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Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’

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Looking Beyond the Artificial

On Saturday the lights went out in the monastery.  Actually, everything went off, thanks to a planned power outage that takes place every year at about this time.  I’m not exactly sure what the power people have in mind when they do this to us, and perhaps they haven’t a clue either.  But whether they know it or not, they turn our world upside-down.

We had no electricity for seven hours, and a lot of inconvenience happened in our little world of the monastery.  For one thing, the kitchen staff had to consolidate the cold food into storage that would stay sealed for the entire day.  As for lunch and dinner, we had the indoor equivalent of picnics, complete with paper plates and plasticware.  As expected, the lights were out, making things pretty dim in all the places we need to be — like the refectory, the church, the halls, the stairs, and our rooms.  The elevator to the health center was also out of action, leaving the retired monks stranded on the second floor.  Fans and the air-conditioning took the day off too, leaving most public rooms stuffy and close.

CB4C0FEA-424D-4A1A-B9C8-848368D1FD97This year’s shut-down was distinctive for one new element, however.  A few months ago we installed a key-card lock system in the monastery, and without power it was dormant.  The practical result was that monks could leave the monastery but couldn’t get back in.  Thankfully the prior had the foresight to prop open two doors, and woe to the monk who absentmindedly closed them on the way out.

Other than a cold shower and the inability to read in my darkened room, this business didn’t really inconvenience me.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t frustrating, sitting there trying to think of what I could do in the semi-darkness.  But it was an interesting test in patience as I sat there and waited for life as we know it to resume.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent some photos he had taken that day.  They showed the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, a monastery I’ve long wanted to visit.  It was fortuitous, because the photos were enough to suggest to me both continuity and discontinuity within the monastic tradition.  850 years after the monks built Fountains, we still follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the architectural elements of monasteries have remained pretty much the same.  But some differences are startling, largely because of electricity.

35C9C63C-75CB-477F-AB1E-AC6A691354AAToday we have things that medieval monks could scarcely imagine.  We have artificial light that’s lengthened the work day beyond imagination.  We have heat and air-conditioning, elevators, sound-systems and media equipment and noisy compressors everywhere.  White noise is an integral part of life, and silence such as the monks of Fountains knew is unknown to us.

In short, we monks — and most everyone else — live in a world in which artificial sound and light and air have isolated us from the things of the earth.  Meanwhile, the lights of civilization long ago screened from our gaze the dazzling display of stars that the monks of Fountains marveled at every evening.

I’m no Luddite, and I would be loathe to dispense with the things that make our lives both comfortable and productive.  All the same, however, I wonder whether there is a price we’ve had to pay as we’ve created an artificial world that shelters us from the reality of creation and the cycles of the seasons.  Has our world become unreal?

I wonder too whether our isolation from nature has engendered a corresponding isolation from one another and from God.  A recent study points out the prevalence of loneliness in our society, but the data provided one big surprise.  Researchers had expected to find loneliness among the elderly, but the discovery of a pervasive loneliness among the young was shocking.  No one had expected that.

6DA8C891-C0A0-422C-8321-CC785B4B21E6If we’ve insulated ourselves from close human companionship, have we done so with God as well?  It seems entirely plausible to me that if we can fashion our own little artificial world — entirely the result of the machines we have created — then we can just as easily close our eyes to the presence of God.

For better and for worse, something like a power outage reminds us of two things.  First, we aren’t omnipotent, despite what we may think.  In fact, we would be helpless without the power grid, until we learned to get along without it once again.  And second, we would eventually recall that there is something to life besides cell phones and the machines that now shape our artificial world.

Perhaps, then, it’s good to turn off the power every now and again, just to remind us that life is possible without it.  For one, we’d discover that life still has meaning.  For another, we’d discover that we still have each other.  In the faces of one another we behold the spark of the divine presence that never seems to grow dark or weaken.  Oddly enough, it’s the one spark of energy that the power company can’t seem to turn off.

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+On June 5th I returned from giving conferences at a retreat for members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Malvern Retreat House, located in the Philadelphia suburbs.

+On June 9th we monks of Saint John’s survived a planned power outage at Saint John’s.  Not willing to miss the opportunity to comment on that experience, I made it the subject of today’s post.

+Lacking photos of the medieval abbey of Fountains, I have done the next best thing by resorting to photos I took of the nearby abbey of Rievaulx.  Located outside of York, it is a stunning ruin, and it’s a miracle that builders and looters did not cart off all of its stones. Given that there were no glazed windows in the cloister to shield the monks from the elements, they managed to survive the winter by taking refuge in the calefactory — the one heated room in the entire complex.  That fireplace served some 600 monks and laybrothers at one point, and I can only imagine how they crowded around it in the dead of winter.  The photo of the fireplace is at bottom.

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The Christian Vocation:  To Be a Pilgrim

You’d be right to wonder how in the world anyone could keep busy for six days in a place like Lourdes.  Is there any decent shopping?  Are there great restaurants?  Is there much of anything else to do?  The answers to these three questions are short and sweet:  not much; no; and it depends.

First of all, I can assure you that no one on a culinary tour of the south of France makes a detour to Lourdes.  The restaurants are adequate, but the market for fine dining just isn’t there.  As for the shops, it’s fair to say that Lourdes caters to all tastes and none, but I can only think of four shops that I wouldn’t mind being photographed in.  As for things to keep you busy, there can be a surprisingly lot of stuff to chew up hours and hours.

097EFACE-14AA-4023-9890-D555C59EF61FFor starters, there is no such thing as an express Mass in Lourdes.  I can’t think of a single one that was over in less than an hour — and those were the weekday ones.  As for our Sunday liturgy for 25,000, that took over two and a half hours.  A close second in the time department was the candlelight procession that takes place every evening.  On the night we processed, we did so with 20,000 companions, and a procession of that magnitude simply cannot be hurried.  But to be fair, with 350 in our group, even a walk down the block takes planning.

I’m not going to recount the entire schedule, but I will note the two moments when I made my own particular contribution to the program.  On one afternoon I moderated a two-hour session with the care-givers in our group.  It was a moving experience for us all, and by the end of it I had a profound respect for these people who have given so much love and service to the people for whom they care.

A second instance came on the morning I led the stations of the cross for a large group.  It took place outdoors, across the river from the shrine.  There we walked from one stone-carved station to the next, mentally retracing the passion and death of Jesus.  In the past when I’ve done that I’ve always been conscious of the layers of meaning that this exercise evokes; but this time the circumstances compounded it.  As a spiritual meditation it is a substitute for a trip to Jerusalem and walking the Via Dolorosa.  But that morning it was also an abbreviated pilgrimage within the pilgrimage to Lourdes.  And finally, it serves as a reminder to all of us who are Christian that our fundamental vocation is to be pilgrims.  As Saint Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless, until finally they find their rest in Jesus.

43B8EFC6-5AA2-4D83-B920-BF67738B18FFAs you can imagine, six days of pilgrimage also bring a flood of words, much of it in the form of sermons.  I’m relieved to report that most of them were relatively benign, but I must cite Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit for the most down-to-earth and moving words of the entire journey.  At the Lourdes grotto, where tradition says that Mary gave her message to Bernadette, he pointed out an obvious truth that had never occurred to me.  “Mary came to Lourdes, and not to Paris.  Mary chose to appear in the town garbage dump, and not at Versailles.  Mary spoke to an unlettered young woman, and not to some sophisticate.”

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict notes the awe with which we approach the wealthy and powerful, and he urges his monks to bend over backwards to pay equal attention to the poor and powerless.  In her appearance to Bernadette, Mary makes the same point.  She provides a not-so-subtle reminder that in our pilgrimage of life we’d be well-advised to pay our respects to any and all fellow travelers.  If the scriptures relate the stories of people who unknowingly entertained angels, then they suggest that we can never be too cautious ourselves.  There’s always the outside chance that we could be walking with the Lord.  Given that, none if us can be too careful.  After all, we could miss something really important.

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+The first full day of our pilgrimage to Lourdes did not begin auspiciously.  It rained the entire day, and it was cold.  The second day it rained too.  Then it got progressively better, until by Sunday it was gloriously sunny and even warm.  It was the first day on which most of us shed our coats.  That lifted everyone’s spirits and made it a lot easier for people to get around.

+On May 5th several of the monks as well as volunteers gathered to plant the first of 500 fruiting trees and shrubs in the Abbey Arboretum.  This wild orchard will serve both the wildlife as well as those in the community who make jams and jellies for our table.

+The photos in today’s post all show scenes from Lourdes.  Certainly the oldest structure in town is the medieval fortress, that was built on Roman ruins on top of the hill that dominates the town and the river Gave that flows through it.  The shrine that greets visitors dates from the 19th century, while the enormous basilica that hosts Masses for up to 25,000 is underground.  Given that space is tight at the shrine, the location  underground preserves a valuable plaza that sits in front of the shrine.

Lourdes is not a big town, but it hosts around 5 million visitors during the peak months of the pilgrimage season.  That makes it the biggest tourist destination in France after Paris.   In winter the town shrinks down to a few thousand, and most of the hotels close.  And as a footnote, after Paris Lourdes has the greatest number of hotel rooms of any other city in France.

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Lessons from St. Stephen

While St. Stephen’s feast day lands on December 26th, he seems much more at home in the Easter season.  It’s now that we recall what a firebrand preacher he was, and that he was the first martyr in the Christian community.  But he also gives us pause to consider what kind of impact he might have had on that community.

There’s no doubt that Stephen got under the skin of the religious leaders.  And when I say that, I don’t just mean the Jewish leaders, because he likely irritated some of the apostles too.  Lest we forget, Stephen was a deacon and not an apostle.  Even so, he got out ahead of the curve in preaching the resurrection of the Lord, and that likely alarmed some of the leaders in the Christian community.  What if Stephen’s zeal brought a crackdown on their community?  Might Stephen jeapordize everything they had worked for?

0EA15307-128F-4400-8959-57FBA9E156DFIf that’s what they were thinking, it was pointless.  Events moved too quickly for the cautious ones, and they were about to learn the wisdom of the high priest’s warning about zealots.  If Stephen’s zeal was of human origin, then it would fizzle out.  If it came from God, then there was no stopping it.

I suspect that a few apostles thought they were losing control of the church;  but if so, they were about to learn an important lesson.  They were about to learn that just because they had walked with the Lord, they did not have a monopoly on the message of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit was already calling new people who would follow in their steps.  And in Stephen’s case it’s not a little ironic that, 2,000 years after the fact, we know more about Stephen than we do about some of the apostles.

That’s a good take-away for all of us who have been involved in organizations that have been around for a long time.  In his Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict advises the abbot to cast his net widely when seeking advice, and he should especially make sure to include the youngest and newest members in that circle.  After all, the Holy Spirit is free to choose whomever to be carriers of divine wisdom, and so it would be foolish to ignore such obvious gifts.

780D7A67-13A4-4CD5-9023-C14C7036A3CBBut if that’s good advice for abbots, it’s also good for monks like me who’ve been hanging around the monastery for more than a few years.  It’s tempting for people like me to believe that I’m wiser than everyone else and that the Holy Spirit stopped doling out wisdom after I got mine.  But then I remind myself why the Lord keeps calling new people to the community.  They come, not to continue my work, but to continue the work of the Lord.  And if by chance they have a slightly different perspective on how to do things, then I am well-advised not to dismiss their wisdom just because I didn’t think of it first.

St. Stephen serves as a good example to all of us who are involved in communities and organizations. He’s a reminder that we came to do the work of the Lord and not our own work.  He’s a reminder that we need to make room for the new people who come into our midst, and not fear that they’ve come for the sole purpose of disrupting our own little worlds.

Most important of all, St. Stephen reminds us that none of us should assume we have a monopoly on how things ought to be.  Just as I am a gift from God, so are the late-comers to the vineyard of the Lord.  Of course we should always test the spirits of new people to see if they come from God, but while we’re at it we should not be afraid to take our own pulse just to make sure that we too come from God.

So these are the three points I take away for myself.  First, the Holy Spirit did not run out of wisdom after I got my share.  Second, the Holy Spirit keeps on calling others to the vineyard, whether I like it or not.  And third, the wisest course for me is to welcome those people into the church and into my life, as gifts from God.

242F865E-BC4C-48CA-9D7A-1C06BAEAFF02NOTES

+On April 9th I taught a class in monastic history in the novitiate.  This time I concentrated on the Cistercian reform in the 12th century.

+Later that day, on April 9th, I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+On April 14th I participated in a day of recollection for provisional members in the Order of Malta.  I gave presentations on the history of the Order of Malta, and the event took place at Sacred Heart School in Atherton, CA.

+On April 16th I presided at the monthly Mass for members of the Order of Malta in the San Francisco area.  Today’s post is a variation of the sermon that I delivered.

+Because I was away from the abbey, I missed out on what we hope is the last major snow of the season.

+The first photo in today’s post shows an altar frontal (ca. 1200) that once was in the church of Santa María de Taüll, in Catalonia.  It now is in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  The remaining photos show the exterior and some of the interior windows of the church of St. Severin in Paris.

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Who Will Help Us Roll Away Our Stones?

Easter has come and gone, and while the liturgies linger in my memory, it’s the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus that sticks out.  I owe that to Abbot John, who brought it up in his sermon at the Easter Vigil.  That evening, for the first time, it hit me as something of outsized importance.

Obviously that stone served a practical purpose.  It shut the dead inside and it kept the living outside.  But that’s what set up the drama that was to follow.  When people came to tend to the body of Jesus, they knew they weren’t strong enough to shove the stone aside.  And so they wondered aloud: “who will help us roll the stone away?”

An angel solved the problem.  However, to everyone’s surprise, there was no body to be seen.  Who had taken the Lord’s body?  Where might they find him?

230C1BEC-1D88-490D-89BF-A5F2BEB86099Further into the story we read of the many appearances of Jesus, but there’s symbolic value to this scene at the tomb that we shouldn’t leave behind.  In this particular case, it may have been an angel who rolled the stone aside and then gave access to Jesus.  But the angel represents much more.  That angel is one of many figures who will roll aside rocks and open up to us the vision of the Lord.  The angel is merely the first in a progression of people who step into our lives and push aside the impediments that obscure our vision.  Because of those friends and strangers, we gain access to the Lord; and it’s something that we could never achieve all by ourselves.

I’m fond of reminding any of my confreres who will listen that we all bring plenty of baggage with us to the monastery.  That baggage contains everything from pebbles to boulders, and they are the sorts of things that shape us, for good and for ill.  Some of those stones we can learn to live with, and they can even have a positive force in our lives.  Others weigh us down.  Even worse, a few can block us from becoming the loving people we are called to be.

9BC009AB-9EEE-4160-BF3F-CAED6AC3DA22At the very least the rock that sealed the tomb of Jesus is symbolic of all the rocks that I continue to tote around with me.  Obviously I would be better off without some of them.  Others I should have unloaded years ago.  Those are the ones that weigh me down, metaphorically at least, and they hobble me every time the Lord encourages me to run.

Is a big rock my take-away from Easter this year?  Perhaps.  For one thing it reminds me of the big stones that still have the potential to stunt my growth.  Even more, the stone in the Easter story reminds me of my need for help from my brothers.  It’s they, along with both friends and strangers, whom the Lord sends to help me roll away the stones that derail my pilgrimage and blind me to the possibilities in my life.

Some stones can seem too big to budge, but Jesus never asks us to move any stone all by ourselves.  He regularly sends others to help with the pushing, and I’m utterly convinced that Jesus himself will help roll those stones aside, if we but ask.

A last bit of consolation is that passage in which Jesus comforts all who find life weary and burdensome.  His yoke is easy and his burden light, he promises.  That lesson, it seems to me, is the one thing the disciples took away as they left behind a big stone and an empty tomb.

So who will help us roll away those big stones in our lives?  It will be the Lord — along with a host of angels and friends and strangers.

49BE4E49-7B49-477F-8C7C-9FAB237F3B37NOTES

+On March 27th I gave a class on monastic history to the novices.

+On March 28th I gave a presentation on Stability and Stewardship in the Rule of Benedict.  Given to a group of new faculty and staff, it was part of a series sponsored by The Benedictine Institute.

+On March 30-31 we monks were on retreat, in anticipation of the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

+On 31 March we were all surprised to wake up to a blanket of snow, amounting to some six inches or more.  None of us were dreaming of a White Easter, and I for one was hoping for a glimpse of crocus.  But it was not to be.  April is supposed to come in with showers, but the prognosis is for another seven inches of snow today.  That contrasts with the experience of my first year at Saint John’s.  On April 1st of that year it had been so warm that the ice went out on the lake.  This year it’s been so cold that the sap in the maple trees is still not flowing well.

+The first three photos in today’s post show art housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  At top is an altar frontal that dates from ca. 1200.  The next two are panels from an altar retable dating from ca. 1340.  One of those panels is curious for its depiction of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The final two photos show some of the snow that accumulated in the courtyard of the quadrangle at Saint John’s.

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Change Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

On Ash Wednesday I heard some words of advice that I never expected in a Lenten sermon.  “If going without meat turns you into a bear when you’re with others, then for heaven’s sake go out and eat a cheeseburger.”

Taken out of context, words like these can get a preacher into a lot of trouble.  They remind me of the counsel that Martin Luther once gave to his colleague Philip Melanchthon, when the latter hesitated to follow through on one particularly difficult issue.  “Sin boldly!” was Luther’s advice, and clearly he did not mean for Melanchthon to violate the ten commandments.  Luther’s critics had a field day anyway.

Lenten penance always presents something of a conundrum.  Do we do it to please God?  To impress others?  To whip ourselves into the best spiritual shape of our lives?  In the process we always run the risk of crossing over the line that separates personal discipline from public display.  And when we cross that line we lose every shred of benefit that might come from our exercise.

54CCF159-0B87-491A-90A1-EE708804FDC0Saint Benedict encouraged his monks to think of the monastic life as a continuous Lenten observance.  By now I’ve been around long enough to know that he did not counsel a life-time of fasting and self-denial, because elsewhere he cautioned about any unusual Lenten display.  The point was not to compete to be named the most holy and self-denying monk in all of monastic history.  In fact, Benedict preferred that monks not even be able to notice what their neighbors were doing for Lent.

It’s not that Benedict wants us to do little or nothing for Lent.  Rather, he discourages overt spiritual competition among us.  He discourages public displays that would suggest superiority to our neighbor.  In short, he prefers an interior discipline that changes hearts rather than public shows that rend garments.  In this he is on the same page as Jesus.

4807FEA4-B842-496F-A2ED-1DF6599592DBSo what’s the point of a Lenten observance for Benedict?  Clearly, Benedict counsels a different sort of path to God — one that abandons rugged ways and self-denial that would establish our reputation as stars in the spiritual firmament.  Instead, his is an asceticism of doing what our neighbors are doing.  In joining together in a communal exercise we admit that we are neither better nor worse than our fellow monks.  We acknowledge once again the commitment we’ve made to seek God with our brothers in community, rather than pursue careers as lone wolves.

Lent is a time of community, whether it be in a monastery or in a parish church.  It’s not a time to engage in self-denial that transforms us into people who are hard to get along with.  It’s not a time to sequester ourselves from human contact, on the pretext that we know best.  Rather, Lent is a season in which we realize that we make the forty-day trek through the wilderness, together.  Like the Hebrews wandering for forty years in the desert, we too search for God, together.  And we do it because without neighbors close at hand, it’s awfully hard to see the face of Christ in others.

So we might be well-advised to paraphrase the words of Peter, when the Lord asked him if he too would leave, just as had so many others who had found his words too hard to take.  “Lord, without our neighbors and confreres, to whom would we go?”

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+On February 22nd I again had a class in monastic history with the novices.  This time I spoke about Pope Gregory the Great and the mission of Saint Augustine to England.

+In a sign that the times are about to change, on February 24th taps were added to stands of maple trees in the abbey forest.  The season begins when day-time temperatures climb above freezing and drop below freezing at night.  That forces the sap up and down, and the taps divert a bit of that flow into the process that will make syrup.  It also signals the onset of spring.

+On February 21st my dear friend Jo White passed away after a long illness.  I knew Jo for ages, and she was a driving force in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible.  Today, 26 February, I will preside at her funeral in St. Paul.  Several monks and colleagues from Saint John’s will attend.

+This has not been a good winter for snow — meaning, we’ve not had nearly enough.  But this week the weather made up for it with two storms that left us with nearly a foot of new snow.  The photos in today’s post show the results of the first snow.  I did not go out to get additional photos after the second snow, becuase I thought the additional six inches were gratuitous.  To enlarge the photos, simply click on them.

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We All Croak, So Live With Purpose

Last week my friend Kathleen Norris sent me the link to an app with the intriguing name of WeCroak.  For those who don’t know Kathleen, she’s a writer and poet, and she’s a friend to many monks in our community.  But despite living in Hawaii, I know for a fact that she’s not a biologist.  So I assumed, rightly, that WeCroak is not about frogs.  What it is about, however, is death; and it promises to send five messages a day to encourage us to stop and think about death.  And it does so on the premise that the truest path to happiness is to consider our mortality.

If you’ve never thought about your own death, then it’s probably time that you did.  You can never start too soon, and it’s something we monks try to do on a regular basis.  And we do that because Saint Benedict in his Rule urges us to keep death daily before our eyes.  It’s important to know, however, that Benedict is not trying to depress us or to throw us into a panic.  Rather, all he wants to do is remind us that our days on God’s green earth are numbered, and we should make good use of each and every moment of each and every day.  Anything less is to waste both our time and our lives, and these are two of the greatest gifts that God gives us.

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You and I can certainly choose to live as if there is no tomorrow.  We can also choose to live as if we’ll never run out of days.  But in fact our days are finite, and each day invites a response that is open and creative.  And so we should ask ourselves how we will use this day.  Will we have anything to show for it when we climb into bed tonight?  Will our lives matter to anyone this day?  These are just three of the questions that we can put to ourselves, and you will have your own variations on this theme.  But there’s always one thing to remember:  the unexamined life runs the risk of meaning little or nothing when it’s over.

In today’s readings we have two stark alternatives for shaping our lives.  The first reading, from chapter seven of the Book of Job, opens on this rather depressing note:  “Is not our life on earth a drudgery?”  And then Job goes on to point out that “my days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;  they come to an end without hope.  Remember that my life is like the wind; and I shall not see happiness again.”

There’s a lot more to the story of Job than this, and it remains one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned.  The good news is that Job’s life ends much differently than this, but these words suggest how illness and suffering and wasted days can all drain life of its positive meaning.  But life need not be that way.

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Today’s gospel passage from Mark chapter one provides an option that is clearly more hopeful than Job’s.  Mark recounts how the sick and the suffering came to Jesus for physical healing;  but the physically healthy came too — for spiritual healing.  To both the sick and the healthy Jesus gave a message of hope, and he reminded each and every listener that life does have meaning and purpose.  Such a life will not be without illness, nor will any of us escape death.  But Jesus urges all of us to live by hope — confident that our lives can and do have meaning, not only now, but in eternity.

I confess that I’ve not yet forked over the 99 cents that it takes to download WeCroak, but I’ll probably do so before the end of the day.  And I’ll do so for two reasons.  First, I hope it will give me timely reminders not to bury myself all day in useless trivia.  I hope it will remind me to look up from my iPad and pay attention to what’s going on around me.  And I hope it will remind me to be part of that scene.

But I’ll also do it to reinforce my Benedictine and Christian calling to keep death daily before my eyes.  That will underscore Benedict’s reminder that our days are limited, and each and every moment is something to seize and to treasure.  Any other response is to waste God’s greatest gifts.

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I don’t know that I have any good advice on how you can turn up the intensity in your life.  I do know it’s not a matter of being louder or more aggressive.  Nor is it a matter of taking reckless chances with our lives.  But it’s dawned on me that — at least for me — it’s good to inject a little bit of heart into what I say and do today.  Perhaps if I give a little bit of my soul to others, I will also make better use of my time and talent.

But above all it’s critical that you and I as Christians live deliberately, with intensity, with considered purpose.  Only then will we realize that the words of the Psalmist should be ours as well.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice.”  Knowing that our days are in short supply and that one day we too will croak, why would we not want to make the most of what we’ve got?  Why would we not grab hold of today and give of our heart?  This is the life to which God calls us.  Let us be glad and rejoice.  Amen.

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NOTES

+On January 29th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices.  It is the first of several classes that I will be having with them over the next few weeks.

+On February 1st I hosted Chorbishop sharbel Maroun on his visit to Saint John’s.  Abouna sharbel, as he prefers to be called, is the Maronite-rite bishop, resident at Saint Maron’s Church in Minneapolis, and he brought as his guests two priests and a deacon.  They were particularly interested in seeing the Bible Gallery as well as the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  HMML has done considerable work in Lebanon over the years, and by chance several texts in Syriac were on display in the library when we were there. For the record, Abouna sharbel prefers to spell his name in lower-case letters, out of respect for Saint Sharbel.

+On February 3rd our confrere Fr. Eugene passed away at the age of 86.  He served for much of his professed life in various parishes which the monastery has served.

+On February 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon which I preached.  Later that day, following vespers, the younger monks on the formation floor of the monastery hosted our annual Super Bowl dinner of chile and brats, and diehards watched the game.

+I took the photo at the top of today’s post in Vienna several years ago, and it’s one of the nicest clocks I’ve ever seen.  It reminds me of how elegant and imaginative clocks could be in the pre-digital era.  The next three photos are late 15th-century stained glass roundels depicting the life of Christ.  They are housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The fourth photo is a wood carving of Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child, made in the von Carben workshop in Cologne, ca. 1510.  It too is housed in the Schuntzen Museum.  That museum has incorporated the Romanesque church of Saint Cecilia in Cologne, and at bottom is a tympanum which once greeeted visitors as they entered the church.  It dates from ca. 1160.

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Christmas:  An Everyday Feast

“The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance.”

So wrote Saint Benedict in chapter 49 of his Rule, and I confess up front that I’ve always had problems with this.  For one thing, it conjures up a way of life that is monochromatic.  It seems cheerless.  It appears to be an endless cycle of drudgery, day in and day out.  It also makes Lent the sole season of the church year, with gray chosen as the liturgical color.  Given all that, what about the other seasons of the year?  And specifically, what happened to Christmas?

I don’t want to get too detailed about this, but Saint Benedict lived on the eve of a critical transition in the liturgical practice of Western monasteries.  Whatever Christians may have done elsewhere, the celebration of great feasts in the monastery was not yet what it was to become.  Saint Gregory the Great provides good insight into this when he writes of an instance when a visitor called on Benedict in his hermitage.  The visitor was astonished to discover that the holy man had no idea that it was the Easter season.

DFABBC6E-6B2C-42B5-8F01-6C179961DC3FI can’t fault Benedict for the simplicity that marked his years as a hermit.  You can’t do much when your processions are one person long, and a cave scarcely provides the setting for an elaborate liturgy.  However, his move to Monte Cassino provided both the community and the liturgical space that started the ball rolling.  In time the observance of an elaborate liturgy that included Christmas became the thread that set the tone for their lives.

So how do we monks of Saint John’s Abbey celebrate Christmas?  For one thing, Saint Benedict would wonder where all those decorated trees came from, but at least he would appreciate their contrast with the darkness of the season.  Beyond that, our Christmas Eve liturgy is solemn, and the Christmas Day feast in the refectory is distinctive, both for its menu and its ritual.  It’s both a joyful and strenuous regimen, and more than a few of us close the feast with a nap.

Certainly Benedict did not legislate for this, but there’s another point to consider.  Benedict may have characterized the life of a monk as a Lenten observance, but it is a way of life that makes vivid the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.  At every turn monks should see the face of Christ — in the abbot, in the novice, in the sick or elderly, and especially in the guest.  Perhaps for this reason Benedict did not see the need to restrict the celebration of the Incarnation to one particular day.  In fact, in the monastery we should strive to celebrate that feast every day.

This being January 1st — yet one more day which Benedict did not observe — it’s a traditional time to make resolutions for the new year.  No doubt most monks will set one or the other personal goals, but one goal for us all is to live the Incarnation every day.  Even though our lives may have the character of a Lenten observance, one bit should pervade it all.  The Lord still comes, just as he did at Bethlehem.  The only difference is that he now comes every day.

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+On December 26th I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I saw a special exhibit of 17th-century cityscape paintings, primarily of Venice and Rome.  Most of the canvasses were monumental in size, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people rushed out afterwards to buy plane tickets to Italy.

+The next day the weather became far more severe, and the cold has become a cruel jailer.  I did not venture out of doors for several days, but on New Year’s Eve I finally caved in and drove to St. Cloud to buy a new battery for my watch.  It had died four days earlier, and it was a little odd wandering around without knowing the time.  In a monastery monks can rely on the bells for time — in theory — but when it gets very cold we turn off our bells to avoid cracking them.  That was the case for our bells this week, and so for a few days my life was timeless.

+On December 31st we monks celebrated the eve of 2018 with our traditional gathering, which includes various games, visiting with one another, and pizza made by our Brother Dennis.  A few hardy souls stayed up to greet the new year;  but as is my custom, I brought in the new year in solidarity with the people living two time zones to the east of Minnesota.

+To all who read my blog I thank you for your occasional messages and comments.  I continue to enjoy writing this, and it’s an important part of my routine.  But it’s always encouraging to know that faithful readers continue and new readers subscribe to it.  Thank you, and I wish you all a happy New Year!

+The early 16th-century stained glass in today’s post originally came from the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne.  Today it is housed in the Victoria & Albert in London.

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