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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

Jesus Wants Us to What?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….’” [Matthew 5: 43-44]

Imagine for a moment that Jesus had opened this sermon with another oft-quoted line of his: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Had he then gone into this business about loving our enemies, we’d have to wonder what he was up to. Is this some sort of bait and switch? If so, then we as monks might fall back on the line from the Rule of Saint Benedict, where he counsels what we should do if the abbot asks impossible things of us.

Can it be that in this case Jesus has asked the impossible of us? Does he really expect us to love our enemies, whether we like it or not? I would like to think that he certainly does expect that. Plus, he does not consider it an unreasonable demand. Instead, I prefer to believe that no matter how difficult any challenge may be, the Lord provides grace sufficient to the task — if we but ask.

NOTES

+On 15 June I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is a variation on the homily that I preached that day.

+On 18 June I attended the funeral of Professor Getatchew Haile, held in the abbey church at Saint John’s. Born in Ethiopia in 1931, he received his PhD at the University of Tubingen in Germany, and he became both an internationally respected scholar as well as a political force in Ethiopia. In the course of helping his family escape from Ethiopia during the Marxist revolution he was shot, and thereafter he was confined to a wheel chair. Through the efforts of the Times of London he was able to go into exile, and he eventually found his way to the US and to Saint John’s, where he worked at HMML until his retirement. With 100+ books and articles to his name, he was named a MacArthur Fellow while at HMML.

His funeral in the abbey church drew members of the Ethiopian community from across the United States, as well as condolences from President Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia. On a personal note, I was privileged to work under the same roof with Getatchew for nine years, and I found him to be one of the most remarkable and holy men I have ever met.

+Despite the lack of rain during the past few weeks, the campus at Saint John’s still looks remarkably vibrant. The photos in today’s post show scenes from the monastery garden.

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Do We Manipulate, or Do We Welcome?

In today’s readings there’s a common thread that links the first martyr, Stephen, and Jesus. Both of them showed an independent spirit and would not let themselves be tamed by anyone.

In the case of Stephen, the officials in Jerusalem got a glimpse of someone who would not be domesticated. He would not soften his message to make them happy, nor would he bend to their control. And so the only course of action was to smother and then destroy this free spirit.

The same was true with Jesus. Oddly enough, when people chased after Jesus to make him king, they too intended to domesticate someone. Were Jesus king they could mould him into a familiar role. They could make him tell them what they wanted to hear and transform his actions into inspiring and yet harmless ritual.

There are moments when we try to do to one another what people tried to do with Stephen and Jesus. We too try to control and manipulate other people. We too try to bend others to our will. In the process we smother their spirit and ignore the good they have to offer us.

So it is that we must regularly examine our relationships with one another. We need to ask whether we try to manipulate others and take advantage of them in ways that harm them. Or, alternatively, do we accept others as gifts from the Lord — gifts meant to challenge and enrich our lives in ways that surprise us?

Above all, let us pray that we look at others in the way Saint Benedict encourages us. May we always see in others the face of Christ — as people worthy of all the respect and support at our disposal.

NOTES

+On 19 April I presided at the Mass at Saint John’s Abbey, and today’s post is a variation of the homily I delivered that day. It is based on Acts 6: 8-15, and the gospel of John 6: 22-29.

+On 20 April I met for dinner with the student group at Saint John’s that I am part of, called “Johnnie Brothers.” It was the second time this spring when we tried to grill burgers and brats. On the earlier occasion we had to use umbrellas to protect ourselves and the grill from torrential rain. This time around we had sun, and it was much warmer.

+On 21 April I flew to Fort Myers, FL, to visit alumni and friends of Saint John’s University. Fort Myers was my last destination before the coronavirus struck in March 2020, and so it was great to be back after over a year of absence. Being late in the season, however, it turned out to be rather warm and steamy. On the plus side, many snow birds had already returned to the north, and so the traffic was not nearly as horrific as it can be at the height of the season.

+On April 25 I and a good friend drove to Immokalee FL, where we had lunch with one of our students, who is doing a one-month online course from home. This fall we will welcome to Saint John’s four new students from Immokalee.

+Last week we marked the Third Week of Easter, which serves as a reminder that Easter is not meant to be a one-day event. At top is a painting by our confrere Fr. Nathaniel, and below that is a photo showing how it hangs over the Abbot’s seat in the sanctuary. At bottom is a photo of Lake Sagatagan, taken from my favorite vantage overlooking a Lourdes grotto in the abbey garden.

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Saint Joseph: Forgetful of Himself

Last month I was part of a meeting to plan an orientation for new members in the Order of Malta. At one point the chair was detailing the talks that were to be given, and I found the topic of one of them to be particularly daunting. This was going to be really tough for the person who was stuck with delivering it. So at a pause in the discussion I asked the question I’d been mulling over. “Ann, who’s going to give this talk?” Her response? “You are!” I was stunned and didn’t quite know what to say. But in a flash of inspiration I borrowed a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta. “Oh, I was just being forgetful of myself once again.”

That phrase was never meant to serve as an excuse for a poor memory. In fact it’s meant to encourage us to be mindful of the needs of others before moving ourselves to the top of the priority list. In an ego-driven culture such as ours it deserves more attention than it gets, for one simple reason. It deals squarely with our motives for our service to the sick and the poor. Do we do it for ourselves, or do we do it for them?

The feast of Saint Joseph is a perfect moment for us to meditate on why we serve. Saint Joseph, I think, is the poster-child for this issue, because he seemed forgetful of himself as he served. Whether he deserves the reputation or not is impossible for us to conclude. But the Gospels portray him as a man of duty; a man of quiet and unassuming service; a man who did not push himself into the limelight. In no way can we conclude that he was oblivious to the challenges that he faced, however. Rightly we should conclude that along with Mary he pondered in his heart what all this might mean. With Mary there were moments when they had to look each other in the eyes and wonder where all this was going. How would this end up? And what did their son mean when he bluntly told them he must be about his father’s business?

You can’t help but empathize with Joseph as he searched for his son and as he caught sight of him talking with the elders in the temple. Pride mixed with alarm certainly welled up in his heart. There was likely confusion too. But there was also the dawning realization that this boy Jesus was destined for uniqueness.

Perhaps Joseph’s greatest gift was his willingness to let go of Jesus. Maybe that day in the temple was not yet the moment to let go completely. Still, in a culture in which parents set the course for their children, Joseph knew that someday he was going to have to let go of Jesus. Jesus was meant for something that Joseph did not fully understand, nor did Mary. But to his credit Joseph didn’t try to rein Jesus in.

Like every parent Joseph knew that sooner or later he would have to stand aside, however hard it might be. He had protected and raised this boy, but he couldn’t be there to tell him what to do forever. At some point Jesus would strike out on his own, and Joseph would have to let him go. At some point Joseph knew he had to be forgetful of himself, and he had to nurture Jesus out of pure love rather than from a desire to control Jesus’ destiny.

That brings us back to forgetfulness of ourselves as we serve. I think that being of service to the sick and the poor requires tremendous self-discipline. Like any parents who want the best for their children, it’s natural for us to want to change the lives of the people we help. It’s natural to want to attach strings to the help we give. But to give a helping hand to the sick and the poor with no strings attached is really difficult. Yet, that is precisely what Jesus asks us to do when he invites us to do for them what we would do for him.

When God willed us into being we also got the gift of free will. That means that God neither predestines us nor predetermines our response. All the same, however, God offers a nurturing love. That love is precisely what Jesus invites us to share when we serve.

I have often cited the words of Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, who addressed this conundrum in a few spare words. “We serve people, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.” He was speaking about the work of Catholic Charities, but those words apply to members of the Order of Malta, and in fact to anyone who is a caregiver to others in need.

I think that on this feast day Saint Joseph reinforces those words of advice with the power of his actions. And we draw from this one clear conclusion: we must strive to serve as Joseph served. And then, after we’ve done what Jesus calls us to do, we need to stand back and let Jesus take it from there. After all, we aren’t the only ones whom Jesus calls. As Jesus calls us, he also calls the sick and the poor to be his servants. Together we are sisters and brothers in the Lord.

NOTES

+On March 19th I gave a day of reflection to members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta. It took place at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, and it marked my first visit to San Francisco in over a year. So it was great to see old and new friends after all that time. I gave two conferences, and in addition I preached at the Mass, at which Archbishop Cordileone presided. The gospel for the feast of Saint Joseph was Luke 2: 41-51a, and the post for my blog this week is a transcript of the sermon I delivered.

+On March 20th I gave a zoom conference on the history and development of the Order of Malta, and I delivered it to new members entering the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo. For those who have no clue to what Our Lady of Philermo refers, it was in fact the name of a Byzantine icon which the Knights of Malta venerated during their two hundred years on Rhodes. When the Turks finally drove them from the island, they took the icon with them to Malta. After being driven out of Malta by Napoleon in 1798 the icon disappeared, only to reappear in Montenegro, where it now resides in the national museum. It’s a long story!

+For centuries the third week of March has provided a reprieve from the usual Lenten observance. On the 17th comes the feast of Saint Patrick; on the 19th the feast of Saint Joseph; and on the 21st comes the feast of Saint Benedict. In recognition of the feast of Saint Benedict, I have enclosed photos of the abbey of Norcia in the town in Umbria where Benedict was born. Alas, a few years ago an earthquake completely destroyed the monastery, and so the monks have moved outside of the town.

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Envy: A Deadly Sin

Cain’s murder of Abel and the Pharisees’ confrontation with Jesus seem to be two stories with nothing in common. One involves a murder and the other a dispute about authority; but as different as they might seem, envy is the thread that weaves them together. Woven through both stories is resentment of the good that another person does.

Why would any one of us resent the success of our neighbor? Why would any of us envy the good that others do, especially when all of us stand to benefit from their efforts?

At one point or another envy tugs at each of us, and we entertain it despite the fact that it is so self-destructive. Perhaps Jesus acknowledged as much in this gospel passage from Mark when he chose not to dignify the questions of the Pharisees with an answer. Whatever the Pharisees thought they might accomplish by trying to undercut the authority of Jesus, it was their own authority that lay in tatters by the end of the story. Envy had seized and paralyzed them.

Despite what we may think, when other people do good it does not come at our expense. Doing good is not a zero sum game in which someone else wins while we’re left holding the short stick. In fact the good that others do can and ought to have quite the opposite effect on us. Their efforts should act as inspiration to our own efforts.

There is a prayer of consecration that reads thus: “May God who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion.” But perhaps there is a corollary that we might add to it: “And may God who has begun such good work in my neighbor bring it to fulfillment in me.”

Notes

+Like much of the country, Minnesota has entertained cold weather during the last few days, and it came home to roost last Monday when my car stubbornly refused to start. It was going to be my fourth trip to Minneapolis since March 6th, but it was not to be.

+On February 11th I participated in the online meeting of the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA. While I do not miss the challenge of travel these days, a remote board meeting is just not the same.

+On February 12th we lost our power when some poor soul in the nearby city of St. Cloud crashed into a power pole. Given how cold it was, it inspired everyone to conserve as much heat as possible, lest the outage might drag on for hours. Thankfully it lasted only an hour, but it was a good warning about how fragile our normal routine can be.

+On February 13th at vespers I began my week as prayer leader for the liturgy of the hours. In normal times, with a heavy travel schedule, showing up for each session would be a scheduling nightmare. The pandemic has made it possible for me to attend everything — without resorting to a substitute to fill in for my absence.

+On February 15th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered. It is based on the two readings for the day — Genesis 4: 1-15, 25; and Mark 8: 11-13.

+On February 10th we celebrated the feast of Saint Scholastica, whose twin brother Benedict wrote the Rule that we follow today. The photo at top is a fresco at the Abbey of Subiaco, and it recalls Benedict’s visit with his sister the night before she died. He planned to leave early, but her prayers resulted in a storm that prevented his departure. Their facial expressions illustrate their respective reactions. The next photo is a modern icon that hangs down the hall from my room in the monastery. At bottom is a photo from a trail in our woods, suggesting that winter can still provide visual warmth despite the temperature.

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Resolution: Something Risky for the New Year

Last week I made my fourth visit to the grocery store since March 6th. I’d planned out previous visits, and the store’s online chart always suggested Saturday afternoons as a good window to slip in and out. No one promised that the store would be empty, but each time I felt like I had the place pretty much to myself. But not so on the fourth visit.

Last week it turned out differently, and I wondered if others were now in on the secret. I hurried with my shopping, but I still had to wait in a properly-distanced line of masked shoppers until it was my turn at the cashier. Wanting to appear knowledgeable, I casually noted my surprise at seeing so many there on a Saturday afternoon. “Well, you just never know around here,” she genially offered. “But then again, today’s Wednesday.”

I was a little embarrassed to have forgotten what day of the week it was, but I was grateful that she’d not made a federal case out of it. After all, if I were her I’d be wondering what home was so careless as to let one of the patients wander freely. However, on reflection I’ve concluded that last Wednesday was an anomaly — aka just one of those days.

More than a few of us have lost track of the days during the last few months. Thankfully that need not be a sign of feeble-mindedness, but then again it raises an important question. Has anything good come out of 2020? If so, what could it possibly be?

Call me crazy, but despite the trials and tribulations I think there has been some good. In his year-end column, for instance, writer Dave Barry noted one great non-event that’s not gotten the recognition it deserves. The killer wasps didn’t kill anyone in 2020. Who knows why, but going into 2020 they were rated to be the plague of the year. So that has to count for something.

As for me, 2020 has not been an unmitigated disaster, despite not going anywhere for nearly ten months. To cite but one positive, for the first time since pre-school I now take daily naps. Also, for the first time since high school I now have 20/20 vision, thanks to cataract surgery. Add to the list the fact that I’ve delighted in more time with my confreres in the monastery, and you begin to see a pattern. Perhaps because of all of that I’ve clawed back some serenity in my life, and to that I attribute the lowest blood pressure in ages.

Above all, however, I’ve emerged with a renewed appreciation for the importance of courtesy and respect. The cashier at the market was only the latest among many who made my life better during the past year. It’s good to remember that she didn’t have to do what she did. She could have pressed the secret button and called security. Rather, she did what she did because of courtesy and professionalism.

In his Rule Saint Benedict notes that the tongue holds the key to life and death. By our words we can do so much damage, and by our words we can also do so much good. That brings me to the business of resolutions for the new year.

I could draft a long list of resolutions, but I’ve decided that the times demand that I speak a few kind words to someone each day. If by chance the recipient doesn’t need to hear them, that’s okay. I still need to say them, if only because they are great therapy. They remind me that the Lord still expects something important from me. Of course there’s always the danger that I might end up killing someone with kindness. Is that a risk I’m willing to take? Definitely.

Notes

+On December 31st after evening prayer our community gathered in the Great Hall to celebrate the coming of the new year. There were refreshments, pizza, a few games and lots of good conversation. Most monks don’t feel the need to stay up until midnight, and that certainly is the case for me. Through the years I’ve celebrated midnight with those who live in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. That way I welcome the new year at midnight but am in bed by 10:15 pm Central Time.

+On January 1st 25 monks and members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps hiked across Lake Sagatagan to the chapel on the south shore of the lake. Due to my healthy respect for ice, I stayed home. I still hold to the belief that if God intended us to walk on water we’d be doing it year round.

+On January 2nd we woke up to a wonderful display of hoar frost. The first three photos in today’s post illustrate that. Over the years I have compiled a file of favorite photos, and at bottom is one I took on 27 March 2016.

+On January 4th our confrere Fr. Nick Kleespie began a D.Min. program at Fordham University. Since the program requires people to remain in active ministry while studying, he will continue as chaplain at Saint John’s University. We wish him well in his studies.

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What’s on your Advent To-do List?

The other day someone asked what I had put down on my Advent to-do list. Since I have to-do lists for all sorts of things, except for Advent, I sheepishly had to admit “nothing.”

Were I to compile one, I certainly wouldn’t include the conventional items. Trips to the mall? No. Stockpiling groceries for the holidays? No. Buying lots of presents? No. In my defense, my fellow monks don’t do these sorts of things either. In our defense, a lot of other people this year have deleted them from their lists. May God have mercy on us all.

Still, the question got me to thinking, and I finally came up with something that probably could go on that list, if I decided to have one. It’s an idea that comes from the Rule of Saint Benedict, and it appears in the Prologue. “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to God most earnestly to bring it to perfection.” (Verse 4)

Every now and again I recall this bit of advice, but I tend to translate it from the more elevated language of the Rule into something better-suited to the situation. After all, Benedict’s intent was to convert the ideal into the lived reality of spur-of-the-moment activity. When I lack the time for extended pre-meditation or editing, then I resort to keeping my prayer simple.

Most of my variants on this advice from Saint Benedict are short and sweet. When I don’t feel like doing something, or doing it well, I pray: “Lord, help me do a good job of this.” When I lack the determination to see something through, I have my personal prayer for procrastinators: “Lord, help me finish this.” When I have no ambition to change the world, I ask the Lord to help me set my sights on something achievable: “Lord, let me focus on helping one person today — you choose who it is.” All these variants lead me to one awesome conclusion. “I am doing the Lord’s work, not my work.” Of course the Lord is going to lend me a hand. But it’s probably a good thing if I ask for help in the first place, and then chip in and put my own hands to it.

Why focus now on my neighbor rather than world peace or an end to hunger? Well, it has something to do with one of the peculiarities of Advent and Christmas. Together they make for a wonderful season, but that’s not the case for everybody. Some people miss friends and family they have lost, at this time of year particularly. Some people are lonely. Some are depressed. I figure there’s no better time to be aware of all this.

So there you have it. This Advent I will have a to-do list, but there’s going to be only one item on it. It won’t be in elevated language; but it will at least be a compound sentence, befitting the nobility of the season. “Lord, let me focus on one person today — you choose who it is — and if it’s not too much to ask, help me finish.”

NOTES

+There was nothing particularly dramatic in my schedule during the past week. It consisted mainly of office work and getting out seasonal correspondence.

+On December 11th, at the conclusion of morning prayer, Abbot John prayed for and blessed four students from our School of Theology/Seminary who have completed their studies and have now departed. Brothers Andrew, Thomas and Emmanuel are members of a Cistercian abbey in Vietnam, and they have lived with us in the monastery for six and a half years. In preparation for graduate studies they had spent a year learning English at a Trappist abbey in Colorado. While they enjoyed being there, someone had neglected to take into account the fact that the Trappists practice silence. That makes for a very unproductive environment for learning a language. At Saint John’s they became revered members of our community, and we will miss them dearly. Eventually they will return home, once they can get on a plane that will take them to Vietnam. For the time being they will stay at a Cistercian house in California. For the record, the Cistercians are a 12th-century reform branch of the Benedictines. The Trappists are a 17th-century reform branch of the Cistercians. We all follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and therefore in the daily rhythm of our lives we live the same language. Fr. Vincent was the fourth member to complete his studies. He too is Vietnamese, but he will remain in the US for PhD studies.

+On December 12th we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. During Advent we have enjoyed the prospect of Fr. Nathanael’s work as an artist. At the request of Abbot John he has embarked on the creation of a tryptic whose central panel is of the Virgin and Child. Abbot John asked that the Virgin recall Our Lady of Guadalupe, and since the first Sunday of Advent we have enjoyed this work. In time two panels will flank the central panel, but those await completion.

+Cities across Europe note the connection between long dark days and depression, and the Christmas markets are one antidote to this. Vienna is particularly delightful at this time of year, and several years ago I took the enclosed photos as a reminder of how glorious the season can be. Below is Fr. Nathanael’s panel of the Virgin and Child, which now hangs in the abbey church.

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Jesus Trades Burdens With Us

In a gospel passage that stitches together several miraculous cures and the feeding of 5,000 people, it’s the latter that wins the visibility contest. Whether taken literally or metaphorically, it’s a spectacular feat. Jesus fed a multitude, from pretty much nothing. By implication he still does so today at this altar.

That said, I think the various cures that precede this story deserve equal attention. Unlike the feeding, in which everybody got fed all at once, the healing miracles were quite personal. They were individual encounters between Jesus and that one person. One was deaf; one was lame; one was blind; and so on down the line. Each had some illness or disability that weighed heavily; and as Jesus dealt with each person, we have to believe that he addressed that person by name. He spoke to them out of respect and even love. That person, at the moment of healing, was more than just part of a crowd of 5,000. That person, for that one moment, had the total attention of Jesus Christ.

We all have our individual problems that weigh on us, sometimes heavily, sometimes even painfully. That, I think is the point of each cure. Whatever it is that cripples us, the Lord reaches out to us just as he reached out to those suffering people on the mountainside.

The miracle for us is that Jesus never tires of reaching out to us. No matter the weight of the burdens we carry, Jesus offers a deal that is pretty simple. If we welcome him into our lives, he will trade burdens with us. In return for ours he will give a burden that is easy and life-giving. I can’t help but imagine that that was the more impressive miracle on the mountain that day.

NOTES

+On November 30th, Interim-President Gene McAllister of Saint John’s University hosted the lighting ceremony of the University Christmas tree. Each year the tree dominates the Great Hall, standing as it does in the apse of what was once the abbey church from 1879-1961.

+On December 2nd I presided at the abbey Mass, and today’s post is the transcript of the sermon I delivered that day. The gospel for the day was taken from Matthew 15: 29-37.

+On December 5th I delivered via Zoom a conference to ca. 75 Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey. The topic selected for the day was The Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Since some readers prefer to get right into the chapters of the Rule, my point that day was summed up in the title of the talk: The Prologue to the Rule: Read Me First! What surprised me about the experience was the geographic diversity of the participants. They ranged from Florida, North Carolina, and New England to California, Washington, Arizona, Ontario and points in between. It was the sort of gathering that the era of the pandemic has now made commonplace.

+On December 6th we celebrated the Second Sunday of Advent, and in its gospel Saint John the Baptist makes an appearance. The Great Hall references our patron in several ways, most visibly in the rose window above the entry portal. On the facade, to the right of the entry, is a cornerstone on which is inscribed the name of Saint John the Baptist, in Latin. The third photo in today’s post, at bottom, shows the Christmas tree standing in apse.

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Our Own Peculiar Martyrdom

Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is a play and movie with more than its share of intensity. But there’s one scene in particular that I often recall, especially when I need to calm myself in times of trial. With furrowed brow, in sotto voce, the Duke of Norfolk pulled aside his friend Thomas More to warn him of impending danger. More in turn sought to reassure Norfolk with one pithy line. Speaking of himself, he confided simply: “This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”

Of course Thomas More eventually did suffer martyrdom, but that was never his goal. Like all true martyrs, Thomas More did not seek martyrdom. By dint of circumstance, however, he was backed into a corner and martyrdom in a sense sought him out.

In the gospel of Luke 21: 12, Jesus warns his disciples of the rough times they will have to endure for their faith. Many did suffer martyrdom, and even today many still surrender their lives at the hands of executioners. For most of the rest of us, however, that simply isn’t in the cards. Rather, our own martyrdom will consist of small and great inconveniences that we’ll suffer for one another. Our martyrdom will not involve the sword but rather will consist of sacrifices of little and sometimes not so little consequence that we will make for one another. What Saint Benedict terms the degrees of humility will likely be our path to martyrdom, and through those steps we will recognize the intrinsic value of our brothers and sisters in community and the people we serve.

Such service does not usually come with high praise or a certificate of merit. In fact, there are times when the sacrifice seems just too much as we strive to decrease so that others might increase. Yet, that is the life to which Jesus calls us, and it’s the duty we accepted in our baptism. Wonderfully, it’s ironic that through our own peculiar martyrdom we make not only our community but the world a better place.

NOTES

+On November 25th, in my first trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul since March 6th, I attended the funeral of Mrs. Irene Okner. It took place at Saint Joseph’s Church in West St. Paul, with a small congregation in attendance. I had the privilege of giving the blessing at Irene’s 90th birthday celebration, and at the time I commended her for having achieved a certain level of immortality. That evening I pointed out that very few people die in their 90s. True to expectation, Irene did not pass away in her 90s, because she died just weeks ahead of her 104th birthday. May she rest in peace.

+Following the funeral I rushed back from St. Paul to Saint John’s in order to preside at the abbey Mass. I arrived in plenty of time to review my homily, only to discover that I was actually not scheduled to be the celebrant and preacher at the Mass. Never one to let a sermon go to waste, I have presented it as the reflection in today’s post. It was the sermon never delivered.

+On 26 November we celebrated Thanksgiving, and since it was my turn in the cycle to serve lunch that day, I was in charge of calling the individual tables of monks to go through the buffet line. It was a pleasant day for all.

+On 27 November twelve of us monks took a three-mile hike through our woods at Saint John’s. It was a crisp morning, and we tromped along one trail that I had never seen before. It makes me realize that I still have much to learn here!

+On 28 November Abbot John lit the first candle of the Advent wreath at evening prayer.

+During the month of November we pray for the people whose names are inscribed on many hundreds of prayer requests sent to us at the abbey. The second photo shows them gathered at the altar for our remembrance.

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Autumn: When the Landscape Sings

A few days ago my confrere Father Ian emailed to alert me to a tree. It’s a solitary maple flanked by rather drab basswoods; and over the years it’s earned a reputation for its vibrant fall color. The metamorphosis was not to be missed, he assured me, so that morning I walked across campus to see it. It was definitely worth the detour.

My schooling in the niceties of fall color began when I was in college in New Jersey. There for the first time I experienced autumn at its full potential. The intensity overwhelmed me, and equally dramatic was the abrupt end as the leaves floated to the forest floor.

Monastic life in Minnesota has honed my skills at reading the autumn landscape, and I now appreciate the subtleties of change. It all begins in August, when a few trees send out hints that the big show is coming. So understated are they that people often fail to notice. Some pass by, oblivious to the warning, and only weeks later when the leaves burst into glory do they stop to gawk. Then, just as dramatically, it’s over.

I used to think that those few days were the sum total of autumn. The rest was either late summer or early winter. I now know otherwise.

Autumn is more than a brief blaze of glory. In fact, in our part of the woods it’s a weeks-long palate change. It’s an opera in which maples, oaks, sumac and various grasses strut onto the stage for cameos and arias. Eventually they give way to the grand finale. Then they take their bows and abruptly exit the stage.

I find all this spiritually stirring, and the message seems obvious to me. If we ignore a lot of what is happening around us, then we deny the value of the little things in our lives. If then we think that autumn is restricted to those few days of intensity, then what else are we missing? Can it be true that “the real world” begins only after we graduate from college? Does “true freedom” start only after the kids move out and the dog dies? Can it be that life through seven months of quarantine counts for nothing until a vaccine is found? Actually they all count for something, because the quiet stretches in our lives matter enormously.

We all have our variations on these escapes from reality, but the point is simple. It’s very easy to slip into the delusion that life is sometime in the future or somewhere else. In fact, life is now. It’s the portion of days that God has given to each of us.

In his Rule for Monasteries Saint Benedict encourages us monks to keep death daily before our eyes. This is not a recipe for depression. Rather, it’s an urgent call to live in the present and make the most of each moment. Benedict then would be sorely disappointed were I to ask someone to “wake me when we’re there.” He’d counter with the comment that we’re there already.

I’ll grant that autumn is not over until the great burst of color. However, there’s an awful lot going on well before then. So what is autumn’s spiritual lesson for us? Savor every moment of autumn, even the quiet moments when the leaves have scarcely begun to sing. Do so, and chances are you’ll get a lot more out of life.

NOTES

+My routine was fairly simple last week. I worked in my room, which for seven months has served both as office and bedroom. I logged into a couple of Zoom meetings, and I got outside for walks to admire the landscape. The high point of the week was likely the day when I had two medical check-ups and the sixth test for Covid this summer. Normally I don’t like to think of myself as a negative person, but six times of being labeled negative has been music to my ears.

+We’ve had a trickle of visitors to the abbey arboretum over the course of the summer, but this last weekend that trickle turned into a river. Great numbers of people hiked through the woods, and the landscape did not disappoint.

+Throughout the pandemic we have not missed a day of our monastic round of Mass and the liturgy of the hours. However, only since the middle of August have we been able to welcome visitors once again. So I was delighted this Sunday to welcome a couple of friends — Mike and Jane — who drove from Saint Paul to join us for the Eucharist. In the meantime it has been great to have others join us regularly for these activities, and especially for morning and evening prayer.

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“O my people, what have I done to you, or how have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6: 3)

It seems a little strange to read these words from the prophet Micah in the middle of summer. They seem better-placed in Lent, and especially among the laments of Holy Week.

All the same, it’s important to read these words for what they are not and for what they are. For one thing, they are not an example of self-pity on God’s part. God is not depressed for any mistreatment from us. Rather, God seems baffled that people have elected to answer with bullocks and goats rather than with changed and full lives. So the “answer me” at the end is not a demand for even more bullocks and goats. Rather, God is expecting something a little more personal from us — something along the lines of lives that make the most of God’s gifts.

It’s always seemed to me easier to buy God off with sacrificial offerings, and the more the better. But the whole point of the ministry of Jesus is summed up in this passage from Micah. God is not some nameless merchant-banker who strikes bargains with us. God doesn’t do those kinds of deals. No, God hopes you and I will answer personally, with a comment or two or a deed or two that comes directly from our hearts and not some ledger. Is this too much to expect from us? There are moments when we might think so; but apparently God doesn’t think so.

NOTES

+On July 20th I presided at the abbey Mass, and I preached on the first reading of the day — from Micah 6: 1-4, 6-8. Today’s post is a transcription of that homily. It’s also an example of a homily that follows the not-so-subtle advice of the liturgy director, who continues to suggest that short homilies tend to be better-received by members of the community. It also aligns with Saint Benedict’s advice in his Rule, where he suggests that God is not necessarily to be found in a flood of words.

+A visit to the doctor on July 22th confirmed the dawning realization that there has never been a better time in modern history to schedule medical appointments. That afternoon I learned that I will need a minor surgical procedure, and I could have scheduled it as early as five days later. But then I would have had two appointments in one week, and one doctor a week is enough for me. By October I will be done with everything that needs attention, so it turns out to be a good use of this long time-out in the calendar.

+On July 25th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Simeon Thole, who died peacefully after a short illness. For many years Fr. Simeon taught English and religion at Saint John’s Preparatory School. Among many other notable activities he later served as chaplain to the Sisters of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Crookston, MN. Fr. Simeon had the distinction of being one of three brothers who have taken vows as monks of Saint John’s. His brother Fr. Tom died a few years ago, while Br. Otto remains as busy as ever.

+The photos in today’s post show the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s. This is the time when the hydrangeas are at their best, as the top photo suggests. The monastery refectory is on the other side of the ground-level windows, and so this bank of flowers is what we will enjoy for the next few days.

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