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Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’

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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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The Lord Can Help Us Repack

According to my appointment book, I’m supposed to fly to Lourdes this week.  Each year at this time members and volunteers in the Order of Malta converge on that southern French town, but this time around it is not to be.  The mere thought of bringing thousands of sick people to mingle with thousands of other pilgrims in a crowded town was simply too much to bear.  So for now the shrine is closed, and the disappointment is shared widely and keenly.

I too share in that sense of loss, but the cancellation has also triggered wonderful memories of pilgrimages past.  In particular, I’ve recalled the sermon I was privileged to deliver last year as members of the Western Association of Malta gathered for the sacrament of reconciliation.  I spoke that morning about memory and temptation and how they crop up for good and for ill in our daily routine.

9606BFE9-CCD1-4681-9D2C-D938D8F1511BI began with a reference to the ancient desert ascetics in Egypt, whose lives are replete with instances of spiritual endurance contests.  To untutored readers of our own time those stories can seem odd and even eccentric.  But we dismiss those tales at our peril.  The fact is, we are susceptible to the same temptations, though as always the devil fashions them to suit our particular weaknesses.

That morning I talked about baggage — both material and emotional.  As a first-time pilgrim to Lourdes I recall packing way more stuff than I needed.  The result was luggage bulging with things that became a burden to me.  That’s when I realized that we always need to pack with an eye to the point of it all.  Baggage is meant to serve us rather than the other way around.   So if it’s too much to haul around, then take less.

Then there is the baggage that we store  in the back of our minds.  The fact that we carry an inventory of hurts and slights and emotional ups and downs presents a special challenge.  We can tote those memories around for years, and sometimes they’re really hard to get rid of.  Saint Benedict alludes to this in his Rule, when he writes about nursing a grudge.  Left to run wild in our imagination, such memories can transform us into the sort of person we never hoped to become.

Not surprisingly, such memories surface in a place like Lourdes simply because it is a place of spiritual as well as physical healing.  That morning I urged people to take an inventory of the hurts that hobble them and to devise a strategy to leave behind as much of this mental baggage as was possible.  I recommended two things.

First was the sacrament of reconciliation, for which we had gathered.  I suggested that we leave our sins at the feet of the Lord and substitute for that burden the yoke of the Lord.  Jesus promised that his yoke was easy and his burden light.  So why not take him up on his offer?

E2DAAC34-F690-4001-9E52-D7DD9EC1A7D0Then I offered what is for me a playful yet quite deliberate approach to dealing with the hurts that bedevil us.  From experience I know that those memories can grip us, even in a place like Lourdes.  So my solution was practical.  As pilgrims enter the sacred precincts of Lourdes they cross a bridge over the River Gave.  It’s a fast-flowing current, and many a time it has overflowed its banks and done serious damage to the town and the shrine.  But like the waters of baptism it can effect tremendous change.  So that day I invited people to toss into the river their favorite grievances.  Then let the river carry them out to sea.  And they should keep doing it enough times until they can let go of that bit of emotional baggage completely.

I’ve reminded myself of this practice periodically, but it is especially useful now in a time of confinement and isolation.  That’s when the evil one stirs up the memories that cripple and burden us.  That’s when we need to recall the Lord’s promise to us all.  We don’t have to carry those awful burdens through life, because there is a strategy that brings healing.  As Saint Benedict suggests, we need to recognize the grudges and all the other stuff that stifles us, and then we need to deliberately excise those things from our minds.  Then we can take on the yoke of Christ, which really is easy and light.  It’s true, but we’ll never know until we let the Lord help to repack our bags.

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NOTES

+On April 20th I taught another class on monastic history  and tradition to our novice, Brother Felix.  This time I dealt with the influence of Pope Gregory the Great in promoting the legacy of Saint Benedict.

+Among several things that did not happen during the past week was the blessing of the abbey organ.  It had been scheduled for April 26th, but we have moved that event  to the fall.  In at least one respect this delay turned out to be fortuitous, as Fr. Bob Koopmann confided to some of us last week.  When organ builder Martin Pasi returned to his workshop in Tacoma, WA, he discovered that he had left one pipe behind.  Until that pipe is installed the organ is not complete; but to my untrained ear it sounds pretty good already.  The organists in the abbey have been testing the organ since the Easter vigil, and it sounds spectacular without that one pipe.  But on the other hand, it’s not complete until that one pipe is there.  And so the organ becomes a metaphor for a community.

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The Power of Routine

I thought I’d never see the day when millions of people would consciously decide to become hermits.  For decades people have lived alone in apartments and suburban enclaves;  but the life of a hermit came as an unintended consequence rather than a deliberate choice on their part.  But today, for at least a few weeks, people have embraced or been forced into isolation.  We’ve now became a nation of hermits and small intentional communities.

Given our experience with this sort of life, we monks have been waiting for the phone to ring off the hook.  But to my surprise, we’ve waited in vain.  With hordes of unwilling novices across the country, I had expected at least a few to phone up and ask for one or two helpful tips on how to make a go of isolation and life in a closed community.  Alas, there’s been scarcely one email.

In his Rule Saint Benedict dispenses lots of wisdom on how to get along with other people — or at least with other monks.  Precisely because of that abundance of wisdom I hesitate to try and boil it down to ten “best practices.”  Still, if I had to distill his thought into one practical tidbit, it would focus on the adoption of a healthy routine.

D3651E4E-11DD-4E68-977F-88BEF05917FERoutine has a bad reputation these days.  It hints of tedium, lack of imagination, and ruts out of which it can be difficult to climb.  Yet, I know from experience that routine brings benefits that surprise.

If there’s one thing we have plenty of in the monastery, it’s routine.  For starters, morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer and Mass provide the framework for our lives; and they do so seven days a week, week in and week out.  They are predictable, and sandwiched between them are meals, work, recreation, reading and sleep.  Save for weekends the schedule never varies, but it’s the variation that reminds us that it’s the weekend.

Then there are the peculiar customs and courtesies that accomplish at least two things.  Courtesies, for one, may be inconsequential, but try and live without them.  As one writer noted, courtesies are those little compromises that make life possible and sometimes even pleasant.  Along with other elements in the routine, they smooth out the basics of life so that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel each day.  Even more important, they can minimize the little tensions that can easily evolve into big tensions.

A predictable daily routine can often accomplish far more than you’d think, and only when it starts to fall apart  do you realize the civilizing effect it can have.  For instance, we process into the abbey church by seniority.  It doesn’t have to be that way;  but everybody accepts that practice rather than arguing for change every day, just for the sake of variety.  Granted that a few in our number would relish that discussion, most of us don’t need that kind of aggravation.

7492D346-3072-4CEF-B045-102E0F68E440Then there are moments when routine can morph into ritual.  For years two good friends of mine have enjoyed drinks before dinner.  However, she prefers the tv talking heads with her drink, while he has never really cared that much for them.  Rather than making each other suffer together , they long ago reached a happy compromise.  With drinks prepared, she watches the news and he reads in an adjoining room.  Then, refreshed, they meet and have dinner together.  Some might see this as a rut, but such routine is one of the little compromises that makes life healthy and social relationships work.  And often enough we begin to look forward to them.

Of course what makes routine fruitful are the principles upon which it is built.  Love and respect cause us to make those mutual accommodations, and in turn they can enhance the love and respect.  And for lots of people — monks included — it’s in the middle of routine when we glimpse those bits that make life extraordinary.  It’s precisely then when the face of Christ peeps through from the most ordinary things in life.

In the monastery, then, we don’t do routine for routine’s sake.  Nor do my friends who share drinks together every evening.  Instead, these are the practices that become customs that then morph into the rituals that add texture to life.

So if the self-isolation of contemporary life depresses you, try and introduce a little routine and ritual into your life.  You might just discover a richness to life you’d never imagined.  It’s what we try to do in the monastery, in case you were wondering.

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NOTES

+I did not go anywhere during the past week, save for a walk to the end of our property.  Now that the weather is nicer it’s great to take long walks.

+For the next few weeks the daily Mass at Saint John’s Abbey will be available online.  Please go to http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org and follow the directions to access the daily Mass as well as recent Masses that have been archived.

+Not a lot happened in the monastery this week, except that we are trying to find a new rhythm that can accommodate things we’d not done before.  Meals in the refectory require care that we never imagined.  The same goes for the daily cleaning of the choir stalls.  That too we’ve never done before, and we now do it after every prayer service.  I’ve volunteered for duty with the latter three evenings a week, and I’ll continue to do so until all this passes.

+On Saturday evening, following evening prayer, our confreres Frs. Bob Koopmann and Michael Peterson gave a brief concert on piano and recorder.  It’s great to have such talent in the house, and they are two among several wonderful musicians in our community.

+The transition from winter to spring is one of my favorite times.  Along with late autumn it’s one of those few moments when we can study the contours of the landscape, unobstructed by snow or greenery.  There is a pensive quality about it all that I really savor.  The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into those woods.

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Our Lives — a Truce in Eternity

In the prologue to his Rule, Saint Benedict speaks of our lives as a truce.  From my own perspective I like to think of this truce as that little segment in the march of eternity when I celebrate my own incarnation and have the chance to do more than merely exist.  It’s akin to Shakespeare’s description of our lives as the interlude when we are allowed to strut on stage, and then the curtain comes down.  Neither writer intended that these words depress or frighten us.  Rather, they both remind us that we don’t have forever to create a legacy.  Life is a gift, and now is our chance.  We must make the most of it.

I’ve never lived through a period of such anxiety, and small wonder.  COVID-19 has left us all wondering about the present and about the future.  We’d be crazy not to worry; but all the same that should not deflect us from our life’s mission.  God calls each of us to make the most of every day, and our corner of the world should be a tiny bit richer because of our presence.

6967F924-9D92-40F3-B72C-6849FA3C36EAI’m not used to doling out practical advice on how to translate ideals into reality.  Then again, this is a different situation, and anxiety is among the most insidious of enemies.  So what’s a person to do in the face of a boat-load of anxieties?

For myself I’ve come up with a few items that help.  First of all, I’ve reminded myself to keep busy.  Do something!  I should not allow myself to drift through the day wondering what’s going to happen a week or a month or a year from now.  Instead, accomplish at least one useful task — today — and the time will rush by and the tension will ease.

A second item on my to-do list is to get some exercise.  So I try to exercise as if there will be a tomorrow.  I’ll certainly feel better tomorrow if I stretch a bit today.

Also on my list are reading and prayer.  When we read we engage in a conversation with the author.  At the very least new ideas push us to think, and perhaps we might even learn something.  When we pray we engage in a conversation with God.  It helps to speak with someone who might be able to help.  For the believer God not only can help, but God also cares.  For me the liturgy of the hours, the Eucharist and the Bible are nutritious.  For others it may be saying the rosary of doing some other form of meditation.  Regardless, from these conversations with God we learn that God cares about us.

Finally, it helps to be attentive to the needs of others.  Others are anxious, just as are we.  It helps to show others that we care.  It helps to show “kindness, patience, love, enthusiasm and a positive attitude,” as one anonymous source pointed out.  That writer concluded with this bit of wisdom:  all these decent gestures are contagious.  “Don’t wait to catch it from others.  Be the carrier.”

That’s my short list, and I remain convinced that it will make all the difference in the world.  For me I think it is likely the best use of the earthly truce that the Lord has given me.  It may be equally true for you.

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+On March 17th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere Fr. Don LeMay.  As you might expect, the congregation was small, consisting of our monastic community, a sprinkling of Fr. Don’s relatives, and a few colleagues from Saint John’s University.

+We monks have met several times recently to discuss how we are dealing with the corona virus.  As Abbot John pointed out at a community meeting on Sunday evening, we’ve made some remarkable changes in less than a week, but there is still much more for us to do.  Among the guidelines for us is the elimination of all but emergency travel.  That order I followed completely this week, and I did not leave campus.  That will be the case next week as well.

+On March 21 we celebrated the feast of the passing of Saint Benedict.  After the Mass Fr. Bob played a stunning postlude, and it brought out wonderful new sounds from the expanded abbey organ.  That evening Brother Jacob gave a short concert of organ music for us, following evening prayer.  He had been scheduled that day to play in a celebration of Bach’s birthday, sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio.  Unfortunately for him but happily for us the St. Paul concert was cancelled.

+Our deliberations take place in the abbey chapter house.  In today’s post I have included photos from the chapter house of Yorkminstser, the cathedral of the city of York in the UK.  It’s among the most impressive chapter houses I’ve ever seen.

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EMERGENCY DECLARED!

So blared the headline on the front page of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune last Saturday.  Below it was a photo that should have shown the thoughtful response of normally sober and often stoic Minnesotans.  Instead, however, it showed store-length lines of people waiting to buy cartloads of toilet paper at a local Costco.  Who would have guessed?!

I almost laughed out loud, but later in the day my brother confirmed that this wasn’t a one-off.  At the Home Depot in Oklahoma City where he works pallets and pallets of tissue had sat, untouched, for months.  Then, all of a sudden, customers rushed in like a plague of locusts and stripped the pallets bare.

DC3DDE5B-660A-4CA7-A835-DAF68B4C669ECrises tend to produce unusual reactions, but this was something I never saw coming.  I was completely taken aback that a pandemic would lay bare a pervasive anxiety over toilet paper as a major social issue.  How did all the social scientists miss this?

The responses to the Coronavirus have ranged from the serious to the ridiculous, but most see the need to do something.  In our monastery at Saint John’s we’ve revamped our refectory service, and we’ve spread ourselves out in the choir stalls.  We’ve also limited access to our elderly monks in the abbey health center.  And while I cannot speak for everyone, my own hands are starting to chap from too much washing.

Still, the image of people in desperate search for toilet paper in a time of crisis sticks in my mind.  Is it time to dust off those old Fellini films about the absurdities of life?  Could it be time once again to do some soul-searching and decide what values — if any — should shape our lives?

For monks this situation evokes a treasured bit of wisdom from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  “Keep death daily before your eyes” was Benedict’s advice, and by it he meant to drive us neither to despair nor pious escapism.  Rather, he meant to encourage us to set personal priorities that would define our lives.  Among those, love and respect for others should top the list.  Commitment to mutual service should count for something as well.  A certain graciousness should also pervade our lives, and all this rests on a vision of Christ whom we see in our fellow monks and in virtually everyone else.

4B25A7DA-1B29-4F8B-B620-37AED37DC89AOther religious orders and traditions have their variations on this theme, but one ideal from the Order of Malta has long intrigued me.  For much of the Order’s history nobility meant nobility of blood.  In modern times the nobility of spirit and conduct has come to replace it.  The Statutes and Commentary go on to explain that “nobility in this deeper sense means:  carrying more responsibility than others; [and] knowing that one exists to stand up for the glory of God and for the God-given dignity of every person….”  Underscoring all this is a fundamental vision that drives the behavior of all members:  in the faces of the sick and the poor we see the face of Christ.

The feast of Ash Wednesday reminded us that our pilgrimage in this life is finite.  Ironically, the Coronavirus does the very same thing.  But there’s one critical difference between Ash Wednesday and this latest reminder of our mortality.  Lent reminds us that our end is indeed temporal, and we each have an expiration date.  That said, we also have an end that is eternal.  May we continue to pray about the purpose to which God calls us.

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NOTES

+On March 11 our confrere Fr. Don LeMay passed away at the age of 97.  Fr. Don was an extraordinary individual, and he had a facility with names that astonished all who knew him.  Always gentle and possessed of a positive spirit, he was fond of noting that “every day is a great day!”

+On March 13th we sent our students home and will shortly initiate online classes for them.  For the moment the plan is to ask them to return on Easter Monday to resume classes on campus.

+The last few days no doubt have seen great upheaval for most everyone.  In my case it has included the cancellation of every talk and meeting that I was to be involved with for weeks to come.  Now I do not need to go near the airport until mid-May, and so I feel like I have gone on summer vacation.  But of course I know it’s not quite the same, because there are still piles of snow here and there.  One other byproduct of a free schedule is the ability to be prayer leader at the community liturgy of the hours.  This weekend I realized that for the first time in ages I would be able to be present for every bit of the prayer schedule this week, and so I offered to help out Fr. Cyril, this week’s leader, if and when he needed a substitute.  His response?  “Why not take the whole week!”  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and so I accepted.

+On March 21st we celebrate the feast of the passing of Saint Benedict.  In his honor I have selected photos from Monte Cassino, where he founded his community of monks.  The site itself has seen more than its share of emergencies, having been sacked and destroyed several times in its history.

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Lent:  What’s a Monk to Do?

Lent’s back, and with it comes the annual challenge it always poses.  What can a monk do that hasn’t been done before?

Part of my problem is that I can’t remember most of the resolutions I’ve made through the years.  Obviously they succeeded in changing neither my life nor my mind.  Still, two experiences stand out, and the first was the Lent when I gave up candy.  For some kids that can be truly heroic, but for me it wasn’t.  I’m a saver by nature and a life-long believer in the virtue of delayed gratification.  Even back then, as a child, I knew that on Easter Sunday that candy would still be there, augmented by a nifty delivery from the Easter Bunny.

9A7D23C2-E440-4427-B9F3-A8E8458DEE61Years later as a young monk I began to read Genesis and the New Testament during Lent.  In fact I did that for three Lents running.  Then one day my dissertation director told me he read the New Testament in a different language each Lent.  Deflated, I gave up the practice;  but I shouldn’t have.

For many years the issue of self-denial during Lent didn’t get much attention in our monastery.  Of course we noticed Lent’s presence in the liturgy, and desserts disappeared from the refectory.  But benign neglect of self-denial remained in place until just a few years ago, when the abbot began to encourage monks to do something special to observe the season.  That at least got us to thinking, but thinking about something isn’t quite the same as actually doing something.  This year, in keeping with the Rule of Saint Benedict, what had begun as the abbot’s suggestion morphed into an expectation.  This year, by Ash Wednesday each of us must turn in a written statement noting what we intend to do.

Recently a priest-friend told me how he deals with people who shy away from the confessional because they have nothing to say.  “I wish I had that problem” has become his stock reply.  By extension I think the same is true for me when it comes to Lent.  What could I possibly do that would be original?  How could I come up with a fresh idea that would both impress the abbot and change my life?  Then I thought of something that could hit me where I live — literally — and get me to thinking long-term.

FB15FFB3-BD03-49D8-A877-EB953A72B677For years I’ve fought the battle against excess baggage in my life.  However, when it has come to books I’ve generally drawn the line.  Now it’s time to pare back on books too, for a lot of good reasons.  Saint Benedict may have written that monks should have what they truly need, but books that haven’t been touched for twenty years probably  don’t fall into the category of things I cannot live without.  So the specifics of my Lenten resolve this year include recycling four shelves of books and the book-case that holds them.  To let go of those books will be painful, at least until they’re gone.  But the exercise will strike a blow for simplicity;  the books will benefit the readers who will end up with them;  and I’ll gain four square feet of floor space in my room.

Even better, there’s an added benefit here.  In another of his maxims Saint Benedict urges his monks to keep death daily before their eyes.  In our monastery it falls to the prior to clear out the rooms of monks who have died.  So even as I keep death daily before my eyes by discarding stuff, the prior will someday thank me for it.

Finally, there’s another positive from this Lenten resolution.  When Saint Benedict asked his monks to inform the abbot of their resolutions, he told them to share the news with neither the rest of the monks nor the whole wide world.  This avoids pride, and I certainly want to avoid that sort of thing.  But all the same, true to the law of unintended consequences, there is yet one more benefit from the announcement of my Lenten observance and violating Benedict’s command.  At least now I’ll have something to say when I go to confession.

3A13F994-37F4-453D-96B2-485A3A0298DCNOTES

+On February 10-11 I attended the annual meeting of the chaplains of the American Association of the Order of Malta, held in New York.  I participated in the presentation made by the spirituality committee of the Association.

+On February 11th I was able to meet and have dinner with our three Benedictine Volunteer Corps members who are spending the year at Saint Benedict’s Prep and Newark Abbey in Newark, NJ.

+On February 15th I gave a presentation on the history of the Order of Malta at a retreat day for provisional members of the Western Association of the Order.  It was held in Menlo Park, CA.

+While in New York I was able to meet with a long-time friend, Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic.  Ours is an annual visit, and this year we celebrated the publication of her memoirs, entitled Lost Without the River.  In it she tells the engaging story of growing up on a farm in South Dakota.  Life was not easy for her family, but she proves the maxim that life without challenge can become a life impoverished.

+The photo at top in today’s post is Fra Filippo Lippi’s portrait of Saint Benedict speaking to his disciple Saint Maurus, painted ca. 1445.  It is now in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  The next four photos show works housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  They are part of a current exhibit that deals with the cost to buy or commission art in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Lacking a unifying monetary unit like the euro, and with fluctuations in the price of gold, silver and other materials used to create works of art, the curators finally came up with a single unit of monetary value that could faithfully compare the relative costs. So, for instance, Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in his Study, made ca. 1514, had a relative value of one-half cow.  Next, the alabaster figure of Charity by the circle of Jacques du Broeucq (ca. 1580) was valued at 40 cows.  The chalice by Otto Meier (?), ca. 1604, had an approximate value of 255 cows.  At bottom the stained glass of the Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabee by Dirck Vellert (ca. 1530) would have set the buyer back for all of 12 cows.  I can only imagine what shopping would have been like in the 16th century if people had to pay in cows.  Thankfully credit cards came along as a tidier replacement.

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A New Age of Hermits

Not since the 11th century have so many people opted to become hermits.  Back then hermitages and communities of solitaries dotted the landscape of Europe.  Today, however, we have whole cities of hermits, and suburbs are filled with single people living in homes designed for families.  The result?  For some it’s unintended isolation.  For others it’s loneliness

I’m not the one to explain all of this, but sociologists note the changes, at least in America.  The fact is, people have been retreating into the safety of their dens for decades.  Fewer people join clubs and other social organizations.  Church attendance is down; malls close for lack of customers; and people would crawl into their laptops and cell phones if they could.  And when they do participate in something, it’s something big, like massive sporting events or mega churches.  In such places it’s much easier to protect their anonymity.

95799A87-C199-4C66-B4DE-948FB58DB632In light of all this,  I do offer one observation.  It puts a strain on our ability to develop social skills.  Those, after all, require practice if they are going to blossom and flourish.

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict allowed that the best kind of monk is the hermit.  But when we read the entirety of his Rule it’s clear that he pushes in the opposite direction.  He skews everything toward the creation of a healthy and vibrant community.  All is geared toward the respect and nurture of neighbor.  It’s the neighbor that brings out the best — and the worst — in us; and without the presence of that neighbor personal growth is much harder.

In Matthew 5:16 Jesus says that our light must shine before others, and obviously that requires some sort of community.  But of even greater significance is this:  the gifts God gives us ought not be stashed away or placed under a basket.  When we hide our talents no one benefits, and that includes the owner of the talents.  Rather, gifts given to one are gifts meant to be shared.  Only then will we grow.

45B503C8-1293-400D-8F11-B4DFB52F3B0ASharing gifts and talents requires effort on our part.  It takes gumption to show up regularly for activities that build relationships and communities.  It takes initiative to reach out to others.  For some it requires real effort to overcome the urge to live totally private lives.

Ironically, we only fool ourselves if we think we can live totally private lives.  If we rely on others for food, for safety, or for any sort of emotional support, then we owe all those people a debt of gratitude.  We in fact live in community with them.

The words of Jesus offer us a challenge.  Will our experience of community be minimalist — one in which neither we nor others see what gifts we have to offer?  Or will we take any sort of risk to reach out to others?

Jesus commanded the paralytic to pick up his mat and walk.  In less elegant language he asks each of us to get up off our bottoms and make some little difference in our community.

E27FEA42-8980-4601-90C8-6E1A94517987NOTES

+On February 5th former president of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos arrived at Saint John’s for a two-day residence.  In the course of his visit he delivered the 13th annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture, and he met with faculty, staff and students at various luncheons and receptions.

+On February 7th I met with Novice Felix for the first of a series of classes that will address the history of the Benedictine tradition.  In this first class we reviewed The Saint John’s Bible — a project I’ve been involved in for what seems like forever.

+Later that day I drove to LaCrosse, WI, with one of my colleagues, where we attended a vigil service for the mother of one of our alumni.

+While in Washington DC recently I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite haunts, The National Gallery.  There I saw an amazing exhibit of the work of Alonso Berruguete, a 16th-century sculptor who worked in Castile.  Son of an artist, a visit to Italy where he saw the work of Michelangelo was pivotal in his development.  The works on display are part of a retable that Berruguete created for the Benedictine abbey of San Benito Real in Valladolid, Spain.  I find his work just amazing in its originality and emotion, particularly the figure of Jesus at top.  Below that is the figure of Abraham, about to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Tap on the photo to enlarge and savor the anguish on the face of Abraham.  Next comes John the Baptist, and at bottom is a section of his Adoration of the Magi.

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