Posts Tagged ‘Pope Francis’


For Whom Should We pray?

A few weeks ago a photo gripped the world’s attention.  In it a man and a child floated, faces down, in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.  It was shocking, and it starkly illustrated just one of the many social ills that beset our times.

There was one thing that made the photo particularly poignant, however.  For whatever reason most of the media outlets chose not to give any names.  These two were almost objects rather than people.  Floating anonymously in the water, they seemed unblessed and lacking in even the basics of humanity.  Having achieved not even ten minutes of fame in life, they became nobodies in death.

Then I considered who they might have been.  One had been a son to his parents, a husband to his wife, and a father to the person floating next to him.  Eventually I discovered that he had a name after all.  He was Oscár Alberto Martínez Ramírez.

24011099-C4C2-4F80-B73A-C0EA6603D897As for the 23-month-old next to him, her accomplishments were fewer.  She was daughter to Oscár and her mother, and perhaps she was a sister to some siblings still at home.  Still, like her father, she had been created in the image of God.  She too had human dignity, and perhaps she was the future hope for her family.  And she too had a name:  Valeria.

Once I knew their names, Oscár and Valeria were no longer anonymous victims of circumstance.  Now I could imagine chatting with them.  I could picture them laughing and crying and sitting around a table eating with family and friends.  They were no longer poster children of some social or political problem.  They were individuals who needed both my respect and my prayers.

In a recent homily Pope Francis urged us to give names to the people who suffer from the vast litany of ills that beset our times.  It’s nice enough to pray for world peace and an end to persecution and an end to hunger;  but those remain abstractions until we can attach the names of real live people to our prayers.

When a congregation is small enough, the priest has the luxury of inviting others to add their own petitions to the prayers of the faithful.  “For whom shall we pray?” is the invitation for which many people thirst.  It’s the chance to be very specific, because it’s suddenly okay to pray — out loud and in front of other people —  “for Aunt Edna who has surgery today,” or “for my son who is going through a difficult time.”

4718FA92-9738-41A7-8188-874EF38F951EThis is when prayer becomes intensely personal.  It’s when we pray for flesh-and-blood neighbors, even if we scarcely know them.  But when we say their names out loud or deep within our hearts something profound comes over us.  We admit our kinship with them.  We confess that they and we were created in the image of God.  And through our prayers we no longer walk alone.  Instead, we walk the paths of the Lord alongside them as fellow pilgrims.

So what lessons might we take away from this?  First, it’s certainly okay to pray for big-ticket items like “peace in the Middle East.”  But it’s even better to pray by name for a person or a village or a parish community in that region.  That builds communion between them and us.

Second, pray for someone by name, at least once a day.  It gets us out of the mindset that we alone carry the burdens of the world.  It reminds us that we have kindred spirits out there who also share in our search for meaning and purpose in life.

Third, don’t wait for someone to issue a gilded invitation to pray.  It’s nice to hear that formal invitation “For whom should we pray?”  But it’s no sin to pray unbidden.  If truth be told, there are lots of people whom we know who need our prayers, and Oscár and Valeria are just two of them.  Why wait to be invited to do the decent thing?

4861A6E8-545C-4FE5-9D06-95F22D1BD62DFinally, for whom else should we pray?  As long as we’re at it we may as well save some breath to pray for ourselves.  It never hurts, and frankly the Lord may be wondering why we’ve not called on him for a while.


+On August 8th I was in Minneapolis for two meetings, and one of them happened to be at the American Swedish Institute.  It’s housed in a great old mansion built by Swan Turnblad, a very successful Swedish newspaper publisher in Minneapolis.  From personal experience I can say that it’s especially nice to visit there during the Christmas season.  Currently it has on display an exhibit of Viking artifacts from the 6th-9th centuries.  So after the meeting I had a choice between the “Swedish language happy hour” or the exhibit.  I chose the exhibit, mainly because I’m not sure what goes on at a Swedish language happy hour.

+On August 9th I made my semi-annual pilgrimage to the help desk at IT Services, which is now housed in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  Everyone is required to change the computer password to their account every six months, and I had one day left before I would be frozen out completely.  Like most people over the age of twenty I find this to be an ordeal, and years ago I vowed never to do this alone again.  The occasion of that solemn oath (and many others at the time, I might add), was when I was out of town.  Without any help at all I successfully locked myself out of my computer for four days.  Anyway, once again I packed phone and computer and iPad up and toted them over to the help desk.  This time the computer doctor happened to be a brilliant student from the Bahamas, and he performed wizardry before my eyes.  I left with devices that still talked with one another and secure in the knowledge that only college students and hackers know how to get into my account.  Heaven knows I don’t.

+Today the first of our students return for the fall term.  Meanwhile, all summer long the showy flower beds have garnered all the attention.  However, as the photos in today’s post attest, there are nooks and crannies that may be ignored but can hold their own.


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God Is In the Traffic

I have no idea how many sermons I’ve given, but by now I have a pretty good idea of those themes I like to tackle and the ones I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.  In the latter category I put famines, wherever in the world they might be.  It’s not that I lack empathy, because I don’t.  However, most congregations I preach to in central Minnesota are singularly ill-equipped to plunk down money for an expensive ticket to Nairobi, solve the hunger problem there, and be back by the end of the week.

The same holds true for peace in the Middle East or Afghanistan.  Most monks I know — and I’m in that category — wouldn’t know where to begin, even if the abbot gave us permission.  So for that reason I prefer not to preach about things ordinary people can’t do much about anyway.  All it does is make some people feel guilty because they can’t do anything to help;  while others feel depressed because they can’t do anything to help.  It’s better to preach about things that people can actually do, rather than harangue them about things they can’t.

2C8DCA84-25D4-4AC2-BDA1-77485DA7700DSo it was that the words of Pope Francis on New Year’s Day were a delight to me.  Instead of pie-in-the-sky civilization-changing deeds, the pope spoke about stuff that almost anybody can do to make the world a better place.  Specifically, he spoke about driving a car.  Driving can set the tone for the health of a community, and whether people are considerate when they’re behind the wheel or whether they’re hell on wheels does matter.  Ask your typical Romans trying to get across the street, and they’ll tell you so.

Driving is something that touches nearly all of us.  Many drivers are thoughtful and generous.  Some should be locked up.  Still others shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.  Regardless of where we fit on the chart, time spent at the wheel gives us the chance to have at least some impact on our neighbors.  For better as well as for worse, every time we get behind the wheel we can make or ruin someone’s day.  It really is that simple.

Pope Francis didn’t mean to single out driving as the toughest challenge facing the world.  Anyone who’s read even a few of his sermons knows that he hammers away at war and hunger too.  But driving is a convenient example of how we can make a difference in the lives of others, virtually anywhere and at any time.

I thought the pope’s comments provided good fodder for those of us wondering what we might do to make the world a better place in 2018.  The good news is that we don’t have to fly 6,000 miles to accomplish something worthwhile.  Someday there may be the chance for that, but for now the really great news is that there’s plenty to do near at hand.  We need only open our eyes and see who’s standing in front of us.  There is our opportunity.  There stands Christ.

8A156C27-D60C-49C5-A981-0484066980F0I can’t help but think about the streets of Rome and what a harrowing experience it can be to cross them.  It’s a bit like what wildebeest confront when crossing a river full of crocodiles.  So I’m left wondering whether Pope Francis inadvertently got his listeners all stirred up on New Year’s Day in Saint Peter’s Square.  Just behind them roared a maelstrom of traffic, which each had to cross.  I’m guessing that more than a few prayed that the drivers of Rome were listening to the pope on the radio.

That’s when they — and we — begin to appreciate how important are the so-called little things in life.  They’re far more important than we might think, because in them we encounter the chance to do the serious work of the Lord.  Even in the traffic we find the presence of God.


+New Year’s Day came and went quietly in the monastery.

+On January 2nd I flew to New York for a series of visits with alumni of Saint John’s.  It was not the best week to be there, and the national news was not reticent about reporting it.  It was bitterly cold, and the big snow day saw the city grind to a halt.  I was surprised to note that the cars ground the fallen snow into the consistency of mashed potatoes, and it was really slippery.

+The storm gave me some time out to visit two of my favorite places in the world — the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Morgan Library & Museum.  I last visited The Morgan when a dear friend of Saint John’s presented an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to The Morgan’s permanent collection.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At top is a limewood sculpture of the Adoration of the Magi, made in Swabia in Germany, ca. 1515-20.  Next is a stained glass of the Nativity, made in 1444 for a church in Boppard-am-Rhein in Germany.  Next is a Madonna and Child, made in Siena ca. 1440.  At bottom is a bicycle I saw in New York.  It was actually worse than it looks, and I can only pray that the drivers were kind and merciful to this poor cyclist.


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IMG_0092Nobody’s Perfect (in case you hadn’t noticed)

Last week as I returned home through the airport in Minneapolis, I happened to bump into some friends from Duluth.  They were there to see their son off as he and a group of fifty were about to fly to Poland for World Youth Day.  Frankly, they all looked like they’d already been there and back, because they appeared exhausted.  But that was due to a big storm that had hit Duluth three days earlier.  My friends envied their son, because at least in Poland they had electricity.

The thought of going anywhere with fifty people does not excite me in the least.  But there was one thing that I did envy those kids, and that was the chance to hear Pope Francis speak to them.  And speak to them he did, in clear and direct language.

One sermon in particular caught my attention, and the pope’s message was simple enough.  He looked up from his text and urged them to put down their cell phones and tablets.  “Take part in life.  Don’t be couch potatoes!”

I know a few adults who could benefit from that message, and on occasion I’ve been in their number myself.  Thankfully the allure of the cell phone has never sucked me in, but for all sorts of other reasons I too have shrunk back from taking part in life.  And so, like most everyone else, I have to confess regularly both what I have done and what I have failed to do.

IMG_2577Everyone has personal reasons for not taking part in life, but one excuse I hear often enough is the appeal to inadequacy.  “I don’t have any talent.”  “Others do things so much better than I.”  “What difference can I make?”  “I’m not perfect, you know”

It’s definitely true that most of us are not perfect.  But then again, who is?  Be that as it may, personal imperfection is all too often the excuse of choice when it comes to shirking both responsibility and opportunity.  But who gives any of us the right to exempt ourselves from participation in life, just because we’re not perfect?

Jesus frequently reminded his disciples that nothing excuses inaction.  Nothing justifies putting our lives under a basket. Whether we have ten talents or one, we all have to give an account of how we did or didn’t use each and every one of them.  And to take a little license with the text, those to whom anything is given, Jesus expects at least something in return.  In fact, everyone can do at least some little thing.  Anyone and everyone can make even a slight difference in the world.

IMG_2587The other day I passed a tree that never would have made the cut in a garden magazine.  It was gnarled and knotted, and I’m sure its parents were disappointed to see that their little sapling hadn’t grown into the perfect shade tree for which they’d hoped.  But it grew up anyway, and its very warts made it one of the most interesting and striking trees in the garden.  By contrast, the perfect trees nearby merely served as adequate background.

Obviously the same is true for us.  Practically everyone I know has at least one or two imperfections, and that’s why I find them so interesting.  By contract, the few perfect people make me uncomfortable because they highlight my own inadequacies.  But they also remind me of the talents that I have, as well as of the need to use them creatively.  To do anything less would turn me into a couch potato.

IMG_2601In his Rule Saint Benedict urges his disciples to keep death daily before their eyes.  As I’ve written on other occasions, this is not encouragement to sit on the couch and wait for death.  Rather, it’s a wake-up call to discover and use what talents we have, and to do so while we’re still in the land of the living.  In fact, using our talents is the very essence of what it means to be alive.

No one I’ve met has a God-issued vocation to be a couch potato.  Rather, couch potatoes become so because they slowly give up and just get used to it.  But life on a couch or swallowed up in a cell phone is not life.  God made us for better things.  God made us to have life, to have it in abundance, and to make the most of it.  Imperfection can never be an excuse for us to waste God’s gifts by sitting on the couch.


+On July 30th my good friend Betty Swenson was laid to rest at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord, NH.  Some readers may recall my post of February 22nd, which had as its focus some thoughts on Betty.  I was honored to learn that they read that post at Betty’s gravesite.  I wish I could have been there, but I was definitely there in spirit — and smiling at the mere thought of Betty.

+Among the thousands of people at the World Youth Day in Poland was our Fr. Michael Peterson, who led a group of our students to take part in the event.

+Between July 16th and September 5th there is an exhibit at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, entitled “Benedictine Creativity Inspired by the Spirit.”  It consists of works by several of our monks, included two framed photographs by me.

IMG_2616+This past week Saint John’s University was pleased to host for their annual retreat the 230 members of the marching band from Rosemount High School in Rosemount, MN.  For the entire week they spread across the campus for section practices and gave performances by the entire band in the football stadium.  As in past  years, the sound of music wafted through the campus, and as always they were wonderful guests.

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IMG_0016Christ is Truly Risen.  What Now?

We can only hope that for most Christians around the world Easter services were a truly moving experience.  At Saint John’s a familiar set of rituals carried us through Holy Week and into Easter, but that familiarity also provided moments of insight.  The music in particular was eloquent, and the abbey schola introduced a few new pieces of music.  Still, those new pieces were imbedded in a round of hymns and chants that have by now become part of our bones.  As a result, we don’t always need to glance at the text to sing the notes and words.  That comfortable familiarity, it seems to me, is a necessary ingredient for transforming liturgy from theater into prayer.

Of course the focus of the Triduum is not the music but the message.  Jesus is truly risen, and so Easter is more than a celebration of an unjustly-accused guy who got the last laugh on his persecutors.  The message is more profound, and it’s this:  “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son.”  Not only did that son share in all the difficulties of what it means to be human, but there’s one thing more.  When all is said and done, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.  Rather, salvation is God’s gift to us.  It’s God who gently tugs at our sleeves and persistently pulls us toward the eternal.  It’s God who keeps whispering in our ears, inviting us into eternity.  That initiative is part of what it means when we say that God has mercy on each and every one of us.

IMG_7174So now that we’ve celebrated the resurrection, what’s next?  Well, we might rest content in the belief that God has mercy on us, the Lord has saved us, and there’s nothing more to do.  But there is more.  Believe it or not, God intended that Easter be only a beginning.  At Easter God coopts us into a lifetime of showing mercy in an often merciless world.

When Pope Francis proclaimed a year of mercy, I have to confess that my reaction was a less-than-hearty “ho-hum.”  The very idea seemed abstract and general, like many of the bland petitions we recite before the Offertory at Mass.  Who isn’t for peace on earth and an end to world hunger?  Who wants to see more disease and injustice?  But that of course creates some tension within us.  Who among us is really in any position to do anything about these gargantuan challenges?

For all those reasons and more, I thought of the Year of Mercy as little more than a pious exercise, and I prayed that someone would wake me when it was over.  But all that changed when I casually turned the pages of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book  on mercy.  There, right in the middle of the text, he roots the Year of Mercy in what used to be familiar territory for most Catholics.  As bland as a Year of Mercy might seem at first glance, that year is planted in the soil of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

IMG_1134Just when I was about to exempt myself from the need to solve problems that existed primarily on the other side of the world, Kasper reminded me that pretty much all I need to do when it comes to mercy is local.  In fact, his words are an uncomfortable wake-up call.  Unless I am willing to treat as Christ the people living down the hall or across the street, then there is really no point to the high-minded aspirations about people who live 6,000 miles away.  In short, if it’s true that charity begins at home, then so do the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  That, it seems to me, is part of the takeaway from Easter.  If at Easter the Lord shows mercy by reminding us that we cannot save ourselves, then the irony is that God uses us to reach out to others.  We become conduits of God’s mercy to family and friends and co-workers — and even to strangers.

IMG_1130In the renewal of our baptismal vows at Easter the Lord enlists us to be the hands that do his work of mercy in our own little world.  We feed the hungry.  We visit the sick.  We bury the dead.  And it is we who perform all these day-to-day works of mercy that demonstrate God’s continued love.  These are among the many ways in which the Lord shows mercy to each and every person, and it’s our awesome responsibility to do our part.  As professed Christians it’s the commission from which we cannot excuse ourselves.

So now that we’ve celebrated Easter, we can rightly ask ourselves what comes next, and the answer is simple.  You and I are channels of God’s mercy, and it’s not enough to say that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are just lovely aspirations.  They are in fact the checklist of what it means to be Christian.  It’s not enough, then,  to be hearers of God’s word to us.  For better or for worse, we must be doers as well.


+While the music over the Triduum in the Abbey was both moving and meditative, we did have one lapse that reminded us that we have not yet reached perfection.  The Psalm tone for the Magnificat on Holy Saturday evening was new to us, and it showed from beginning to end.  We never did get it right, and so the abbot’s side of choir reverted to a tone that we remembered from somewhere else.  The prior’s side of choir never could make up its mind, and they sang three versions simultaneously.  The whole thing brought smiles and even chuckles, which was okay because it was after all the eve of Easter.  Like Amish quilters who always add a mistake to remind themselves that only God creates perfection, so our Magnificat that evening demonstrates that God still has work to do with us.

IMG_1129+We were delighted to host several guests for the Triduum, including several Chinese priests who are doing graduate studies in the United States.  Sponsored by Maryknoll, they joined two priests from China who are currently living and studying with us at Saint John’s.  The vocations office conducted a three-day retreat that included several graduates of our Benedictine Volunteer program, and several of the monks participated by giving conferences to them.  Meanwhile Fr. Dale conducted a Triduum retreat at the Abbey guesthouse.

+On Easter Sunday morning we woke to a thin blanket of snow that reflected the change to white in the color palate of the liturgical season.  Thankfully it was gone by 9:30 am, and by afternoon we were looking at green lawns once more.  The latter are a harbinger of the green of Ordinary Time.

+The top photo in today’s post is one I took looking east over San Francisco Bay in February.  I opened the curtains to behold the rising sun, and I realized that the view would not last for long.  So I rushed outside with my phone camera, and it turned out to be a photo that I knew would appear in an Easter season post.  The second photo is of an icon by Aidan Hart, enthroned in the Abbey church.  The other photos illustrate the dusting of snow that greeted us on Easter morning.

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IMG_0024_2Is There a Merciful God?

Nearly a year ago the members of the Order of Malta in Seattle invited me to give a day of reflection, on the theme of the “year of mercy” that had been proclaimed by Pope Francis.  Since I’m used to giving retreat days, this was hardly an insurmountable challenge.  Still, the theme of mercy was one I’d not considered before.  But with a year to prepare, how hard could it be?

Ask anyone a year in advance to do something and it will seem like no big deal, and that was true in my case.  So I conveniently filed the request away, confident that I would find plenty of material just in the nick of time to craft some decent conferences.  This was not the first time I’d made such a foolish mistake, but this was something I only discovered eleven months later.

With the retreat less than a month away, I’d not come up with a single idea that I could use, and I started to worry.  Then one day I began to panic.  What in the world could I possibly say that might inspire me, to say nothing of the people I was supposed to inspire?

IMG_0019_2Saint Benedict in his Rule reminds monks that sometimes wisdom is found in the youngest monk, and it was one of my youngest confreres who saved me by his recommendation of a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper, appropriately entitled Mercy.  Cardinal Kasper had begun the book after reflecting on the importance of mercy in the writing and preaching of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, and he had hoped to turn his thoughts into a series of retreat conferences.  Unfortunately his retreat conferences never quite materialized, but for me this book was a God-send.  His nuggets of insight saved my hide in Seattle two weeks ago.

As we begin Holy Week, one point that Kasper makes early on in his book seems especially apropos.  It deals with a conundrum that we confront, and it touches on the leap of faith that all of us must decide whether we’ll make.  If there is indeed a God, then how can we call that God loving and merciful in the face of the horrors of the 20th century?  That is a variation of the age-old question that has dogged every believer.  How can a God who is all-powerful and good stand back and allow hideous things to happen to decent and undeserving people?

Kasper describes one modern response, which is to deny the existence of God altogether.  A good God simply could not allow the horrors of the 20th century, and so to protect God’s reputation we have to deny that God exists.  That certainly is one way to resolve the dilemma, but to my mind it leaves us high and dry in answering two questions left on the table:  from whence does our existence come, and what is the purpose of our lives?

IMG_0018Kasper’s elaboration on this issue is too much for this short reflection, but he goes on to write that the Christian response to all this is the point of Holy Week.  As Christians we believe that God is loving and does care, and a God who shows mercy is a primary attribute of the source in whom we live and move and have our being.  That is the message that the liturgies and readings of Holy Week seek to communicate.

Christians affirm that our life has its origin in the creative act of God.  God does love us and God does wish the best for us; but God also gives us the free will that allows us to formulate our destiny.  Just as parents bring children to life and watch them mature, they must also eventually stand back, let go and let them make their own mistakes.  So God does with us, because without free will any response we make to God is pointless and predetermined.  With free will our response can be one of authentic love, however.

During Holy Week the Christian community proclaims that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to share in our existence.  God did not spare that son from the same  horrors that can afflict us all, but God did affirm that tragedy is never the end of the story.  There is always redemption to be found, even in suffering.  The ultimate direction of our lives, then, is resurrection and continued life with God.

IMG_0026_2So if God does exist, as we believe, is God aloof and uncaring?  Does God get riled up by our petty misdeeds and our high crimes?  Does God get his jollies by allowing waves of catastrophe to crash upon us?  Not at all, and that’s the point of Holy Week.

Though God tends not to intervene in our lives like an omnipotent superman, God does care.  God does love us.  God does show us glimpses of mercy that pull is little by little along the path to the eternal.  And on a practical level God’s fundamental message of salvation is one of mercy.  That mercy is something we can experience every day of our lives.

Mercy is the corollary to the painful conundrum of the passion and death of Jesus.  And so mercy is what I will write about next week as we celebrate Easter.


+On March 16th we were surprised to look out and see that the ice had gone out from Lake Sagatagan and the other lakes at Saint John’s.  It may not have been the earliest date for this, but it was not far from the record.  The warm spring does not bode well for collecting a lot of maple sap, but I don’t think we are ready to trade our warm days for a return to snow and ice.

+On March 20th I attended the first of a series of meetings in Naples, FL.  The series will end with a reception on the 22nd for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University.  Happily I will be back at Saint John’s in time for the Triduum.

+This was a challenging week for my sister and our family.  On Tuesday and Wednesday her husband suffered two severe heart attacks, and he is lucky to be alive.  On Thursday they became grandparents once again.  Happily the baby was born at the hospital where my mother volunteers, and the birth took place on her volunteer day.  So my mom had the privilege of seeing her new great-granddaughter just hours after the birth.  On a different front, a dear friend has had her cancer return.  Please keep her and my brother-in-law in your prayers.  Thank you!

IMG_0138_2+The photos in today’s post come from the marvelous cycle of frescos at the Abbey of Subiaco, to the south of Rome.  It was here that Saint Benedict began his life as a hermit.  As disciples gathered around him the community grew, and eventually he moved to Monte Cassino.  Fortunately these medieval paintings have survived in good condition.  Among the prized items is the only portrait from life of Saint Francis, made shortly after his visit to Subiaco.

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IMG_1005Ash Wednesday:  Time for Intensity

“Like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your nation.  By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”

Pope Francis spoke this message to a group of Latin-American immigrants at a gathering in Philadelphia last fall.  I recall at the time how warm and personal his words seemed, and to his listeners they provided more than just comfort.  They were a reassurance that they were gifted people.  Even better, they had an important mission to fulfill in their adopted homeland.  They could and would make a difference.

Something else struck me, however.  Pope Francis may have shaped his message for immigrants, but those words applied to all sorts of other people as well.  Specifically, they describe to a T what happens when a person comes to the monastery.  A novice might feel overwhelmed by what he encounters when he walks in the door, but I suspect he never imagines the impact he can have on the community.  The newcomer causes all of us to mull over once again why we are here.   He provides a wake-up call, just in case we need waking up.  That, in my humble opinion, is one of the chief benefits to having a novice in our midst.  He begins his search for God with us, and we in turn have to adjust and grow in response to the talent he brings into our midst.  We all get to renew ourselves, and none of us is ever the same again.

IMG_0988In a couple of days we begin the season of Lent, and I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday, though not for any morbid reason.  To recall that we are dust and to dust we shall return can be off-putting, but it can also be an energizing wake-up call.  In the spirit of Saint Benedict, who taught his monks to keep death daily before their eyes, Ash Wednesday is a not-so-subtle reminder that our days on this earth are a finite resource.  Given that, we would be well-advised to wring out the maximum good from each and every day, rather than fritter the day away.  It’s a useful warning, since the last time I heard, none of us is likely to get any sizable extension for our time on earth.

People approach Lent differently, though I feel sorry for those who let the season slip by as if there could be nothing more important in life than television, texting or shopping.  For those who take it seriously, however, Ash Wednesday provides the chance to recalibrate their lives, if only for a few weeks.

IMG_0983How then might we adjust our routine in order to squeeze the most out of Lent?  Saint Benedict offers some nuggets of advice, though for starters it’s important to know that he was no fan of ostentatious self-denial.  In fact, he discouraged it because of the potential to breed spiritual competition.  What he did encourage was simple, and he included added spiritual reading and perhaps a few small sacrifices that would fly under the radar.  He was not especially interested in giving up stuff in the hopes of finding God through deprivation.  Rather, one finds God by looking for him actively, and he finds God as often as not in the faces of other people.  So the wise monk uses all his talents in service, because in his neighbor he will likely find the goal of his spiritual quest.

If the words of Pope Francis resonate for immigrants and for monks, then they likely apply to everyone else as well.  Like immigrants, each and every one of us brings a set of gifts to the table.  If we fail to use our gifts in service to others, then both everyone else and we are poorer for it.  Conversely, when we share our gifts and talents, and encourage others do so as well, we are far more likely to see Christ showing through.

IMG_0990Ash Wednesday can be depressing; but if we harness it to its full potential it serves as an invitation to live with greater intensity.  Time is short; there is much to do; and we immigrants ought not be dawdling.  God has given to us gifts of all sorts; but topping them are life, talents, and the chance to encounter Christ incarnate in all sorts of people.  What mission could possibly be more important?

There’s lots to pray for this Lent, but we could do worse than to pray that we all be good immigrants.  May we remember we have gifts, and that our mission is to use them in service to our fellow immigrants.  May we learn from one another.  May we have the insight to see the face of Christ in their faces, and may they see the face of Christ in us.  And if by chance this turns out to be the formula for a good Lenten experience, then perhaps we might extend it into Ordinary Time, and beyond.


+On February 2nd I gave the first in a series of classes in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.

+The last week was crazy-busy for me, largely because of the convergence of several projects that came due at about the same time.  First, I had to write the post for my blog, which got done.  Then my turn to write a post for another blog came due, and I finished that.  I also had a reflection due for Give Us This Day, a monthly booklet published by the Liturgical Press (done.)  After that I had an article on The Rule of Saint Benedict for The Abbey Banner, which is the newsletter for the Abbey (not done yet.)  Lastly, I worked for several days on a  twenty-page brochure, which is nearly done, but overdue.  Many other things did not get done either, but they will, in time.  But thanks to the chance to hide away and hunker down at my desk, I finished the most pressing items that were on my plate last week.  Now I get to start all over.

IMG_1011+By February we begin to weary of winter and the snow, but the landscape still has its charms, as the photos in today’s post may suggest to winter aficionados.  If you enlarge the last photo you can see people ice-fishing on Lake Sagatagan, behind the abbey.  For the record, I went ice-fishing one time and one time only, during my first year at Saint John’s.  I was a quick study, and the most important lesson I drew is that there is no fish on earth worth all that trouble.

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IMG_0968Who Thought to Ask?

For historians of the Catholic experience in the United States, the prospect of Pope Francis standing before the Congress last week had to be nothing short of incredible.  What 17th-century Catholic in Maryland could ever imagine such a scene?  What 19th-century German or Irish or Italian immigrant could conceive of the day when the pope would occupy the moral high ground as he stepped out onto the balcony of the Capitol to address tens of thousands gathered outside?  Well, for some it’s stranger than fiction, and it stirred even the stony hearts — my own included.

I leave it to the professionals to analyze the significance of the pope’s visit, but what really matters is the experience of the tens of millions who participated in this.  Somehow the pope managed to bypass the talking heads and cut through into the hearts of so many, and the welcome they offered to the pope was intensely personal and genuine.

IMG_0964At Saint John’s we too shared in the curiosity, a curiosity which some of us acted upon.  Our monks in formation and the monk-seminarians endured a long bus-ride to Washington to see for themselves.  Later in the week a large group of our college students flew off to Philadelphia to attend the conference on the family.  And on the home front clusters of monks gathered in front of the television to take in as much as they could.

I didn’t go to Washington or New York or Philadelphia, but all the same there was an element of this that touched both the historian and the working professional in me.  Certainly the enthusiastic crowds amazed me, but what moved me most was a very quiet interlude in the middle of the papal visit to Washington.  Shortly after the appearance on the balcony of the Capitol, Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner stopped briefly in the latter’s office.  Waiting there was a small group that included Abbot John, Dr. Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, and Amy Rauenhorst Goldman, the president of the GHR Foundation.  In a gesture made possible through the generosity of the GHR Foundation, Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress accepted an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, given to mark the visit of Pope Francis to the United States.

IMG_0965Volume one, The Pentateuch, was open, and Pope Francis studied the illumination of the Days of Creation.  Perhaps that was chosen with an eye to the pope’s concern for creation.  Abbot John broke the silence and asked the pope to bless the Bible, and Pope Francis then placed his hand on the illumination for a moment of quiet prayer.  Then, as quickly as it had all begun, it was over.  The pope was off to the next appointment.

Though I was a thousand miles away, I certainly appreciated every bit of the moment.  Twenty years ago we commissioned the making of The Saint John’s Bible to mark the day when the monks first came to central Minnesota.  1856 was not the best of years for monks or Catholics to set foot in the United States; but neither a tepid welcome on these shores nor the wilderness deterred them.  As for the monks, they persevered.  They worked and they prayed; and 150 years later The Saint John’s Bible commemorates their determination to seek God in the wilderness.

IMG_0967We had always hoped that this Bible might stir the spiritual imagination of people around the world.  Now, from its new home at the Library of Congress, we hope this set of the Apostles Edition will pique the curiosity of an entirely new audience.  And in one respect it is a little extension of Saint John’s and the bell tower that greets all visitors to the campus.  Symbolically the pedestal of the tower holds up the book of the gospels, and The Saint John’s Bible carries that theme even further afield.

So whatever else may come from this quiet moment in the heart of Washington, there’s this delicious thought to mull over.  When the first five monks arrived on the shore of Lake Sagatagan, they must have wondered what life would bring in such a difficult place.  Could they make a home here?  Would it last?  Would it make any sort of difference to people?  But one question would have brought chuckles, had someone thought to ask.  “When will the abbot be meeting the pope in the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives?”  Who would have thought?


+On September 24 the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible was presented to Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress, in the presence of Pope Francis and Speaker of the House John Boehner.  The generosity of the GHR Foundation made this presentation possible, and in the room for the occasion were members of the Rauenhorst family from Minnesota.  To be honest, this moment was something of a miracle in itself.  Weeks ago it looked like it was going to happen.  But various issues intervened, and as the day approached it seemed less likely.  On the morning of the 24th I was resigned to the fact that it was not going to happen.  But whether it was divine intervention or something else, it did.

+Earlier in the day our president, Michael Hemesath, along with Bishop Kettler of Saint Cloud and President Mary Hinton of the College of Saint Benedict, sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives to hear the pope speak.  This was courtesy of Representative Tom Emmer, our congressman.

IMG_1170+On the evening of 24 September I attended the annual Junior Achievement awards dinner in Minneapolis, at which Saint John’s alumnus Prince Wallace and his wife Sandra were inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.  The evening was a delight, and my only regret was that some of my colleagues who should have been there were detained by stuff in Washington that day.

+As if we did not have enough going on this week, on 26 September ESPN Sports Center on the Road broadcast its Game Day program live from the football stadium at Saint John’s University.  This meant that we had to muster a crowd of several thousand for the opening of the program at 6:00 am.  For many of our students it was the first time they had ever been up at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.  As for the monks, we listened to their cheers from the stadium as we prayed morning prayer.  Later in the day a huge throng of 17,000 attended the football game, and in the crowd was our congressman, Rep. Tom Emmer.

+The pictures of the presentation of the Apostles Edition in today’s post come courtesy of the GHR Foundation and Mark Rauenhorst.

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imageGive the Pope a Helping Hand

In three weeks Pope Francis will step onto American soil for the first time in his life, and it will be interesting to see his reaction.  No doubt he’s read about America and seen the movies, but I suspect he’s not been thinking about the place morning noon and night every day of his life.  Had that been the case, he’d have come here a lot sooner.

Anyway, his schedule will be jam-packed, but that’s not deterred people from drawing up lists of things that should be squeezed into his itinerary.  Some ideas have been thoughtful, and others off-the-wall.  But what most of these suggestions have in common is that they are just a little late.  If these things were all that important, why didn’t people send them in months ago, when the pope could have done something about it?

imageOne recent article struck me in particular.  Without so much as a “Dear Pope Francis,” the author plunged right into seventeen things that the pope absolutely must do while he’s in America;  otherwise his trip will be a total waste of time.  This came from the pen of a respected columnist, so I’m not about to question his good judgement on the issues he raises.  Still, I do question both his timing as well as the spirit in which he offered this.  For one thing, he should have put a stamp on it and sent it off  to the pope weeks — if not months — ago.  Second, why is it that the pope has to do absolutely everyting on the list?  Doesn’t the writer have any personal ambitions beyond writing a column that tells other people what to do?  Why can’t he help the pope out by offering to do even one or two things on the pope’s behalf?  I’m sure the pope would be grateful, and he might even scrawl out a personal note of thanks.

There is a larger issue here, of course, and I think it has to do with the tremendous burdens that we heap upon our leaders these days.  We demand action from our leaders — including the pope — but at the same time we don’t want him telling us what to do.  To be more precise, we want our leaders to tell other people what to do, and we’re more than willing to supply the talking points.  And that goes for the pope in particular.

imageI don’t want to sound too shrill about this because my real concern has to do with behavior in which we all indulge, and which Jesus took to task on more than one occasion.  Jesus was certainly not the first to notice that people are eager to impose heavy burdens on others, and these are burdens which they generally prefer not to carry themselves.  They are arm-chair critics of all those they deem unworthy, but they seem hesitant to reach out to help others carry those burdens.

In our hyper-critical society, that sort of behavior is as prevalent today as it was in the time of Jesus.  We love to point out the shortcomings of our brothers and sisters.  We delight in demanding that others jump through hoops of our own making.  And most egregious of all, we expect that our lealders, religious and otherwise, be perfect.

So it is that when Pope Francis comes to America with a relatively short to-do list, he’ll have scarcely enough time to do it.  But given the high expectations that some have placed upon him, it’s a recipe for failure, or at least for disappointment.

As much as some want Pope Francis to be a ruthless dictator, and others prefer him to be an indulgent and all-forgiving parent, I suspect he’s going to be his own man.  Certainly he is aware of the pastoral tradition of the Church, and as such he’s going to be far more complex and skilled a pastor of souls than many might expect or want.

imageThe monastic tradition also offers insights of which Pope Francis is well-aware.  Saint Benedict advises that the abbot should be a wise physician.  He also advises that the abbot should challenge the strong so that they might grow even sturdier; while he should take care lest he bruise the reeds and break the spirit of the weak.  And above all Benedict reminds his monks that the abbot is human, like everyone else in the monastery.  And so it is that the abbot can ask impossible things of his monks.  In those situations the monks should just do the best they can.

Such is the case with Pope Francis.  I tend to place him in the category of the wise physican, but he will disappoint many because he asks too little of some people and from others too much.  But in response I suspect he’d be the first to admit his shortcomings and ask for forgiveness.  After all, he’s only the pope.

And as for those long lists of suggestions, I suspect he’d welcome all those good ideas.  Then he might very well look up and ask us to get started on them.  After all, who wouldn’t want to help the pope carry his burdens?  There’s no time like the present to do our share of his work.


+On August 29th I concelebrated at the funeral of Mary Nigon at Holy Name Church in Medina, MN.  Last spring I had the opportunity to travel with Mary and her husband Dick on a tour through Umbria and Rome, and she was a delight.  We will all miss her, and she departed from her family and legions of friends far too soon.

+Today, August 31st, is the first day of classes at Saint John’s University.  Gone is the tranquility of summer, replaced by an abundance of activity and energy.

+As we enter the home stretch of summer, many of the gardens at Saint John’s are past their prime, while the summer rains have left the greenery soft and lush.  Some gardens continue to do well, and I was surprised by a flock of monarch butterflies that had taken over the Scary Mary Garden.  Meanwhile, there is a touch of autumn around the campus, as the color on one tree indicates.

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imageSacred Leisure or Wasted Time?

For those who track department store sales figures — (and who doesn’t?) — last week’s reports were not at all reassuring.  It seems that same-store sales at most chains have been flat or trending downward in recent months, and that has some economists worried.  And worry they should, because ours is first and foremost a consumer society.

Financial gurus immediately rushed in with all sorts of explanations, but two in particular seemed quite persuasive.  One pointed out that people have begun to shift their spending to experiences such as meals together and family vacations, and this has come at the expense of trips to the mall.  And a second theory had the ring of common sense about it.  This analyst noted that people have filled their closets with clothes and shoes and knick-knacks, and many have now run out of space for any more stuff.  Until they clear some of this old stuff out, there’s no room for new purchases.  So lack of storage is a partial cause of this shopping log-jam.  And in my eyes at least the solution to that is easy:  we need a crash program to build more and bigger garages and storage sheds in every corner of the country.

imageThis unsettling trend is nothing less than a challenge to our national ethos.  If shopping is no longer the central plank of our national mission statement, then what will become of our consumer society?  If spending time with other people begins to edge out the accumulation of things as our raison d’etre, an entire way of life — to say nothing of a few malls — could vanish.  It’s a frightening prospect.

For a long time I’ve railed against the notion that “we are what we own.”  From the Bible as well as from the Rule of Saint Benedict I’ve derived the theory that God did not plop us on this earth for the sole purpose of amassing material goods.  That said, I’m under no illusion that my words are to blame for these recent commercial trends.  While I appreciate the fact that several people read my blog, there simply aren’t enough of them to turn our economic ship of state onto a different course.  Clearly it’s somebody else’s fault, and I’m not entirely sure who that might be.  But it’s not me.

In a recent address Pope Francis spoke about the need for balance in the routine of our lives, and specifically he stressed the importance of taking time off to spend with friends and family.  He pointed out, among other things, that even God took a day off in the work of creation, and I suppose that if it’s good enough for God, then it’s good enough for us.  “Days of rest, especially Sunday celebrations of Mass and time with family, are important reminders that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is not a ‘slave to work.'”

imagePope Francis could have found no better source of inspiration for this than in the monastic tradition, which has always valued “sacred leisure.”  This is not some euphemism for idleness or laziness, because in fact it sees in leisure the chance to sit back and reflect.  And with that can come insight and creativity.  Not coincidentally, sacred leisure provides the opportunity to renew ourselves and to appreciate one another in an entirely new light.

If time off is necessary, then vacation too has importance, particularly in an overcharged world like ours.  That said, I have to own up to the fact that Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations in his Rule.  To be fair, it’s not that monks in his day had little time for it, or wouldn’t go if they could.  Rather, there simply were no resorts or theme parks available in the early sixth century.  It was also a known fact that leaving the monastery or the security of your village could be a pretty dangerous business.  So the safest course was to stay home and celebrate sacred leisure in security, with people you knew.

imageThat did not mean an endless stretch of monastic tedium, however.  Rather, the cycle of feast days and seasons added texture to the lives of the monks.  Certainly there were long stretches of ordinary days filled with work, but periodically the monks celebrated in both the chapel and in the refectory.  And they also enjoyed the presence of God in their fellow monks and guests.  For Benedict, then, the meaning of a monk was not tied up in his work.  Rather, the monk found meaning in the way he lived a full life, day in and day out.

If Pope Francis has reminded people of the need to spend time in celebration with friends and family, I take heart in statistics that suggest that at least some people are opting for experiences with friends and family, even if it means fewer trips to the mall.  These people have begun to realize that sacred leisure does not mean wasted time.  Rather, this is a decisive moment in the lives of some, when they have decided not to let the pursuit of stuff squeeze them out of their homes, nor let materialism squeeze the life out of  them.  And on a more positive note, perhaps they’ve also come to savor the presence of God in new and unexpected ways.  What a happy surprise to discover God in sacred leisure, spent with friends and family.


+On August 11th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey hosted the clergy of the Diocese of Saint Cloud for vespers, followed by dinner in the Great Hall.

+On August 15th the members of the football team at Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin their regular practices.   They are the first of our students to return, and so ends our summer tranquility.

+On August 16th the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang at the abbey Mass.  This followed their traditonal end-of-summer workshop, and so begins their new season.

+With a nod to Pope Francis, who preferred a “staycation” at his residence at Saint Peter’s rather than go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gondolfo, I managed to stay home for quite a stretch of the summer.  The results were not entirely positive, as the work piled up faster and faster as the summer wore on.  However, I could console myself with memories of escapes that I’ve enjoyed through the years, including a one-day visit to the Cotswolds in England.  I’ve assembled a gallery of photos I took in The Cotswolds, and in this case pictures are almost as good as being there.  The photos in this post are from a small parish church in one of these towns.


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imagePrepare Your Eulogy

If you’ve not paged through The Road to Character, by David Brooks, it’s definitely worth your while.  By now there have been plenty of reviews, and perhaps you’ve read one.  But as an inveterate Brooks fan, let me add to the chorus of appreciation for his latest book.

In it Brooks laments the change in personal ambition that’s taken place over the last fifty years,  For too long now, he notes, increasing numbers of people have spent the bulk of their lives compiling resumés.  To their regret, as they sometimes discover in their twilight years, they should have spent more time on the qualities better-suited for a eulogy.

The root cause of this change in direction is an infatuation with what Brooks calls “The Big Me.”  If, once upon a time, people espoused ideals that tilted toward altruism, that’s simply not the case any longer.  Today “it’s all about me,” and we value others primarily for what they can do for me.

imageHe devotes the bulk of his book to sketches of several gifted individuals who each faced a crisis of character.  Because he’s assembled such a diverse pool of personalities, you wonder what all of these people could possibly have in common.  But the thread that runs through all of them was the dawning awareness that life and civilization and the universe itself was not all about them after all.  In fact, life only began to have meaning when they made room for others in their own lives.  To borrow from the gospels, which Brooks does on more than one occasion, they discovered the nugget of wisdom that Jesus pointed out about those who lose their lives for the sake of others.  Only when they they lose their lives do they begin to regain them.  Only then do they acquire a real sense of purpose.  Only then does life begin to have some semblance of meaning.

If I may be so bold, this is a variation of a theme that I have  hammered away at in retreat conferences for a few years now.  I’ll grant that the point is not unique to me, but my self-interested approach may be a bit on the singular side.  It’s this.  For years I’ve pleaded with people to keep me in mind when they consider end-of-life plans.  “Don’t make me have to tell a pack of lies at your funeral.  For heaven’s sake, and for mine too, give me something to work with.  Think ahead, and give me and your friends some material we can use in your eulogy.”

imageIt strikes me that this is a useful complement to the advice Brooks has to give.  It’s also a chance to leverage self-interest and put it at the service of others.  This is one case in which being considerate of others means doing a big favor for yourself as well.

As a case in point, I cite the eulogy that the abbot has to give on the death of each of our monks.  He usually begins with material that Brooks labels resumé, and he lists the assignments and jobs of the deceased.  What we monks all realize is that these responsibilities were held by monks who went before the deceased, and now that he’s gone we’ll have to find someone else to do them.  So these initial comments of the abbot say little or nothing about the monk whom we remember that day.  It’s not that these things don’t matter;  its just that a resumé does not describe a real human being.

The abbot then shifts to speak about the qualities that this particular monk embodied in his life.  He tries to describe the character and the soul of our confrere, and this is what occasions wistful memories and an occasional chuckle.  This is the description of a real live human being.  This is the monk who loved and prayed and worked and walked alongside us.  This is the man who did some things well and others less well as he joined us in the search for God.

And all the while, as the abbot goes through this exercise, each of us knows that someday our turn will come.  As for me, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve given the abbot enough material for a decent eulogy.  Or will it only be data for a resumé?

imageWhen Brooks points to The Big Me as the root of the problem, it occurs to me that this business has been around for a long time.  Perhaps the first instance of it was the offer that the snake made to Adam and Eve.  Since then a myriad of thoughtful people have reflected on this, including Saint Benedict.   His teaching on the need for humility suggests that The Big Me was alive and well in the sixth century.  More recently I’ve been struck by a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta.  We pray that we be “forgetful of ourselves,” so that we mgiht be clear-eyed to see the needs of the sick and the poor.

The battle with The Big Me rages on within most of us, and as a culture we seem to be losing ground each day.  Given that, it’s helpful to keep one thing in mind.  It wasn’t all that many centuries ago when most people believed that the universe revolved around the sun.  Today we mock them for living in their heliocentric world.  But are we really any smarter for living in an egocentric world?  Only time will tell, and so will our eulogists.  And if we see them heading for the confessional after our funeral, we’ll know we didn’t give them enough to work with.


+On July 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Sheep with a Shepherd, through this link.

+In addition to reading The Pursuit of Character, by David Brooks, I also recently completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2015.)  I enjoy all of McCullough’s work, and I would only fault this book for being too short.  In the Abbey we are reading in the refectory the new encyclical by Pope Francis.

+The summer continues to be lovely at Saint John’s, and in today’s post I have included photos of the gardens inside the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

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