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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Augustine’

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Retreat, or Run Away!

Monty Python aficionados like me fondly recall the scene in which the enemy was about to overwhelm a group of knights.  As the battle tilted against them, they rallied around the one cry that had begun to run through everyone’s mind already.  “Run away!  Run away!”  It was a lot less elegant than the more dignified “Retreat!”  But it made the point with somewhat greater urgency.

This past week we monks at Saint John’s were on retreat.  We do a five-day retreat annually, in part because canon law requires it of monks and other religious.  But even if the regulations did not demand it, we’d still need to do it.  I realize that quite a few people think that monks have already run away from the realities of life, and they must think of a monastic retreat as a complete waste of time.  But in fact the opposite is true, on both counts.  We monks are not blissfully ignorant of the problems of life, because they are part of the baggage we bring with us when we enter the cloister.  Our problems don’t go away when we put on the habit; and like everyone else, we have to deal with them.

IMG_6325This year’s retreat had some unusual quirks. The monk originally slated to lead it got elected Abbot Primate last fall  and had to move to Rome.  Abbot Gregory of Conception Abbey in Missouri had studied with us for four years, and we had looked forward to having him with us.  However, his new job upended all his plans, and we had to come up with a substitute.  I’m not saying for a minute that he got himself elected abbot primate just to avoid being with us, or because he was unprepared.  But I did entertain the thought — or the thought entertained me.

In Abbot Gregory’s stead came Fr. Michael Fish, a Camaldolese Benedictine from the monastery at Big Sur in California.  Big Sur sits in majesty, looking out over the Pacific, and I’ve been told that the view is stunning.  It’s also remote, which is appropriate for a community that lives a more hermit-like regimen than we.

IMG_6338California Highway 1 provides virtually the only access to the place, and in his first conference to us Fr. Michael explained how important that highway is for his community.  Three months ago the heavy rains started a landslide that blocked the highway, and the hillside is still sliding.  For three months now no one has gotten in or out of the monastery, and Michael has not been home for those three months.  In fact, Michael was with us only because he had left the monastery three days before the slide had begun. Otherwise, he noted, he’d be stuck on that mountain and we’d be looking for yet another retreat director.

So we had our retreat, and it went well.  And despite the doubts that people might harbor about our need for a retreat, it is indeed a vital thing to do.   And the reasons we should do one are the same reasons everyone should do a retreat.  Like lots of people we monks can find our solace in all sorts of escapes.  Like everyone, there are moments when we are tempted to run away from life.  So, for example, we can find solace and meaning in our work, but if that becomes the primary element of our lives then we discover that we’ve run away from life.  Like most people we too seek refuge in all sort of other things, large and small; and when we’ve indulged them too much we eventually discover how empty they can be.  In short, monks like everybody else need to face their temptations and deal with them.  We need to accept the goodness of life that the Lord offers to us.

IMG_6363And what was the one nugget of wisdom that I took away from this retreat?  It was this.  I have tended to read the story of the prodigal son and identify with either or both of the brothers.  I have empathized with both of them, and only to a lesser extent could I appreciate the role of the father.  But I never realized what was at stake for the father until Michael pointed out that the father — who represents God — is not some aloof persona, devoid of emotion.  In fact, the father daily searches the horizon for the return of his son.  After all, the son is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.  The son has taken part of the father with him, and the father aches to have his son back.

And the lesson for us?  Just as we sometimes ache for the experience of God, so God aches for us.  As Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  Could it be that God feels the same way about us?

IMG_6326Notes

+During the week of May 29th we had our annual abbey retreat at Saint John’s.

+From June 1-4 we hosted the 25th annual meeting of the Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities.  Among our guests were Abbot Primate-Emeritus Notker Wolf of the abbey of St. Otilien in Germany, Abbot-President Elias Lorenzo of Saint Mary’s Abbey in New Jersey, and Archabbot Douglass Nowicki of Saint Vincent in Latrobe, PA.

+This last weekend I gave conferences to the members of the Order of Malta’s Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes.  The retreat took place in Malvern, PA, located outside of Philadelphia.  The biggest surprise for me had to do with a book I had used to prepare one of my conferences.  It was on the history of the Order of Malta in the 17th century, published in 2011, at what I thought was the high price of $85.  Some curious soul in the group looked it up in Amazon and discovered that it now costs a whopping $465.  That’s when I realized that it was the most expensive item in my suitcase.

+The photos in today’s post show the chapter house at Saint John’s.  It is attached to the Abbey church, and it is where we have our retreat conferences.  Among the photos is one that shows a view of the grounds and lake, looking through a side door.  I try and sit with this view, just in case the conferences need some supplement.  The photo at bottom shows the view of Lake Sagatagan, in the backyard of the monastery.  It may not be the Pacific, but at least there is no landslide.

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Lourdes Revisited

In my last post I wrote about Lourdes and commented that it tends to put front and center the fundamental issues of our lives.  In part, I think, the place reminds us of our mortality.  Just as the ashes of Ash Wednesday vividly point out our earthly destiny, so does Lourdes with its focus on the ill and the suffering.  Sooner or later we will all be in that boat.

Given that, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Lourdes as an exercise in religious escapism, divorced from the realities of daily experience.  Two incidents from this last pilgrimage made that abundantly clear, at least to me.  Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I flew into Paris and then took the six-hour train trip south to Lourdes.  Generally it’s a pleasant enough journey, with some interesting though not spectacular scenery until just before arrival in Lourdes.  Four hours into this trip, however, there was an incident.  It began with a sharp application of the brakes, followed by a slight jolt that most of us felt.  Then the train ground to a halt.  Some poor soul had hurled himself in front of the train, and for nearly three hours we sat on an isolated stretch of track while the police sorted things out.  None of us actually saw the damage, but we did see the van that carried the body away.

IMG_6099It was sobering, and I naturally wondered why someone would be so desperate that he would give up on life entirely.  Did the man leave behind friends and family?  How might they respond?  I could only speculate, but I also realized that one lonely man had given us a dose of reality therapy.  Already this was no ho-hum pilgrimage.

It was something else entirely that impacted most everyone in Lourdes, even if many were blissfully unaware.  Lourdes is a high-profile place, since it is one of the most visited spots in France and it is a religious shrine that attracts considerable attention.  Not surprisingly, there are always security issues, which the French handle discreetly and adroitly.  Still, when you add to the mix four or five thousand members and volunteers with the Order of Malta, the stakes are a bit higher.

There were special concerns for our safety this time around, as was evidenced by the presence of a few plain-clothes security people who shadowed us.  God bless their souls, but their efforts to blend in just didn’t work.  Not a few in our group noticed the strapping men who seemed to follow us wherever we went.  These guys must spend half their waking hours in the gym, and physically they looked like the last people on earth who needed the healing springs of Lourdes.  Still, we were happy to have them with us, even if they made all the rest of us look like wimps.

IMG_6138No one seemed to be particularly alarmed, but the situation did raise one point for reflection.  Why would anyone want to harm us?  There wasn’t a single person in our group who had international stature, and yet there were those who wished us ill.  That’s a difficult pill for anyone to swallow.

These kinds of events inevitably raise for discussion the problem of evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do a few people despair enough to give up on life?  Why do some think that they do deeds of valor when they do harm to others?  Why do the innocent have to suffer?  To these questions there are no tidy answers.  Even the questions are a problem, because they fall outside the pale of science and are a conundrum for philosophy and theology.  Yet, ironically, they are at the heart of the human experience.

Lourdes offers its own take on these issues.  It may not  have the definitive answer to the question of why evil exists, but it does show that love is the proven antidote to evil.  The love of God, the love of neighbor and the support we offer to one another all counteract evil, and they extend hope to someone whose life seems devoid of meaning.  They offer hope to the hopeless.

IMG_6131This explains why someone might go on pilgrimage to a place like Lourdes.  It also explains why we might want to join with neighbors to approach the altar of the Lord to be renewed by God’s Word and sacrament.  Such fellowship asserts that we are not lone travelers, adrift in the world.  Rather, we are part of the community of the Lord.

We act on these spiritual impulses because of one primal urge, which Saint Augustine once described.  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  That helps to explain why we, imperfect though we may be, still try to do our best.  And we do our best both for God and for one another.  Coincidently, all this helps to make some sense of the world.  Having embraced the Lord in faith, in love we joyfully embrace the world which God has created.

Notes

+On Saturdays we celebrate the Eucharist in the monastery at 11:30 am.  That’s a useful point to note as I confess that on this last Saturday I was standing at the community bulletin board at 11:27, when someone paused to remind me that I was the celebrant for the Mass.  In panic I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there my name was down for Mass, in three minutes.

IMG_6092+On Sunday May 14th we celebrated the graduation Mass for the seniors of Saint John’s University and their families, with Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud as celebrant and homilist.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of the college as well as of the School of Theology and Seminary at Saint John’s, and he welcomed everyone with these words:  “On this day in 1966 I was sitting exactly where you are sitting today.  Things happen,” he deadpanned.  All appreciated his dry humor.

+My reading companion on the trip to and from Lourdes was a book entitled How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland.  It is a fascinating and entertaining book, which analyzes the development of English-speaking in the Middle West.  Scattered through it are allusions to the kind of humor that has emerged from the region, including one item he heard years ago on A Prairie Home Companion.  It seems that a Minnesotan married a Palestinian, and to take note of their respective nationalities they named their first-born son Yassir Yewbetcha.  My laugh-out-loud response drew polite stares on the train to Lourdes.

+Near the end of our pilgrimage to Lourdes it has been the custom for our members from the Western Association of the Order of Malta to make a visit to the village of Saint Savin.  The abbey there dates to 945, and the scenery is just gorgeous.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the visual delights that await travelers.

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IMG_0205Be It Resolved:  Let God Do It

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions yet, and it’s not because I forgot.  My experience has shown the utter futility of such an exercise, and so I hesitate to engage in this sort of thing any more.

Everyone has their own theory for why such resolutions are doomed to failure.  My own theory is that our culture of excess simply doesn’t support a regimen of reform hot on the heels of the holidays.  There’s no denying that in the post-holiday season there’s a few things to regret, and there’s definitely some backsliding to overcome.  But there’s always future excess to consider, and January sales and Valentine’s Day are but two examples of the allure of future diversions.

From another perspective, the timing of such resolutions is a little out of kilter.  It seems to me that the business of self-discipline should precede the celebration rather than follow it.  In the Church calendar both Advent and Lent lead to something bigger than themselves, and so there’s something to really celebrate.  As it shakes out in the secular calendar, however, the run-up to Christmas is a weeks-long marathon of shopping and indulgence, capped by frenzied overindulgence, culminating in surrender to exhaustion.  After all that, few of us have any residual energy to plunge into an intense program designed to turn our lives around.

IMG_0211Even so, this year I did not give up entirely on the idea, and for a while I considered a couple of counter-intuitive resolutions.  Given my own poor track record with resolutions, why not capitalize on my inertia and go for something where failure would be its own reward?  In that spirit I considered putting on a few extra pounds as a goal for the coming year.  But with my luck this could be the year when I finally succeeded at a resolution, and I would regret my success.  But if I failed, that would be terrific.

I also thought it might be interesting to try and arrive at morning prayer even later than I currently do.  Of course success would yield some negatives; but if I failed, it could be interesting.  For one thing, I could learn the first verse of many of the opening hymns that we sing.  Plus, an early entrance would allow me to join in glaring at the late-comers.  This would definitely be worth the effort.

I finally decided that the risks of this strategy were too great, and then it struck me.  Taking a page from Tom Sawyer, I conceived a really attractive resolution:  get someone else to do the heavy lifting.  If I need to lose a few pounds, or if I need to improve my record on tardiness, why not delegate these responsibilities to someone far more competent than I?  Specifically, why not enlist the best person I know?  Why not let God do it?

IMG_0217To be fair to God on this, I owe him the idea.  The other day as I mulled over the parable of the householder who put his servant in charge while he was away, it hit me.  In the parable Jesus sets up a win-win situation.  If the servant does well in something simple, then the householder is more than justified in conferring more responsibility.  Both come out ahead.  Conversely, if the servant botches it, the householder hasn’t lost all that much, and he’s learned a valuable lesson besides.

Then I realized that the parable could work in reverse.  If God is so powerful, then why not give him a shot at showing what he can do for me?  Just out of curiosity, why not give God responsibility for one of my problems and see whether he can do any better than I?  And if God manages it well, well I’m certainly open to delegating even more responsibility to God.  And if God does a really bang-up job, I might even consider giving him total control over my life, but only once he’s proven himself.

If all of this sounds unconventional, I have to say in my defense that I’m not the first to consider it.  Saint Augustine, to cite but one example, was in complete control of his life and hesitated to delegate anything to God.  “Lord save me, but not just yet” was his prayer.  That shows just how difficult it is to turn over to God responsibility for even the puniest of our problems.  But as Augustine later discovered, and as will we, the pay-off can be huge.  Like him we’ll be surprised to learn that God is capable of far more than we expected.

I still have yet to make any resolutions eleven days into the new year, but “Let God do it” is definitely one I will consider.  There’s one caveat that gives me pause, however.  Do I really want God messing around in my life?  Not for a minute do I doubt God’s best intentions.  He will give us exactly what we ask for and more than we ever imagined.  But is that what I really want for 2016?  We’ll see.

IMG_0222Notes

+On 4-6 January we monks of Saint John’s Abbey were engaged in our annual winter workshop.

+On January 6th a big crowd joined in watching the burning of Stick House, a woven creation that has graced the entry road to Saint John’s for the last three years.  It was made of sticks from our forest, and it was designed to last for two seasons.  At the end of that time the plan was to burn it.  But it was so well-built and so popular that they let it stand for an extra year.  Over 100,000 people visited it; but its time had come, and up in smoke it went.  The event drew a couple hundred viewers, and the festive atmosphere was accented by one person who doled out fresh-baked cookies.  The burn lasted for all of eight minutes, and it was great while it lasted.

IMG_0229+On January 9th I flew to Phoenix, where on Sunday the 10th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at All Saint’s Episcopal Church.  That evening I attended an organ recital by Dr. James Gerber, the organist at All Saints.  He is an alumnus of Saint John’s, and it was nice to see him again after several years.

This time around the trip to Phoenix was larger than life.  In the security line in Minneapolis I stood behind Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite writers, who grew up in Minneapolis.  The plane was packed with Clemson and Alabama fans, heading to the national championship football game.  To their credit, all were well behaved.  On arrival in Phoenix, while I waited  for a shuttle, I watched as a wife dropped off her husband and then sped off with his wallet in the back seat of their car.  She didn’t hear his frantic cries, but we did.

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