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Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’

Resolution: Something Risky for the New Year

Last week I made my fourth visit to the grocery store since March 6th. I’d planned out previous visits, and the store’s online chart always suggested Saturday afternoons as a good window to slip in and out. No one promised that the store would be empty, but each time I felt like I had the place pretty much to myself. But not so on the fourth visit.

Last week it turned out differently, and I wondered if others were now in on the secret. I hurried with my shopping, but I still had to wait in a properly-distanced line of masked shoppers until it was my turn at the cashier. Wanting to appear knowledgeable, I casually noted my surprise at seeing so many there on a Saturday afternoon. “Well, you just never know around here,” she genially offered. “But then again, today’s Wednesday.”

I was a little embarrassed to have forgotten what day of the week it was, but I was grateful that she’d not made a federal case out of it. After all, if I were her I’d be wondering what home was so careless as to let one of the patients wander freely. However, on reflection I’ve concluded that last Wednesday was an anomaly — aka just one of those days.

More than a few of us have lost track of the days during the last few months. Thankfully that need not be a sign of feeble-mindedness, but then again it raises an important question. Has anything good come out of 2020? If so, what could it possibly be?

Call me crazy, but despite the trials and tribulations I think there has been some good. In his year-end column, for instance, writer Dave Barry noted one great non-event that’s not gotten the recognition it deserves. The killer wasps didn’t kill anyone in 2020. Who knows why, but going into 2020 they were rated to be the plague of the year. So that has to count for something.

As for me, 2020 has not been an unmitigated disaster, despite not going anywhere for nearly ten months. To cite but one positive, for the first time since pre-school I now take daily naps. Also, for the first time since high school I now have 20/20 vision, thanks to cataract surgery. Add to the list the fact that I’ve delighted in more time with my confreres in the monastery, and you begin to see a pattern. Perhaps because of all of that I’ve clawed back some serenity in my life, and to that I attribute the lowest blood pressure in ages.

Above all, however, I’ve emerged with a renewed appreciation for the importance of courtesy and respect. The cashier at the market was only the latest among many who made my life better during the past year. It’s good to remember that she didn’t have to do what she did. She could have pressed the secret button and called security. Rather, she did what she did because of courtesy and professionalism.

In his Rule Saint Benedict notes that the tongue holds the key to life and death. By our words we can do so much damage, and by our words we can also do so much good. That brings me to the business of resolutions for the new year.

I could draft a long list of resolutions, but I’ve decided that the times demand that I speak a few kind words to someone each day. If by chance the recipient doesn’t need to hear them, that’s okay. I still need to say them, if only because they are great therapy. They remind me that the Lord still expects something important from me. Of course there’s always the danger that I might end up killing someone with kindness. Is that a risk I’m willing to take? Definitely.

Notes

+On December 31st after evening prayer our community gathered in the Great Hall to celebrate the coming of the new year. There were refreshments, pizza, a few games and lots of good conversation. Most monks don’t feel the need to stay up until midnight, and that certainly is the case for me. Through the years I’ve celebrated midnight with those who live in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. That way I welcome the new year at midnight but am in bed by 10:15 pm Central Time.

+On January 1st 25 monks and members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps hiked across Lake Sagatagan to the chapel on the south shore of the lake. Due to my healthy respect for ice, I stayed home. I still hold to the belief that if God intended us to walk on water we’d be doing it year round.

+On January 2nd we woke up to a wonderful display of hoar frost. The first three photos in today’s post illustrate that. Over the years I have compiled a file of favorite photos, and at bottom is one I took on 27 March 2016.

+On January 4th our confrere Fr. Nick Kleespie began a D.Min. program at Fordham University. Since the program requires people to remain in active ministry while studying, he will continue as chaplain at Saint John’s University. We wish him well in his studies.

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What’s on your Advent To-do List?

The other day someone asked what I had put down on my Advent to-do list. Since I have to-do lists for all sorts of things, except for Advent, I sheepishly had to admit “nothing.”

Were I to compile one, I certainly wouldn’t include the conventional items. Trips to the mall? No. Stockpiling groceries for the holidays? No. Buying lots of presents? No. In my defense, my fellow monks don’t do these sorts of things either. In our defense, a lot of other people this year have deleted them from their lists. May God have mercy on us all.

Still, the question got me to thinking, and I finally came up with something that probably could go on that list, if I decided to have one. It’s an idea that comes from the Rule of Saint Benedict, and it appears in the Prologue. “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to God most earnestly to bring it to perfection.” (Verse 4)

Every now and again I recall this bit of advice, but I tend to translate it from the more elevated language of the Rule into something better-suited to the situation. After all, Benedict’s intent was to convert the ideal into the lived reality of spur-of-the-moment activity. When I lack the time for extended pre-meditation or editing, then I resort to keeping my prayer simple.

Most of my variants on this advice from Saint Benedict are short and sweet. When I don’t feel like doing something, or doing it well, I pray: “Lord, help me do a good job of this.” When I lack the determination to see something through, I have my personal prayer for procrastinators: “Lord, help me finish this.” When I have no ambition to change the world, I ask the Lord to help me set my sights on something achievable: “Lord, let me focus on helping one person today — you choose who it is.” All these variants lead me to one awesome conclusion. “I am doing the Lord’s work, not my work.” Of course the Lord is going to lend me a hand. But it’s probably a good thing if I ask for help in the first place, and then chip in and put my own hands to it.

Why focus now on my neighbor rather than world peace or an end to hunger? Well, it has something to do with one of the peculiarities of Advent and Christmas. Together they make for a wonderful season, but that’s not the case for everybody. Some people miss friends and family they have lost, at this time of year particularly. Some people are lonely. Some are depressed. I figure there’s no better time to be aware of all this.

So there you have it. This Advent I will have a to-do list, but there’s going to be only one item on it. It won’t be in elevated language; but it will at least be a compound sentence, befitting the nobility of the season. “Lord, let me focus on one person today — you choose who it is — and if it’s not too much to ask, help me finish.”

NOTES

+There was nothing particularly dramatic in my schedule during the past week. It consisted mainly of office work and getting out seasonal correspondence.

+On December 11th, at the conclusion of morning prayer, Abbot John prayed for and blessed four students from our School of Theology/Seminary who have completed their studies and have now departed. Brothers Andrew, Thomas and Emmanuel are members of a Cistercian abbey in Vietnam, and they have lived with us in the monastery for six and a half years. In preparation for graduate studies they had spent a year learning English at a Trappist abbey in Colorado. While they enjoyed being there, someone had neglected to take into account the fact that the Trappists practice silence. That makes for a very unproductive environment for learning a language. At Saint John’s they became revered members of our community, and we will miss them dearly. Eventually they will return home, once they can get on a plane that will take them to Vietnam. For the time being they will stay at a Cistercian house in California. For the record, the Cistercians are a 12th-century reform branch of the Benedictines. The Trappists are a 17th-century reform branch of the Cistercians. We all follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and therefore in the daily rhythm of our lives we live the same language. Fr. Vincent was the fourth member to complete his studies. He too is Vietnamese, but he will remain in the US for PhD studies.

+On December 12th we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. During Advent we have enjoyed the prospect of Fr. Nathanael’s work as an artist. At the request of Abbot John he has embarked on the creation of a tryptic whose central panel is of the Virgin and Child. Abbot John asked that the Virgin recall Our Lady of Guadalupe, and since the first Sunday of Advent we have enjoyed this work. In time two panels will flank the central panel, but those await completion.

+Cities across Europe note the connection between long dark days and depression, and the Christmas markets are one antidote to this. Vienna is particularly delightful at this time of year, and several years ago I took the enclosed photos as a reminder of how glorious the season can be. Below is Fr. Nathanael’s panel of the Virgin and Child, which now hangs in the abbey church.

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Jesus Trades Burdens With Us

In a gospel passage that stitches together several miraculous cures and the feeding of 5,000 people, it’s the latter that wins the visibility contest. Whether taken literally or metaphorically, it’s a spectacular feat. Jesus fed a multitude, from pretty much nothing. By implication he still does so today at this altar.

That said, I think the various cures that precede this story deserve equal attention. Unlike the feeding, in which everybody got fed all at once, the healing miracles were quite personal. They were individual encounters between Jesus and that one person. One was deaf; one was lame; one was blind; and so on down the line. Each had some illness or disability that weighed heavily; and as Jesus dealt with each person, we have to believe that he addressed that person by name. He spoke to them out of respect and even love. That person, at the moment of healing, was more than just part of a crowd of 5,000. That person, for that one moment, had the total attention of Jesus Christ.

We all have our individual problems that weigh on us, sometimes heavily, sometimes even painfully. That, I think is the point of each cure. Whatever it is that cripples us, the Lord reaches out to us just as he reached out to those suffering people on the mountainside.

The miracle for us is that Jesus never tires of reaching out to us. No matter the weight of the burdens we carry, Jesus offers a deal that is pretty simple. If we welcome him into our lives, he will trade burdens with us. In return for ours he will give a burden that is easy and life-giving. I can’t help but imagine that that was the more impressive miracle on the mountain that day.

NOTES

+On November 30th, Interim-President Gene McAllister of Saint John’s University hosted the lighting ceremony of the University Christmas tree. Each year the tree dominates the Great Hall, standing as it does in the apse of what was once the abbey church from 1879-1961.

+On December 2nd I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon I delivered that day. The gospel for the day was taken from Matthew 15: 29-37.

+On December 5th I delivered via Zoom a conference to ca. 75 Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey. The topic selected for the day was The Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Since some readers prefer to get right into the chapters of the Rule, my point that day was summed up in the title of the talk: The Prologue to the Rule: Read Me First! What surprised me about the experience was the geographic diversity of the participants. They ranged from Florida, North Carolina, and New England to California, Washington, Arizona, Ontario and points in between. It was the sort of gathering that the era of the pandemic has now made commonplace.

+On December 6th we celebrated the Second Sunday of Advent, and in its gospel Saint John the Baptist makes an appearance. The Great Hall references our patron in several ways, most visibly in the rose window above the entry portal. On the facade, to the right of the entry, is a cornerstone on which is inscribed the name of Saint John the Baptist, in Latin. The third photo in today’s post, at bottom, shows the Christmas tree standing in apse.

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Autumn: When the Landscape Sings

A few days ago my confrere Father Ian emailed to alert me to a tree. It’s a solitary maple flanked by rather drab basswoods; and over the years it’s earned a reputation for its vibrant fall color. The metamorphosis was not to be missed, he assured me, so that morning I walked across campus to see it. It was definitely worth the detour.

My schooling in the niceties of fall color began when I was in college in New Jersey. There for the first time I experienced autumn at its full potential. The intensity overwhelmed me, and equally dramatic was the abrupt end as the leaves floated to the forest floor.

Monastic life in Minnesota has honed my skills at reading the autumn landscape, and I now appreciate the subtleties of change. It all begins in August, when a few trees send out hints that the big show is coming. So understated are they that people often fail to notice. Some pass by, oblivious to the warning, and only weeks later when the leaves burst into glory do they stop to gawk. Then, just as dramatically, it’s over.

I used to think that those few days were the sum total of autumn. The rest was either late summer or early winter. I now know otherwise.

Autumn is more than a brief blaze of glory. In fact, in our part of the woods it’s a weeks-long palate change. It’s an opera in which maples, oaks, sumac and various grasses strut onto the stage for cameos and arias. Eventually they give way to the grand finale. Then they take their bows and abruptly exit the stage.

I find all this spiritually stirring, and the message seems obvious to me. If we ignore a lot of what is happening around us, then we deny the value of the little things in our lives. If then we think that autumn is restricted to those few days of intensity, then what else are we missing? Can it be true that “the real world” begins only after we graduate from college? Does “true freedom” start only after the kids move out and the dog dies? Can it be that life through seven months of quarantine counts for nothing until a vaccine is found? Actually they all count for something, because the quiet stretches in our lives matter enormously.

We all have our variations on these escapes from reality, but the point is simple. It’s very easy to slip into the delusion that life is sometime in the future or somewhere else. In fact, life is now. It’s the portion of days that God has given to each of us.

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict encourages us monks to keep death daily before our eyes. This is not a recipe for depression. Rather, it’s an urgent call to live in the present and make the most of each moment. Benedict then would be sorely disappointed were I to ask someone to “wake me when we’re there.” He’d counter with the comment that we’re there already.

I’ll grant that autumn is not over until the great burst of color. However, there’s an awful lot going on well before then. So what is autumn’s spiritual lesson for us? Savor every moment of autumn, even the quiet moments when the leaves have scarcely begun to sing. Do so, and chances are you’ll get a lot more out of life.

NOTES

+My routine was fairly simple last week. I worked in my room, which for seven months has served both as office and bedroom. I logged into a couple of Zoom meetings, and I got outside for walks to admire the landscape. The high point of the week was likely the day when I had two medical check-ups and the sixth test for Covid this summer. Normally I don’t like to think of myself as a negative person, but six times of being labeled negative has been music to my ears.

+We’ve had a trickle of visitors to the abbey arboretum over the course of the summer, but this last weekend that trickle turned into a river. Great numbers of people hiked through the woods, and the landscape did not disappoint.

+Throughout the pandemic we have not missed a day of our monastic round of Mass and the liturgy of the hours. However, only since the middle of August have we been able to welcome visitors once again. So I was delighted this Sunday to welcome a couple of friends — Mike and Jane — who drove from Saint Paul to join us for the Eucharist. In the meantime it has been great to have others join us regularly for these activities, and especially for morning and evening prayer.

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“O my people, what have I done to you, or how have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6: 3)

It seems a little strange to read these words from the prophet Micah in the middle of summer. They seem better-placed in Lent, and especially among the laments of Holy Week.

All the same, it’s important to read these words for what they are not and for what they are. For one thing, they are not an example of self-pity on God’s part. God is not depressed for any mistreatment from us. Rather, God seems baffled that people have elected to answer with bullocks and goats rather than with changed and full lives. So the “answer me” at the end is not a demand for even more bullocks and goats. Rather, God is expecting something a little more personal from us — something along the lines of lives that make the most of God’s gifts.

It’s always seemed to me easier to buy God off with sacrificial offerings, and the more the better. But the whole point of the ministry of Jesus is summed up in this passage from Micah. God is not some nameless merchant-banker who strikes bargains with us. God doesn’t do those kinds of deals. No, God hopes you and I will answer personally, with a comment or two or a deed or two that comes directly from our hearts and not some ledger. Is this too much to expect from us? There are moments when we might think so; but apparently God doesn’t think so.

NOTES

+On July 20th I presided at the abbey Mass, and I preached on the first reading of the day — from Micah 6: 1-4, 6-8. Today’s post is a transcription of that homily. It’s also an example of a homily that follows the not-so-subtle advice of the liturgy director, who continues to suggest that short homilies tend to be better-received by members of the community. It also aligns with Saint Benedict’s advice in his Rule, where he suggests that God is not necessarily to be found in a flood of words.

+A visit to the doctor on July 22th confirmed the dawning realization that there has never been a better time in modern history to schedule medical appointments. That afternoon I learned that I will need a minor surgical procedure, and I could have scheduled it as early as five days later. But then I would have had two appointments in one week, and one doctor a week is enough for me. By October I will be done with everything that needs attention, so it turns out to be a good use of this long time-out in the calendar.

+On July 25th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Simeon Thole, who died peacefully after a short illness. For many years Fr. Simeon taught English and religion at Saint John’s Preparatory School. Among many other notable activities he later served as chaplain to the Sisters of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Crookston, MN. Fr. Simeon had the distinction of being one of three brothers who have taken vows as monks of Saint John’s. His brother Fr. Tom died a few years ago, while Br. Otto remains as busy as ever.

+The photos in today’s post show the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s. This is the time when the hydrangeas are at their best, as the top photo suggests. The monastery refectory is on the other side of the ground-level windows, and so this bank of flowers is what we will enjoy for the next few days.

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Write Down Your Passwords!

Here follows a bit of wisdom that you’ll never hear in church: “Write down your passwords!”

This came to me in the course of my first trip away from the abbey since March 6th. Normally I am not a “cabin in the north woods” kind of guy, but after four months of going literally nowhere, it was time to go somewhere. A week ago, then, I and one of my fellow monks drove to the abbey’s lake cabin for what we expected would be a nice break.

I intended this to be a four-day working vacation, and once we had settled in I sat down to dive into work. However, it was not long before my iPad sensed that it was in a strange place. Worse still, it had suspicions about the user — me. No longer happy with the thumb print that had satisfied it so often before, it demanded a real live password.

I keyed in what should have appeased it, but it didn’t pass muster. Then I racked my brain for other possibilities and typed them all in. That’s when things began to spiral out of control, and within an hour the iPad had erased its data and locked me out. There I was, stuck in the woods for four days, with no email, no videos and no electronic books to read. To say the least, I was not a happy camper, but at least I still had a phone.

In the course of those four days I learned quite a few good lessons. First, self-proclaimed “help desks” don’t always function as advertised. In this case my tech colleague back at Saint John’s, Ann, spoke with three corporate voices at Apple and got one “I don’t know” and conflicting advice from two others. What she came away with was frightening news: it might take a week to recover my errant password, if ever. Inaccessible forever might be the 19,000 photos I had stored in the Cloud.

After days of desolation we drove home, where I planned to turn over my iPad to Ann, who promised to torture it until it yielded up its secrets. However, she had one last idea. With her car running while we stood on the steps of the abbey church at 7:45 am, she gave it her last and best shot. Meanwhile I looked on hopelessly.

There, under the arch of the bell banner, my iPad blinked. Like Lazarus in the tomb, it awoke as life started to course through its empty memory files. It was resurrected, and within an hour it had retrieved the music files, the books, and the thousands of photos I had feared were lost forever. As far as I was concerned, this was a miracle worked by Ann, the servant of God.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation? First, I discovered how dependent I had let myself become on a small machine. Four months of social isolation had been bad enough, but electronic isolation was even worse. Why did I ever submit myself to such slavery?

Second, confidence in what I thought was my iron-fisted memory melted away. It was an act of supreme hubris to think that I would never forget those passwords. I should have confessed a lot sooner that no memory is perfect, even mine.

Finally, I remembered why pen and paper are such great inventions. Neither require passwords or a charger, and they wait patiently to be used, anytime and anywhere.

Saint Benedict didn’t command his monks to write things down. However, he himself wrote a Rule, and he presumed that his monks would want to write as well. In the course of the centuries they have written down all sorts of stuff, on the assumption that good memories are not enough. So were born great libraries of wisdom that still serve us today.

My greatest take-away is a lesson in humility that I hope not to forget. Once home at the abbey I searched every drawer and gathered every scrap of paper within even a fragment of a user ID, a password, passcode, security code, and whatever else some keeper of tech secrets might demand. All those letters, numbers and symbols are now gathered on a few sheets of paper in a folder, which I have enshrined in a place of honor in my room in the monastery. There they remain ready, for my eyes only.

The story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical allegory about hubris. It was the tale of people who tried to build a tower to the heavens, only to fail in a hopeless confusion of language. Now I realize that it may have a modern application as the story of people whose ultimate undoing may very well be one simple mistake. They got confused about their passwords, and they had forgotten to write them down.

NOTES

+We were saddened to learn last week of the passing of Abbot Ricardo Tintes Delgado of Abadía del Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. He died of the corona virus. Monks from Saint John’s founded Tepeyac in 1946, and in 1971 it became an independent abbey.

+On July 17th the monks of Saint John’s as well as many of our colleagues who work on campus were tested for the corona virus. A week earlier 137 of us were tested and none of us turned up positive — for which we were very grateful.

+On July 17-19th the incoming members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps gathered for a retreat and orientation at Saint John’s. Given the circumstances around the world, it is not entirely clear when they will begin their year of service.

+Not all of the flowers at Saint John’s are in manicured beds. The photos in today’s post are from the abbey arboretum, which annually draws not only our students, but tens of thousands of other visitors. A topographical map shows that our property sits at the confluence of four kinds of terrain: oak savanna, hardwood forest, wetlands, and prairie. Years ago our confrere Fr. Paul Schweitz led an effort to restore the prairie and wetlands, and he was aided by records filed away in the 1860s in the abbey archives. Before plowing the ground for farming, the first monks at Saint John’s mapped the contours of the land, wrote it all down, and then saved it. Fr. Paul was able to use those records in restoring the land to what it had once been. Sadly Fr. Paul died too soon, but his work delights us long after his passing.

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The Garden of the Lord

Saint Benedict’s suggestion that hermits are the best monks has always amused me. Benedict notes that only long years of testing in community can prepare somebody for the solitary life. But having said that at the beginning of his Rule, he never returns to the subject again. The monastery may be the school of the Lord’s service, but Benedict never offers a course leading to graduation to the hermit’s cave.

Life in community offers the security of mutual support at both the material and emotional levels. It also affords the chance for fraternal encouragement. But beyond these obvious benefits, it is in community that Benedict’s spiritual vision takes flesh: monastic life continues the incarnation of Jesus. Benedict weaves it into the daily experience of the monk, and we see it first in the abbot, who holds the place of Christ. We also see Christ in the guest, in the young monks, and in the elderly. In fact, Benedict excludes no one; in every human interaction the monk meets the Lord, in the flesh.

To appreciate how radical this is, it is important to know that in Benedict’s day many viewed the world as intrinsically evil, as suggested by words that oppose one another: the sacred and the profane, the material and the spiritual, and the temporal and the eternal. The logical imperative is escape from this den of iniquity to be one with God in eternity. But Benedict teaches an entirely different lesson, because in the monastery heaven and earth touch. We see this most clearly when Benedict asks his monks to treat the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. If people are sacred, then so must be the ordinary activities of human life.

Benedict embraces the created order deliberately, and into it he infuses the experience of God. One experiences the harmony of the Garden of Eden in the monastery. As God once walked with Adam and Eve, so now God rubs elbows with monks living in community. That is the mystery of the incarnation that Benedict applies to life in community. Of course he’s under no illusion that monks won’t stumble now and again. But the garden belongs to God, an the monk need not wait for eternity to see the face of God.

This is a sacramental way of life. As Jesus took bread and wine to be his Body and Blood, so Benedict gathers the common elements of life to fashion a place where his monks can and ought to encounter Christ. If they squint hard enough, on the good days, they will see Christ not only in their neighbors but in their own faces as well.

NOTES

+On July 10th fifteen graduates of Saint John’s University who had served as Benedictine Volunteers last year joined us for a three-day retreat and reunion. Since they had served around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories and perspectives to share. On a sad note, former Volunteer Nick Briese, who had served at Saint Benedict’s Prep and Newark Abbey in 2007-08, passed away after a struggle with cancer. Following his year in Newark he had gone to medical school and was a physician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He was a delightful young man, filled with promise.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict. For that occasion we welcomed several visitors to the celebration of the Eucharist, as we did the next day for the Sunday Eucharist. Following the morning Eucharist we adjourned to the Great Hall for a festive lunch. We had intended to stage that in the monastic garden, but the threat of rain forced us indoors. It was good that we did, because the threat materialized.

+Once again it was a quiet week for me, which allowed me to tend to various work-related projects that I had put off for months and even years. In addition, I participated in three Zoom meetings with various committees of the Order of Malta — two on the west coast and one on the east coast. The times and technology have made such gatherings routine, which still amazes me.

+Today’s post first appeared in the spring 2015 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey. Given both the current social climate and also the season of the year, I thought it useful to resurrect this piece. It’s a reminder that the Lord works outside of the monastery as well, and that Saint Benedict’s wisdom has relevance even for those who do not live in a cloister. The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into garden spots around the campus at Saint John’s.

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Musings on the Feast of Saint Benedict

On July 11th we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and this year one key ingredient will be missing from our festivities. Hundreds of friends of the abbey normally would join us, but this year that is not to be. For obvious reasons they’ll be absent, and we’ll miss their presence keenly. All the same, the celebration will go on because it’s more than a memorial of some guy who lived in the sixth century. It’s also an affirmation of our life together in this place, in the 21st century.

This feast has outsized importance in our community calendar. For one thing, the Rule that Saint Benedict wrote some 1,500 years ago still defines our lives as monks. For another, the day provides the occasion to honor our confreres who have reached milestones of 25, 50, 60 and on rare occasions even 70 years in vows. Finally, it’s a moment to pause and be grateful for the life that we draw from one another in this community.

In a grove of trees to the west of the abbey church is a bronze statue of Saint Benedict, shaped by the hands of our confrere Brother David Paul. In his hand Benedict balances a hefty-looking tome; but his face looks up, as if to chat with a visitor. But if that visitor steps back to take in the full panorama, it’s clear that something else has caught his attention. That “something” is the tower of the church and the bells whose ringing have interrupted his study. The bells remind him that he exists for a purpose, and from that purpose his life derives all of its meaning. That purpose is prayer —what Benedict and the spiritual tradition call the Work of God.

If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, will it still make a noise? That’s a perennial musing, and someone might very well pose this variant: “If there are no guests to pray with us monks, will we still pray?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” We will still gather to pray because that is what we do, and also because there is always something more to pray about.

This year, as last, we will pray for our brothers who celebrate years of life in the community. We’ll also pray for the sick and the poor and for victims of injustice everywhere. We’ll pray for the young and the old, and for the multi-talented and for those who have yet to discover their gifts. Not least of all, we’ll pray for God’s creation, over which God has given us stewardship.

Lest we forget, we’ll also pray in thanksgiving for our confreres who have gone before us. Like the great trees that have fallen in the forest, they gave life to us. The shade of their wisdom has nurtured the seedlings that have taken root in their shadow and now flourish in their stead.

In short, on the feast of Saint Benedict there are lots of reasons to pray. But to Saint Benedict’s bit of wisdom I would add a corollary that Saint Francis provided centuries later: “Preach always; if necessary, use words.” With that bit of wisdom Saint Benedict would agree. After all, when all is said and done, there is still plenty more to be said and done.

NOTES

+On the 4th of July we gathered in the monastic garden for our annual holiday cookout. The festivities began earlier with Mass, after which we moved from the church to the garden for patriotic songs, a lunch of grilled hamburgers and bratwurst, and games. It was a very warm and humid day, but perfect for such a summer event.

+A more balanced schedule during the past few weeks has given me the chance to catch up on some reading, including two books that had been on my list for months. David Kelzer’s The Pope who Would be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Random House, 2018) is a fascinating portrait of the political predicament of the Papal States under Pius IX. John W. O’Malley’s Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard University Press, 2018) examines the religious/theological side of things during the papacy of Pius IX. Both books were surveyed together in a review that appeared in The Wall Street Journal some time ago.

+The statue of Saint Benedict sits in a grove of trees in front of the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s. It is one of my favorite buildings on campus, due to the wonderful doorway topped by the tympanum containing a carving of Saint Benedict. At bottom is a photo that shows the plaza with the statue.

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Clothe Yourself in Gratitude

”Unexpected uncertainty can breed paranoia, researchers find.” So read a recent headline in the Yale News. Frankly, that news did not surprise me, though I am not the sort of person who would say I could have saved those researchers a lot of time and money.

First off, I’m not a scientist, so I do not have any of the credentials to author such a study. However, I am a human being, and my own experience backs up their findings.

Luckily I do not suffer from conventional paranoia — the kind that assumes everyone is out to get me. For one thing, most people don’t know who in the world I am. As for the people who do know me, humility spares me the illusion that they spend many of their waking hours trying to trip me up. All of that suits me just fine, because I’m happy to live and work on the sidelines and out of the limelight.

However, I do have a variation on paranoia that I likely share with lots of people, if the drug ads are any indication. I have a touch of hypochondria, which periods of isolation exacerbate. Since the onset of this pandemic I have gone through a laundry list of possible diseases, only to come up empty at almost every turn. By the second week, to cite but one example, I had developed pain in my left knee, and so I began to steel myself for a knee replacement. To my surprise, though, the pain disappeared after a few days of exercise, leaving me to wonder what might be next. What came next was shoulder pain and impending replacement for that. As the pain melted away I began to speculate on the next big illness that was bound to cripple or do me in.

What I realized in the course of all this was something that Saint Benedict could have helped me with on day one of isolation. He wrote his Rule for small communities of monks, and most of them never traveled further than a mile or two from the monastery. Medieval monks, like their modern counterparts, were not exempt from anxiety, and when monks have time on their hands they tend to think a lot about themselves. To our medieval confreres and to us monks today Benedict’s advice was simple. Monks should use this time to take stock of their lives and pay careful attention to their fellow monks. In them they will discover the presence of Christ, and also in them they will perceive the hand of God reaching out to help. That, I continue to remind myself, is the antidote to any paranoia lurking in the recesses of my mind.

That said, I have managed to come up with one medical self-diagnosis that is rock-solid. Years ago the doctor told me that someday I would need cataract surgery and that I would be the one to tell her when its time had come. Well, now is the time.

I realized this in March when I was reassigned to a choir stall in the back row in the abbey church. From there the numbers on the hymn board are just a blur to me, and I now have to rely on the kindness of my confrere, Fr. John, to tell me what we are about to sing.

Ironically, the pandemic has reminded me of my dependence on the skills and kindness of others. To Fr. John I am grateful that he continues to share his good eye sight; and to the eye doctor I will be grateful when the surgery is over and done with. On the day of the latter I will put aside a little more uncertainty in life and put on the garment of gratitude a little more often.

NOTES

+On June 8th our confrere Fr. Joel Kelly passed away after a two-year struggle with ALS. Fr. Joel had a varied career that included teaching at our mission priory (now abbey), San Antonio Abad in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Later he served as chaplain at Saint John’s University, and for ten years was chaplain at the Saint Cloud Department of Corrections. His final ministry took him to San Bernardino, CA, where he served from 2005-2019 in San Bernardino Hospital.

+On June 13th we gathered for the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Joel. It was the first time since March that we had welcomed a congregation into the abbey church, and the burial service was noteworthy for two things. First of all, the weather was a perfect crystal-clear day. Second, we were mesmerized by a big bald eagle perched on the top branch of a spruce tree overlooking the grave site. From there he watched the entire service.

+The grounds at Saint John’s have been particularly beautiful these days, as the photos in todays post suggest. They show a corner of the monastic garden, which Fr. Geoffrey tends. Noteworthy is the ladyslipper, in the third photo, which is just coming into bloom.

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Saints:  Too Many or Not Enough?

For those not in the know or who never gave it a thought, there are too many great saints to squeeze into 365 days.  To give everyone a turn, some have been rotated out of the liturgical calendar after a few centuries.  Still others have been doubled, tripled or even quadrupled up.  The latter is a nice gesture, but if I were a saint I would object to this practice.  I’d hate to share a day with some other saint, for one simple reason.  It would smack of pride to go toe to toe with someone else in a saintly popularity contest.

All the same, when two good saints fall on the same day, one or the other is going to come out a winner.  May 15th is a case in point.  It is the feast of Isidore the Farmer, a saintly laborer who lived in the area of Madrid and who died around 1130.  I have an affection for him because a drawing of him has hung for decades in a shed beside the abbey vegetable garden.  I have also visited his shrine in Madrid, where he is a local patron.  Since we all rely on farmers for survival, Isidore is a person worth recalling.

A918725A-2077-41C7-8B6E-B96CA395555AAs far as I know, Isidore is the only farmer in the liturgical calendar, and for this rather practical reason he may deserve to overshadow the monk Pachomius, with whom he shares May 15th.  Pachomius was born in Egypt and became an abbot who helped to shape the communal life that Saint Benedict outlines in his Rule.  He died in 348, but his relevance endures, and not just because he was a monk.  Today the Coptic Church celebrates his feast on May 9th, while the Orthodox and Catholic Churches remember him on May 15th.  In an era of local, political, religious and all sorts of other divisions, it is refreshing to run across somebody who can reach across ecclesial boundaries.  That ecumenical dimension alone should qualify Pachomius for sainthood.

However, there is another bit in his life that speaks to Christians throughout the centuries.  Pachomius grew up pagan, and as a young man he was conscripted into the Roman army.  Incentives offered to draftees back then were not as generous as today, which explains the practice of locking up new recruits every night, lest they run away.  While in lock-down in Thebes Pachomius was surprised by some of the locals who brought food and encouragement each day.  Puzzled, Pachomius asked a fellow soldier who these people might be.  “They are Christians,” was the response.  “They do this on account of their god.”  Astounded by their generosity to total strangers, Pachomius resolved to look into Christianity further.  Eventually he asked for baptism, and the rest of his story is history.

D0D5539F-EF63-4A58-A40F-EF7B212325D5For years I have savored this story, and eventually I paired it with a comment made by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.  Asked to explain the importance of charity in the Christian tradition, his answer was clear and succinct.  “We help others, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.“

Jesus said that “what we do for the least of people we do for him.”  Three hundred years later Pachomius experienced those words in the deeds of the Christians of Thebes.  Centuries later they still ring true in the words of Cardinal Bevilacqua.

It is true that the experience of Christian charity can be so astounding that people will choose to follow Jesus Christ.  But in the 4th century and now in the 21st century that’s still not the primary reason to help others.  We help others not to make them Christian.  Instead, we help others so that we might make ourselves Christian.  It’s what Christians do.

98B990E8-4E59-43DD-B0FE-F241511CEE00NOTES

+On May 11th my mother was buried next to my father in a simple service in Oklahoma City.  In attendance was the pastor of our parish as well as my brothers and sisters.  Because of the challenge of travel these days I was unable to attend.  Our family will schedule a memorial service for her sometime in the summer.

+On May 11th I taught a class in monastic history to Novice Felix.  Quite by accident I had planned to speak that day on the abbey of Cluny, whose influence reached across Europe in the 10th-12th centuries.  By coincidence that was the feast day of five of my favorite medieval saints — Odo, Odilo, Maiulus, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — the five great abbots of Cluny.

+I had no meetings or events on the schedule for last week, but I did continue with my turn at some household chores.  That included cleaning the choir stalls with my confrere Fr. Nathaniel after prayer on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.  I was also the reader at morning prayer during the entire work.

+Spring continues to bud out, as the photos in this post suggest.  I took the photos in and around the Quadrangle.

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