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Posts Tagged ‘Newburgh NY’

IMG_0025_2We Know Neither the Day Nor the Hour

I met Elizabeth Swenson nearly thirty years ago.  Known to her friends as Betty, she lived in Washington, where she’d spent a career in the office of a senator from New England.  She was perfectly suited to those more refined days in the nation’s capital, and her trademark red-framed glasses said “welcome” to anyone who caught her eye.

In her volunteer work she was involved with an organization called The American Friends of Caterbury Cathedral.  While there was a fund-raising side to the mission, their heart had its focus on the Benedictine character of the Anglican tradition.  To that end they organized pilgrimages to sites both in England and on the continent, and that’s why Betty first reached out to me.  Perhaps a real live Benedictine along for the ride might add value to the experience.

I never quite knew what I added to the mix, but what I received still resounds in my imagination.  For starters, I experienced Canterbury Cathedral for the first time as a monk rather than as a tourist.  Compline in the crypt of the cathedral was a goose-bump experience, for example.  Hours earlier the ushers had escorted everyone out, and there we twenty were, with the vast and silent expanse of the cathedral all to ourselves.  It was awesome to climb the steps that led from the crypt up into the nave, where the only light came from the stained glass — lit dimly from the outside.  For four nights we had this routine, and it gave me a glimpse into the days when this was a working monastery.  For nine hundred years the monks had prayed by candlelight.  People like Lanfranc and St. Anselm and Thomas Becket had walked those very precincts, doing the daily things that we all must do.

IMG_0024Other moments were less dramatic, but common to each was the transformation of the ordinary into something special.  Because of Betty I got to spend my fortieth birthday deep in a forest in Burgundy at the abbey of Pierre-qui-Vire.  We prayed late in the evening — by candlelight — with the nuns of Bec in Normandy;  and we tromped through the ruins of the romanesque abbey of Jumieges.  We listened spellbound as the monks of Chevetogne recorded a CD of their Byzantine chant, and we groaned along with them when a NATO jet swooped low and ruined the entire session.  Oh well.

The latter moment reminded us that we all had to make room for the unexpected, and at this Betty was a true Benedictine.  None of us will forget the lunch under the trees at a restaurant in Luxembourg.  It was all lovely until a big bird in the tree let loose and the bomb landed in the hair of an English lady.  Betty graciously soothed her and then moved us all to table across the courtyard.  There it happened again — same lady, different bird.  What were the odds?

IMG_9821One of Betty’s finest moments came at the venerable abbey of Maria Laach in Germany.  Before the pilgrimage she had visited an island off the coast of Scotland, where she had purchased a bottle of an expensive single malt.  She had cradled that bottle every step of the pilgrimage, intending to share it back home in Washington.  As we stood on the steps of the guesthouse, she held aloft her prize, for all to admire.  Then it gently eased through her fingers and shattered on the pavement below.  In stunned silence she froze, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  She laughed, because that’s what Betty did best.

In later years The Friends of Canterbury Cathedral morphed into The Friends of Benedict, and Betty and her colleagues hosted a yearly “Benedictine Experience” at the Episcopal House of Prayer at Saint John’s.  It was a treat to see her, and as time rolled by I came to appreciate what a singular impact this stately lady had had on my life.  She wasn’t a nun, but certainly she was a true Benedictine, and as a Benedictine Betty gave me glimpses into the monastic way of life that have made all the difference in the world.

IMG_9820A few days ago Betty passed away, unexpectedly.  Like all the rest of us, she knew neither the day nor the hour, but to her credit she savored each and every thing that came her way on the pilgrimage of life.  Like any true follower of Saint Benedict, she lived with intensity, and perhaps because of that even the little things counted for a lot.  They were gifts too.

Every now and again God sends such people into our lives.  God means them to be teachers of wisdom to us, and it’s important that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear.  After all, they are speaking on the Lord’s behalf.  Betty was that sort of person for me, and I’m absolutely certain that she did the same for many others.  For the gift of God that she was, I give thanks.  And for all the other surprises that God continues to send into my life, I also give thanks.

IMG_9819Notes

+For more than a week I have been dogged by a cold, and last week it was especially ferocious.  For that reason I had to leave off class with our novice on Tuesday, in hopes that I could spare my throat and recover for two talks I had to give later in the week.  By week’s end I was not cured, but it was a lot better.

+On February 17th-18th I attended a series of events and gave two talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Mt. Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh, NY.  As speaker I was hosted by the Catholic and Dominican Center.  The college occupies a gorgeous perch overlooking an expansive bend in the Hudson River, and I was quickly reminded that Dr. Mary Hinton, who is president of our sister College of Saint Benedict, had been vice-president there.

IMG_9817+The first two pictures in today’s blog show a tower in Trier, Germany, with a wonderfully appropriate inscription below the clock.  The clock may remind us of the time, but as the inscription says, we know not the hour of the Lord’s coming.  The next four pieces of stained glass actually come from one window that today resides in the V & A Museum in London.  It was made for a church in Troyes in France, ca. 1170.  The first two panels depict the temptation of Jesus.  Particularly charming is the scene in which the devil carries Jesus to the brow of the hill and is ready to throw him off.  The third photo depicts the feeding of the five thousand, while the last shows St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) as he is being drafted as bishop of Myra.

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