Posts Tagged ‘Notre Dame de Paris’


Be It Resolved:  No Resolutions This Year

“Do monks make New Year’s resolutions?  Do Monks keep their New Year’s resolutions?”  Those were two questions a friend put to me this week, and the answers are short and sweet:  “Yes,” and “About as well as everybody else.”

The more nuanced response is that monks are pretty much like everyone else when it comes to resolutions.  The fact is, deliberate and major changes in the course of our lives don’t come easily, and wishing they were so generally doesn’t make them so.  Like most people, then, monks have aspirations that are ambitious, but it’s in the follow-through where we all show our common humanity.

imageClose to the monastic home, you don’t have to be a great scholar to realize that the Rule of Saint Benedict yields not a clue about how monks in the 6th century celebrated the new year.  And it’s not that Benedict’s monks were oblivous to the passage of time.  They knew their Roman numerals as well as any of their neighbors, and they had at their fingertips an array of dates to match with events.  Whether it was the exact year after the founding of Rome or the regnal year of an emperor, they had more than enough numbers to mark the passage of time and events.  But I don’t think it occurred to them to peg the quality of their own lives to a numeric grid.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nor do I know whether monks back then packaged their lives in segments of years.  But if they did, the divisions of the Church calendar mattered more to them.  Advent initiated the liturgical cycle.  Then came Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  Then came the long stretch of Ordinary Time.  And when it was all over, they went back to Advent and did it all over again.  That rhythm hasn’t changed in centuries, and it was bolstered by its links to the seasons of the year. The parallel between the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the four natural seasons worked brilliantly for centuries, at least in the northern hemisphere.  I suppose it was nobody’s fault in 6th-century Italy that they had no idea there even was a southern hemisphere.  But I suspect the general lack of curiosity about the other hemisphere was mutual.

Nativity.  Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nativity. Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

If the liturgical calendar and the seasons of nature shaped the lives of Benedict’s monks, I would contend that of even greater import was the festal calendar of the Church.  The ordo of feasts and seasons read much like an opera score, and the cycle of special and non-special (ferial) days created something of an emotional joy ride for the monks who lived by it.  No two days were ever alike, despite outward appearances.  And so the days did not blend seamlessly into one long stream of boredom, contrary to popular assumptions.

So where is it that monks concentrate their minds and energy when the need arises to make decisions about their lives?  It occurs to me that this takes place in the liturgy of the hours.  Here we find the kind of deliberate analysis that many people prefer to relegate to New Year’s Day and its resolutions.  In the morning we begin with “Lord, open our lips,” and with that the day is off and running.  In the course of morning prayer there are petitions that spell out our hopes for the day, and we repeat this practice in the other moments of community prayer.  And then at compline there is the “post game-day analysis” — the examination of conscience.  At that hour, monks who are still awake take time to inventory their lives during the past day.  They then express their regret and sorrow for any missteps, and look forward to the chance to try it all over again the next day.  Perhaps the next day will go better, or even repeat what went well the day before.

Presentation in the Temple.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Presentation in the Temple. Notre Dame, Paris.

That, it seems to me, is why monks don’t get terribly worked-up about New Year’s resolutions.  The time-frame is way too long for us.  We much prefer to have a focus that is pegged to a one-day-at-a-time framework.  We live for the moment, just as Saint Benedict advised when he told his monks to “keep death daily before their eyes.”  From that perspective, any program that delays analysis until next December 31st serves no useful purpose.  The press of daily business will leave those resolutions on the shelf, collecting dust.  And soon enough we’ll forget all about those life-changing resolves.

There you have the reasons why my New Year’s resolution will be quite simple this year:  “I will make no New Year’s resolution.”  For one thing, success is guaranteed, instantly, and I can move on to other things.  For another, living for the day is tough enough, and I don’t want to have to think about the entire year.  That’s way too ambitious.

Besides all that, I believe with all my heart that Christ will come again, and perhaps even on the last day of 2015.  But of greater urgency is today: “This is the day the Lord has made.”  Today is the day when I’ll most likely encounter Christ in my brother, in the guest, and in those suffering around me (to say nothing of those who are suffering from me.)  The truth is, today is about all I can handle.

The Holy Innocents.  Notre Dame, Paris.

The Holy Innocents. Notre Dame, Paris.

So at the end of this day I don’t want to look back and wonder where it went.  Nor do I want to console myself with the thought that I’ll do a state-of-the-person analysis next December 31st.  That kind of procrastination is way too tempting.

And if it sounds self-indulgent to live for the day, then you’ve got it all wrong.  Today is a gift from the Lord.  Looking ahead 365 days may just cause us to miss the more regular appearances of the Lord.  But live for the day, and come December 31st you may very well be stunned at what you have accumulated in the course of a year: an abundance of truly great days.


+Among the various items on my plate is membership on the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  Our regular meetings are not all work, and in fact we regularly schedule some opportunity to learn about various student activities.  So it was at our last meeting in December, when we sat in on a rehearsal of several choirs preparing for Christmas concerts at Saint John’s and elsewhere.  Excerpts from that rehearsal provided the material for University President Michael Hemesath’s Christmas and New Year’s greeting, which follows.

+Years ago someone gifted me with a copy of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  It was so fascinating that it gobbled up all of my free-time over that Christmas break.  This year a good friend gave me A. N. Wilson’s recent book, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press, 2014.)  This book in turn has chewed up prodigious amounts of this year’s Christmas holiday.  But there are worse ways to spend a Christmas break.  So if you are even remotely interested in 19th-century English history, or Queen Victoria herself, I highly recommend this book to you.

Flight to Egypt.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Flight to Egypt. Notre Dame, Paris.

+The photos in today’s post come from various sources.  At top is a clock on the façade of an office building in Paris.  I knew immediately that someday it would come in handy, and so it helps to inaugurate this blog into 2015.  The second photo, of the Holy Family, fabricated in Alsace around the year 1500, is housed at the Cluny Museum in Paris.  It’s the only piece of art that I’ve ever seen that depicts Jesus and Joseph having a good time, while Mary serenely looks on approvingly.

As anyone who’s been to Paris knows, it is a trove of all sorts of art.  From various pieces of medieval art in The Louvre Museum I’ve assembled a sampling to create a Christmas Gallery that spans many centuries and several media.

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imageStart the Day with Your A-game

It was every shirker’s nightmare.  This particular tax inspector in Finland had spent years cultivating a reputation for dependability.  Each day he’d shown up for work, punctually.  He’d given every appearance of dedication as he hunched over his desk for hours at a time.  And I can only assume that his boss and colleagues considered him to be a productive co-worker.  But as it turned out, were I a delinquent taxpayer in Finland, he’s the guy I’d want on my case.  Why so?  There was actually a lot less here than met the eye.  So his office-mates duly discovered when they realized he’d been sitting there, dead, for two days.

Now I don’t mean to belittle the worth of fellow human beings, especially when they are down and out for the count.  But if you can sit at your desk for two days, dead, and nobody notices, then there’s a problem here.  If your presence makes not one whit of a difference to the people with whom you rub elbows, then there are some issues to confront.  And if, as you lie in state at your funeral, the eulogist has to strain every creative brain cell to explain what you did that made the world a better place, then that’s a very sad day, in more ways than one.

imageTo a recent article in The Economist I owe this bit about the Finnish tax inspector.  The latter was but one example of the larger problem of skiving, better-known in America as shirking, that seems to plague most organizations.  Specifically, the writer cites figures suggesting the average worker wastes one and a half to three hours a day.  As for who these people tend to be, evidence shows that those most accomplished in the art of shirking are to be found at either (and both) ends of the pay scale.  You’ll find them equally in the public and private sectors.  And though they are sprinkled among the newer companies, more often than not the people making personal mountains out of mole hills are at the older and more sclerotic institutions.  But the important point is this: no organization is exempt.  No doubt that explains the candid slip by Pope John XXIII, when a reporter asked how many people worked at the Vatican.  “About half,” he responded dryly.  After all, the man was a saint, and he couldn’t tell a fib.

imageI won’t comment on the lack of integrity that marks those who shirk their responsibilities.  Who knows why some people prefer to put in a half day’s work for a full day’s pay?  Nor will I touch on the injustice done to over-worked colleagues who must take up the slack.  Rather, I prefer to focus on the self-degradation of people who are blessed with loads of talent but choose instead to bury it all in the ground, or hide it under the bushel.

Saint Benedict in his Rule is well-aware of the possibility that people can take inordinate pride in their abilities.  It can “puff them up,” he writes.  But he’s more than willing to take that risk, because it is of far greater importance that monks make good use of all the abilities that come their way.  And when he commands that we treat the tools of the monastery as sacred, as if they were the vessels of the altar, then you have a pretty good idea of where he stands on the issue.  In each and every instance, all varieties of work in the monastery are sacred, and a monk works not so much for personal fulfillment but rather in service to God and neighbor.  That, I might conclude, is how a monk makes the monastery a better place.  And by extension that applies to all of us who have it in our power to do something of value for our fellow human beings.

imageWhen we wake up each morning I suspect that most of us don’t deliberately set out to do as little as possible in the course of the day.  Few of us rise from our beds, hoping to make little or no impact on the lives of others.  Few of us deliberately choose to play our B-game, in hopes that we will make absolutely zero difference in the world.  That’s not what we intend to do; but in the course of the day that’s often what happens.

Of course neither Saint Benedict nor Jesus demand that we be workaholics.  On the other hand, there are a few basic expectations that The Lord God Almighty places upon us, and it’s up to us to make at least a feeble response.

How then do we respond to God’s call when we begin the day?  For starters, I think it’s not such a bad thing to resolve to do at least one thing well, each and every day.  No matter how trivial or how important, do that one thing to the best of our ability.  And do it so well that it actually benefits someone.  That’s a good beginning, and imagechances are it may not kill us.

Once we’ve incorporated one good deed into our regular routine, then try for a second.  Don’t reach for a whole day’s worth of good deeds, because it just won’t happen.  But if we take these opportunities incrementally, one at a time, then pretty soon we’ll notice the difference.  Pretty soon there might come a time when our very presence might come to matter to the people around us.  But neglect to do it, and they’ll scarcely miss us when we go on that three-hour bathroom break.

That’s why it’s good to review our A-game every morning.  Don’t shoot for the moon, but aim for the possible.  With just one single item try to make the world a better place, for just that one day.  Why would we not want to do that?  At the very very least, it’s a good alternative to sitting at our desks for days on end, dead.


+On November 10th we had our first snowfall of the season, and at over twelve inches it was a day to remember.  Both the University and the Prep School were closed for the first (and I hope last) snow day of the season.  Unfortunately by the end of the week we had not yet climbed above freezing, and so this snow seems destined to be with us until spring.  The lakes also froze over, and by the weekend the first fishing house was out on the ice.

+On November 12th I attended and spoke briefly at a reception at Saint Agnes Hospital in Fresno, CA.  The occasion was the reception of their new Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.

+The article from The Economist, to which I made reference above, is by Schumpeter, and entitled A Guide to Skiving.  It appears on page 71 in the issue of October 25-31, 2014.

+On Friday November 21st the Abbey Schola will give a concert of sacred music, entitled Music of Thanksgiving.  It will take place at 7:30 pm at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Medina, MN, and it will benefit the Benedictine Volunteer Corps of Saint John’s Abbey.

+I didn’t have the will to include photos of our recent snow in this post, so I decided to recall warmer times in exotic places.  The photos in today’s post come from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.


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