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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

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The Flame of the Easter Candle

The flames from Notre Dame electrified all who stared at them in disbelief.  I was as shocked as anyone, and the thought of losing Notre Dame nearly brought me to tears.  And that takes a lot, given that my default buttons are set to stoicism.

People were stunned for all sorts of reasons, but at bottom was the assumption that nothing could ever topple it.  Notre Dame is huge, and it’s stone.  It looks indestructible.  But hidden from the naked eye was the forest of wooden beams that held it all in place.  For over 800 years they had done so.  Yet, in a matter of minutes they were no more.  What remains are walls of stone, kept in place by brilliant design, gravity, and perhaps the grace of God.

C0FBDF52-4FAB-48C2-8D07-0522781FDC4AThe flames in turn have sparked a torrent of generosity from donors great and small, and that’s good.  It will take an awful lot of money to rebuild Notre Dame, and it will take time.  But to me it’s worth it, because a place like Notre Dame is a barometer of the health of a society.

As I watched the flames devour the roof of Notre Dame my memory summoned up one story from the life of Saint Francis.  In a derelict chapel outside of Assisi, Francis heard this:  “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

At first Francis took those words literally, and his neighborhood had lots of chapels in need of repair.  But Francis decided not to become a stonemason, because he also appreciated the symbolic urgency of those words.  Appearances to the contrary, the Church was in dire shape, and it was desperate for reform.  If then it was time to reset the stones of tumbled-down churches, it was also time to see to the vitality of the flesh and blood stones of the Church.

71A90053-7658-4E6B-A8D7-EF1D566C9A63Could the fire at Notre Dame be God’s warning to the Church today?  That thought has run through the minds of many.  Still others see the flood of money for its restoration as a misdirection of funds that could be used to help the poor.  While I appreciate the concern for the poor, I don’t appreciate the binary choice that some people demand.  Jesus asks us to do for the poor what we would do for him.  That said, it is the same Lord who blessed us with the creativity that we’ve channeled into poetry and music and architecture and art.  I’ve always believed that giving to the poor and the encouragement of creativity cannot be an either/or proposition.  It’s both/and, and so we must serve the poor and see to to the beautiful — and lots more besides.

Easter is the season of renewed hope — both for the Church and for us as individuals.  So it is that we believe that the Lord walks alongside us, just as he did with Saint Francis.  And if the Lord managed to do great things through Francis, who’s to say that God can’t do equally fine things through us?

If there’s something positive to salvage from the flames of Notre Dame, it may be this.  We began Lent with ashes and ended at the Easter vigil with the flame of the Easter candle.  Those tongues of fire can serve as a wake-up call to each one of us this Easter.  If fire can destroy, as it did at Notre Dame, it can also strengthen and purify.  May the risen Lord take us by the hand and fire us with excitement to do his work.

A0A61090-D544-4C32-B4EC-46D52387AE39NOTES

+On April 15th I had class with Novice Jeremy, who is fated to learn more about the monastic tradition and history from me.  We will be meeting for ten classes on the development of the Benedictine tradition from Saint Benedict through the Reformation.

+On April 17th I hosted two friends from Naples, FL, who came to Saint John’s University to meet with some of our students from Immokalee, FL.  As supporters of our Immokalee Scholarship Program, they sponsor two of our freshmen, and it was a pleasure to meet with those students later in the day.

+According to several reports, during the night of April 19th —- Good Friday — the last of the ice went out from Lake Sagatagan, which spreads over 200 acres behind the monastery.  The next day it reached a balmy 73 degrees, and I went out for a five-mile walk.

+The Easter vigil was a lovely and moving experience.  It was also a bit on the lengthy side, lasting just shy of three hours.  Joining us for the vigil Mass was a large contingent of Latinos from the parish communities in nearby Rockville and Cold Spring.  Select hymns and readings were in Spanish, and Fr. Efrain repeated Abbot John’s sermon in Spanish.

+May you have a happy Easter season!

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Advent:  A Beginning, not an End

”Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”  Matthew 17: 13.

It seems odd to meditate on a gospel excerpt that deals with suffering as we prepare for Christmas.  After all, Advent is about eager anticipation.  It should be positive and joyful in spirit.  And yet in this passage Jesus reminds his disciples of the suffering that John the Baptist endured, and he hints at his own as well.  And so when we focus on this, rightly we ask the point of it all.

99CE3322-5C79-4EF3-9B4E-1CAE5CD277CFWell, I think the point is this.  Advent is not a stand-alone season.  Nor is Christmas an end in itself.  In fact they serve as the prelude to the entire life of Jesus.  The story of that life is what we recount in the course of the liturgical year, and it’s the story we embrace as the template for our own story.

In baptism we begin our life in the Lord, but like Advent it’s only the start of our pilgrimage.  And as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel, following in his steps will not be one running theme of sweetness and joy.  In fact he promises that we will have challenges galore.  But a life in which challenge is absent is reallly no life at all.

Advent then is the invitation to go on a life-long pilgrimage.  It’s a trek that will have its joys and difficulties, its opportunities and stumbles.  But as Jesus assures us, it will also be a journey that will have meaning and purpose.  And if we do choose to start that pilgrimage with the Lord, he gives us one assurance.  If we decide to walk with him, he will walk with us, every step of the way.

NOTES

+On December 11th I attended a Christmas Social for trustees and friends of Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.

+On December 13th I spoke to the Senior Class Committee of Saint John’s University.  I described my work in the University Office of Institutional Advancement and encouraged their volunteer efforts on behalf of the University as they morph into alumni next May.

F438B625-F50F-4462-8E01-6EB7EEEB3C8C+On December 14th I gave a lecture to the cohort of staff and faculty who will be going to Italy and Germany next June on a Benedictine Heritage Tour.  They had asked me to address these two questions:  1.  What did Saint Benedict see and experience when he went to Rome to study; and 2.  What may have influenced him to give up on his studies and become a hermit in the wilderness at Subiaco.  I’d never thought of these questions before, and I suspect that I learned a lot more than my listeners did.

+On December 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and the post today is the sermon which I delivered that morning.

+On December 16th I assisted with a Penance service at Saints Peter & Paul Church in nearby Richmond, MN.  Like the parish in Saint Martin where I helped out a few days earlier, the monks of Saint John’s have served at this parish since its foundation in 1856.

+The photos in today’s post were the result of a visit to the library late one evening during finals week at Saint John’s University.  I have also included an impressive photo of the abbey church, which sits facing the library on the central mall of campus.

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Wake Up!  (a bit of advice for Advent)

Once a month we monks at Saint John’s set aside a day for reflection.  From rising until dinner we are silent — save for prayer — and the abbot convenes us for a spiritual conference in the chapter house.

Given that we already live in a monastery, it’s fair to ask why in the world we’d need to do this extra stuff.  Aren’t twenty-nine or thirty days a month in church enough already?  Well, the answer is yes, and no.

Monks follow a religious regimen that most people would consider more than adequate.  But for a moment consider where we’re coming from.  Just because we go to church several times a day, and just because we practice all sorts of other rituals, that doesn’t keep us from turning it all into a numbing round of activity.  And therein is the value of an occasional day off to get a grip on ourselves.  Whether we do a lot or a little or nothing, slippping into an unexamined routine can rob life of its intensity.  That’s why we — and anybody — should do this sort of thing.

794354BC-0C9A-472B-9CEC-AB17E8FB850AFrom a seasonal point of view Saturday’s conference had real possibilities.  Advent was to begin the next day, and in the gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus urges people to “be awake.”  It’s just the sort of advice we need to hear once in a while, and it was the theme that Abbot John chose to focus on, in hopes of stirring us on a sleepy Saturday morning.

However, I began to wonder if he was about to fritter the opportunity away with his opening comment.  He reminded us that Saint Benedict says nothing about Advent in his Rule for Monasteries.  On the other hand Benedict does say that the lives of monks ought to be like a Lenten observance.  But as for Advent, Benedict says nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  It’s like the season doesn’t even exist, which naturally made me wonder.  Was it because in 6th-century Italy they didn’t have Black Friday or the pre-Christmas shopping season?  Or was it because there were as yet no shopping malls to give meaning to the season of Advent?  We’ll likely never know.  But having mulled over Saint Benedict’s telling omission, I began to wonder why the abbot had roused us out of our reverie on a Saturday morning.  Did he do it just so he could tell us that Advent was unmonastic?

Abbot John did not choose to go in that direction.  But his opening bit did succeed in priming the pump for my own sometimes irreverent thoughts.  And so, once again, last Saturday morning I reaffirmed the value of an Advent observance, even in a Benedictine monastery, and even for me.

7BF6B804-B562-4AE8-A538-B7EA19C19FDEIn the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent Jesus makes this point:  “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you like a trap.”  (Luke 21: 34).  Drowsiness is the problem, and the  day to which Jesus refers is the day of the coming of the Lord.  And if we let the complexities of daily life overwhelm us then there may be unintended consequences.  The Lord will come, but we’ll be the last to know that he had been standing right in front of our noses and we hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe that’s why Saint Benedict doesn’t bother to write anything about the season of Advent.  Maybe it’s because he presumes that monks — and all Christians for that matter — should be aware that Advent goes on around us all the time.  Granted, the gospel speaks of the day when we will stand before the Lord at the end of time;  but all the same the Lord isn’t exactly hiding from us right now.

In fact, Jesus is in front of us, in plain sight, each and every day.  For that reason Benedict writes that the monk should see Christ in the guest, in the elderly and sick, in the abbot and in the youngest monks.  And the same applies to everyone else.  Whether it’s in the poor and sick, in the lonely or struggling, or in the person who needs our kind word or smile, the Lord makes cameo appearances all the time.  So it is that the Lord’s advent is present to us every day;  and if once a year we need a season to serve as a reminder to us, then so be it.

That explains the urgency in the words of Jesus.  He’s coming, but not just at the end of time.  Advent is the season when we deliberately rouse ourselves from our routine and admit how incredibly blessed we are.  We have the chance to meet the Lord — today.  Why wouldn’t we want to stay awake for that?

3F972559-CFD9-4B8A-A48C-9899BE27BCE1NOTES

+On November 27th I presided and preached at the Eucharist for members of the San Francisco area Order of Malta, who had gathered for their annual meeting.

+On December 1st we had our monthly day of reflection, and we assembled for a conference written by Abbot John.  Because that morning the abbot was away to preside at the funeral of his aunt, Brother David-Paul was delegated to read the abbot’s conference to the community.

+On December 1st the football team of Saint John’s University ended its season with a loss in the NCAA Division III playoffs.  The game took place in Belton, TX, which is a small town in central Texas.  Oddly enough, I’ve been there a few times.  My grandparents lived near there, and my father was born in nearby Westphalia, TX.

+A few days ago the nation and Saint John’s lost a wonderful scholar and friend.  Dr. James Billington served as the Librarian of Congresss for ages, and he was generous in his energy and expertise in arranging an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible at the Library of Congress.  He also spoke at an event at Saint John’s, and our last encounter took place when he gathered in the office of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis.  In the presence of Pope Francis, the Speaker, Abbot John and a few others, Dr. Billington accepted a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, to mark the occasion of the Pope’s visit.  That set now resides in the Library of Congress.

+At the top of this post is a photo of the Advent wreath in the abbey church.  We also have a second large wreath in the refectory.  Below that are two photos of the abbey chapter house, where we gather for spiritual conferences and meetings.  While it may seem a substantial building, it’s dwarfed by many of its medieval counterparts, as illustrated by the two photos of the chapter house at Canterbury Cathedral.  As you might imagine, I prefer our cushioned seats to the stone benches at Canterbury.

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Is Christ Our King?

Six evenings a week, during dinner, one of the monks reads to the rest of us as we eat.  He opens with a short chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict, during which we sit in silence.  Then he turns to some book, and as he begins to read we begin to eat.  And so it goes, and we usually go through that book cover to cover, no matter how many weeks or months it takes.

As you can imagine, it’s tough to find a book that suits every taste.  Still, every now and again there’s a text that grabs our collective attention, at least for a while.  This fall we read just such a book, one entitled The Pope Who Would Be King.

To me it was fascinating to learn how Pope Pius IX struggled to hold on to the Papal States in the 1860s, even as the Italian nationalist armies closed in on Rome.  For a thousand years popes had ruled a big chunk of central Italy, and they presided not so much as popes but as kings.  They administered justice, tried to keep the peace, and managed an economy.  A few of them even put on armor and led their troops in the field.    Likely the most famous of these was Julius II, who earned the title The Warrior Pope for wearing armor at the siege of Bologna.  And then there were the mixed messages that resulted from being both pope and king.  Just a few days ago Pope Francis spoke of the thief whom the papal executioner beheaded in the 1860s.  Francis recalled the story with regret, but he also noted that that’s the way it was back then.  For better and largely for worse, many in the Church could not imagine an independent pope without an independent papal state to protect him.

57C125FB-C6BB-421C-83D5-131150E5D696Well, the Papal States fell anyway, despite the prayers of Pius IX.  And if he never got over it, popes like John XXIII and John Paul II and Francis have never regretted the loss for a minute.  Who could possibly want the responsibility of governing central Italy?!

I bring all this up as a preamble to a few thoughts I’d like to share on the feast of Christ the King.  To me it’s always seemed oddly out of place to think of Jesus Christ as king.  Granted that there have been many good kings, it’s also true that the word king carries a lot of baggage.  So when I think of kings I recall Henry VIII and Louis XIV and the Russian tsars.  Their royal authority seemed to be all about power and its arbitrary exercise.  And as for the common people and individual rights, those concerns scarcely mattered.  This was the sort of authority that marched young men by the millions into the trenches of World War I, and it was a march from which those same millions never returned.  So for better or for worse, that’s what I think of when I hear the word king.  And king is a word I don’t usually pin on Jesus Christ.

In today’s gospel Jesus goes out of his way to stress that he is no earthly king.  To Pilate he protests that he has not come into this world to take and exercise power.  He has come neither to crush the opposition nor to force people to live by rules he would impose on them.  If he were a king, Jesus told Pilate, he would be a different kind of king and his kingdom would not be of this world.

BAE143F4-491A-4EA6-B1B2-55E2900D5D62If Jesus is king, then what in the world does that mean?  Is it merely longing for the good old days when churches exercised power in contests with secular authority?  Perhaps a few yearn for a return to those days;  but if we are to believe the words in today’s gospel, it cannot be that way for a follower of Jesus.

Obviously there’s a lot more to kingship than the exercise of raw power, and that’s what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Pilate.  The kingship of Jesus is an intangible one.  It’s one that looks forward to the day when Christ will be all in all.  Jesus anticipates the day when he as king will wipe away every tear and clothe each one of us in the dignity for which he created us.  And that is when we will finally set foot into the kingdom of God.

But if that describes the day of resurrection, what might the kingship of Jesus mean for us here and now?  Ought it make any difference when we walk out of this church?  Well, I’d like to offer two points for us to mull over.

First, as king Jesus asks us to take stock of the direction of our lives.  Down what paths have we chosen to walk?  What are our values?  To what or to whom do we orient ourselves?  Do we exploit other people?  Do we live mainly to acquire stuff and push other people around?  Do we live for the moment, with no regard for the feelings of others?  Certainly people choose these options, and I confess that there have been moments when I’ve been in that number.  But unfortunately these are traits of the kingship that Jesus rejects.

8F66A809-EF03-4747-AF09-117F1C74B381For his part Jesus as king offers an alternative model to earthly kingship, and it’s one that has a focus on the needs of others.  As king Jesus begins and ends by asking us to make the most of our talents — wasting neither the opportunity to develop them nor the chance to use them in service to others.  In short, Jesus invites us to share in his nobility, and it’s a nobility not of blood but of service.

Second, when Jesus asks us to clothe ourselves in a nobility of spirit, we must remember one important bit.  His is an invitation and not a command.  Jesus respects our freedom, and he does not determine in advance our success or failure.  Each of us must choose how to live our lives, and so we have the option to make the most of our lives or the option to choose blind alleys and dead ends.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, who as king awaits us with open arms at the end of time.  But life with Jesus also begins now, and he sets before us his invitation to live in a nobility that has little to do with power and everything to do with a service of love to one another.

So today let our prayer be simple and pure.  “Lord you have called each of us to share in your royal priesthood, and you have set us apart for sacred duties.  Be with us always as we try to translate into deeds the words with which you encourage us.  Amen.”

7BEE6903-076A-49E2-B4E1-BE90D460F054NOTES

+On Sunday November 25th I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered.  It is based on the gospel for the day, John 18: 33-37.  The book to which I refer is by David Kertzer and entitled The Pope Who Would Be King:  The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018.)

+On November 24th I attended the football game between Saint John’s and Whitworth University, which Saint John’s won 45-24.  Saint John’s now continues into the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.  That game will be in Texas, and I won’t be there.

+On November 24th we celebrated the memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac and his fellow Vietnamese martyrs.  Brother Emmanuel, a Vietnamese Cistercian monk studying with us, read the first text Vietnamese, which I think must be a first in the abbey church.  Then he and three of his confreres sang the meditation Psalm in Vietnamese, which also had to be a first for us.

+Thanksgiving, as usual, was a lovely day and dinner in the abbey refectory was both festive and good.  That afternoon I celebrated by taking a walk and by spending two hours watching and listening to John Rutter music videos.  I am a major fan of English choral music, and I thoroughly enjoy Rutter’s work.  And as for Thanksgiving, I count it as the official start of  the choral Christmas music season.

+The photos in today’s post all show images from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.  Typical of medieval cathedrals, Jesus sits in majesty in the tympanum over the entry, from which perch he greets pilgrims and reminds them that someday he will have the final word.

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Called To Be a Witness, Not a Fossil

I’d never sat down for a long visit with an abbess before last Friday.  It’s not that I have deliberately avoided such contact, but rather it’s due to the scarcity of cloistered nuns in the United States.  In Europe such houses are more plentiful, though they are definitely not overcrowded.  In any case, I and my fellow pilgrims had come to the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria to visit with the abbess of the monastery which had founded our sister monastery in Saint Joseph, MN.

The abbey has its origins in an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon who came from the south of England.  She arrived as part of the same missionary migration to Germany that brought Saint Boniface, and together they put a Benedictine stamp on the Church in Germany.  Two hundred years later the founding nuns of Saint Walburga gathered her remains, and a thousand years later pilgrims still visit her shrine.  That in itself is remarkable, since most medieval shrines had male guardians.  That alone led me to conclude that the nuns at Saint Walburga have been a pretty tenacious lot.

2FE5D52F-D6A5-4FD5-8AFD-CE5927A5F479To be honest, I wondered what in the world we could talk about for an hour with the abbess.  What could we possibly have in common with someone in a cloistered community?  Would she and her community be something of a curiosity?  Would they be aliens in a modern era, untethered from their moorings in an ancient past?  Not so, we soon found out.

The abbess, Mother Francesca, surprised us with her wit, her wisdom, and her command of English.  We knew we were off to a good start when she gave a review of the restaurant where we had eaten the evening before.  “It’s overpriced and the portions are too small.”  How she knew that she did not say;  but my guess is that not much in Eichstätt escapes her notice.

Mother Francesca has seen a lot as she nears her thirtieth year as abbess.  For one thing, she noted, the abbey used to be much larger, and the huge complex clearly says that.  While she laments the passing of those days, she’s also happy that the community attracts a novice or two each year. Not all stay, but it ensures the future of the community.

CF5B0F89-D08D-45D5-93CB-3EECB3D11170To our surprise we discovered that these cloistered  nuns do not sit around praying and contemplating all day long.  They have a strong work ethic, she stressed, and several of the nuns teach religion in the grade school which they sponsor.  Another young nun, holder of a PhD in mathematics, teaches in the University of Eichstätt.  Still others help in the guest house and make crafts for the gift shop.  So there seems to be no twiddling of thumbs there.

Our conversation ranged all over the map, but Mother Francesca offered three comments that were great takeaways.  First, despite living in a monastery whose bones are medieval and whose façade is baroque, these nuns are not fossils.  “We are not a museum,” as she put it.  They are not relics of a bygone age.

49FEDA0E-5BEE-4C84-88AC-3035BD315289Second, she lamented the divisions that beset the Church today.  In response to this she and her fellow nuns deliberately stand squarely in the middle of the life of the Church.  “We must be here ready and open to talk with anyone and everyone, wherever they might be on the spectrum.”

Finally, she accepts her own lot in life as abbess.  Her sisters elected her for life, and she will serve as long as she is able.  Then she offered this important caveat:  “I may have some administrative responsibilities, but this is not an administrative job.  I am the mother of a family, and you don’t elect a mother for a term or two.”  It’s a vocation within a vocation.

This led nicely to her parting comment.  “All too often our spirituality suggests we become like angels, so much so that we forget to be human.  But Christ calls us to be human, and Saint Benedict calls us to be the best humans we can be.”

Pope Gregory the Great in his biography of Saint Benedict tells the story of the saint’s last visit with his twin sister Scholastica.  His description of their conversation is standard for the era, and he writes that they got so wrapped up in holy talk that they lost track of the time.  I have to admit that I’ve always been skeptical about that claim.  What holy things could be so interesting that they would lead us into overtime?  Well, last week at Saint Walberga I got a sample, and it made a believer out of me.

E13A1CFE-AF96-4C53-9B3A-4819EEE0F902NOTES

+During the past few days I have been part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour that took alumni and friends of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to monastic sites in Italy and Germany.  Chief among the monastic houses in Italy which we visited were Subiaco, where Benedict began his spiritual journey as a hermit, and Monte Cassino, where he built a large community.  Today the two places could not be more different, both architecturally and in terms of the life in their respective communities.

+In Germany we visited the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria, the place to which our sister community in Saint Joseph, MN, owes much of its heritage.  We then ended the trip with a visit to the Abbey of Metten, in northern Bavaria.  It was from that community that Abbot Boniface Wimmer came to the United States to minister to the German immigrants.  In his extensive work he was the founder of Saint John’s.

+The monks of Saint John’s and all associated with Saint John’s note with sadness the passing of John Gagliardi, who was a revered mentor and coach at Saint John’s University.  In his long career he built a record as the coach with the most wins of anyone in football.  Though in failing health for some time, this fall he still made an appearance at a Homecoming reception in his honor.

+The photos in today’s post show aspects of the Abbey of Saint Walburga.  At top is a statue of the saint that stands above her shrine, and at bottom is her shrine.  The fourth photo shows the choir chapel where the nuns pray the liturgy of the hours, and just above is a photo of Mother Francesca and Sister Martina, together with some of the members of our tour.

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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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