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Posts Tagged ‘Order of Malta’

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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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No Need for an Appointment with God

I know it’s not a good idea to attribute human qualities to an iPad.  For one thing, it’s not human.  Nor does it share in the effects of original sin.  And  to my knowledge it’s entirely devoid of human emotions like joy, sadness or depression.  And despite the fact that I really do love my iPad, I know it’s not a healthy relationship for the simple fact that the love is not mutual.  My iPad will always remain entirely aloof from me.

On the other hand my iPad does seem to share a few human traits, and that’s what makes me nervous sometimes.  Every now and again, for instance, I get a notice that my iPad has a bug.  It’s news I ignore at my peril, because that can lead to something far worse.  I also know that my iPad can come down with its version of the flu, just like people.  That seems to be its latest problem, and that’s what has me worried right now.  Lately, it will not charge up unless it feels like it — leaving me to wonder if it will be comatose by the end of the day.  On top of that, it ignores the keyboard at really inconvenient times.  That means I can get a message but can’t respond.  And finally, there are times lately when it’s a challenge to wake it from its sleeping mode.  If it were a teenager, that would be okay.  But it’s not.

F3BFFD73-7D34-4D54-A8EC-F702E3940384Anyway, I took my iPad to see the iPad doctor at the Apple Store in Naples, FL, last week, and my experience there was akin to using the National Health in the UK.  It was spring break, and thousands of kids had flown south to Florida for the chance to visit an Apple Store in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops.  It was exhilarating for them, but it was a nightmare for me.  I was desperate as I got in line to speak to someone about making an appointment to speak with someone about my sick iPad.  But the minimum wait to see the iPad doctor was two hours.  So I left mad — mad at the tech world, and mad especially at my iPad for putting me through all this.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but my experience with the iPad does have the potential for allegorical interpretation.  No doubt about it, my iPad does wonderful things, when it feels like it.  But it also comes with bugs and illnesses that are particular to its talents.  In this case its primary talent is the access it gives me to connect with people all over the world.  But conversely it comes with the ability to deny that access, and that’s when it hurts.  That’s when I feel especially helpless.

084E680C-92A9-4C1F-9CEF-5FA128F6E162Therein might be the angle that Jesus might exploit to turn this into a parable.  As is the case with computers, you and I are blessed with an abundance of apps and capacities and other gifts.  We have the ability to do amazing things.  But we also have bugs that need tending to, lest they grow and get out of control.  We can also have issues with reliability, and our friends and colleagues can share stories of how we have let them down in the course of their lives.  That’s the effect of sin.

No computer is ever perfect, nor will we ever be perfect.  We, like the machines we rely upon, need maintenance;  we need updates;  we need rebooting; and sometimes we need a major overhaul.  All of that requires self-awareness, and it’s better to be self-aware long before the bugs get out of control.

Of course I can’t discuss any of this with my iPad.  But I’m privileged to have other options.  So when I feel the effects of bugs in my life, and when I sense that I’m about to crash, it’s important to seize the opportunity to talk with friends and colleagues, and especially with God.  That’s what they’re there for.  And in the case of God, there’s never a need for an appointment.  And as busy as God might seem to be, there’s never a two-hour wait.

FBC76FD1-ED8A-44B9-8326-A776FB63BFB5NOTES

+On March 5th I flew from Minneapolis to Fort Myers, FL.  I was fortunate to get away, just as a major winter storm was about to hit the airport in Minneapolis.  At Saint John’s we had nearly ten inches of snow, and I was sorry to miss the vision of that — but not sorry enough to turn around and try and get back to see it before it melts.

+On March 6th I attended a reception in Naples, FL, that served to introduce our Immokalee Scholarship Program to potential supporters.  Present were Alex and Osbaldo, two of our students from Immokalee.  They each gave fine presentations to the assembled friends of Saint John’s.

+On March 10th I gave a day of reflection to members of the Seattle Area of the Order of Malta.  I’ve been privileged to give this retreat day for several years running, and it takes place at the Catholic student center at the University of Washington.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from the life of Jesus, from an altar retable now housed in the Museum of Catalán Art in Barcelona.  It was made by Jaume Serra for the Monastery of Santa Maria de Sixena, ca. 1370.  From the top the panels depict The Last Supper, The Child Jesus Teaching in the Temple, The Baptism of Jesus, The Crufixion, and The Dormition of Mary.

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How Will You Season the Season?

For years I’ve campaigned for the privilege of experiencing art first-hand.  That includes a visit to a gallery, listening to music performed by real live people rather than by a machine, or wandering through an architectural masterpiece.  Somehow it all seems to be the right thing to do, particularly if there’s a chance to thank the creative talents that have made it come to pass.

Last week I had the chance to experience Handel’s Messiah, which I’d not done in years.  I use the verb experience deliberately, because you can’t just sit there like a bump on a log, as if it were Muzak in an elevator.  Handel’s Messiah sweeps you off your feet, and so it was as my ears feasted on the voices and the instruments.

IMG_0087_2But it was a visual treat as well.  There, right in front of me, 120 singers performed with dignity and with a power that was alternately unleashed and restrained.  Along with them were the musicians, who seemed to cradle their tanned wooden instruments as if they were new-borns.  It was stunning on so many levels, and I was not the only one who had goose-bumps.  I know so, because several total strangers came up to me and volunteered the same experience.

As beautiful as it was, there was one other thing that struck me.  Amazingly, for the space of two hours, 140 wonderfully creative people surrendered their inalienable right to do their own thing and decided to act as one.  For that brief interlude no one glanced at email or cell phones.  No one strayed off onto some musical tangent in order to improve on Handel’s score.  Instead, in a grand display of self-discipline, everybody sang or played the notes assigned to them.  Nor did they drift around the stage when there were no notes assigned to them.  Instead, they performed as a community.  Together they achieved something that they could never have accomplished on their own.  For one brief moment they banished the rugged individualism that diminishes our world, and they offered to us a glimpse into a heaven we’d not noticed before.

Advent is not a time for rugged individualism, nor is it a season in which we wander off into our own personal reveries.  Advent is not the season in which to ignore other people, and that includes the people whose creativity enriches our lives and those whose ill health isolates them from full participation in the joys of life.  Advent instead is a time when all of us should step up and take an active part in the fullness of life that is spread before us.

Most obviously, Jesus is our best teacher for this important lesson.  He was not born as the son of Mary for the sole purpose of doing his own thing.  He had a mission;  he had a purpose;  and he came so that we might have life and have it in abundance.

IMG_0088_2For those of us who intend to follow in the steps of Jesus, then, it’s paramount that we embrace life and live it graciously and with intensity.  Obviously we can’t attend concerts or go to museums during every waking hour, but it’s important that we season our lives with such experiences.  Obviously we can’t help the sick and the poor whenever and wherever we encounter them;  but it’s important to recognize them as fellow pilgrims.  And just as obviously, it’s incredibly unhealthy to spend all our time just doing our own thing, as if no one else mattered.  Oddly enough, when no one else matters, neither do we.

Living this sort of full and balanced life is not always easy, but living as if I alone mattered is an illness for which there is a cure.  The cure involves thanking people for their creativity.  It involves reaching out in moments when we can make a tangible difference.  It involves using our hands to do the work of Jesus on a daily basis.  And if that’s too much to do year-round, then perhaps it’s a good exercise for Advent.

So what’s a person to do with Advent?  My advice to myself is to season the season with art — in all its forms.  Season the season with service.  Season the season with quiet time to consider God’s gifts to me and my neighbor.  If I do all that, I figure that Christmas might very well come a little early this year.

IMG_0089_2NOTES

+No doubt the highlight of the last week was a three-day trip to Ontario that I took with one of my colleagues from Saint John’s.  On December 7th we flew to Toronto, and on the evening of the 8th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Jerome University in Waterloo, Ontario.  The next evening we attended the production of Handel’s Messiah, performed by the Grand Philharmonic Choir and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.  That concert took place in Kitchener, and preceding the concert I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible, to what turned out to be a standing-room-only crowd.  The performance of Messiah was wonderful, though my colleague had the misfortune of being seated next to a woman who decided to sing along with the choir.  As a result he did not enjoy the performance quite as much as did I.

+I actually do have one good friend in Waterloo, and my visit there gave me the chance to meet up with him.  Roman is a member of the Order of Malta in Obedience and is now president of the Order of Malta in Canada.  We’ve met many times over the years in Lourdes and more recently at an annual retreat that takes place in Malvern, PA.

+The photos in today’s post all come from the Church of Saint Séverin in Paris.  The first stained glass window shows Saint Martin of Tour sharing his cloak with a poor begger, while the others show Saint Vincent de Paul as he made the rounds among the poor of Paris.

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Christ is in the Tangles of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5705Notes

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

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

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

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

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Soloists on the Path to God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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Memories:  the Measure of a Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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