Posts Tagged ‘Order of Malta’

Time for Reflection: A Gift

Now and again I wonder what in the world Jesus did to fill in the years between ages twelve and thirty. That’s the gap between his visit to the temple while his parents went home to Nazareth, and the beginning of his public ministry. It happens to be the longest stretch of his life about which the gospels are silent, but clearly he didn’t sit around and do nothing during all that time.

There’s a lot we can safely assume about the middle years of Jesus, however. Joseph and Mary were religious people who went yearly to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. So Jesus must have been steeped in the Jewish tradition. Since Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus had to have learned something about that trade, if only by osmosis. He also must have learned some Hebrew simply to be able to read from the scrolls which he unrolled in the synagogues. Beyond that, some guesses about his upbringing are better than others; but there will be no definitive biography, at least until the discovery of some major new materials.

Was all this time wasted? Clearly not, as the gospels suggest when they tell us that Jesus grew in age and wisdom. But he was not the only one in his home who did so. Mary herself pondered all this in her heart. I suspect that Joseph too would have had a tale or two to tell had the gospel writers bothered to ask for his story.

Time apart, whether it be a whole span of years or forty days in the desert, was seminal to the life of Jesus. However he may have spent it, he used his time well, as his three years of public ministry imply. As a teacher and a preacher he did not present things on the fly. No, years of study and prayer and asking questions provided a solid foundation on which his ministry depended.

During this current run of isolation I have already learned — or remembered — quite a lot. For one, I’ve learned that life can go on without trips to the airport or the mall. I have also remembered that fulfillment is possible even without an endless run of meetings. And I’ve realized the truth of the old saw about teaching old dogs new tricks. It’s actually true.

All the same, staying in place presents its own particular temptations. When we can’t go anywhere else the urge to go somewhere — anywhere — can be almost too much. There’s also the haunting fear that by staying home we are missing out on so much. I’ve learned, in fact, that the opposite can be equally true. By chasing after distractions we can miss out on so much that life has to offer.

Maybe that’s why Jesus began his public ministry at age thirty and not at age nineteen. Clearly he found those years of reflection and retirement to be of value. So should we. They were a gift for Jesus, and these days should be so for us as well.


+On June 19th the seniors of Saint John’s Preparatory School celebrated their graduation at a ceremony on the plaza in front of the Abbey church. Even if it was an abbreviated event, the pealing of the bells signaled the seniors’ delight at four years well spent.

+For several years now I have dedicated quite a bit of my time and energy to developing a scholarship program at Saint John’s University for alumni of Immokalee High School in Florida. On 20 June my confrere Brother Paul Richards and University colleague Jeff Glover hosted the current and incoming students and their parents at a reception and dinner. They gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee. I wish I could have been there for that, since they are a wonderful group of guys. But I’ll see them all in Collegeville in a few weeks. According to reports they had a great time.

+While the need to stay at home has not allowed me to engage in the customary involvement in activities of the Order of Malta, my hours have not been idle. Last week I participated in telephone and Zoom conferences with committees of the Western Association, the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes on the east coast, and the area leaders of the American Association on the east coast.

+Each week brings a new wave of flowering shrubs and trees at Saint John’s, and now it is the turn of the Japanese Lilac trees. The cream-colored blossoms look like lilacs, and they have a fragrance that is somewhere between pungent and sweet. We have many large specimens of these trees, as the photos in today’s post suggest. Most of them descend from previous generations of these trees at Saint John’s.

+Today’s post is a reflection on Luke 2: 41-51, which happened to be the gospel passage for the Eucharist on June 20th.

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“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  (John 21: 15)

If there were any bystanders to this exchange between Jesus and Peter, they must have been puzzled.  What was all this about?  Did Jesus doubt Peter and his loyalty as a friend?  Was Peter hurt by this line of questioning?  Were Jesus and Peter even on the same wave length?

It seems to me that the last question may be the key to figuring out what all this was about.  For Jesus this was not an issue of whether they were “best friends.”  This was about the nature of the love that Peter had for Jesus.  Did Peter understand what it involved?  And if it took three questions to pin Peter down, then so be it.

In the Middle Ages the bishops of Rome took as one of many titles “Servant of the Servants of God.”  Perhaps that is how best to appreciate what Jesus expected of Peter. Their friendship was one that brought responsibility and duty; and if Peter was to love Jesus, then that love had to extend to all whom Jesus loved.

For any who assume that love of Jesus brings special authority or privileged status, they are sadly mistaken.  It brings instead responsibility.  It entails feeding the Lord’s sheep rather than taking advantage of them.

That, it seems to me, is the very definition of what it means to be Christian.  It means that we love and also serve our neighbor, just as the Lord came to love and serve us.


+On 27 May I participated via Zoom in the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On May 29th I was the celebrant at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon that I delivered that day.  At the beginning of Mass we prayed for peace in the hearts and neighborhoods of the people of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Since then we have prayed for them at all of our Masses and at morning and evening prayer.  It is a real human tragedy.

+On 30 May I gave a retreat conference to members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  Normally this retreat takes place in Malvern, PA, but this year of course we could not gather there.  If I had one misgiving it was this:  would members stick with me through my forty-five minutes on their computer screens?  Who knows.

+Sunday May 31st was the feast of Pentecost, and the photos in this post show a retable and frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, now housed in the Art Institute in Chicago.  It was made in 1356 for Pedro López de Ayala for his chapel in Quejana in northern Spain.  The panel at top shows the Ascension and Pentecost.  At bottom is the entire ensemble.  The greenery in this post is a cluster of peonies in a garden outside the abbey church.  Known especially in Germany as the “Pentecost rose”, peonies usually bloom too late in Minnesota to earn that title.


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Has God Forgotten Us?

There are days when I think that St. Paul was one lucky guy.  As the Acts of the Apostles relate, God struck Paul from his horse, and in the space of a few hours Paul’s life turned upside-down and inside-out.  By the end of the week there remained not one shred of doubt about the new direction of his life.

Paul’s certainty is what I envy most.  He was sure of himself, and he marched ahead with confidence.  Meanwhile I and lots of other people wonder what it is that God has in mind for us.  What is it that God wants us to do with our lives — if anything?  Has God forgotten us?

It’s important to keep in mind that Paul is an exception to God’s rule.  Paul was a stubborn thorn in the side of the early Christians, and somebody like him required a grand gesture on God’s part.  The slow meandering approach that God uses with most of us simply wouldn’t have cut it with Paul.

DBB28606-4A13-46DE-9A8E-8DE85DEE5614I find a bit of personal consolation in the story of the time that Jesus spent in the desert.  In so many ways his forty days in isolation run parallel to our own experience of extended isolation.  Alone in prayer, Jesus considered what the Father asked of him, and in time it all unfolded before him.  But certainly he did not have clarity immediately, as his agony in the garden later suggests.

In the desert Jesus considered the opportunities that the devil unfolded before him.  His options included the same sort of attractions to power and fame and instant gratification that beset us all.  Like us Jesus had to come to terms with them before he finally put them behind him.  There would be no place in his life for such delusions of grandeur.

Unlike Paul, we’ll likely not be shaken up so decisively.  Far more likely, I and most of the people I know will continue to undergo an experience similar to what Jesus had in the desert.  In our lives there will be testing;  and there will be alternatives both good and bad to consider.  But there will also be glimpses of the divine when the Lord does gently touch us.

On a road to Emmaus two disciples had an experience that was very different from Paul’s road to Damascus.  They had wanted to believe in Jesus, but his crucifixion had disillusioned them.  Then alongside them walked a stranger.  That stranger teased them along with his words, but he didn’t grab them and shake them up.  Little by little, however, he opened their minds, until finally they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

That, I think, is the best treatment we’re going to get from the Lord.  We should expect little in the way of drama.  We should expect no grand oratory, nor will there be any shoving to the ground.  Instead, very gradually, we’ll discover the Lord as he speaks to us softly in the course of our day.  That, I firmly believe, is how the Lord does his best work on us.



+On April 27th I had class with Novice Felix.

+As with so many people now, online meetings have become the order of the day.  On April 30th I took part in a Zoom meeting with members of the Board of Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On May 2nd I was the prayer leader for members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, as we prayed the Office of the Dead — via Zoom — for the recently deceased Grand Master, Frá Giacomo Dalla Torre.

+The inspiration for today’s post is the story of the conversion of Saint Paul from the Acts of the Apostles, which we read at Eucharist on May 1st.  The first two pieces of stained glass depict the temptation of Jesus in the desert.  They were made in the late 12th century for a church in Troyes in France, and today they are housed at the V & A in London.  Below them is an oil and tempera painting on an oak panel, by an unknown artist in the late 15th century.  It is housed at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon.  At bottom is a magnolia tree in bloom in the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  It is an opening salvo of spring, which is beginning to assert itself at Saint John’s — finally!


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The Lord Can Help Us Repack

According to my appointment book, I’m supposed to fly to Lourdes this week.  Each year at this time members and volunteers in the Order of Malta converge on that southern French town, but this time around it is not to be.  The mere thought of bringing thousands of sick people to mingle with thousands of other pilgrims in a crowded town was simply too much to bear.  So for now the shrine is closed, and the disappointment is shared widely and keenly.

I too share in that sense of loss, but the cancellation has also triggered wonderful memories of pilgrimages past.  In particular, I’ve recalled the sermon I was privileged to deliver last year as members of the Western Association of Malta gathered for the sacrament of reconciliation.  I spoke that morning about memory and temptation and how they crop up for good and for ill in our daily routine.

9606BFE9-CCD1-4681-9D2C-D938D8F1511BI began with a reference to the ancient desert ascetics in Egypt, whose lives are replete with instances of spiritual endurance contests.  To untutored readers of our own time those stories can seem odd and even eccentric.  But we dismiss those tales at our peril.  The fact is, we are susceptible to the same temptations, though as always the devil fashions them to suit our particular weaknesses.

That morning I talked about baggage — both material and emotional.  As a first-time pilgrim to Lourdes I recall packing way more stuff than I needed.  The result was luggage bulging with things that became a burden to me.  That’s when I realized that we always need to pack with an eye to the point of it all.  Baggage is meant to serve us rather than the other way around.   So if it’s too much to haul around, then take less.

Then there is the baggage that we store  in the back of our minds.  The fact that we carry an inventory of hurts and slights and emotional ups and downs presents a special challenge.  We can tote those memories around for years, and sometimes they’re really hard to get rid of.  Saint Benedict alludes to this in his Rule, when he writes about nursing a grudge.  Left to run wild in our imagination, such memories can transform us into the sort of person we never hoped to become.

Not surprisingly, such memories surface in a place like Lourdes simply because it is a place of spiritual as well as physical healing.  That morning I urged people to take an inventory of the hurts that hobble them and to devise a strategy to leave behind as much of this mental baggage as was possible.  I recommended two things.

First was the sacrament of reconciliation, for which we had gathered.  I suggested that we leave our sins at the feet of the Lord and substitute for that burden the yoke of the Lord.  Jesus promised that his yoke was easy and his burden light.  So why not take him up on his offer?

E2DAAC34-F690-4001-9E52-D7DD9EC1A7D0Then I offered what is for me a playful yet quite deliberate approach to dealing with the hurts that bedevil us.  From experience I know that those memories can grip us, even in a place like Lourdes.  So my solution was practical.  As pilgrims enter the sacred precincts of Lourdes they cross a bridge over the River Gave.  It’s a fast-flowing current, and many a time it has overflowed its banks and done serious damage to the town and the shrine.  But like the waters of baptism it can effect tremendous change.  So that day I invited people to toss into the river their favorite grievances.  Then let the river carry them out to sea.  And they should keep doing it enough times until they can let go of that bit of emotional baggage completely.

I’ve reminded myself of this practice periodically, but it is especially useful now in a time of confinement and isolation.  That’s when the evil one stirs up the memories that cripple and burden us.  That’s when we need to recall the Lord’s promise to us all.  We don’t have to carry those awful burdens through life, because there is a strategy that brings healing.  As Saint Benedict suggests, we need to recognize the grudges and all the other stuff that stifles us, and then we need to deliberately excise those things from our minds.  Then we can take on the yoke of Christ, which really is easy and light.  It’s true, but we’ll never know until we let the Lord help to repack our bags.



+On April 20th I taught another class on monastic history  and tradition to our novice, Brother Felix.  This time I dealt with the influence of Pope Gregory the Great in promoting the legacy of Saint Benedict.

+Among several things that did not happen during the past week was the blessing of the abbey organ.  It had been scheduled for April 26th, but we have moved that event  to the fall.  In at least one respect this delay turned out to be fortuitous, as Fr. Bob Koopmann confided to some of us last week.  When organ builder Martin Pasi returned to his workshop in Tacoma, WA, he discovered that he had left one pipe behind.  Until that pipe is installed the organ is not complete; but to my untrained ear it sounds pretty good already.  The organists in the abbey have been testing the organ since the Easter vigil, and it sounds spectacular without that one pipe.  But on the other hand, it’s not complete until that one pipe is there.  And so the organ becomes a metaphor for a community.


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We Are People of he Resurrection

“If Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, then nothing else matters.  And if Jesus Christ died and did not rise, then nothing else matters.”

So wrote Jaroslav Pelikan, and his application of logic to the life of Jesus has profound implications for the direction of our lives.  Believe in him or not, Jesus was one of the central figures of human history.  But for Christians Jesus is more than an historical figure.  He is in fact the central figure of our lives.

I fist met Professor Pelikan when I was in college, and he was already an eminent historian at Yale.  The occasion was an appearance he made alongside Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium, and together they made for a striking duo in the gothic sanctuary of Riverside Church in New York.  In his red robes Suenens contrasted sharply with virtually everybody else;  but it was Pelikan who dazzled me.  During the exchange that followed their talks, someone posed a question to Pelikan.  Without a moment’s hesitation Pelikan referenced a Czech theologian, whom he quoted at length, without notes, in Czech.  Then and there I decided that someday I would study with that man.

6862A6D6-A078-4157-8421-30AA5D90AFCAYears later Pelikan was the main reader for my dissertation and, true to his sense of the dramatic moment, he announced at a dinner in the Great Hall at Saint John’s that he had signed off on my work two days earlier.  It was an energizing moment for me, as you can imagine.  But that gesture underscored for me how important people can be in our lives.  Be they teachers, parents or friends, we do not walk this earth alone.  Such people are gifts from God to us.

I’ve often mulled over Pelikan’s words on the resurrection, not just for what they say about Jesus, but for what they say about us.  If Jesus did die and rise for us, then each one of us has intrinsic value.  As sons and daughters of God, each one of us matters, and each of us is a gift sent to our brothers and sisters to accomplish something important.

So the upshot of all this should be life-changing.  If Jesus Christ did die and rise from the dead, then nothing else matters.  That means that God loves each of us and to each of our brothers and sisters you and I are a gift.  It’s an extraordinary vocation that the Lord has given us, and nothing else matters.


+Not surprisingly, I did not leave the abbey grounds last week.  However, I am learning once again to appreciate the value of Benedictine stability and claustral life in the monastery, though the first couple of weeks away from the airports did not come easily.  Now I’m getting used to it and have enjoyed the chance to go for long walks on the abbey grounds.

+On April 8th my dear friend Fra Carl Noelke passed away suddenly, though not unexpectedly.  Fra Carl was a Knight of Justice, that is, a member in the Order of Malta who had professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  To look at Fra Carl’s face was to get a glimpse of the beatific vision, and he was a joy to be with.  He was widely respected within the Order, and all who knew him will miss him dearly.

On April 11th I led the Office of the Dead for Fra Carl, which we conducted via Zoom.  Ca. 60 of us joined together, and participants included members of the Order in Rome, Paris and London, across the United States, and in New Zealand.  Given my total lack of technical expertise, we were fortunate to have someone other than me to manage the entire exercise.  Following the service individuals were able to offer their personal tributes in memory of Fra Carl.  All in all it was a remarkable experience.  Fra Carl practiced law in San Francisco and was a member of the Bohemian Club, to which he contributed his deep booming voice.  He will be buried in his hometown of LaCrosse, WI.

+One of the surprises of the Triduum was the installation of an icon painted by our confrere, Fr. Nathanael Hauser.  At 7×12 feet it is certainly large, and it almost did not fit through the door of his studio.  It sits above the Abbot’s throne and dominates the space.  The last two photos in today’s post show an icon by Aidan Hart, commissioned for Saint John’s Abbey.  Aidan did significant work in The Saint John’s Bible.



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God’s Favorite People:  Deeply Flawed

In the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah chapter 20 we read something that we wouldn’t normally expect from a prophet.  Jeremiah had preached the message God had asked him to preach, and for that effort his friends turned on him.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise.  But what Jeremiah in turn asked of God certainly was.  He prayed for vengeance on his former friends.

In her reflection on this passage that appeared on April 3rd in Give Us This Day, Sr. Mary McGlone draws attention to this unfortunate flaw in Jeremiah’s character.  Unlike Jesus, who prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors, Jeremiah prayed for revenge.  He wanted to gloat as he watched his enemies suffer.

Whatever this may say about Jeremiah, this passage says something profound about God’s willingness to choose flawed people to do his work.  Among others, God called Moses, who didn’t speak well at all and also happened to be a murderer.  Then there was David, who was a philanderer and abused his power.  Later came Mary, who was a young girl with little in the way of power or connections.  Certainly to be counted among these stars was Paul, who had been a persecutor of Christians.  And then, as people called out of time, God most recently has called us.

Despite our flaws and in spite of our sins, God has plans for us.  It’s why God gathers us around the altar.  And so in the Eucharist Jesus Christ feeds us and then sends us out to do his will.  Much like the apostles, we go, ready or not.



+On April 3rd I celebrated the community Eucharist at Saint John’s Abbey, and today’s post is the reflection that I delivered that day.  Give Us This Day, which I reference in the sermon, is a monthly publication of The Liturgical Press at Saint John’s Abbey.

+Just as was the case the week before, this week my furthest journeys were walks on the abbey grounds.  It was wonderfully quiet, and despite a dusting of snow on one day, the weather was largely pleasant.

+After much technical difficulty, the live-streaming of the abbey liturgies finally seems to be on track.  To view the liturgies of Holy Week, including that of the Easter Vigil on Saturday at 9:00 pm, please visit http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org.

+My major task this past week was the composition of a prayer that I was asked to prepare for members of the Order of Malta.  Because of restrictions on public gatherings, this will be for most members the first time in their adult lives when they are unable to attend Easter services.  The prayer, appended at the bottom of today’s post, is meant to accompany the lighting of a candle at sunset on Holy Saturday.  Please feel free to share this text with any who might wish to participate and proclaim from their homes that Christ is their light and the light of the world.



Loving Father,

We gather around this candle whose flame pierces the darkness and proclaims by our faith that Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  We thank you for your Son, our Savior, and ask You to bless us and grant these petitions:

May this candle be our Easter candle in troubled times.

May Christ’s light warm the poor and heal the sick.

May Christ’s light caress the lonely and embrace the lost.

May Christ’s light reach into the corners of our hearts and dispel our darkest fears.

May we, by our charitable words and deeds, be Christ’s light to others and so light up the world.

And may we draw ever more closely to Jesus Christ, our light and risen Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.



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So blared the headline on the front page of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune last Saturday.  Below it was a photo that should have shown the thoughtful response of normally sober and often stoic Minnesotans.  Instead, however, it showed store-length lines of people waiting to buy cartloads of toilet paper at a local Costco.  Who would have guessed?!

I almost laughed out loud, but later in the day my brother confirmed that this wasn’t a one-off.  At the Home Depot in Oklahoma City where he works pallets and pallets of tissue had sat, untouched, for months.  Then, all of a sudden, customers rushed in like a plague of locusts and stripped the pallets bare.

DC3DDE5B-660A-4CA7-A835-DAF68B4C669ECrises tend to produce unusual reactions, but this was something I never saw coming.  I was completely taken aback that a pandemic would lay bare a pervasive anxiety over toilet paper as a major social issue.  How did all the social scientists miss this?

The responses to the Coronavirus have ranged from the serious to the ridiculous, but most see the need to do something.  In our monastery at Saint John’s we’ve revamped our refectory service, and we’ve spread ourselves out in the choir stalls.  We’ve also limited access to our elderly monks in the abbey health center.  And while I cannot speak for everyone, my own hands are starting to chap from too much washing.

Still, the image of people in desperate search for toilet paper in a time of crisis sticks in my mind.  Is it time to dust off those old Fellini films about the absurdities of life?  Could it be time once again to do some soul-searching and decide what values — if any — should shape our lives?

For monks this situation evokes a treasured bit of wisdom from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  “Keep death daily before your eyes” was Benedict’s advice, and by it he meant to drive us neither to despair nor pious escapism.  Rather, he meant to encourage us to set personal priorities that would define our lives.  Among those, love and respect for others should top the list.  Commitment to mutual service should count for something as well.  A certain graciousness should also pervade our lives, and all this rests on a vision of Christ whom we see in our fellow monks and in virtually everyone else.

4B25A7DA-1B29-4F8B-B620-37AED37DC89AOther religious orders and traditions have their variations on this theme, but one ideal from the Order of Malta has long intrigued me.  For much of the Order’s history nobility meant nobility of blood.  In modern times the nobility of spirit and conduct has come to replace it.  The Statutes and Commentary go on to explain that “nobility in this deeper sense means:  carrying more responsibility than others; [and] knowing that one exists to stand up for the glory of God and for the God-given dignity of every person….”  Underscoring all this is a fundamental vision that drives the behavior of all members:  in the faces of the sick and the poor we see the face of Christ.

The feast of Ash Wednesday reminded us that our pilgrimage in this life is finite.  Ironically, the Coronavirus does the very same thing.  But there’s one critical difference between Ash Wednesday and this latest reminder of our mortality.  Lent reminds us that our end is indeed temporal, and we each have an expiration date.  That said, we also have an end that is eternal.  May we continue to pray about the purpose to which God calls us.



+On March 11 our confrere Fr. Don LeMay passed away at the age of 97.  Fr. Don was an extraordinary individual, and he had a facility with names that astonished all who knew him.  Always gentle and possessed of a positive spirit, he was fond of noting that “every day is a great day!”

+On March 13th we sent our students home and will shortly initiate online classes for them.  For the moment the plan is to ask them to return on Easter Monday to resume classes on campus.

+The last few days no doubt have seen great upheaval for most everyone.  In my case it has included the cancellation of every talk and meeting that I was to be involved with for weeks to come.  Now I do not need to go near the airport until mid-May, and so I feel like I have gone on summer vacation.  But of course I know it’s not quite the same, because there are still piles of snow here and there.  One other byproduct of a free schedule is the ability to be prayer leader at the community liturgy of the hours.  This weekend I realized that for the first time in ages I would be able to be present for every bit of the prayer schedule this week, and so I offered to help out Fr. Cyril, this week’s leader, if and when he needed a substitute.  His response?  “Why not take the whole week!”  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and so I accepted.

+On March 21st we celebrate the feast of the passing of Saint Benedict.  In his honor I have selected photos from Monte Cassino, where he founded his community of monks.  The site itself has seen more than its share of emergencies, having been sacked and destroyed several times in its history.


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Lent:  A Life-long Pilgrimage

I don’t suppose most people associate Lent with pilgrimage.  On the popular level the indulgence of Mardi Gras is the prelude to Lent.  Then, perhaps out of necessity, some set aside Ash Wednesday and sometimes a few extra days for heartfelt regret and recovery.  Then come the fasting and self-denial that are grist for a traditional Lenten observance.  Though much of this can be done from the comfort of a recliner, it’s best done actively, on our feet.  After all, spiritual exercises should have a physical expression about them as well.

Beyond that, there’s something to be said for linking our personal regimen for Lent with the itinerary of the ministry of Jesus.  For instance, on Ash Wednesday we can still vaguely make out the Nativity in our rear-view mirror.   That’s a reminder of the humanity that we share with Jesus, as are the passion and death of Jesus which end the Lenten season.  In between are the years that Jesus spent as a young man in Nazareth and as a teacher in Galilee.  Those were formative years for him, and in that interval he grew in age and wisdom.  But they were also the years when Jesus came to terms with the mission that his Father had bestowed on him.

7DA89B51-8E48-40F9-9CF3-14F0B07020D8Geography obviously played a key role in the life of Jesus.  He was born in Bethlehem, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem.  But it was in the north, in the lower elevations of Nazareth and Galilee and the Jordan River Valley where Jesus came to terms with his relationship with his Father.  And from there he eventually went up to the high places of Jerusalem to fulfill his ministry.

The life of Jesus points to something fundamental for us all.  Like Jesus, we are not called to live a static existence.  Like Jesus, we should grow and mature.  Like Jesus, we should deepen our human relationships.  Like Jesus, we should become ever more aware of our talents, of our capacity to be generous and make sacrifices for the sake of others, and of our ability to be supportive of one another.  And we should do this for a very specific reason.  Jesus invites us to continued growth so that we might use our hands to do his work and open our hearts to share his love.  All that requires movement on our part.

Lent then is not a time to sit still.  Lent instead is a time to reflect on the pilgrimage of Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Galilee and finally to Jerusalem.  It’s a pilgrimage on which Jesus invites us to join with him.  And along the ascent from our own Galilee to our own Jerusalem Jesus promises to walk with us.  That certainly is a pilgrimage worth considering, especially since it lasts a lifetime.


+This was a momentous week for us in the monastery.  On Friday the 21st the new pipe organ accompanied our singing at evening prayer for the first time.  Then on Sunday the 23rd Fr. Bob played the organ at Mass, and Fr. Anthony played at vespers.  Not all of the new pipes have been tuned, but the additional 3,000 pipes show great promise.  Meanwhile, this Wednesday the electronic organ that has kept us company for many months will return to the organ studio from which we had rented it.  Despite its obvious differences from a pipe organ, that electronic organ had the capacity to produce some really interesting sounds.  For better and for worse all of our abbey organists resisted the temptation to produce music suitable for a hockey rink.  It might have been fun.

+On Saturday February 22nd I gave a presentation on the history and mission of the Order of Malta to provisional members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat day took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

+In March of 2019 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, and the photos in today’s post derive from that experience.  At top is the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  Below that is the basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a structure that blends the old and new.  The next photo shows the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, the city where Jesus lived during much of his ministry.  It was in the earlier version of this synagogue where Jesus taught and preached.  At bottom is the tomb of Jesus in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.




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Lent:  What’s a Monk to Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Baptism Begins Our Public Ministry

As rivers flow the Jordan is no Rhine or Amazon or Mississippi.  On rainy days it might qualify as a decent tributary, but even on those days it inspires neither poets nor painters nor boating enthusiasts.

Despite its shortcomings, however, the Jordan does play an extraordinary role in the gospels.  It was beside its waters that John the Baptist preached and baptized.  It was there that he had his first and perhaps only encounter with Jesus.  And it was into the meandering waters of the Jordan that John immersed the head of Jesus.

Last year on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I got to celebrate the Eucharist on a dock that extends out over the shallow waters of the Jordan.  While our small congregation sat on bleachers on dry land, I had to stick close to the altar, lest a misstep plunge me into the Jordan.  I’d already been baptized, so there was no need for another.  But praying out on that dock impressed on me the importance of that place for Jesus.  It was there that he began his public ministry.

C3758ED1-E5AD-4A52-AC17-15FD184DC811The feast of the Baptism of Jesus marks the end of the Christmas season, and in churches of the Latin tradition the decorations come down.  All the same, this action marks a new beginning.  It’s time to get on with the business of ordinary life.  But we do so with a twist.

If the baptism of Jesus inaugurated his public ministry, does our own baptism not do the same for us?  And if it does, what might be the nature of our ministry?  To what kind of life does Jesus call us?

For those who think that public ministry is reserved to the ordained, it’s time to think again.  The witness to Jesus is actually the vocation of the baptized.  To that creative witness Jesus invites us all.

In western culture today the practice of religious faith has become such a private exercise that sometimes one scarcely knows whether or not we’re Christian.  In fairness, part of this is due to our neighbors who share our values if not our baptism.  But all the same, if the nature of our lives remains a cypher or a mystery to our neighbors, then it may be time to evaluate how we are coming across.

Jesus does not ask us to wear our religious conviction on our sleeves.  Nor does he invite us to be Pharisees and dedicate our lives to pointing out the sins of our neighbors. Unfortunately, too many have already signed up for that work, and there’s no need for further volunteers.

Rather, Jesus asks that we rise from the baptismal waters and live with integrity and love.  And he asks us to invite others to share in the new life that he offers.  Our very way of life then should inspire curiosity in our neighbors, and therein begins our public ministry.

A4E68E6C-C251-4B16-9A96-EB87DAB94243To be blunt, in baptism Jesus does not propose that we follow the course of the Jordan as it lazily empties into the Dead Sea.  Rather, like him we need to rise from the waters, step ashore, and as consecrated people begin our public ministry.


+On January 6th and 7th I attended a meeting in Cincinnati to discuss the spirituality of the Order of Malta.

+On January 12th we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and that evening the monks living on my floor in the monastery gathered to take down our Christmas tree and other decorations.  By nightfall all traces of Christmas had vanished from the monastery.

+On January 13th the new semester for Saint John’s University began, and with it life as we know it returned to normal.

+The photo at top is a wood carving of the Baptism of Christ, ca. 1480, made in Nuremberg, Germany, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Below that is a piece of stained glass made in 1520 for the Cistercian Abbey of Mariawald, located near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the V & A Museum in London.  Below that is an ivory panel carved in the 500s, in either Syria or Egypt, and now in the British Museum.  At bottom is a terracotta by Andrea Della Robbia, ca. 1500, now in the V & A in London.


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