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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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Retreat, or Run Away!

Monty Python aficionados like me fondly recall the scene in which the enemy was about to overwhelm a group of knights.  As the battle tilted against them, they rallied around the one cry that had begun to run through everyone’s mind already.  “Run away!  Run away!”  It was a lot less elegant than the more dignified “Retreat!”  But it made the point with somewhat greater urgency.

This past week we monks at Saint John’s were on retreat.  We do a five-day retreat annually, in part because canon law requires it of monks and other religious.  But even if the regulations did not demand it, we’d still need to do it.  I realize that quite a few people think that monks have already run away from the realities of life, and they must think of a monastic retreat as a complete waste of time.  But in fact the opposite is true, on both counts.  We monks are not blissfully ignorant of the problems of life, because they are part of the baggage we bring with us when we enter the cloister.  Our problems don’t go away when we put on the habit; and like everyone else, we have to deal with them.

IMG_6325This year’s retreat had some unusual quirks. The monk originally slated to lead it got elected Abbot Primate last fall  and had to move to Rome.  Abbot Gregory of Conception Abbey in Missouri had studied with us for four years, and we had looked forward to having him with us.  However, his new job upended all his plans, and we had to come up with a substitute.  I’m not saying for a minute that he got himself elected abbot primate just to avoid being with us, or because he was unprepared.  But I did entertain the thought — or the thought entertained me.

In Abbot Gregory’s stead came Fr. Michael Fish, a Camaldolese Benedictine from the monastery at Big Sur in California.  Big Sur sits in majesty, looking out over the Pacific, and I’ve been told that the view is stunning.  It’s also remote, which is appropriate for a community that lives a more hermit-like regimen than we.

IMG_6338California Highway 1 provides virtually the only access to the place, and in his first conference to us Fr. Michael explained how important that highway is for his community.  Three months ago the heavy rains started a landslide that blocked the highway, and the hillside is still sliding.  For three months now no one has gotten in or out of the monastery, and Michael has not been home for those three months.  In fact, Michael was with us only because he had left the monastery three days before the slide had begun. Otherwise, he noted, he’d be stuck on that mountain and we’d be looking for yet another retreat director.

So we had our retreat, and it went well.  And despite the doubts that people might harbor about our need for a retreat, it is indeed a vital thing to do.   And the reasons we should do one are the same reasons everyone should do a retreat.  Like lots of people we monks can find our solace in all sorts of escapes.  Like everyone, there are moments when we are tempted to run away from life.  So, for example, we can find solace and meaning in our work, but if that becomes the primary element of our lives then we discover that we’ve run away from life.  Like most people we too seek refuge in all sort of other things, large and small; and when we’ve indulged them too much we eventually discover how empty they can be.  In short, monks like everybody else need to face their temptations and deal with them.  We need to accept the goodness of life that the Lord offers to us.

IMG_6363And what was the one nugget of wisdom that I took away from this retreat?  It was this.  I have tended to read the story of the prodigal son and identify with either or both of the brothers.  I have empathized with both of them, and only to a lesser extent could I appreciate the role of the father.  But I never realized what was at stake for the father until Michael pointed out that the father — who represents God — is not some aloof persona, devoid of emotion.  In fact, the father daily searches the horizon for the return of his son.  After all, the son is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.  The son has taken part of the father with him, and the father aches to have his son back.

And the lesson for us?  Just as we sometimes ache for the experience of God, so God aches for us.  As Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  Could it be that God feels the same way about us?

IMG_6326Notes

+During the week of May 29th we had our annual abbey retreat at Saint John’s.

+From June 1-4 we hosted the 25th annual meeting of the Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities.  Among our guests were Abbot Primate-Emeritus Notker Wolf of the abbey of St. Otilien in Germany, Abbot-President Elias Lorenzo of Saint Mary’s Abbey in New Jersey, and Archabbot Douglass Nowicki of Saint Vincent in Latrobe, PA.

+This last weekend I gave conferences to the members of the Order of Malta’s Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes.  The retreat took place in Malvern, PA, located outside of Philadelphia.  The biggest surprise for me had to do with a book I had used to prepare one of my conferences.  It was on the history of the Order of Malta in the 17th century, published in 2011, at what I thought was the high price of $85.  Some curious soul in the group looked it up in Amazon and discovered that it now costs a whopping $465.  That’s when I realized that it was the most expensive item in my suitcase.

+The photos in today’s post show the chapter house at Saint John’s.  It is attached to the Abbey church, and it is where we have our retreat conferences.  Among the photos is one that shows a view of the grounds and lake, looking through a side door.  I try and sit with this view, just in case the conferences need some supplement.  The photo at bottom shows the view of Lake Sagatagan, in the backyard of the monastery.  It may not be the Pacific, but at least there is no landslide.

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Summer:  Take Time to Dawdle

Memorial Day marks something of a new beginning for people.  For a few who are tradition-bound it’s time to put on seersucker and whites with nothing to fear from the fashion police.  For others it’s time to rehabilitate the local version of Minnesota’s cabin up north.  And for most everyone with residual memories of school days, Memorial Day rekindles the primal thrill of liberation from the classroom.

The onset of summer does seem to offer something for everybody, and at the very least it hints that the hectic pace of life is about to tone down a notch or two.  That’s the promise of the opening line of George Gerschwin’s song in Porgy and Bess, which asserts that it’s “summer time, and the livin’ is easy.”  For a few that tranquility actually materializes, and life really is wonderful.  But for many, including Porgy and Bess, the summer will bring mixed blessings.  Moments of leisure will punctuate the days and weeks of summer, but if anything the relentless toil and challenge of life will go on.  The “easy livin'” will be just beyond their reach, as it always has been.

IMG_6303In his book Strangers to the City, the Cistercian monk Father Michael Casey writes about the need to slow down and open ourselves to the wonders around us.  Of course the leisure for that might seem to be a luxury that we can ill-afford, but for the monk it is a sine qua non in the search for wisdom.  To his credit Casey points out that this search for wisdom ought not be the sole purview of monks, because all of us need to get a grip on ourselves and stop and smell the roses.

Casey encourages his readers to “dawdle along the way” of life, and only then might we shed the blinders that filter out wisdom.  “I suppose it was easier in a world not dominated by calendars and clocks simply to take each day as it comes,” he writes.  “On the other hand, making the effort to overthrow the tyranny of time yields proportionately higher profits to those of us who try it sometimes.  It is like a liberation.  We have to realize, however, that the tyrant is inside us, not outside.”

I’m not about to disparage work or productivity, but all too often we distill the essence of our lives down to our work.  We are what we do, and introductions these days go directly from the name of the person to the issue of occupation.  And if truth be told, we’ve probably always done it that way, as the story of Moses’ first encounter with God suggests.  Moses asked God for a name, and to God’s credit God gave Moses a succinct answer:  “I am who I am.”  There was none of this “I do this for a living.”  Nope, God is being, not doing, and that is a nugget of wisdom that we can all live with.  Our personal value derives from the fact that we are the image of the divine.  Our daily work flows out of that belief, but work is not who we are.

IMG_6291One of my favorite cartoons appeared several years ago in The New Yorker Magazine.  It shows a well-dressed couple about to go out to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and the husband presents to his wife a handsome leather-bound volume as a token of gratitude for another year together.  “Oh Stephen, how thoughtful — an annual report on our marriage!”  Obviously it’s not what she had always wanted.

Summer starts in a few days, and it offers us lots of possibilities.  If we tackle it in the same way that we do the other seasons, then we may very well compile an impressive list of what we accomplished during our summer vacation.  If we yield to moments of leisure, however, and use the eyes and ears that the good Lord has given to each of us, then we may end the summer with a few nuggets of wisdom that we picked up along the way.

This approach seems to me to be worth the risk.  On the one hand, come Labor Day the chapter on summer in our annual report might be a bit thin, but life itself might very well be full.  Some would dare to say that’s exactly what God has in mind for us this summer.  Who am I to argue with that?

IMG_6251Notes

+On May 20th I gave a conference at the day of reflection for members of the Order of Malta in the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo.  The gathering took place in Menlo Park, CA.  In our cycle of activity we do a three-day retreat in the fall and a one-day gathering in the spring.

+Last week nineteen spring graduates of Saint John’s University began a two-week orientation and retreat in anticipation of their year as Benedictine Volunteers.  Later this summer they will head out to Benedictine houses literally around the world, where they will be for a year of service.

+On May 20th Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud came to the Abbey and ordained to the priesthood our confrere Father Efrain Rosado.  On Sunday Father Efrain presided at the Abbey Mass.

+Last week we had tons of rain, and it has spurred on the growth around us.  In particular, the scent of lilac has pervaded the campus, and it’s been just wonderful — provided you like the scent of lilac.  We have lots of it planted all over the place.

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Lourdes Revisited

In my last post I wrote about Lourdes and commented that it tends to put front and center the fundamental issues of our lives.  In part, I think, the place reminds us of our mortality.  Just as the ashes of Ash Wednesday vividly point out our earthly destiny, so does Lourdes with its focus on the ill and the suffering.  Sooner or later we will all be in that boat.

Given that, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Lourdes as an exercise in religious escapism, divorced from the realities of daily experience.  Two incidents from this last pilgrimage made that abundantly clear, at least to me.  Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I flew into Paris and then took the six-hour train trip south to Lourdes.  Generally it’s a pleasant enough journey, with some interesting though not spectacular scenery until just before arrival in Lourdes.  Four hours into this trip, however, there was an incident.  It began with a sharp application of the brakes, followed by a slight jolt that most of us felt.  Then the train ground to a halt.  Some poor soul had hurled himself in front of the train, and for nearly three hours we sat on an isolated stretch of track while the police sorted things out.  None of us actually saw the damage, but we did see the van that carried the body away.

IMG_6099It was sobering, and I naturally wondered why someone would be so desperate that he would give up on life entirely.  Did the man leave behind friends and family?  How might they respond?  I could only speculate, but I also realized that one lonely man had given us a dose of reality therapy.  Already this was no ho-hum pilgrimage.

It was something else entirely that impacted most everyone in Lourdes, even if many were blissfully unaware.  Lourdes is a high-profile place, since it is one of the most visited spots in France and it is a religious shrine that attracts considerable attention.  Not surprisingly, there are always security issues, which the French handle discreetly and adroitly.  Still, when you add to the mix four or five thousand members and volunteers with the Order of Malta, the stakes are a bit higher.

There were special concerns for our safety this time around, as was evidenced by the presence of a few plain-clothes security people who shadowed us.  God bless their souls, but their efforts to blend in just didn’t work.  Not a few in our group noticed the strapping men who seemed to follow us wherever we went.  These guys must spend half their waking hours in the gym, and physically they looked like the last people on earth who needed the healing springs of Lourdes.  Still, we were happy to have them with us, even if they made all the rest of us look like wimps.

IMG_6138No one seemed to be particularly alarmed, but the situation did raise one point for reflection.  Why would anyone want to harm us?  There wasn’t a single person in our group who had international stature, and yet there were those who wished us ill.  That’s a difficult pill for anyone to swallow.

These kinds of events inevitably raise for discussion the problem of evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do a few people despair enough to give up on life?  Why do some think that they do deeds of valor when they do harm to others?  Why do the innocent have to suffer?  To these questions there are no tidy answers.  Even the questions are a problem, because they fall outside the pale of science and are a conundrum for philosophy and theology.  Yet, ironically, they are at the heart of the human experience.

Lourdes offers its own take on these issues.  It may not  have the definitive answer to the question of why evil exists, but it does show that love is the proven antidote to evil.  The love of God, the love of neighbor and the support we offer to one another all counteract evil, and they extend hope to someone whose life seems devoid of meaning.  They offer hope to the hopeless.

IMG_6131This explains why someone might go on pilgrimage to a place like Lourdes.  It also explains why we might want to join with neighbors to approach the altar of the Lord to be renewed by God’s Word and sacrament.  Such fellowship asserts that we are not lone travelers, adrift in the world.  Rather, we are part of the community of the Lord.

We act on these spiritual impulses because of one primal urge, which Saint Augustine once described.  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  That helps to explain why we, imperfect though we may be, still try to do our best.  And we do our best both for God and for one another.  Coincidently, all this helps to make some sense of the world.  Having embraced the Lord in faith, in love we joyfully embrace the world which God has created.

Notes

+On Saturdays we celebrate the Eucharist in the monastery at 11:30 am.  That’s a useful point to note as I confess that on this last Saturday I was standing at the community bulletin board at 11:27, when someone paused to remind me that I was the celebrant for the Mass.  In panic I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there my name was down for Mass, in three minutes.

IMG_6092+On Sunday May 14th we celebrated the graduation Mass for the seniors of Saint John’s University and their families, with Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud as celebrant and homilist.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of the college as well as of the School of Theology and Seminary at Saint John’s, and he welcomed everyone with these words:  “On this day in 1966 I was sitting exactly where you are sitting today.  Things happen,” he deadpanned.  All appreciated his dry humor.

+My reading companion on the trip to and from Lourdes was a book entitled How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland.  It is a fascinating and entertaining book, which analyzes the development of English-speaking in the Middle West.  Scattered through it are allusions to the kind of humor that has emerged from the region, including one item he heard years ago on A Prairie Home Companion.  It seems that a Minnesotan married a Palestinian, and to take note of their respective nationalities they named their first-born son Yassir Yewbetcha.  My laugh-out-loud response drew polite stares on the train to Lourdes.

+Near the end of our pilgrimage to Lourdes it has been the custom for our members from the Western Association of the Order of Malta to make a visit to the village of Saint Savin.  The abbey there dates to 945, and the scenery is just gorgeous.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the visual delights that await travelers.

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IMG_6063.JPGThe Pilgrimage of Life

A pilgrimage must seem like a rather strange bird to 21st-century Americans.  To many it harks back to something out of the Middle Ages, and to more than a few it must seem like a big waste of time.  Yet, as a metaphor for life, a pilgrimage is that path through life which everyone must choose.  It boils down to the destination which all must set for themselves, sooner or later.  People may choose to go nowhere, but they will still go somewhere simply because events will set the course for them.

This week I happen to find myself on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with members of the Order of Malta.  It’s the 10th time I’ve done it, and you might legitimately wonder why I even needed to do it a second time.  But many of my fellow travelers have been here far more often than I, including Bill, who is here for the 24th time.  Don’t we have anything useful to do with our time?  Why would we do this over and over again?  Well, what most of us realized by the second time is that each pilgrimage is unique.  The mix of personalities and individual stories makes a single pilgrimage an unforgettable experience, each and every time.

IMG_6007Annually members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, along with volunteers and some fifty sick people, travel to Lourdes and spend a week in prayer, camaraderie, and wonder.  I use those terms deliberately, to counter the common assumption that a pilgrimage to Lourdes has to be among the most tedious of experiences.  It’s not.  For a week we 350 stay together in one hotel, dine and pray together, take care of one another and enjoy the beauty of this shrine.  Tucked away in a remote spot of southern France, it’s about as far away from Paris as one could get.  To the south Spain is just a few miles away, on the other side of the snow-capped Pyranees, which we can see from the edge of town.

Lourdes is by every measure a logistical challenge.  In Lourdes we 350 join upwards of 3,500 other members of Malta who travel from elsewhere around the world.  Then there are the thousands of other pilgrims from all over the place.  There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait about Lourdes, and it tests everybody’s patience and cooperation.  Imagine what it takes to get 20,000+ into the underground basilica of St. Plus X for Mass on Sunday and you get a hint of what organizers confront.  Of course the staff of the shrine is used to this, but most of the rest of us are not.  It’s energizing and crazy all in one.

IMG_5955I never fail to take away two things from Lourdes, and I always leave one thing behind.  I’ll mention the latter first, just to get it out of the way.  There are a ton of religious shops in Lourdes, catering to every taste known to humankind.  Of those, all but four or five sell stuff that US Customs should never allow into the country.  Those things range from the gaudy to the merely tacky, and they include items like the Blessed Virgin Mary cocktail glasses.  Her etched figure in the crystal may be a fitting tribute to the Mother of God in some people’s eyes, but not in mine.  So each year I do my part not to diminish the supply of those treasures, by not buying any.  That way there will be more than enough for the other pilgrims to drag home.

On the positive side, Lourdes is a vivid reminder of the universality of the Church.  When Jesus commanded the disciples to preach the gospel, even to the ends of the earth, the disciples could scarcely have imagined the results.  Stand in front of the basilica long enough and you really will see and hear people from the ends of the earth process by.  Clearly, somebody took the command of Jesus seriously, and you see it incarnate at Lourdes.

Finally, and most important of all, people come to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons.  Like medieval pilgrims they come to atone for sins;  they come for spiritual healing;  they come to satisfy curiosity;  they come because of religious enthusiasm;  and a few come because they are bored with life.  But no one leaves Lourdes in quite the state in which they arrived.

IMG_5959Lourdes has a way of calling the important questions in life — questions that sooner or later none of us can avoid.  If people are suffering a serious illness, Lourdes can remind them that there is meaning to their lives.  For those whose prayer is a variation on the old saw “There but for the grace of God go I,” Lourdes offers a follow-up question.  “All right, if I’m blessed not to go down the path of suffering, then exactly where am I going with my life?  Have I chosen a direction, or are the currents merely carrying me along?”

Lourdes has no monopoly on these kinds of questions, but along with places like Santiago and Jerusalem it invites visitors to pause and take stock of their lives before too much of it is spent.  It encourages people to make those small and large course corrections that determine life from that day forward.

Of course nobody needs to go 4,000 miles to pose those questions.  Wherever we find ourselves, we all have the chance to stop, get a grip on ourselves, and ask if we are becoming the people whom the Lord calls us to be.  Do our lives have purpose?  And if not, ought we make some sort of adjustment while it can still matter?

Lucky you if your house is in good order!  Quite possibility your life is nearly done, and there’s no need for further improvement.  As for the rest of us, however, our pilgrimage continues on, and the Lord invites us to use well each day and hour and minute.  Those precious minutes count for something on the pilgrimage of life.

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+On May 5th the monks of Saint John’s celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Mark Thamert.

+The last few days have been taken up with the pilgrimage to Lourdes, which ends on the 9th of May.  My major concern about the trip was the condition of my back and the ability to negotaite steps and hills.  The biggest test came when the fire alarm sounded in my hotel.  With the elevators out of commission, I had to climb down seven fights of stairs, which I managed gingerly.

+For repeat visitors on the Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes, the gathering has the character of reunion of sorts.  On 7 May I attended a Mass where my friend Jean Brunel took his Promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  He is a member of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is the east-coast equivalent of the west-coast subpriory in which I work.  Also at Lourdes I got to visit at length with Bishop Steven Lopes, who in his days as a seminarian spent a summer at Saint John’s discerning a monastic vocation.  Recently he was appointed a bishop, with oversight of Anglican churches in North America that have been received into communion with the Catholic Church.

+One notable feature of our time in Lourdes has been the extraordinary weather.  The photos in today’s post give some inkling of that.  The photo at bottom shows the Sunday liturgy of some 20,000 gathered in the basilica of St. Pius X.

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img_5288Worries We Have Always With Us

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear.”  At first blush these words from Matthew 6 all sound well and good, but only up to a point.  They sound like they come from the lips of someone who hasn’t got a care in the world.  We must assume that the speaker has plenty to eat and plenty to wear, and obviously he presumes everyone else does too.  So what’s the point of worrying about all these things?  People should not tie themselves into knots about these cares, and instead they should focus on the bigger picture — whatever that is.

It’s easy to tell people not to worry about having enough to eat if you have more than enough yourself.  It’s easy to tell people not to fret about clothing, especially if you have a storage closet bulging with clothes that you’ve not touched in two or three years.  On the other hand, if you are running short of all these things, then your perspective on this advice is entirely different.  If life is tenuous and you’re hanging on by your fingernails, and if you desperately depend on the charity of others, then this advice can seem pretty silly.  For such people there can be no days off or weekends away in the struggle of life.

Obviously, then, Jesus must be thinking about something else entirely when he suggests people should not worry about all of this stuff.  And we know that Jesus did care, because the gospels tell us so.  Jesus was not callous to the needs of others, and on more than one occasion he dropped everything he was doing to tend to the hunger of the people standing in front of him.  Jesus was not indifferent to the suffering of others, because he tended to the physical needs of a paralytic and the blind and the deaf and those possessed by demons.  Jesus cared, we have to believe, but he also cared about the transcendent value of the people whom he encountered.

img_5256One of the ironies of life is that you need not be poor to obsess with having enough to eat or wear.  Your bank account need not be empty to focus your best energies on the acquisition of more wealth.  And here we begin to grasp what Jesus is talking about.  In and of themselves wealth and food and clothing have importance, and so we put them in the category of “necessities.”  But the consumption of these necessities is not what life is all about.  There’s more to life, and for Jesus that life centers on the kingdom of God.  From our membership in the kingdom of God derives any and all things that have meaning.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.”  That’s the advice that Jesus gives, and it points to the origins of Christian life.  For Christians the very meaning of life derives from God’s act of creation.  God created the world and all in it, and God saw that it was good.  And as good as everything else may be, we have to believe that we too fall into the category of the good.  That goodness is the tie that binds us to one another.

What concerns Jesus is not the piling up of food and clothing, because despite the old adage, it is not clothes that make the man or woman.  Rather, respect for others and the love of neighbor constitute the foundation for Christian life.  That’s what really matters, and without these we are merely consumer units in the national economy.

img_5244Nobility is a seldom-used word today, though perhaps it should be used a little more often.  In its traditional meaning nobility referred to a line of aristocratic people who descended from a few people who possessed some heroic character.  They had accomplished something exceptional, and they had achieved status that they could bequeath to their descendants.  But nobility says little or nothing about their descendants, each of whom may have lived worthwhile or worthless lives.  That’s not the kind of nobility we want to promote; and anyway, it’s too late for most of us to be reborn into such families.

Rather, the kind of nobility to which we should aspire derives from this very teaching of Jesus.  This nobility is a nobility of purpose, a nobility of service, a nobility of concern for the poor and the sick and the disadvantaged.  Above all, it is a nobility that shows in deeds rather than in pedegree.

img_5255This nobility of purpose produces the kind of life that Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6.  It is a nobility that comes from being citizens of the kingdom of God.  And the charter for that nobility rests upon the two great commandments — the love of God and the love of neighbor.

In the context of the love of God and love of neighbor everything falls into place in Christian life.  Nothing can be more important than that, and yet nothing can be unimportant in that light.  Seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be provided.  That’s not some sort of bargain that we drive with God so that we’ll get food and clothing.  Rather, it’s an ideal that yields life a hundredfold.

img_5257Notes

+This was a rather busy week for me, and one highlight that took place on February 22nd was the talk I gave at the Boca Grande, FL, civic library.  I spoke on the legacy of James J. Hill at Saint John’s, which endures most noticeably in the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  Boca Grande is not such an unusual site for such a talk, because Jerome Hill, grandson of the railroad baron, helped in the design of the local Catholic Church in Boca Grande.  A bust of Jerome sits in HMML and greets all who enter.  Another grandchild of James J. Hill, Gertrude Ffolliott, lived with her husband Peter in Boca Grande, and we were friends for many years before their passing.  She too was a friend to HMML.

+On February 24-26 I gave a retreat to members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  The gathering took place in Menlo Park, CA.

+On February 22nd the monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial of our confrere, Fr. Magnus Wenninger.  For nearly all of his many years in teaching he taught at Saint Augustine’s College, the high school that Saint John’s founded and staffed in Nassau, Bahamas.  Fr. Magnus was one of the world authorities on polyhedrons, and he wrote extensively on the subject.  Included among his works was one text published by Cambridge University Press.

img_5291+The photos in today’s post show the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pau del Camp in Barcelona.  Founded in the 10th century, it is today a hidden gem that few tourists visit.  It is a tiny place, and at its height it had no more than nine monks.  Today it serves as a parish church, and they are keenly aware of the architectural significance of the place.  When I arrived to visit, the gates were locked, but the parish sectretary graciously let me in when I explained that I had come all the way from Minnesota, just to see this monastery — and the rest of Barcelona, of course.  She gave me twenty minutes, which was just enough.

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For What Should We Be Thankful?

My friend Joe’s trip to the airport the other day was the stuff of nightmares.  He was headed to Detroit by way of Newark, and it was not pretty.  On the way to the airport his car blew out two tires, and the tire shop which he eventually found charged him $600 for replacements.

From the tire shop he continued to the airport by taxi, but by then he had a little cushion because the flight had been delayed thirty minutes.  Finally on the plane and out on the runway, however, one passenger got sick, and it was back to the terminal to let that guy off.  Then the plane taxied out again, only to develop engine problems.  Back to the terminal they went, yet again, and this time everyone got off.  Then at 3:30 pm they cancelled his 9:50 am flight.  Have a nice day.

That was just the beginning of Joe’s travails that day, but this portion of his tale of woe is enough to make a point.  Life does indeed have its major and minor catastrophes, but it’s important always to maintain a sense of perspective, and there’s no better time for that than Thanksgiving Day.

I’m always amazed to meet people who have no sense of how blessed they are.  All too often their daily thanks tend to be of the sort that goes like this:  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  In short, we reference the lowest common denominator of inconvenience or human suffering, and then are grateful that our lives are not worse than they are.  We might even give thanks that life is good because it’s not terrible.  It’s true that we can be grateful for all that, but isn’t there just a little bit more to our lives?  Sure it could be worse, but is there nothing to excite us on Thanksgiving other than a feast, a day away from the routine, and a surfeit of televised sport?  Of course there is, and happily most of us know that.

This Thanksgiving I will pass up the chance to give thanks for great wealth, power or influence.  These have always eluded my grasp anyway, and to be honest I’ve never spent the bulk of my energy trying to acquire them.  Instead I will rely on the tried and true items for which I tend to be grateful on a fairly regular basis.

First off, I give thanks for life and for parents who cared enough to provide me a home and share their values.  I give thanks for friends, who really are a gift from God and aren’t something you can buy at the store.  I give thanks for enough material goods to keep me going, but not so many that they take over my life and distort my vision of myself and reality.  And then I’ll give thanks for the faith which others have shared so generously with me.  Faith is a pretty intangible thing, but it’s been the key ingredient that’s given me direction when I’ve been lost at sea.  It’s provided the reason to go on in those moments when life can seem pointless.

This year I’ll also give thanks for those simple words of encouragement that have made all the difference in the world to me, since childhood.  Generous people scarcely realize the good they can do when they offer a kind word or point out the talent they see in others.  Often they never know what such a simple gesture can accomplish.  But it happens, and it happens far more than you might imagine.

This Thanksgiving one last-minute addition will make the list, and it’s this:  it’s the awareness that I can and ought to do better, and that I still have some time to do it.

On the day that Joe didn’t go to Detroit, I was at the airport grousing about how it was taking forever for the shuttle to get from the terminal to the car rental facility.  Then I was cranky because people couldn’t get off the bus fast enough.  And then there was the long line at the counter, filled with people who seemed never to have rented a car before.  Could life possibly get any worse than this?  Two hours later I read Joe’s email and realized it could.

On Thanksgiving I’m not going spend time being grateful that my travel experience was not as horrible as Joe’s.  Rather, I plan to be grateful for the ability to put things into perspective.  Besides, I should know better than to pray for a seamless travel experience in life when there are other things of far greater import.

So this Thanksgiving I’ll express gratitude for friends and faith, but I’ll also give thanks for the good sense that lets me rank these things first in my life.  On any given day, they are even more important than an on-time departure and arrival.

Notes

+On November 17th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On November 17th and 18th I attended meetings of the Trustees of Saint John’s Univesity.  Unfortunately, they were cut short by an impending storm, which materialized on the morning of the 18th.  It was our first serious freeze of the winter, and we got all of four inches of snow.

+Beginning on the evening of November 18th, and continuing through to the 19th and 20th, I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, gathered at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, located north of Dallas, TX.

+The topmost photo in today’s post is a glimpse into the garden greenhouse.  There a selection of squash, raised in our garden, prepare for storage in the abbey’s cellars.  My friend Larry Haeg happened to take this beautiful photo, and I am grateful for his willingness to let me make use of such a lovely fall portrait.

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