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Posts Tagged ‘Order of Malta’

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Dinner Guests from the Bible

If I could host anybody from the Bible at a dinner party, whom would I invite?  Someone asked me that the other day, and I have to admit I’d not really thought about it before.  But it’s a great question because there’s such a wide range of characters to choose from.  Who would make my A-list, and who would be discreetly omitted?

It’s actually more fun to consider those whom I wouldn’t invite.  For sure Cain wouldn’t get an invitation, nor would Samson.  They’d be too rowdy.  Nor would most of the prophets, simply because so many of them were difficult to live with.  And it’s nothing personal, but I’d turn Herod away at the door simply because his presence could make the other guests just a little nervous.

F495F3EE-FE85-4EAF-BD8D-45A198CD5703My A-list would be surprisingly long.  David and Solomon would make it, most definitely.  Neither was perfect, but as kings they knew how to behave properly at dinners.  Rebecca would be there for her cleverness and Mary Magdalene for the wonderful stories I hope she would tell.  For his conversation Paul would be fascinating if not scintillating.  And Jesus would be at the top of my list.  He’d be there not because of favoritism on my part but based solely on his reputation.

The gospels portray Jesus as accomplished on the banquet circuit, and they provide lots of evidence to back that up.  At Cana, for instance, he helped out with the wine, which spared the hosts a lot of embarrassment.  He was a gracious guest at the home of Zachaeus and an equally gracious host at the Last Supper.  Clearly he had thought about the art of dining and conversation, as many of his parables suggest.

82F04CE0-6386-49FB-9AC1-070395C3E2EEThen there are a few individuals whom I would not have thought to invite, and John the Baptist is one of them.  It’s not because he was a nobody, because today we honor his memory all over the place.  My own monastery is dedicated to him, and the Order of Malta is actually the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta — to name but two from a myriad of examples.  Still, I have to believe that John didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations.  For one, the Bible makes no mention of any polished manners, and he seems to have had none of the savoir-faire of Jesus.  He didn’t care much about food, as his diet of locust and honey suggests.  Nor did he care much about fine clothes, because he was definitely not known as a snappy dresser.

More to the point, John was the sort of person who readily said what was on his mind.  It’s true that people went miles out of their way and into the desert to hear him, but it wasn’t because of any reputation for glamour.  All of that makes him a rather intriguing figure, but I wonder if people weren’t willing to risk having him at a dinner party.

D319D554-959D-48C1-91CB-17759C9C262EOn the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist steps onto the stage and into the story leading to the Nativity of Jesus.  He’s intriguing, but for reasons that distinguish him from Jesus.  He preached in the wilderness and not in synagogues or in Jerusalem.  He didn’t carry himself like a rabbi, in contrast to Jesus.  And while he too had disciples, he certainly didn’t run around with the smart set.  Yet, like Jesus, he was a powerful preacher.  Like Jesus he didn’t always tell people what they wanted to hear;  but also like Jesus he was not afraid to tell people what they needed to hear.

I sort of hate to admit it, but there’s real value in having someone like John the Baptist sit at our table.  He might make us feel a bit uncomfortable, but without someone to call us out of ourselves, how would we ever become aware of the larger world?  Without someone to awaken us to our potential for growth, how would we ever crawl out of our comfort zone and achieve the things we never thought possible?  Without someone like John the Baptist, how would we ever own up to the mistakes we make?  John, in short, is a mind-expander.  He urges us to examine ourselves and be self-aware.  He points to paths of which we are unaware, and he tells us that the Lord is waiting for us, just ahead.

When all is said and done I suspect that each of us needs someone like John the Baptist.  Such people help us to find our way through life.  They remind us that the path to a full life is one that includes God.  And if that sounds a bit difficult or inconvenient, consider the ultimate reward of a life well lived.

I suppose then that it’s worth the risk to invite John the Baptist to sit at our table.  He may not make our A list, but consider how wonderful it could be to host a guest who only wishes the best for us.

BA9617E4-BED2-47BD-9427-74FB7BCD8A6FNOTES

+As we progress through Advent many of our monks assist with penance services at area parishes.  On December 5th I assisted at the Church of Saint Martin, in Saint Martin, MN.  It’s a parish that the monks of Saint John’s have served since its foundation in 1858, and our confreres Frs. Edward and Julius serve there today.  Located about twenty miles west of Saint John’s, it was the first time I had ever visited the small town of Saint Martin.

+On December 6th I flew to Naples, FL, where I attended a meeting of supporters of our scholarship program that enrolls alumni of Immokalee High School at Saint John’s University.  This spring we will graduate our first two students from Immokalee, and it’s been a wonderful experience.  To say the least, their experience at Saint John’s has been transformative.

+On December 3rd we hosted the members of next year’s Benedictine Volunteer Corps at evening prayer.  The 26 soon-to-graduate seniors of Saint John’s University comprise the largest group of Volunteers that we’ve ever sent out, and they will serve in thirteen monasteries in twelve countries and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

+The first three photos in today’s post are Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, a work of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Italian, ca.  1465-1501.  It is now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, as are the following two photos showing John the Baptist and the Last Supper.  The latter were originally part of an altar panel, and date from ca. 1490, France. At bottom is the cohort of Benedictine Volunteers for next year.  Our confrere Fr. Timothy supplied the photo.

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Who Is My Neighbor?

I’ve always thought of the Ten Commandments as the be all and end all of Old Testament law.  They are clear, concise, and to some extent measurable.  Either you’ve killed somebody, or you haven’t.  Either you’ve stolen or you haven’t.  Either you’ve sacrificed to idols or you haven’t.  And as for the others, there may be some grey area, but for the most part people know where they stand vis-a-vis God, at least as measured by the Ten Commandments.

But when you factor in the Two Great Commandments it’s a whole new ball game.  How do you know if you’ve loved God with your whole heart and soul and mind?  Can you ever be sure if you’ve loved your neighbor quite as much as yourself?  Of course therein is the problem — you can’t be sure.  You can only try, and then you hope for the best.

6EFAD66C-3190-43E6-82B9-983D3B5BEBDBJesus cites the Two Great Commandments as the epitome of the law and the prophets.  He reaches back to Deuteronony 6 and quotes them word for word, and he exalts them — not as yardsticks by which to measure behavior — but as ideals through which we reach out to an infinitely loving God.  And as a necessary corollary we, as deeply flawed people, extend ourselves in love to our equally flawed neighbors.  Clearly it is a legal burden too much for us to bear, but that’s the point.  It’s really meant to be an invitation to share somehow in a communion with God, this side of paradise.

In some respects we can embrace the Two Great Commandments as ideals that are beyond us, and so we do the best we can.  After all, no one expects perfection from us.  But it also strikes me that there’s something here that can really disrupt our lives, and the issue relates to the second of the two commands.  Specifically it has less to do with the command to love and more to do with the definition of neighbor.  Who, exactly, are our neighbors?  Are they the people next door?  Are they the people down the block or across town or in another city altogether?  That’s the crucial question which we all must answer.

As a medieval historian I’ve often speculated on the reaction that the early missionaries elicited from the German villagers when they introduced the command to love one’s neighbor.  Cultural historians suggest that when the missionaries said the word neighbor that their listeners were not at all on the same page.  The preachers likely intended neighbor to mean the stranger or any human being, because in the Christian perspective all are created in the image of God.  In the language of those villagers, however, neighbor meant a person from their village.  Anyone from beyond the limits of the village did not count as neighbor.

FC9357FF-52C7-418E-A03E-ABA90548856CIt was a big cultural leap for these people to expand the boundaries of the word neighbor.  At first it must have been a stretch to accept as neighbor someone from a nearby village.  The next stretch was to include someone from the region and then someone speaking a related language.  Only after a few generations could people comprehend the notion that anyone and everyone whom they might meet is a neighbor.  But once they understood that, then much of the gospel started to make sense.  So it was that they could finally appreciate the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus said that a neighbor could even be someone whom people scorn and despise.

It’s a perennial temptation to shrink the boundaries of who it is that is our neighbor.  It’s much easier to think of our friends as the limit of the word neighbor.  It’s tempting to push out of that circle the stranger or the poor or the people with whom we disagree.  And when we go so far as to demonize such people, then we have dismissed the second Great Commandment as not applicable to us.

Now more than ever we as Christians need to reaffirm with our Jewish neighbors our commitment to the Two Great Commandments.  And more specifically we must live out practically and on a daily basis our belief that all people are created in the image of God.  All people deserve our respect and our love.

But living out such an ideal is not easy.  It takes determination.  Still, Jesus asks us to stretch ourselves.  He asks us to reach beyond ourselves.  And he promises that the Spirit will be with us in those moments when we prefer to close our eyes to our neighbor.

CDC0489A-CD18-49E4-96D3-18BB3E602F51All this can be done, and there are moments when we’ve all done it.  Now more than ever our communities, our nation and the world need people who will try to be a neighbor to all, and we are some of those people.  So let us pray today that God who has begun this good work in us will bring it to completion.

NOTES

+On 30 October I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+At evening prayer on the eve of All Saints we hosted a large number of friends, staff and students.  It’s always wonderful to fill the choir stalls on such an occasion.

+On November 2-4 I gave a retreat to the Allentown, PA, members of the Order of Malta.  Today’s post is the sermon that I preached to them on Sunday, and it is based on Mark 12: 28-34.

+The photos in today’s post are a real mix.  Autumn in central Minnesota went very quickly and it was not one of our best in terms of colors.  But my weekend in Pennsylvania seemed to have coincided with some of the best color there.  The photo at top shows a scene from the grounds of our retreat at Mariawald Retreat Center, outside of Reading.  Further down the page is a photo of the convent, where we took our meals.  The second photo shows some of the last lingering color at Saint John’s, and below that are some ivy vines on a wall outside of the abbey refectory.  At bottom is the great clock in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.  Over the years I’ve taken many photos of time pieces, and I include this one to note the passing of Daylight Savings Time this past weekend..

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The Trek to Santiago Compostela

I’ve never done an eighty-mile walk before, and so today seems as good a day as any to start.  Actually, it’s the right day to do it because this morning I’m scheduled to join with a group to do the last 110 kilometers of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela.  I wouldn’t want them to leave without me.

It’s a thousand-year-old route, and through the Middle Ages only Rome exceeded Santiago in popularity as a destination in Western Europe.  With the Reformation the shrine took a big hit, and the numbers thinned out to a trickle for a long time.  But to people’s amazement, over the last fifty years it’s bounced back, and the last stretch of eighty miles alone gets an average of 300,000 in the course of the season.  And of course that does not count the even greater numbers that get there by bus or train or car.  Anyway, we won’t be alone as we walk this path.

8A1F8337-3A59-4444-9F1B-3A1E1B9ED021From the start the goal of the pilgrimage has been to venerate the relics of the apostle James, which tradition says are sheltered in the cathedral dedicated to his memory.  Even today people go there for that, but it is the journey as much as the destination that makes the whole thing worthwhile.  Today people go for all sorts of reasons, and for each there is something therapeutic about the experience.  I’ve been told that most everyone unloads their mental baggage — bit by bit — in the course of the journey.  What they are left with is themselves.  Slowly, in the course of the days of hiking through forests and fields and villages, people cast aside the worries about work and other such stuff.  Life is slowly reduced to the utter simplicity of individuals coming to terms with what is really essential in life.  Therein comes the growth.

I’m traveling with a group of members of the Order of Malta, which is quintessentially an organization oriented around pilgrimage.  The Order began in Jerusalem, where members served pilgrims who had fallen ill in the course of their time in the Holy Land.  Eventually the Order relocated to Rhodes and then Malta, and in both places the knights built and staffed giant hospitals that served the sick and the poor.  It’s in that spirit that members of the Order now go with the sick on a yearly pilgrimage to Lourdes.

The Order has never really had a strong association with Santiago Compostela, but there are chapels and fortified places along the way that the Order built or inherited from other Orders like the Templars. Today there are no members staffing these places, but lots of other people have stepped in to serve the streams of pilgrims who have once again populated the route.

495F148C-C3D3-4F78-95EC-0AC3AC43D006In the Middle Ages there were four trail-heads for the pilgrimage to Santiago, and all of them were in Burgundy and elsewhere in France.  It was a very long walk, filled with inconvenience and even danger.  Today the routes have multiplied, and the trails are much nicer; but it can still be a challenge, even on the shorter routes.  And despite all the options, purists insist on beginning the journey on the French side of the border with Spain.  That journey can take many weeks, and there’s one good reason why our group is not starting there.  We all have day jobs, and we don’t have that kind of time.

So today our trek begins in the town of Sarria.  An average day will take us about nine or ten miles, which is within my reach but paltry compared to those who will do 20+ miles per day.  In preparation I did lots of walking over the summer, though I never did ten miles a day for eight days in a row.  Still, I’m confident that I can get my left and right feet to cooperate with one another, and I’ve made it easier on them because this last leg of the route to Santiago has no mountains.

I first went to Santiago as a graduate student doing dissertation research in Spain.  That was ages ago, and I did the trip by train.  In physical terms I would have been better-suited for the pilgrimage back then.  But that was then and this is now, and I’m glad I’m doing it now rather than then.  And as the Scriptures say, “this is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be rejoice and be glad in it!”  So please say a prayer that each and every day of the trip counts for something good.  And while you’re at it, pray for yourself as well!

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NOTES

+I began the pilgrimage to Santiago with a flight to Madrid, and the photos in today’s post show scenes from that wonderful city.  There is a real elegance to Madrid, despite the rather crowded neighborhoods.  The photos in today’s post give a hint of that.

+On the eve of the pilgrimage I watched The Way, in which Martin Sheen plays a pilgrim to Santiago.  It is stunningly good and available on YouTube — for free.  Who would have thought.

+I had given some thought about more frequent posts in the course of the pilgrimage, but ultimately I decided to stick with my weekly format.  So in the post of October 22nd I will give an update on our progress through the fields and forests of Galicia in northwestern Spain.

+Today friends and alumni of Saint John’s University will gather for a funeral Mass in the abbey church to honor the memory of John Gagliardi, our long-time football coach.  In addition to articles that have appeared in newspapers across the country, this most recent Saturday the football team gave him their ultimate tribute with a 40-20 win over the University of Saint Thomas.  It was a great game.

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One Step To Wisdom

Currently we happen to be reading in the monastic refectory at Saint John’s a book whose timeliness has been perfect for me.  The Pope Who Would Be King tells the story of Pius IX, who is a good example of the right man coming at the wrong time in history — or the wrong man at the wrong time.  Whatever may have been his talents, he had the misfortune to be pope just when the Italian nationalists liberated the Papal States and created a unified Italy.  Pius IX never got over it.

For over a thousand years popes had ruled a chunk of central Italy, and after a while they could not imagine a papacy without that secular base.  Not everybody agreed with that approach, but it didn’t matter to the ecclesiastics who ran Rome.  Popes needed royal power, they asserted, because it supported their spiritual power.  The truth, as it turned out, was quite the opposite, as later popes discovered.  Shorn of the Papal States, 21st-century popes have exercised a moral authority that was unimagined by their predecessors.

FCA5AA19-F5AC-4FE5-9697-6660F0D5D8F1I say that reading this book has been fortuitous because at the moment I am part of a Benedictine Heritage tour of Italy.  It helps to know that popes were monarchs for a millennium, because it’s hard to understand a lot of what we see in Rome without that tidbit.  Why would there be papal coats of arms emblazoned on fountains and buildings and walls?  Why would the pope need a fortress and an elevated escape route to reach it?  Why would the pope need a prison and an army and thick walls to defend the Vatican?  The answers make for great reading, but after 1870 even the popes came to realize that they didn’t need any of that to teach the gospel.  But that’s another story.

I never studied or lived in Rome, so I find it very easy to get lost in the labyrinth of streets in the center of the city.  That makes a trip here all the more enjoyable, if you have the leisure for getting lost.  But as beautiful as the street scenes can be, it’s the people who fascinate.  Rome is a stunningly diverse place, all overlaying a base of Italian culture.

This time I’ve taken some moments to listen to the chatter around me, and it can be both entertaining and inspiring.  Among the lighter moments was a conversation I overheard as several of us were walking down the avenue to Saint Peter’s.  Along the way one must run a gauntlet of hawkers and street peddlers who assault you with anything that will get a reaction.  “Are you headed to the Vatican?”  Of course we are, because that’s where the street goes.  “Are you from America?”  And on it goes.  I happened to be alongside a couple from Mexico, and soon it was their turn.  “Do you speak English?”  To which the Mexican husband looked up and deadpanned:  “No, no.  We’re Dutch.”  Everyone within earshot dissolved into laughter.  And the Mexican gentleman smiled the smile of triumph.

094C3EBE-955D-432C-8084-DF9CB4D730B2More serious was a conversation between a senior Irish priest telling a young counterpart what it was like to work at the Vatican.  “In some ways it’s not changed at all;  but one thing has.  When we used to go to one of the Dicasteries [the various government departments of the Curia], we’d pose a question.  And if they didn’t have an answer, they’d give you the answer to another question that they did know.  Nobody wanted to look uninformed or unauthoritative.  Now it’s different.  If you ask them something and they don’t know the answer, they say ‘Don’t know.’  It’s refreshing to hear, and it gives one hope.”

This week our group will visit Subiaco and Monte Cassino, where Saint Benedict lived out his years as a monk.  The salient feature of his early years was that he fled Rome to seek wisdom in the wilderness.  Happily, I will leave Rome with an unexpected nugget of wisdom and hope.  If not the first stage of wisdom, then at least one step to wisdom has to include the admission that if you don’t know something, you should not be afraid to say so.  How refreshing.  How honest.  It’s almost enough to give one hope!

1EAC533F-740A-4324-90C9-327942318A4DNOTES

+On September 23rd I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  In addition to other members, we welcomed Fra Thomas Mulligan, the incoming President of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, and Michael Grace, president of the Western Association.  Also present was the retired ambassador of the Order of Malta to the United Nations, Mr. Bob Shafer.

+On 23 September I presided at the abbey Mass.

+On 25 September I arrived in Rome as part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour, sponsored by Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+On 30 September our group went to Mass and visited at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome, the headquarters of the Benedictine Confederation.  Among those who welcomed us were Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, who lived with us at Saint John’s for three years while he studied theology.  Brother Joe Schneeweis toured us through the school at Sant Anselmo.  Brother Joe, a monk of Saint John’s, serves as head of the library there.  And joining our tour for lunch and some church visits was Saint John’s Benedictine Volunteer Kyle Munshower.  He is in residence as a volunteer for a year, and his duties include driving the Abbot Primate around Rome.  He will have nerves of steel after driving for a year in Rome.

+The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe, is by David Kertzer, who teaches at Brown University.  For the most part it has been an interesting book for us to read in refectory, though not all of the readers have equal facility in the Italian names and places.  But that has brought a few lighter moments, which is okay.

+The photos in today’s post show various scenes from Rome.  At top is the Castel Sant Angelo, the fortress where popes occasionally took refuge.  At bottom is the Farnese Palace, built by a powerful family that produced many cardinals and at least one pope.  Today it serves as the French embassy.  The other three photos show the sorts of scenes that make Rome so enchanting.

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We Belong to Each Other — and to God!

Every time I read I Corinthians 3, I get a good jolt of reality therapy.  This passage should be required reading, and specifically for those who assume that the Church has never been in more dire straights than it is today.

In that passage Paul takes the Corinthians to task for dividing themselves into factions — factions that have grown out of loyalties to Paul or Apollos or some other teacher.  In one sense it’s not a bad thing to admit one’s debt to a teacher who’s made a deep impression.  In fact it’s a mark of humility and gratitude, since such people can change the course of our lives.  I’ve acknowledged such debts myself, and the people to whom I owe a lot make for a very long list.

But Paul’s quibble is not with devotion to a particular teacher.  Rather, he’s concerned with anyone who would grant godlike status to such figures.  They cannot take the place of Jesus, and Paul implies that some of the Corinthians have done just that.  Some say they belong to Paul.  Others to Apollos.  But what’s happened to Jesus?

439796A2-ED98-49C4-85F5-96F87E11CB35As a historian I can be detached in my reading of the history of the Church.  As a believer, however, it can be painful to read about the conflicts that have dogged the Christian community.  No sooner had Jesus ascended than the apostles began to fuss and debate about all sorts of things.  Some topics certainly needed a good airing, like the retention of circumcision and other Jewish traditions.  Centuries later, arguments about the nature of Christ and the Trinity grew heated, to the point at which violence broke out at some of the early church councils.  Those were not pretty days, when passion would pit one set of bishops against another faction of bishops.  On the plus side, they cared.  On the minus side, they occasionally lost sight of what it was all about, and they sometimes left ordinary Christians scratching their heads.

Differences of opinion within the Church are as old as the Church itself.  Knowing that would be the case, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be a tether to the reality of God.  The Spirit acts subtly and sometimes not so subtly to remind people that they are the people of God — not the people of Apollos or Paul or whomever.

269990CB-B3FD-4B24-939B-9891DEF29355Every now and again the Spirit sends us gentle souls to remind us that it is Jesus who is our Lord.  The Spirit sends such prophets to serve as a wake-up call for us all.  An early example was the Roman deacon Lawrence.  When imperial officials demanded that he turn over the treasury of the Church, he stood a group of the poor in front of them.  Later still, Saint Benedict reminded people that God is present in every human being, and not just in the people who wield power and authority.  And from my later experience the words of Fra Gerard of the Order of Malta have touched me.  Like Benedict he teaches that Christ is in the poor and the sick who stand before us.  We will never run out of such people, he says, and so the work of service will never be complete.  But such people truly are “our Lords the sick and the poor,” as he puts it.  They are the heart and soul of the Church.

From my perch in a monastery I’ve often felt like someone on the sidelines, locked out of the power circles of the Church.  I can’t shape policy, and I have little or no impact on the official life of the Church.  On the other hand, I get to experience “Church” every day.   I have the privilege to see Christ in the people who walk into my life each and every day.  It’s a vision that is sometimes clouded by my own distractions, but it’s worth the effort to squint every now and again to see how creative the Lord can be when he tiptoes into my life.

That, I think, gets to the point that Paul makes in his words to the Corinthians.  It’s good to give credit to the work of Paul and Apollos, but they are not gods.  And so if we want to see the face of Christ in our midst, then we should look at the brothers and sisters with whom we rub elbows each day.  We belong to them and they to us because we all belong to God.  We are God’s treasure.

79C827D3-9D7E-4BB5-BA43-36768802A84FNOTES

+On September 5th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is a much-expanded version of the sermon that I presented that afternoon.

+The weather at Saint John’s during the past few days has been nothing short of stunning.  Fortunately I’ve been able to get out and enjoy it, and this week I took long walks through the woods and around campus.  So did many students and visitors, and on the weekend the place seemed like a resort, complete with hikers in the woods, canoes dotting the lake, and swimmers at the beach.  In the interests of full disclosure, one reason for my long walks this summer has been for health of mind and body.  But the other reason is utilitarian.  In October I will be going with a group of members of the Order of Malta to walk the last one hundred kilometers of the Camino to Santiago Compostela.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s the sort of thing that needs preparation.  I hope I will be prepared!

+At the abbey liturgies on Sundays we are often blessed with a variety of musical contributions, and I share the link to a piece performed by Fr. Bob (at the keyboard), Brother Jacob (with the viola) and recent Saint John’s University alumnus and singer, Kyle Lamb.

+On September 8th we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.  Lacking illustrations of that feast in my file folder, I decided to show photos of an altar frontal that is now housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  It was made in the 13th century for the Church of Santa María de Cardet in Catalonia.

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In Pursuit of Transfiguration

I’m probably not the best person in the world to make some sense of the Transfiguration of the Lord, for one simple reason.  I’ve always found this episode to be curiously out of place in the life of Jesus.  It seems so gratuitous and unnecessary.  Why in the world would Jesus pull off a stunt like this?  At worst it seems cheaply theatrical, meant to dazzle a few select disciples.  At best it seems like an irrelevant display of power meant to put distance between Jesus and us.

At first glance, in the Transfiguration Jesus seems to suggest that he’s not at all like the rest of us.  But in fact, years of puzzling over this now suggests to me just the opposite.  Jesus is very much one with us; and of greater importance, in this event he invites us to follow him in a lifelong pursuit of our own Transfiguration.

597FC45A-A9B5-4F96-A294-3B29884FE2BFFor me the key to understanding this episode is the guest list on that mountain with Jesus.  There’s Moses and Elijah, locked in mystical conversation; and watching, like children, are Peter, James and John.  The latter don’t quite know what to make of it all, but in fact Jesus has just invited them to join in this moment of Transfiguration.  Like Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John are meant to be part of the experience.  And by extension, Jesus also reaches out to you and me to pull us into the picture.

The Transfiguration, then, is meant to humble neither the disciples nor us.  Rather, in it Jesus extends an invitation to continue in a lifelong transformation.  In baptism we took the first step; in the Eucharist we grow further in our transformation; and in the little things of our lives we walk with the Lord on a pilgrimage that once seemed scarcely possible.

So as much as the Transfiguration may be about Jesus, it’s very much about us too.  It’s not some gratuitous stunt meant to put distance between Jesus and us.  Rather, it’s the moment when Jesus shakes us up to the reality of our own possibilities.  It’s an electrifying wake-up to remind us that there’s more to our lives than what we may have imagined.  There is in fact transcendent purpose to our lives.

We all are flesh and bone, as was Jesus.  But like Jesus there is more to us than that.  God has created us in the divine image, and Jesus has come to gather us and lead us into a lifelong process of Transfiguration.  So it is that the Transfiguration is no cheap theatric.  It’s a glimpse into who God calls each one of us to be.

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NOTES

+Today’s post is the text of the sermon that I delivered at the abbey Mass on August 6th, the feast of the Transfiguration.

+Today’s post is something of a personal milestone, in that it begins the eighth year of this blog.  It is the 366th post, published on 366 consecutive Mondays.  The entire experience has reaffirmed one old saw that I regularly repeat.  If I knew at the beginning how much work it was going to be, I never would have done it.  If I’d known the positive impact it would have on my life, I’d have done it a lot sooner.  Thanks for reading this!

+This past week we hosted the Eden Prairie High School marching band for their annual band camp, and it was wonderful to hear their music as it drifted across the campus.  In addition to other groups at prayer with us this week, we welcomed at evening prayer on Saturday the incoming class of architecture students from the University of Minnesota.

+This week I am hosting for a five-day retreat a member of the Order of Malta from San Francisco.  He is here in preparation for his promise of Obedience, which he will make this fall.

+Relatively benign temperatures and plenty of rain have marked our summer at Saint John’s, and the 2.2 inches on Saturday served as icing on the cake.  The rains have worked their own transfiguration of the campus, as the photos in today’s post demonstrate.  They are from the cloister gardens on either side of the church.

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The Legacy of Saint John the Baptist

Normally I’m a great believer that each saint deserves a feast day, but one day per saint should be more than enough.  More than one is superfluous, and it could even stir up dormant egos.  After all, saints were once sinners, and who am I to say they aren’t ever tempted to look back whistfully on their golden years as sinners?

Still, I’m willing to grant exceptions.  Take Saint Benedict, for instance.  On July 11th we Benedictines will celebrate his feast.  But come March 21st we’ll celebrate it again, just in case we missed it the first time.  The same is true for John the Baptist, whom we celebrate on June 25th and again later this summer on August 29th.  Generally I’m happy with that arrangement because of the character of his message and the humility that he wore on his sleeve.  Most everyone could use a little more of the latter every now and again, at least I believe.

5691B404-9353-48C5-8D1E-6C20EF795EC8This last weekend, however, I came close to getting a surfeit of John the Baptist.  On Friday the 22nd I celebrated that feast with members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta, who had gathered in Oakland to invest new members.  Since officially it is The Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, John the Baptist’s feast is an appropriate day on which to welcome new members.  It’s why the Association long ago settled on the Friday closest to that feast for this annual gathering.

Then on Sunday the 24th we monks celebrated the same feast of Saint John.  Ours is the Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, so we legitimately celebrate both of his feasts with spirit.  But to do it twice in one weekend and then again in August may test my limits.

John figures prominently in the Christian story because he stands firmly rooted in Jewish tradition and also reaches out to Jesus.  That’s clearly seen when he urges people to return to an authentic Jewish observance.  Then, in the same breath, he describes Jesus as “the lamb of God.”  Of Jesus John said:  “He must increase and I must decrease.”  That to my mind is a remarkable expression of humility — but it needs a bit of clarification.

First, John the Baptist was no doormat, and he was fearless in his preaching.  But, despite the long shadow of Jesus, he knew that his life still mattered.  He had not come to play second fiddle to Jesus’ first violin.  Rather, his life had great value because he would shape the message that Jesus would carry even further.

61431057-3D50-4B77-AA6C-A5FB0F53EE55When John pointed to Jesus he didn’t yield up his sense of self-esteem, nor did he see himself destined to become a bit player as Jesus became the star.  In fact, the ministry of Jesus accented the dignity John had as the last of the prophets.

Every now and again we may be tempted to believe that becoming Christian means losing ourselves and so be swallowed up in Jesus.  In fact, Jesus did not come to smother us or make us into clones of some Christian ideal.  As Christians we check neither our personality nor our brains at the door of the church.  Rather, we take the spiritual vitality that Jesus offers to each of us and integrate it into lives in which we make the most of all that the Lord has given us.

So it is that as Christians we overlay onto our talents and qualities the love of Jesus Christ.  That’s what John the Baptist has in mind when he encourages us to let Jesus increase within us.  As Jesus increases, our individuality doesn’t fade away.  Rather, we flourish as the Lord brings out the best in us.

That, it seems to me, is a portion of the legacy of John the Baptist that we ought to celebrate regularly — not only twice a year, but even, on rare occasions,  twice in a weekend.

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NOTES

+On June 20th I made a short trip to the Bay Area, primarily to participate in the annual investiture ceremony for new members of the Order of Malta, which took place in Oakland on the 22nd.  Among the new members was Saint John’s alumnus and friend Steve Nelson, who lives in Scottsdale, AZ.

On the 20th I attended a reception, at which I blessed the new mobile clinic that will work out of the Malta free clinic that the Order operates in Oakland.  It’s big and bright and red, with the Malta logo on it.  If you see it tooling around the Bay Area, you can’t miss it.

+On June 23rd I attended alumni reunions at Saint John’s University.  We were blessed with lovely weather, which continued on into the next day.  In the course of the day I had lunch with the alumni who were celebrating their 60th anniversary since graduation, and dinner with those celebrating their 55th year.

4B625F49-2F03-4267-9461-594AB205A7A2+You never know when the opportunity to do a good deed will come along, and that was certainly the case on Saturday.  I was driving to the reunion luncheon, which was at the University president’s home, a mile from campus.  As I passed one home along the way, my eye caught a glimpse of what I thought was a bar-b-que grill going full blast in someone’s garage.  After a few seconds I asked myself who in the world would run an open flame in their garage.  And then the answer came:  “No one!”  So I backed up, turned up the drive to their home, only to discover a roaring fire in their garage.  So I laid on the horn until someone poked his head out the front door to ask what I wanted.  I casually noted that his garage was on fire.  As he glanced at the garage his irritation turned to horror.  His big tractor-mower was ablaze and threatening the entire structure.  He managed to pull it out of the garage, and I managed to get a dramatic photo, which I’ve included in this post.  Since my work was done, I turned around and drove off to lunch.

+The photo at top shows a 19th-century tower from the monastery, and if you look carefully at the arched glass window you will see the small perch where a statue of John the Baptist stood for decades.  Then the new wing to the monastery was built in 1954.  Instead of greeting visitors to the door of the monastery, however, John instead looked out over a roof.  So we brought him down to earth, and now he stands in the monastic garden, ruefully pointing up to the perch where he used to be.  The second photo is that terra cotta statue.  Below that is a copy of the tapestry of John the Baptist, which hangs in the cathedral in Los Angeles.  This copy hangs in our guest house, where it greets visitors.   For the feast we brought it to the sanctuary of the church.  At bottom are two photos of a small garden outside a side entrance to the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s.

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