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Posts Tagged ‘Order of Malta’

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A Letter from Jerusalem

Ages ago I read the account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, written by the 4th-century Iberian nun named Egeria.  Over the course of several years she journeyed from Egypt to Constantinople in search of the holy sites, and among other things she left us one of the best and earliest accounts of the Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem.  She also salted her pages with a generous portion of credulity, and it’s fair to say that openmindedness was one of her chief virtues.

When she asked to see the burning bush of Moses at Mount Sinai, for example, the monks produced it on demand.  She got the same friendly service all along the route;  and if we can fault her gullibility, we have to give her credit for initiative.  She travelled;  she wrote about it; and her stories stimulated a pilgrimage traffic that shows no sign of letting up.

6A52E943-878D-4725-A3D8-8C16915C7B3AAt the moment I’m in the middle of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s been inspiring to see both the familiar as well as the less familiar sites.  As for the latter, most pilgrims would not take the trouble to find the church of Saint John, alongside which Frá Gerard ran a hospice for pilgrims in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.  He and his successors eventually became the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta;  and so it was a thrill to pose for photos at the door of this really really hard-to-find Orthodox Church.  It was closed, but that did not stop us from reciting the prayer of the Order while we stood outside.

As anyone who has visited Jerusalem can attest, this is a very crowded city that challenges the faint of heart.  Chief among the obstacles to contend with are the crowds, which makes negotiating the narrow streets both fascinating and an ordeal.  It’s also easy to get lost, which is why we were happy that forty-two of us went in and all forty-two of us emerged at the end — a little rattled.

AA1F757D-EB00-4DF8-8759-EA79CB684E22What makes it such an ordeal is not just the issue of too many people in too little space.  Added to that is the fact that there is the organized competition among groups, all trying to force their way through to the front of lines.  Naively we went to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and there our group had its first lesson in this sort of thing.  Once inside our guide quickly formed us into something of a military phalanx.  With precision he shaped us into a potent force as we maintained our place in a line leading to the cave where Jesus was born.  It took two hours to get there, and as we inched forward we kept in a disciplined formation that expanded and contracted at our guide’s command.  Our guide also advised us not to be shy about using elbows — “because that’s why God gave them to us.”  It was a triumph by the time we reached the grotto, but even there we were still fending off competitors.  All the same, after it was all over a few people came to me to ask if we had to do penance for behavior we would never tolerate in church at home.

The same sort of perseverance was a real asset at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but a dose of courage also came in handy.  It’s amazing that no one gets seriously hurt on the very steep steps leading to the site of the crucifixion.  All the same, some of us gasped as we watched a young woman slide down a few steps.  Thankfully she was unhurt.

C4CAC1E1-AE0C-415C-9448-662B78DF0C3CThe crush of pilgrims intensified as we entered the line to the shrine that encases the tomb of Jesus.  Advised that it would be another two hours of creeping along, prudence won the day.  That’s when we voted, unanimously, to retreat and try our luck another day.

In sum, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is strenuous business.  The crowds are formidable.  There’s lots to see.  And the Bible comes alive before your eyes.  At the same time, there are still the stories that beguile modern pilgrims, just as they did Egeria.  Not a few tested my credulity and required a healthy dose of the willing suspension of disbelief.  Once again I was impressed by the ready market for such material.  But then again I should not have been surprised, given what people will accept uncritically off of the internet.

Despite it all, or perhaps because of it all, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem both challenges and strengthens one’s faith.  Pressed together in a sea of humanity it dawned on me that people will never cease in their search for meaning in their lives.  Walking in the steps of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem is a reminder that faith can never be merely an intellectual enterprise.  Walking through life with fellow pilgrims requires patience, fortitude, courage, and along the way we may even have to resort to the use of our elbows.  But on such a pilgrimage we discover that if we fall, the Lord quickly sends a brother or sister to help us regain our footing.

1D961EB8-FAC6-4B98-B932-6C03ADAA5E7DNOTES

+It’s not possible to cite everything that has impressed me in the course of this pilgrimage, but a few sites are worthy of comment.  In particular, I had never visited the ancient city of Jerash, which is in Jordan.  Built by the Romans in the 2nd century, its array of architecture is nothing short of dazzling.  Unlike Rome, the modern city has not engulfed the ruins, and the result is a fairly complete cityscape.

+On March 2nd we had the opportunity to visit the Order of Malta maternity hospital in Bethlehem.  Each year the hospital welcomes 4,500 babies into the world, and the staff maintains the only neonatal intensive care unit in the region.  They provide a vital service to mothers who have few if any alternatives.  The French Association and the three US Associations of the Order of Malta share in providing the funds for the hospital.

+Our pilgrimage ends tomorrow, after which I have to get back to my day job.  All the same, it’s been an amazing experience, and if you’ve ever considered a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this is a good time to go.  It’s peaceful, and crossing the border from Jordan was smooth, as was the trip into the Palestinian Territories.  On the other hand, the relative quiet has encouraged the crowds to come.  All the same, it’s worth the effort.

+One of the unexpected benefits of standing in place for two hours in the church of the Nativity was the opportunity to take photos that might not otherwise be possible.  The photos in today’s post were the result of having nothing to do for two hours — except taking pictures and being vigilant that no one got ahead of us in line.

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Moses:  He Let His People Go

I’d not been to Mount Nebo in Jordan in many years, and I was unaware of the changes that had taken place there.  Located on the east bank of the Jordan River, it was the place from which Moses gazed into the promised land, and on the earlier occasion I had left with memories of the great views across the Jordan and a real empathy for Moses.  After all, it had to be bittersweet as he bade goodbye to the people he’d led for more than forty years, while he stayed behind to die.

Moses was a singular figure in history, but like most whom God chooses he wasn’t perfect.  Whatever gifts he may have had, he could also be angry and headstrong, and he was a murderer.  He had killed an Egyptian who had mistreated an Israelite slave, and that would always be a mark against him.

590C123E-124D-4FA5-B8B5-5B80A459539CMoses was not destined to be a leader, but against his own will he emerged as God’s chosen representative.  That said, his work was not a piece of cake.  He managed to anger God, and on many occasions he angered his own people.  But transformation happened anyway, and not just in spite of those conflicts but perhaps because of them.

What might have been his salient features?  Curiosity might have headed the list.  After all, it was curiosity that caused Moses to detour and visit the burning bush.  Curiosity led him to gaze long and hard into the fire, and in search of understanding it was his curiosity that finally led him to transformation.

Perseverence might have been next on the list.  When Yahweh asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt I’m sure Moses had no idea of what he was getting into.   All the same, if he thought it would take a few months at most to reach the promised land, then he was badly mistaken.  It took 40+ years.  That required incredible patience and perseverence.  Along the way the journey took on the character of purification of a sinful people.  It was also a period of uneven growth both for Moses as well as for the people;  and wandering in the desert was symbolic of the wisdom and maturity that come only with time and experience.

Finally, I have to admire Moses for his readiness to let go.  He had served his people for forty years, but they were God’s people and not his own.  As much as he must have relished the thought of leading his people across the Jordan, it was not to be.  He had to let go of the reins of leadership, and like Pharoah before him, he too had to let the people of Israel go.  They left for the promised land west of the Jordan River, while he stayed behind, prepared to die, east of the Jordan.

88113F95-2C1C-4951-9434-38B9EFCAEB79So what — if any — are the lessons we draw from the life of Moses?  First of all, we all need to cultivate our own sense of curiosity.  The minute we start to believe that we know everything is the moment when we need to go back to school.  We’re only fooling ourselves if we think we deserve to have the last word on everything.

Second, we can all use a little perseverance when it comes to our relationship with the Lord.  Like it was for Moses, our own path to God can be rocky, circuitous, surprising and disappointing.  But that’s the story of any relationship that is meant to grow.

Finally, a healthy sense of detachment is important for us all.  Serving others does not mean we can put them in our debt.  It doesn’t mean we help others and then demand the right to make the major decisions for their lives.  Authentic service means that we help others — not because they are Christian but because we are Christian.  And then we let go.  We help others because we see in them what Christ sees in them:  people created in the image of God.

Ironically, then, Moses as leader and servant is one of the best examples we can choose as our model.  After forty years of service in the desert he let his people go, and there are moments in life when we have to do the same.  As parents, teachers, mentors and friends we must learn to let go of the people whom we serve.  It’s the very least we can do, because very likely God has plans for them — plans of which we can only imagine.

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NOTES

+On Tuesday 19 February I left Boston for Amman, Jordan, where I met up with a group of members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, to begin a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  However, my final hours in Boston reminded me once again  that the world can be a small town.  On Sunday I traded texts with a couple from Minneapolis with whom I’d hoped to meet for months.  It turned out that we were four blocks away from each other in downtown Boston.  Then on Tuesday, as I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for a taxi to go to the airport, I looked up to see a friend from Minneapolis.  Minutes later I met unexpectedly with another friend, this time from Seattle.

+On 20 February I arrived in Amman, Jordan.  After a tour of the city our group left for Petra, and en route we visited Mount Nebo, where tradition says that Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the Holy Land which he would never enter.  Since my last visit the Franciscans have built a church on top of Mount Nebo that lovingly encases the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church.  The photos in today’s blog show the results of their work, and we were privileged to celebrate Mass there.

On 24 February we visited Petra, a truly over-the-top and extraordinary place.  In a future post I will include photos of that amazing place.

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Blessed Are We!

”Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.”  This and the other promises that Jesus makes in the Beatitudes for a long time puzzled me.  To my literal way of thinking it all sounded like small consolation for having gotten the short end of the stick in life.  It also seemed to encourage passivity, suggesting that if we suffer patiently and with dignity now, then we’ll hit the jackpot when we reach the gates of heaven.  Conversely, wealth and happiness in the present life come with an ominous warning.  Enjoy them now because they’re not going to last forever.

I think the first time an alternate interpretation presented itself came as I watched a homeless person pushing a cartload of stuff down the street.  I assumed that cart held all he owned, and the Beatitudes seemed crafted precisely for someone like him.  But all the same there was a disconnect.  Clearly he was poor, and if the Beatitudes weren’t meant for him, then for whom were they meant?  But the nurture that he gave to his cartload of possessions gave a different message.  Was he in fact serving the stuff, rather than the other way around?  His possessions seemed to hold him captive, just as a bag of gold holds a miser in its thrall.  That’s when the light bulb came on.

04D4265C-690C-4C2C-BF7D-2EF2D34CD088I confess that for much of my life I thought of the Beatitudes as the promise of compensation for misfortunes suffered in the here and now.  Now I realize that Jesus probably didn’t mean it that way.  Nor did he ever intend that death open us to our first taste of the divine.  The experience of God actually begins in the here and now.

That, it seems to me, is the key to an appreciation of the Beatitudes.  So when Jesus blesses those who are poor he does not promise fantastic wealth in the hereafter.  Rather he says that an abundance or lack of stuff does not determine the value of a human being.  Whether rich or poor, all are created in the image of God.  All can experience the spark of the divine already, in this world.  Why would anyone want to wait?

The same holds for the other Beatitudes as well.  Each one sugggests that we should look at life from a broader perspective.  Each suggests that the opportunity to live a full life ought not be constrained by conventional wisdom.  Rich and poor can be sad, but rich and poor can be happy as well.  So much depends on whether we can take risks and open our eyes to life’s possibilities.

662C1934-8DD9-4D80-B986-45D51E5437A9Therein is the real value of the Beatitudes.  They are not a quid pro quo contract, with a promise and a reward.  Rather they are a code of wisdom to live by.  In them Jesus invites us to break out of the narrow band-width that determines how most of us choose to live.  Jesus invites us to cast aside those conventional views of wealth and happiness, and he invites us to take a chance on life.  Only then will the payback be enormous, and we should experience it now.

If we learn to relish the presence of God now, in both the best and worst of times, then the Beatitudes will start to make sense.  They are the promise that we can meet God now, and we need not wait until the end of time.  They are also the promise that when we do finally see God face to face, there will be no surprises.  The God we will meet then will be somebody we’ve already met before.

23E2F208-80E1-497F-B262-5507B669BEF6NOTES

+On February 12th I flew from Minnesota to Naples, FL, where I visited friends of Saint John’s.  After days of cold and snow in Minnesota it came as a bit of a relief, though winter did not let go of me so easily.  The last act before driving to the airport included sweeping the latest six inches of snow from the car and navigating through snow-filled streets to get there.  All the same, several days of snow have left the Minnesota landscape just beautiful.

+Among the highlights of my visit in Naples was attendance at the Minnesota Men’s Breakast, which despite its name does welcome women. The speaker to the 400 gathered that day was Saint John’s alumnus General Paul Nakasone.  Paul commands U.S. Cyber Security and heads the National Security Agency.  His presentaiton was a real tour de force, and he fielded the technical questions adroitly.  I think everyone in the room felt better just knowing that someone like Paul managed such responsibilities.

+On February 16th I flew to Boston, where I had the opportunity to visit alumni of Saint John’s.  That said, the absolute highlight of the trip has been the chance to visit Jon and Beth, whom I’ve known for ages.  My friendship with Jon goes back to school days in New Haven, and years later I presided at their wedding.  It was great to see them again.

+In a chronicle one normally talks about events in the past, but I’ll violate that rule by noting that today I will go to Kennebunk, ME, for lunch with an alumnus.  Then tomorrow I will leave for Amman, Jordan, where I will join members of the Order of Malta from California on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  I’ve not been there for a long time, and please say a prayer that all goes well.

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The Lord Presents Himself to Us

I’ve always loved the Canticle of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke chapter 2.  It’s the joyful confession of a just and elderly man as he holds the infant Jesus in his arms.  It’s a day he probably never thought he would see, and yet it had come to pass.

This passage is familiar to any and all who pray compline, the final prayer in the daily cycle of the liturgy of the hours.  It’s also a favorite prayer at the end of funerals, and we monks sing it to a chant that is hauntingly beautiful for the ability of the music to support the words.  “At last you may let your servant depart in peace” is what Simeon says to God, and in our funerals those words reinforce the drama of what we are doing.  We sing them at the moment in which we begin to let go of a brother who has been part of our community for most of a lifetime.  It’s both a sad and happy moment, when we give our brother back to the God who had so kindly given him to us years earlier.

The Presentation of Jesus in the temple is a full and rich story that taps into the emotions of many.  Simeon is overwhelmed as he holds in his arms the savior for whom he had prayed for who knows how long.  Anna gives thanks to God as well.  She had witnessed to the power of God to sustain her as a widow and prophetess through most of her life.  But now she’s seen her visions fulfilled.

88A1EEFA-CFEB-4159-835D-BC2E17FFE2A6Finally, it’s Joseph and Mary who intrigue me most.  What ideas were churning in the minds of this naive young couple as each stepped cautiously into the precincts of the temple?  And the words they heard about their son had to be a little unnerving.  How did Simeon and Anna know about their son?  How could they say those odd things about him?  And certainly not least among their worries, who was this child to whom Mary had given birth?

All of this speaks to the power of Jesus to touch their lives and ours as well.  Like Anna and Simeon, we look for the coming of the Lord into our lives.  And sometimes we wait, and we wait, thinking God has neglected or forgotten us.  And then, just when it seems too late or impossible, the Lord does appear, right beside us.

And as for any advice that Joseph and Mary might have for us, I’d like to think it would go something like this.  Never underestimate the power of God to surprise us.  Never stop wondering what God has called us to do or to be.  Never assume that God has given up on us.  And never doubt for a moment that God has something amazing in mind for us to do.  For as surely as the Lord was presented in the temple, so the Lord will present himself to us.

2A705A92-73AF-4FD3-8260-EF6ACCABC757NOTES

+On January 28th I presided at Mass in Saint Dominic’s Church in San Francisco.  The occasion was a gathering of members of the Order of Malta, at which one of our colleagues made his promise of Obedience.

+On January 29th I flew back to Minnesota in order to host a visitor to Saint John’s who was flying in from St. Louis.  Unfortunately I got back just in time to enjoy the worst cold weather that we’ve experienced in twenty years, and that same cold put off to another time the visit of my friend.  I never made it back to Saint John’s, but thankfully for three days I did enjoy the warm hospitality of some friends of mine in Minneapolis.

+On February 2nd I gave a retreat day as part of the preparation for provisional members of the Order of Malta.  The event took place at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, and the investiture will take place in Los Angeles in June.  Today’s post is the homily that I gave that day, which happened to be the feast of the Presentation.

+On February 3rd I made it home to Saint John’s in time to catch the last bit of our annual Super Bowl party.  Each year the monks on the formation floor of the monastery host the rest of us for an informal buffet.  It’s always a nice occasion, no matter who wins the game.

+At the top of the post is Mary Presents Jesus at the Temple, by Giovanni Bellini, housed in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.  Everywhere you turn in Venice the neighborhoods seem to be works of art in themselves, as the other photos in today’s post suggest.  Though it’s been years since I’ve been to Venice, the memories are warm and fresh.

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Thank you Russell Baker!

I lost a good friend last week.  Russell Baker was for years a feature writer for The New York Times, and I was saddened to read of his passing.

I never met Mr. Baker, but all the same I once decided to write to let him know that he saved my sanity during a summer in Spain.  I was in the city of León, doing dissertation research, and for two and a half months I neither heard nor spoke a word of English.  Mr. Baker’s column, filled with wit and whimsy and rendered in beautifully-crafted English, was my lifeline to the world I had left behind.

León was a bit of a backwater back then, and Americans had not really discovered it yet. Like much of Spain, León was still trying to figure out how to behave in the aftermath of Francisco Franco.  In America we had timely announcements from Saturday Night Live, reassuring us that Francisco Franco was still dead.  But many in Spain were not so sure.  That may explain one thing that unnerved me on my first day in León:  copies of Mein Kampf were on sale at a few of the book stalls.

f7c78cfc-5686-49f2-aaf4-6b47fc95a03aI survived my time in León thanks to the hospitality of the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Santa María de Carvajal.  Their warmth was my haven in an unfamiliar culture, but my guest room did come with a price.  First, the nuns locked the front gate at 5 pm.  That meant that I could not enjoy the evening paseo that is the custom in Spain.  My room also looked out over a small plaza that included a noisy bar.  Five nights a week it belted out American country music, a genre for which I had not yet acquired a taste.  But two and a half months of it led to a change of heart.  After all, it was a touch of home, and I also saw it as the harbinger of change in León.  Hitler could never win against country music.

By the end of my first week in León I was desperate to speak some English, but it was a full month before I finally spied my chance.  Across the plaza mayor was an American couple, and I knew so because of his powder-blue leisure suit and her lime-green pant suit.  100% authentic polyester, if I’m not mistaken.  They clutched each other for dear life, while the Leonese stared as if they had come to announce the circus.  That was the day when I realized that dignity was more important than my need to speak English.  So I walked on by, hoping that everyone would take me for a Leonese.

That’s the context for the deep affection that I developed for Russell Baker and his writing.  His column appeared in The International Herald, and only one newsstand in León carried it.  So early each day I threaded my way through the narrow streets to buy one of its two copies.  But one day I was too late, and I came up short.  Some tourist must have snapped up the second copy, and I was devastated.  It was like losing a friend.

Today León is a lively and beautiful city, due in part to its niche on the revived Camino to Santiago.  Tourists and pilgrims now crowd the streets, and the news stalls bulge with an array of lurid magazines that are enough to raise Francisco Franco from the dead.  But a copy of Mein Kampf cannot be had.  Nor will you see pastel-hued leisure suits.  Just as I had foreseen, country music was indeed the death of it all.

8e465faf-a438-4089-868f-3a7787d17949With news of the passing of Mr. Baker, I must own up to one sin of omission.  I should have written him years ago, just as I had intended.  I should have told him what a good friend he became to me that summer.  I should have told him how I savored all his delicious turns of phrases and delighted whenever he plucked from his memory just the right underused word.  He was an artist in words, and he was the consummate gentleman when dealing with people who did not share his views.  He was the picture of civility, and with that he was generous to a fault.

The latter is one of two takeaways for me.  First, it’s never a good idea to trash people with whom I disagree.  I’m always amazed to recall that there are still ample supplies of civility and courtesy in storage, so there’s plenty to go around.  It does me no good to hoard them, and it’s better to give them away.

Second, I should never wait to thank people for their kindness until after they’ve died.  By that point it no longer does them much good.  On the other hand, it’s never too late for me.  Clearly, someone of the stature of Russell Baker didn’t need to hear my thanks all those years ago.  But I still feel the need to give them.  So here’s to you, Russell Baker!  Thank you for being a creative genius with your words.  And thanks for an amazing summer together in Spain.

a3330c18-9aef-430f-b23a-d369181b8c71NOTES

+On January 23rd I attended a talk delivered by Zach Vertin, who graduated from Saint John’s University in 2005.  Since graduation he has worked in the foreign service and spent considerable time in South Sudan, about which he has written his first book.  Today Zach is a lecturer at my alma mater, Princeton University, and he is a fellow at the Brookings Institution.  I’m always amazed at the prodigious accomplishment of such youngsters and wonder what in the world they can do for an encore.

+On January 26th I was in Atherton, CA, where I gave a morning session to incoming members of the Order of Malta of the Western Association.  I spoke on the history of the Order and the development of its mission in the course of 900 years.

+Alas, I searched my photo files to find something to show what a lovely city León is, but the cupboard was bare.  So I pulled up the file for Valladolid, which is located to the southeast of León.  The Museo Nacional de Escultura has some remarkable items, including sculptures of three of the evangelists, sitting at their desks besieged by writer’s block.  They were carved in the first quarter of the 16th century by Felipe Vigarny (d. 1542).  (Click on the photos to savor the fine detail.)  The photos at top and bottom show the façade and the cloister of the Museo, a former monastery.

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Dinner Guests from the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BA9617E4-BED2-47BD-9427-74FB7BCD8A6FNOTES

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

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

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

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

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Who Is My Neighbor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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