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Posts Tagged ‘Order of the Holy Sepulchre’

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Staring Down the Darkness

If you want to know what tranquility looks and feels and sounds like, then a good place to start is a ruined English abbey.  Set in remote corners in parklike settings, many of them ooze peace and quiet, and they are reminders of what life was like before the industrial revolution.

There aren’t many places in the first world where people can escape the grip of industrial noise.  But there are those few moments when technology loosens its grip and we are left to our own devices to cope.  Just such an experience happened to me last Friday.  That afternoon I had flown to Irvine, CA, and the next day I was scheduled to give a retreat conference to members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  As I sat down to dinner in the hotel cafe, it happened.  The lights flickered and for a moment civilization hung in the balance.  Then the Middle Ages returned.  There were no lights, no whirring machines, and no power to open the doors.  Then I and my fellow diners began to discover just how gently electrical power coddles us.  The elevator would not take me back to my room on the tenth floor.  There was no air-conditioning.  And those who dined after us were treated to cold cuts and snacks.

BC61C80E-BD07-4DF9-86C1-4A064247873AWhat surprised me was my reaction to the absence of light.  At 6 pm, when all of this started, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  At that point the sun still shone brightly, but its gradual setting stirred me into a panic.  I had reserved most of the evening for some work, but then it dawned on me that when the sun went down the work would have to stop.  There would only be the primordial darkness.

Like monks had done for hundreds of years, I went to bed when the sun set.  There was nothing else to do.  Then I remembered that I am an early riser, and I prayed that the power would return by 3 am.  It didn’t.

When I woke up at 3 am my worst workaholic fears came true.  There was no point in getting up.  Short of a miracle it would be pitch dark until the sun rose just before 6 am.  So for three hours I stayed in bed, eyes wide open, staring at the darkness, waiting for something to happen.

For most of monastic history — and human history for that matter — monks lived in sync with the cycle of the days and the changing of the seasons.  They got by partially because they never saw electricity coming, so they didn’t know what they were missing anyway.  But still they coped, and one way to thumb their noses at the darkness was to recite the psalms of the night office by memory.  For the most part, however, they simply adapted because they could not control their environment.  It controlled them.

02878F3F-DB79-4FCF-827B-BBB5E5363008Of course electricity changed all that.  Still, twelve hours without it made me wonder whether we even realize what we’ve lost.  For one night I had to measure my steps because in my own room I couldn’t see where I was going.  There was neither radio nor television to keep me entertained, no light for reading, and my iPad could offer no solace because it was running low on juice.  The dimly-lit lobby could have been a haven, but the thought of having to climb ten flights of stairs to get back up was a real disincentive.  So I was left to settle in with my thoughts for company and with senses that were suddenly alert to even the faintest of sounds.

What surprises me most is that I’m grateful for the experience.  I discovered that I could live without access to light at the flick of a switch.  I could get around without an elevator, and I could make do with my thoughts as my only companion.  Life was possible, even without an iPad or a cell phone.  Who would have thought?!  In retrospect it almost seems like a revelation straight from the Almighty.

B20FFE5B-3C37-4640-A930-7DBBD4F2DA08NOTES

+As the final weeks of summer rush on us, we’ve hosted a variety of groups at Saint John’s, and this week our featured guests were the members of the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  Every August they come for a one-week camp, and it’s always fun to listen as their music wafts across campus.  Also at Saint John’s this summer have been members of three seminars at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  Hosted in partnership with Dumbarton Oaks, the Byzantine research institute sponsored by Harvard University, we’ve marveled at scholars who would spend a chunk of their summer studying Armenian, Syriac and Coptic paleography.

+On 2 August I flew to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA.  Four hours after I landed an electrical fire in a transformer closed the airport and cut the power to the hotel where I happened to be staying.  I later heard that we were the lucky ones.  Our power was out for twelve hours.  Other neighbors lost it for two days.

+On 3 August I gave a conference at a retreat for Orange County members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  The event took place at Saint Thomas More Parish in Irvine.

+The photo at top is the view of sunset from my hotel window in Irvine CA, shortly before everything went dark.  The other photos in today’s post show the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, at the edge of York in the UK.

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IMG_1637God’s Sense of Humor

My confrere’s vocational story was not typical of most of our monks a few years ago, but I suspect it is a hint of things to come.  After college he decided to volunteer as a lay minister in a diocese far from his home and college.  He really had no idea what he wanted to do, but a religious vocation was about as far from his mind as a trip to the moon.  Still, a stint as a volunteer would buy some time as he tried to sort things out.

He showed up at his parish assignment and met with the pastor, who seemed nice enough.  For the next few days he began to acquaint himself with the lay of the land, and that’s when it began to dawn on him that he might be in the wrong place.  One morning, in the middle of a long chat with the pastor about the confirmation program, it hit him.  Without much thought he blurted out:  “I’m not sure I believe in all this stuff.”  To which the pastor replied:  “Well, sometimes we all have to do things we don’t believe in.”  That was when he realized that the pastor thought that the comment was about the right age for confirmation.  Aghast at the misunderstanding, the young volunteer didn’t have the heart to say that he couldn’t care less about the proper age for confirmation.  His doubts were about God.  Simply put, he wasn’t sure that he could believe in God.

IMG_1655One year stretched into four, and finally it was time to make a decision about the next stage of his life.  It was time to move on, but to where?  That was when he ran across a blurb about a program at Saint John’s Abbey, in which he could spend a few weeks living and working with the monks, with no questions asked.  It seemed like the perfect moment for an extended retreat to sort things out.

He applied and was accepted, and then one day the director of the program called with bad news.  They had accepted sixteen, but there was room for only fifteen, “and you are the only one in the group who has no interest at all in a monastic vocation.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond, but he decided not to take the bait.  It wasn’t his fault that they had too many people coming.  If they didn’t want him, then they were going to have to say so, explicitly, in words.  So he sat there with phone in hand, silent, waiting for the next shoe to drop.  And he waited.  And finally came the voice from the other end:  “Well, I suppose there’s always room for one more.”

IMG_1682In his Rule Saint Benedict advises that entry into the monastery should never be easy.  In this case it wasn’t exactly a warm welcome, though it’s important to note that this guy had no interest in becoming a monk anyway.  That said, for twenty years now he’s been a monk at Saint John’s, and he’s a self-described “ardent evangelist for the Lord.”  In fact, he’s a much-beloved pastor in one of the parishes that monks of the abbey serve.

I recount all this precisely because his vocational story seemed unconventional years ago.  He left college with doubts about God and no clue about his own future, and now he’s in a spot that never in a million years did he imagine for himself.  And as unusual as his story may have been a generation ago, it’s the story of many who find their way to God today.

Therein we find hope for ourselves.  I’ve met not a few parents and grandparents who worry themselves sick about their children and grandchildren.  And a further sign of the times are those who worry about their parents and grandparents, and their apparent lack of a religious anchor.  Naturally it’s disturbing for some to see relatives and friends who seem not to know God; and their worry reflects genuine love and concern.

Still, a bit of caution is in order here.  We should never give up on those who lack a religious foundation, but we should never try to railroad them into some sort of commitment to God.  The latter never works.

IMG_1678On the other hand, there are things we can do.  We can pray for others.  We can strive to live useful and noble lives.  We can show by our own happiness and our own love of others what God has done to transform our lives.

Then we should leave the rest to God.  Like a mother cat with kittens, God sometimes picks people up by the scruff of their neck and carries them off to God-knows-where.  And along the way of these unplanned pilgrimages the Lord opens up vistas and opportunities that people never anticipated.

So it’s important that we care about others and do what we can do to help; but then we need to get out of the way.  We have to let God do the whispering and nudging that changes a life.  Be assured that if we do our part, then God will someday produce results that can be stunning surprises.  Just ask my confrere, who’s still amazed at what the Lord has done for him.

Ironically, my confrere came to the monastery with absolutely zero intention of becoming a monk.  But God had other plans.  Today, of the original sixteen, he’s one of two who are professed monks.  Say what you will, but God certainly has a great sense of humor.

IMG_1712Notes

+Last week the monks of Saint John’s Abbey were on retreat.  Coincidentally, there was a group of 500 Buddhists at Saint John’s University for a two-week silent retreat.  As one would expect, they have been the best of guests, and their ability to keep silence puts us monks to shame.  In addition, participants in the US Catholic Conference Roman-Catholic/Methodist religious dialogue held their discussions at the abbey guesthouse for several days last week.

+On May 31st I attended the annual dinner of the Minnesota area members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  That evening we welcomed the new archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Archbishop Bernard Hebda.  The event took place in Mendota Heights, MN.

+On June 1st I went to Malvern Retreat House, just outside of Philadelphia, where I have been giving conferences at a five-day retreat for members of the Order of Malta.  I spoke to this group four years ago, and it has been pleasant to be back and see many long-time friends.  On a side note the grounds of the retreat house are just wonderful.

IMG_1692+On June 2nd our confrere, Brother Paul Fitt, passed away after a long illness.

+As the enclosed photos suggest, summer has come to stay at Saint John’s.  The landscape has been lush and green, and it has been a feast for the eyes to be outside and enjoy the soft green colors of spring.

 

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IMG_0548Behold the Lowly Shrub

Several years ago I travelled to the Holy Land with a group of members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  It was a great pilgrimage, and I was especially thrilled that we were able to visit Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.  Saint Catherine’s has been there almost forever, and most everything about the place touches both the heart and the imagination.  For starters, to visitors the high walls that enclose the monks can seem forbidding, but they are curiously inviting too.  That day they suggested that we were about to enter an extraordinary place; and on that day the walls did not disappoint.

Saint Catherine’s impacts people in different ways, and naturally my reactions weren’t those of most others in our group.  What dazzled me in particular were the icons.  Among them are perhaps the oldest in the Christian world.  To my surprise, however, they impressed me less as historical artifacts and more as windows into the sacred.  The same was true for the venerable church that enshrined them.  Used to electric lighting as I was, the oil lamps that hung throughout the space were quite exotic.   And they were doubly so, because for centuries they have witnessed the daily prayers of the monks.

IMG_0537If there was a disappointment that day it was the bush that grew in the spot where tradition says God spoke with Moses.  Of course I can appreciate the encounter with the sacred that Moses had experienced.  After all, that has forever fixed Mount Sinai in our collective imagination.  I can also appreciate shrubs and trees as much as the next guy, and that day I did give that bush credit for clinging to life in such a desolate landscape.  Still, the prospect of that bush left me indifferent, and I was surprised as I reflected on my own reaction.

All of this came rushing to consciousness this weekend because on the 3rd Sunday of Lent we read the account of Moses on Mount Sinai, as told in Exodus 3.  It was this latest reading that for some reason forced me to revise my earlier view about that lowly shrub.

For all of recorded history people have demanded extravagant signs from God, generally for the purpose of making the leap of faith a little less risky.  If only God would do the uniquely spectacular, then I would cast aside my hesitation.  Belief would then be easy.  In fact, belief would come with a guarantee.  Is that really so much to ask?

Two things, at least, make this impractical from God’s point of view.  First, if we forced God to jump through our hoops with larger-than-life signs, then that would change the fundamental relationship with God.  In short order God would become a colleague with whom we do deals, and God would no longer be the mysterious author of our lives.  And beyond that, this would demand too much of God.  God respects our freedoms — our freedom to love, our freedom to hope, our freedom to believe.  Take those freedoms away and we are no longer the people whom God created in the divine image.  Despite our frailties, God loves us as we were first created.

IMG_0539Beyond that God prefers to reach out to us in more prosaic ways rather than through blockbuster signs and wonders.  Coincidentally, this fits naturally with our normal inclinations.  Of course we share with the Romans a love of bread and the circus; but like them we too grow bored and fall back on the elemental urge to love and be loved.  Not surprisingly, God reaches out to meet us at least halfway when it comes to love.

Given all that, if we ever wish that God would craft a special approach to us, it’s important to realize that God does this all the time.  So it is that God reaches out through those around us who take joy in the gift of life.  God touches us in the innocence of the child and in the person who will soon pass on but for now is concerned to make every minute count. God inspires us in the panorama of creation.  And finally, God touches our souls through prayer and in the liturgy and in the reading of his word.

IMG_0543It would be a mistake to conclude that the encounter on Mount Sinai was enough to sustain Moses for a lifetime.  It wasn’t, and for forty years in the desert Moses had to look for God in the more mundane affairs of life.  Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson we have to learn from Moses.  Peak experiences are wonderful, but they are no way to live.  Eventually Moses had to climb back down from Mount Sinai and get on with the business of life.

Many years later I now have to give a lot more credit to that shrub that clings to life on the slopes of Mount Sinai.  It might have been a royal treat to see that shrub all ablaze and left intact, as Moses got to see it.  But when all is said and done, that’s a poor symbol for the lives that most of us have to lead; and God reserves that kind of spectacle for only the few.

In that shrub I beheld the ordinary, and years ago I was disappointed.  I now understand my reaction, and it helps explain why I had zero desire to live the rest of my life on Mount Sinai.  And perhaps that might be one of the lessons to draw from our Lenten wanderings.  Peak experiences can be wonderful, but the business of life begins when we descend from the mountain to behold the reality of the divine in all of God’s creation.

IMG_0542Notes

+On February 24th I had class in monastic history, with our novice.

+On February 25-26 I participated in the winter meetings of the Board of  Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On February 26th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrated the Mass of Christian burial for our confrere Fr. Thomas Thole.  Fr. Tom was a remarkable individual who taught in the University for many years.  He was especially revered by the many international students to whom he was an advisor and mentor.  In the new University Learning Commons, currently under construction, there will be the Fr. Thomas Thole Technology Center, made possible by the generosity of many of his grateful students.

+On February 27-28 our confrere Fr. Lew gave a retreat at the Abbey guesthouse, in conjunction with the Arboretum.  With an emphasis on the chance to ski and to enjoy the winter landscape, it all seemed like a great idea when it was scheduled last fall.  But a high of 61 degrees on Saturday helped to finish off a lot of the snow, and the retreat had to morph into something slightly different.

+The pictures in today’s post come from the new cathedral in Madrid.  When I was there on sabbatical many years ago it was far from being completed.  Still, every Sunday for a semester I concelebrated Mass in Spanish in the unfinished cathedral.  I have to say I like it better now.

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IMG_0145Epiphany: A Way of Life

[I delivered the following sermon at the Abbey Mass on the feast of the Epiphany.]

Several years ago I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with some members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Like everybody else, I was moved by the experience of the holy city of Jerusalem and its church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The same was true for the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  But oddly enough, and to my great surprise, it was not those places that struck my imagination most deeply.  That big jolt was reserved for a Coptic church which we visited in the old city of Cairo.

That church had originally been a pagan temple, built years before the birth of Jesus.  Sometime in the 4th century it was recycled into Christian use, and inside was a shrine to the holy family.  Local tradition held that it was to that very neighborhood that the holy family had come to find refuge.  It was in that neighborhood, most likely Jewish, where somebody reached out and offered hospitality to an impoverished and frightened couple and their child.  It was then that it struck me.  If any of the local tradition was true, then I was inside one of the few buildings anywhere that Joseph, Mary and Jesus had lain eyes upon.  Conceivably that building had been part of their experience, and now it was part of mine.  That Coptic church tangibly connected me to the holy family in a way that nothing in Jerusalem did.

IMG_0146On the feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God’s son to the peoples of the world.  Often we cast this feast in a sugary vision of magi visiting a manger in a cave.  It’s a wonderfully tranquil scene, and all seems calm and all seems bright.  It reinforces those words from the Roman Martyrology that affirm that Jesus was born when the whole world was at peace.

As lovely as that scene might be, the adoration of the magi hints at storm clouds on the horizon.  King Herod is anxious about his throne, and the magi are suspicious of his motives.  As for Joseph and Mary, dark rumors disturb their joy, and soon enough they are off to Egypt, with no idea of when or if they will ever return.  So it is that Mary had one more thing to ponder in her heart.  What might her son become someday, if he even lived to become an adult?

IMG_0378_2At Epiphany Jesus makes his first appearance on the world stage.  No longer is his birth a matter for Joseph and Mary and a few shepherds, because the circle is now set to expand.  Soon enough it includes Herod in his palace and draws in sages from a distant land.  Soon enough Jesus then meets those who gave them aid in Egypt.  And in time he touches his disciples, and the crowds that hung on his words, and the leaders who plot out his death.  In short, Mary had good reason to consider the words of Simeon, who prophesied that Jesus would cause the rise and fall of many in Israel.

At Christmas it’s easy to get caught up in the naive imagery of the manger and forget that Jesus came to be about his father’s business.  It’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary and Jesus were political exiles who fled for their lives.  It’s easy to forget that someday Jesus would be a convicted felon and would suffer capital punishment by order of the state.  It’s easy — and convenient — to forget that Jesus puts a fundamental challenge to each of us who hear and read and meditate on his words.  Inherent in the feast of the Epiphany is the challenge that demands some sort of life-changing response from us.

IMG_0379_2Ultimately that’s what I took away from my visit to the Coptic church in Cairo.  2,000 years ago some people in the local Jewish community consciously chose to extend hospitality to three people who sought asylum in a strange land.  Those people likely had no idea who it was they helped, but they reached out anyway, and helped three pe0ple who turned out to be heaven-sent.

So what do we take with us from the feast of the Epiphany?  First is the realization that Jesus made his first appearances as a helpless child, and then he was a political exile and an immigrant.  Only later do we know him as teacher and the one who died for our sins.

Second, Jesus still appears to us, but he does so now in the faces of all sorts of people.  He’s in the faces of the poor child, the immigrants, and the asylum seekers.  He’s also seen in the faces of all those in distress and in those whose lives seem to be going well.  In short, Jesus does this to remind us that all are created in the image of God.  And by all he means all, not some.

IMG_0234_2Finally, what might we as monks take away from the feast of the Epiphany?  Given the Rule of Saint Benedict that we’ve chosen to follow, it seems to me that Epiphany has been designed especially for us.  Saint Benedict teaches that we are privileged to see Christ both in our confreres and especially in our guests.  He also reminds us that we’ll never run out of guests, suggesting that the experience of “God with us” is never-ending.  And so it is that we welcome into our lives our visitors in the guesthouse, our students and colleagues, and all who come to pray with us.

For monks and for all Christians, then, Epiphany is not meant to be seasonal entertainment.  It’s a way of life.  Epiphany is what we ought to experience every day as we rub elbows with the people whom God sends into our lives.  And it’s an experience that we take one step further as we gather around this altar to experience the “Lord with us” in his body and blood.  Let us pray today and every day that we continue to see the Epiphany of Christ, in ways imagined and surprising, both now and forever.  Amen.

IMG_0230_2Notes

+On December 31st, following evening prayer, we monks gathered to usher in the new year.  By tradition I and the monks on my floor in the monastery host the event, which includes card and board games, refreshments, and wonderful conversation.  At 9:00 pm, again by long-standing tradition, Brother Dennis and his helpers bring in pizza which they have made from scratch.  By  midnight the crowd has thinned out considerably, but the new year comes anyway.

+On January 2nd I attended the home basketball game between Saint John’s and Saint Mary’s University (MN).  I’d not been to a basketball game in ages, and it was nice to be there to see the good guys win.

+On January 3rd I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+The photos in today’s post begin with the magi as they progress toward the manger scene in the abbey church (top two.)  Then follow two stained glass windows from the abbey of Reichenau in Germany, which I visited a couple of years ago.  In the final two photos is The Nativity by Petrus Christus, ca. 1450, and The Presentation in the Temple, by the Master of the Prado, ca. 1470.  Both are housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

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imagePosition Opening: Peacemaker

Given the constant flow of screaming headlines, you’d think there’d be a high demand for peacemakers.  With all the shrill rhetoric about the need to resolve a myriad of disputes, you’d naturally assume that mediators could command princely fees, plus a hefty bonus once peace had broken out.  But alas, they don’t; and the reason is quite simple.  As long as people cling to the smallest shred of hope for victory, peacemakers are as welcome as the plague.

There’s a perverse irony to this, because war actually isn’t good for business.  No one in Europe made a lot from World War I, for example.  Nor did the Lebanese civil war boost the local economy all that much either.  And as far as I can tell, there have been few corporate sponsors for the strife in Syria.  In each instance two or three good peacemakers could have saved a lot of people an awful lot of money; but no one gave a thought to hiring them until it was way too late.  Where was the chamber of commerce when people needed it?

imageWhen Jesus blessed the peacemakers in our midst, you can bet he meant to include more than just the professionals.  Of course Jesus would be happy were international peace to erupt spontaneously; but he’d never be entirely satisfied until such peace filtered down to the local level.  Not until peace reigned in our hearts and in our homes would Jesus be at peace himself — at least that’s my theory.

When it comes to being peacemakers on the local level, many of us stall out.  We simply don’t know what in the world one person can do, and we generally have no idea where to start.  But of course there’s lots we can do, and perhaps it’s useful to consider what we ought not do.

For starters, it might be helpful to turn the words of Jesus inside out.  As near as I can tell, Jesus never said “blessed are the war-mongers.”  Nor did he ever bless “those who sow strife and try to get on people’s nerves.”  Nor did he ever praise those who deliberately press other people’s buttons to get them all riled up.  Certainly not blessed are those who walk into a roomful of people and immediately raise their hackles.  No, that’s not the sort of person Jesus had in mind when he thought of peacemakers.

imageIf these words describe the non-peacemakers in broad strokes, I’m sure all of us can embellish them with detail from our personal experience, or at least from hearsay.  To carry it further, we aren’t peacemakers when we spread malicious gossip, nor when we chip away at people behind their backs.  We aren’t peacemakers when we play one person off against another, nor when we undermine someone’s self-confidence.  When we leave people fearful and in doubt and paranoid, we definitely are not peacemakers.  What we’ve really done is to gather tinder and all but put the match to it.

Put positively, being a war-monger sounds like a ton of work, and frankly it can be a pretty dangerous business.  There’s always the risk that we can get burned.  Worse still, we can get sucked in and become a participant in the war we merely wanted to watch and enjoy.  But it is, in my opinion, far more prudent to take the road of the peacemaker.  It may not seem very entertaining to see our friends and neighbors getting along, but it’s certainly a lot safer for us.

imageThis last weekend Pope Francis hosted leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, as well as Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.  There’s no denying that there were times when none of their predecessors got along; and to say that two in their number still don’t see eye to eye is putting it mildly.  Given all that, the invitation that Pope Francis extended to come to Rome and pray must have seemed laughable to many.  After all, if war and hate can’t achieve peace, what good could prayer possibly do?

Two things struck me as I eyed the video from the gardens of the Vatican.  First, two sworn enemies were enjoying an hour or so of peace.  Did they enjoy it?  Was the taste of peace enough to whet their appetite for more?  Second, there were two long-time rivals who have long since made peace, and all because of prayer.  For nine hundred years and more, pope and patriarch were bitter foes.  But for fifty years they’ve enjoyed a peace that the world cannot give.  Prayer brought Paul VI and Athenagoras together, and this weekend two friends — Francis and Bartholomew — showed two implacable foes that it can be done.  I hope that wasn’t lost on anyone.

imageConventional wisdom says that if you don’t like war, then fight harder to bring it to an end.  If you don’t like your neighbors, then irritate them some more and maybe they’ll move away.  And if you don’t like people in the office or in your family, then bug the heck out of them until they avoid you like the plague.

But when all else fails, and all that hard work is for naught, then extend the olive branch of peace.  If it fails to work, you’ve really lost nothing.  If it does work, you’ll be the big winner.  And you’ll know finally what Jesus meant when he said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

imageNotes

+Early last week I received a letter announcing that the Grand Master and Sovereign Council had on 27 May created the Historical Institute of the Order of Malta, and had appointed me to the Commission for Research and Educational Programs.

+Last week the monks of Saint John’s Abbey held their annual retreat, under the direction of Sister Margaret Michaud, a Benedictine of our sister-house Saint Benedict’s Monastery.

+On June 5th I attended the annual dinner of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, held in Minneapolis.

image+On June 7th eight monks arrived at Saint John’s to spend two months with us in a program of English as a Second Language.   In the group is a retired abbot from Austria, two monks from the monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, one monk from our priory in Japan, one monk from the Philippines, and three Cistercian monks from an abbey in Vietnam.  Happily, we have confreres who can speak those languages; and we noted how appropriate it was that they arrived on the eve of Pentecost.  Their presence reminded us once again that the Church and the Order of Saint Benedict gather together peoples from all nations.

+On June 8th Fr. Brad celebrated the abbey Mass, his first with us as a newly-ordained priest.

+Spring has finally come in a big way, as the pictures in today’s post suggest.  Among the surprises was the blooming of the peonies on Pentecost.  Affectionately knows as the “Pentecost Rose,” they rarely bloom on their feast day at Saint John’s.  But in our gardens some of the white ones opened alongside the yellow iris, and elsewhere pink and red are just coming into their glory.

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1.Entrance to MdinaCourtesy: Not a Bad Policy

Mdina is one of those towns people don’t visit often, if ever.  Perched in the middle of the island of Malta, on its highest point, it has a commanding view of both the island and the sea that isolates it from the rest of the world.  Through much of Malta’s history Mdina served as the capital as well as the main bastion for defense.  Even after the arrival of the Knights of Malta in 1530, it continued to be the seat of the archbishop.  From there both the archbishops as well as the Maltese natives cast wary eyes at the Knights, who ruled from their port city of Valletta.  Relations were not always good; and when spats arose, it fell to the Roman Inquisitor to mediate the peace.

Today Mdina is a sleepy town, but it remains an architectural jewel.  Around every corner is  a lovely palace or church, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in its narrow streets.

2.Red DoorLast May I visited Malta with several members of the Order of Malta, and Mdina was the surprise of the tour.  We should have budgeted more time for the town, and we left wanting more.  But we made the most of it, including a pause for lunch at a sidewalk cafe.  Lunch did double duty, since it opened out from a stately  sixteenth-century palace.

The service was prompt but unhurried, and when the bread and water had appeared on the table, the waiter made the rounds to take our order.  When he came to me he stopped, smiled, and politely observed: “You were in Lourdes last week, weren’t you.”

Taken aback, all I could sputter out was “well, yes.  As a matter of fact, I was.”

“I thought so,” he answered.  “I saw you at the Mass in the underground basilica.”

3.Cathedral AlleyThis may sound like no big deal, but there were 20,000+ of us at that Mass, including over 250 priests and bishops.  Since I hadn’t gone berserk or made a spectacle of myself that day, I wondered how in the world he could have noticed me in that vast crowd.

Then we put it all together.  As the clergy filed into the basilica, there was the equivalent of a  human traffic jam, and for five minutes we stood stock still while the ushers untangled the front end of the procession.  With nothing to do, I could have made catty remarks about the organizers.  Instead, I struck up a pleasant conversation with a woman from Washington, DC, who was seated on the aisle.  Our new friend, the waiter, was right behind her.  So of course he could remember me, if he so chose.

It was a remarkable coincidence to run into him a few days later, and a few hundred miles away.  And it made me extremely grateful that I had followed one of my working principles that Sunday in Lourdes:  “never throw snits in front of strangers.”  Those snits can come back to haunt you.

4.Street sceneMore than a few books and movies have featured people who were absolute jerks to others, only to discover later on that the person they had insulted was their future boss or mother-in-law.  Or he was the guy about to park  your brand new car.  Or the waiter who was about to balance hot soup over your lap.  We borrow a phrase from literature to describe such situations, and the term is “poetic justice.”  Thankfully, there was no need for poetic justice in Mdina that afternoon.

For those who travel a lot, and even for those who don’t, life has plenty of frustrations.  People can be quite pretentious in their demands, and others can be downright rude, whether on the highway or in a line or wherever.  The fact is, there are plenty of opportunities to explode in righteous indignation; and the trick is to keep your cool and not have others shrink back in horror at your conniption.  Nor do you want to set others off with your own obnoxious behavior.  After all, it’s entirely possible that their fuses could be even shorter than yours.

5.palaceAs a modern reader I think of courtly behavior as a feature of a bygone era when people had little else to do but be nice.  But as a  medieval historian, I learned better.  Courtly behavior doesn’t come  naturally to people.  It is a code of manners designed to keep little spats from escalating into big wars.  Sure, people still fought duels over the most trifling breaches of etiquette, but courtly manners at least limited some of the violence and channeled it elsewhere.  And if you could restrict anger and voilence to a few hard-core cranks, then most everyone else would be a lot better off.

Courtesy provides many benefits.  Foremost among them is the value of keeping everyone around you relatively happy and sweet-tempered.  There also is a more altruistic motive for being courteous.  We should not overlook the possibility that most people actually do deserve our respect.  Whether they are having bad or good days, they should get the benefit of the doubt.  Besides, one good word or act of courtesy might very well make the difference in their lives that day.

One friend who volunteers in a soup kitchen once confided that he doesn’t derive all that much joy from handing out food.  But what he loves to do is smile to each person who comes through the line.  The smile costs him absolutely nothing, but it may very well be the only smile those people will see that day.  It could mean the world to them.

6.SquareAs for the waiter in Mdina, we had a great lunch, served by his hands.  He showed us pictures of his wife and two kids, and we posed for new ones to add to the collection.  We are now fast friends, or at least we will be when we meet up again in Lourdes next year.

I’m also glad we decided to give him a generous tip.  Three days later, on our last day in Malta, we sat down for breakfast at our hotel in Valletta.  As luck would have it, our friend from Lourdes and Mdina was again our waiter.  Everyone greeted him like a long lost friend, and he responded in kind.

7.Street scapeAs for me, once again I was astounded by the coincidence.  Like God, this guy seemed to be everywhere.  Thank goodness I had been on my best behavior the first time around.  You just can’t be too careful these days.  It’s a very small world, populated by some very nice people.

Notes

+On July 13th I attended a reunion of members of a pilgrimage to Poland and Ukraine that I was part of last August.  The gathering took place at the home of Dr. Tom and Mary Ann Okner in Sunfish Lake, MN.

+On July 15th I attened the funeral of Jack Kolb, at Saint Joseph Church in West Saint Paul, MN.  Jack and his wife Rajah are fellow members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and I’ve been privileged to know them for many years.  The funeral liturgy was topped off with a wonderful offering of incense, taken from the Maronite Rite, in which Rajah was raised.

+On July 17th I visited the dentist to prepare a broken tooth for a crown.  The most notable feature of the procedure was that I fell asleep while they were working on me.  That is a far cry from the days when I shrank in terror from any visit to any dentist.

+On July 19th through the 21st I delivered a retreat to the deacon-candidates and their spouses from the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT.  David Flynn, a good friend and alumnus from Saint John’s University, is preparing for ordination as a permanent deacon in Bridgeport.  I am grateful to him and his colleagues for the invitation.

+The pictures in today’s blog all come from Mdina in Malta.  They don’t begin to cover all the wonderful nooks and crannies of the place, but they give a hint of the city’s charm.

8.Moat

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photoJust Do It — But Not Just Yet

A couple of years ago I read a great piece on procrastination in The Week (14 January 2011, to be precise). It was a reprint of an article from The New Yorker; and, for whatever reason, the editors neglected to mention the name of the author. The reflection was fascinating, in part because I have the nagging suspicion that quite a lot of us contend with procrastination, myself included. So two years of mulling over the idea is about the right amount of time before putting pen to paper. And just because I’ve waited this long doesn’t mean I’ve been putting it off.

What stirred me to action was a fresh brush with the ill effects of procrastination in my own life. For upwards of five years and more I’ve complained about how cold my room can be in the winter, and the last few days have been particularly chilly. Now a reasonable person would ask if I had heat in my room, and if so, suggest that I turn it on. But a reasonable person wouldn’t know that my radiator has only two settings: “off” and “full-blast tropical.” I can choose between 62 degrees, which is just about right for sleeping, but my fingers turn blue at the desk. Or I can turn on the heat and know that it will shoot up to a sauna-like 85. I also know that it won’t go off until mid-August, no matter what I do to the thermostat. So to my mind it’s just easier to leave it off and complain about my lot in life. What could be better than to suffer, but not in silence?

Andries Pietersz van Souwen (1549/50-1624), Knight of Malta

Andries Pietersz van Souwen (1549/50-1624), Knight of Malta

Last week I drove with one of my confreres into Saint Cloud, to run some errands. It was a really really cold day (really), and I was going on about how cold my room was, and how I was thinking about getting a space heater. In fact, so serious was I, that I had been considering it for four years.

By now this litany had become a ritual for me, but my confrere showed neither interest nor sympathy. Actually, he must have questioned my sanity. He had just returned from graduate school two weeks earlier, and he too suffered in a frosty room. As we drove by one of those big-box stores, he stopped me in mid-sentence and suggested we go in and get heaters for our rooms. I was dumb-founded. “What? Now? But it’s way too cold today. Let me think about this some more.” Well, he would have none of that, and in we went.

photoIn the aftermath of his decisive action, all of my excuses for not getting a space heater melted away. There was, of course, a huge selection to choose from, and I mumbled that I wasn’t sure which one would be best for my room. “Here”, he said calmly yet firmly. “This is the one you want. Get it.” Then he grabbed the box from the shelf and tossed it into the cart.

My next fear was that they’d be expensive. They weren’t. I had also dreaded the instruction manual, and I feared having to master a forty-eight page booklet in Spanish, French, English and Mandarin. I have no patience for instructions.

If these were normal times, I would have hauled the crate home and set it aside for a week or two, just to get used to it. But these were not normal times. It really was cold, and I’d prepared myself for this day for four years — even if I never thought the day would actually come. Then I threw caution to the wind, ripped open the container, and gingerly eased the heater out of its nest of styrofoam and cardboard. Next, I ignored the instruction manual, plugged it in, and pressed the start button. It worked, and within an hour I had a pleasantly toasty room. It had all been so simple, simple enough for even someone like me.

Saint John the Baptist and the shield of Saint John.

Saint John the Baptist and the shield of Saint John.

This episode has caused me to rethink my tendency to procrastinate, because there are valuable lessons to be learned here. First off, we all pay a heavy price for this sort of behavior; because it often comes back to haunt us. Try and count up all the apologies we’ve had to issue for not doing things on time. Now consider for a minute how much fun it would be to finish everything ahead of schedule — all the time. Imagine the shock on people’s faces. That alone is worth a major change in behavior.

Next we should total up the amount of inconvenience and needless suffering we’ve endured because we push things off. Sure, for a while we can convince ourselves that prudence is the way to go. But more often than not we’re simply avoiding the difficult or the inevitable. Given that, sitting in a cold room seems rather pointless, especially if I could solve the problem in an instant. For such suffering there is no glory, and there’s no one to blame but me.

photoThe last take-away is that it’s never too cold to go out and buy a space heater. In fact, the coldest day is the best day to do it. Who wants to be seen carrying a big heater out of the store in July? People assume you’re too late for last winter, or mindlessly paranoid about next winter. No, by toting it out to the car on the coldest day of the year, I have crafted a new public image. In the face of terrific adversity, I was the one who took action. It was I who was undaunted by the cold, and I did the right — and the sensible — thing.  And I will be forever grateful that my confrere made me do it.

Hendrik van der Veere, Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. 1551.

Hendrik van der Veere, Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. 1551.

Various notes

+Last August I had the opportunity to visit the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, The Netherlands; and the pictures in today’s post come from there. The museum houses sacred art gathered from regional churches, but the buildings themselves are the star attraction for me. In the 16th and 17th centuries Saint Catharine’s served as a monastery/regional headquarters for the Order of Saint John, aka the Knights of Malta. The complex remains largely intact, and the galleries occupy spaces that once served as the dormitory, dining room, and administrative offices of the Order of Malta in Holland. The church remains a parish church today, and all the buildings are in an excellent state of preservation. It is well worth the visit to this lovely oasis, and it is only a short train-ride out of Amsterdam.

+Amish Mafia revisted: I received some wonderful email on my post on the Amish Mafia, and many readers who had seen snippets of the show were equally appalled. One reader mentioned a colony of Amish snow-birds in southwest Florida, which was a real surprise to me. A few brought to my attention several other freak shows, including one on the Hutterites. Frankly, I had not realized that communities of Hutterites still existed. Many of the founders of the Anabaptist groups came out of the Benedictine monasteries, which explains the communal/monastic organization of these groups.

photo+On January 25-27 I gave a three-day retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta. The retreat took place in Jacksonville, FL, and the weather was “not so bad”, as we might say in the dialect of Minnesota.

+On the afternoon of January 23rd the power on campus at Saint John’s went off, exactly twenty-two hours after I had plugged in my new space heater. There’s nothing more useless than an electrical appliance during a power outage. I still can’t believe I let myself get rushed into buying that thing.

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