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Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’

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The Gift of Wisdom

As I’ve grown in experience I’ve come to appreciate the Wisdom literature of the Bible more and more.  Perhaps it’s the result of living by the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is deeply rooted in that tradition.  Perhaps too it’s the result of coming to terms with one reality in life:  many of life’s decisions are nuanced, complicated, and not at all easy.

To people who crave black and white answers, wisdom can be a major inconvenience.  It admits that some of our choices fall between shades of gray, or they’re a matter of opting for the greater or the lesser good.  Lives beset by these sorts of dilemmas require deep reflection.  They require wisdom.

If we examine the sweep of the Old Testament there is the Torah and the clarity of the Ten Commandments on the one hand.  At another point is the Wisdom literature.  Between the two is a world of Jewish experience.  When we read a passage like Proverbs 3, then, we get a glimpse into that evolution of thought.  Each verse of Proverbs makes sense, yet each makes reference to a complicating reality.  If, for example, it says that “the curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked,” we also recall the rhetorical question of the Psalmist who wonders why it is that the wicked always seem to prosper.

744B9A93-24D5-40FF-8CE4-669A0EFD94ADThese sorts of conundrums still puzzle us.  We prefer the easy answers for their clarity, and so we set up the Ten Commandments as a kind of idol.  But we know that Proverbs teaches us to demand more of life and more from ourselves.  To that deeper self-examined way of life Jesus also calls us.  And so today we could do no better than to pray for the gift of wisdom and for the patience to make the most of it.

NOTES

+Today’s post is a sermon that I will deliver at the abbey Mass later in the day.  It is based on the first reading, Proverbs 3: 27-34.

+On 20 September I attended the meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA.  For the current school year I’m serving as a board advisor.

+I’m not sure whether it was allergies or a response to a flu shot, but for two and a half days over the weekend I was out of action and unable to do much of anything.  I did finally manage to go to a small bit of Homecoming activities at Saint John’s University, but missed most of the football game and was a no-show at the dinner for the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  For better and for worse, I also had to sit on the sidelines for my birthday, which was on Saturday.

+In the Benedictine tradition monks pray for wisdom when we gather for deliberation in the chapter house.  Today’s post illustrates the 12th-century chapter house from the Cistercian abbey of Notre Dame at Pontaut in Bordeaux.  Today it is housed in the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Note the seating in the interior.  There were no cushions, perhaps on the assumption that wisdom comes a little faster when you’re sitting on stone.

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The Artisans of the Monastery

When our first monks stepped off the boat and onto the shore of the Mississippi at Saint Cloud, there wasn’t much there to greet them.  There was even less when they ventured a few miles west to the site that would become Saint John’s.  There were no shops, roads, churches or even a place to live.  Those pioneers, like their neighbors elsewhere in Stearns County, had very little except for the dreams of what might be someday.  But if they ran short on many commodities, those monks had one thing in abundance:  trees.  Lots and lots of trees.

Trees were essential to life at Saint John’s in the early decades.  The monks used wood to put up the first buildings.  They used wood to keep warm in the winter.  And they used wood to make furniture.

D038891E-411E-438A-B41F-DCAA796E146AToday we don’t use much wood for warmth save for the three fireplaces that survive in the monastery.  But wood remains the essential ingredient for the furniture that graces our rooms and halls.

To the raw materials of wood and water and earth the first monks found at Saint John’s they applied the skills that they brought from Germany.  Some we no longer practice, like shoeing horses.  Nor do we really regret the loss of the cooking skills that the monks brought with them.  But one skill from the Old World has survived and continues to thrive at Saint John’s, and that is woodworking.

After 160 years and more, the making of furniture is an integrated project at Saint John’s.  It begins with the seedlings in the forest.  Some sprout naturally and some are planted, but all need protection from the relentless predation of Bambi and his relatives.  They also need thinning when they crowd themselves.  Finally, when the time comes for harvest or when the wind has blown down prime candidates for furniture, the logs go to a nearby Amish sawmill, where they become boards.

From the mill the boards return to the lumber yard, where they cure until the need for oak or maple or cherry or pine requires them.  Then they enter one end of the shop as boards and emerge at the other as completed pieces of furniture.  Some are utilitarian, like the pine caskets that we make for ourselves and for sale; and some are masterpieces, like the cabinets made to house sets of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.

4FCAD555-DCD6-4050-802F-2724125CA039I like to think that the products from our woodworking shop are an expression of the values we draw from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  There is no junk.   There is no veneer.  All is solid and meant to last.  So it is that we take for granted pieces that have been around for a hundred years or more, and many of those still have another three or four hundred years of use in them.

There’s a lot that makes a monastery a stranger to the 21st century, beginning with the 6th-century Rule we still follow.  Of course we adapt it to our situation, as monks have done for centuries.  And if we’ve fallen short of Benedict’s ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s the art of woodworking that reminds us of the values we’ve inherited from him that we try to follow today.

If then the monastery at times seems out of place in our age, it also stands as a prophetic witness to values worth preserving.  In a throw-away culture in which machines make most everything, woodworking still benefits from the human hand that produces something of timeless beauty.  And if most everything today is destined for recycling or the landfill within a few years of its creation, then something made to last for hundreds of years communicates a profound message.

Like woodworking shops across the country, our shop is a reminder of the dignity and creativity of human work.  Equally eloquent is what these artisans produce:  something made to last for generations.  All that may seem a bit strange in our day and age, but why would anyone want to aspire to anything less with their lives?

1A7F37A4-4F9E-4F0A-8C6D-62B552A49075NOTES

+On September 10th I presided at the funeral of Lillian Schneider, at the Church of Saint Casimir in St. Paul.  Lillian was the mother of my friend Jane Hughan of San Francisco, and the occasion provided a nice opportunity to visit with her and her husband Wade.

+On September 11th and 12th I hosted my two friends John and Jack, who flew from New York and Providence to visit our nine students at Saint John’s from Immokalee, FL.  John and Jack started the scholarship program that brings them to Saint John’s, and this year marks a milestone: we now have students in all four years.  The photo at bottom shows us gathered after dinner.

+Many people are surprised to learn that we still have an active woodworking shop at Saint John’s.  In fact, it was one of the first things that the monks started up when they came to central Minnesota.  Today Fr. Lew Grobe works there fulltime, alongside several long-tenured colleagues.  A few other monks put in occasional stints there, as do a number of student workers from the University.  Readers interested in accessing the Abbey Woodworking Shop can reach it at this link.  The site includes a range of photography showing their current work.

+The top three photos show pieces produced in our woodworking shop, including the table and chairs that now reside in the Heritage Room in the University Quadrangle.  Below that is a buffet that sits in the abbey refectory.  The fourth photo shows Fr. Lew (at left) with colleague Mike Roske and an unidentified student worker looking on.  At bottom are our nine students who are part of the Immokalee Scholarhsip Program at Saint John’s.

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Retreat!  (But Don’t Run Away!)

The thought of monks going on retreat must strike some people as ridiculous.  After all, haven’t we already fled from the world to take up a life of prayer and asceticism?  What’s left to retreat from?

A second surprise for many is that monks are people too.  Like everybody else, we’re beset by distractions, even during prayer.  We also bump up against temptations, which are much like those that occur to most other people.  And we’re under no illusion that we’re the only ones who’ve ever thought of chucking it all and moving on to something new —- like a new job, new friends, new home, new way of life.  And we too see visions of grass that’s greener on the other side.  Of course it really is greener, but mainly in our dreams.

One of the ironies of the Rule of Saint Benedict is that Benedict makes no provision for a retreat.  He pretty much assumes that our lives will be one constant retreat in which we keep death daily before our eyes and live with intensity and focus.  That is certainly a lovely idea, but the reality of life in a monastery is somewhat different.  All too often the bias in our lives tips toward an emphasis on work and responsibility.  That comes at the expense of prayer, reading, recreation and even sleep.  It’s the human condition writ local, and long ago canon law in the Church made an annual retreat mandatory for all priests and religious — including monks and nuns.

F9FA4123-509F-4E92-BD50-946C8FCC2288So what do monks think about during a retreat?  For one thing, many of the monks I know think about work that’s not getting done because they’re sitting there listening to a retreat conference.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I’m one of them, so I know what I’m talking about).  They’re also thinking about vital email that must be piling up.  They think about all the other useful things they could be doing.  And of course they’re thinking about the nap that they could be taking because they’re not at work.  And every now and then they think about how life could have been had they chosen another course.

The point of a retreat, however, is neither to run away from the monastic life nor dream about an escape to some new and idyllic circumstances.  Ideally a retreat is meant to focus our attention on the two great commandments around which all the big and little details of life should be organized.  Loving God with all our heart is the first of these; and loving our neighbor is the second.  I grant it’s a stretch to believe that these could be more important than putting in overtime or answering email, but there you have it.

When monks come to the monastery they bring the intellectual and emotional baggage that they’ve accumulated up to that point.  Once clothed in the habit the agenda shifts to sorting out the items worth keeping and tossing the stuff that’s extraneous or destructive.  It also involves training in how to distinguish between the guests whom we should welcome into our mental living rooms and those we should politely ask to leave.  After all, why should we allow the latter to live rent-free in our minds?

Monks, like everyone else, need a retreat once in a while.  And it’s almost secondary whether it lasts five days once a year or a half an hour every few days.  We all need to clean house and rearrange the furniture.  Far from being an exercise in running away, it’s an attenpt to take an inventory of our lives.  It’s why we do it, and it’s why anyone who’s not given it a try should do so.  It’s amazing what a good cleaning can do.

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NOTES

+On August 6th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On August 8th I flew to Dallas to give a retreat to the Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.  The Cistercians are a late 11th-century offshoot of the Benedictines, and they too follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.  This particular monastery had its foundation in a group of Hungarian monks who escaped following the anti-communist revolt in 1956.  Today they conduct a wonderful prep school.  Once I arrived I was thoroughly surprised to discover that the novice master, Fr. Ignatius, is a 1998 graduate of Saint John’s University.  At Saint John’s he was an art major and then went on to a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Texas before discovering his monastic vocation.  All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and I was able to stay for the profession of first vows by their novice.  That retreat provided the occasion for today’s post.

+The various flowerbeds around campus seem to be particularly vibrant these days.  With so many possibilities to consider, these were the photos that made the cut.

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A Little Silence Can Be Golden

I used to think that only other people got to see the unusual things, while my daily rounds were pretty boring.  Lately, however, I’ve had my share of sightings, and I’ve perked up a bit.

Probably the most startling thing I saw in the last week took place on Saturday.  I was at a lunch, sitting at a table outside, when I heard a crash and looked up with a start.  Somebody had just rear-ended a pick-up, parked a few feet from where I was sitting.   The good news was that neither the driver nor the cell phone she had been using were injured.  The same could not be said for her car, though.  The parked pick-up had won.

95DDE85D-F528-453B-9A54-D9F74A4164F1Things like that used to show up in News of the Weird, but no more.  That sort of stuff now happens with such regularity that it scarcely deserves attention, which explains why I so casually turned back to lunch.   After all, just two days earlier I had watched as a young man who was texting walked right into a post.  The post won, and I awarded the post extra points for that.

The prize for the most eccentric behavior of the week I bestowed on a person who talked non-stop for almost two whole blocks.  I was stuck on the sidewalk behind her and her friend, but when I finally had the chance to pass, I didn’t.  By then it had become hugely entertaining.  For upwards of four minutes she talked at a ferocious clip, without resort to a comma, a semicolon or any other sort of punctuation.  Just listening left me breathless, but she seemed not to be.

That performance brought to mind Saint Benedict’s chapter on the restraint of speech.  There he cites Proverbs 10:19 to this effect:  “In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.”  I’m not sure that this person meant any harm with her torrent of words, but the verdict belongs to her long-suffering companion who seemed so pained by it all.

By contrast Saint Benedict was a man of few words, which likely explains the brevity of his Rule.  It’s not that he was against speaking, but he honestly believed that the fewer the words, the better.   And when it came to prayer the same held true.  So it is that after several chapters dealing with the details of the prayer cycle in the monastery, he rewards the reader with this rather terse comment:  “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.  Prayer should always be short and pure….”  And then he concludes:  “In community, however, prayer should always be brief….”

CA2BA3DF-ED02-4D9F-9DE7-8188C3C75E2BFor those who assume that prayer should be super-dignified, ethereal and long-winded, Saint Benedict offers a different perspective.  He doesn’t exactly say that we should talk with God as we would with our friends.  But in fact we should.  It should be a conversation in which we don’t hesitate to tell God what’s on our mind.  We shouldn’t be bashful to tell God what troubles us and what makes us happy.  God wants to know.

But as in any good conversation, there need to be at least two parties, and everybody should have a chance to speak.  Perhaps with that in mind Benedict begins his Rule with the word “Listen.”  That’s a key element in any praying that we do, and it’s necessary for any fruitful conversation — be it with God or with our friends.

”Listen” is the word I wanted to share with that overly-chatty person on the sidewalk.  But had I had the nerve, it likely would have come out ”LISTEN!”  So it’s just as well that I took the advice of Saint Benedict that day and kept my mouth shut.  For that moment, at least for me, silence was golden.

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+Summer is winding down at Saint John’s and in two weeks the first of our students begin to trickle in for the fall term.  However, there are still groups visiting and working on campus, including several of our students who are doing individual research this summer.  In addition, HMML has hosted two groups for month-long sessions.  First, it hosted the NEH summer seminar entitled “Thresholds of Change:  Modernity and Transformation in the Mediterranean, 1400-1700.”  That drew 25 professors from across the country.  Most recently HMML hosted Dumbarton Oaks Research Library’s Syriac Summer Language School, which drew ten scholars from around the world.  Dumbarton Oaks is Harvard University’s Byzantine research library and institute in Washington, DC. At the other end of the spectrum, we hosted the annual camp for the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  For an entire week their music filtered through the campus, and it was a delight.

+The first three photos all show writers at their craft.  At top is Saint Ambrose, made by a Spanish carver, ca. 1500.  Next is Saint Bridget of Sweden, writing down her Revelations.  It was made in the Netherlands, ca. 1470.  Below that is John of Patmos, writing the Book of Revelation on a scroll (Burgundy, ca. 1450-1500).  Saint James the Greater I have included because his feast day was on July 25th.  All four of these items are to be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At bottom is a wrought iron panel, which has nothing to do with any of the sculptures here.  I just happened to like it and thought it would be a nice accent piece and serve as a period in today’s post.  It is housed in the V & A in London.

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Vacation:  Doing the Work of the Lord

Jesus said to his disciples:  “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30)

If there’s a Bible passage made to order for the resort industry, this has to be it.  In fact, it also strikes me as an excellent addition to the Ten Commandments.  Though I don’t consider those ten to be all that onerous, adding a fun commandment could make it easier to buy into the whole package.  Plus, since many people already flee to cabins and lakes and resorts, it would be nice to get religious credit for things you had planned on doing anyway.

You’d think that an escape to an out of the way place would be a no-brainer for everybody;  but it’s not, and I know that from personal experience.  Last year Marie, the office coordinator where I work, pointed out that I had not been using my vacation days. Worse, she told me to forget about saving them for a rainy day.  It’s a strict policy of “use ‘em or lose ‘em.  Your choice.”

52FBACE7-14BE-41EA-A839-A98139A2E722Since then I’ve tried to sprinkle days off here and there, but recently I set aside five days, out of a sense of duty of course.  After all, I mused, it could be a sin to waste non-renewable resources like vacation days.  Besides, they might even do me some good.

So I packed, but in the process I caught myself stowing into the bag papers and notes that needed attention.  With free time on my hands, vacation would be the perfect time to catch up on office work.  But then the absurdity of that hit me, and I pulled out the papers and left the work at home.

The good news was that my travel bag was six pounds lighter than usual.  Better still, I didn’t die by going cold turkey on work.  In fact, I came back refreshed, with a boatload of new ideas that resulted from a mind left to daydream and wander.

Some people may be surprised to learn that the monastic tradition allows for vacations.  In his Rule Saint Benedict makes no provision for them, perhaps because there were no good resorts nearby — or anywhere, for that matter.  On top of that, it’s hard to imagine places more remote than Subiaco or Monte Cassino.  By definition they were “out of the way.”

74460939-230C-456C-AC98-4F472FAE30A4But if Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations, medieval monks did.  Sometimes this involved travel to other monasteries.  Sometimes it meant a short stint in the infirmary, where diet and schedules were relaxed.  It’s in that tradition that monasteries today make allowance for “time away” for monks.  It’s an accepted premise that it’s good for a monk to be away every now and again, and his absence can even come as a welcome relief to confreres left behind.

As a Christian and a monk I’m normally not inclined to be a biblical fundamentalist, but in the month of July I am sorely tempted to be so in the case of Mark 6:30.  First of all, it’s one of Jesus’ best comands, but it’s also grist for reflection on what “time away” is really all about.  Jesus does not explicitly say to leave business back at the office, but that’s a logical inference from the passage.  Likewise, its allegorical implications don’t allow equivalence between heavy remodeling at the cabin or serious boat repair with “time away.”  They just aren’t the same at all, at least in my book.

Anyway, a few days away didn’t do me any harm.  The monastery didn’t collapse in my absence.  My colleagues at the office didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs, pining for my return.  And on top of everything, I came back with a ready answer for anyone who asked how I spent my vacation.  “I was doing the work of the Lord.”

598D2AD4-4789-4136-BC9B-C8132D5E2769NOTES

+On July 17th, after evening prayer, the community and several friends of the abbey gathered for a briefing on the expansion of the pipe organ in the church.  Due to insufficient funds when the church was built, we only completed half of the planned pipes.  We are currently in the process of completing what we started nearly sixty years ago, and the work will double the current 3,000 pipes.  Austrian-born organ-builder Martin Pasi, whose workshop is in Tacoma, WA, detailed his progress, and he and his team have now finished 2,000 of the pipes.  For those unfamiliar with the abbey church, the original plan showed pipes spilling out on either side of a large red screen above the altar.  When finished in 2020, visitors will no longer need to ask where the organ pipes are, since they will flank the screen, as originally planned.  We were also delighted to learn that the abbey woodworking staff will be making the large 32-foot pipes.  It will be nice to have something locally made in the project.

+On 20 July I was in downtown Minneapolis for a long meeting that adjourned at 3 pm.  Alas, I got stuck in the Friday afternoon traffic to the lakes and cabins of northwestern Minnesota.  What normally should take an hour and fifteen minutes took two hours.  It did not change my mind about the need for travel to remote places, but I’m left wondering why everybody has to do it at the same time, on a Friday afternoon.

+Today’s reflection is on Mark 6:30, which was the opening verse of the gospel for this last Sunday.  The summer sun casts a unique light on the abbey church, as some of today’s photos suggest.  The photo of the pipes was taken at Martin Pasi’s studio in Tacoma, WA.  By 2020 these pipes will be fitted into their new home at Saint John’s.

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Saint Benedict:  Seeker of God in Ordinary Things.

Saint Benedict never struck me as the sort who aspired to have his own feast day in the liturgical calendar.  Nor would he have taken well to the title “Patriarch of Western Monasticism.”  On the contrary, all of this likely would have left him slightly embarrassed, because none of it squares with the simple life that he chose.  For someone who sought the presence of God in the ordinary, such grand gestures would have seemed entirely superfluous.

That said, there’s no denying the enduring influence of Saint Benedict.  Born in Umbria in the late 400’s, he went to Rome for studies.  There he found the social scene repugnant, and soon he fled to the mountains outside of Rome, where he began his search for God.  From his experience as a hermit and then as an abbot, he drew the principles that undergird his appreciation of human behavior.  From Eastern sources like Saints Basil and John Cassian and especially from his meditation on the Scriptures, he knit together a spirituality that puts him squarely in the Wisdom tradition of Christian writing.

E6D23A48-6235-44E5-8285-382FDEC17E48From all this Benedict distilled the elements that went into his Rule for Monks.  Today, nearly 1,500 years later, his Rule still guides men and women living the monastic life.  That might not surprise him all that much.  But his popularity among many outside of the cloister would likely astound him.

For modern readers there are passages in the Rule that may seem hopelessly dated.  But peel those away and you find a spiritual vision that centers on one fundamental goal.  People come to the monastery to seek God, and around that aspiration Benedict structures an experience that reveals God at every turn.

Benedict writes that the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.  All you need to do is to open your eyes.  First you will see God in the abbot, who is believed to hold the place of Christ in the community.  The monk also sees Christ in the sick brethren and in the guest and in the poor.  And in a departure from his sixth-century neighbors, Benedict writes that one can find wisdom (and God) even in the youngest of the brothers.  I’m tempted to say that if Benedict were writing today, in our youth-centered culture, he would have to reverse the teaching.  Only then would we understand the counter-cultural statements he often made.

59087894-7378-46E7-9D0B-280396B38F37In the monastery Benedict proposes a balanced life which is neither harsh nor burdensome.  Monks are to work and pray, but they are not to engage in the competitive ascetical practices that distinguished earlier generations of monks in Egypt and Palestine.  His monks were to have enough to eat, sufficient sleep, decent clothing and all the other things that were necessary for life — in proportion to each monk’s need.  In fact, Benedict discouraged any self-denial that might stir up pride.  His asceticism was not a regimen of doing without, but rather doing pretty much the same as everyone else.

While prayer and meditation predominate in his monastic schedule, Benedict’s emphasis on the importance of work was unusual for Roman society.  For him all work was noble and all monks should work.  Neither should they take pride in their talents, nor should they denigrate those who labor at menial jobs.  Every task and every person has value in the monastery.

So what does Benedict have to offer to the 21st century?  First, and despite our tendency to think otherwise, Benedict reminds us that God is not absent from our world.  God regularly appears in the poor and the sick, and in the faces of our family and friends.  And perhaps God even shines forth in our own faces when we serve others.

When it comes to a balanced life, Benedict is equally pointed in his critique.  Contemporary culture tends to value work above all else, and the highly-paid are the most respected of all.  But in Benedict’s estimation all work is noble, and all who work for the good of others deserve our respect.  Nor should we dismiss non-economic activity as worthless.  Prayer has no monetary value, nor do music and recreation and time spent with family and friends.  But in so many ways those are the activities that make life worth living.

We shouldn’t need a saint to remind us of this.  But on the other hand, someone who does recall us to these priorities has to be among the saints of God.  Maybe that’s why we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict.  He certainly doesn’t need this feast day;  but we do.

D89BF060-B5CF-46C1-B2D6-0528C2A70BE6NOTES

+On July 11 we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict.  Today’s post first appeared in 2013 in The Abbey Banner, which Saint John’s Abbey publishes for its friends.  To my knowledge I’ve never used this article in this blog before, so in the interests of conservation (my time and wits, primarily) I decided to recycle it as today’s post.  It worked in 2013, and not all that much has changed in our appreciation of Saint Benedict since then.

+On July 11th we witnessed the first profession of vows by Brother Jacob Berns, as well as the renewal of vows by several of our confreres.  To cite the youngest and oldest of them, Brother Simon-Hoa celebrated his 25th anniversary, and Fr. Hilary marked the 70th anniversary since his first profession.  Brother Jacob grew up in Perham, MN, and is an alumnus of Saint John’s University.  After graduation he worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at the Abbey of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, and then worked in music ministry in his parish.  He plays the viola and organ (not simultaneously), and I look forward to hearing him at the organ console soon.

Likely the highlight of the profession Mass was a communion hymn sung by Brothers Andrew, Thomas, Emmanuel, and Benedict — the four Cistercian monks from Vietnam who have been living and studying with us.  They were joined by a Florida priest-friend of Brother Simon-Hoa.  With four of them singing in Vietnamese and Brother Benedict playing the flute, their voices literally stole the show.

8EC0EF55-3234-482B-904D-56E4FF8CEECD+On July 14-15 we hosted 75 oblates of the monastery, who returned to Saint John’s for the annual oblate retreat.

+On July 15 we hosted at Mass and lunch some 30 Abbey volunteers who generously contribute their time and energy in a host of activities around the monastery.

+Saint Benedict wrote that “guests are never wanting” in a monastery, and that has certainly been the case this summer.  For several days we have been blessed with the presence of Bishop Felipe Estévez, from Florida.  The bishop of Saint Augustine, he prayed with us and joined us for meals in the monastic refectory.  We thoroughly enjoyed his company.  Currently we are hosting Frs. Efrem de Montellá and Bernat Juliol from the Abbey of Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  They direct the Escolonia, the choir school at Montserrat; and they have been here to talk about the Benedictine Volunteer Corps.  For several years we have had graduates of Saint John’s working there as volunteers, and they continue a relationship between our two abbeys that stretches back nearly a century.

+The top three photos in today’s post show the site of Benedict’s first monastery, at Subiaco, outside of Rome.  At Saint John’s images of Saint Benedict abound.  The stone etching of Benedict’s motto — “Work and Pray” — is embedded in the exterior brick of the Quadrangle, while the granite carving of Saint Benedict is mounted on the wall inside of the east cloister walk of the monastery.  Benedict’s preference for remote locations is confirmed by the view from Monte Cassino, at bottom.  The monastery is renaissance in design, but the view of the clouds and countryside is as Benedict left it.

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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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