 120.  Given that I am not well-read, that editorial may already have been written.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 018Then there have been the gratuitous appraisals of Benedict’s term as Pope.  Perhaps the most egregious of them came from the Swiss theologian Hans Kung.  In a piece in The New York Times he laid out an incontrovertable fact: the most promising thing Pope Benedict had done  during his entire papacy was to visit with Kung one afternoon.  I’d like to think that Kung intended to answer a different question: “what is your fondest memory of Benedict’s papacy?”  But alas, I have to take Kung at his word when he claims that the acme of Benedict’s papacy was his visit with Kung.

Of course the letter served to remind me that Kung was still alive, unless it was written posthumously.  But where was the de rigueur interview-in-the-street survey?  Someone should have asked puzzled pedestrians whether they agreed with the Pope or with Hans Kung.  A typical answer?  “Hans Kung, hands down!  Who’s Hans Kung?”

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 065I also couldn’t figure out how to process the various evaluations on Pope Benedict’s exercise of power.  Kung stated categorically that Pope Benedict had reverted to an imperious style of monarchy, not seen in the Church for a thousand years, more or less.  Since so many others have complained that Benedict had failed to act decisively on practically everything, I wondered if we were all thinking about the same guy.  Could both views be right?  The nice thing is that when facts don’t matter, then everyone can be right.  Everyone gets a trophy — except the Pope, of course.

On most of this I profess no opinion, save that I’m happy to hear that Hans Kung is still in the land of the living.  As for Pope Benedict’s on-the-job performance, I’ll leave that to the experts, whoever they are.  But when it comes to the fulness of papal power, I do have an opinion.  As a historian, I’ve actually read a book on the topic.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 010First off, about the only people who believe that the pope exercises absolute monarchical power are Hans Kung and the newspapers.  Not for a minute have the curial cardinals ever believed that, and I’m surprised that no one has bothered to ask them about it.  Of course when the cameras are rolling and the pope is in the room, they generously defer on any and every issue — and the smallest ones especially.  Then, when the room is empty, they get back to the daily chores of running the Church.

I don’t say this to be cynical or facetious, because I actually do subscribe to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  That was the 16th-century Church council that put its stamp on the organization of the Church.  The canons of Trent sought to establish a balance of power in the Church, so that no one pope or no one cardinal could set up his own dictatorship or run away with the store.  How did they do this?

Trent produced an organizational chart that for its time was a model of efficiency and the envy of many European governments.  Vatican business was divided into departments, called dicasteries, each headed by one cardinal and a small board of two or three other cardinals.  Each cardinal sat on two or three boards, but could only chair one.  This forced them to work cooperatively.  If you were the ambitious type, your chances of being elected pope increased if you worked amicably alongside your peers.  It stands to reason that the cardinals did not want to elect a would-be tyrant or a crazy man; so the default was set to elect people of poise and talent, who also had a record of collegial behavior.  And if by chance a newly-elected pope tried to make himself all-powerful, the cardinals could dig in their heels.  No one wanted to return to the age of the Renaissance popes.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 008This system tends to be a model of efficiency and continuity, and therein is its strength.  That also happens to be its weakness.  Few absolutist popes have emerged in the last five hundred years, because the cardinals have been there to prevent runaway tyranny.  But in times of crisis, that same Barque of Saint Peter can be very slow to turn.  And when the executive is weak or in ill health, there is little to hold in check one cardinal who wants to be first among equals.  Nor is there anyone to prevent the bureau heads from acting like a herd of cats, each doing his own thing.

That’s the theory behind papal government.  It has generally worked well, though on occasion it can be clumsy.  I’m not about to offer my evaluation of how this government worked during the papacy of Benedict XVI, since I’m saving my comments for when CNN and Fox News call me up.   But I will extrapolate and offer this bit of reflection.  Since all of us already know how the pope should exercise power, there’s no point in going on about that.  Instead, I’ll shift to a topic about which most of us are clueless: the exercise of our own power.

Many if not all of us have power, even if we think we don’t.  Each of us has the power to influence others.  By word and example each of us has the power to build people up or tear them down.  An encouraging word to a young person can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.  A careless or cruel remark to someone can  hurt them for years to come.  Each of us has the capacity to take action, in a way that will get others off the fence and act.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 041All these are ingredients that contribute to good and bad leadership.  But they are also some of the elements that go into a good life.  These few items can help determine whether we make any difference in our own world, or whether our absence will matter to anyone.  I’m hopeful that I’ve used what talents I have to make some little difference in the lives of others.  And I hope the same is true for you.

My advice on power stops there, and happily Pope Benedict needs no further advice from me on that subject.  But advice on his retirement is an entirely different kettle of fish.  So here goes.  First, now that you finally have some time to read, don’t believe everything you read.  Second, even though you used to Twitter, don’t believe everything on the internet.  And lastly, now that you are retired, get a membership in AARP.  They have great travel deals and insurance, and they don’t run surveys on how the pope did.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 015Notes

+On Feburary 27th I drove to Minneapolis to attend a meeting and to do some errands.  The high point of the day was lunch with a very good friend of mine.  The low point of the day?  Being stuck in traffic in downtown Minneapolis.  This was no ordinary traffic jam, because it began early in the morning when a tanker filled with milk overturned in the Lowry Hill  Tunnel, which tied up traffic for most of the day.  The word on the street is that it took a crew of 3,500 cats nearly eight hours to lick it up.  Cats will not be hurried.  Only in Minnesota.

+On Feburary 28/March 1st I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On March 2nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and preached a homily that I’ve entitled The Prodigal Son, Revisted, which is included under the heading Presentations.  My earlier sermon, Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has become the most visited page in the history of my blog.  There  must be a lot of prodigal sons and daughters out there — or brothers and sisters of prodigal sons and daughters.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 095+Also on March 2nd, Brother Walter led a crew in the tapping of one thousand maple trees in the Abbey forest.  Spring is just around the corner, and the ritual of making maple syrup has been a treasured memory of the monks at Saint John’s for generations.

+On March 3rd I presided at the Abbey Mass and delivered a sermon entitled Lent, a Pilgrimage of Self-Discovery.  I’m not sure I was back from the previous day by popular demand, but I got out of the Abbey church alive and in one piece.

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