Posts Tagged ‘Saint Alban’s Abbey’


Be Careful What You Pray For

I usually don’t pay all that much attention to the lyrics of the hymns we sing.  In some the words are benign, while in others the sentiments can be sweet or inane enough to make me cringe.  As a rule, then, I invest my energy in the music — particularly with hymns that I’ve come to love.

IMG_0002_2This last Sunday, however, the final hymn at the Abbey Eucharist caught my attention.  The gospel passage of the day — from Matthew 18 — had spoken of the importance of forgiveness, and Jesus made his point with the parable of a servant who had begged of his lord forgiveness of a huge debt he could not repay.  Then he turned right around to press a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of that amount.  It was an example of ingratitude at its worst, and it turned on its head that old saw about doing to others as you would have them do unto you.  Needless to say, those familiar with this parable know the grim fate in store for this wicked servant.

The parable calls to mind the Lord’s Prayer, which urges God to forgive us as we forgive others.  That shifts the onus for initiative onto our shoulders;  and now that I think about it, I’m tempted to pray that segment with more caution than I have in the past.  I say that prayer several times a day with my confreres, and it now dawns on me the risk I am taking.  I’m literally asking for it.

Anyway, the hymn in question is entitled Forgive Our Sins, and Ralph Finn’s text opens innocently enough.  Through the first verse I was able to concentrate on the music.  But the second and third verses stopped me in my mental tracks.


“How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?


In blazing light your cross reveals

the truth we dimly knew:

How small are others’ debts to us,

How great our debt to you!”


IMG_0024_2With these words I lost track of the music, and only with the final verse did I regain my bearings.  Still, what I took away was an intriguing thought I’d not considered before.  I am keenly aware of the many wonderful things I do for others, and naturally their frequent instances of ingratitude hurt.  Against my own interests I sometimes clutch tightly to those hurts, because they can be hard to let go.  Worse still, if I’m not careful they can become part of the emotional baggage that I have to carry around.  That baggage can spoil relationships, but it can also spoil me.

It also dawns on me how much I owe God, and I have to confess that I fall short in expressing my gratitude.  All the same, God forgives my ingratitude, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty unforgiving of others.  The fact is, God sets a better example when it comes to forgiveness than I do, and for that I should be even more grateful.

One practical application of this comes to mind, and it’s a bit of advice from the Rule of Saint Benedict.  He writes about a monk who nurses a grudge, and I hope it will not come as a shock to know that this warning was not written solely for my personal benefit.  Benedict points out what happens to me and any other monk who nurtures hurts.  Nurturing such hurts transforms me, and I gradually become someone I never set out to be.

So I return to ponder those words of Ralph Finn as my meditation for the day.


How can your pardon reach and bless

The unforgiving heart

That broods on wrongs and will not let

Old bitterness depart?


It’s something to chew on.  Better still, it’s advice to act upon while there’s still plenty of time to live.  And as for that bit about praying that God will forgive me as I forgive others, I think I’m going to be more careful about what I pray for.


+On September 13th our confrere Fr. Fintan Bromenshenkel passed away, nearly three weeks shy of his 99th birthday.  He was our senior monk.  In his long career he headed the computing center in the University, and later served for several years at our mission in the Bahama Islands.  In his later years he worked in the garden and weeded the gravel path that ran diagonally across the monastic garden.  He was a wonderfully cheerful soul, and we will miss him.

+September 12th was a rather unusual day for one of our alumni.  That day Mark Vande Hei, ’89, blasted off into space, where he will serve for several months at the international space station.  He was a physics major and in ROTC at Saint John’s, and later he earned a graduate degree at Stanford University before teaching at West Point.  In the course of his space travels he will lead a class with our students, which he will conduct from the space station.

+On September 15th-16th we hosted Bishop Steven Lopes, who heads the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  In that capacity he shepherds former Anglican clergy and congregations in North America who have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.  Bishop Lopes and I have been friends for many years, and have worked together as chaplains in the Order of Malta.  Before his ordination he spent time at Saint John’s while he considered a monastic vocation.

+The top photo in today’s post is a tryptic of the crucifixion, done by our deceased confrere Brother Placid.  For the last fifty years it has hung in the Prep School, but some enterprising monks carted it over to the Abbey church for the Feast of the Holy Cross.  The other photos show renditions of the cross in fresco, stained glass and sculpture.  They are all housed at Saint Alban’s, a one-time Benedictine abbey located north of London.


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IMG_0002_2Exodus: An Exercise in Looking Back

During the last few days at evening prayer we’ve been reading lengthy passages from the Book of Exodus.  Of course all of us have heard this story many times by now; but even so, the repetition is neither boring nor repetitive.  For every rereading of a text, there’s always something new to glean for reflection.

So it was the other evening when Brother Simon-Hoa read from Exodus 13 and 14.  Perhaps it was the inflection of his voice or the emphasis he gave to certain phrases.  But whatever the reason, it struck me what a handful the people of Israel were.  More to the point, in the dialog it’s clear that God seemed to be painfully aware that he was dealing with a bunch of adult children.

Exodus is a prime example of how selective our memories can be.  While the text tells us that the Israelites hated every minute of life in Egypt, all that became a beautiful memory once they encountered the first sniff of difficulty in the desert.  What follows is an endless stream of sarcasm that must have irritated Moses to no end.  They complained about the food, the lack of water, and all the other inconveniences.  But the most telling complaint came when they heard that pharaoh was on the way to fetch them and return them to paradise and their old jobs as slaves.  “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  So much for any semblance of gratitude.  There must have been days when Moses wanted to shout back over the dunes to pharaoh.  “Hey, they’re over here.  You can have them all back.”

IMG_0001_2The text indicates that God too knew what he had on his hands.  These were people who would whine at the first hint of inconvenience, and so God had to factor that into the care and feeding of the Israelites.  Chapter 13 verse 17, for example, suggests that God could see trouble ahead when they’d someday meet the Philistines in the promised land.  The Philistines were scary people who meant business, and God knew from experience that at the prospect of war the Israelites would turn tail and run back to Egypt via the most direct route possible.  So God took them to the promised land via the long route — the one that took forty years.  God likely banked on the thought that after thirty-nine years the Israelites would forget the way back to Egypt and give up.  By then there would be no alternative, other than to face the music.

Exodus provides a not very flattering portrait of a people in transition.  Clearly God didn’t have much to work with, and it took forty years of purification in the desert to shape them up into something even remotely respectable.  That’s the theme that makes Exodus so interesting, and amusing.

IMG_0005_2But of course Exodus is our story as well, and most of us would not have tested out of their challenges any better than they did.  The fact of the matter is, we too like to blame others for our shortcomings;  we too prefer the easy fix;  and most of us are more than willing to give up at the slightest inconvenience.  Like the Israelites, we too can experience a lot and complain about it, but complaining can seem like a better option than actually doing something to remedy the situation.

Time helps us deal with the difficulties of life, particularly when it comes to the need to change ourselves.  That’s why God used the long route through the desert to transplant the people of Israel to the promised land.  After all, forty years in a desert will eventually bring people round to the idea that perhaps change is not as bad as they had once thought.  Experience has taught God to do the same with us.

If Lent lasted only a day or a week, we might get enthused for the short term, but we’d likely have little to show for our short-term effort.  We’d make our resolutions one day and just as easily forget them the next.  The reason for this is simple.  Authentic change takes time, and real growth can sometimes require forty days or even longer.  That’s why God doesn’t front-load all the challenges into the first few years of our lives.  Rather, challenge pops up over a lifetime, because building character can take forty years in a desert, or even longer.  In fact, authentic growth can take all the years that God puts at our disposal.  What a shame it would be to join the Israelites in looking back to Egypt for the entirety of life!


+On March 3rd I taught a class in monastic history to our novice, Brother Cassian.

+On March 4th through the 6th I gave a Lenten retreat to guests in the Abbey guesthouse.  Twenty were in attendance, and I concentrated my conferences on the liturgy of Holy Week.  On Saturday evening we watched Babette’s Feast, which remains one of my all-time favorite movies.  It takes place in Denmark in the second half of the 19th century, and it has a strong Eucharistic theme.  It is the perfect movie to prepare for Holy Thursday.

+On several occasions I have written about the work of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps at Saint John’s Abbey.  Corps members are recent graduates of Saint John’s University who do a year of volunteer work at various Benedictine abbeys around the world.  Among those abbeys is Montserrat, located just outside of Barcelona.  Last week, in a reversal of fortune, a Benedictine volunteer from Montserrat has come to spend six months at Saint John’s.  Fransesc is a graduate of the Montserrat choir school and has been a university student in Barcelona.  He is a welcome addition to the abbey schola, in addition to all of the other activities in which he will be engaged.

IMG_0013_2+The photos in today’s post are of frescos and the interior of Saint Alban’s Abbey, which is located north of London.  At the time of the suppression of the monasteries in England the medieval frescos were plastered over, only to come to light centuries later.

+A few readers report that on occasion they have not received my blog come Monday morning.  I’m happy to say that I’ve not missed a blog post since the first week, and so there must be technical difficulties with WordPress every now and again.  In case you don’t receive a post, you can visit the web site of my blog.  In fact, for just such an occasion it is nice to bookmark the web address.

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Saints Peter and Paul Window

Saints Peter and Paul Window

What’s in a Name?

In my post for March 11th I presented a short list of the traits I wanted to see in the next pope.  I was fully aware that the inventory was riddled with contradictions, but that’s the way it is when it comes to dealing with high-profile jobs.  No one need tell me how unrealistic it is to work twenty-four hours a day while still leaving plenty of time for prayer, recreation, exercise and sleep.  No one expects that kind of near-perfection;  but I wanted the guy to at least give it his best college try.

Other qualities were equally challenging, but I underscored the list with the most unrealistic hope of all.  The new pope must have “the material detachment of Saint Francis of Assisi.”  Of course I never expected anyone to take that idea seriously.  What sort of nonsense is that, after all?

6, side aisleWell, you could have knocked me over with a feather when Pope Francis cautiously stepped out onto the balcony at Saint Peter’s.  What kind of a name is Pope Francis?  Who in the world would saddle himself with a moniker so famous, and with a name that is in many ways the antithesis of everything that is expected in a pope?

When someone emerges into the public spotlight and announces that he will now be called Francis, a lot is going on.  Of course there is the matter of the name itself; but even more fundamental is the business of taking a new name.  Why would anyone want to do that?  In this case, hadn’t “Jorge Mario” served him well enough for seventy-six years?

9, Rose WindowThe custom of taking a name, or a new name, is a curious one; but it’s as old as human history itself.  For lots of reasons people have adopted new names at key moments in their lives.  The most common instance is at baptism, when Baby X becomes Jane or Nickolas.  As we well know, parents will invest a great deal of energy into the selection of that name — except when they don’t.  Less often than before, people will adopt the surname of their spouse at marriage — meant to signal a very important personal transition.  Many candidates for religious life still take a new name, for all sorts of practical and impractical reasons.  And monarchs have been doing this for centuries.  One need only recall that the English David became Edward VIII when he assumed the throne.  Whether he intended to emulate Saint Edward the Confessor or King Edward VII (The Philanderer), is open for discussion, and perhaps best left for Wallace Simpson to answer.  In any case, “King David” was definitely off the table.  It carried way too much baggage for comfort.  It simply would not work, especially if he ever ran into some woman named Bathsheba.

If a new name is intended to mark a clean break in one’s life, the choice of the name itself signals something very important.  Names convey all sorts of information and connotations, and I’ve always felt profoundly sorry for kids who are stuck with names derived from soap opera stars.  Or from the celebrity of the moment who has since gone off to prison.  In the case of the latter, there is just too much to live down.

13On the other hand, Francis carries significance that is equally burdensome.  Everyone knows the story of Saint Francis, and the fact that everyone knows it makes it really tough for someone who takes that name.  Francis renounced any and all claim to worldly possessions as he stripped himself in front of his father and the bishop.  His reasons were deeply profound:  he refused to let worldly wealth determine his character.  In one fell swoop he renounced the old adage that “clothes make the man”, and he left it all behind.  He would be authentically himself, and in the process he professed his kinship with all his brothers and sisters, rich and poor.  It was a life-changing experience for him.

14, Dean's stallPope Francis is in the process of his own life-changing experience, and it cannot be easy for him.  For years he has taken the bus or the tram to work.  He’s lived in a modest apartment rather than in the episcopal palace in Buenos Aires.  He’s done much of his own cooking; he’s kissed the feet of AIDS patients; and he’s paid attention to the needs of the poor.  I’m going to guess that never for a minute did he consider that he was some sort of saint or paragon of virtue.  Rather, this life-style was one that was not inappropriate for a bishop.  For whatever else he may have done well or poorly, he  had not bought into the consumerist mentality.  He was not what he owned.  The name “Francis” will be a daily reminder of where he has come from — lest he forget amid all the pomp.

Pope Francis has already begun to build a legacy, and it will be interesting to see where this goes.  On a practical level his name will hark back to a long tradition of care for the poor and sick in society.  This was one of the few commands Jesus gave when he reminded his disciples that what they do for the least they do for him.  Other themes in ministry get strong support, particularly in an environment like the Roman Curia.  If “Francis” the name does not remind the curialists of this, it will at least remind the Pope of the yardstick by which he has chosen to measure himself.

Tomb of Abbot Thomas de la Mare (1349-1396)

Tomb of Abbot Thomas de la Mare (1349-1396)

Beyond that, only time will tell what might be the impact of a pope named Francis.  Still, there will be some side effects that one should expect.  First of all, this could have a significant impact on traditional Catholic humor, and the once ubiquitous Jesuit jokes will quickly disappear.  It has suddenly become politically incorrect to tell them.  As for the people working in the curia, the prospect of a Jesuit in the chair of Peter is no joke, and it is definitely no laughing matter.   And we will also see the demise of that old punch line “Is the Pope Catholic?”  It will likely give way to a whole new line of humor that ends with the question “Is the Pope Jesuit?”

As for me, I am immensely delighted that I foresaw the signifiance of Saint Francis for the new pope.  In retrospect, what could have been a throw-away comment has become more than a lucky guess.  It’s gotten me wondering, and perhaps it’s time for a career adjustment.  Perhaps I should now focus on the lottery or become a stock speculator.  Or maybe I should just stick to being a monk.  There are worse jobs; and besides, I’ve already changed my name once, when I entered the monastery.  Once should be more than enough.

31, doorNotes

+On March 11th I flew to Miami, where I made several visits on behalf of Saint John’s University.  While Floridians shivered and complained of the cold, I scoffed.  It was still snowing in Minnesota, and I thought the temperatures were perfectly fine in Florida.

+I have illustrated today’s post with additional pictures that I took during my recent visit to Saint Alban’s Abbey, north of London.  There are so many interesting nooks and crannies, in addition to the meditative religious art that survives there.  And it is wonderful that it is a living spiritual shrine, even today.

22, Marian Chapel+As I mentioned in an earlier post, this year the Order of Malta, of which I am a member, celebrates the 900th anniversary of its recognition by Pope Paschal II in 1113.  As part of the celebration, I delivered a talk at events in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, and I have included those comments in the section marked “Presentations.”  In addition, there has been a tremendous amount of press coverage of the celebration that took place at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Among the most interesting items was this report produced by the network Al Jazeera.

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Saint Alban's Abbey

Saint Alban’s Abbey

Wanted: Pope Who Does It All

I was a little startled to read Cardinal Dolan’s comment about the impending papal conclave.  He was celebrating the Eucharist at Saint Peter’s Basilica, and in the middle of a sermon he blurted it, out of the blue.  “We’ve got to keep in mind — even more important than the pope is what we’re doing right now. The life of the church goes on, and the life of the church centers around what we’re doing right now.”  What he was doing just then was celebrating the Eucharist, not electing a pope.

That kind of comment can hurt your chances to become pope, but it can also provide perspective for viewers of the current hoopla in Rome.  We are a celebrity-driven culture, and it’s very tempting to deal with the church in terms of celebrities rather than personal commitments of faith.  It’s so much simpler to argue about the qualities of the next pope than it is to live out the responsibilities of our faith.

Saint Alban's Abbey.12.ReredosIn the last few days people have asked me about what the next pope will be like, and my answer is short and succinct:  “you’re bound not to like him.”  Probably you’ll like him for a few minutes, but only before you know his name and where he’s from.  But once the hysteria has subsided, you’ll realize you’re stuck with a guy whose favorite color is not yours and who likes the wrong baseball team (or worse: he couldn’t care less about baseball.)  Quickly the luster of the new pontiff will fade, and the cameras will turn off, and our lives will be back to normal.

The fact of the matter is, writers and all of us have expanded the job description of the pope to include “savior.”  Today we expect so much of the pope that we’re virtually guaranteed to be disappointed.  For starters, he must be charismatic and able to inspire people around the world.  He must have exceptional leadership skills and know almost all languages.  He must be  an astute manager of people and resources, but he must spend all of his time preaching the gospel.  He must oversee each and every bishop, but he must leave them alone to do their jobs.  He must rein in the curia but let them do their work without a  lot of supervision.  And he must know all about banking and accounting, but have the material detachment of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Alban's Abbey.11.LanternBeyond that, he’ll need to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Though he won’t have time for leisure or sleep, he still should lead a balanced life, as an example to all.  Plus, he’ll have to change and modernize everything in the the church in order to make some people happy.  And he must affirm the unchanging reality of the church to make others happy.  Lastly, he should visit his flock throughout the world, but he should spend most of his time in Rome, tending to business.

Shrine of Saint Alban

Shrine of Saint Alban

Given everybody’s expectations for the pope, no wonder this is such a tough job.  Should anybody be surprised that Jesus gave all authority to Saint Peter and then got out of town? He’d been crucified once already, and now it was Peter’s turn.  And even if a few popes have failed miserably or exploited the papacy for their own benefit, most have tried to do a decent day’s work of it.  Most have tried to live out one of their most ancient job titles: Servant of the Servants of God.  In practice that meant that you were head of a church in which everyone had an opinion on how the pope should do his work.  As pope you may look and dress like the chief shepherd, but it’s the sheep who are really calling the shots.  And the sheep include cardinals and bishops and priests and lay people.  All of them have solid advice on how to run the church.  And all of them will listen carefully to the shepherd, and carry out exactly what they judge to be most important.  And all of them are infallible.

You can now see why I don’t aspire to be pope and have not turned in my application.  Nor should others who are in their right mind.  It’s a thankless job.  You’re overworked; and you live in a fish bowl.  People with thin skin should not throw their hat into the ring for this position.

Monks' Gallery

Monks’ Gallery

Three or four years ago Cardinal George of Chicago wrote in one of his books that Catholics think too much about the pope and the Vatican.  Obviously he referred to the cult of personality, as it prevails not only in the church but in politics and society at large.  But he also had in mind the use of the pope as a reference point in the lives of people.  If some people  don’t like the pope’s teaching, it’s a convenient excuse for apathy or dropping out.  Still others, who may love what a particular pope preaches, will use that message as a weapon.  In either case, they have absolved themselves of personal responsibility for their own faith.  They also tend to absolve themselves from participation in parish life.  After all, what could take precedence over Vatican politics?

Medieval Fresco

Medieval Fresco

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict does present a chapter on “What kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  At the end of the day, however, his is a rule for monks rather than a manual for management.  He not only presumes, but he specifies, that people come to the monastery to seek God in the context of community.  But they don’t enter in order to find an abbot they like or dislike.  The onus of responsibility for a monk’s life cannot be pushed off onto the abbot, because it is the monk’s calllng to lead a good life.  If the abbot doesn’t live a perfect life, in no way does that exonerate a monk from  having to try himself.  It’s the monk who must decide whether to seek God, and for that he gets the credit or the blame.

In coming days there will be a new pope, and after three days you’ll either like him a lot or be deeply disappointed.  But remember that the pope is neither the  savior nor the enemy.  He’s there to teach the tradition that has been  handed down since New Testament times.  That’s his job.  And my job as a monk is to get on with the life of being a Christian.  Regardless of whether the pope is learned or simple, charismatic or dull, or gifted or inept, my own calling is to be a fellow pilgrim on the path to God.  I cannot use someone  else’s situation as an excuse for me.

Between the lines and behind the headlines, that’s what Pope Benedict was really trying to say.  And he took his own words to heart; and he was so serious about it that he gave up being pope in order to become a simple pilgrim like the rest of us.  What could possibly be more important?


+On March 4th I flew from Minneapolis to London for a series of meetings and to say Mass for a family gathering at the Farm Street Church, the Jesuit parish in London.  Happily, the plane lifted off from Minneapolis just as the second biggest snow storm of the season was rolling into the airport.

+On March 6th I had the opportunity to visit Saint Alban’s, which is about thirty minutes by train north of London.  It was one of the first spots I ever visited in England, and I’ve been enthralled by this tranquil place ever since.

Founded by the Romans as Verulamium, it became the site of one of England’s most important abbeys.  Built on the site where Alban was martyred by the Romans, ca. 250, the church is now a cathedral.  The shrine has been restored, and pilgrims once again light candles to honor the saint.

Abbey Gatehouse

Abbey Gatehouse

The pictures in today’s post all come from Saint Alban’s.  Among the most interesting is that of the wooden gallery that stands next to the shrine, where monks could unobtrusively stand guard to make sure no zealous pilgrim ran off with the relics.

+Saint John’s University alumnus Sebastian Gomes (BA ’07 and MA ’09) is currently having the time of his life.  Sebastian works at Salt+Light TV, a Catholic production company in Toronto, where he assists Fr. Thomas Rosica, the director.  Last fall Fr. Thomas and Sebastian came to Saint John’s, where they produced a lengthy interview with Abbot John Klassen, OSB.  Now they are both in Rome, where Fr. Thomas is working as a media consultant with Fr. Federico Lombardi and the Vatican Press Office.  If you’ve watched any coverage of the papal conclave, you’ve likely seen Fr. Thomas fielding the questions that come to them in English.

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