Posts Tagged ‘Saint Augustine’


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.


+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.


+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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