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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Benedict’

“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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Write Down Your Passwords!

Here follows a bit of wisdom that you’ll never hear in church: “Write down your passwords!”

This came to me in the course of my first trip away from the abbey since March 6th. Normally I am not a “cabin in the north woods” kind of guy, but after four months of going literally nowhere, it was time to go somewhere. A week ago, then, I and one of my fellow monks drove to the abbey’s lake cabin for what we expected would be a nice break.

I intended this to be a four-day working vacation, and once we had settled in I sat down to dive into work. However, it was not long before my iPad sensed that it was in a strange place. Worse still, it had suspicions about the user — me. No longer happy with the thumb print that had satisfied it so often before, it demanded a real live password.

I keyed in what should have appeased it, but it didn’t pass muster. Then I racked my brain for other possibilities and typed them all in. That’s when things began to spiral out of control, and within an hour the iPad had erased its data and locked me out. There I was, stuck in the woods for four days, with no email, no videos and no electronic books to read. To say the least, I was not a happy camper, but at least I still had a phone.

In the course of those four days I learned quite a few good lessons. First, self-proclaimed “help desks” don’t always function as advertised. In this case my tech colleague back at Saint John’s, Ann, spoke with three corporate voices at Apple and got one “I don’t know” and conflicting advice from two others. What she came away with was frightening news: it might take a week to recover my errant password, if ever. Inaccessible forever might be the 19,000 photos I had stored in the Cloud.

After days of desolation we drove home, where I planned to turn over my iPad to Ann, who promised to torture it until it yielded up its secrets. However, she had one last idea. With her car running while we stood on the steps of the abbey church at 7:45 am, she gave it her last and best shot. Meanwhile I looked on hopelessly.

There, under the arch of the bell banner, my iPad blinked. Like Lazarus in the tomb, it awoke as life started to course through its empty memory files. It was resurrected, and within an hour it had retrieved the music files, the books, and the thousands of photos I had feared were lost forever. As far as I was concerned, this was a miracle worked by Ann, the servant of God.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation? First, I discovered how dependent I had let myself become on a small machine. Four months of social isolation had been bad enough, but electronic isolation was even worse. Why did I ever submit myself to such slavery?

Second, confidence in what I thought was my iron-fisted memory melted away. It was an act of supreme hubris to think that I would never forget those passwords. I should have confessed a lot sooner that no memory is perfect, even mine.

Finally, I remembered why pen and paper are such great inventions. Neither require passwords or a charger, and they wait patiently to be used, anytime and anywhere.

Saint Benedict didn’t command his monks to write things down. However, he himself wrote a Rule, and he presumed that his monks would want to write as well. In the course of the centuries they have written down all sorts of stuff, on the assumption that good memories are not enough. So were born great libraries of wisdom that still serve us today.

My greatest take-away is a lesson in humility that I hope not to forget. Once home at the abbey I searched every drawer and gathered every scrap of paper within even a fragment of a user ID, a password, passcode, security code, and whatever else some keeper of tech secrets might demand. All those letters, numbers and symbols are now gathered on a few sheets of paper in a folder, which I have enshrined in a place of honor in my room in the monastery. There they remain ready, for my eyes only.

The story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical allegory about hubris. It was the tale of people who tried to build a tower to the heavens, only to fail in a hopeless confusion of language. Now I realize that it may have a modern application as the story of people whose ultimate undoing may very well be one simple mistake. They got confused about their passwords, and they had forgotten to write them down.

NOTES

+We were saddened to learn last week of the passing of Abbot Ricardo Tintes Delgado of Abadía del Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City. He died of the corona virus. Monks from Saint John’s founded Tepeyac in 1946, and in 1971 it became an independent abbey.

+On July 17th the monks of Saint John’s as well as many of our colleagues who work on campus were tested for the corona virus. A week earlier 137 of us were tested and none of us turned up positive — for which we were very grateful.

+On July 17-19th the incoming members of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps gathered for a retreat and orientation at Saint John’s. Given the circumstances around the world, it is not entirely clear when they will begin their year of service.

+Not all of the flowers at Saint John’s are in manicured beds. The photos in today’s post are from the abbey arboretum, which annually draws not only our students, but tens of thousands of other visitors. A topographical map shows that our property sits at the confluence of four kinds of terrain: oak savanna, hardwood forest, wetlands, and prairie. Years ago our confrere Fr. Paul Schweitz led an effort to restore the prairie and wetlands, and he was aided by records filed away in the 1860s in the abbey archives. Before plowing the ground for farming, the first monks at Saint John’s mapped the contours of the land, wrote it all down, and then saved it. Fr. Paul was able to use those records in restoring the land to what it had once been. Sadly Fr. Paul died too soon, but his work delights us long after his passing.

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The Garden of the Lord

Saint Benedict’s suggestion that hermits are the best monks has always amused me. Benedict notes that only long years of testing in community can prepare somebody for the solitary life. But having said that at the beginning of his Rule, he never returns to the subject again. The monastery may be the school of the Lord’s service, but Benedict never offers a course leading to graduation to the hermit’s cave.

Life in community offers the security of mutual support at both the material and emotional levels. It also affords the chance for fraternal encouragement. But beyond these obvious benefits, it is in community that Benedict’s spiritual vision takes flesh: monastic life continues the incarnation of Jesus. Benedict weaves it into the daily experience of the monk, and we see it first in the abbot, who holds the place of Christ. We also see Christ in the guest, in the young monks, and in the elderly. In fact, Benedict excludes no one; in every human interaction the monk meets the Lord, in the flesh.

To appreciate how radical this is, it is important to know that in Benedict’s day many viewed the world as intrinsically evil, as suggested by words that oppose one another: the sacred and the profane, the material and the spiritual, and the temporal and the eternal. The logical imperative is escape from this den of iniquity to be one with God in eternity. But Benedict teaches an entirely different lesson, because in the monastery heaven and earth touch. We see this most clearly when Benedict asks his monks to treat the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. If people are sacred, then so must be the ordinary activities of human life.

Benedict embraces the created order deliberately, and into it he infuses the experience of God. One experiences the harmony of the Garden of Eden in the monastery. As God once walked with Adam and Eve, so now God rubs elbows with monks living in community. That is the mystery of the incarnation that Benedict applies to life in community. Of course he’s under no illusion that monks won’t stumble now and again. But the garden belongs to God, an the monk need not wait for eternity to see the face of God.

This is a sacramental way of life. As Jesus took bread and wine to be his Body and Blood, so Benedict gathers the common elements of life to fashion a place where his monks can and ought to encounter Christ. If they squint hard enough, on the good days, they will see Christ not only in their neighbors but in their own faces as well.

NOTES

+On July 10th fifteen graduates of Saint John’s University who had served as Benedictine Volunteers last year joined us for a three-day retreat and reunion. Since they had served around the world, they undoubtedly had many stories and perspectives to share. On a sad note, former Volunteer Nick Briese, who had served at Saint Benedict’s Prep and Newark Abbey in 2007-08, passed away after a struggle with cancer. Following his year in Newark he had gone to medical school and was a physician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He was a delightful young man, filled with promise.

+On July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict. For that occasion we welcomed several visitors to the celebration of the Eucharist, as we did the next day for the Sunday Eucharist. Following the morning Eucharist we adjourned to the Great Hall for a festive lunch. We had intended to stage that in the monastic garden, but the threat of rain forced us indoors. It was good that we did, because the threat materialized.

+Once again it was a quiet week for me, which allowed me to tend to various work-related projects that I had put off for months and even years. In addition, I participated in three Zoom meetings with various committees of the Order of Malta — two on the west coast and one on the east coast. The times and technology have made such gatherings routine, which still amazes me.

+Today’s post first appeared in the spring 2015 issue of The Abbey Banner, published by Saint John’s Abbey. Given both the current social climate and also the season of the year, I thought it useful to resurrect this piece. It’s a reminder that the Lord works outside of the monastery as well, and that Saint Benedict’s wisdom has relevance even for those who do not live in a cloister. The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into garden spots around the campus at Saint John’s.

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Musings on the Feast of Saint Benedict

On July 11th we celebrate the feast of Saint Benedict, and this year one key ingredient will be missing from our festivities. Hundreds of friends of the abbey normally would join us, but this year that is not to be. For obvious reasons they’ll be absent, and we’ll miss their presence keenly. All the same, the celebration will go on because it’s more than a memorial of some guy who lived in the sixth century. It’s also an affirmation of our life together in this place, in the 21st century.

This feast has outsized importance in our community calendar. For one thing, the Rule that Saint Benedict wrote some 1,500 years ago still defines our lives as monks. For another, the day provides the occasion to honor our confreres who have reached milestones of 25, 50, 60 and on rare occasions even 70 years in vows. Finally, it’s a moment to pause and be grateful for the life that we draw from one another in this community.

In a grove of trees to the west of the abbey church is a bronze statue of Saint Benedict, shaped by the hands of our confrere Brother David Paul. In his hand Benedict balances a hefty-looking tome; but his face looks up, as if to chat with a visitor. But if that visitor steps back to take in the full panorama, it’s clear that something else has caught his attention. That “something” is the tower of the church and the bells whose ringing have interrupted his study. The bells remind him that he exists for a purpose, and from that purpose his life derives all of its meaning. That purpose is prayer —what Benedict and the spiritual tradition call the Work of God.

If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, will it still make a noise? That’s a perennial musing, and someone might very well pose this variant: “If there are no guests to pray with us monks, will we still pray?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” We will still gather to pray because that is what we do, and also because there is always something more to pray about.

This year, as last, we will pray for our brothers who celebrate years of life in the community. We’ll also pray for the sick and the poor and for victims of injustice everywhere. We’ll pray for the young and the old, and for the multi-talented and for those who have yet to discover their gifts. Not least of all, we’ll pray for God’s creation, over which God has given us stewardship.

Lest we forget, we’ll also pray in thanksgiving for our confreres who have gone before us. Like the great trees that have fallen in the forest, they gave life to us. The shade of their wisdom has nurtured the seedlings that have taken root in their shadow and now flourish in their stead.

In short, on the feast of Saint Benedict there are lots of reasons to pray. But to Saint Benedict’s bit of wisdom I would add a corollary that Saint Francis provided centuries later: “Preach always; if necessary, use words.” With that bit of wisdom Saint Benedict would agree. After all, when all is said and done, there is still plenty more to be said and done.

NOTES

+On the 4th of July we gathered in the monastic garden for our annual holiday cookout. The festivities began earlier with Mass, after which we moved from the church to the garden for patriotic songs, a lunch of grilled hamburgers and bratwurst, and games. It was a very warm and humid day, but perfect for such a summer event.

+A more balanced schedule during the past few weeks has given me the chance to catch up on some reading, including two books that had been on my list for months. David Kelzer’s The Pope who Would be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Random House, 2018) is a fascinating portrait of the political predicament of the Papal States under Pius IX. John W. O’Malley’s Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Harvard University Press, 2018) examines the religious/theological side of things during the papacy of Pius IX. Both books were surveyed together in a review that appeared in The Wall Street Journal some time ago.

+The statue of Saint Benedict sits in a grove of trees in front of the Stephen B. Humphrey Auditorium at Saint John’s. It is one of my favorite buildings on campus, due to the wonderful doorway topped by the tympanum containing a carving of Saint Benedict. At bottom is a photo that shows the plaza with the statue.

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Clothe Yourself in Gratitude

”Unexpected uncertainty can breed paranoia, researchers find.” So read a recent headline in the Yale News. Frankly, that news did not surprise me, though I am not the sort of person who would say I could have saved those researchers a lot of time and money.

First off, I’m not a scientist, so I do not have any of the credentials to author such a study. However, I am a human being, and my own experience backs up their findings.

Luckily I do not suffer from conventional paranoia — the kind that assumes everyone is out to get me. For one thing, most people don’t know who in the world I am. As for the people who do know me, humility spares me the illusion that they spend many of their waking hours trying to trip me up. All of that suits me just fine, because I’m happy to live and work on the sidelines and out of the limelight.

However, I do have a variation on paranoia that I likely share with lots of people, if the drug ads are any indication. I have a touch of hypochondria, which periods of isolation exacerbate. Since the onset of this pandemic I have gone through a laundry list of possible diseases, only to come up empty at almost every turn. By the second week, to cite but one example, I had developed pain in my left knee, and so I began to steel myself for a knee replacement. To my surprise, though, the pain disappeared after a few days of exercise, leaving me to wonder what might be next. What came next was shoulder pain and impending replacement for that. As the pain melted away I began to speculate on the next big illness that was bound to cripple or do me in.

What I realized in the course of all this was something that Saint Benedict could have helped me with on day one of isolation. He wrote his Rule for small communities of monks, and most of them never traveled further than a mile or two from the monastery. Medieval monks, like their modern counterparts, were not exempt from anxiety, and when monks have time on their hands they tend to think a lot about themselves. To our medieval confreres and to us monks today Benedict’s advice was simple. Monks should use this time to take stock of their lives and pay careful attention to their fellow monks. In them they will discover the presence of Christ, and also in them they will perceive the hand of God reaching out to help. That, I continue to remind myself, is the antidote to any paranoia lurking in the recesses of my mind.

That said, I have managed to come up with one medical self-diagnosis that is rock-solid. Years ago the doctor told me that someday I would need cataract surgery and that I would be the one to tell her when its time had come. Well, now is the time.

I realized this in March when I was reassigned to a choir stall in the back row in the abbey church. From there the numbers on the hymn board are just a blur to me, and I now have to rely on the kindness of my confrere, Fr. John, to tell me what we are about to sing.

Ironically, the pandemic has reminded me of my dependence on the skills and kindness of others. To Fr. John I am grateful that he continues to share his good eye sight; and to the eye doctor I will be grateful when the surgery is over and done with. On the day of the latter I will put aside a little more uncertainty in life and put on the garment of gratitude a little more often.

NOTES

+On June 8th our confrere Fr. Joel Kelly passed away after a two-year struggle with ALS. Fr. Joel had a varied career that included teaching at our mission priory (now abbey), San Antonio Abad in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Later he served as chaplain at Saint John’s University, and for ten years was chaplain at the Saint Cloud Department of Corrections. His final ministry took him to San Bernardino, CA, where he served from 2005-2019 in San Bernardino Hospital.

+On June 13th we gathered for the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Joel. It was the first time since March that we had welcomed a congregation into the abbey church, and the burial service was noteworthy for two things. First of all, the weather was a perfect crystal-clear day. Second, we were mesmerized by a big bald eagle perched on the top branch of a spruce tree overlooking the grave site. From there he watched the entire service.

+The grounds at Saint John’s have been particularly beautiful these days, as the photos in todays post suggest. They show a corner of the monastic garden, which Fr. Geoffrey tends. Noteworthy is the ladyslipper, in the third photo, which is just coming into bloom.

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Stability:  Not Just for Monks

The other day a friend of mine asked about my stability.  I hasten to say that it was not mental stability that concerned him.  Rather, the stability in question was the distinctive vow that Benedictine men and women have taken for centuries.  What is that all about?

First of all, people seem genuinely surprised to discover that Benedictines do not take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  If we don’t take those vows, then what do we promise in their stead?

img_9175The better-known vows of poverty, chastity and obedience came centuries after Saint Benedict outlined the three commitments that we Benedictines do make.  In the first of them, conversio morum, we promise to live a monastic manner of life.  That includes life in community, simplicity in our life-style and a balance of prayer and work.

The second vow, obedience, can seem straightforward, but it is more nuanced than you might expect.  What it is not is blind obedience to an arbitrary authority.  What it really is is thoughtful obedience to the abbot, who is our father and whom we believe holds the place of Christ in our lives.

The third vow, stability, is the real puzzler.  What is it and why is it such a big deal for Saint Benedict?  Well, the logic behind it is simple.  Unlike those religious orders which organize themselves into provinces that allow superiors to shift personnel to suit the need, we monks commit ourselves to life in a particular community, in a particular place, and we do so for life.  Benedict prescribes this because his paradigm for monastic life is the family.  In this family the abbot is father and the monks are brothers to each other.  In one another we strive to see the face of Christ, and we support one another in the life-long search for God.

7C1D9C25-2E92-413D-B78F-DADEAE25D903Within these parameters Benedictines seek to grow, and we hope to grow in many ways.  To cite but one example, experience taught Benedict that we all must face our personal demons, and if monks try to escape then the demons are sure to follow.  It’s better to confront them headlong with the help of many brothers.  In that struggle monks are accountable to one another, and in a stable community there is potential for measured growth as well as measured backsliding.  But as a family we help one another deal with the challenges of life.

There is no denying the occasional inefficiencies in this way of life, and unequal distribution of talents among monasteries can be one of them.  At Saint John’s we’ve been blessed to have several gifted organists over the years, as well as several monks who love woodworking.  By contrast, for generations we’ve been short of plumbers.  Despite that, we thank God for whatever talents that monks have, and we make the most of the opportunity.

9B0BDCA5-FD30-4677-8A9B-3E30A38935B3There is also a certain culture that stability can create in a community.  Visitors usually find monasteries to be well-tended, serene, and lovely places, and the reason for this owes something to our vow of stability.  We live here for life, and if we trash the place then we are stuck with it.  So we cultivate a reverence for the land, for the buildings, and for the landscape;  and we do so in the conviction that these will shape the kind of lives we will lead.

Creating a place that shows the work of God among us takes daily effort.  Failure is not really an option, because if we leave the place a dump then the next generation will rightly scold us for poor stewardship.

Finally, our culture tends to prize escapism and a wanderlust that discourages the formation of rooted communities.  That’s a subject for another day, but it is something that we should mull over nonetheless.  Civilization in the monastery depends on the willingness of monks to live and work together in harmony, both for their own sakes as well as for the sake of generations to come.  For that very reason I suggest that stability may be something we want to cultivate not only in monasteries, but also in our homes, neighborhoods, cities and even countries.  From experience monks can tell us that it can actually be a force for good.

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NOTES

+From June 1st through the 5th we had our annual retreat for monks in the abbey.  Delivering the retreat conferences was Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.  The retreat was notable for at least two things.  First, Abbot Jeremy delivered his conferences via Zoom, which was a first for him and for us as well.  Because of the need for social distance we monks had to make additional adjustments to the situation, and that included provision for lunch and dinner.  Rather than having us crowded in the abbey refectory, we decided to hold them outside in the monastic garden.

+On June 5th I participated in my first meeting of the advisory council of Saint John’s Outdoor University.  The Outdoor University creates and implements educational programs that introduce our students as well as the public to the abbey arboretum and the other natural resources at Saint John’s.

+Today’s post presents photos of the monastic garden, which was built in the late 1920s.  I have always found the stone walls there mesmerizing, and we are fortunate that they still stand sturdy and strong today.  The walls pictured in this post were built in 1929.

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Saints:  Too Many or Not Enough?

For those not in the know or who never gave it a thought, there are too many great saints to squeeze into 365 days.  To give everyone a turn, some have been rotated out of the liturgical calendar after a few centuries.  Still others have been doubled, tripled or even quadrupled up.  The latter is a nice gesture, but if I were a saint I would object to this practice.  I’d hate to share a day with some other saint, for one simple reason.  It would smack of pride to go toe to toe with someone else in a saintly popularity contest.

All the same, when two good saints fall on the same day, one or the other is going to come out a winner.  May 15th is a case in point.  It is the feast of Isidore the Farmer, a saintly laborer who lived in the area of Madrid and who died around 1130.  I have an affection for him because a drawing of him has hung for decades in a shed beside the abbey vegetable garden.  I have also visited his shrine in Madrid, where he is a local patron.  Since we all rely on farmers for survival, Isidore is a person worth recalling.

A918725A-2077-41C7-8B6E-B96CA395555AAs far as I know, Isidore is the only farmer in the liturgical calendar, and for this rather practical reason he may deserve to overshadow the monk Pachomius, with whom he shares May 15th.  Pachomius was born in Egypt and became an abbot who helped to shape the communal life that Saint Benedict outlines in his Rule.  He died in 348, but his relevance endures, and not just because he was a monk.  Today the Coptic Church celebrates his feast on May 9th, while the Orthodox and Catholic Churches remember him on May 15th.  In an era of local, political, religious and all sorts of other divisions, it is refreshing to run across somebody who can reach across ecclesial boundaries.  That ecumenical dimension alone should qualify Pachomius for sainthood.

However, there is another bit in his life that speaks to Christians throughout the centuries.  Pachomius grew up pagan, and as a young man he was conscripted into the Roman army.  Incentives offered to draftees back then were not as generous as today, which explains the practice of locking up new recruits every night, lest they run away.  While in lock-down in Thebes Pachomius was surprised by some of the locals who brought food and encouragement each day.  Puzzled, Pachomius asked a fellow soldier who these people might be.  “They are Christians,” was the response.  “They do this on account of their god.”  Astounded by their generosity to total strangers, Pachomius resolved to look into Christianity further.  Eventually he asked for baptism, and the rest of his story is history.

D0D5539F-EF63-4A58-A40F-EF7B212325D5For years I have savored this story, and eventually I paired it with a comment made by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.  Asked to explain the importance of charity in the Christian tradition, his answer was clear and succinct.  “We help others, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.“

Jesus said that “what we do for the least of people we do for him.”  Three hundred years later Pachomius experienced those words in the deeds of the Christians of Thebes.  Centuries later they still ring true in the words of Cardinal Bevilacqua.

It is true that the experience of Christian charity can be so astounding that people will choose to follow Jesus Christ.  But in the 4th century and now in the 21st century that’s still not the primary reason to help others.  We help others not to make them Christian.  Instead, we help others so that we might make ourselves Christian.  It’s what Christians do.

98B990E8-4E59-43DD-B0FE-F241511CEE00NOTES

+On May 11th my mother was buried next to my father in a simple service in Oklahoma City.  In attendance was the pastor of our parish as well as my brothers and sisters.  Because of the challenge of travel these days I was unable to attend.  Our family will schedule a memorial service for her sometime in the summer.

+On May 11th I taught a class in monastic history to Novice Felix.  Quite by accident I had planned to speak that day on the abbey of Cluny, whose influence reached across Europe in the 10th-12th centuries.  By coincidence that was the feast day of five of my favorite medieval saints — Odo, Odilo, Maiulus, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — the five great abbots of Cluny.

+I had no meetings or events on the schedule for last week, but I did continue with my turn at some household chores.  That included cleaning the choir stalls with my confrere Fr. Nathaniel after prayer on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.  I was also the reader at morning prayer during the entire work.

+Spring continues to bud out, as the photos in this post suggest.  I took the photos in and around the Quadrangle.

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The Lord Can Help Us Repack

According to my appointment book, I’m supposed to fly to Lourdes this week.  Each year at this time members and volunteers in the Order of Malta converge on that southern French town, but this time around it is not to be.  The mere thought of bringing thousands of sick people to mingle with thousands of other pilgrims in a crowded town was simply too much to bear.  So for now the shrine is closed, and the disappointment is shared widely and keenly.

I too share in that sense of loss, but the cancellation has also triggered wonderful memories of pilgrimages past.  In particular, I’ve recalled the sermon I was privileged to deliver last year as members of the Western Association of Malta gathered for the sacrament of reconciliation.  I spoke that morning about memory and temptation and how they crop up for good and for ill in our daily routine.

9606BFE9-CCD1-4681-9D2C-D938D8F1511BI began with a reference to the ancient desert ascetics in Egypt, whose lives are replete with instances of spiritual endurance contests.  To untutored readers of our own time those stories can seem odd and even eccentric.  But we dismiss those tales at our peril.  The fact is, we are susceptible to the same temptations, though as always the devil fashions them to suit our particular weaknesses.

That morning I talked about baggage — both material and emotional.  As a first-time pilgrim to Lourdes I recall packing way more stuff than I needed.  The result was luggage bulging with things that became a burden to me.  That’s when I realized that we always need to pack with an eye to the point of it all.  Baggage is meant to serve us rather than the other way around.   So if it’s too much to haul around, then take less.

Then there is the baggage that we store  in the back of our minds.  The fact that we carry an inventory of hurts and slights and emotional ups and downs presents a special challenge.  We can tote those memories around for years, and sometimes they’re really hard to get rid of.  Saint Benedict alludes to this in his Rule, when he writes about nursing a grudge.  Left to run wild in our imagination, such memories can transform us into the sort of person we never hoped to become.

Not surprisingly, such memories surface in a place like Lourdes simply because it is a place of spiritual as well as physical healing.  That morning I urged people to take an inventory of the hurts that hobble them and to devise a strategy to leave behind as much of this mental baggage as was possible.  I recommended two things.

First was the sacrament of reconciliation, for which we had gathered.  I suggested that we leave our sins at the feet of the Lord and substitute for that burden the yoke of the Lord.  Jesus promised that his yoke was easy and his burden light.  So why not take him up on his offer?

E2DAAC34-F690-4001-9E52-D7DD9EC1A7D0Then I offered what is for me a playful yet quite deliberate approach to dealing with the hurts that bedevil us.  From experience I know that those memories can grip us, even in a place like Lourdes.  So my solution was practical.  As pilgrims enter the sacred precincts of Lourdes they cross a bridge over the River Gave.  It’s a fast-flowing current, and many a time it has overflowed its banks and done serious damage to the town and the shrine.  But like the waters of baptism it can effect tremendous change.  So that day I invited people to toss into the river their favorite grievances.  Then let the river carry them out to sea.  And they should keep doing it enough times until they can let go of that bit of emotional baggage completely.

I’ve reminded myself of this practice periodically, but it is especially useful now in a time of confinement and isolation.  That’s when the evil one stirs up the memories that cripple and burden us.  That’s when we need to recall the Lord’s promise to us all.  We don’t have to carry those awful burdens through life, because there is a strategy that brings healing.  As Saint Benedict suggests, we need to recognize the grudges and all the other stuff that stifles us, and then we need to deliberately excise those things from our minds.  Then we can take on the yoke of Christ, which really is easy and light.  It’s true, but we’ll never know until we let the Lord help to repack our bags.

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NOTES

+On April 20th I taught another class on monastic history  and tradition to our novice, Brother Felix.  This time I dealt with the influence of Pope Gregory the Great in promoting the legacy of Saint Benedict.

+Among several things that did not happen during the past week was the blessing of the abbey organ.  It had been scheduled for April 26th, but we have moved that event  to the fall.  In at least one respect this delay turned out to be fortuitous, as Fr. Bob Koopmann confided to some of us last week.  When organ builder Martin Pasi returned to his workshop in Tacoma, WA, he discovered that he had left one pipe behind.  Until that pipe is installed the organ is not complete; but to my untrained ear it sounds pretty good already.  The organists in the abbey have been testing the organ since the Easter vigil, and it sounds spectacular without that one pipe.  But on the other hand, it’s not complete until that one pipe is there.  And so the organ becomes a metaphor for a community.

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The Power of Routine

I thought I’d never see the day when millions of people would consciously decide to become hermits.  For decades people have lived alone in apartments and suburban enclaves;  but the life of a hermit came as an unintended consequence rather than a deliberate choice on their part.  But today, for at least a few weeks, people have embraced or been forced into isolation.  We’ve now became a nation of hermits and small intentional communities.

Given our experience with this sort of life, we monks have been waiting for the phone to ring off the hook.  But to my surprise, we’ve waited in vain.  With hordes of unwilling novices across the country, I had expected at least a few to phone up and ask for one or two helpful tips on how to make a go of isolation and life in a closed community.  Alas, there’s been scarcely one email.

In his Rule Saint Benedict dispenses lots of wisdom on how to get along with other people — or at least with other monks.  Precisely because of that abundance of wisdom I hesitate to try and boil it down to ten “best practices.”  Still, if I had to distill his thought into one practical tidbit, it would focus on the adoption of a healthy routine.

D3651E4E-11DD-4E68-977F-88BEF05917FERoutine has a bad reputation these days.  It hints of tedium, lack of imagination, and ruts out of which it can be difficult to climb.  Yet, I know from experience that routine brings benefits that surprise.

If there’s one thing we have plenty of in the monastery, it’s routine.  For starters, morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer and Mass provide the framework for our lives; and they do so seven days a week, week in and week out.  They are predictable, and sandwiched between them are meals, work, recreation, reading and sleep.  Save for weekends the schedule never varies, but it’s the variation that reminds us that it’s the weekend.

Then there are the peculiar customs and courtesies that accomplish at least two things.  Courtesies, for one, may be inconsequential, but try and live without them.  As one writer noted, courtesies are those little compromises that make life possible and sometimes even pleasant.  Along with other elements in the routine, they smooth out the basics of life so that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel each day.  Even more important, they can minimize the little tensions that can easily evolve into big tensions.

A predictable daily routine can often accomplish far more than you’d think, and only when it starts to fall apart  do you realize the civilizing effect it can have.  For instance, we process into the abbey church by seniority.  It doesn’t have to be that way;  but everybody accepts that practice rather than arguing for change every day, just for the sake of variety.  Granted that a few in our number would relish that discussion, most of us don’t need that kind of aggravation.

7492D346-3072-4CEF-B045-102E0F68E440Then there are moments when routine can morph into ritual.  For years two good friends of mine have enjoyed drinks before dinner.  However, she prefers the tv talking heads with her drink, while he has never really cared that much for them.  Rather than making each other suffer together , they long ago reached a happy compromise.  With drinks prepared, she watches the news and he reads in an adjoining room.  Then, refreshed, they meet and have dinner together.  Some might see this as a rut, but such routine is one of the little compromises that makes life healthy and social relationships work.  And often enough we begin to look forward to them.

Of course what makes routine fruitful are the principles upon which it is built.  Love and respect cause us to make those mutual accommodations, and in turn they can enhance the love and respect.  And for lots of people — monks included — it’s in the middle of routine when we glimpse those bits that make life extraordinary.  It’s precisely then when the face of Christ peeps through from the most ordinary things in life.

In the monastery, then, we don’t do routine for routine’s sake.  Nor do my friends who share drinks together every evening.  Instead, these are the practices that become customs that then morph into the rituals that add texture to life.

So if the self-isolation of contemporary life depresses you, try and introduce a little routine and ritual into your life.  You might just discover a richness to life you’d never imagined.  It’s what we try to do in the monastery, in case you were wondering.

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NOTES

+I did not go anywhere during the past week, save for a walk to the end of our property.  Now that the weather is nicer it’s great to take long walks.

+For the next few weeks the daily Mass at Saint John’s Abbey will be available online.  Please go to http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org and follow the directions to access the daily Mass as well as recent Masses that have been archived.

+Not a lot happened in the monastery this week, except that we are trying to find a new rhythm that can accommodate things we’d not done before.  Meals in the refectory require care that we never imagined.  The same goes for the daily cleaning of the choir stalls.  That too we’ve never done before, and we now do it after every prayer service.  I’ve volunteered for duty with the latter three evenings a week, and I’ll continue to do so until all this passes.

+On Saturday evening, following evening prayer, our confreres Frs. Bob Koopmann and Michael Peterson gave a brief concert on piano and recorder.  It’s great to have such talent in the house, and they are two among several wonderful musicians in our community.

+The transition from winter to spring is one of my favorite times.  Along with late autumn it’s one of those few moments when we can study the contours of the landscape, unobstructed by snow or greenery.  There is a pensive quality about it all that I really savor.  The photos in today’s post give a glimpse into those woods.

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Our Lives — a Truce in Eternity

In the prologue to his Rule, Saint Benedict speaks of our lives as a truce.  From my own perspective I like to think of this truce as that little segment in the march of eternity when I celebrate my own incarnation and have the chance to do more than merely exist.  It’s akin to Shakespeare’s description of our lives as the interlude when we are allowed to strut on stage, and then the curtain comes down.  Neither writer intended that these words depress or frighten us.  Rather, they both remind us that we don’t have forever to create a legacy.  Life is a gift, and now is our chance.  We must make the most of it.

I’ve never lived through a period of such anxiety, and small wonder.  COVID-19 has left us all wondering about the present and about the future.  We’d be crazy not to worry; but all the same that should not deflect us from our life’s mission.  God calls each of us to make the most of every day, and our corner of the world should be a tiny bit richer because of our presence.

6967F924-9D92-40F3-B72C-6849FA3C36EAI’m not used to doling out practical advice on how to translate ideals into reality.  Then again, this is a different situation, and anxiety is among the most insidious of enemies.  So what’s a person to do in the face of a boat-load of anxieties?

For myself I’ve come up with a few items that help.  First of all, I’ve reminded myself to keep busy.  Do something!  I should not allow myself to drift through the day wondering what’s going to happen a week or a month or a year from now.  Instead, accomplish at least one useful task — today — and the time will rush by and the tension will ease.

A second item on my to-do list is to get some exercise.  So I try to exercise as if there will be a tomorrow.  I’ll certainly feel better tomorrow if I stretch a bit today.

Also on my list are reading and prayer.  When we read we engage in a conversation with the author.  At the very least new ideas push us to think, and perhaps we might even learn something.  When we pray we engage in a conversation with God.  It helps to speak with someone who might be able to help.  For the believer God not only can help, but God also cares.  For me the liturgy of the hours, the Eucharist and the Bible are nutritious.  For others it may be saying the rosary of doing some other form of meditation.  Regardless, from these conversations with God we learn that God cares about us.

Finally, it helps to be attentive to the needs of others.  Others are anxious, just as are we.  It helps to show others that we care.  It helps to show “kindness, patience, love, enthusiasm and a positive attitude,” as one anonymous source pointed out.  That writer concluded with this bit of wisdom:  all these decent gestures are contagious.  “Don’t wait to catch it from others.  Be the carrier.”

That’s my short list, and I remain convinced that it will make all the difference in the world.  For me I think it is likely the best use of the earthly truce that the Lord has given me.  It may be equally true for you.

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+On March 17th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere Fr. Don LeMay.  As you might expect, the congregation was small, consisting of our monastic community, a sprinkling of Fr. Don’s relatives, and a few colleagues from Saint John’s University.

+We monks have met several times recently to discuss how we are dealing with the corona virus.  As Abbot John pointed out at a community meeting on Sunday evening, we’ve made some remarkable changes in less than a week, but there is still much more for us to do.  Among the guidelines for us is the elimination of all but emergency travel.  That order I followed completely this week, and I did not leave campus.  That will be the case next week as well.

+On March 21 we celebrated the feast of the passing of Saint Benedict.  After the Mass Fr. Bob played a stunning postlude, and it brought out wonderful new sounds from the expanded abbey organ.  That evening Brother Jacob gave a short concert of organ music for us, following evening prayer.  He had been scheduled that day to play in a celebration of Bach’s birthday, sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio.  Unfortunately for him but happily for us the St. Paul concert was cancelled.

+Our deliberations take place in the abbey chapter house.  In today’s post I have included photos from the chapter house of Yorkminstser, the cathedral of the city of York in the UK.  It’s among the most impressive chapter houses I’ve ever seen.

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