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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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Looking Beyond the Artificial

On Saturday the lights went out in the monastery.  Actually, everything went off, thanks to a planned power outage that takes place every year at about this time.  I’m not exactly sure what the power people have in mind when they do this to us, and perhaps they haven’t a clue either.  But whether they know it or not, they turn our world upside-down.

We had no electricity for seven hours, and a lot of inconvenience happened in our little world of the monastery.  For one thing, the kitchen staff had to consolidate the cold food into storage that would stay sealed for the entire day.  As for lunch and dinner, we had the indoor equivalent of picnics, complete with paper plates and plasticware.  As expected, the lights were out, making things pretty dim in all the places we need to be — like the refectory, the church, the halls, the stairs, and our rooms.  The elevator to the health center was also out of action, leaving the retired monks stranded on the second floor.  Fans and the air-conditioning took the day off too, leaving most public rooms stuffy and close.

CB4C0FEA-424D-4A1A-B9C8-848368D1FD97This year’s shut-down was distinctive for one new element, however.  A few months ago we installed a key-card lock system in the monastery, and without power it was dormant.  The practical result was that monks could leave the monastery but couldn’t get back in.  Thankfully the prior had the foresight to prop open two doors, and woe to the monk who absentmindedly closed them on the way out.

Other than a cold shower and the inability to read in my darkened room, this business didn’t really inconvenience me.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t frustrating, sitting there trying to think of what I could do in the semi-darkness.  But it was an interesting test in patience as I sat there and waited for life as we know it to resume.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent some photos he had taken that day.  They showed the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, a monastery I’ve long wanted to visit.  It was fortuitous, because the photos were enough to suggest to me both continuity and discontinuity within the monastic tradition.  850 years after the monks built Fountains, we still follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the architectural elements of monasteries have remained pretty much the same.  But some differences are startling, largely because of electricity.

35C9C63C-75CB-477F-AB1E-AC6A691354AAToday we have things that medieval monks could scarcely imagine.  We have artificial light that’s lengthened the work day beyond imagination.  We have heat and air-conditioning, elevators, sound-systems and media equipment and noisy compressors everywhere.  White noise is an integral part of life, and silence such as the monks of Fountains knew is unknown to us.

In short, we monks — and most everyone else — live in a world in which artificial sound and light and air have isolated us from the things of the earth.  Meanwhile, the lights of civilization long ago screened from our gaze the dazzling display of stars that the monks of Fountains marveled at every evening.

I’m no Luddite, and I would be loathe to dispense with the things that make our lives both comfortable and productive.  All the same, however, I wonder whether there is a price we’ve had to pay as we’ve created an artificial world that shelters us from the reality of creation and the cycles of the seasons.  Has our world become unreal?

I wonder too whether our isolation from nature has engendered a corresponding isolation from one another and from God.  A recent study points out the prevalence of loneliness in our society, but the data provided one big surprise.  Researchers had expected to find loneliness among the elderly, but the discovery of a pervasive loneliness among the young was shocking.  No one had expected that.

6DA8C891-C0A0-422C-8321-CC785B4B21E6If we’ve insulated ourselves from close human companionship, have we done so with God as well?  It seems entirely plausible to me that if we can fashion our own little artificial world — entirely the result of the machines we have created — then we can just as easily close our eyes to the presence of God.

For better and for worse, something like a power outage reminds us of two things.  First, we aren’t omnipotent, despite what we may think.  In fact, we would be helpless without the power grid, until we learned to get along without it once again.  And second, we would eventually recall that there is something to life besides cell phones and the machines that now shape our artificial world.

Perhaps, then, it’s good to turn off the power every now and again, just to remind us that life is possible without it.  For one, we’d discover that life still has meaning.  For another, we’d discover that we still have each other.  In the faces of one another we behold the spark of the divine presence that never seems to grow dark or weaken.  Oddly enough, it’s the one spark of energy that the power company can’t seem to turn off.

0B940A52-A951-4703-98B0-C668166F4C9ENOTES

+On June 5th I returned from giving conferences at a retreat for members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Malvern Retreat House, located in the Philadelphia suburbs.

+On June 9th we monks of Saint John’s survived a planned power outage at Saint John’s.  Not willing to miss the opportunity to comment on that experience, I made it the subject of today’s post.

+Lacking photos of the medieval abbey of Fountains, I have done the next best thing by resorting to photos I took of the nearby abbey of Rievaulx.  Located outside of York, it is a stunning ruin, and it’s a miracle that builders and looters did not cart off all of its stones. Given that there were no glazed windows in the cloister to shield the monks from the elements, they managed to survive the winter by taking refuge in the calefactory — the one heated room in the entire complex.  That fireplace served some 600 monks and laybrothers at one point, and I can only imagine how they crowded around it in the dead of winter.  The photo of the fireplace is at bottom.

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Will the Stones Speak of Us?

The landscape of Europe is littered with monastic establishments.  Some are ruins, whose skeletons reach up to the open skies.  Others are fragments of their former selves, and they long ago surrendered most of their stones to builders of cottages and manor houses and garden walls.  But every now and again there’s an impressive remnant to remind us modern folk of the Spirit that once animated the people who lived in these sacred spaces.

At the end of my recent pilgrimage to Lourdes some friends and I passed through Paris, and one morning we visited the stately basilica of Sacre Coeur.  It perches on the highest point in the city, and there it stands as something of a poke-in-the-eye of the Revolution in France.  It’s stately and amazing, even to a jaded critic like me;  and I was glad to have the chance to wander its aisles once again.

C4589408-1357-454A-85F3-079FBB06D06AHowever, I have to confess that I and my fellow pilgrims were there for different reasons.  They had come to see the late 19th-century basilica in all its glory.  I, on the other hand, came to get a peek once again at its lowly neighbor — the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre.

My first and last visit to Saint Pierre was in the 1980s.  When I walked through its doors back then it turned out to be a huge disappointment.  The church was filled with dust that I assumed had accumulated since the monks had vacated the place in 1789.  Still worse, it was dark and decrepit and seemed ripe for the wrecking ball.  Given those times, that seemed a likely fate.

I returned wondering whether there was anything left of it, and I dreaded the sight of the tourist outlet that must have replaced it.  To my surprise, however, the church was still standing.  Even better, it had gone through a metamorphosis.  The dust was gone.  New stones had replaced the battered ones.  And signs of rejuvenated pastoral activity were everywhere.  Once again it was in the business of serving the spiritual needs of the denizens of Montmartre as well as the herds of tourists who accidentally wander in.

10E149F3-94C7-4211-BFE0-A39DF139AF6BThe most striking elements were the new stained glass windows.  There were also a few new statues, including one of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris.  He was beheaded on Montmartre, and according to legend he picked up his severed head and walked away.  In this rendition the headless bishop couldn’t look more casual and relaxed.  And as for me, I thought of all those skeptics who naturally scorn such stories.  In answer to them Saint Denis stands there with his head and a nonchalant “so what!” on his lips.  After all, his story is no more far-fetched than most of the urban legends that we swallow uncritically today.

I left Saint Pierre with a comforting sense of reassurance.  While individual souls may be granted eternal life, God makes no such promises to monasteries.  Monasteries come and go, in response to the changing times.  That said, the monks who lived at Saint Pierre in the course of 850 years have every right to savor the legacy they have left on Montmartre.  After all these years their silent witness still touches the lives of all sorts of people.  And even if it was never their original intention to draw tourists from around the world, that’s okay.  That part of their legacy may have been unintentional, but God works in mysterious ways.

Here I find a certain consolation as I try to live my own life as a Christian and a monk.  Who knows how many lives any of us touch?  Who knows whether we do so for good or for ill?  All the same, it seems to me that we all ought to work with whatever resources God has given to us, and to let God figure out what sort of legacy we will leave.  And whether the stones will speak of us fondly a hundred years from now is a matter for future generations to decide.  But in the meantime, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be of some service to our neighbors in the here and now.  That in itself is legacy enough.

B9163722-BA63-4A7B-A798-A3D0B3C24357NOTES

+The conclusion of our Order of Malta pilgrimage was anything but uneventful.  For days some of us who planned to return through Paris watched the train schedule with apprehension.  Sure enough they were true to their word and the train operators went on strike on the day we had to return to Paris.  Our only recourse was to hire a van and drive from the south of France to the north, which made for a very long day.  What made it personally excruciating were the exit signs on the freeway.  Every few miles we passed a place that that I had read about for years, but of course there was no way we could stop and see even a single one.  That was a tough experience for me, but at least I now know where all those places are.

+Fortunely Air France was not on strike on the day of my departure.  I was to connect with a Delta flight in London, but alas the Air France and Delta computers were not speaking with one another on the morning when I checked in at the Air France desk.  They told me that my London flight had been cancelled and that I had to go to the Delta desk to find out what to do.  It was early in the morning, and the Delta desk was not open yet.  When it did open they told me the flight was not cancelled, and that I would have to return to speak with the people at Air France.  By then we had frittered away two hours, and with 45 minutes before departure I still had not checked in or gone through security.  It turned out that everyone was a little right and a little wrong.  The flight did depart from London, but it was several hours late.  Thankfully I made it through security in Paris and met the connection in London, but I also vowed never to construct such an itinerary again.

+The photos in today’s post show the church of the Abbey of Saint Pierre, that sits next to Sacre Coeur on top of Montmartre.  Needless to say, the abbey runs a poor second in attracting visitors, but that makes it a more awesome place to visit.

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To Lourdes Once More

Why would anyone want to go to Lourdes for a tenth time?  Since I’ll be going this week as a chaplain in the Order of Malta’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, and since I’ve done so nine times already, I guess I’m one who will have to cough up an answer by pilgrimage’s end.

I remember well my first pilgrimage to Lourdes.  It seems so long ago, and by now nine pilgrimages have blurred into one, simply because the routine has scarcely changed through the years.  Each year some 350 of us from the Western Association arrive and join three or four thousand other Malta members from around the world.  Together, as members and volunteers and the sick, we gather to pray and process and dine and do other pilgrim things for a week.  Then we pack up and go home.  Fifty-one weeks later many return to do it all over again.  And if ten times seems like a lot, it’s small potatoes compared to the 25 or 30 trips that some have made.

A8EC2DBF-607B-42C6-A1E1-3F25CFF218DBPeople go to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons — and for no good reason at all.  What stands out from my own first pilgrimage was my hesitation.  Being of a more stoic temperament, and working from the vantage point of a medieval historian, I entertained a lot of personal caution.  Would this be too devotional for my tastes?  Would all the religious trappings leave me cold?  Might it all prove to be some form of escapism from the real challenges that people face?  These may seem like strange questions to come from a monk, but those were mine.

Those fears were tucked into the baggage that I took to Lourdes, but by the end of my first pilgrimage I realized how wide-of-the-mark my apprehensions had been.  Lourdes, it turned out, was no place for religious or emotional escapism.  Nor was Lourdes in the business of promising physical healing.  Unexplained healings do occur now and again, but spiritual healing is what Lourdes is about.  So people arrive expecting all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all.  But people go home touched intimately by the spiritual healing that takes place.

E2A5FA47-C7B7-4C50-AC56-6AF33D08E09EI’m under no illusion that this week’s visit to Lourdes will replicate my first.  It will be more like the next eight of them.  It will reflect my hard-won opennesss to seeing Christ in the sick and the poor.  It will reflect my appreciation for Christ working through the hands of the members of the Order and the volunteers.

I already know why I’m going to Lourdes for a tenth time, because my early skepticism opened my eyes to things I’d not seen so clearly before.  People come to Lourdes gifted with all sorts of talents and burdened with foibles.  People also come with ailments that range from the physical to the spiritual.  But everybody leaves Lourdes a little better than when they came.  They leave with a little or a lot of growth behind them.  They’ve experienced something that is sacramental in its widest sense, because they’ve seen the Lord at work all around them.

That’s not what I expected to see when I first went to Lourdes;  but it’s what I’ve been privileged to see every time since.

2170FD2F-70D3-4B73-BEAA-B81933FA83B0NOTES

+Last week was rather quiet until I arrived in Paris on Saturday the 28th.  The charter flight that most in our group took leaves from Los Angeles, and it has the virtue of landing near Lourdes.  But it adds two days to the trip if I go to Los Angeles to meet it.  So I go from Minneapolis to Paris directly.  And I go a bit early so as to be alert when the group arrives.

+On Sunday the 29th I joined a quarter of the population of Paris and its entire inventory of tourists for a visit to the Louvre.  I’ve never seen such mobs in a museum before, and one hopeful note was the thought that at least in Paris a museum can be bigger than even the NFL.  There’s a glimmer of hope there, somewhere.

The galleries were jammed, and one moment of triumph came when our small party glimpsed the Mona Lisa, who gazed at us over the heads of several hundred gawkers.  One in our group even got a picture — using his telephoto lens.

Museum-going these days is not what it used to be, and not for the better.  The Louvre is massive, and it’s easy to get lost and a challenge to locate a particular piece of art.  Complicating the scene are the herds of people whose eyes are glued to their cell phones.  Two things eventually dawned on me.  One, these herds went where their apps told them to go.  Second, most weren’t looking directly at the art.  For all they knew they could have been in a train station or out on a street.  But at least they got to check off the Louvre from their to-do lists.

As for me, I had taken my camera along, but the place was just too crowded to take good photos.  However, I added two bits to my personal storehouse of wisdom.  Visit the Louvre in the off-season, when the crowds thin out.  Second, try and look directly at the art.  Sometimes it can be even more interesting than a cell phone.

+The first three photos in today’s post are exterior shots of the Louvre.  It’s always good to remember that it was built to be a royal palace, but when the French ran out of kings they turned it into a museum.  Among the more neglected galleries are the medieval, which is fine by me.  Above is a 13th-century stone fragment of Saint Matthew writing his gospel, under the direction of an angel.  It used to be in the cathedral of Chartres.  Below is the tomb of Philip Pot (1428-1493), grand seneschal of Burgundy.  It once stood in a chapel at the Abbey of Citeaux.  I had that sculpture all to myself.

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Jesus:  A Surprisingly Good Shepherd

I’m not an expert when it comes to animal husbandry.  I appreciate it, of course, and I’m grateful for the toil that so many invest in it.  However, despite my general ignorance on the subject, something in Sunday’s gospel struck me as a little odd.

In John 10 Jesus describes himself as a good shepherd, and like a good shepherd he’s ready to lay down his life for his sheep.  That’s the part that bothers me.  To my way of thinking the really good shepherd never gets killed in the first place.  The really good shepherd may lose a few sheep along the way, but if I were a sheep I would give a superior rating to any shepherd still alive at the end of the day.  In fact, the last thing I want to see is a dead shepherd at the front of the flock.

005FDE11-E7FC-4054-81EC-413DB781AFFAOne obvious consequence of a dead shepherd is the need to do a national search and conduct interviews to find a new shepherd.  My preference would be the applicant who wouldn’t fall victim to wolves or poachers.  Even if I were dumb as a sheep, I’m still smart enough to know that if the shepherd goes, we all go.  Is that logical, or what?

I feel the very same about any shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep to find one lost sheep.  If I were one of the 99 I’d fire that shepherd in a minute.  After all, if one of the sheep is dense enough to wander off, then the shepherd should cut his losses.  He should also show a little gratitude to the 99 who were loyal enough to stick around and make the shepherd’s job a lot easier.

That’s when I begin to appreciate what Jesus is up to when he tells us these stories.  Jesus knows that his audience is not stupid, and he intends to impress upon each and every one of his disciples the love he has for them.  The fact is, he’ll never abandon a single one of them.  He may seem to go off to search for the one lost sheep, but all the while he holds the other 99 by the wool of their necks.  He’ll not lose a single sheep, including the dummies who show poor judgement now and again.

Given that, I’m happy to have Jesus as my good shepherd.  It’s in that light that his death on the cross begins to make some sense.  Jesus did lay down his life for his sheep, but Good Friday was not the end of the story.  With Easter the story of his loving care for us resumes.  That’s when we realize that we are his sheep, whom he loves.

Jesus is no hireling who abandons us.  He is a surprisingly good shepherd, which has to be a comfort to all of us sheep who tend to wander off every now and again.

915CC3D5-638F-4F54-9352-ED7D2A7E9179NOTES

+On April 16th I said Mass for the San Francisco area members of the Order of Malta.  We met at Saint Dominic’s Church, where I had witnessed a wedding several years ago.

+On April 17th I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, ID. They have begun a year-long program with The Saint John’s Bible.

+On April 21 I gave a session as part of a retreat day for provisional members of the Order of Malta, who will be invested in June.  This took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

+This last week was a mixed bag when it came to travel.  My worst day in many years was on the 16th, when I flew from San Francisco to Boise via Salt Lake City.  Nothing went right, until the very end.  My flight, scheduled to leave at 4:15 pm, left San Francisco four hours late.  They had rescheduled my connecting flight to one leaving at 10:20, and so when we landed at 9:50 I felt pretty good.  But because there was no gate available, we sat on the runway for forty minutes.  Thankfully the connection was running late too.  It was now to leave at 11:00 pm, but no one was surprised when we left at 11:50.

The car rental desk in Boise was scheduled to close at midnight, and you can imagine my elation when the lady at the desk had wanted an extra hour and fifteen minutes — just for me.  Then, to her surprise, she could not find my reservation.  A neighbor at another desk explained that at midnight Alamo had merged with Enterprise, and now I was renting from Enterprise.  I got to the hotel at 1:30 am.

+On Wednesday I flew to Los Angeles and discovered that the place was teeming with pollen.  Since in Minnesota our pollen is still frozen, we Minnesotans are defenseless in a pollen jungle like Southern California.  I was a mess until I got back to Minnesota and inhaled the pollen-free air.  But I know our time will come.

68C09D46-587B-4DC1-9991-4BBFA122E350+Thanks to the kindness of a couple whose son graduated from Saint John’s, I was able to get a wonderful tour of Boise.  I’d never been to Idaho before, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cityscape.  Among the highlights was a visit to Saint Mary’s Church, which recently underwent an expansion.  The carvings are nothing short of stupendous.  The top three photos show a ten-foot ceremonial door, carved by an artist from Oregon.  The first photo shows a rendition of Noah’s ark, which overlooks the baptismal font inside the church.  On the obverse is a scene from the Book of Revelation, which faces people as they enter the church.  Most intriguing is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, seated in the front pew, just below the pulpit.  With her arm draped over the pew, it looks like she is reserving judgement on the quality of the sermon.  It is wildly popular with children, who want their photos taken as they sit beside Mary.

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Lessons from St. Stephen

While St. Stephen’s feast day lands on December 26th, he seems much more at home in the Easter season.  It’s now that we recall what a firebrand preacher he was, and that he was the first martyr in the Christian community.  But he also gives us pause to consider what kind of impact he might have had on that community.

There’s no doubt that Stephen got under the skin of the religious leaders.  And when I say that, I don’t just mean the Jewish leaders, because he likely irritated some of the apostles too.  Lest we forget, Stephen was a deacon and not an apostle.  Even so, he got out ahead of the curve in preaching the resurrection of the Lord, and that likely alarmed some of the leaders in the Christian community.  What if Stephen’s zeal brought a crackdown on their community?  Might Stephen jeapordize everything they had worked for?

0EA15307-128F-4400-8959-57FBA9E156DFIf that’s what they were thinking, it was pointless.  Events moved too quickly for the cautious ones, and they were about to learn the wisdom of the high priest’s warning about zealots.  If Stephen’s zeal was of human origin, then it would fizzle out.  If it came from God, then there was no stopping it.

I suspect that a few apostles thought they were losing control of the church;  but if so, they were about to learn an important lesson.  They were about to learn that just because they had walked with the Lord, they did not have a monopoly on the message of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit was already calling new people who would follow in their steps.  And in Stephen’s case it’s not a little ironic that, 2,000 years after the fact, we know more about Stephen than we do about some of the apostles.

That’s a good take-away for all of us who have been involved in organizations that have been around for a long time.  In his Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict advises the abbot to cast his net widely when seeking advice, and he should especially make sure to include the youngest and newest members in that circle.  After all, the Holy Spirit is free to choose whomever to be carriers of divine wisdom, and so it would be foolish to ignore such obvious gifts.

780D7A67-13A4-4CD5-9023-C14C7036A3CBBut if that’s good advice for abbots, it’s also good for monks like me who’ve been hanging around the monastery for more than a few years.  It’s tempting for people like me to believe that I’m wiser than everyone else and that the Holy Spirit stopped doling out wisdom after I got mine.  But then I remind myself why the Lord keeps calling new people to the community.  They come, not to continue my work, but to continue the work of the Lord.  And if by chance they have a slightly different perspective on how to do things, then I am well-advised not to dismiss their wisdom just because I didn’t think of it first.

St. Stephen serves as a good example to all of us who are involved in communities and organizations. He’s a reminder that we came to do the work of the Lord and not our own work.  He’s a reminder that we need to make room for the new people who come into our midst, and not fear that they’ve come for the sole purpose of disrupting our own little worlds.

Most important of all, St. Stephen reminds us that none of us should assume we have a monopoly on how things ought to be.  Just as I am a gift from God, so are the late-comers to the vineyard of the Lord.  Of course we should always test the spirits of new people to see if they come from God, but while we’re at it we should not be afraid to take our own pulse just to make sure that we too come from God.

So these are the three points I take away for myself.  First, the Holy Spirit did not run out of wisdom after I got my share.  Second, the Holy Spirit keeps on calling others to the vineyard, whether I like it or not.  And third, the wisest course for me is to welcome those people into the church and into my life, as gifts from God.

242F865E-BC4C-48CA-9D7A-1C06BAEAFF02NOTES

+On April 9th I taught a class in monastic history in the novitiate.  This time I concentrated on the Cistercian reform in the 12th century.

+Later that day, on April 9th, I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 14th I participated in a day of recollection for provisional members in the Order of Malta.  I gave presentations on the history of the Order of Malta, and the event took place at Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On April 16th I presided at the monthly Mass for members of the Order of Malta in the San Francisco area.  Today’s post is a variation of the sermon that I delivered.

+Because I was away from the abbey, I missed out on what we hope is the last major snow of the season.

+The first photo in today’s post shows an altar frontal (ca. 1200) that once was in the church of Santa María de Taüll, in Catalonia.  It now is in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The remaining photos show the exterior and some of the interior windows of the church of St. Severin in Paris.

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The Lord Takes His Time With Us

With the hindsight of Easter it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Peter in the Gospels is the very same Peter whom we read about in the Acts of the Apostles.  After all, as a disciple Peter had had his doubts about Jesus.  Then came his denial of Jesus three times on the eve of the crucifixion.  Finally, almost miraculously, Peter seemed to mature as an entirely different person in the Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts Peter does not hesitate to confess his faith in Jesus.  He becomes a take-charge sort of guy.  He heals;  he preaches;  and he’s not afraid to go out on a limb and lead the followers of Jesus far beyond the Jewish customs that had tethered them to the temple and synagogue all of their lives.  In short, he and the disciples gradually create a church.  And we’re left to wonder where all that gumption came from.  What could have transformed this timid soul into a bold prophet?

378D8DF0-E65C-4B3E-99B9-53AEA1B848B3We’re now a few days into the Easter season, and the references to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles serve as a reminder of the power of the risen Jesus.  The risen Lord transformed the disciples, and if he could do that with such a motley crew, then he’s probably capable of doing the same with you and me.  Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him, because you and I are the very people whom the Lord came to save.

It’s entirely possible that by now our only souvenir from Holy Week is the memory of some beautiful and sometimes overly-long liturgies.  But it’s also possible to detect the hand of God at work, gently shaping and transforming us.

I for one would be naturally suspicious if Jesus were to turn my life upside-down, inside-out, in an instant.  He may have done that with Peter, or the writer of Acts may have instead compressed Peter’s long spiritual journey into a matter of a few days.  But whatever the Lord may have done with Peter, he’s taken an entirely different approach with me.  I for one know for a fact that the Lord has taken his own sweet time with me.  God’s given me length of years precisely for that reason.

92C6EAA3-A8EB-4C65-8CA3-D47C1F8B1FB1The same may be true for you as well.  If so, you’ve probably noticed how gradual and tentative your journey to the Lord has been.  And you’ve probably wondered why the Lord has not blesssed you with the audicity that Peter had.  Well, one reason for that is that the Lord deals with each of us differently.  But for most of us there is an air of deliberate calculation about it.  We may resist on certain days, but the Lord continues to chip away and sculpt and polish us into his good and faithful servants.  That, I think, shows just how persuasive the risen Lord can be.

In my own humble opinion God generally prefers not to bowl most of us over or hurl us to the ground.  That’s a lot of work for God, and besides, it’s the sort of stuff God reserves for those who are particularly stubborn.  As for me, I suspect, Jesus prefers to be patient and kind, and he draws me to himself in his own good time.  For that I am grateful.

That’s why I think it’s a good idea in this Easter season to pray that the Lord, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to completion.  But there’s no rush.

B57466FE-CD7F-4D14-B7B4-269EC2DB45BANOTES

+During the past week I taught two classes in the novitiate.  My main theme was the monastic tradition of the abbey of Cluny, which in time had some 350 priories within its orbit.  It was a major booster of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, and it built priories and hostels along the Camino.  Its 12th-century church was the largest in Western Europe, and it remained so until the construction of the new St. Peter’s in Rome in the 16th century — the one we see today.  In the middle of the design of St. Peter’s the architect had to add fifty feet just to make sure it was longer than the abbey church at Cluny.  Cluny is in Burgundy.  It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but as of now it is still on my bucket list.

+From 3-8 April I gave a private retreat to a member of the Federal Association of Order of Malta from Chicago, who is preparing to make his Promise of Obedience in May during the Order’s regular pilgrimage to Lourdes.  It was his first visit to Saint John’s, where he stayed in the guesthouse.

+On April 5th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to a group that included the president, some faculty and staff from Caldwell University, in New Jersey.  They stayed in the guesthouse at Saint John’s, and among other things I toured them through the new Bible gallery in Alcuin Library.

+On April 5th I presided at the abbey Mass.  Today’s post is an expansion of the sermon that I gave that day.

+On April 6th I hosted Paul and Laura, graduates of our school, at whose wedding I will preside in the abbey church at Saint John’s this summer.  I don’t get to preside at many weddings, and so this will be a treat for me.

+Today, April 9th, is the feast of the Annunciation.  It’s a reminder that Christmas is upon us, at least in nine months, and we should prepare.  The photos in today’s post are from the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and the uppermost is of the Annunciation.  If you’ve not seen Sagrada Familia, you definitely should put it on your bucket list.

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