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Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’

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.

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img_3993Jesus Blesses and Keeps Us

[Today’s post presents the sermon I gave on New Year’s Day in the Abbey church.]

A few years ago the movie Into the Great Silence gave a glimpse into life in a Carthusian monastery.  To the surprise of many, those Carthusians may have been silent, but their world was anything but.  In fact, their silence allowed them to hear the ordinary things that many of us never hear.

That movie also reinforced the stereotype that all monks keep silence.  That may be true for Carthusians, but it’s certainly not the case with Benedictines; and at Saint John’s I dare say we can chatter away with the best of them.  Still, Saint Benedict did give silence a priority in his Rule, and he outlines it in chapter six.  “So important is silence,” he wrote, “that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written:  ‘In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.'”

Right now some of you may be thinking that maybe it’s time for me to be a good monk and sit down and shut up.  I have to admit that I too was tempted by that thought.  And after all the noise of the last year perhaps it would be a good thing to ask Pope Francis to dedicate 2017 as The Year of Silence, starting now.  But then it occurred to me that on the Feast of Mary the Mother of God I should at least say something, and it need not be a “flood of words.”  And so, in the interest of brevity, I offer these few thoughts.

img_2102First of all, I find the blessing from the Book of Numbers chapter 6 really curious.  Remember that Moses was not allowed to look at God lest he die.  To reinforce that, the law of Moses banned the worship of graven images.  And yet the Book of Numbers asks us to imagine the face of God and the eyes of God and the voice and hand of God raised in blessing.  These are the very human and material attributes that the Mosaic Code bent over backward to avoid.  Was this a concession to a people who could not imagine a relationship with an abstract being or some mystical force pervading the universe?

Then we turn to the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, where we continue with the story of the birth of Jesus.  Mary is indeed the mother of Jesus the man, which all of the gospels stress emphatically.  But she is also the mother of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Like Mary, we are left to ponder what all of this might mean.  How could this possibly be, since it runs counter to the ban on graven images in the Ten Commandments?  Has God defied his own laws?

img_2103Whatever else the mystery of the Incarnation may suggest, it does say one thing quite explicitly:  God so loved us that he sent his son to be one of us.  Jesus has not only become like us;  he has become our very brother.  And in the process Jesus becomes the embodiment of what God promises in the Book of Numbers.  In Jesus God blesses us and keeps us.  In Jesus God lets his face shine upon us and is gracious to us. It is Jesus who looks kindly upon us and gives us peace.

So what does this mean to us on a practical level?  For one thing it means that Jesus reaches out to touch us in order to transform us.  In the Orthodox tradition theologians have termed this divinization.  Plainly stated, in Jesus God became human so that humans might become God.  And it’s a transformation that begins here and now, and not someday, later on.  Even now the life of God enters us, and we have life in abundance.  It’s life that we share and celebrate now.

img_2104The Incarnation of Jesus says yet one more thing that we can appreciate.  Jesus did not become the Son of Mary in order to be some abstract life force in the universe.  He does not intend to remain aloof and irrelevant to our lives.  And unlike the Carthusians, Jesus does not take a vow of silence.  Instead he walks with us; he speaks to us; he listens to what we have to say; he stands beside us in good times and in bad.  In short, Jesus reaches out to be one with us.  He reaches out to be our brother.

That, it seems to me, is what the mystery of the Incarnation is all about.  Jesus came to share in our humanity and to share with us his divine life.  He came to transform us so that we might live life to the fullest.  But of course on this feast of Mary the Mother of God I’m not asking you to take my word for it.  Ask Jesus yourself, and you’ll be more than surprised by what he has to say to you.

img_9806Notes

+On December 26th, the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr, I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass.

+On January 1st I was again the main celebrant at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon from that occasion.  In case you think it odd that I preside twice in such a short span of time, the logic is simple.  Because of my travels I am acutely aware that I don’t take my fair share of household duties in the monastery.  So when I’m home I try to squeeze in as much as I can.  But I’ll never catch up, and I have to acknowledge my debt to generous confreres who do so much.  They do far more than I, and I am grateful.

+Every now and again a comment will elicit an interesting response from readers of this blog.  Last week I noted that in the Christmas pageant that preceded the Christmas Eve children’s Mass at the Abbey parish, the staging gave mixed impressions.  To those sitting in the front pews Mary had a baby, while two shepherd beside her held dolls that were clearly lambs.  To those of us in the back pews, however, they all looked like baby dolls, suggesting that Mary had given birth to triplets.  One friend shared the story of his granddaughter who played Mary.  Unfortunately, en route to the manger the head of baby Jesus fell off.  That too was not in the script, and my imagination has run wild with that thought ever since.  Hopefully the trauma did not discourage the little girl from becoming a mother — or an actress.

img_9756+It’s just about time to put away my favorite CD of all time — Holly and the Ivy, by John Rutter and the choir of Clare College at Cambridge.  Over the holidays I’ve listened to it at least twice a day.  I confess that I’ve also listened to it in July.  It never tires!

+The first photo in today’s post is of an icon by Aidan Hart, in the Abbey church.  The next photos are of pieces housed at the V & A in London.  First are three glass windows (ca.1520) crafted for the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Next is a Virgin and Child in limestone, Italian, ca. 1160.  At bottom is a Virgin and Child, also Italian, ca. 1450.

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img_0012_2“Pray Always”:  An Impossible Command?

There’s a section in The Rule of Saint Benedict which usually comes as a surprise to novices in the monastery.  In it Benedict deals with the all-too-human conundrum that’s bound to happen in any monastic community.  In brief, Benedict wonders about the moment when the abbot asks impossible things of a monk.  What’s the monk to do?

Naturally there’s no easy answer to this, but I’ve always felt that Benedict’s sympathies fell with the monk who’s stuck in such a predicament.  All the monk can really do is to do his best and to hope for the best.  Being more practical myself, I would add one bit of counsel to Benedict’s sage advice.  If patience is a virtue, this may be one of those times when it can be a good strategy.  A patient monk can hope that the abbot will eventually forget what he had commanded.  And in the extreme, a young monk can rely on the passing of the years, which could very well leave him the last man standing.  Problem solved.

In the gospel of Luke Jesus seems to be asking one of these impossible things.  He tells the apostles to “pray always without becoming weary” (18: 1), and it must have left the disciples wondering.  It’s all well and good to speak those words if you’re the Son of God, but mere mortals like the disciples had a lot on their minds.  And it was not beyond their notice that even Jesus took time out to eat and sleep and to do all the other things that round out people’s waking hours.  Worse still, the disciples too must have realized the distractions that crowd the human mind, especially if you’re trying to pray.  Was Jesus setting the disciples up for a fall?  Was he asking the impossible of them?

img_0021_2Part of the problem of the command to “pray always” is that most of us are not at all convinced that it’s such a great idea.  Some of us have to go to work.   Some of us think it’s really important to concentrate while we’re behind the wheel on the highway.  Some of us have to deal attentively with other people — at least once in a while.  Wouldn’t it be better to reserve quality time for prayer at less critical slots during the day?  And do we really have to do it ALWAYS?

The good news is that Jesus never expected us to spend the whole day on our knees in prayer.  Nor does he expect us to pass the entire day, day after day, reading the Bible.  Nor does he expect us to spend our time in formal worship, ceaselessly.  Thankfully, I don’t think Jesus meant to speak literally when he asked the disciples to pray like this always, without growing weary.

What I think Jesus did have in mind, however, was an expression of prayer in which we consecrate the entirety of our lives to God.  In practice this means that there is no aspect of our lives that is off-limits to God.  Nor can we restrict God to certain gaps in our schedule, such as an hour on Sunday or the occasional fifteen minutes for a session of morning prayer.

Nor can we block off our work from a divine connection.  In practice this means that our work must be honest, done with integrity, and done with an eye to the benefit that it ultimately provides other people.  We must have a sense of mission about our work and do it well, because our work is an expression of who we really are.

img_0016_2The same goes with time spent with friends or in personal time out.  None of this can be cordoned off from God, because it’s all part of a full life lived well.  Such a life is always lived in the shadow of the Almighty, and we can’t reserve big chunks of it as if it were nobody’s business but our own.

Given that perspective, we begin to appreciate what Jesus is asking of his disciples.  Prayer then is surrender to God who has given us the gift of life, and prayer is the expression of the fulness of our lives.  Prayer means more than turning to God when the going gets tough.  Prayer is also the expression of joy and contentment and striving to better ourselves.  Prayer is the admission of God into our lives, in good times and in bad.

Finally, I think it’s important to own up to one item about praying always that intimidates most of us.  If we pray always, don’t we run the risk of sacrificing our distinct personalities?  Won’t God smother us if we pray always?  Could all this lead to a complete denial of self in which we fade into oblivion? By no means.

img_0018_2The goal of prayer is not to obliterate ourselves.  In prayer God neither destroys our identity nor our freedom to act.  On the contrary, God does promise to give us the strength to achieve far more than we could possibly achieve if left to our own devices.

In a nutshell, “praying always” sounds like a frightening command until we realize that God has absolutely no intention of wrecking or stifling our lives.  God merely wants to partner with us as we strive both to flourish and to meet the challenges that come our way.  Given the occasional ferocity of some of those challenges, I think I prefer to have the Lord walking alongside me, rather than me walking all alone.

“Praying always” is not such a fearsome command after all.  It’s nothing more and nothing less than the consecration of our lives to God, in the hope that God who has begun such good work in us will see it through to completion.  And with a little bit of patience, and just a little bit of insight, we might very well begin to see the finger prints of God in our lives.  They’re there, whether we take the time to notice them or not.

img_0023_2Notes

+On October 11th I attended a dinner in San Francisco, put on by the Order of Malta.  It was the annual fund-raiser for the Order’s free clinic at the Oakland Cathedral, but it also honored a very good friend of many year’s standing, Dr. Robert Stein.  He and his wife, Helen-Mary, have been very supportive in introducing me to the work of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.

+On 13 October I attended the opening reception of an exhibit of original folios of The Saint John’s Bible, hosted by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Since Oklahoma City is my home town, it gave me a chance to see spots I’d not seen in quite some time.  That included driving by the hospital where I was born.  The exhibit will continue through the end of the year, and in November I will return to give a lecture at the Museum.

+On 14-16 October I gave a retreat to members of the American Association of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Mundelein Seminary, outside of Chicago.

img_0015_2+A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the town of Norcia in Umbria, in Italy.  The monastery there is built on the site of Saint Benedict’s family home, and our group had the opportunity to tour the church and ruins, as well as attend Mass.  We also had time to explore the quaint and lovely town.  Unfortunately the monastery and town suffered significant damage in the recent earthquake, and for a while the monks have had to relocate to Rome until repairs could be made to make the monastery safe once again.

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img_3363A Meditation on the Seasons

The passing of summer might have slipped by entirely  unnoticed, save for one thing.  For much of July and August platters of tomatoes from the abbey garden greeted us as we filed into the refectory.  By early September the bounty had reached a crescendo.  But by last Monday it had tapered off to one platter per meal.  By Thursday there were none.

My disappointment came at lunch on Wednesday, when the very last batch of tomatoes made its appearance on the salad table.  I was one of the latecomers, and as I stared at an empty platter, one monk reminded me of a distinctly non-gospel truth:  “The first shall be first.”  To that I should have added this adaptation of The Magnificat:  “And the last shall go empty away.”  Unfortunately I thought of that too late to offer any solace.

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict links the monastic life to the seasons of the year in ways that are both sensitive and sensible for someone writing in the 6th century.  For instance, he provides for more food in the summer, because the daylight hours allow for harder and longer sessions of manual labor.  He also concedes heavier and warmer clothing for monks who live in colder climates.  And of course the liturgical cycle reflects the progression of the seasons.  Along with the rest of the Church in the northern hemisphere, monks celebrate Christmas during the darkest days of the year; while the lengthening days of late winter offer up Easter as the unfailing sign of spring.

img_3356In the course of the last century life has become untethered from the seasons, at least in much of the first world.  Most fruits and vegetables are now available at any time of year.  Artificial lighting has ended the stranglehold that long and dark winter nights imposed on people.  And the advent of easy travel has made autumn the signal to start packing for Arizona or Florida.  In short, we’ve managed to create a world in which we have just about freed ourselves from the grip of the seasons.  But not quite.

Let me be among the first to say that I don’t want to return to the days when it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.  Nor do I harbor any nostalgia that would cause me to turn off the central heat so that I could savor my frosty breath during morning prayer in an ice-cold church.  And certainly I have no desire to go without year-round cauliflower and strawberries — though I’d be more than willing to sacrifice tasteless tomatoes.

Still, there is a downside to the benefits that come from our independence from the seasons.  For one, there’s the temptation to believe that we’ve domesticated nature and that we’re monarchs of all we survey.  We also delude ourselves with the notion that we’ve achieved what Adam and Eve only dreamed of.  They aspired to have the knowledge of good and evil.  We, however, think we’ve achieved that knowledge — and more.  For their hubris God cast Adam and Eve into the metaphorical world that we inhabit to this day.  Sadly for them, they fell short of their goal and instead got an unexpected dose of reality.  As for us, some day we are likely to sit down to a banquet of consequences, as one writer has put it.  Hubris tends to do that to people.

img_0114The seasons are both beautiful and challenging.  For starters, each one reminds us that we are part of a cycle of life that is much larger than ourselves.  Try as we might, we can never really step out of that cycle; and for the life of me, why would anyone want to do so?

The seasons also mock our indoor world of artificial light and temperature control.  They teach us of the challenges of life, and those are the sorts of things that cause us to stretch and grow.  Every time we step out the front door, then, nature reclaims us for the ultimate source of our being — the God who put us here.

In short, the seasons inject into us the same dose of reality that surprised Adam and Eve.  The seasons show forth something of a universe that’s bigger than any one of us.  They show forth the glory of the God who orchestrates our lives and who every now and then gives us a nudge and a push.  That’s what the seasons have always done to God’s servants, whether they’ve lived inside or outside of the cloister.

Summer is gone, but it doesn’t mean the end of life as we know it.  There’s a hopeful note as we look forward, and even the salad table in the monastery refectory reflects it.  We may have said goodbye to summer’s tomatoes, but can winter squash be far behind?  As far as I’m concerned, the best is yet to come.  So it is with the course of our lives — and especially with life that is eternal.

img_0115Notes

+On 12-13 September I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, held at Saint John’s.

+On September 15th Brother Paul Richards was honored as “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” by the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  He was so cited because of his work in founding The Saint John’s Boys Choir and the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  Through those efforts he has impacted thousands of people, literally around the world.

+On 17 September we celebrated Homecoming at Saint John’s University.  At the football game we hosted Saint Olaf’s College, whom our team bested 44-0.

+Last May, with the completion of the school year, Alcuin Library closed for renovation and the addition of the Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons.  In addition to a thorough reorganization, one interior wall was removed, which has opened up a spectacular view of the Abbey church from inside of the library.  Two photos in today’s post illustrate some of that.  In addition, the renovation will make room for the new gallery for The Saint John’s Bible.  Appropriately enough, the doors for that gallery are being made in our woodworking shop, from lumber from our woods.  To my colleague Raj Chaphalkar I am indebted for those two photos.  For The Renovation of Alcuin Library Gallery, click this link.

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