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Posts Tagged ‘Order of Malta’

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From Tiny Acorns

When some people think of monks what generally pops into their minds are cowls, cloisters and books.  Eventually they think of chant, but then that’s it.  They’ve exhausted their imagination.

So it is that most people have little awareness of the importance of music in the monastery, and that goes especially for instruments like the organ.  Part of this is Saint Benedict’s fault, since he didn’t have one in his chapel.  But by the later Middle Ages most monasteries had at least some variation of that instrument at their disposal.

BCB3589D-D80A-4D53-8E8B-B830610E4ED4I’ve been fortunate to see a few early organs, and no doubt my favorite is the 15th-century instrument at the abbey of St. Savin, south of Lourdes.  It’s small and stubborn in its own way, which explains why it is among the oldest surviving organs in France.

In early modern times organs really came into their own, both in parish churches and in monastery chapels.  Some were astounding both in design and sound, and I count myself fortunate to have walked in and under one of the finest — the organ at the abbey church of Weingarten in Germany.

That brings me to the organ in the abbey church at Saint John’s.  It’s been nearly sixty years since the church was finished, and until now the organ has remained unfinished.  That explains why so very few people ever see it.  Through all those years a red cloth has screened the pipes from view, and first-time visitors often have to ask where all that sound comes from.  Soon enough they will wonder no more.

We monks finally decided to complete the incomplete organ, and later this summer designer and builder Martin Pasi will begin to install the pipes that will transform the organ into something truly extraordinary.  As a bonus, the abbey woodworking shop has been fashioning some of the largest pipes out of lumber harvested from our forest.  Not only have some of those acorns grown into mighty oaks, but a few select boards have become pipes weighing as much as 750 pounds.

52102235-048C-4854-8733-C1AF2DB3FDC9Last week some of us monks, donors and other guests gathered in the woodworking shop to watch as Abbot John blessed some of the largest pipes.   The staff also revved up a blower to pump air through two of them, and the deep tones literally shook the building.  Who knew the power of wind and wood!

In the common imagination there’s a lot about the monastic world that seems pointless and uneconomic.  Why would anyone want to search for God in relative obscurity in some cloister in the woods?  Why would anyone engage in an economically pointless exercise like prayer?  Why would anyone devote time, energy and resources to a musical instrument whose sole purpose is to transform air into sound, and all for a fleeting moment?

I’m not sure I have adequate answers for any of that, though I do have a question to counter the question.  “Why not?”  For centuries monks and nuns have devoted themselves to prayer.  They’ve worked and served guests.  And they’ve also devoted themselves to the pursuit of some very ephemeral experiences like music.  In the belief that traces of God can be found in the good, the true and the beautiful, Benedictines both ancient and modern have devoted their lives to that search.

115F89A8-F3DB-4D39-A56F-03B453A34350All things being equal then, the reasons for finishing the organ outweigh the reasons for not doing so, at least in my mind.  Not least of them is that its completion is a sign of hope.  There’s hope that in its majestic music we will catch a glimpse of God.  There’s hope that those pipes will inspire future generations of monks and visitors to thank us for the gift of music.

Finally, I should not forget to point out one practical benefit.  At long last the organ will be so large that the new pipes will flank the red screen that has always obscured the old pipes.  No longer will visitors have to ask where the pipes might be.  They’ll be obvious.  For our part we’ll be able to save some of our breath and devote it to singing the praises of God.

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+On May 27th, Memorial Day, an honor guard from the local American Legion gave its customary salute to our deceased monks and neighbors who served in the military.  I find that service in the abbey cemetery to be a poignant ceremony, though the startled squirrels usually disagree.  I am always amazed at the number of our deceased monks who served as chaplains or soldiers in the military.

+On May 29th I gathered in the carpenter shop with fellow monks, friends and neighbors for the blessing of some of the pipes that will be installed in the organ in the abbey church beginning later this summer.  At the ceremony Fr. Bob Koopmann, who has led this project, spoke, as did Fr. Lew Grobe.  Fr. Lew and his colleagues in woodworking have had the honor of crafting some of these extraordinary pipes.

+On 30 May I flew to Philadelphia, and from that day through 4 June I am participating in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  This particular group comprises members from the American and Federal Associations, and the retreat has taken place at Malvern Retreat House, located outside of the city.

+Three of the photos in today’s post show scenes from the blessing of new pipes for the abbey organ.  Included among them is a signature board which will be fixed to the largest of the pipes.  The bottom two photos show the organ from the Abbey of Weingarten in Germany.

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What’s in a Name?  Perhaps Integrity

Recently, in the space of one afternoon, I visited Milan (not in Italy), Montevideo (not in Uruguay) and Nassau (not in The Bahamas).  I did all this as I and a colleague drove around western Minnesota on the way to Madison, which is just a short drive from Appleton, unlike in Wisconsin.  And just in case all of that was not enough, there was the South Dakota border, a tantalizing ten miles away.  But we resisted because we did not want to overdo it.

I’d never been to that part of Minnesota.  While I had heard of Madison, MN, these other towns came as a complete surprise.  So I had to wonder what possessed those otherwise sober Norwegian settlers to concoct such an eclectic urban mix out on the prairies.  Did they mean it as a long-range urban plan?  Was it meant to be a joke?  What were these people thinking?

D1A0F8EC-752B-4BB8-9AD7-9DC4E453EE10Perhaps they did it with a nod to their neighbors in central Minnesota.  Within a stone’s-throw of Saint John’s there are nice German towns like Saint Anna, Saint Wendel, Saint Stephen, Saint Joseph, Saint Augusta and Saint Nicholas.  There’s also New Munich and Uppsala, the latter of which is an outlier in anybody’s book.  So if people in central Minnesota longed for a bit of Germany, maybe the Norwegians of western Minnesota thought they could do better.  They didn’t leave Norway just to replicate it on the prairies.  No, perhaps they were inclined to be a bit more adventurous.  Perhaps thoughts of South America and the tropics and the Mediterranean may have been coursing through their minds.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that all of these places happened to be warm places.  Maybe they also thought warm.

Anyway, names bring in their train all sorts of baggage.  Well or poorly chosen, they can evoke aspirations that we set for our communities and ourselves.  And much like place names, the names we attach to people serve the very same purpose.  Names tell others who we think we are and what we hope to become, and they remind us of the dreams which we fashion for ourselves.

When there’s a disconnect between who we claim to be and who we really are, then we generally fool no one, except maybe ourselves.  In the gospels Jesus railed against the hypocrisy of those whose personal disparities were so glaring.  These were people who cut themselves lots of slack but expected an awful lot from the people around them.  Some of these people even accused Jesus of hypocrisy as he hung on the cross.  “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.”

2998EA26-8183-409A-AC86-380029599DC3Given all that, in the Easter season it’s paramount that if we claim to be Christian then we should actually give it our best shot.  We need to align our name with the reality of our lives.  So it is that if we believe that what we do for the least of people we are doing for Jesus himself, then we should act that way.  If the Beatitudes are the Christian equivalent of the Ten Commandments, then it might be nice to read up on them every now and again.

In theory, of course, this sounds easy;  but for all of us there are days when it’s a real challenge.  It’s a comfort to know that we’re not alone in this struggle, however.  As the Acts of the Apostles relate, it took the followers of Jesus years to come to terms with who they would be called and how that name would shape their lives.  Only in time did they realize they would be Christians and not Jews and that they would have to translate this into a way of life.

Selecting a personal brand is the fad of the moment, and in one sense that’s okay.  However, if our brand is only veneer-thin it advertises the shallowness of our lives to all whom we meet.  But choosing to be Christian is more than putting on a mask or adopting a veneer.  Our name and our very lives must feed upon one another.  They must give rise to a deep and ongoing self-examination.  And the product of that exercise is the joy that comes from being truly authentic.  We become Christian not only in name but in word and deed.

05B5DDCA-8FEF-4CF9-A0A8-51666AC8321ENOTES

+On May 14th I drove with one of my colleagues from Saint John’s University to meet an alumnus and his wife who live outside of Madison, MN.  In the course of the trip we passed through the other towns noted in today’s post.  It left me realizing that there is so much of Minnesota that I have yet to see, including the town of Ghent, which was just beyond our reach.  As you might expect, it was settled by immigrants from Belgium.

+On May 15th I flew to San Francisco, and on the 16th attended the board of directors meeting of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.

+On May 17th I said Mass and gave a talk to members of the Order of Malta who live in Monterey, CA.

+The photos in today’s post show glass made in the 15th and 16th centuries from the cathedral in Milan (in Italy, not Minnesota).  At top is Saint Matthew, followed by Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, a view of the city of Betulia, and the Tower of Babel.  At bottom is an interior shot of the cathedral of Milan.  For the record, unlike its namesake in Italy, Milan, MN, is pronounced just as it is spelled:  MY-lan, with the accent on the first syllable.

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Letting Go of Spiritual Baggage

[The following is a sermon that I gave at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, on 2 May.]

One of the consistent refrains we’ll hear this week is that Lourdes changes all who come here.  I know that might sound trite, but it’s true.  Through our encounters with people, through the liturgies we share, and through the experience of the place, we all change in ways we might not have expected.

Now that we’ve gathered for our first liturgy our education has already begun.  The first lesson we all have to absorb is this:  Lourdes is the land of hurry up and wait, and there’s a reason for that.  With so many people to move around, that has to be the way it is.  But it’s also the chance for each of us to be sensitive to our neighbor.  This is one place where being ready and on time is one of the highest forms of virtue.  It is our chance to show respect and charity for our neighbor.

ECD3CF40-ACCB-4683-919F-808475A2D763Lourdes is also a place where the sacred and the secular stand in sharp distinction.  To get to this chapel we ran a gauntlet of shops that cater to all tastes and none.  But it all stopped once we reached the gates of the shrine.  Nowhere that I’ve ever been have I seen such a sharp contrast between the material and the sacred.

More than anything else, however, Lourdes is a place where we take time out from the routines that shape our lives.  Whether we like it or not, Lourdes has a way of calling the question on the meaning of our lives.  It’s different from any place we’ve been, and it forces us to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we are going with our lives.  Eventually we all have to ask whether and how we will be changed when we return home.  Will we return to lives that are in a metaphorical desert, or will we return to lives of renewed intensity — lives we’d not thought possible?

Lourdes touches all who come here, and experience forces us to confront our own mortality.  When we leave this place how do we intend to use the years and weeks and days that God has reserved for us?  Will we fritter our time away?  Or will we resolve to use our time wisely and treat it for what it really is —a wonderful gift from God?  Only we can answer that, but I hope it’s a question we’ll all mull over during our days here.

Tucked away in the materials that prepared us for this pilgrimage was a very simple warning.  “Don’t bring too much stuff.”  For those who thought they couldn’t live without the extra four or five pounds of stuff, you’ve already begun to pay the price.  It may have seemed to be indispensable, but it also turned out to be heavy and bulky.  I know that experience, because I’ve had it too.  But I quickly learned I never need as much as I think, and if I forget something there are always stores, even in France.  But more than that, I’ve learned to keep asking one question of myself:  will my stuff serve me, or will I serve my stuff?

7479A1F1-96B9-418C-952E-19B09C1FCA9ABut that stuff is not the only baggage that we brought along.  Certainly we brought material baggage, but we’ve also brought along spiritual and emotional baggage that can be both very heavy and very distracting.  Perhaps even at this moment you’re sorting through some of the emotional baggage you’ve brought along.  If so, that’s okay, because in Lourdes we want to pay special attention to all the baggage that can so easily become a ball and chain on our emotional lives.  It’s a part of us; and while we could leave our material baggage in our hotel rooms this morning, this spiritual burden is something we’ve dragged along with us into the shrine.

I like to think of my mind as a warehouse, and in it I carry all sorts of stuff that gives me life but also burdens me enormously at times.  Included in its inventory are memories of good times and bad;  the experience of sickness and health;  and the joys and sorrows of life.  In that mental storage bin I carry the scars of sin — sins that I’ve committed and sins that have been committed upon me.  I know that I’m not alone in this experience, because these things haunt you as well.  It’s the price we pay for the knowledge of good and evil which we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve.  And if rightly we cherish the good memories, we can also let the negatives become a cancer that turns us into people we never imagined we would be.

One of my favorite stories from the gospels is the parable of the prodigal son.  It’s the story of one son who wasted his inheritance and finally came back to beg forgiveness from his father.  Most of us don’t identify with this son, but sometimes we should.  The fact is, we all have stuff from which we should repent.

Then there’s the older son.  He’s done everything right, and he’s the perfect son in all things but one.  As the writer David Brooks once pointed out, that son has no empathy for his younger brother.  There’s no forgiveness in his heart.  On occasion we all share his resentment, but we shouldn’t.  We shouldn’t because not one of us is as good as we think.

4B4A8CDF-056C-48F7-9A49-7712D1097CD4Finally there’s the father who has to forgive two sons.  As Brooks also observes, each of his sons is deeply flawed, but he forgives them because he loves them.  He wishes each was better, but they are who they are.  And who knows, perhaps his own love might have the power to transform hem.

To my mind the parable invites us to take the father as our model.  He too may have once stood in his sons’ shoes, but he also knows how powerfully sin can grip us and transform us into people we never intended to become.  Still, he refused to let hurt and resentment burden him.  He refused to let it transform him.  Sin — whether it was his own or that of his sons — would not become baggage he would carry through life.  So he walked away a free man.

Senator George McGovern of South Dakota once remarked that he gave up holding grudges because he couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be mad at.  Whether he did it for religious reasons or not doesn’t really matter, because the result was wonderful.  He was free to get on with life, and the burden of at least some evil lost the power to call the shots in his life.  And that, I would submit, is part of the reason we have come to Lourdes.

D36C2FE1-5755-44EA-818A-7EBF3293D81AIn a few moments we will participate in the sacrament of reconciliation.  This is our chance to let Jesus wash us free from sin.  It’s our chance to leave all sorts of spiritual baggage behind us as we put it in the hands of Jesus.  It’s the chance to move on with our lives.

At every turn Lourdes reminds us to leave behind that burden of sin.  In the baths we let the water wash away the memory of sin. And if need be, when we cross the river each time it’s a good idea to toss in the worst of our memories and let the waters wash them out to sea.  It’s futile to chase after them, and it’s a sign that that sort of baggage no longer has a place in our lives.

And so, I would conclude, if you resolve to leave all your heavy stuff in the hands of the Lord and in the care of Our Lady of Lourdes, you’ll go home with a lot less baggage.  You’ll go home a free person.  You’ll realize that this pilgrimage was worth every minute and every step that it took to get here.

NOTES

+On April 30th I arrived in Paris, where I stayed the night before continuing on by train to Lourdes.  As I realized too late, this was taking a big chance, since May Day — May 1st — is usually reserved for raucous demonstrations in the city.  Sometimes the trains are on strike as well, as was the case last year.  Thankfully I made it to Lourdes with little difficulty.

+On May 2nd I delivered a homily at a penance service for members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  Some 350 gathered in the chapel of Saint Bernadette.  I’ve presented this homily in today’s post, and I apologize for the length.  I didn’t know what to cut out, so I leave it to readers to figure that out for themselves!

8D1ABBA1-DE50-4551-9BBC-8049714EA2E7+As I noted in the sermon, in Lourdes there are shops for every taste and none, and so far one friend of mine has come up with two champion gifts.  First prize goes to the inventor of the Lourdes combination back scratcher and shoe horn.  It’s the gift for someone who thought they had everything.  The second item falls into the category of the slightly bizarre.  In one shop my friend found a tiny statue of Mary that had been carved from a bullet, and the casing was highly polished to provide housing for the statue.  I tried to put the best face on it, by thinking of the exhortation to beat swords into plowshares, but I’m still not quite sure what market niche this gift intends to fill.

+Alumni of Saint John’s University pop up everywhere, and I was surprised to meet up with Lino Rulli.  Lino has a radio program — The Catholic Guy — that airs across the country on Sirius Radio.  He was at Lourdes with Cardinal Dolan of New York, who was also part of the Order of Malta pilgrimage.

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Thomas and the Virtue of Doubt

Among the apostles I find Thomas to be perhaps the most curious and thoughtful.  While the others quickly confessed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, Thomas alone hesitated.  Unless he touched his wounds he would not believe.  And furthermore he wasn’t about to believe solely on the testimony of his fellow apostles.  After all, could anyone really trust the word of disciples who had run away when the chips were down?

But was there more to Thomas’ doubt — something he did not share with his more impetuous colleagues?  It’s entirely possible, and it had to do with what might come next.  It was all well and good to affirm his belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but what might come next?  Would there be other shoes to drop?  Would Jesus ask of him things he was not yet prepared to do?  Would Jesus ask too much of him?  That may help explain why Thomas doubted.  Certainly he had doubts about the risen Lord.  But Thomas had doubts about himself too.

A5C6B58B-532D-4C6C-8C57-90282ACBD891At the Easter Vigil we participants in the liturgy renewed our baptismal vows, and in the creed that we profess on Sundays we do much the same.  And while those statements were crafted long after Thomas professed his faith in the risen Lord, they mirror the words of Thomas.  They are our way of saying “My Lord and my God.”  They are our way of saying “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”  They are our confession that we don’t always know what the Lord has in mind for us; but despite all this we believe that the Lord will walk alongside us on our earthly pilgrimage.

In our culture doubt can seem to be a flaw.  When unquestioned self-confidence seems to be the ideal, we often see doubt as a sign of weakness.  And yet I would submit that doubt is actually a gift.  Doubt is part of any solid relationship — be it with a spouse or a friend or even with God.  Doubt is part of any pilgrimage that is going somewhere wonderful, because when there is no doubt then there is no adventure.  And there are certainly no surprises.  Do we really want to live a life in which there are no surprises?

The Acts of the Apostles demonstrate that it’s okay and perhaps even wise for us to doubt now and again — or often.  Thomas doubted and on that doubt he built a relationship that blossomed and flourished.  As for us. If we had certainty about everything and doubts about nothing, then we might misunderstand what it is the Lord asks of us.  Given that, we could very well panic and look for some sort of detour.

So it seems to me that doubt is not so bad a thing.  There is virtue to be had in doubt.  However, there is one doubt that Jesus invites us to put aside, and it has to do with his promise to be with us —  always.  Never for a moment should we doubt the word of Jesus, who plans to walk with us, even until the end of time.

746CB303-6CDC-4C31-9648-56FA6D63BDB9NOTES

+My week began quietly and ended with a flurry of activity.  On April 25 I flew to White Plains, NY, located a stone’s throw from my destination, Stamford, CT.  In the umpteen years of flying to Connecticut for school and then for work on behalf of Saint John’s it had never dawned on me to fly into that airport.  I am truly amazed at how oblivious I was to geographic reality.  But this discovery also shows that learning is a life-long opportunity, with lots of rewards.

+On April 28th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Darien, CT.  Following that I preached at one of the services, and today’s post is an excerpt from that sermon.  I have passed through Darien many times but had never stopped there.  It turned out to be a wonderful experience, and among others I met a couple whose grandparents are buried in the abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.  I would go back to Darien in a heartbeat!

+While the fire at Notre Dame deeply touched me and all those who revere that church, it also served as a reminder of the great architectural heritage that France shares with the world.  Among my favorite churches is the medieval abbey of Saint Remi, in the city of Rheims.  The cathedral there overshadows this Romanesque structure, and visitors seldom walk the half-mile to see it.  But like so much in France, it is well worth the extra steps.

+Today I leave for the annual pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes.  That may explain my preoccupation with France of late.

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What’s Your Favorite Law?

The other day I asked my confrere Fr. Lew what his favorite Church law was.  I’d never asked anyone that before, and as soon as I shut my mouth I thought better of it.  Where in the world did that question come from?  What was I thinking?

Lew was nice about it, and his answer came without hesitation.  “That’s easy.  The one-hour fast before communion.”

It’s not what I had expected from him; but on the other hand I really didn’t know what to expect, for one good reason.  We monks don’t spend a lot of time sitting around discussing Church law.  It’s not because life is too short.  Rather it’s because the days are too short.

As anyone who’s read the Gospels knows, issues of law cropped up regularly in the ministry of Jesus.  Certainly Jesus was no lawyer; but any time people push the envelope when it comes to religious practice then they better be ready for a heavy dose of push-back.  And Jesus most assuredly pushed the envelope.

FE3E7B69-008F-4751-9BAA-63AA45A7021EThere’s no denying that Jesus had to walk a fine line when it came to his teaching on the law.  Time and again he denied that he had come to abolish the law.  After all, he’d be the first to say that lawlessness tends to bring out the worst in people.  In the same breath, however, Jesus didn’t want to inflate the value of law in religious life.  Correct observance of the law does not give people the upper hand in their relationship with God.  Upright behavior is nice enough, but it never puts God between a rock and a hard place.  When all is said and done, salvation remains a gift.  It’s not a reward earned by those who have been good at least 51% of the time.

If the law is not an end in itself, then what’s the point of it?  I would submit that it’s a covenant that binds us together in a common way of life.  It’s a shared ethical standard.  It points out ways of acting that offer support to one another.

Not surprisingly, Jesus was not about to dodge the question when people tried to pin him down.  And he answered by resorting to a supreme irony: he actually maximized the importance of the law.  Certainly the Ten Commandments had normative value, but were they the be-all and end-all of God’s law?  Perhaps not.  And so, in as many words, Jesus responded with his own trick question:  “Which of the commandments is greater than the command to love God and your neighbor as yourself?”  From my vantage any answer but “none” should get you in a lot of trouble.

3DDFEE6B-B6E8-4918-A2FB-E1B8E3BB61B3So what about the business of fasting for one hour before communion?  Is this another instance in which a secondary law assumes an importance all out of proportion to its real value?  It depends.  On the one hand there’s something positive to be said for this law.  After all, it’s important for all of us to fast for several hours each day.  If we didn’t then we’d all put on weight like crazy.

But there’s an even better reason for fasting before communion.  Fasting for an hour serves as a time-out in the business of life.  That one hour is a reminder that we all need to get a grip on ourselves.  It reminds us that we each have purpose in our lives, and in the Eucharist we celebrate that transcendent conviction.  In the Eucharist, then, we affirm our love for God and for our neighbor as ourselves.

So Jesus chose not to evade questions about the law, because he wanted to make a larger point.  The law does not exist for itself.  Rather, it exists to shore us up in our daily pilgrimage with the Lord and with one another.

NOTES

+On March 26th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is an expansion of what was a much shorter homily on the subject of the law in the teaching of Jesus.  At that Mass I prayed for my friend and colleague from the Order of Malta, Sheila Carmassi, who  passed away recently after a long illness.  No doubt the Lord has already welcomed her into the gates of paradise.

9FF23F12-BE05-4075-B71A-F36ABB6D387C+This last week we received word that our confrere Father Michael-Leonard Hahn successfully defended his Pd.D. dissertation.  This fall he will return from his studies at Boston College to teach at Saint John’s University.

+Recently Abbot John appointed Brother Simon-Hoa Phan to a term as subprior of the monastery.  Brother Simon-Hoa is a member of the art department in the University and has served for several years as a faculty resident in one of the residence halls.  This July he will move back into the monastery, where no doubt he will catch up on several years of sleep deprivation.

+Because of the cold nights and bright sunny days the maple syrup season is well under way in the Abbey’s forests.  These conditions stimulate the flow of the sap up the trees during the day and down into the roots again at night.  Once the temperatures stop dipping below freezing at night, that’s the end of it.  So it’s a narrow window.

+Today is the 400th post of A Monk’s Chronicle.  Frankly, I never thought I would have that much to say, and my one fear has been that I will accidentally recycle an old post.  Hopefully that has not happened yet.  All the same, regular readers know that pet peeves have shown up in new wineskins.  Thanks for reading!

+This last Sunday was Laetare Sunday, which urges us to rejoice because Lent is half over.  I can think of no church that encourages exuberance and rejoicing more than Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and today’s photos illustrate it.  Whether visitors are believers or not, it simply takes your breath away.  For an enlarged view, click on each photo.

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A Letter from Jerusalem

Ages ago I read the account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, written by the 4th-century Iberian nun named Egeria.  Over the course of several years she journeyed from Egypt to Constantinople in search of the holy sites, and among other things she left us one of the best and earliest accounts of the Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem.  She also salted her pages with a generous portion of credulity, and it’s fair to say that openmindedness was one of her chief virtues.

When she asked to see the burning bush of Moses at Mount Sinai, for example, the monks produced it on demand.  She got the same friendly service all along the route;  and if we can fault her gullibility, we have to give her credit for initiative.  She travelled;  she wrote about it; and her stories stimulated a pilgrimage traffic that shows no sign of letting up.

6A52E943-878D-4725-A3D8-8C16915C7B3AAt the moment I’m in the middle of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s been inspiring to see both the familiar as well as the less familiar sites.  As for the latter, most pilgrims would not take the trouble to find the church of Saint John, alongside which Frá Gerard ran a hospice for pilgrims in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.  He and his successors eventually became the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta;  and so it was a thrill to pose for photos at the door of this really really hard-to-find Orthodox Church.  It was closed, but that did not stop us from reciting the prayer of the Order while we stood outside.

As anyone who has visited Jerusalem can attest, this is a very crowded city that challenges the faint of heart.  Chief among the obstacles to contend with are the crowds, which makes negotiating the narrow streets both fascinating and an ordeal.  It’s also easy to get lost, which is why we were happy that forty-two of us went in and all forty-two of us emerged at the end — a little rattled.

AA1F757D-EB00-4DF8-8759-EA79CB684E22What makes it such an ordeal is not just the issue of too many people in too little space.  Added to that is the fact that there is the organized competition among groups, all trying to force their way through to the front of lines.  Naively we went to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and there our group had its first lesson in this sort of thing.  Once inside our guide quickly formed us into something of a military phalanx.  With precision he shaped us into a potent force as we maintained our place in a line leading to the cave where Jesus was born.  It took two hours to get there, and as we inched forward we kept in a disciplined formation that expanded and contracted at our guide’s command.  Our guide also advised us not to be shy about using elbows — “because that’s why God gave them to us.”  It was a triumph by the time we reached the grotto, but even there we were still fending off competitors.  All the same, after it was all over a few people came to me to ask if we had to do penance for behavior we would never tolerate in church at home.

The same sort of perseverance was a real asset at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but a dose of courage also came in handy.  It’s amazing that no one gets seriously hurt on the very steep steps leading to the site of the crucifixion.  All the same, some of us gasped as we watched a young woman slide down a few steps.  Thankfully she was unhurt.

C4CAC1E1-AE0C-415C-9448-662B78DF0C3CThe crush of pilgrims intensified as we entered the line to the shrine that encases the tomb of Jesus.  Advised that it would be another two hours of creeping along, prudence won the day.  That’s when we voted, unanimously, to retreat and try our luck another day.

In sum, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is strenuous business.  The crowds are formidable.  There’s lots to see.  And the Bible comes alive before your eyes.  At the same time, there are still the stories that beguile modern pilgrims, just as they did Egeria.  Not a few tested my credulity and required a healthy dose of the willing suspension of disbelief.  Once again I was impressed by the ready market for such material.  But then again I should not have been surprised, given what people will accept uncritically off of the internet.

Despite it all, or perhaps because of it all, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem both challenges and strengthens one’s faith.  Pressed together in a sea of humanity it dawned on me that people will never cease in their search for meaning in their lives.  Walking in the steps of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem is a reminder that faith can never be merely an intellectual enterprise.  Walking through life with fellow pilgrims requires patience, fortitude, courage, and along the way we may even have to resort to the use of our elbows.  But on such a pilgrimage we discover that if we fall, the Lord quickly sends a brother or sister to help us regain our footing.

1D961EB8-FAC6-4B98-B932-6C03ADAA5E7DNOTES

+It’s not possible to cite everything that has impressed me in the course of this pilgrimage, but a few sites are worthy of comment.  In particular, I had never visited the ancient city of Jerash, which is in Jordan.  Built by the Romans in the 2nd century, its array of architecture is nothing short of dazzling.  Unlike Rome, the modern city has not engulfed the ruins, and the result is a fairly complete cityscape.

+On March 2nd we had the opportunity to visit the Order of Malta maternity hospital in Bethlehem.  Each year the hospital welcomes 4,500 babies into the world, and the staff maintains the only neonatal intensive care unit in the region.  They provide a vital service to mothers who have few if any alternatives.  The French Association and the three US Associations of the Order of Malta share in providing the funds for the hospital.

+Our pilgrimage ends tomorrow, after which I have to get back to my day job.  All the same, it’s been an amazing experience, and if you’ve ever considered a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this is a good time to go.  It’s peaceful, and crossing the border from Jordan was smooth, as was the trip into the Palestinian Territories.  On the other hand, the relative quiet has encouraged the crowds to come.  All the same, it’s worth the effort.

+One of the unexpected benefits of standing in place for two hours in the church of the Nativity was the opportunity to take photos that might not otherwise be possible.  The photos in today’s post were the result of having nothing to do for two hours — except taking pictures and being vigilant that no one got ahead of us in line.

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Moses:  He Let His People Go

I’d not been to Mount Nebo in Jordan in many years, and I was unaware of the changes that had taken place there.  Located on the east bank of the Jordan River, it was the place from which Moses gazed into the promised land, and on the earlier occasion I had left with memories of the great views across the Jordan and a real empathy for Moses.  After all, it had to be bittersweet as he bade goodbye to the people he’d led for more than forty years, while he stayed behind to die.

Moses was a singular figure in history, but like most whom God chooses he wasn’t perfect.  Whatever gifts he may have had, he could also be angry and headstrong, and he was a murderer.  He had killed an Egyptian who had mistreated an Israelite slave, and that would always be a mark against him.

590C123E-124D-4FA5-B8B5-5B80A459539CMoses was not destined to be a leader, but against his own will he emerged as God’s chosen representative.  That said, his work was not a piece of cake.  He managed to anger God, and on many occasions he angered his own people.  But transformation happened anyway, and not just in spite of those conflicts but perhaps because of them.

What might have been his salient features?  Curiosity might have headed the list.  After all, it was curiosity that caused Moses to detour and visit the burning bush.  Curiosity led him to gaze long and hard into the fire, and in search of understanding it was his curiosity that finally led him to transformation.

Perseverence might have been next on the list.  When Yahweh asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt I’m sure Moses had no idea of what he was getting into.   All the same, if he thought it would take a few months at most to reach the promised land, then he was badly mistaken.  It took 40+ years.  That required incredible patience and perseverence.  Along the way the journey took on the character of purification of a sinful people.  It was also a period of uneven growth both for Moses as well as for the people;  and wandering in the desert was symbolic of the wisdom and maturity that come only with time and experience.

Finally, I have to admire Moses for his readiness to let go.  He had served his people for forty years, but they were God’s people and not his own.  As much as he must have relished the thought of leading his people across the Jordan, it was not to be.  He had to let go of the reins of leadership, and like Pharoah before him, he too had to let the people of Israel go.  They left for the promised land west of the Jordan River, while he stayed behind, prepared to die, east of the Jordan.

88113F95-2C1C-4951-9434-38B9EFCAEB79So what — if any — are the lessons we draw from the life of Moses?  First of all, we all need to cultivate our own sense of curiosity.  The minute we start to believe that we know everything is the moment when we need to go back to school.  We’re only fooling ourselves if we think we deserve to have the last word on everything.

Second, we can all use a little perseverance when it comes to our relationship with the Lord.  Like it was for Moses, our own path to God can be rocky, circuitous, surprising and disappointing.  But that’s the story of any relationship that is meant to grow.

Finally, a healthy sense of detachment is important for us all.  Serving others does not mean we can put them in our debt.  It doesn’t mean we help others and then demand the right to make the major decisions for their lives.  Authentic service means that we help others — not because they are Christian but because we are Christian.  And then we let go.  We help others because we see in them what Christ sees in them:  people created in the image of God.

Ironically, then, Moses as leader and servant is one of the best examples we can choose as our model.  After forty years of service in the desert he let his people go, and there are moments in life when we have to do the same.  As parents, teachers, mentors and friends we must learn to let go of the people whom we serve.  It’s the very least we can do, because very likely God has plans for them — plans of which we can only imagine.

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NOTES

+On Tuesday 19 February I left Boston for Amman, Jordan, where I met up with a group of members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, to begin a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  However, my final hours in Boston reminded me once again  that the world can be a small town.  On Sunday I traded texts with a couple from Minneapolis with whom I’d hoped to meet for months.  It turned out that we were four blocks away from each other in downtown Boston.  Then on Tuesday, as I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for a taxi to go to the airport, I looked up to see a friend from Minneapolis.  Minutes later I met unexpectedly with another friend, this time from Seattle.

+On 20 February I arrived in Amman, Jordan.  After a tour of the city our group left for Petra, and en route we visited Mount Nebo, where tradition says that Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the Holy Land which he would never enter.  Since my last visit the Franciscans have built a church on top of Mount Nebo that lovingly encases the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church.  The photos in today’s blog show the results of their work, and we were privileged to celebrate Mass there.

On 24 February we visited Petra, a truly over-the-top and extraordinary place.  In a future post I will include photos of that amazing place.

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