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Posts Tagged ‘Order of Malta’

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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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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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