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Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’

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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IMG_0021_2The Small Things:  Where God Works Best

It was my first morning as chaplain on a cruise ship.  How I got that plum job is a story for another time; but in return for a daily Mass, Sunday services for the crew, and availability to one and all, I got passage from San Francisco to Alaska and back.  The gorgeous scenery was merely a free extra, as were moments of quiet time.

I was seated in a cafe, sipping coffee and trying to compose a sermon for the Mass I would say later that morning.  Despite the hour, the place was surprisingly full, and when one white-haired gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly welcomed him.  I could figure out a sermon later, I hoped.

So began a friendship that has developed in the course of over ten years.  Soon enough I and my friends John and Rose Lyden were on a first-name basis, and an encounter that began at sea took root on land.  Later I did a two-week stint at their home parish in Bridgehampton, NY, and still later I witnessed the renewal of wedding vows by them and nine other couples on the occasion of their 50th anniversary.  Last May I had the honor and the sad duty to preach at Rose’s funeral.  In the course of all that I recognized that in some way I had become part of the family.

Gradually John and Rose learned about my life as a monk at Saint John’s, and they also learned about my work at Saint John’s University.  It was after their first visit to Saint John’s that John stunned me with a question.  He knew we had done great work in partnership with St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.  Graduates from that inner-city school had come to Saint John’s for college, and the results have been extraordinary.  For his part John had worked with an organization to improve graduation rates at Immokalee High School, situated at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from nearby Naples, FL.  Many there were now ready for college, and he wondered if Saint John’s might be the right place for some of them.  The light bulb went on in my head, and my quick response was “Yes!”  John would help to make their education at Saint John’s possible, if we would extend to these guys the same sort of moral support we have given to the guys from Newark.

IMG_0023_2This year, two years into the project, we have four guys from Immokalee at Saint John’s.  This fall and next we expect to add two more per year.   Our goal then is to have eight students at any given time, with two students in each class.  We hope to see each graduate within four years, with little or no debt to encumber them as they embark on their post-college careers.  Considering the challenges of life in Immokalee — a community of migrants that struggles mightily — this is nothing short of a God-send.  It’s the chance for these young men to shape lives in which poverty will no longer be the major factor.  They can be who they choose to be.

John is nothing if not persistent and high-energy, and as we began the project he enlisted the partnership of his college classmate from Brown University, Jack Marshall.  The goal was to support a rotation of eight students and in time to have those eight scholarships fully endowed.  Obviously we need the help of others to make it happen, but ours is a noble objective.  We hope to shape the lives of some promising young men and to give them the chance for a future beyond anything they might have imagined.

IMG_0149_2Not a few people thought we were crazy.  Could a kid from Florida find happiness in Minnesota?  I pointed out that for decades Saint John’s has hosted students from the Bahamas, and none has ever died of the cold.  Of course there would be cultural differences between Immokalee and Collegeville.  But would they be insurmountable?

Last fall, a month into the school year, Osbaldo, a freshman from Immokalee, stepped out of his dorm room and ran into some of his floor mates.  He had just cut his own hair, and some asked if he might cut theirs.  Later a freshman who had graduated from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles asked if he might cut his hair too.  Osbaldo hesitated, then said he was self-taught and had never cut black hair before.  “Go for it,” replied the Angelino.  A month later he was back at Osbaldo’s door.  “I have an interview for an internship tomorrow.  Can you cut my hair again?”

There you have completely non-scientific proof that such a crazy idea just might work.  Anytime a Latino from Immokalee, FL, cuts the hair of a guy from Los Angeles in a dorm room in Collegeville, MN, something good must be happening.  It may be community; it may be friendship; but whatever it is, it isn’t bad.  In fact, it may just be a bit of the magic that Saint John’s can work.

Saint Benedict in his Rule wasted no time writing about transformative experiences on top of a mountain.  For him most anything of value takes place slowly and deliberately, and generally in the most ordinary of times and places. So it was that I was blessed to be having coffee one morning off the coast of California.  I thought I had sat down to write a sermon, but God had other plans.  Because I welcomed another person to sit at my table, I ended up knowing two and then three terrific people.  Then one thing led to another.  What came of it all was the chance for a few kids from Florida to come to work their own magic and to create new lives for themselves at Saint John’s.

IMG_0170_2Notes

+On March 11 St. Martin’s Voices, a choir of ten from the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, joined us for evening prayer.  They sang two psalms as well as the Salve Regina, and we listened in awe to the beauty of their voices.  Saint John’s has had a long relationship with St. Martin’s, and this was not the first visit of their choir to Saint John’s.  A set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible sits on permanent display in their educational center, and they’ve hosted an exhibit of the Bible.  More recently the former vicar of St. Martin’s, Bishop Nicholas Holtam of Salisbury, joined us at Westminster Cathedral in London when Cardinal Vincent Nichols invested our scribe Donald Jackson as a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.

+About two weeks ago Brother Walter led a group that fixed 1,100 taps to maple trees in one section of the forest.  For the sap to flow well it must climb above freezing in the day and go below freezing at night.  Since then we have had rollercoaster weather.  Twice we we’ve gone into the 60s, and on the 12th it snowed.  Who knows whether the sap will flow today.

IMG_0120+I have much improved since I pulled something in my back a few days ago.  I have stayed at home, save for trips to the doctor, and later this week I will have an MRI, which I dread.  This is an irony worthy of Dante, in that someone who lives in a cloister should be claustrophobic.  But I will survive.

+There is a postscript to the story of the cruise worth sharing.  At that first Mass cheers erupted from the back of the room when I introduced myself.  “What’s that about,” I thought to myself.  They came from two alumni from Saint John’s — one from Atlanta and the other from Danville, CA.  We’ve been friends ever since.

+In today’s post I have a variety of images from two museums.  At top are two stained glass windows, each from the 16th century.  The first is French glass, and the second Italian.  Both are from the Civic Museum in Bologna, Italy.  Below them is an ivory image of the Arrest of Jesus, made ca. 1320, in Paris.  Following that is a Crucifixion by Leonard Limosin, made in Limoges ca. 1552. At bottom is Christ in Blessing, Byzantine, 10-11th c.  The bottom three pieces are housed in the Louvre in Paris.

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Lent:  A img_5240Time of Renewal

How the hotel staff managed to miss the signs of decay is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps because they used the employee entrance in the rear they simply never noticed.  Meanwhile, the obvious stared at every incoming guest.  Some must not have cared and registered anyway, while others saw it as fair warning and walked on by.

What was the issue?  Through the ravages of time the Princesa Sofia Hotel had morphed into the Princesa So.  Worse, its treasured fifth star had begun to plummet comet-like down the facade, and two others had definitely lost their luster.  Most definitely this was not good advertising, but it certainly was truth in advertising.  It suggested to guests that what they saw on the outside was what they should expect to find on the inside.  Caveat emptor!

This may be an odd segue into Lent, but it does point out a seldom-appreciated reality that we all face as we make adjustments in our lives.  The view we have of ourselves by its very nature is going to differ from the perspectives others have of us.  From the inside looking out, we see ourselves as people of good intentions, highly principled, hard-working, and wonderful to be around day or night.

img_0079_2That said, no one should be surprised to discover that many of the people around us do not share that view.  From their position on the outside looking in at us, they see someone with gifts and foibles, with strengths and weaknesses.  For better and for worse, our wiser friends hesitate to share these insights with us, while we wave off the views of our harsher critics as gratuitous and mean-spirited.  That explains why so many of us conclude that there’s no need for us to change.  We’re fine, just the way we are.

Once such an attitude is entrenched, growth and improvement are much harder to come by.  We slip into ruts from which we cannot escape so easily, and we end up missing so much that life has to offer.

Ash Wednesday has its somber side with the reminder that we came from the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return.  But that’s not meant to depress or paralyze us.  Rather, it’s meant to be a clarion call to make the most of what God gives us — be it years, talents, and the capacity for growth.  That sometimes can involve the need to step back and appreciate what others might see in us.  But above all, it requires us to pause and inventory what God has invested in us and how well we are or are not using it.

img_0069_2In his chapter on Lent in the monastery Saint Benedict wrote that the life of a monk should be a Lenten observance.  Of course monks in the 6th century had no patience for that, nor can modern monks be convinced of that either.  But Benedict anticipated this, and so he prescribed some minor and distinctly non-showy things that monks could add as a Lenten supplement.  On a general level he suggested “refusing to indulge evil habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.”  He offered this not so that he could make life in the monastery drudgery, but so that monks could begin to anticipate the joys of Easter.

It occurs to me that one point of all this is the need to avoid the ruts that so easily stifle our personal growth.  Tweaking a schedule or shaking up a day can be disruptive, but it’s also a way to get a fresh perspective on our lives.  That in turn can give us the insight to change and to grow and to experience Easter — not just once a year — but every day.

My thoughts return to the staff of the Princesa Sofia.  In their use of the employee entrance they never had to confront the most obvious signal of the slow decay that was happening inside the hotel.  They got used to what was inside and learned to live with it.  Perhaps it never dawned on them that it didn’t have to go on like that.  It could be different, and both the hotel and they could flourish.

Lent invites us to break free from our customary ways of doing things.  As a time of renewal Lent encourages us to discover the possibilities in life that we’ve ignored all too often.  It’s a reminder that the point of Christian life is not the sobering reality of the cross on Good Friday.  Rather, we look beyond the cross to the resurrrection on Easter Sunday.  That resurrection is something we can celebrate every day of our lives.

img_0071_2Notes

+This was not the best of weeks for me.  Last weekend I pulled something in my back, which made getting around extremely difficult.  Then on Ash Wednesday I woke up, got out of bed, stood, took a step and fell down.  That had to be a fluke, I thought, but after another try I fell again.  Thankfully it is a pinched nerve that’s causing this, and I will recover, but only after six weeks of therapy.  The doctor advised me to eliminate airports and travel from my immediate plans, and that’s led to a complete rewrite of my calendar for the next two months.  (Actually, I have torn it up.). In the meantime, it is a little strange to have to rely on a walker to get around the monastery.  This too will pass, however.  So that is my Lenten observance.

+Readers of my notes are accustomed to seeing weekly travel reports, but there’ll be none of that for a while.   Thankfully I do other stuff too, including reading.  A couple of weeks ago I finished a book by Cambridge professor Mary Beard, on the history of the Roman Empire.  Entitled SPQR, it is easily accessible to the non-history reader, and it lingered on The New York Times Best Sellers list for weeks.  She gives an insightful overview while at the same time pointing out the cultural legacy of the Romans 2,000 years later.  For example, the political and social boundaries that the Romans set in Europe largely endure to this day.  We observe the month of July in honor of Julius Caesar, and August in memory of Augustus Caesar.  On something as benign as the moment when a new day begins we still follow the Roman custom of midnight.  Does it have to be that way?  In Jewish tradition the new day begins at sunset of the evening before.  This is a book I highly recommend.

img_5241+On March 2nd our confrere Fr. Bryan Hayes passed away at the age of 97.  To say the least, he led a varied life, and it’s worth noting a few bits.  He was born in Clarksville, TN, and he grew up with a fondness for music.  Before coming to the monastery he already was an accomplished composer, with some of his works played at Carnegie Hall.  Later he studied under Aaron Copeland, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and while studying in Italy he met and kissed the hands of the mystic Padre Pio.  That sparked his conversion to Catholicism.  At Saint John’s he taught French, but we will best remember him for the hundreds of hymns he composed.  We sing many of them, and they are among our favorites.  But there are hundreds yet to learn.  I would be remiss were I not to mention that we all considered him to be a “character.”

+I discovered the Princesa Sofia as I walked the streets of Barcelona one afternoon.  As the photo at bottom indicates, eventually someone told the manager about the sign, and he must have gone out and taken a look.  The place seems to be going through a complete overhaul.  One of the favorite Lenten disciplines in former centuries was the giving of alms, and Saint Martin of Tour was venerated for cutting his cloak in half to share with a beggar.  The next three images come from the cathedral of Utrecht in Holland.

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img_5162The Price of Perfection

One of my favorite illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible shows the wrinkled face of an elderly woman, staring out from a mirror.  Her face is weathered, and however else she may have acquired that look, she did not get it from an absence of toil or anxiety.  In fact, as the passage from the Book of Wisdom reads, she is the image of eternal light.  Her face shows the result of a lifetime of service to family, to friends, and to those in need.  And in contrast with our conventional notions of physical beauty, hers is the face of eternal beauty.  Hers is the face of perfection.

In Matthew 5:45 Jesus tells his disciples that they must be perfect, just as their Heavenly Father is perfect.  That’s a tall order, and to my mind it’s a recipe for disaster.  In fact it brings to mind the sin of Adam and Eve, who in their hubris wanted to be like God.  They reached out for the proverbial apple, in hopes that as gods themselves they would be eternal, perfect, and in no need to report to some higher force.  They would be all-knowing and entirely self-sufficient.  But the price for the bite into the forbidden fruit was the awesome realization of their own fallibility.  Their hopes for personal divinity did not square with the sudden shock of their own imperfection.  They could never be what they aspired to be, because their aspirations were self-delusional.

img_5153We know the price that many athletes pay in their quest for perfection on the playing field.  We are all too familiar with the psychological toll of those unrealistic efforts to achieve lasting physical beauty.  Sometimes more than a few of us come to terms too late with goals that are clearly beyond our reach.  That kind of perfection is both elusive and perhaps even self-destructive, because it seduces us with the notion that we can be who we cannot nor should not be.  That disconnect from our own reality, our gifts, and the unique path down which God calls us can leave us with irreparable harm.

When Jesus asks perfection of us, that perfection has nothing to do with physical beauty or athletic prowess or professional expertise.  Certainly none of these are in and of themselves bad, but Jesus reminds us that they are not what life is all about.  Rather, the beautiful life embraces in its arms family, friends, and neighbors.  It is they to whom we are called to pay attention, and it is they whom we should love, in the same measure that we love ourselves.

Sadly there is an unhealthy disconnect within people of obvious talent who leave a path of destruction as they wander through life.  Like the muggers in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they shove person after person into the ditch, expecting someone else to clean up the mess they’ve made.  God forbid that we should ever become such people, and that is what Jesus cautions.

img_5173It’s interesting that in his Rule Saint Benedict wrote no chapters on quality control or professional development.  It’s not that he didn’t care about such things, because he did.  But his primary concern were the healthy relationships that should exist among the monks.  Love and respect should be the bonds that bring them together and congeal them into a family.  All else is bonus.

So it is with all of us who strive for perfection.  The perfection to which Jesus calls each of us does not preclude ideal physical health or athletic prowess.  Nor does it belittle professional expertise.  But all of these are secondary to our love for one another.  If, come the autumn of our lives, we have no wrinkles to show for our service to our brothers and sisters and to the neighbors whom we stumble across in our meanderings, then something important is missing.  We’ve fallen short of the perfection that God hopes for each of us.

img_5168Notes

+In my last post I neglected to report that a few days ago a water pipe burst in the attic two floors above my office.  From a selfish point of view I was glad that the resulting flood missed me by four offices.  However, it did a lot of damage to offices of several of my colleagues down the hall and to the theology department on the floor above.  It turned out to be a mixed blessing for our office manager, Marie, who had put off the filing of mountains of material.  She was able to abridge all that work by sending everything to the dumpster.  Happily, there were electronic copies of most everything anyway.  She also consoled herself with the news that her son, Ben, a senior at Saint John’s University, had just been signed to play football in Europe with the Stockholm Crusaders.  I see game-day trips to Stockholm in her future.

+On February 18th the 2017 edition of Hymnfest took place in the Abbey church.  The Saint John’s Boys Choir and The National Lutheran Choir were the featured singers.

img_5221+The photos in today’s post show the monastery of Pedralbes, located at the edge of Barcelona.  It was founded in 1326 by Queen Elisenda de Moncada, the young (and third) wife of King Jaume II of Aragon.  He financed the construction of this abbey of Franciscan nuns so that she would have a place to live after his passing.  It is a highly unusual complex, for many reasons.  First off, it is the only three-storey cloister I have ever seen.  Second, because they had all the money in hand to build it, it took only some twenty years to construct.  As a result, it has a unified architectural style.  Best of all, it never suffered the ravages of war, and so all the elements of the original monastery are still in place.  The cloisters are serenely beautiful, and the dormitory (second photo) and the refectory (third photo) appear largely as they were built.  The nuns continued to live in it until the 1980’s, at which point they built a new monastery on the other side of the church.  I don’t blame them a bit, because  the old monastery had to be incredibly cold and impossible to heat in the winter.  Today it is a museum open to the public, while the nuns continue to pray in the adjoining church.  (At right is the screen that separates the nuns’ choir from the main body of the church.)  Pedralbes was a treat that I had not anticipated, and I’d return to see it in a heartbeat.

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img_4830Growing in Age and Wisdom

We can only imagine what went through the minds of Joseph and Mary as they approached the temple to dedicate their son to God.  For any Jewish family this was a momentous occasion, but of course their experience up to that point had been a bit unsettling.  Then the ominous words of Simeon had to inject even more anxiety.  Their child was to be the cause for the rise and fall of many in Israel.  What did this old man see in their son that they did not yet see?  What was happening to them?

As the gospels suggest, the next few years must have been quiet ones.  That may explain the skepticism that greeted Jesus when he began his ministry.  People thought they knew him, and there had seemed nothing unusual about him.  So came the ultimate put-down:  wasn’t he just a carpenter, the son of Mary?  And if nothing good ever came from Nazareth, could someone remarkable come from Nazareth?  “We think not,” was the derisive conclusion of many.

Part of this response to Jesus was due to the circumstances of his upbringing.  If people expected all the good and important things to come from Jerusalem, then nothing of real value could come from out-of-the-way places like Nazareth.  Beyond that, there was nothing to hint that Jesus had the training or the capacity to be a mover or a shaker.  He was a nobody, the son of nobodies, from a no-place town.  This was type-casting at its normal, and small wonder that people tried to box Jesus in with such thoughts — especially in his home town.

img_4829Typecasting is a convenient way to sort people out, and its grip can be iron-clad and last a lifetime.  What makes it so destructive is that we bless some people with unreasonably high expectations and overlook their flaws, even as we dismiss the talents of others.  Common to each extreme is the tendency to take a quick inventory of others that falls short of their true essence.  So it is that we meet people early in life and forever after our assumptions about them go unchallenged.  We never give them a chance to break out of the pigeon-hole to which we’ve assigned them.  Sadly, not a few go on to live up to the expectations people ascribe to them.

So it could have been with Jesus.  He could have grown up to be a simple and unassuming carpenter.  Yet, somewhere along the line, he broke free from the stereotype which others had imposed on him.  He grew in age and wisdom, even as few people watched.  Eventually he had to be about his Father’s business, and the people who thought they knew him were more than a little surprised.  They had not counted on this, and when Jesus did not step back into his assigned role, they were disturbed.

img_4832If people did this to Jesus, it’s good for us to realize that we do this all the time to each other.  We meet so many people, and we often rely on the memory of first impressions to keep track of everybody.  But then we are oblivious to the growth that quietly takes place in them, and we miss the talents that are latent within them.  Happily, some have the fortitude to break out of the mould that others impose on them;  but too many accept it and then live up to expectations.

To no one’s surprise, we often do this to ourselves as well.  Often enough it’s just easier to pursue the path of least resistance and make do with our lives.  We fail to step forward and rise to the occasion.  We fail to accept some of the talents that we’ve been given, and a lot of our potential goes unrealized.  We lose out on life, and others never benefit from what we might bring in service.

img_4778At least two things strike me as the antidote to these tendencies.  The first involves the need to be open to others.  Saint Benedict in his Rule asks the abbot to seek advice from even the youngest in the monastery.  He notes dryly that wisdom can reside in the most unexpected of places — even in the young.  Translated to another level, Benedict suggests we should always be keen to see the potential in others and encourage them to grow into it.  Any other course of action impoverishes us all.

The second suggestion has to do with ourselves.  Growth in wisdom is not restricted to our early years.  We can grow and develop at any age, and we should embrace the challenges that life sends our way, rather than retreat from them.  If Jesus could grow in age and wisdom, then so can we.

Through prayer Jesus learned the will of his Father for him, and he accepted and acted upon it.  That’s why we too pray.  We pray especially because we all have plenty to do, at every age, and the Lord gives us the energy and the drive to grow.  All we need do is ask.

img_4775Notes

+During my recent trip to Barcelona I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite museums in all the world.  I spent almost an entire day in the Museum of Catalan Art, which has a vast collection ranging from Romanesque to modern.  On my first visit years ago the collection of Romanesque frescos especially intrigued me, and it is the largest such collection anywhere.  The genesis of the collection was due to foreign acquisition of such frescoes at the turn of the last century, and as an example of such a purchase you can visit the Fontedueña Apse at the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Alarmed that they were losing their patrimony, officials of the museum visited the many derelict churches in the mountains outside of Barcelona, carefully removed the frescos, and reassembled them in the Museum.  Today they awe visitors with their scale, majesty and striking abstract qualities.  They heavily influenced Picasso when he first viewed them, and today there is a permanent exhibit of Picasso alongside the exhibit of frescos.

img_4782The first three photos in today’s post originally were in the parish church of Santa María in Taüll, and the fourth photo shows an 11th-century fresco from the Monastery of Sant Pere del Burgal.  Below that is a ca. 1200 fresco from the church of Santa María d’Aneu.  In addition to the frescos there is also an extensive number of statues and altar frontals, such as the last photo in today’s post.  It comes from a parish church in the diocese of Urgell and it dates from the 12th century.  The variety of holdings is amazing, and next week I plan to insert pictures of an altar frontal that will knock your socks off.

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img_4113Better to Have Lived and Loved

[I delivered the following sermon on 29 January as guest preacher at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo, ND.]

I feel myself quite privileged to be with you this morning, particularly during a week of the year in which many Christian communities pray for closer ties, if not for some sort of unity in the Lord.  That said, we have to acknowledge that this is one of the few really big things for which we pray where we’ve actually made progress over the years.  We pray for world peace, and yet world peace eludes us.  We pray for an end to hunger and disease around the world and wonder if we ever make any headway.  But when it comes to better relations among churches, we’ve made astonishing progress over the last fifty years.

We could read from a long list of encounters between various leaders of the churches, but none of that matters unless we experience something on a personal level.  In my own case the Episcopal Church has impacted me especially when it comes to music.  It’s no secret that for the last five hundred years the Anglican Communion has had a near-monopoly on all the best hymns in English;  and thankfully it’s shared them with churches far less blessed.  In high school I first discovered the richness of The 1940 Hymnal.  Then at Saint John’s Abbey, where I’ve been a monk for more years than I care to say, The 1982 Hymnal remains the source of first and last resort when we’re in need of a good hymn.  If and when you visit Saint John’s, you’ll discover a copy of that book sitting alongside two other hymnals in our choir stalls.  And if you sing with us you’ll realize how much that musical tradition has contributed to our worship.

img_4328Last year I happened to walk along Park Avenue in New York, and as I passed Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church the sign outside the door caught my eye.  The message was simple, warm, and very familiar to me.  It came from The Rule of Saint Benedict, and it’s something that guides our day in the monastery.  “Let all guests be received as Christ.”  If that’s appropriate for a monastery, it’s even more so for a church.  It’s a reminder that the parish church is not some exclusive club.  And if we see the face of Christ in our guests, then it means that Christ is out there walking in the streets.  He’s not just sitting in our sanctuaries.  That, it seems to me, is both a sobering and yet wonderful thought.

In today’s gospel passage from Matthew we read once again the Beatitudes.  It’s a passage we could all afford to read a little more often, because it’s a job description for what it means to be Christian.  The Beatitudes rely upon the same passage which inspired Saint Benedict’s thoughts on guests, and it’s familiar to us all.  Jesus tells us that what we do for the least of people, we do for him, and the Beatitudes translate that high-minded sentiment into lived reality.  They distinguish Christians as a people set apart.  And if by chance we seem out of step with society, it’s not because we are eccentric.  We’ve elected instead to view all of life from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

img_4292I have to confess that for much of my life I have had some difficulty with the Beatitudes.  The fact is, Jesus has taken some undesirable experiences and turned them upside-down and inside-out.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example.  Who among us really wants to be poor in spirit?  Even if I knew exactly what Jesus meant by that, it still sounds like depression to me.  “Blessed are they who mourn.”  Who wants to spend time mourning?  Wouldn’t we rather be happy 100% of the time?  “Blessed are the meek.”  In my experience people trample all over the meek.  “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Isn’t that something of a lost cause?  “Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  At first glance all of these blessings seem to be thankless tasks, if not curses.  Who really wants a life based on these experiences?

The Beatitudes can seem singularly unattractive, and they are until we realize what our world would be like without the people who practice them.  If then the Beatitudes describe people who go through life as doormats or shrinking violets, consider for a moment the alternative.  What if the Beatitudes read like this:  “Blessed are the warmongers.”  “Blessed are the suspicious and paranoid.”  “Blessed are those who are merciless.” “Blessed are those who never have to mourn — ever!”  “Blessed are those who never endure insult because their lives stand for nothing.”

img_4278You could devise your own additions to this list, but you get the point.  The Beatitudes may seem benign, until you realize what life would be like without them.  Could life on this earth even be possible if no one aspired to such principles?  How long would it be before we descended into chaos?

So the first point I would make is this.  The Beatitudes are a blueprint for a good and purpose-filled life.  They virtually demand that we lead active rather than passive lives.  They presume that we would take charge of our lives and live them with the greatest intensity and thoughtfulness.  Even more, they encourage risk-taking.  Taking chances includes the risk of failure, but that’s the point of stepping up to be counted.

I can’t go through all of the Beatitudes, but for just a moment let’s consider the words of Jesus when he says that they are blessed who mourn.  In popular culture people avoid mourning like the plague.  But consider that a life free of mourning is risk-averse.  Such lives are pointless, Jesus teaches, precisely for this reason.  People who mourn, however, are people who have taken risks.  They have taken chances.  When they had the chance to love others, they chose love.  When they had the chance to help someone in need, they helped.  When they had the chance to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and so on, they did it, regardless of the potential risk.  And they did all this for the sake of the kingdom.

img_4299Only those who never love or never care get spared the mourning.  Meanwhile, those who take chances reap the rewards, much as the folk wisdom reminds us: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

In his Rule Saint Benedict urged his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  Many assume that this is an invitation to depression, but in fact it’s an invitation to live life with intensity.  We have so few days, and why would we choose to be risk-averse and hide our lamps under a basket?  On the contrary, Jesus came to give us life, so that we might have it in abundance.  How we pursue our lives is the creative opportunity — the gift — that God gives to each of us.

The Beatitudes are a recipe for life lived to the fullest.  They are an invitation to live life with passion.  And if by chance there are moments of mourning or setback along the way, then it means we are making progress.  We are making good use of the gifts God has given us.  So let us conclude with this prayer:  “May God, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to a wonderful and happy conclusion.”

img_4340Notes

+On January 24th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On January 27th I drove to Fargo, ND, and on the 28th I preached at Gethsamane Episcopal Cathedral.  That evening I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible.  Fr. Mark Strobel, the dean of the cathedral, received a graduate degree at Saint John’s and remains a periodic and welcome visitor to campus.  He and his fellow church members offered hospitality that was truly Benedictine.

I cannot recall when I last went to Fargo, but it was before the Cohn brothers made the movie to which Fargo lent is name.  Being mere feet from Minnesota, you’d think there would be scant difference between the two; but you’d be wrong.  Fargo manages to flourish in its own culture, perhaps because of the independent spirit of the prairie.  For example, at the 10:30 Mass at the cathedral there was a baptism that almost stole the show.  This was one tough baby, and he remained stoic despite the very cold water and being held by the pastor for three minutes or more.  That befits a youngster who was baptised “Odin.”  Yes, Odin.  I was stunned by that name.  Then Fr. Mark told me it was the second Odin he has baptised at the cathedral.  Further, his son’s swimming coach is named Thor.  So just when I thought the Norse gods had faded from memory, I discovered that they have a home in Fargo.  How charming.

img_4285+Two weeks ago I presented photos of the exterior of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The exterior is certainly monumental, and one wonders whether the interior could be up to the challenge of carrying its own drama.  It does, and it succeeds in a way that just overwhelms.  Visitors cannot quite grasp the immensity of it, and these photos scarcely do it justice.  Throughout the church there are sweeping vistas bathed in light, and nooks and crannies that surprise.  The photo at the bottom is of the choir loft, and were I up there I would be too nervous to sing.

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img_4503Pilgrimage to the Mountain

“Let admission to the monastery not be easy.”  So wrote Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries, and ever since then Benedictines have tended to interpret those words in spiritual terms.  Still, there have been exceptions, and so you can’t fault the monks of Montserrat because they took them literally.  Perched half-way up a peak thirty miles west of Barcelona, Montserrat is one tough place to get to.  From the valley far below, there is nothing to indicate that there’s anything up there except craggy rocks.  But then you spy the cable cars dangling high above, and you realize they must be going somewhere.

Benedictines have lived on Montserrat since the 10th century, and in the course of time they have put the difficult terrain to good use.  As they have for centuries, the pilgrims still come.  And if the modes of travel now include train, bus, car, bicycle and cable car, the goal of the journey remains the same.  People still come to venerate the statue of the Black Madonna in the church, and outside on the terrace they gaze out for a spectacular view that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean.

img_4382Secular-minded visitors to Barcelona are startled to read the signs in the middle of the city announcing the trains to Montserrat.  Given that Barcelona is one of the most sophisticated cities anywhere, I too found it a little incongruous.  Hadn’t we left behind the age of pilgrimages in order to indulge in more commercial pursuits?  Why would anyone take a train to some remote spot to see some old statue?  Why would people care to see a spot where a group of fairly average guys are doing their best to find God?  And perhaps the biggest mystery is this:  why would you need several trains a day just to manage all this?

The answers are varied, but the bottom line is this.  For centuries people have trekked up Montserrat.  Most have venerated the Black Madonna and enjoyed the incredible views.  Many have stayed in the extensive guest facilities for a chance to take stock of their lives.  Among them the most famous was the 16th-century visitor Ignatius Loyola, who offered his sword as a token of his conversion.  Suffice it to say that people still do these sorts of things at Montserrat — except for that bit about the sword.

img_4451The ritual that brings most people to Montserrat is the chance to stand in line, patiently, for the chance to venerate the statue of the Madonna.  It sits perched in a niche high above the main altar of the church, and on our recent visit my friends and I were smart to arrive early.  Our wait was minimal, and we enjoyed the added bonus of being seated during the Sunday Mass.  Even though it was the off-season, not everyone was as fortunate.  Some stood through the entire Mass, and after Mass the line to the Virgin stretched out the door of the church and into the square in front.  Timing is everything, even when it comes to a spiritual experience.

All this can suggest that life at Montserrat has always been peaches and cream.  Who knows what adversity the monks may have faced in the Middle Ages, but modern times have provided the greatest tests.  In the early 19th century Napoleon’s armies twice assaulted the monastery, and the place was closed for a few years.  Then it sprang to life, only to contend with a new wave of social unrest during the Spanish civil war.  In that horrible conflict twenty-two monks were executed for their faith.  Even after the war the monks did not enjoy complete tranquility, because despite Vatican II the Franco regime ordered that everyone in Catalonia — monks included — pray in Spanish.  Only in that context can you appreciate the gesture King Juan Carlos made at the death of Franco.  Shortly after his accession to power he came to Catalonia, and his first stop was at Montserrat.  There he spoke in the forbidden Catalan and soon thereafter permitted the use of Catalán in the liturgy.

img_4443Despite being a great symbol of Catalan culture, the monks of Montserrat pursue their lives with neither fanfare nor a sense of self-importance.  They’re tending to the thousands of pilgrims and people on retreat.  They’re busy with the Escalonia — possibly the oldest choir school in Europe.   They’re preoccupied with the need to keep the place in good repair so that it doesn’t slide down the side of the mountain.  And they are also seeing to the daily round of prayer that binds the whole place together.

I left Montserrat with one important lesson.  Monks today contend with the stereotype that we waste our lives in withdrawal from society in silence and isolation.  We console ourselves with the thought that this stereotype — popular outside of the monastery — has never really held sway inside the monastery.  Even Saint Benedict acknowledged this point when he wrote in the 6th century that “guests are never wanting” at a monastery.  The meaning of that?  Guests you will always have with you, and in the face of the guest you have the chance to catch a glimpse of God.

For that reason the monastic life is not meant to be self-serving.  We monks may do our best to see God in our brothers, but we also know how graced we are to see Christ in pilgrims, in our students, in people who come on retreat, and even in those who come merely to gawk.

All that is the Lord’s work, and it’s why society will never outgrow the need for a place set apart, at the edge of society.  It’s why we do what we do at Saint John’s, and it’s why nobody will be canceling the trains to Montserrat any time soon.  The market for that service is there, even in the off-season.

img_4457Notes

+On January 20th my tour to Barcelona came to an end, and the next morning we packed up our memories and headed home.  Chief among the experiences that I savor was our visit to the abbey of Montserrat, where we toured and had the chance to visit with the two Benedictine Volunteers from Saint John’s who are living there this year.

I have to count two site visits as nice discoveries for me.  The first is evidence of the self-imposed blinders that I wear when it comes to things monastic.  I tend to be oblivious to some of the other religious orders, so I was completely unaware of the Poor Clare abbey of Pedralbes, at the edge of Barcelona.  I had not planned to visit there, but the guide said “Do it!”   So I did it.  Queen Elisenda founded it in the late 1320’s, in anticipation of widowhood, and it is pretty much intact today.  Complete with three-level cloister, dormitory, refectory, chapter house and church, it is an amazing survivor of the centuries.  I will share photos of that in a future post.

Also on my list of little surprises is Sant Pau, a 9th-century Benedictine house.  Its romanesque cloister and church are tucked away in an immigrant neighborhood near the center of Barcelona.  It was designed to house only four or five monks, and it’s a real gem.

img_4400Finally, I spent the better part of a day in the Museum of Catalan Art.  It’s famous for its large collection of romanesque frescos rescued from dilapidated churches in the Pyrenees, and I took enough photos to clog my camera.

+I always know when it’s time to come home.  The first signal is that moment when I’d like to take most of my clothes out to be burned.  Helping things along this time was the decline in the weather.  It turned cold, and it rained on the last day.  As a result, the only thing I had to declare at customs was the bad cold I had acquired.

The flight home confirmed that the good times were over.  I was fortunate to sit behind a toddler whose two settings were “screaming at an ear-splitting pitch” and “not screaming.”  Her parents must have known to expect this, and the sound-canceling ear phones made their reading a serene experience.  I would say they were the envy of everyone within ear-shot, but that might be a fib bordering on mortal sin.

+Needless to say, the photos in today’s post give some inkling of what  you would see on a visit to Montserrat.

img_4385

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