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Posts Tagged ‘Order of Malta’

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Christ is in the Tangles of Life

[This is a sermon that I delivered on 29 October.]

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been troubled by today’s passage from chapter 22 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  After all, Jesus seemed to be a pretty nice guy, who wouldn’t hurt a flea.  He always meant well, and mainly he only wanted to help people.  Given that, why in the world would the Sadducees want to trip him up?  And why would the Pharisees think they would succeed where the Sadducees had failed?  Why did it matter to them?  And why should their experience matter to us?

When the Pharisees asked Jesus to single out the most important law, they already knew what to expect from him.  The love of God and love of neighbor took highest priority in the Jewish tradition, and they and Jesus and everyone else knew that already.  Had Jesus named any other law, everybody would have been very much surprised.  And had Jesus done so, they would have sprung the trap.  But Jesus didn’t take the bait;  he said the right thing.  Meanwhile the Pharisees heard what they had expected to hear, but not what they had wanted to hear.  And so they quietly walked away to come up with Plan B.

IMG_5701What they preferred to hear, I suspect, was something along the lines of the laundry list of duties and responsibilities that God had enjoined on his people in the first reading for today, taken from chapter 22 of the Book of Exodus.  In that passage God is quite specific about the kind of behavior he expects to see in his people.  They must not oppress the aliens in their midst.  They should not wrong widows and orphans.  They should not lend money and then extort interest from people.  If they take anyone’s cloak as security for a loan, then they should return it before sunset.

God could have gone on and on, piling one regulation on top of another, but for the moment that was enough.  However, elsewhere in the Old Testament God does return to these kinds of specifics — particularly in the words that he puts into the mouths of the prophets.

That may be the sort of detailed answer that the Pharisees had hoped to hear from Jesus.  About those sorts of issues there could be endless debate, because the devil is often in these sort of details.  But in those details is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to living out the Two Great Commandments.  So it’s fair, for example, to ask how the words of Exodus apply to us.  What exactly does God expect us to do about the alien in our midst?  What exactly should we be doing for the widow and orphan, besides not oppressing them?  How exactly does God’s law figure into ethical business practices?

IMG_5703In all these issues there is grist for endless debate, countless books and articles, and the caution that gives us plenty of excuses not to act.  And if Jesus had only spoken about those things, then the Sadducees and Parhisees would have backed him into a corner and kept him there for a long time.

But for the moment Jesus refused to get bogged down in the devil’s details and went to the core of God’s law.  We must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our being.  Into every fiber of our being and into every moment of our day we must allow the grace of God to flow.  And from that unity with God derives the second great commandment:  we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

The important thing, it seems to me, is to realize that Jesus was not trying to avoid the hard and detailed questions of life — the very sort of things that the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up on.  And it’s definitely not because these things did not matter to Jesus.  In fact, when Jesus singled out the two great commandments, by extension he underlined the importance of all those other items.  The details matter — not as debate topics or excuses for inaction — but because they are the expression of whether we take love of God and neighbor seriously , or not.  How we treat aliens and widows and orphans and the poor matters because we love God and neighbor.  Those peoples are the detailed handiwork of God, just as are we.

I’m fond of quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, especially when he offers insights into his own troubled pilgrimage through life.  Augustine was troubled for lots of reasons, but not because he thought that life or God had been unfair with him.  Rather, he came to realize the fundamental connection that we have with God and how that makes all the difference in the details of the here and now.  For him there will always be uneasiness  until we bring into alignment our love of God on the one hand, and how we choose to tease that out into our lives.  And so it is that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

IMG_5704It should not surprise us, then, that we might be restless in our own pilgrimage of life.  As Jesus suggests,  our religious commitment is grounded in our love of God and our love of neighbor — above all other things.  And so it is that as members of the Order of Malta, and as Christians, we deliberately keep before us the need to weave the love of God and neighbor into the smallest details of our service to the poor and the sick.  There, not surprisingly, we at times encounter the devil in the details;  but yet we carry on, no matter the cost.

Does our work make a difference?  Will our lives matter?  On the one hand I think we need to forge ahead anyway, regardless of the answers.  And we do so in confidence that ultimately God will be the judge of those things.

But on the other hand, only when we take the plunge and immerse ourselves in the messy details of life, only then will we discover a great surprise.  We may have thought that the devil was in the details.  But in fact it is the Lord Jesus whom we see in the details.  And through the tangle of life it is the face of Christ peeking out at us.

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+My major activity of last week was the retreat that I gave to members In Obedience in the Order of Malta.  It is a yearly gathering that takes place at San Damiano Franciscan Retreat Center, located in Danville, CA.  Danville is in the East Bay, south of Oakland, and it was spared the fire that had ravaged nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys.  Had we been scheduled to have the retreat during those fires, we would not have met.  The smoke was intense, and in the event of a fire we would have been toast.  The center sits on the top of a small mountain, and there is only one winding road up (and just as obviously, one road down.)  Today’s post is a sermon I gave to them on October 29th.

+By coincidence a group of extern sisters from Carmelite convents from around the country were also gathered at San Damiano.  The extern sisters are the ones who deal with the business of the convent, while the nuns in the community remain cloistered.  This brought to mind stories my mother had told of her contact with the Carmelites.  Before she married she worked at a school run by Carmelite sisters in Oklahoma City, and years later she often visited the cloistered Carmelite nuns who lived in nearby Piedmont, OK.  I mentioned this to one of the sisters at the meeting, and her face brightened as I spoke.  She was from the community in Piedmont.  So it was a small world that day.

+On October 27th we had our first snow of the season at Saint John’s.  The two inches did not last long, but it is a reminder that seasonal change is in the offing.  Just a few days earlier it had reached 80 degrees, so this is a rapid transition.

+The photos in today’s post come from the Cité de L’Architecture, a museum in Paris.  The museum houses plaster casts of historic architecture from around France, and it’s the perfect place to go if you want to see a lot of stuff without having to go very far.  The photos above depict the Abbey of Sainte Foi in Conques.

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Soloists on the Path to God?

No one has ever accused St. Benedict of encouraging a lot of fun and games in the monastery.  In fact, in his Rule he outlined a pretty sober regimen of prayer, work and study.  When there needed to be talking, he advised keeping it to a minimum.  He also discouraged laughter, and he forbade gossip altogether.  The latter I can understand, since most gossip tiptoes beyond the limits of charity.  But when it comes to laughter I try to give Benedict the benefit of some doubt.  Like many of his contemporaries, Benedict frowned on laughter because it violated Stoic ideas about self-control of the emotions.  Still, that leaves us with an important question.  Did monks in Benedict’s community enjoy their lives?  Did they ever recreate?

It’s hard to answer, but we know that monks in later centuries did have their moments of enjoyment and relaxation.  For example, some of the legal customaries that regulated monastic life made provision for a break in the routine.  Medieval monks could take time off and go to the infirmary, even if they were not sick.  There they could rest, eat meat, and recover their stamina before resuming the routine.  It was their version of a vacation.

IMG_7500We also know that monks made time for community recreation.  Granted, St. Benedict didn’t make provision for this, but later monks did it anyway.  My all-time favorite example can be found in the life of Suger, abbot of St. Denis.  Located outside of Paris, St. Denis was an important place in the 12th century, and Suger gets credit for building the first truly gothic church in Europe.  It still stands today for all to see, though most people visit to gawk at its tombs of the kings and queens of France.

Suger spent a lot of time at court, and while Louis VII was off on the Crusades Suger served as a regent of the kingdom of France.  That leads to my point.  Suger writes that at the end of a busy day of running France he would return to St. Denis, and there he would gather round himself a group of monks to talk about the day’s events, both inside and outside the monastery.  It obviously was a relief to Suger to be with the people who mattered most to him.  It was also a reminder to even the youngest monks at St. Denis that they were not soloists on the path to God.  They were all on pilgrimage together, and they needed the support of each and every brother.

This is a long preamble to the experience I had in the novitiate at Saint John’s last week.  Part of the formation of our young monks involves getting to know the senior monks, and that is not always easy to do when people are busy and when the house is large.  To achieve this, then, our novices now and again invite individual monks to visit after evening prayer.  It’s their chance to get to know a senior, and last Thursday was my turn.

IMG_7476What do the novices want to know about?  Usually they want to know what brought us to the monastery, why we entered, and what we’ve done since we’ve been here.  In this case Jacob, Elias and Mariano knew a little about what I’d done over the years, but I decided to do a pre-emptive strike and open with a bit of show and tell.

I guessed, for example, that they would not think to ask about my work with the Order of Malta, simply because it’s pastoral work that I do away from the monastery.  So I brought along the Order of Malta chasuble and missal that I have, along with the decorations that I wear at Malta events.  (I also brought along the Danish-Lutheran ruffed preacher’s collar that some friends gave me several years ago — but that story is for another time.)  I spoke too about our pilgrimage to Lourdes, and I concluded with the observation that I volunteer with Malta because it’s an organization in which paying dues is not enough.  All are expected to serve the sick and the poor in some way, and that service is transformative.

The novices also knew that I’ve taught, directed a library, and now do development work in our University.  So I told them about one project special to me:  an effort to build a scholarship fund for students from Immokalee, FL, who come to Saint John’s for college.  I do that simply because it’s a chance to help some gifted young men to have a future they never thought possible.  Those guys are flourishing at Saint John’s, and it’s a privilege for me to be part of that effort.

IMG_7492We then drifted across a range of other topics.  For one, I explained my theory that people come to the monastery for all sorts of reasons, but they usually end up staying for an entirely different set of reasons.  I attribute that to the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer to transform a person over a lifetime.

Finally, I noted my hope in our future as a monastic community.   The fact that we have so many gifted young monks in our community inspires me.  Jacob, Elias and Mariano may only be in their year of probation in the community, but even in that first year among us they are gifts from God.  St. Benedict reminds us that the face of God can be seen in even the youngest, and so that presents a challenge for us who are their seniors.  Their presence demands that we look for the best in them.  Their presence is also a reminder that God has not forgotten us!

So those are some of the things we talked about at recreation last Thursday.  I’m sure that Benedict will forgive us our laughter, because it’s one of the ways in which monks support each other on the path to God.  It’s a reminder too that we will surely see the face of God in the next phase of life’s journey, because in the here and now we are blessed to see the face of Christ in the youngest in our midst.

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Notes

+On October 16th we welcomed into our community Elias, who was clothed as a novice, and Mariano, who was accepted as a probationary junior monk.  They join Novice Jacob in a year of probation in the community.

+On October 19th I visited with Brothers Jacob, Elias and Mariano in the novitiate after evening prayer.

+On October 20th the Saint John’s Pottery hosted a crowd of visitors for the firing of the giant wood-fired kiln, which holds some 12,000 pieces of pottery.  They fire the kiln every two years, and it is a huge bit of work to prepare for it.

+While the maples have lost their color and their leaves, the color has shifted to the ivy at Saint John’s.  The photos in today’s post show the reds and yellows of the Abbot’s Courtyard at Saint John’s.

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Memories:  the Measure of a Life

[Today’s post is a sermon on Matthew 21: 28-32, which I delivered at Saint John’s Abbey on 1 October, 2017.]

I seldom think of The New Yorker Magazine as the go-to place for theological reflection.  Better-known for its subtle cartoons, its thoughtful essays, and the ads for luxury items I couldn’t possibly afford, I just don’t think of it as a purveyor of religious insight.

But of course I’m wrong to assume that, as one of my favorite cartoons recently reminded me.  It’s a cartoon that definitely relies on some exposure to Catholic liturgy, and it shows two guys chatting away in the middle of the torments of hell.  Each laments his own fate, and each makes the case that his own suffering is worse than the other’s. It’s a contest in self-pity, but ultimately one guy wins with this bit of undeniable logic.  Looking his companion squarely in the eye, he reminds him that “at least you have memories.  All my sins were sins of omission.”

IMG_4531Those familiar with one form of the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass can appreciate the pickle in which these two guys found themselves.  In that opening rite of the liturgy we confess what we have done and what we have failed to do — the sins of commission and the sins of omission.  And if such distinctions seem nit-picky to some people, consider this.  They do in fact get to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  It’s an admission, first of all, that we do sin.  We do wrong to one another; and sometimes it’s a matter of holding back when we should have acted.

Who’s to say which is worse — doing the evil we do, or failing to do the good we are capable of doing.  But both sins have something in common.  Both testify that we are not people of integrity.  Both say we are people who do not translate our fundamental belief into lived reality.  From that perspective it doesn’t really matter whether we commit sins of omission or commission; because in both cases we are not who we say we are.  In both cases we are destined to join that conversation in hell with the two convicted sinners.

That bit of background may help in our appreciation of the parable that we’ve just heard from the gospel of St. Matthew.  The story of the two sons is one of those classic conundrums that Jesus delighted in putting to people, and it’s a conundrum because each son exhibits some less than admirable as well as some noble qualities.

The first son, when asked by the father to go and work in the vineyard, basically told his father to take a hike.  He was not going to go.  But he gave it some thought, and he went.  So the son is guilty of disrespect and I suppose is also guilty of lying.  He said he wouldn’t work and then he worked.  But it was his considered response and action that ultimately win our sympathy.  He’s a good guy after all.

IMG_4546The second son, on the other hand, said all the right things.  He respected his father and showed to all and sundry that he was obedient.  But then his actions in fact told his father to take a hike.  He had no intention of going to the vineyard.

So just like his first audience, Jesus asks this of us.  Which son is worthy and which one is not?  And more precisely, in whose sandals do we find ourselves standing when push comes to shove?

It’s not wrong to reduce this parable to a matter of obedience or disobedience, but there’s something deeper here.  That becomes evident when Jesus launches into a comparison between the tax-collectors and prostitutes on the one hand, and the scribes and scholars of the law on the other.  On a scale of uprightness, the religious experts win hands down.  But this is not a matter of obedience or disobedience.  This is all about hypocrisy.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes are far worse when it comes to the gravity of their sins, while the upright people are guilty of little more than peccadillos.  The tax-collectors and prostitutes make no bones about their sinful ways;  but their repentance is authentic.  They are sinners and they freely admit it.  They are who they say they are.  But they also know who they want to become.

By contrast, the religious leaders need no such radical conversion.  They’ve committed no grave sins; they’ve lived upright lives; they’ve done nothing blameworthy.  Even so, they may have been obedient and upright, but to put a positive spin on it, Jesus hints that they have done little or nothing of value at all.  They have nothing to show for their lives.  They are not who they say they are, and for Jesus hypocrisy is the gravest sin of all.

IMG_4568Jesus offers this parable for us to chew on for our own reflection.  He’s not interested in beating us up or making us feel guilty about what we’ve done and what we continue to do.  Nor does he delight in wringing out of us a confession of the good we failed to do when the chips were down.  All that is secondary to the real issue he wants us to think about.  Are we really who we say we are?  Can people count on us to translate our beliefs into action?  Or are we all talk and no action?  Or as some like to say in Texas, are we all hat and no cattle?

I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day I don’t want to be the guy in hell who has nothing of value to recall from a life lived on the sidelines.  Of course Jesus doesn’t want us to go out and commit a bunch of sins so that we’ll have lots of good memories in hell.  Rather, Jesus asks something far simpler than that.  He asks that we strive to be who we say we are.  He asks that we love God and love our neighbor and figure out how that translates into a life well-lived.  And he reminds us that if we want memories of a life well-lived, the time to make those memories is today, not tomorrow.

Notes

+On 25 September I took part in the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  Among those in attendance were Mr. Bob Shafer, retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations;  Fra Tom Mulligan of Chicago and Fra Nicola Tegoni of New York.  Mr. Joseph S. Micallef and Steven Kennedy, both members of the Order of Malta, rounded out the contingent of members of Malta in attendance.

+On 30 September I attended the football game with Bethel University, which Saint John’s hosted.  The good guys won, 21-13.

IMG_4569+On October 1st I presided at the Abbey Mass.  I don’t know what a “typical Sunday” would be for me, but my day went something like this.  I got up at 4 am and finished my sermon for the Mass.  Then I attended morning prayer at 7 am.  Presided at Mass at 10:30 am.  Went to lunch with the community at noon.  At lunch I happened to sit with Brother Isidore, who among other things described his competition with the squirrels to gather black walnuts on the abbey grounds.  He shells and sells them in the abbey gift shop.  This fall he has collected 250 pounds so far.  The squirrels are not entirely happy, but there’s plenty for everyone.  In the afternoon I got some exercise and then watched as Fr. Lew loaded honeycombs into the honey-extracting machine.  I didn’t stay to watch, since it is pretty much like looking at the spin cycle on the washing machine.  Then I presided at Sunday vespers, and at the end of that I threw my alb in the washing machine.  The aroma of incense pervaded it, and I did not want that in my closet.  After dinner I finished my blog and then went to bed.  That’s one monk’s schedule on a Sunday.  Not terribly glamourous, but a great day nonetheless.

+Given the turmoil in Catalonia, I decided to adorn today’s post with photos I took of the medieval cathedral in Barcelona.  Barcelona was the port of entry on my very first visit to Spain, when I went to do dissertation research.  I’ve loved the place ever since and feel not a little distressed by the current situation there.

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What Else Have I Got to Learn?

I thought I had extracted every scrap of meaning from the parable of the sower, but the preparation of a homily on Saturday yielded one unexpected nugget.  Like most people, I’ve been pretty satisfied with the explanation of the parable that Jesus had to offer.  Seed fell on rocky soil, among thorns, on a busy path and on good soil.  The seed is the word of God, and people respond differently.  How they respond determines whether they yield any or a lot of fruit.

Not surprisingly, I have always considered myself to be good soil for the seed, and I suspect the majority of people think the same way about themselves.  However, there’s an inherent disconnect in my reasoning, because there are times when I fall into the temptation to think that most of these people have overrated themselves.  Certainly they are doing the best they can, but many are only fooling themselves when they rate themselves as prime seedbed.

IMG_4994There definitely is a problem when everybody thinks they deserve a pat on the back for being good soil.  After all, this is not children’s sports, where everyone is a winner and there is a trophy for each and every participant.  No, it can’t be that way.  If there are going to be good guys — and I am going to be one of them — then there has to be a surplus of bad guys.  Otherwise, how can we ever feel really good about ourselves?

Last Saturday I noticed something in the words of Jesus that I’d missed before.  Jesus speaks about those who are receptive to the seed, but the distractions of life eventually choke out any fruitful response.  That’s when it dawned on me.  This portion of the parable is not about a select category of poeple — the bad guys.  It’s about everybody.  The riches and pleasures of life distract everyone — even me.

The fact is, in the course of a day we can find ourselves to be any one of the four types of seedbed that Jesus describes.  In my own case it’s not at all difficult to point to the good-soil/bad-soil moments as the day unfolds.  For example, I am a very early-morning person.  I flourish between 4 am and 7 am, and I will complete with enthusiasm anything at the top of my to-do list.  By mid-morning I’m still receptive to opportunities, but they have to jockey for priority among the realities of a busy life.  By late afternoon I usually have become stony ground.  By then I may accept a challenge, but in the next breath I will forget entirely what I had just agreed to do.

IMG_4996I now realize that the trend line of my receptivity to Christ runs counter to the scheduled appearances of Christ in my life.  As a monk and a Christian I believe that I see Jesus in the faces of my neighbors.  However, I’ve also begun to notice that none of my neighbors ever come knocking at my door at 4 am.  Absolutely zero; which is too bad, because I’m all enthusiasm at that hour.  Ironically, however, at 4 pm, when I am at my stoniest, that’s when Jesus comes knocking more frequently, and more forcefully.

The harsh reality is this.  I move through all four of the categories of soil that Jesus mentions, and it’s made me aware that I have a lot more soil preparation to do.  As much as I would prefer to see Christ when I’m full of energy and in the best of moods, then, it doesn’t always work that way.  As often as not Christ prefers to come calling at inconvenient times and in the worst of situations.  He comes when I’m really busy or just after my energy has drained away.  But he comes less frequently when I’m waiting for him impatiently, fully rested.

That brings up an important take-away.  Before Saturday I thought I knew all there was to know about this parable.  Not so, it turns out.  And now I have to wonder what else I have to learn.  What more does Jesus want me to know?  That’s a good question, and I’m willing to give it full consideration — especially if I can tend to it early in the morning.  It also means that, once again, Jesus is not entirely done with me.

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+On 21 September I and several of my colleagues visited the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis.  Saint John’s alumnus Jeb Myers, president of the school, toured us around; and it was inspiring to see the extraordinary work they are doing there.

+On the evening of the 21st Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida spoke at Saint John’s University, as part of the program of the McCarthy Center.

+On 23 September I gave a day of reflection to the area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  I had scheduled this for last February, but my back injury last winter forced the rescheduling to this fall.

+On Saturday September 23rd Saint John’s played St. Thomas in football at Target Field in Minneapolis.  I did not attend, and so I missed being part of the gathering of 37,000 people.  It was a record crowd for a Division III sporting event.  It beat the old record by 20,000, and unfortunately the good guys lost by three points.

+The photos in today’s post show a retable of Mary the Mother of God, by Jaume Serra.  He created this ca. 1370, and today it resides in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.

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Jesus:  Nazareth’s Favorite Son?

[On September 4th I preached the following homily at the Abbey Mass.  The text happened to be Luke 4: 16-30, which details the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.]

I find it hard to nail down the real issue in today’s gospel.  One minute the synagogue members in Nazareth seem proud of Jesus, and at the next turn they’re ready to kill him. On a dime they turn on him, and it’s fair to ask “why?”

IMG_7103One possibility strikes me.  Jesus was a home-grown prodigy, and he had all the trappings of a budding success story.  In Capernaum and elsewhere he had already  distinguished himself, and perhaps the people of Nazareth sought to benefit from his growing celebrity and harness him for their own prestige.  Perhaps they sought to domesticate Jesus and turn him to their own advantage.

This may explain the reaction of Jesus, who sensed what they were trying to do to him.   Like others who would later try to make him king, he resisted any effort to transform him into something other than what he was.  He had come to do the will of his Father.  He had come to serve — not to be served.  He had come to the poor and the suffering.  He had not come to be the darling or pet of the leading citizens of Nazareth — nor of anyone else, for that matter.  This may explain their disappointment and anger.

Herein we have a lesson for ourselves.  You and I aren’t Jesus, obviously, but we have talents and God-given energy.  Like Jesus we have a choice to make.  We can subvert our talents and put them in the service of power and wealth and influence.  Or we can turn our lives to anyone and everyone who desperately needs a little bit of what we have to offer.  Symbolically Jesus had to choose between being the favorite son of Nazareth and the son of God.  I think he suggests that we take the second option.

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+On September 6th I hosted two friends who have joined to start a program that makes possible the college education of students from Immokalee, FL, attending Saint John’s.  This was their third year to visit with the students, and this fall there are six of them at Saint John’s.  At bottom is a photo of John and Jack, flanking five of the six students.  (The sixth, Jaime, was away at his student job in the library).  Needless to say, their smiles did not betray the anxiety that they must have felt as Hurricane Irma headed straight for the west coast of Florida, potentially passing through their hometown of Immokalee, inland from Naples.  Happily, their families came through the storms unscathed.

+On September 7th I preached the homily at the funeral of my good friend, Nicky Carpenter, DM.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years, and in addition to a long association with Saint John’s as well as with the Minnesota Orchestra, she was a member of the Order of Malta.  The funeral took place at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Wayzata, MN, and later that afternoon I presided at the interment at the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

The trip between church and cemetery was harrowing, because a terrible bus-truck accident meant that I-94 was closed in one stretch.  The highway department dutifully shunted us off onto a country road and left us pretty much to our own devices.  It took over an hour to go five miles through the countryside.  And so, while I left one hour before the bus with the family had departed from the church, I arrived just as the bus was unloading at the Abbey cemetery.  I knew that the bus had taken a different highway, and en route I sweat bullets, hoping that I would make it in time.

+On 9 September the oil portrait of our confrere, Brother Dietrich Reinhart, was unveiled in the learning commons which now bears his name.  The Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons, attached to Alcuin Library, was recently completed and opened this fall semester.  In addition to some wonderful interior spaces, it has an outdoor patio as well as great vistas of the neighboring science buildings at Saint John’s.  The other photos in today’s post give a sense of that new building.

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Jesus, Be Patient with Me!

The quickest way to spread news in a monastery is to tell someone not to tell anyone.  It’s just human nature, and St. Benedict was under no illusion that monks were different from anybody else.  After all, he knew only too well that monks were people too.  So he ordered his monks not to engage in gossip or murmuring of any sort.  Good luck on that one!

In Matthew 16 Jesus warned his disciples to tell no one about about his real identity.  The cynic in me says it was a clever ploy, and it worked.  In short order the disciples took the news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.  But a lot happened between Matthew 16 and the commission to preach to everyone, and therein we see the patience that Jesus showered on his disciples.

IMG_6847The passage from Matthew 16 opens with this simple question that Jesus puts to the disciples.  “Who do people say that I am?”  Here Jesus sounds a bit like a politician concerned about the polls.  Was Jesus insecure about his public image?  Or did he simply want to satisfy his own curiosity?  I can only speculate, but I would suggest that perhaps he meant the question to stir his disciples rather than to find out how his message was going over with the larger population.

The data that the disciples gave to Jesus was a little odd.  Some said that Jesus was John the Baptist.  Others thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  These were ridiculous answers if they were meant literally, because Jews then and now — like Christians — do not believe in reincarnation.  And so I interpret these answers as signs of a struggle over the identity of Jesus.  Clearly many had concluded that Jesus was some sort of prophet in a long line of prophets — and a great one at that.  But just as clearly some thought that Jesus brought a message from God, but he was neither God nor the Son of God.  For them Jesus was an interesting fellow with a compelling message.  But he had no claim on their hearts.

Not so for the disciples, as Peter’s testimony suggests.  It had begun to dawn on them that Jesus had a claim on them, and they could never be the same after meeting him.  They would be very different poeple over time, and in Matthew 16 we see evidence of that spark of understanding.

Perhaps Jesus asked for their silence at this stage because it’s one thing to confess the Lordship of Jesus, and quite another to let Jesus transform one’s life.  Anyone who knows the gospel story can certainly see this distinction take flesh in the lives of the disciples.  The disciples may have had an inkling of the real identity of Jesus, but that didn’t prevent them from running away on the eve of his passion.  Nor did their post-resurrection behavior suggest that they were thoroughly convinced of who Jesus really was.  But still they were curious.

IMG_6851St. Benedict set up his monastery as a place where monks might seek God.  But much like the dog who chases a car but has no plans were he to actually catch it, so monks face the same dilemma.  What do monks do when they unexpectedly find that their search for God gives a glimmer of success?  Well, from my own experience I’ve come to realize that the search for God is more than a mattter of satisfying my curiosity.  Far from it.  The search for God is a lot like playing with fire.  So when I do seem to snatch a fleeting glimpse of God working in my brothers, I know I cannot respond conventionally.  It’s not a matter of calling a pollster to report that Jesus is the Son of God.  It’s deeper than that.  Like the disciples, I too have to let that insight percolate through and transform my life.

Any search for God requires patience and time — perhaps even a lifetime.  But because we live in a culture that demands instant gratification, we’re inclined not to budget time for long-term projects.  And so I tend to be one of those who is willing to give Jesus a day or two to do his work, and if nothing happens then I’m tempted to move on.  But this is short-sighted, to point out the obvious.  The encounter with Jesus needs to stretch out for a lifetime, and thankfully Jesus is willing to invest the time in us.  That explains the patience that Jesus showed to his disciples — and to Peter in particular.  And it explains the patience he shows to me.  Heaven knows how I need him to be patient with me!

IMG_6850Notes

+On August 24th I spoke to a group of about fifty alumni of Saint John’s University, gathered in St. Louis Park, MN.  The subject was our work with First-Generation college students at Saint John’s, and more particularly my own work with a project that has brought students from Immokalee, FL, to Saint John’s.  Happily, this fall we now have six students from Immokalee, and it is gratifying to see them progress, both in age and wisdom.

+On August 25th we monks welcomed the 467 freshmen at Saint John’s to pray evening prayer with us.  Following that, the students broke into smaller groups in order of meet with individual monks and learn something about our lives in the monastery.

+On August 26th I gave a day of reflection for people preparing for the Promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  This took place in Evanston, IL.

+On August 28th — today — the new school year begins at Saint John’s University.  Gone is the tranquility of summer, and in its place is a wonderful sense of energy.

+The images in today’s post show a spectacular retable and frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, made in Castile in Spain, ca. 1396.  It is housed in the Art Institute in Chicago.

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The Church:  A Bit Chaotic at Times

Not surprisingly, we don’t host a lot of little kids at prayer in the Abbey church.  On any given weekday it’s faculty, staff, students and people from the guesthouse who occupy the visitors’ section of the choir.  But children?  Not so many.

But on a Sunday we do get a sprinkling of infants and toddlers, and we know they’re there because they make their presence known.  Few of the toddlers can resist the urge to run free-range up and down the expansive brick-paved aisles.  Still others quickly discover the bouncy accoustics.  Designed to blend the voices of us monks as we chant the Psalms, those same walls amplify the cries and screams of even the littlest tyke.  Because we monks aren’t used to those kinds of noises, we can find it all disconcerting.  But then again those same little voices remind us that we were all kids once, and if we live long enough we could very well revert to that uninhibited state in our dotage.

IMG_7013On Saturday Fr. Anthony preached on the gospel passage from Matthew 19 in which Jesus told the disciples to let the little children approach him.  Naturally I’ve thought of that episode as an encouragement to be as innocent and trusting as a child.  After all,  Jesus taught that a lack of such innocence will bar passage through the gates of heaven.

But Anthony pointed out a variant of this.  Whether we like to admit it or not, kids aren’t always the most focused participants in the liturgy.  His comment immediately brought to mind the only sermon I ever heard preached by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to the gills that Sunday, and I guarantee that no one can now recall the passage from scripture about which he preached.  However, everyone of us remembers the infant who screamed and cried through his entire sermon.  We all squirmed in our pews, and most had to wonder just how long Cardinal O’Connor could go before he lost it.

Finally he conceded defeat, paused, and pointed out the obvious.  “I’m sure everyone can hear that screaming baby.  But I just want you to know that I’ve heard worse comments on my preaching.”  With that the tension melted and the congregation dissolved into hearty laughter.  And that’s all any of us remembers from that Mass.

IMG_7008Obviously Jesus must have noticed that some kids ran around and played and yelled as he tried to preach.  How could he not notice as he taught a crowd of 5,000, outside?  The disciples certainly noticed, and they wanted to shoo the kids away.  But Jesus didn’t; and perhaps that’s because he saw those kids as a metaphor for all the needy and troublesome adults who would someday show up at the church door.  Such people sometimes destroy our peace of mind.  They have needs that make us uncomfortable.  Worse still, they seem to be the sort of sinners who shouldn’t be sitting next to me or even close to me.  After all, on more than one occasion I’ve given thanks to God that I’m not at all like them.

Sometimes I forget that church pews were first installed not to seat the strong but to support the weak and the ill.  They’re the ones who cannot stand through a long liturgy.  Ironically, Jesus came to save those very people.  He came to save those physically and spiritually weak people who’ve come to church in hopes that Jesus will give them rest and healing.  That’s when I recall that if I’m spiritually whole, then I have no business taking up valuable pew space.  It would be better to cede my spot to the spiritually poor and sick.

IMG_6990It’s on those occasions that I remember the words of Jesus about little children.  Little kids sometimes seem over-eager for attention and more than willing to assert their need for help.  Unless I become like a little child and admit my own need for Jesus, then I don’t belong in the pews with all those people who do.

Sometimes a church service — like the Church herself — can be a little too chaotic for my tastes.  But not so for Jesus.  Cardinal O’Connor closed his comments on the untidiness of a screaming child in church with one question that was rhetorical rather than open for discussion.  “Isn’t this what it’s all about?”  As much as I hate to admit it, he was probably right.

Notes

IMG_7038+On August 13th I and many others lost a dear friend, Nicky Carpenter.  I had known Nicky for nearly thirty years — dating to the time when we sat together on a committee that nominated a new president for Saint John’s University.  She was a fixture on the civic scene in the Twin Cities, serving with special distinction on the board of the Minnesota Orchestra.  As did her mother before her, she sat on the Board of Regents of Saint John’s University, and she later sat on the Board of Overseers of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library while I was director — a service which she continued to render through her last year.  She was an ardent supporter of The Saint John’s Bible, and I was delighted to have introduced her to the Order of Malta.  I was acting as her spiritual guide when she began preparation to take the Promise of Obedience, but sadly her health declined before she could get very far into the process.  She slipped away quietly, and we will all miss her.  She will be laid to rest in the Abbey cemetery at Saint John’s.

+On 18 August I attended the annual summer picnic of the Trustees of Saint John’s University, held in Wayzata, MN.

+This month I begin the seventh year of publishing this blog.  I thoroughly enjoy writing the posts, and that exercise is a highlight of my week.  I hope I’ve not been overly repetitious, but by now readers must have picked up on some recurring themes.  Mainly I’m grateful to the 3,709 people who have subscribed to it, and I thank those who regularly forward posts to their friends.

+Today’s photos show the interior of the Abbey church.  Designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the hard surfaces of the concrete walls and brick floors are especially good at amplifying little voices, and the pews easily convert into playground equipment.  At bottom is the baptistery, where by now thousands of infants have made their debut as church criers.

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