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Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’

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The Monastery:  A Sacred World

Guests are never lacking in a monastery, as Saint Benedict noted in his Rule (RB 53.16).  Therefore we might assume there would be a streamlined procedure for receiving them, but efficiency was not in Benedict’s lexicon.  In fact, the welcome accorded to guests included prayer and the greeting of peace, a bow or prostration to show respect, sacred reading, the offer of food, the washing of hands and, later, the washing of feet.  It was labor-intensive, and it explains why subsequent generations of monks and nuns dispensed with key elements, such as the hand and foot-washing.

Still, I find the practice of hand and foot-washing curious.  They were symbols of hospitality.  But did they hint at spiritual cleansing as well?.  Did Benedict want to purify guests for their transition into the sacred precincts of the monastery?

IMG_7414Guests in Benedict’s time could scarcely fail to notice that they were about to enter a world far different from that of their rustic villages.  The monastery was a sacred space, populated by God-seeking people who followed a regimen built around a sacred calendar.  It was also meant to be a place where peace and love prevailed.  That was the theory, at least, but could that have a broader application?  Medieval monastic practice suggests that many thought so, and it explains why monks and nuns sought to expand the sense of the sacred and apply it to all of society.  Many abbeys in the MIddle Ages joined in transforming society through movements like the Peace of God (Pax Dei) and the Truce of God, and these efforts chipped away at pervasive violence, with limits that were both practical and measurable.

The principles were simple enough.  If violence were sinful, then it was doubly so when done on Church land.  Violence on Sundays and during seasons like Lent was equally abhorrent to God.  Worse still was violence done to the clergy or to the defenseless or the poor.  In time these notions took root, and this helps to explain the universal shock that greeted the news of Thomas Becket’s murder in the late 12th century.  He was an archbishop killed inside a cathedral during the Christmas season.  Could there have been a more serious crime?

For centuries the Church encouraged these limits on violence, and gradually European society evolved from the age of warlords to a culture in which all were considered sacred.  Gradually, too, spread the notion that all time and spaces are sacred, because they belong to God.

All of this was far in the future when Benedict wrote his Rule, but the vision for a peaceful society was there.  For him the monastery was the blueprint for the city of God.  Why restrict that vision to the cloister?

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Notes

+On October 10th and 11th I gave presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Montreat Conference Center, located just outside of Asheville, NC.  The Presbyterian Church/USA runs the center, and it is tucked into a somewhat remote wooded valley in the western part of the state.  I’d only been to North Carolina once before — to Charlotte — so this was new and lovely territory to me.  I spoke at an annual gathering of Presbyterian clergy.

+The multiplication of natural disasters during the past few weeks have touched the lives of so many, and we are not exempt from the consequences even if we live in Minnesota.  Last week, for example, the president’s office and the office of campus ministry at Saint John’s University received resources from faculty and staff and some alumni, which will be forwarded to support the relief efforts of Catholic Charities in Immokalee, FL.  We currently have six students from Immokalee at Saint John’s, and the recent hurricane severely impacted their hometown.  On another front, the Abbey joined with several other Benedictine monasteries to send support to the Abbey of San Antonio Abad, in Puerto Rico.  Monks from Saint John’s founded that community in 1948.

IMG_7435+In between times I still manage to do casual reading, and I’ve just finished Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is a piece of non-fiction that my sister had recommended to me.  Set in Osage County in northern Oklahoma, author David Grann of The New Yorker tells the gripping story of the Osage tribe, which had been relocated to what was considered worthless land, only to become fabulously wealthy when oil was discovered on its property.  The true story recounts several dozen murders of tribal members and the efforts of the early FBI to solve the case.  For several years my other sister lived on a ranch in Osage County, and so it became familiar territory to me.

+Today’s post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey.

+The fall colors have been late in coming to Minnesota this year, and particularly so on our campus.  During the last few days they have peaked, however, and I am guessing that by next week the maple leaves will have fallen.  That in turn will pave the way for an encore from the oaks.  The photos in today’s post show some of the leaves at their best.

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Be Careful What You Pray For

I usually don’t pay all that much attention to the lyrics of the hymns we sing.  In some the words are benign, while in others the sentiments can be sweet or inane enough to make me cringe.  As a rule, then, I invest my energy in the music — particularly with hymns that I’ve come to love.

IMG_0002_2This last Sunday, however, the final hymn at the Abbey Eucharist caught my attention.  The gospel passage of the day — from Matthew 18 — had spoken of the importance of forgiveness, and Jesus made his point with the parable of a servant who had begged of his lord forgiveness of a huge debt he could not repay.  Then he turned right around to press a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of that amount.  It was an example of ingratitude at its worst, and it turned on its head that old saw about doing to others as you would have them do unto you.  Needless to say, those familiar with this parable know the grim fate in store for this wicked servant.

The parable calls to mind the Lord’s Prayer, which urges God to forgive us as we forgive others.  That shifts the onus for initiative onto our shoulders;  and now that I think about it, I’m tempted to pray that segment with more caution than I have in the past.  I say that prayer several times a day with my confreres, and it now dawns on me the risk I am taking.  I’m literally asking for it.

Anyway, the hymn in question is entitled Forgive Our Sins, and Ralph Finn’s text opens innocently enough.  Through the first verse I was able to concentrate on the music.  But the second and third verses stopped me in my mental tracks.

 

“How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

In blazing light your cross reveals

the truth we dimly knew:

How small are others’ debts to us,

How great our debt to you!”

 

IMG_0024_2With these words I lost track of the music, and only with the final verse did I regain my bearings.  Still, what I took away was an intriguing thought I’d not considered before.  I am keenly aware of the many wonderful things I do for others, and naturally their frequent instances of ingratitude hurt.  Against my own interests I sometimes clutch tightly to those hurts, because they can be hard to let go.  Worse still, if I’m not careful they can become part of the emotional baggage that I have to carry around.  That baggage can spoil relationships, but it can also spoil me.

It also dawns on me how much I owe God, and I have to confess that I fall short in expressing my gratitude.  All the same, God forgives my ingratitude, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty unforgiving of others.  The fact is, God sets a better example when it comes to forgiveness than I do, and for that I should be even more grateful.

One practical application of this comes to mind, and it’s a bit of advice from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  He writes about a monk who nurses a grudge, and I hope it will not come as a shock to know that this warning was not written solely for my personal benefit.  Benedict points out what happens to me and any other monk who nurtures hurts.  Nurturing such hurts transforms me, and I gradually become someone I never set out to be.

So I return to ponder those words of Ralph Finn as my meditation for the day.

 

How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?

 

It’s something to chew on.  Better still, it’s advice to act upon while there’s still plenty of time to live.  And as for that bit about praying that God will forgive me as I forgive others, I think I’m going to be more careful about what I pray for.

IMG_0005_2Notes

+On September 13th our confrere Fr. Fintan Bromenshenkel passed away, nearly three weeks shy of his 99th birthday.  He was our senior monk.  In his long career he headed the computing center in the University, and later served for several years at our mission in the Bahama Islands.  In his later years he worked in the garden and weeded the gravel path that ran diagonally across the monastic garden.  He was a wonderfully cheerful soul, and we will miss him.

+September 12th was a rather unusual day for one of our alumni.  That day Mark Vande Hei, ’89, blasted off into space, where he will serve for several months at the international space station.  He was a physics major and in ROTC at Saint John’s, and later he earned a graduate degree at Stanford University before teaching at West Point.  In the course of his space travels he will lead a class with our students, which he will conduct from the space station.

+On September 15th-16th we hosted Bishop Steven Lopes, who heads the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  In that capacity he shepherds former Anglican clergy and congregations in North America who have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.  Bishop Lopes and I have been friends for many years, and have worked together as chaplains in the Order of Malta.  Before his ordination he spent time at Saint John’s while he considered a monastic vocation.

+The top photo in today’s post is a tryptic of the crucifixion, done by our deceased confrere Brother Placid.  For the last fifty years it has hung in the Prep School, but some enterprising monks carted it over to the Abbey church for the Feast of the Holy Cross.  The other photos show renditions of the cross in fresco, stained glass and sculpture.  They are all housed at Saint Alban’s, a one-time Benedictine abbey located north of London.

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Every Day is Labor Day

What’s a monk to do on Labor Day?  Logically it seems like a day when I should go all out and work overtime.  But then again, it’s a national holiday, which suggests I should labor as little as possible.

Faced with this conundrum, I tend to do what I always do on a stray holiday such as this.  I just put together an extra-long to-do list, do about a quarter of it, and end the day frustrated because once again I’ve squandered a golden opportunity to catch up on things.  Assuming that this is what will happen today, once again I will end up promising to do better next time.

Saint Benedict spilled a lot of ink on the importance of work in the monastery, and in his Rule he devoted an entire chapter to the topic.  However, it was a complex issue for him, and for that reason his comments on it pop up all over the place in the Rule.

IMG_7183It’s undeniable that Benedict had a healthy respect for work, even if it was and is an unavoidable part of life.  “They are truly monks when they live by the work of their own hands,” he wrote, and elsewhere he asked his monks to treat the tools of the monastery with the same respect that they would show to the vessels of the altar.

But work is more complicated than that, and Benedict realized it.  He knew that some monks would grumble about the work assigned to them, while others would flourish and be grateful for the chance to do work that they really enjoyed.  Some would take inordinate pride in their skills, while others would grab for the chance to convert their responsibilities into little fiefdoms.  All of this suggests one fundamental point:  when it comes to work monks then and now share pretty much the same attitudes that pervade the general population.

In addition to that reality, Saint Benedict conceded that work is a necessary part of life in the monastery — and it was so every day.  Whether he and his monks liked it or not, there were no days off — and that went for Sunday as well.  After all, even on the holy days somebody had to prepare and serve the food.  Somebody had to clean the dishes, set the tables, and sweep away the mess.  Others had to tend to the guests and prepare the church for the liturgy.  Somebody else needed to see to emergency repairs so that the buildings wouldn’t burn up or fall to the ground.  Others had to take care of the sick and elderly.  With these sorts of responsibilities there could be no days off, nor could the monks delegate much of this stuff to outside contractors.

IMG_7186In sum, in Benedict’s day every day was Labor Day.  It’s also safe to say that life for his monks paralleled life as it prevailed throughout society.  The same is the case today.  For better and for worse, we all know what would happen if everyone decided — for one whole day — to do absolutely nothing.  For starters, we’d all wonder who would wait on us.

So on this Labor Day the best course for me is to keep in mind the balanced life that Benedict proposed for his monks.  I should do some sacred reading and go to pray with my brothers.  I should take my meals with them and recreate with them.  I should rest.  And I should do some work.  And as I do my work I need to do my very best and at the same time remember two important points.  First, my value as a human, being created in the image of God, rests on a lot of stuff, and not just on the job that I have.  I am more than what I do.  And second, I should always be grateful for all the work that others do.  Without them, I’d have to do absolutely everything myself.  I just don’t have that kind of time.

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+August 28th marked the first day of the new school year at Saint John’s University.  It began, as is customary, with an academic convocation in the Abbey and University church.

+The only official act on my calendar last week was to attend the first football game of the season, at which Saint John’s hosted the College of Saint Scholastica, from Duluth.  It took place on September 2nd, and it was a beautiful day but a lop-sided game.  Saint John’s set a record by winning 98-0.  To be fair, they did not try to run up the score, and practically everyone on the team of 180 players got to play — including two first-year quarterbacks.  It just was not Saint Scholastica’s day.

+Every now and again a piece of work comes up for which there is no mention in The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Such was an instance last week when one of the bells needed repair.  Brother John fearlessly stepped forward to do the work, and in the top three photos in today’s post you can see him perched at the top of the ladder.  You can click on the photos and enlarge them, and the third one of Brother John in the basket gives an idea of just how huge the cross is.

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Jesus, Be Patient with Me!

The quickest way to spread news in a monastery is to tell someone not to tell anyone.  It’s just human nature, and St. Benedict was under no illusion that monks were different from anybody else.  After all, he knew only too well that monks were people too.  So he ordered his monks not to engage in gossip or murmuring of any sort.  Good luck on that one!

In Matthew 16 Jesus warned his disciples to tell no one about about his real identity.  The cynic in me says it was a clever ploy, and it worked.  In short order the disciples took the news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.  But a lot happened between Matthew 16 and the commission to preach to everyone, and therein we see the patience that Jesus showered on his disciples.

IMG_6847The passage from Matthew 16 opens with this simple question that Jesus puts to the disciples.  “Who do people say that I am?”  Here Jesus sounds a bit like a politician concerned about the polls.  Was Jesus insecure about his public image?  Or did he simply want to satisfy his own curiosity?  I can only speculate, but I would suggest that perhaps he meant the question to stir his disciples rather than to find out how his message was going over with the larger population.

The data that the disciples gave to Jesus was a little odd.  Some said that Jesus was John the Baptist.  Others thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  These were ridiculous answers if they were meant literally, because Jews then and now — like Christians — do not believe in reincarnation.  And so I interpret these answers as signs of a struggle over the identity of Jesus.  Clearly many had concluded that Jesus was some sort of prophet in a long line of prophets — and a great one at that.  But just as clearly some thought that Jesus brought a message from God, but he was neither God nor the Son of God.  For them Jesus was an interesting fellow with a compelling message.  But he had no claim on their hearts.

Not so for the disciples, as Peter’s testimony suggests.  It had begun to dawn on them that Jesus had a claim on them, and they could never be the same after meeting him.  They would be very different poeple over time, and in Matthew 16 we see evidence of that spark of understanding.

Perhaps Jesus asked for their silence at this stage because it’s one thing to confess the Lordship of Jesus, and quite another to let Jesus transform one’s life.  Anyone who knows the gospel story can certainly see this distinction take flesh in the lives of the disciples.  The disciples may have had an inkling of the real identity of Jesus, but that didn’t prevent them from running away on the eve of his passion.  Nor did their post-resurrection behavior suggest that they were thoroughly convinced of who Jesus really was.  But still they were curious.

IMG_6851St. Benedict set up his monastery as a place where monks might seek God.  But much like the dog who chases a car but has no plans were he to actually catch it, so monks face the same dilemma.  What do monks do when they unexpectedly find that their search for God gives a glimmer of success?  Well, from my own experience I’ve come to realize that the search for God is more than a mattter of satisfying my curiosity.  Far from it.  The search for God is a lot like playing with fire.  So when I do seem to snatch a fleeting glimpse of God working in my brothers, I know I cannot respond conventionally.  It’s not a matter of calling a pollster to report that Jesus is the Son of God.  It’s deeper than that.  Like the disciples, I too have to let that insight percolate through and transform my life.

Any search for God requires patience and time — perhaps even a lifetime.  But because we live in a culture that demands instant gratification, we’re inclined not to budget time for long-term projects.  And so I tend to be one of those who is willing to give Jesus a day or two to do his work, and if nothing happens then I’m tempted to move on.  But this is short-sighted, to point out the obvious.  The encounter with Jesus needs to stretch out for a lifetime, and thankfully Jesus is willing to invest the time in us.  That explains the patience that Jesus showed to his disciples — and to Peter in particular.  And it explains the patience he shows to me.  Heaven knows how I need him to be patient with me!

IMG_6850Notes

+On August 24th I spoke to a group of about fifty alumni of Saint John’s University, gathered in St. Louis Park, MN.  The subject was our work with First-Generation college students at Saint John’s, and more particularly my own work with a project that has brought students from Immokalee, FL, to Saint John’s.  Happily, this fall we now have six students from Immokalee, and it is gratifying to see them progress, both in age and wisdom.

+On August 25th we monks welcomed the 467 freshmen at Saint John’s to pray evening prayer with us.  Following that, the students broke into smaller groups in order of meet with individual monks and learn something about our lives in the monastery.

+On August 26th I gave a day of reflection for people preparing for the Promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  This took place in Evanston, IL.

+On August 28th — today — the new school year begins at Saint John’s University.  Gone is the tranquility of summer, and in its place is a wonderful sense of energy.

+The images in today’s post show a spectacular retable and frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, made in Castile in Spain, ca. 1396.  It is housed in the Art Institute in Chicago.

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Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.

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+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.

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IMG_0189_2Find the Sinners You Can Live With

Last Saturday I gave a day of reflection for a young man who has now begun his formal entrance into the monastery.  It was his first day as a candidate, and Fr. John — the formation director — had asked me to deliver two conferences.  I was free to talk about anything I wanted, as long as it had something to do with the monastic life.  To say the least, that still gave me plenty of leeway for topics.

What advice do you give to someone who’s come to enter the monastery?  “Don’t do it!” is certainly one option, and it would have made my day much easier had I selected that.  But I knew that Fr. John would frown on that approach, and it wasn’t my sentiment anyway.  So I puzzled over several themes until I concluded that it would be presumptuous of me to tell any candidate what he needed to know or to do.  I also realized that I was going to have to sit through these conferences.  So why not say something that might make an impression on me?  That way if the candidate’s attention were to drift off as I droned on, at least one of us might get something out of the experience.  So in the interests of pure self-interest I decided to remind myself of three points.

First of all, why do people come to the monastery?  Saint Benedict supplied the answer in his Rule, and it’s simple enough.  “The monk comes to seek God.”  Still, that’s a little abstract and doesn’t really touch on the practical reasons for why people embrace this life.  The fact is, novices enter for all sorts of reasons.  They may have a friend or two in the community.  They find the life attractive.  They enjoy the liturgy and the music.  They want to be involved in some aspect of the work of the community.  These are just a few of the lures that the Holy Spirit dangles to inspire people to enter.

IMG_0191_2But these are not the reasons that cause monks to stay in the monastery for a lifetime.  The fact is, monks grow and mature, as do whole communities.  What matters at one point may matter less twenty years down the road as monks grow in age and experience and wisdom.  What brought them to the monastery merely began a process that lasts a lifetime, and change occurs along the way.

That brings me to the second point.  In the course of life most monks gradually discover that the abstract business of the search for God is actually why they remain.  They also discover that God is not nearly so distant as they may have once assumed.  Gradually, little by little, they learn the lessons that Saint Benedict intended to teach.  They do begin to get glimpses of God in the abbot, in the sick and elderly, in the guests and the young, and even in themselves.  That’s the unexpected reward of the monastic life, unless of course a monk manages to keep his eyes closed to all of this.  But if a monk can keep his eyes alert to the possibilities, then he will rub elbows with Christ, resident in the people around him.

IMG_0155_2My final point has to do with a fundamental reality of life in community.  Monks may see the face of Christ in one another, but they also must come to terms with the fact that monks are people too.  In spiritual terms they are both sinners and saved.  In social terms, they all have their assets and their liabilities.  Every monastery and each monk does some things very well, and they fall woefully short in other areas.  The irony is that it can be as difficult to live with gifted people as it can be to live with sinners.  But the challenge for any candidate is whether he can live with these particular sinners and their particular sins.  If this is a deal-breaker, then he needs to find other sinners who are more to his liking.

These are the points with which I satisfied myself during that day of reflection.   That said, I harbor no illusion that these issues are somehow unique to the monastic life.  For bettter and for worse these crop up in marriage and friendships and in most any human relationship.  And if they are the challenges that we all encounter in the course of our spiritual pilgrimage, then no one should be surprised to encounter them in the monastic pilgrimage.  Therein is the struggle, and therein is the reward of a life well lived.  Along the way, the important goal is this:  find the group of sinners with whom you will flourish on the path to God.  Not surprisingly, then, that’s what novitiate is all about.

IMG_0182_2Notes

+On March 30th I sat in on the weekly meeting of the Benedictine Living Group, led by Brother Aidan.  Participants are college students who live together for a year in one of the residence halls and commit themselves to regular prayer together, as well as a fall and spring retreat and a weekly seminar on the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It was fun to participate in their discussion, especially since I didn’t have to prepare anything in advance.

+On April 1st I gave the day of reflection to our incoming candidate for the monastery.  For two months he will live and work and pray with us;  and at the end of that period he can apply for the novitiate.

+We had plenty of guests during the past few days in the monastery.  For two days four students from Saint John’s University lived with us as part of their introduction to the monastery.  On Saturday April 1st sixty students and three faculty from St. Olaf College joined us for Mass.  This is a yearly trek for these classes from St. Olaf, and no doubt they were surprised by the fact that their host for the day, Brother David-Paul, is an alumnus of St. Olaf.  He is subprior of the monastery.

+On March 31st Brothers Simon Peter and Asiel arrived and will spend a week with us.  They are newly-professed monks at Newark Abbey in New Jersey.  For years we have sent our Benedictine Volunteers to work in their school — Saint Benedict’s Prep — and since 2007 we’ve enrolled over thirty of their alumni at Saint John’s.  On Sunday the current cohort of those students joined Brother Simon Peter and Asiel for dinner in the monastic refectory.

IMG_0102_2+The photos in today’s post all show art from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Crucifixion, by the Master of St. Veronica (Germany, tempera on panel, ca. 1400/1410).  Next is Calvary, by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster (German, oil on panel, ca. 1470-1480).  Below that is The Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene, by Pietro Perugino (Umbria, 1482-1485). The gruesome Crucifixion is by Matthias Grünewald, Germany, ca. 1511/1520.  At bottom is St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Cima da Conegliano, Venice, ca. 1500-1005.

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IMG_2053A Phobia We Can Live Without

Last week I reached into my big bag of fears and took out two of my favorite phobias.  Claustrophobia is one I share with many people, but it has a special irony for me because I’ve chosen to live in a cloister.  If claustrophobia bothers me, then I have to bear some of the responsibility, even if I have no idea how I came by that phobia.

My fear of hypodermic needles is a different matter altogether, and I trace that back directly to our childhood nurse Rose.  To be fair, it wasn’t Rose the nurse who terrified me and my two sisters.  Rather, it was her long blunt needles.  They seemed ideally calibrated to take core samples from the earth, and even the hint of a visit to her office sent shivers down our spines.

Anyway, last week I faced a double-whammy of phobias when I had to visit a clinic for an MRI and a cortisone shot in my lower back.  It was my first time for each, and dire warnings had prepared me for the worst.  I’d always dreaded this moment, and I can only hope that my obvious anxiety mitigated my dramatic plea to the doctor for a tranquilizer.  Mercifully he obliged, but even then I knew it wouldn’t be enough to calm me.  And it wasn’t.

IMG_2054I trembled every step of the way as the nurse led me down the hall.  My mind went into overdrive, and in a last-ditch effort I tried to console myself with the thought that I’d wedged myself into airline seats that had to be smaller than this machine.  But even that dark humor failed to work.  Then the door swung open, and for a moment I stared in stunned silence at the machine that was about to eat me.

“What?!  Do you mean to tell me that you got me all worked up for THAT?  That’s nothing!”  I meant my mock outrage to disguise my relief, because in front of me was not the coffin-like tube I had expected to rest in for twenty minutes.  Instead there was a bright and airy contraption, well-lit and comfortable.  It even came complete with head phones and Sirius Radio for my easy-listening entertainment.  I chose soft jazz, climbed on, settled in and dozed off.  It truly was nothing.

Then came the ordeal of the cortisone shot.  That too turned out to be a bust.  There was no pain to speak of, and the worst of it was the anxiety of waiting for the pain that never came.  That’s when I began to realize what I had done to myself.  I had worked myself into a tizzy, and all I had to show for it was a totally unnecessary spike in my blood pressure.  Even worse, two treasured phobias of mine had turned out to be paper tigers, and I had embarrassed myself by the silly fuss I had made.

IMG_2056I’m not a professional psychologist, and so I’m in no position to explain the grip that phobias can have on us.  Still, as an amateur human being with plenty of phobias to my name, I will venture this.  Common to all phobias is the fear of losing control of ourselves in the face of something much bigger than ourselves.  Whether fanciful or quite real, these fears threaten our autonomy and perhaps even our existence.  Quite rightly we sit up and take notice.

Saint Benedict does not have a section in his Rule on phobias, but he does address one situation in which a monk risks losing his autonomy in the face of something much larger than himself.  In chapter 68 he writes of that moment when the abbot might ask impossible things of a monk.  A monk in this predicament rightly feels helpless — damned if he tries and fails, and damned if he fails to try.  He runs the risk of disappointing the abbot by his own failure, even as he is sure of his own inability to do the task at hand.  In short, he’s lost control of his life to forces beyond him.

Saint Benedict doesn’t offer a lot of practical remedies for this situation.  He doesn’t encourage the monk to protest wildly, nor does he suggest that someone act as an arbiter between monk and abbot.  However, he does encourage the monk to submit in love to the command of his abbot and hope that somehow it will all turn out well.

It occurs to me that Saint Benedict may have taken this approach because he is thinking about the larger issues of life.  On any given day there are things that a monk will find challenging, but life itself is the challenge.  Life itself can seem insurmountable, unless of course the monk submits to it in love.

IMG_2055Not surprisingly, we all find ourselves in the same pickle when it comes to God.  There are days when God seems to demand the impossible of us.  And when Jesus asks us to be perfect as his Heavenly Father is perfect, that too is a recipe for failure.  In the face of such a command, who is not bound to fail?  In the shadow of the majesty of God, who doesn’t fear being overwhelmed and forgotten?  How could God possibly take notice of a single poor soul?

On the day when God appears to ask too much of us, that is the day when we must plunge ahead in love.  On the day when we imagine ourselves as nothing in contrast to God, that’s the moment to recall that God so loved each of us that he sent Jesus for our salvation.  On the day when we think God’s hand reaches out to smother us, remember that God reaches out for the sole purpose of gathering us into the palm of his hand.

Not for a minute would I suggest that it’s easy to toss away our phobias.  I’m sure that claustrophobia is lurking in the shadows, waiting for its next chance to scare the daylights out of me.  And as for hypodermic needles, these we will always have with us.  But to be afraid of God?  That’s a phobia we can live without.

IMG_2057Notes

+Last week was a time of missed opportunities.  I had planned to attend  a talk by Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough ’92, who spoke at Saint John’s on March 14th.  For the last four years Denis has been the chief of staff at the White House.  Then on March 16th I had registered to attend an alumni reception at the new US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.  I was able to attend neither of these events, much to my disappointment.

+On March 15th I spent the afternoon getting an MRI and a cortisone shot in my back.  Happily, I am making good progress with my back, and I look forward to the day when I can ditch the walker that currently allows me to get around.  The pain is down considerably.  What I have come to appreciate most these past three weeks is the enormous amount of work that people have put in to make our campus accessible.  I had no idea how complicated it could be to get through doors until I had a walker in tow.

+On March 18th retired Bishop John McRaith of the Diocese of Owensboro, KY, passed away.  Bishop McRaith was an alumnus of our Prep School.

+The photos in today’s post show the panels of the Troyes Altarpiece, ca. 1525, now housed at the V & A in London.  It is made of limestone, painted and gilded.

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