Posts Tagged ‘Saint Anthony Abbot’


Lives Shaped by the Seasons

Every time winter settles in I muse on what life in the monastery would be like if we followed Saint Benedict’s Rule literally.  Summer at Saint John’s would be a delight.  Winter, however, would be another story.  For most of winter, dark and cold would be the order of the day.

In chapter 41 of his Rule we get some inkling of how Benedict allows the seasons to dictate the daily round of life.  Here he legislates the time for eating during Lent, and it rings strange to modern ears.  “Let Vespers be celebrated early enough so that there is no need for a lamp while eating, and that everything can be finished by daylight” (RB 41.8).  Would we really want to finish supper and call it a day before 5:00 pm?

Of course, Benedict did not mean “everything.”  The night office, for example, still took place at night, even in winter.  But since monks generally recited those psalms from memory, they needed only a cue from the reader, who was the only person who needed a candle or lamp.  Obviously, Benedict made no provision for a brilliantly-lit church.

31EE15CB-59EF-4773-9303-DA68707A5CE8As a medieval historian I appreciate how different life was for Benedict and his monks.  There was little illumination at night, though he did allow for one lamp in the dormitory (RB 22.4).  I also presume that lamps lit steps and sharp edges to avoid accidents or injuries.  Despite that, nights were dark in medieval monasteries — and everywhere else for that matter — and moonlight offered the only relief from the inky blackness.

If Benedict is sparing in his use of artificial light, he’s nearly silent in reference to the cold.  He comments on the oppressive heat of summer, which comes as no surprise from a resident of Italy.  But about the cold of winter and the occasional need for snow removal, he is reticent.  Later, medieval monasteries in Northern Europe indulged in one heated room — the calefactory (sitting room).  All the other rooms ranged from stifling to bone-chilling, depending on the season.

What might Benedict think of modern monks and nuns with their electric lighting and central heat?  At the very least he’d be puzzled by the rhythm of our lives.  For one, artificial light pierces every corner, and the days are as long as we choose to leave the lights on.  Meanwhile, central heat allows for the possibility that a blizzard might rage outside while we might be too warm within.

While nature dictated the terms of life for monks and nuns in the Middle Ages, modern followers of Benedict live in perennial greenhouses.  As a consequence, the horarium never varies, and nature no longer is the decisive factor that it was in Benedict’s day.


+Today’s post is an article that I wrote and which appeared in the winter 2019-20 issue of The Abbey Banner.  The latter is the magazine published by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.

+On January 18th I attended the wedding of Bill and Kate in Minneapolis.  Bill is an alumnus of Saint John’s University, and I have known him and his family since he was a kid.  He and his wife live in Washington, DC, and they met while working for politicians of different parties.  They are living proof that you can come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and still thrive together.  Their experience gives hope to the world!

+Beginning this month the majority of our monks will go into exile for the next year.  The reason for this is the renovation of the wing of the monastery that Marcel Breuer designed in the mid-1950s.  Since its construction we’ve done precious little to update the building; and finally the single-pane windows, the original heating and electrical systems, and the need for serious noise abatement have finally caught up with us.  That means that for a year the monks who live in that building will reside in other spaces on campus.  Happily I do not have to relocate because I live in the wing that was constructed in the 1880s.  All the same, we’ll all feel the effects of the relocation of our community gathering spaces, and no doubt we’ll be delighted when all of this is over.

+Heading today’s post is an altar frontal made in the 13th century for the monastery of Sant Serni de Tavernoles in Cataluña.  On 17 January we celebrated the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot, an early 4th-century ascetic from Egypt.  He is a good example of how the popularity of saints can wax and wane.  Not widely known today, he was immensely popular in the Middles Ages, and the second and third photos hint at that.  The first was made in ca. 1375, and attributed to Mestre de Rubió.  It too is housed at the Museum of Catalan Art.  The second was made in Alsace and attributed to Nicolaus of Hagenau.  It is in the Cloisters Museum in New York.  At bottom is another altar frontal from the Museum of Catalan Art, dated ca. 1200.



Read Full Post »

imageA Farm in the City

I was rather charmed by the news from Vatican City on January 17th, the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot.  While the talking heads sat around waiting for announcements about papal appointments and doctrinal dicta, people had gathered in Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate something not even remotely connected to the interests of the reporters.  This Saint Anthony is the patron and protector of animals, and an ecumenical menagerie had gathered in the Bernini Colonnade, creating for six hours what one announcer termed a “farm in the city.”

No description can ever be complete, but I assume that there was more there than the customary cavalcade of horses.  The Vatican announcement included on the guest list an array of cows, goats, rabbits, sheep and chickens.  I’m guessing that they also welcomed ducks and llamas; but I can only wonder whether the pigs were invited.  My sense is that under the benevolent gaze of Pope Francis no domestic animal was deliberately excluded.  But given Vatican politics, who’s to say for sure?

imageYou can imagine what fun it was for the children of Rome to wander through this farm in the middle of town.   By contrast, I’m not so sure that pious pilgrims who had saved for years for this were entirely edified.  After all, some of us already see stuff like this at state fairs across America.  Imagine shelling out money for a pilgrimage to Rome, and then have to step gingerly between cow pies as you enter Saint Peter’s.  On the other hand, that’s what it must have been like during the Middle Ages.

That said, it was not the animals alone that stirred my imagination.  It was also the patron of the animals who piqued my curiosity.  How in the world does a 4th-century Egyptian monk become the occasion for an annual assembly of farm animals at the Vatican?  Good question, and I’m not sure I’ve got an adequate answer.

imageGiven that it was the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot, you could probably make a better case for a congress of monks and nuns in the square, rather than animals. After all, that might be more appropriate, considering Anthony’s personal history.  In the course of his 100+ years he witnessed the remaking of the Mediterranean world.  In a time of religious persecution Anthony had turned his back on the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert.  Later he returned to society, planning to be a martyr for his faith.  But alas, he was too late.  In his absence Egypt had become largely Christian, and even the emperor in Rome had converted.  Lacking someone to put him to death for his faith, Anthony instead turned to serving prisoners and the poor.

Saint Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria, recounts this in his biography of Anthony.  His text took off in popularity, and it circulated widely in the east and the west.  For centuries it inspired men and women to leave all and to embrace the monastic way of life.  Not surprisingly, Anthony ever since has been revered as one of the founders of the monastic movement.  From there it’s an easy jump across 1,700 years to a herd of farm animals who have gathered in Rome in his memory.  And if you can figure out the thread of logic that connects those two points, be sure and write.

imageWhat really intrigues me, however, is a cultural and spiritual influence that  has almost entirely evaporated in the west.  In my years of museum and church visits, I’ve noticed pieces of western art that have centered on a great many eastern holy men and women.  But if you took a poll of average American Christians today, most would not have a clue about the identity of saints like Anthony of Egypt, Dorothea of Gaza, Mary of Egypt and Catherine of Alexandria.  Yet, not five hundred years ago these figures were staples of the religious and spiritual landscape of western Europeans.  As an abundance of western art testifies, these easterners at one time captivated the imaginations of Europeans, even if these saints had never set foot on the soil of Europe.  Clearly that is no longer the case.

I, along with many, regret the demise of the ties that once bound east and west together in spiritual vitality.  Of course this awareness of the east had its roots in the Bible.  It was reinforced by the adventures of people like Egeria, who travelled from Spain to Egypt and the Holy Land in the late  4th century.  Her diary sparked a veritable industry based on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Though the number of pilgrims has waxed and waned through the centuries, it still goes on.  But for medieval pilgrims who retraced her steps to Egypt, to the Holy Land and to places like Syria, it was like a visit to Oz.  These sites were the heartland of Christianity, and the saints there were larger than life.  No wonder that Europeans latched onto them for physical protection and spiritual inspiration.

imageNot so today.  We scarcely know who these people were, and it’s our loss.  It’s also our loss that we’ve let slip the links with the places where they lived and died.  It’s led to a spiritual disorientation on our part, and it no longer surprises me when people think that the Bible was written in English, and that it foretells events that would be fulfilled in places like Kansas centuries later.  With a tip of the hat to the wonderful people of Kansas, the Bible was not written specifically with them in mind, nor even about our entire country.  It was about all of God’s people.

Given all that, it’s important that we never lose sight of our debt to the eastern churches and their fascinating saints.  It’s important that we appreciate the efforts of Popes Benedict and Francis, as well as so many others, to work to solve the various crises in Syria and in the Middle East.  And it’s important that we cherish the spiritual gifts that we can receive from our brothers and sisters in the East.  If it takes a gathering of cows and goats and chickens in Saint Peter’s Square to start the ball rolling, then all the better.

On January 17th it was not the first time that God has used animals to communicate something important.  This time the message may be more important than ever.  Given our bent toward a materialistic worldview, Saints Anthony and Dorothea and Catherine may very well have some spiritual insights that can save us from ourselves.


+On January 14th I was in New York and met with Ambassador Robert Shafer, the ambassador of the Order of Malta at the United Nations.

+On January 15th fire pretty much destroyed the paint shop at Saint John’s .  It was a spectacular event, which began in the attic of the shop while the monks were at evening prayer.  The blaze ruined a lot of furniture that had been produced in the abbey woodworking shop, as well as the lids of two pianos from the music department.  The latter had suffered water damage last summer.  But the fire damage was not the finishing work they had had in mind.  The building itself was constructed of brick in 1912 and stood in what we term the “industrial zone” of campus.  Fortunately no one was injured.  The fire departments from nearby Saint Joseph and Avon helped our own fire crew, but it was too late to save the building.    For the photographs I owe a debt to Brother Nick Moe.

image+Over the holidays I completed A. Scott Berg’s recent biography of Woodrow Wilson, entitled Wilson.  I found it engaging, though the first chapters that narrate his years at Princeton and the later chapters on World War I were particularly interesting.  The text dealing with his illness while in the White House describes something that could not possibly happen today: his wife Edith pretty much shielded the president from prying eyes and ran the government herself.  I also found one of Wilson’s statements from his years as president of Princeton particularly apt:  “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

image+During my brief time in New York I was able to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was easy to discover instances of western art that touched on eastern saints and sites.  At the top of this post is a 16th-century panel of Saint Anthony Abbot, flanked by Saints Roch and Lucy.  The 15th-century English stained glass includes windows that depict Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria; while the bust/reliquary presents Saint Catherine once again.  Finally, the Spanish carving from ca. 1500 shows the flight into Egypt.

Read Full Post »

Saint Anthony Abbot, 16th century.  Museo Ciocesano, Venice.

Saint Anthony Abbot, 16th century. Museo Diocesano, Venice.

Is Faith a Freak Show?

For anyone who’s seen Amish Mafia, the January 5th review in The Washington Post summed it up succinctly. “Discovery Channel’s new reality show is really so awful that it doesn’t deserve to be on television.” It went on to claim that the program “turns faith into a freak show,” which it certainly seems to do. The viewing of even one episode is enough to upend your impressions of this peace-loving agrarian folk.

If the series is indeed “reality,” as it purports, then the Amish seem not so pure and innocent after all. The show implies that, left to their own devices, the Amish would quickly slide into a spiral of hard-partying, hard-drinking, hard-fighting mayhem. Compounding this natural tendency to go feral is a governing structure that confers on the church elders a rather benign spiritual authority, but no coercive power. To the community’s relief, then, the Amish Mafia has stepped in to fill the void. And so, while the elders wink and look the other way, the hoodlums use their muscle and intimidation to keep the latent barbarians from going over the edge.

photoBut is this portrait a true reflection of the character of the Amish? I think not, and I’m guessing that most Amish would agree. In any society there are rotten apples, and the Amish are not exempt. But the exceptions, no matter how many, never prove the rule; and I would bet the bank that a few naughty Amish do not represent the entire community.

The fact that the producers of Amish Mafia wagered that there was a market for this sort of drivel says a lot about us. We’re all curious about groups that live apart, and that is doubly so for groups that are religious. We’re especially curious about communities that set high-minded standards for themselves; and truth be told, we take secret delight when they fall from grace. In short, the producers, and their sponsors, knew there would be a ready audience for this kind of junk, and their job is to deliver what we deserve to see.

Museo Diocesano, formerly convent of Sant' Apollonia, Venice.

Museo Diocesano, formerly convent of Sant’ Apollonia, Venice.

There are lots of reasons why we savor the fall of the mighty. For one, it builds up our sagging self-esteem when we discover that others are no better than we. It also takes us off the hook from following through on our own lofty ideals. After all, if others can’t or won’t do the right thing, then why should we? And it eases our own guilt when we can point out that others are far worse than we. Adam was on to something when he blamed Eve, and no doubt he felt a lot better for having done so. And Eve was a quick study when she passed the blame on to the serpent. Surprisingly, the serpent seemed more than willing to take the credit, because he had just seen Adam and Eve make a mockery of their integrity.

Sant' Apollonia, arcade.

Sant’ Apollonia, arcade.

But sin is always more complicated than we like to think, and the miscreants in Amish Mafia are an exceptionally good case in point. We like to think that most sin is victimless, but rarely is it so. In this case, there is the hurt visited upon the friends and family of the do-badders. They have to be absolutely mortified. Then there is the impact on the larger community. All seem tarnished by the antics of a few, whether they should be or not. And finally there is the disillusion that grips those who look to the Amish for a glimmer of hope in a world gone wild. What of them?

I have to take serious issue with the Post‘s contention that Amish Mafia makes a freak show of faith. Ironically, it does quite the opposite, because it demonstrates what can happen when we check our faith at the door. To my way of thinking Amish Mafia is not about faith and how it ruins your life. It’s more precisely about what happens when you abandon a faith-filled life and throw caution to the wind. With little or nothing to anchor you, you had better come up with something equally good. Absent that, you run the risk of slipping below the animals on the nobility scale.

photoThere’s one other minor quibble that I have with the Post‘s review, and it has to do with its allegation that the show is “so awful that it doesn’t deserve to be on television.” Really? Is there such a show? That one I have a very difficult time believing.

Right now you can find pretty much any and everything on television, and each show claims that this is what “reality” is all about. Like the demon who whispers from his perch on our shoulders, the screen arrays the alternatives in glory before us. So far, most of what I’ve seen on television makes a mockery of the alternatives to faith. So far, there’s little that I’ve seen that would entice me to throw off my faith and trade it in to embrace “reality.”

photoVarious Notes

+During the past week I spent several days in Palm Springs, CA, visiting alumni and friends of Saint John’s. That was the easy part. On my return I discovered that the weather had turned decidedly chilly in Minnesota, and to my dismay the windows on my car were frozen shut at the airport parking lot. The day before I had left I had made the fateful choice of a clean car over a filthy car. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the cardinal rule that Minnesota drivers ignore at their peril: never run your car through the car wash late in the afternoon with an impending cold front on the way. Everything will freeze up on you. Happily, the parking attendant smiled knowingly when I had to open the door to pay the fee. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen that.

+On January 18th Fr. Luke Steiner, OSB, passed away peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 82. I recall Fr. Luke best as a teacher of New Testament, and while in seminary I took his course on the Gospel of John. Through the years he taught courses both at Saint John’s and in Jerusalem, and in later years he served as a chaplain to the Poor Claires in Sauk Rapids, MN.

photo+On January 17th we celebrated the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot (ca. 251-356). Variously known as Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, and Anthony of the Desert, he left behind his family’s wealth at the age of eighteen to become a hermit, and still later he ministered to the sick and imprisoned in Alexandria. Shortly after Anthony’s death, Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, wrote his Life of Anthony, which became highly influential in sparking the monastic movement in the West. Today, in Italy especially, he is revered as the patron and protector of animals; and on his feast day farmers bring their animals to Saint Peter’s Square for a blessing. What a mess.

+I am currently reading Bernini: His Life and His Rome, by Franco Mormando (University of Chicago Press, 2011). This is geared for the general reader, and I’ve found the book extremely interesting. It is a must-read for anyone who intends to do a tour of Baroque Rome, as well as for anyone who is the least bit interested in life in Rome in the 17th century.

Read Full Post »