Posts Tagged ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’


Don’t Be the Fattened Calf

Picture for a moment someone who has spent a lifetime building a small fortune.  He’s labored day in and day out.  He’s been responsible with his property and considerate of the people who had worked for him.  He’s planned and built not only for his own future but also for that of his children and grandchildren.

Then one day, out of the blue,  his youngest son comes along and asks for his share of everything.  Why? is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps he’s bored.  Perhaps he’s restless.  Perhaps he’s tired of life in the shadow of his father.  Anyway, his request is brazen, to say the least, and something tells me that the son never for a minute thought his father would really give it to him.  But he did;  and that set in motion the story of the prodigal son.

I have to wonder if the father was just a little bit nuts.  Had he taken leave of his senses?  Who knows.  But whatever the case, the son knew that he had just hit the jackpot.  What he didn’t know, however, was this.  He was just about to glimpse the wisdom of the old saw that warns us to be careful what we wish for.  It’s nice to get what we want;  but every now and again it turns out to be a very mixed blessing.

69DBE606-1CC5-4E66-A609-34A50DB9F669This great story from Jesus goes on to detail the adventures of a son who was about to learn an awful lot.  He now had more money than God, or so he thought.  He must have thought it would last forever, so there was nothing to do but enjoy.  But little by little he frittered it all away.  Soon enough it had all slipped through his fingers, and then he came face to face with reality.  He had no money;  nothing to eat;  and no one who cared enough to stand by him in time of trial.  Worse still, he had none of the discipline that had driven his father to succeed.  His father had made everything look easy;  and for the first time in his life the son may have realized just how great a man his father really was.

As I reflected on this parable and tried to read between the lines, it finally hit me that the father was neither naive nor unwise.  In fact, he knew his son and likely had seen this day coming for a long time.  After all, someone who had been such a careful planner and disciplined worker could not be blind to the faults in his two sons.  He knew what made them tick. He knew most of their strengths and weaknesses.  And he knew that his younger son still had a lot of growing up to do.  But the father couldn’t make his son grow up.  The son needed a semester or two in the school of hard knocks to learn it for himself.

The key ingredient to the success of this story is love.  If the father had loved his money more than his son, he might have turned his son down flat. But he saw potential in his son, and letting his son grow up was worth more than a bank vault full of gold.  So he literally invested in his son and turned him loose.  Then he kept his distance and from the sidelines he let his son make his fill of mistakes.  And finally the day came when his son came to his senses and came home.  It was the moment for which the father had waited for months or years.  He had his son back — with value added.

ED32442B-975F-4DA3-8211-7364DB345517There’s a host of intriguing characters in the parable of the prodigal son.  There’s almost too much to digest when you add in the father, the prodigal son, the jealous older brother, stewards and workers, and the chorus line of men and women who graciously relieved the younger son of all his money.  Over the years I’ve preached on many of the themes that they have suggested, and so I asked my confrere Fr. Lew who I should concentrate on in this sermon.  Should it be the father?  Or one of the two sons, as I’ve done in the past?  His reply?  “The fatted calf.  Nobody ever preaches about the fatted calf.”

I mulled that over for about a minute, and I realized he might be on to something.  That fatted calf was the truly tragic figure in the parable.  Worse still, he never had the self-awareness to see it coming.  But I finally ditched that topic and I’ll save it for next year.

As for the main characters in the story, each has a lesson to impart.  The older brother, hard-working and obedient, was also jealous and insecure in his father’s love.  Life for the older brother was really all about himself, and that’s no way to live.

As for the prodigal son, he learned some of life’s lessons the hard way.  We have to hope that he realized the importance of love over money.  Love transcends and transforms all — even the life of someone who knows he’s hit rock bottom.

7DEE7C17-BE94-43C9-BE07-586F57C0A883The biggest take-away for me is the extraordinary character of the father.  For him money wasn’t an end in itself, and he used it well.  Some may think he was blind to the failings of his son.  Others may think that perhaps he hoped to buy his son’s love by giving him everything he wanted.  But the father was way too shrewd to be taken in by his son’s façade.  He knew his son well, and he knew he’d be back — a changed man.

Two things I leave you with today.  God is our loving and seemingly too generous father.  God gave us life, and God let’s us live our lives freely, sins and all.  But God always waits for the day when it’s time for us to come home.  And God’s there to welcome us as a loving father.

Sooner or later all of us will step into the shoes of each of these characters in this parable.  We will all be the older brother, and let us pray for the insight to see how envy and jealousy can corrode all the good that is in us.  At times we’ll all be the prodigal son, and let us pray for the wisdom to realize that forgiveness is always there for the asking.  It’s forgiveness from God and from the neighbor we’ve sinned against.  It’s there for the taking, but we have to ask.  And sooner or later we’ll be called to be the loving parent who has to take a chance on a friend or neighbor.  Sometimes taking a chance on another person is a big risk.  But if we risk nothing, we get nothing.

And lastly, there’s this business of the fatted calf.  Don’t be the fatted calf.  There’s no future in being someone else’s lunch.  Instead, be self-aware.  Look ahead to see what’s coming down the road for you.  And above all, like the father of the prodigal son, live your life to the fullest.



+I’m happy to report that I did not get into my car a single time this week.  All the same, it got off to a busy start on Monday September 9th.  That day was the annual retreat for my department at Saint John’s University — the Office of Institutional Advancement.  I was responsible for the first hour of the retreat, and I enjoyed my presentation.  That said, I cannot speak for my colleagues.

+On September 10th the monks gathered in the wing of the Quadrangle that now houses most of the public offices of the Abbey.  It is space reclaimed from the student health center, which moved last year to another building on campus.  For the first time it provides us some meeting space for guests, as well as a delightful set of conference spaces.

+On Saturday September 14th, the feast of the Holy Cross, we had our monthly day of reflection in the monastery.  Joining us for part of the day were nine students from Saint John’s University, who had scheduled a “work and prayer” day in the monastery.  For work they joined some of the monks in digging potatoes in the garden.

F01C6458-1DC8-40E2-8D1D-B20AAC9527CF+On Sunday the 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon that I delivered.  It is based on Luke 15.  Later that evening I joined the students from Immokalee, FL, who are studying at Saint John’s University.  This year we have five freshmen, bringing the total number of students from Immokalee to eleven.

+The photos in today’s post are a mixture that I took on Sunday evening as I wandered about campus.  I stumbled on one of the choirs lined up in preparation for taking a group photo, and they looked elegant as they stood around waiting.  The third photo shows two students who work with the emergency medical team of The Saint John’s Fire Department.  They were parked in front of the church following a call they had just made.  The door to the University dining hall is flanked by two beds of stones, and students have a tradition of piling them up artistically.  In their own way I find them quite artistic, as the two final shots suggest.  Above them is a photo of nine of the students from Immokalee, FL, with whom I had dinner.


Read Full Post »


Letting Go of Spiritual Baggage

[The following is a sermon that I gave at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, on 2 May.]

One of the consistent refrains we’ll hear this week is that Lourdes changes all who come here.  I know that might sound trite, but it’s true.  Through our encounters with people, through the liturgies we share, and through the experience of the place, we all change in ways we might not have expected.

Now that we’ve gathered for our first liturgy our education has already begun.  The first lesson we all have to absorb is this:  Lourdes is the land of hurry up and wait, and there’s a reason for that.  With so many people to move around, that has to be the way it is.  But it’s also the chance for each of us to be sensitive to our neighbor.  This is one place where being ready and on time is one of the highest forms of virtue.  It is our chance to show respect and charity for our neighbor.

ECD3CF40-ACCB-4683-919F-808475A2D763Lourdes is also a place where the sacred and the secular stand in sharp distinction.  To get to this chapel we ran a gauntlet of shops that cater to all tastes and none.  But it all stopped once we reached the gates of the shrine.  Nowhere that I’ve ever been have I seen such a sharp contrast between the material and the sacred.

More than anything else, however, Lourdes is a place where we take time out from the routines that shape our lives.  Whether we like it or not, Lourdes has a way of calling the question on the meaning of our lives.  It’s different from any place we’ve been, and it forces us to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we are going with our lives.  Eventually we all have to ask whether and how we will be changed when we return home.  Will we return to lives that are in a metaphorical desert, or will we return to lives of renewed intensity — lives we’d not thought possible?

Lourdes touches all who come here, and experience forces us to confront our own mortality.  When we leave this place how do we intend to use the years and weeks and days that God has reserved for us?  Will we fritter our time away?  Or will we resolve to use our time wisely and treat it for what it really is —a wonderful gift from God?  Only we can answer that, but I hope it’s a question we’ll all mull over during our days here.

Tucked away in the materials that prepared us for this pilgrimage was a very simple warning.  “Don’t bring too much stuff.”  For those who thought they couldn’t live without the extra four or five pounds of stuff, you’ve already begun to pay the price.  It may have seemed to be indispensable, but it also turned out to be heavy and bulky.  I know that experience, because I’ve had it too.  But I quickly learned I never need as much as I think, and if I forget something there are always stores, even in France.  But more than that, I’ve learned to keep asking one question of myself:  will my stuff serve me, or will I serve my stuff?

7479A1F1-96B9-418C-952E-19B09C1FCA9ABut that stuff is not the only baggage that we brought along.  Certainly we brought material baggage, but we’ve also brought along spiritual and emotional baggage that can be both very heavy and very distracting.  Perhaps even at this moment you’re sorting through some of the emotional baggage you’ve brought along.  If so, that’s okay, because in Lourdes we want to pay special attention to all the baggage that can so easily become a ball and chain on our emotional lives.  It’s a part of us; and while we could leave our material baggage in our hotel rooms this morning, this spiritual burden is something we’ve dragged along with us into the shrine.

I like to think of my mind as a warehouse, and in it I carry all sorts of stuff that gives me life but also burdens me enormously at times.  Included in its inventory are memories of good times and bad;  the experience of sickness and health;  and the joys and sorrows of life.  In that mental storage bin I carry the scars of sin — sins that I’ve committed and sins that have been committed upon me.  I know that I’m not alone in this experience, because these things haunt you as well.  It’s the price we pay for the knowledge of good and evil which we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve.  And if rightly we cherish the good memories, we can also let the negatives become a cancer that turns us into people we never imagined we would be.

One of my favorite stories from the gospels is the parable of the prodigal son.  It’s the story of one son who wasted his inheritance and finally came back to beg forgiveness from his father.  Most of us don’t identify with this son, but sometimes we should.  The fact is, we all have stuff from which we should repent.

Then there’s the older son.  He’s done everything right, and he’s the perfect son in all things but one.  As the writer David Brooks once pointed out, that son has no empathy for his younger brother.  There’s no forgiveness in his heart.  On occasion we all share his resentment, but we shouldn’t.  We shouldn’t because not one of us is as good as we think.

4B4A8CDF-056C-48F7-9A49-7712D1097CD4Finally there’s the father who has to forgive two sons.  As Brooks also observes, each of his sons is deeply flawed, but he forgives them because he loves them.  He wishes each was better, but they are who they are.  And who knows, perhaps his own love might have the power to transform hem.

To my mind the parable invites us to take the father as our model.  He too may have once stood in his sons’ shoes, but he also knows how powerfully sin can grip us and transform us into people we never intended to become.  Still, he refused to let hurt and resentment burden him.  He refused to let it transform him.  Sin — whether it was his own or that of his sons — would not become baggage he would carry through life.  So he walked away a free man.

Senator George McGovern of South Dakota once remarked that he gave up holding grudges because he couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be mad at.  Whether he did it for religious reasons or not doesn’t really matter, because the result was wonderful.  He was free to get on with life, and the burden of at least some evil lost the power to call the shots in his life.  And that, I would submit, is part of the reason we have come to Lourdes.

D36C2FE1-5755-44EA-818A-7EBF3293D81AIn a few moments we will participate in the sacrament of reconciliation.  This is our chance to let Jesus wash us free from sin.  It’s our chance to leave all sorts of spiritual baggage behind us as we put it in the hands of Jesus.  It’s the chance to move on with our lives.

At every turn Lourdes reminds us to leave behind that burden of sin.  In the baths we let the water wash away the memory of sin. And if need be, when we cross the river each time it’s a good idea to toss in the worst of our memories and let the waters wash them out to sea.  It’s futile to chase after them, and it’s a sign that that sort of baggage no longer has a place in our lives.

And so, I would conclude, if you resolve to leave all your heavy stuff in the hands of the Lord and in the care of Our Lady of Lourdes, you’ll go home with a lot less baggage.  You’ll go home a free person.  You’ll realize that this pilgrimage was worth every minute and every step that it took to get here.


+On April 30th I arrived in Paris, where I stayed the night before continuing on by train to Lourdes.  As I realized too late, this was taking a big chance, since May Day — May 1st — is usually reserved for raucous demonstrations in the city.  Sometimes the trains are on strike as well, as was the case last year.  Thankfully I made it to Lourdes with little difficulty.

+On May 2nd I delivered a homily at a penance service for members of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  Some 350 gathered in the chapel of Saint Bernadette.  I’ve presented this homily in today’s post, and I apologize for the length.  I didn’t know what to cut out, so I leave it to readers to figure that out for themselves!

8D1ABBA1-DE50-4551-9BBC-8049714EA2E7+As I noted in the sermon, in Lourdes there are shops for every taste and none, and so far one friend of mine has come up with two champion gifts.  First prize goes to the inventor of the Lourdes combination back scratcher and shoe horn.  It’s the gift for someone who thought they had everything.  The second item falls into the category of the slightly bizarre.  In one shop my friend found a tiny statue of Mary that had been carved from a bullet, and the casing was highly polished to provide housing for the statue.  I tried to put the best face on it, by thinking of the exhortation to beat swords into plowshares, but I’m still not quite sure what market niche this gift intends to fill.

+Alumni of Saint John’s University pop up everywhere, and I was surprised to meet up with Lino Rulli.  Lino has a radio program — The Catholic Guy — that airs across the country on Sirius Radio.  He was at Lourdes with Cardinal Dolan of New York, who was also part of the Order of Malta pilgrimage.


Read Full Post »

img_1205The Brother of the Prodigal Son

Several years ago I presided at a funeral in St. Paul, and afterward we all adjourned to a reception at the home of the lady who had passed away.  At 96 she had accumulated a lot of memories, and a ton of photos cluttered the walls and the tables to remind us of those memories.  They were fascinating, and the oldest of them were a slice out of Minnesota social history.

One photo in particular caught everyone’s eye, however, and in it the deceased lady posed with a group of young men and women dressed in black tie and gowns.  They were gathered round a sumptuous table in an elegant dining room, and we could only imagine what might have been the occasion for this grand evening.

An elderly lady at the reception was especially taken with the photo, mainly because she could remember every face in the picture.  With delight she rattled off the name of each person, but the delight vanished when she got to the last face.  These had all been her friends, and with that last face she realized she’d not been there that evening.  “I wasn’t invited,” she declared.  For the rest of the reception she was not a happy camper.

It’s tough to say what irritated her most.  A big dinner party had gone on without her, and the hurt was visible and fresh 75 years later.  Had her omission from the guest list been an oversight?  She didn’t seem to think so.  Was it deliberate? Was she a killjoy 75 years earlier, just as she became at that reception 75 years later?  Of course I had the good taste not to ask.

img_1201The writer H. L. Menken once defined Puritanism as the haunting, lingering fear that somebody, somewhere, was having a good time.  Certainly there’s an element of prudery in his definition, but it also involves envy of those who have a good time and don’t include us.  Certainly that was the case with this lady; and she managed to let envy about something that had happened 75 years earlier spoil her afternoon.

This may be an odd story with which to begin a reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, but it may give an insight into a well-explored story.  The parable involves three people — the son who wasted his inheritance;  the father who welcomed him back;  and the elder son who came home, only to discover a dinner party in progress.  And he’d not been invited.  He’s the one we often identify with.  He’s the one with whom many of us feel a natural kinship.

The brother of the prodigal son is a complicated person.  He had worked hard, or so he believed.  He had obeyed his father, and he seems not to have groused when his brother had left home with his share of the inheritance.  But patience has its limits, and finally envy held the elder brother in its grip.

Clearly he resented the easy forgiveness that his father gave to his younger brother.  Perhaps he also envied his brother for all the fun he’d had while the elder brother had stayed home and worked.  Perhaps he even envied his brother for having the nerve to do what he himself dared not do.  But most of all, he envied the love that the father showed to the wayward brother.  He assumed — incorrectly — that his father loved his brother more.

img_1186It’s small wonder that the Christian spiritual tradition puts envy on the list of the seven deadly sins.  Envy is almost silent, but it’s insidious as it eats away at our soul.  We leap to the conclusion that life is unfair because others have talents or opportunities or respect that we never seem to get.  In short, we conclude that we always seem to draw the short straw in the game of life.

Envy can crop up at any stage of life.  When we’re in high school or college we envy other people because they are attractive or athletic or popular or smart.  Sad to say, when we’re older we envy people because they are attractive or athletic or popular or smart.  In short, whether we’re young or old, envy causes us to twist reality.  We see others as they are not; and worse still, we see ourselves as we are not.  Envy makes us blind to the reality that each of us has talents.  And each of us has foibles.  And each of us must deal with them as best we can.  This is the hand that God has dealt to each of us.

Pilgrims to the ancient Oracle of Delhi were greeted with one bit of wisdom as they entered the temple precincts:  “Know thyself!”  It was good advice then, and it remains so today, for one good reason.  We all need to take stock not just of our short-comings but of our talents as well.  Each of us is blessed with more talents than we can possibly develop; but if we use none of them, then we slowly become that prodigal son who wasted much of his life before he finally came to his senses.

img_0003_2But self-awareness is only the first step to health.  We must take the second step toward an appreciation of our neighbor.  That means we can never envy other people for their talents.  They are who they are, and we should be grateful for the gifts and talents that they bring to the table.  Our lives are better because of our gifts and theirs, and wishing we were someone else is a losing game.  For this insight I am in debt to Oscar Wilde, who famously advised a friend to “be yourself, because everyone else is taken.”

This brings us back to the trio we have in the parable of the prodigal son.  If you think you may be the prodigal son, then it’s time to get a grip on yourself before you waste another day, much less the rest of your life.  If you tend to be the envious older brother, it’s time to recognize the gifts God has given you.  It’s time to realize that God invites you to use your talents to be yourself and not somebody else.

And finally, if we are going to be like anyone else at all, we would do well to become the forgiving father.  Forgiveness of his wastrel son was a sign neither of weakness nor of gullibility;  nor was it a sign that he loved his older son less.  Rather, it was a sign of the wisdom into which he had grown.  He was who he was, and he had two very different sons.  On the day he got both of his sons back, nothing else mattered.


+On September 7th I gave a talk to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta, on the feast of Our Lady of Philermo.  This was part of the spirituality series that they have put together in recent  years, and presenters deliver the talks over the phone to members who dial in to the conference call.  So this time I delivered this from the comfort of my office in Collegeville.  For the transcript see:  Our Lady of Philermos.  It can also be accessed on the homepage of the American Association.

+On September 11th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  Today’s blog post is the transcript of that sermon, and I have to say I was rather pleased with one thing about it.  Any sermon that combines the parable of the prodigal son with references to H. L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, and the Oracle of Delphi has to have something going for it.

img_0028_2+During the past week Abbot John has been in Rome attending the Congress of Benedictine abbots from around the world.  Among other things they elected a new abbot primate to succeed Abbot Primate Notker from Germany, who retired after sixteen years in the office.  The new abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation is Abbot Gregory Polan, who is from Conception Abbey in Missouri.  We at Saint John’s were delighted with the news of his election, since he is a good friend to our community.  He is a graduate of our School of Theology at Saint John’s, and he lived in our community for four years.

+The first three photos in today’s post are from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while the latter three are from the Cloisters Museum in New York.  I chose them in light of the feast of the Holy Cross, which occurs on September 14th.  First in the post is a painting by Joos van Cleve, ca. 1525.  Next is a painting of Christ by Hans Memling (ca. 1481), followed by a late 12th-century fresco from Catalonia.  Below that is a late 12th-century crucifix from Castile-León, followed by the cross of Bury-St. Edmunds (11th-12th century.)  The final photo shows an Italian altarpiece by Andrea da Giona (ca. 1430.)

Read Full Post »

imageAm I the Prodigal Son?

I’ve commented often on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because I find the contrast among the characters so striking.  First on the stage is the younger son, who seems unable to do anything right.  Third to emerge is the older son, who seems unable to do anything wrong.  Caught right in the middle is the father, who does his level best to balance his love for two very different offspring.  But his dilemma is painfully obvious to any parent.  Is he too indulgent with one son, while unappreciative of the other?  What’s a father to do in such a situation?

I thought I had this parable all figured out, simply by looking at the people around me and applying a little common sense.  For one thing, nobody I know even remotely resembles the rakish wastrel that is the younger son.  Certainly such people exist, because we read about them all the time.  But they are not us, and those people don’t read parables anyway.  Certainly Jesus didn’t intend to lump me and my friends into that category.

Long ago I also realized that I and most of my friends don’t identify with the father either.  For one thing, I just don’t have the emotional capacity to dole out buckets of forgiveness to the ungracious clods around me.  And even if I did, I still wouldn’t have the time.  I’m way too busy doing all the right things, all the time.

imageThat leaves the elder brother.  He was obedient, hard-working, reliable, and an all-round goodie-two-shoes.  That’s me to a T; and if the truth be told, an awful lot of people relate to him as well.  His is our story, and after each reading of this parable I always know that he and I are kindred spirits.  But then I ran across David Brooks’ recent column on the Prodigal Son, and I shrank back in horror.  As Brooks points out, beneath the upstanding veneer of the older brother lurks some really disturbing qualities.  Could that be me as well?

Brooks makes several points, but two especially resonate with me.  First, this is not necesssarily a bad son/good son story.  “The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every heart.”   If only life were so clear-cut; but we’re all more complicated and nuanced than we had thought.

Brooks also posits that neither son was a paragon of virtue.  There is no doubt that the prodigal son got away with murder, at least figuratively, and I always found it a little disconcerting that the father’s forgiveness let him off scott free.  Still, I’ve prayed that he was tormented with remorse for the rest of his life.  But what if he was only faking it?  Too bad Jesus didn’t do a follow-up parable to let us know what happened to that guy.

imageWhat really jolted me, however, was Brooks’ analysis of the senior son.  To all appearances that guy may have been upstanding and reliable, but he too was riddled with faults.  He may have done everything right, but there’s no denying that it was in his material self-interest to do so.  Worse, there is no generosity of spirit in him; and there is zero inclination to give his brother any benefit of the doubt.  Small wonder, Brooks observes, that the father didn’t put the older son in charge of the “welcome home” party.  There would have been no party.

From this Brooks extrapolates one important conclusion.  Any society that rests itself on one class of wastrels living alongside another class consisting of unforgiving overachievers is doomed.  There can be no successful community when virtually everyone acts entirely in their own selfish interest rather than for the good of their neighbor and community.  That, ultimately, is what the father tries to teach his deeply flawed sons.

I leave it to others to figure out how best to apply this, but for me life under the Rule of Saint Benedict creates the perfect lab conditions for testing this parable.  First off, unlike contemporary society, Benedict does not give absolute importance to individual rights, to the detriment of the good of the community.  Secondly, he also runs counter to contemporary culture with its assumption that personal sins and vices are just that — personal matters affecting no one else.  On the contrary, virtually anything a monk does has a social consequence.  Everything he does or does not do impacts the monks around him, and that goes double for sin.  Ironically, this puts a premium on the individual.  Individuals matter, but only in relationship to the others in the community.

imageBecause all sin has a social dimension, Benedict proposes solutions that are social.  If a monk has done some wrong, it is important to deal with it, first on a person-to-person level.  If that fails, Benedict prescribes the equivalent of an intervention in which two or three senior monks confront the individual.  And if worse comes to worse, the abbot must resort to the “knife of amputation.”  In short, it’s time for the errant monk to “pursue other opportunities,” to borrow a phrase from the business world.  All this rests on a world-view that the abbot shares with the forgiving father: he does not want to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him.  Naturally he wants each monk to be a healthy and constructive member of the community.  But no one monk has the right to put his personal welfare above that of the community.  There’s no room for the prodigal son who refuses to change his ways.

On the other hand Saint Benedict is equally determined to root out any self-righteousness among the monks.  He most certainly prizes hard work, sincere prayer, and the many talents that each monk  brings to the community.  But no monk can become puffed up with pride by the thought of his own greatness.  Such a monk shares the destructive potential of the unforgiving older brother.

imageAll of this is great in theory but a huge challenge in practice.  This explains Benedict’s concern that the abbot be a wise physician to his monks.  Each monk is a gift from God, and each monk matters.  But on any given day each monk has the capacity to be the prodigal son or the self-righteous brother, or both.  I know I see those tendencies in my brothers all the time; and I suspect they’d be more than happy to say the same for me.  Fortunatley, on most days restraint of speech is the better part of valor.

This brings us round to the original challenge of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I always knew I never aspired to be the wastrel son.  Who does?  But after reading David Brooks I certianly don’t want to be the smug older brother either.  I also know that no monastery can long survive with a cloister full of both types living side by side.  Nor can the Church or society, for that matter.

imageThe solution may entail a middle course to which the forgiving father hints.  Perhaps in all  humility each and every one of us needs to admit we are a smidgen of both.  On any given day I will commit my sins, just like everybody else.  And on any given day I can also be self-righteous and point out how different I am from the rest of people.  But if, in fact, I am both of these people, then the line between good and evil runs right through my heart.

Is there a happy moral to this?  Yes.  The good news is that I guess I’ll never run out of work to do when it comes to putting my life in order.  The even better news is that God need never go looking for “other opportunities.”  God will always have more than enough to do with the likes of me, and maybe even you.


+On February 19th I gave two presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Mary’s College of California.  In the afternoon I spent two hours with faculty members from the Department of Theology, and in the evening I spoke to an audience of ca. 150.

+It’s nice to know that not all of the difficulties of travel relate to airports and weather.  At Saint Mary’s this week I put my watch down on the tech cart at the start of my talk.  At the end of the presentation I visited with several members from the audience, while a superefficient student rushed the cart off to storage in another building.  We retraced the path of the cart and eventually located it, but there was no watch to be seen.  I resigned myself to never seeing it again and drove off.  The next day someone pried open the inside of the cart, only to discover that my watch had slipped deep into the bowels of the equipment.  Happily, we hope to reunite when we both return to Minnesota.

Yet another inconvenience involved a dinner meeting with a member of the Order of Malta.  We had hoped to visit at an event weeks earlier, but we sat opposite each other at a round table of ten, in a huge and noisy room.  Frustrated, we rescheduled, only to have the restaurant catch fire the afternoon of our dinner.  I genuinely fear the results of any future attempts to meet.

image+Last week I wrote about John O’Malley’s book on the Counciil of Trent.  Among the myths that have grown up in its wake has been the assertion that Protestants got the pulpit and Catholics got the altar.  In fact, O’Malley points out that there was a significant emphasis on preaching in Catholic churches in the centuries following Trent, as the architectural evidence gives witness.  What happened in the 19th and 20th centuries is another story.  In the last two years I’ve taken photos of various pulpits for just such a post as this.  At top is Saint John’s Cathedral in Malta; second is St. Sulpice in Paris; next is the cathedral of Oliva in Poland; and then are several from south German churches.  They support O’Malley’s contention quite dramatically.

+On the morning of February 17th we were stunned to learn that Br. Aelred Reid, OSB, had died of a heart attack in the course of the night.  Brother Aelred was a monk of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND, and he had been studying theology at Saint John’s for the last two years.  May he rest in peace.

Read Full Post »

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 092How’d the Pope Do?

The shift from actual journalism to “news entertainment” in recent years has transformed the way we learn about events.  Talking heads now spend a few seconds reporting on an event.  Then they get about the business of canvassing opinion from people who scarcely know what they are talking about.  The more off-the-wall the comment, the greater its power to amuse or enrage.  That’s good for ratings.

An event like a papal retirement is a perfect case in point.  Reporters have waited breathlessly for six hundred years for this to happen.  So you can forgive them for a bit of fuzziness on the facts.  I’ll also concede that specialists on the history of papal retirement are in short supply.   However, the inclusion of any and all opinions — no matter how ridiculous — suggests the priority is to entertain, rather than to inform.

Take, for instance, the newspaper report that “more than 120 cardinals will gather in Rome to elect the next pope.”  Since current Church law caps the number of electors at 120, this was a factual error, albeit a minor one.  To my knowledge the paper printed no correction, but I praise the editors for not taking this to the next level of controversy.  Armed with this new bit of data, someone could have penned a fiery editorial demanding to know why the election is restricted to 120.  Given that I am not well-read, that editorial may already have been written.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 018Then there have been the gratuitous appraisals of Benedict’s term as Pope.  Perhaps the most egregious of them came from the Swiss theologian Hans Kung.  In a piece in The New York Times he laid out an incontrovertable fact: the most promising thing Pope Benedict had done  during his entire papacy was to visit with Kung one afternoon.  I’d like to think that Kung intended to answer a different question: “what is your fondest memory of Benedict’s papacy?”  But alas, I have to take Kung at his word when he claims that the acme of Benedict’s papacy was his visit with Kung.

Of course the letter served to remind me that Kung was still alive, unless it was written posthumously.  But where was the de rigueur interview-in-the-street survey?  Someone should have asked puzzled pedestrians whether they agreed with the Pope or with Hans Kung.  A typical answer?  “Hans Kung, hands down!  Who’s Hans Kung?”

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 065I also couldn’t figure out how to process the various evaluations on Pope Benedict’s exercise of power.  Kung stated categorically that Pope Benedict had reverted to an imperious style of monarchy, not seen in the Church for a thousand years, more or less.  Since so many others have complained that Benedict had failed to act decisively on practically everything, I wondered if we were all thinking about the same guy.  Could both views be right?  The nice thing is that when facts don’t matter, then everyone can be right.  Everyone gets a trophy — except the Pope, of course.

On most of this I profess no opinion, save that I’m happy to hear that Hans Kung is still in the land of the living.  As for Pope Benedict’s on-the-job performance, I’ll leave that to the experts, whoever they are.  But when it comes to the fulness of papal power, I do have an opinion.  As a historian, I’ve actually read a book on the topic.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 010First off, about the only people who believe that the pope exercises absolute monarchical power are Hans Kung and the newspapers.  Not for a minute have the curial cardinals ever believed that, and I’m surprised that no one has bothered to ask them about it.  Of course when the cameras are rolling and the pope is in the room, they generously defer on any and every issue — and the smallest ones especially.  Then, when the room is empty, they get back to the daily chores of running the Church.

I don’t say this to be cynical or facetious, because I actually do subscribe to the decrees of the Council of Trent.  That was the 16th-century Church council that put its stamp on the organization of the Church.  The canons of Trent sought to establish a balance of power in the Church, so that no one pope or no one cardinal could set up his own dictatorship or run away with the store.  How did they do this?

Trent produced an organizational chart that for its time was a model of efficiency and the envy of many European governments.  Vatican business was divided into departments, called dicasteries, each headed by one cardinal and a small board of two or three other cardinals.  Each cardinal sat on two or three boards, but could only chair one.  This forced them to work cooperatively.  If you were the ambitious type, your chances of being elected pope increased if you worked amicably alongside your peers.  It stands to reason that the cardinals did not want to elect a would-be tyrant or a crazy man; so the default was set to elect people of poise and talent, who also had a record of collegial behavior.  And if by chance a newly-elected pope tried to make himself all-powerful, the cardinals could dig in their heels.  No one wanted to return to the age of the Renaissance popes.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 008This system tends to be a model of efficiency and continuity, and therein is its strength.  That also happens to be its weakness.  Few absolutist popes have emerged in the last five hundred years, because the cardinals have been there to prevent runaway tyranny.  But in times of crisis, that same Barque of Saint Peter can be very slow to turn.  And when the executive is weak or in ill health, there is little to hold in check one cardinal who wants to be first among equals.  Nor is there anyone to prevent the bureau heads from acting like a herd of cats, each doing his own thing.

That’s the theory behind papal government.  It has generally worked well, though on occasion it can be clumsy.  I’m not about to offer my evaluation of how this government worked during the papacy of Benedict XVI, since I’m saving my comments for when CNN and Fox News call me up.   But I will extrapolate and offer this bit of reflection.  Since all of us already know how the pope should exercise power, there’s no point in going on about that.  Instead, I’ll shift to a topic about which most of us are clueless: the exercise of our own power.

Many if not all of us have power, even if we think we don’t.  Each of us has the power to influence others.  By word and example each of us has the power to build people up or tear them down.  An encouraging word to a young person can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.  A careless or cruel remark to someone can  hurt them for years to come.  Each of us has the capacity to take action, in a way that will get others off the fence and act.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 041All these are ingredients that contribute to good and bad leadership.  But they are also some of the elements that go into a good life.  These few items can help determine whether we make any difference in our own world, or whether our absence will matter to anyone.  I’m hopeful that I’ve used what talents I have to make some little difference in the lives of others.  And I hope the same is true for you.

My advice on power stops there, and happily Pope Benedict needs no further advice from me on that subject.  But advice on his retirement is an entirely different kettle of fish.  So here goes.  First, now that you finally have some time to read, don’t believe everything you read.  Second, even though you used to Twitter, don’t believe everything on the internet.  And lastly, now that you are retired, get a membership in AARP.  They have great travel deals and insurance, and they don’t run surveys on how the pope did.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 015Notes

+On Feburary 27th I drove to Minneapolis to attend a meeting and to do some errands.  The high point of the day was lunch with a very good friend of mine.  The low point of the day?  Being stuck in traffic in downtown Minneapolis.  This was no ordinary traffic jam, because it began early in the morning when a tanker filled with milk overturned in the Lowry Hill  Tunnel, which tied up traffic for most of the day.  The word on the street is that it took a crew of 3,500 cats nearly eight hours to lick it up.  Cats will not be hurried.  Only in Minnesota.

+On Feburary 28/March 1st I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On March 2nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and preached a homily that I’ve entitled The Prodigal Son, Revisted, which is included under the heading Presentations.  My earlier sermon, Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has become the most visited page in the history of my blog.  There  must be a lot of prodigal sons and daughters out there — or brothers and sisters of prodigal sons and daughters.

Frost in Collegeville, February 2013 095+Also on March 2nd, Brother Walter led a crew in the tapping of one thousand maple trees in the Abbey forest.  Spring is just around the corner, and the ritual of making maple syrup has been a treasured memory of the monks at Saint John’s for generations.

+On March 3rd I presided at the Abbey Mass and delivered a sermon entitled Lent, a Pilgrimage of Self-Discovery.  I’m not sure I was back from the previous day by popular demand, but I got out of the Abbey church alive and in one piece.

Read Full Post »